Do Human Beings Have an Immortal Soul?
A reader has alleged that the expression “immortal soul” is not consistent with biblical teaching. He contends that this concept is more akin to the pagan philosophy of Plato than to the Scriptures.
The gentleman says that 1 Timothy 6:16 affirms that “only God” possesses “immortality,” thus we, as humans, are not immortal.
Further, he has suggested that since 1 Corinthians 15:53 promises immortality to the redeemed, as something yet to be realized, this implies we do not possess this attribute presently.
The gentleman states that most Christians have not studied carefully such terms as “immortality” and “soul.” He has argued that the “soul” merely is the “life of the body,” and that the “spirit” and “soul” are “not in the same category.” They “are not synonyms,” he insists.
The man’s sincerity is not questioned. His position is erroneous however. My brief response to the case outlined above is as follows.
A false charge
Those known as conditionalists, i.e., who argue for the eventual annihilation of the wicked (though the gentleman under review is not in that class), frequently suggest that Bible students who believe in the concept of eternal consciousness have been influenced by Plato and other Greek philosophers. On this basis, they contend that there can be no eternal, conscious punishment for the wicked.
This sort of guilt-by-association accusation is without merit. Such a charge is condescending and does not give credit to other students who have examined the issue and drawn different conclusions. The gentleman who argued this case likely would not appreciate the suggestion that his denial of the immortality of the soul has been influenced by the Watchtower Witness sect.
God: Underived Immortality
When Paul declared that “only God has immortality” (1 Tim. 6:16), it is commonly understood by responsible Bible scholars that the passage addresses an immortality that is underived from another source. Paul spoke of an immortality that is intrinsic to the very being of God. See my commentary, Before I Die (2007, 182; cf. Thayer 1958, 13).
This phrase, therefore, would not negate the concept, as taught in other passages, that man possesses an immortality that was imparted to him as a part of the original creation procedure.
Soul immortality appears to be one aspect of the blessing of being created “in the image of God” (Gen. 1:26-27). This idea may be later suggested when Solomon says that God “has set eternity in their heart” (Eccl. 3:11; cf. Longman 1998, 119).
The future resurrected body
First Corinthians 15:53 speaks of the nature of the future resurrected body, not the essence of the “soul,” or the “spirit,” that is within man (Jas. 2:26). If the soul of man is only the biological life resident in the body, as some argue, then one man can destroy another’s soul (contra Mt. 10:28), for men murder each other frequently.
Another false claim
To suggest that “most of us have not given much time to a study” of such terms as “soul” and “immortality” is to assume a premise that is not accurate. Many, including this writer, have studied this topic in considerable detail, and have drawn conclusions quite at variance from those under review.
The flexible nature of words
This gentleman’s position fails to take into consideration that words convey a variety of meanings, and context is the final determiner of a word’s meaning. This, if I may respectfully say so, is a major fallacy in the essay under examination.
While it is true that “soul” sometimes refers to “life” (which appears to be the case in Acts 20:10), it also is a fact that the term can be employed for the non-material element within a person (Mt. 10:28; Rev. 20:4).
An unwarranted generalization
While “spirit” generally is used for that component of man that “grieves” and “knows” (Dan. 7:15; 1 Cor. 2:11), i.e., the intellectual, emotional, morally sensitive element of a person, on occasion, “spirit” can refer to a certain aspect of existence that is common to both humans and animals (Eccl. 3:21).
To generalize, therefore, and contend that the terms “soul” and “spirit” may never refer to the same entity within human beings does not represent a sustainable case. I have dealt with this matter in some detail in my book, The Bible & Science (chapter 10, “The Bible and Modern Psychology,” 103ff).
The terms “soul” and “spirit,” therefore, on occasion can refer to the same aspect of a person (cf. Jn. 12:27; 13:21), though such is not always the case.
In his first epistle, Peter, by implication, suggests that the human “spirit” is “incorruptible” (1 Pet. 3:4). Why would a person need “incorruptible” apparel for a “corruptible” spirit? Thus, the human spirit, by deduction, is suggested as being incorruptible.
This appears to be confirmed by Paul’s interchangeable usage of
athanasia (“immortal”) and
aphtharsia (“incorruptible”) in his discourse concerning the resurrected body (see 1 Cor. 15:42, 50, 53-54).
Inward man is eternal
In his second Corinthian letter, Paul speaks of the “outward” man and the “inward” man (2 Cor. 4:16). These two expressions contrast the body with the soul.
But in the same context, the apostle distinguishes between that which is temporal and that which is “eternal.” The implication clearly seems to suggest that the “inward man,” i.e., the soul, is eternal.
Not that it has existed forever. Rather, from the commencement of its creation, it partakes of the nature of an everlasting entity (cf. 2 Cor. 5:1; 2 Thess. 2:16).
In his scholarly book, Immortality, Loraine Boettner, prominent Presbyterian theologian, defined “immortality” as “the eternal, continuous, conscious existence of the soul after the death of the body.” He then argued the case on the bases of:
- the common funeral practices of mankind, across a wide diversity of religions, since the dawn of history;
- a necessary premise for the vindication of the moral order of human kind;
- the incompleteness of human existence on earth;
- the high degree of probability from analogies in nature;
- an innate “instinct” of rational human beings;
- biblical teaching—in both Old and New Testaments;
- the wholesome benefits that result from the belief in immortality (1956, 59-88).
The collective effect of his case is compelling.
In conclusion, we are persuaded that the communication under review is not sound, good intentions to the contrary notwithstanding.
For collateral reading, I highly recommend Wick Broomall’s article, “Immortality,” in the Wycliffe Bible Dictionary (2003, 834-836).
[Note: the annihilation-of-the-wicked theory was argued recently by F. LaGard Smith in his seriously flawed volume, After Life.]
- Boettner, Loraine. 1956. Immortality. Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian and Reformed.
- Broomall, Wick. 2003. Immortality. Wycliffe Bible Dictionary. Charles Pfeiffer, Howard Vos, John Rea, eds. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.
- Jackson, Wayne. 2007. Before I Did: Paul’s Letters to Timothy and Titus. Stockton, CA: Christian Courier Publications.
- Longman, Tremper, III. 1998. The Book of Ecclesiastes. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
- Smith, F. LaGard. 2003. After Life. Nashville, TN: Cotswold.
- Thayer, J. H. 1958. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Edinburgh, Scotland: T. & T. Clark.