Genesis 1 briefly explains the beginning of life. God created many different species and they reproduced (verses 22-25). God then made Adam and Eve in His image and gave them power over all the earth (verses 26-30).
A critical disagreement among Bible scholars is the relationship between our body and our spirit. The words ruach in Hebrew and pneuma in Greek mean spirit. Ruach and pneuma are translated spirit in some places and breath in others. Occasionally, the Hebrew word neshamah is used for breath. Neshamah and ruach can be interchangeable (Job 27:3, Isaiah 42:5). When we discuss creation, we must start with the following verse:
And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life [neshamah], and man became a living soul. Genesis 2:7, KJV
God formed Adam out of dust and gave him life by putting a spirit in him. The Bible repeatedly says we are dust or clay (Genesis 3:19, 18:27, Job 10:9, 30:19, 33:6, 34:15, Psalm 30:9, 103:14, Isaiah 29:16. 45:9, 64:8, Jeremiah 18:4, 6, Romans 9:21). We have spirits; we are dust.
Our spirit is unseen and contrasts the physical, though it is not independent of our body. If we do not take care of our physical needs, our spirit cannot thrive. What we eat and drink, for example, affects how we think and feel.
Our thoughts and attitudes also affect our physical nature. One example is fear. If we become frightened, adrenaline makes us stronger. The physical and mental parts of our nature are clearly interdependent, rather than separate entities.
Nothing is more critical to our study than an understanding of the soul. The words nephesh in Hebrew and psuche in Greek mean soul. Soul and spirit have some similar and many different meanings in the Bible.
The soul can refer to the life within us, which is similar to the spirit. Because of this, many assume they are the same and make critical errors interpreting Scripture. There are more differences than similarities between the spirit and the soul.
Scholars agree that the soul is the essence of our being, our consciousness. This is clearly one of the meanings.
Another meaning of soul is our whole being. According to many Scriptures, we are souls. Genesis 2:7 says Adam became a living soul when God put the breath of life in him. Here are other examples where the Bible refers to people as souls:
. . . and that day about three thousand souls were added to them . . . Then fear came upon every soul . . . Acts 2:41, 43
'And it shall be that every soul who will not hear that prophet shall be utterly destroyed from among the people.' Acts 3:23
Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. Romans 13:1
Humans are Mortal Because of Sin
God told Adam and Eve they would die if they ate from the tree of knowledge (Genesis 2:17). Once they disobeyed, they were subject to death. God told Adam he would return to dust (Genesis 3:19) and banished Adam and Eve from the tree of life so they would not live forever (Genesis 3:22-24).
The Bible makes it clear that they passed on their sinful nature and mortality to the rest of humanity. Adam had a son in his likeness (Genesis 5:3). This was after he became subject to death.
Traditionalists disagree. They believe that once we are created, part of our being never dies. They also claim conditionalists rely solely on the Old Testament.
The case for conditionalism is even clearer in the New Testament. Paul plainly says we inherited the sinful nature and mortality:
Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned. Romans 5:12
We see this same message when we study immortality. In Romans 2:7, Paul says we seek for immortality. We would not seek for something we already have.
Traditionalists point to 2 Timothy 1:10, which says Christ brought immortality to light. To bring to light means to make known. In other words, Paul says Jesus showed us how to obtain immortality in the future; we do not have it yet.
We know this from Paul’s first letter to Timothy. 1 Timothy 1:17 says, "Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen." While this implies that only God is immortal, Paul later says, " . . . the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality . . ." (1 Timothy 6:15-16) This is the only passage in the Bible saying who has immortality today.
Opponents of conditionalism deny the clear meaning of 1 Timothy 6:15-16. The Treasury of Scripture Knowledge, for example, says only God has inherent immortality and does not limit immortality to God (1992, p.1,429). They refer to Romans 16:27, which says only God is wise. Although we have some wisdom, we do not have the wisdom of God. This verse speaks about degrees of wisdom.
While Romans 16:27 and 1 Timothy 1:17 say only God is wise, other verses say we have wisdom. One example is James 1:5, which says God gives us wisdom if we ask. Many Scriptures also speak about the wisdom of Solomon. Verses saying only God is wise are misleading by themselves, so we examine all passages about a subject.
A study of immortality shows different results than a study of wisdom. The Bible does say we have some wisdom; the Bible does not say we have some immortality. Believers will not be changed from mortal to immortal until the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:51-56).
1 Timothy 6:15-16 says God alone has immortality today, and nothing in the Bible says otherwise. God does not inspire misleading passages without clarification somewhere else. Since no Scripture limits or redefines the meaning of 1 Timothy 6:15-16, we must believe what it plainly says!
Made in the Image of God
Traditionalists claim conditionalists spend too much time on Genesis 2:7. It is the clearest description of creation in the Bible, so we need to examine it. Traditionalists downplay the importance of it because it does not support their view.
Since plain Scriptures do not support their view, traditionalists read their assumptions into ambiguous passages. One example is that we were created in God's image (Genesis 1:26-27, 5:1). Since God is immortal, and we were created in His image, traditionalists conclude that we are also immortal.
If we are immortal because this is one attribute of God, then we should have all the attributes of God. We should be all knowing, all powerful, and sinless. Since we do not possess these other qualities, then we cannot assume we are immortal. We are all sinners (Romans 3:23, Ecclesiastes 7:20) and destined to die once (Hebrews 9:27).
The Nature of the Soul
Another response is that immortality in the Bible only refers to the body. Traditionalists insist the soul is an eternal entity. We need to examine this belief in Scripture.
The Hebrew word for the soul [nephesh] appears over 750 times in the Old Testament. The Greek word for the soul [psuche] appears over 100 times in the New Testament. These 850 references should tell us more than we need to know about the soul, yet none say it is eternal or immortal. If the traditional view is correct, why did God inspire over 850 references to the soul without ever stating this?
Since the Bible never says the soul is eternal, we must examine what it does say.
The Soul Can Die
Several Scriptures show the soul can die. Dead bodies are literally called ‘dead souls’ (Leviticus 21:11; Numbers 6:6; 19:11, 13). The Bible also says the soul that sins will die (Ezekiel 18:4, 20). Psalm 33:19 talks about those who hope in the Lord and says He will deliver their souls from death. Another example is James 5:20, which says we save a soul from death when we restore someone back to the truth.
Because the word soul has many meanings, traditionalists claim these passages only refer to the person, and do not include the immaterial soul. Since the soul refers to the whole person, it should include the immaterial part of the person. It is strange to assume that soul (whole person) does not include the soul (immaterial). It is also strange to claim that different uses of the same word have opposite meanings (mortal and immortal).
Another response is that Scriptures saying the soul can die are taken out of context. This argument is effective, since conditionalists cannot use the same strategy. Conditionalists cannot claim that verses saying the soul is eternal or immortal are taken out of context because none exist!
Death and Separation
Another response is that death only means separation. The Bible refers to people who were out of fellowship with God as dead, even though they were still physically alive (Ephesians 2:1, 5; Colossians 2:13; 1 Timothy 5:6; 1 Peter 4:6; etc.). This is spiritual death. Since they are spiritually dead and still aware, many believe consciousness continues after death.
This common response confuses different deaths. Bible scholars see the obvious difference between physical death and spiritual death, yet reason as if death has only one meaning. Whenever Scripture uses the word death, something is dead. If people reject God, their relationship to God is dead. When traditionalists say death only means separation, they deny the plain meaning of a plain word.
If death only means separation, God would have inspired Ezekiel to say the soul that sins will separate, using the Hebrew word badal (e.g., Isaiah 59:2). Instead, God inspired him to say the soul will die (Ezekiel 18:4, 20), using the word muwth. This implies an end of consciousness, if we do not assume the soul is eternal.
God would also have inspired a New Testament writer to say the soul that sins will separate, using the Greek word chorizo (e.g., Romans 8:35, 39). Instead, God inspired James to say we save a soul from death (James 5:20), using the word thanatos. Death and separation are different words in both Hebrew and Greek; they also have different meanings.
Most translations of Genesis 2:17 say that God told them they would die on the day they ate the fruit. Since Adam and Eve did not die a physical death that day, many conclude that death can only be spiritual separation. Their relationship to God changed when they sinned, meaning the old relationship died.
Genesis 2:17 literally says, " . . . on that day, dying you shall die." When we examine the account, we see that God pronounced the death sentence that day. He told Adam he would return to dust (Genesis 3:19) and banished them from the tree of life so they would not live forever (Genesis 3:22-24). The aging process began that very day.
Matthew 10:28 and Luke 12:4-5
While many passages say the soul can die, Jesus also says God can destroy the soul in Matthew 10:28. Two well-known passages tell us not to fear those who can only kill the body. They both show that only God controls our destiny:
"And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell." Matthew 10:28
"And I say to you, My friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear Him who, after He has killed, has power to cast into hell; yes, I say to you, fear Him!" Luke 12:4-5
Both Scriptures say the same thing. Humans and the devil can cause the first death by killing the body. Matthew says they cannot kill the soul, while Luke says they have no more that they can do.
Many scholars take the first half of Matthew 10:28 as a proof text for an immortal soul. Since Jesus says do not fear those who cannot kill the soul, many assume the soul cannot be killed. If the soul cannot be killed, then God cannot kill the soul. And if this is the case, then Jesus says do not fear God! Is this the message traditionalists wish to convey?
Although Jesus does show that the soul and body can mean different things, He does not say the soul is immortal. In the second half of the verse, Jesus says fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. Since only God can kill or destroy the soul, we should only fear God.
Matthew says destroy the soul in hell, while Luke says cast into hell. These passages do not say the soul is indestructible, since God can destroy it. Traditionalists presume the soul is eternal, so they insist that God will only ruin the soul while keeping the person conscious throughout eternity. We will discuss words like destroy in Chapter Nine and Chapter Ten. We will also revisit Matthew 10:28.
Scripture clearly shows we are mortal, including our souls. Instead of saying the soul is eternal or immortal, the Bible says the soul can die and be destroyed. To insist that our soul is eternal is to deny the inspiration of God's Word.
W. G. T. Shedd, Bible scholar in the 1800s, says the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, " . . . is nowhere formally demonstrated, because it is everywhere assumed."1 This epitomizes the approach of traditionalists: first assume the soul is immortal, then interpret all Scripture to fit this assumption. We must make our beliefs conform to the Bible, not the other way around!
There is no escaping the reason the Bible never says the soul is immortal: Scripture cannot contradict itself. Saying the soul is immortal would contradict many Scriptures saying the soul can die. The Bible never says the soul is immortal because this belief is false.
Death: Reverse of Creation
Adam started out as dust. When God put the breath of life in him, he became a living soul (Genesis 2:7). After Adam sinned, God told him he would return to dust:
"In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread Till you return to the ground, For out of it you were taken; For dust you are And to dust you shall return." Genesis 3:19
Although God tells him he is dust, traditionalists believe his body is dust and he is a spiritual entity. God also tells him he will return to dust, yet most scholars say his body will return to dust and his consciousness will go somewhere else. This belief does not come from the Bible. Adam returns to dust because God takes away the life-giving spirit:
Then the dust will return to the earth as it was, And the spirit will return to God who gave it. Ecclesiastes 12:7
Ecclesiastes 12:7 is Genesis 2:7 in reverse. At creation, God formed Adam out of the dust of the earth and gave him the breath of life (Genesis 2:7). At death, the spirit returns to God who gave it and the dust returns to the earth (Ecclesiastes 12:7).
Many conditionalists use the expression: body plus spirit equals soul. They believe Adam became a soul when his spirit and body united. They also claim the soul no longer exists when the body and spirit separate at death. People will become souls again when spirit and body reunite at the resurrection.
While this viewpoint makes more sense than traditionalism, there is a better interpretation: Adam was a lifeless soul when God formed him, then became a living soul when God gave him a spirit. Since Scriptures call a dead body a ‘dead soul’ (Leviticus 21:11; Numbers 6:6; 19:11, 13), a body with the spirit is a living soul and a body without the spirit is a dead soul.
Several other verses reiterate the fact that the life leaves the body at death:
And so it was, as her soul was departing (for she died), that she called his name Ben-Oni, but his father called him Benjamin. Genesis 35:18
And he stretched himself out on the child three times, and cried out to the Lord and said, "O Lord my God, I pray, let this child’s soul come back to him." Then the Lord heard the voice of Elijah: and the soul of the child came back to him, and he revived. 1 Kings 17:21-22
His spirit departs, he returns to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish. Psalm 146:4, NASB
Then her spirit returned and she arose immediately. Luke 8:55
. . he fell down from the third story and was taken up dead. But Paul went down, fell on him, and embracing him said, "Do not trouble yourselves, for his life [soul] is in him." Acts 20:9-10
Traditionalists believe the body is only a temporary dwelling for an eternal soul. Robert Morey uses some of the above passages to claim that death and resurrection are consistently spoken of in terms of the leaving and returning of this eternal soul.2
The above passages support conditionalism because they always imply that the essence of our being remains with the body. Genesis 35:18, for example, says Rachel's soul was departing and she died; it does not say she was leaving. Similarly, 1 Kings 17:21-22 says his soul came back to him, not he came back. Psalm 146:4 also says his spirit departs and he returns to his earth; it does not say he departs and his body returns to the earth.
The New Testament gives the same message. In Acts 20:10, Paul says his soul is still in him instead of saying he is still in his body. Luke 8:55 also says her spirit returned and she arose, rather than saying she returned and arose. If consciousness leaves the body at death, there would be clear Scriptures. None exist.
Physical death is like an electric machine losing power. When the spirit departs, we stop functioning the way a machine stops when electricity is cut off. God gives life to dust (Genesis 2:7), and God takes life away from dust (Ecclesiastes 12:7).
Death: the Opposite of Life
If we accept Scripture as truth, we reject the belief that death only means separation. While it may include separation in some cases, death always means death. Death is not a different form of life; it is the opposite of life.
When people reject Jesus, they are spiritually dead (Ephesians 2:1, 5). We cannot deny that their relationship to God is dead, nor can we insist that they have a living relationship to God. Believers have eternal life and those who do not have the Son do not have eternal life (1 John 5:11-12). We are either spiritually dead, or we have eternal life. These are mutually exclusive conditions.
Another plain truth is that physical death is death of the body. While traditionalists can try to claim that the spirit survives death of the body, they cannot ignore the fact that the body without spirit is dead (James 2:26). The body is no longer alive because death is the opposite of life. This is not complicated: death means death.
The Soul at Death
Since the Bible says the person goes to the earth, this implies the essence of our being also goes to the earth. The soul goes to what is called Sheol in Hebrew or Hades in Greek. Here are examples where the soul goes to Sheol:
O Lord, You brought my soul up from the grave [Sheol]; You have kept me alive that I should not go down to the pit. Psalm 30:3
But God will redeem my soul from the power of the grave [Sheol], for He shall receive me. Psalm 49:15
For great is Your mercy toward me, And You have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol. Psalm 86:13
What man is he that liveth, and shall not see death? shall he deliver his soul from the hand of the grave[Sheol]? Psalm 89:48, KJV
All souls go to Sheol at death, including the souls of righteous people. In Psalm 16:10, David says God will not leave his soul in Sheol. This shows his soul would spend some time there.
Peter explains this passage in Acts 2:25-35. He says David is still in Hades: "Men and brethren, let me speak freely to you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his tomb is with us to this day . . . For David did not ascend into the heavens . . ." (Acts 2:29, 34)
Peter also says Psalm 16:10 foretells Jesus' soul going to Hades. Peter says, " . . . he [David], foreseeing this, spoke concerning the resurrection of the Christ, that His soul was not left in Hades, nor did His flesh see corruption." (Acts 2:31) If His soul was not left in Hades because of the resurrection, then His soul was in Hades until the resurrection.
Although the spirit and soul have some similarities in Scripture, they clearly show differences in death. The Bible states that souls go to Sheol/Hades at death. The Word of God never says the spirit goes to Sheol. The spirit returns to God who gave it. Jesus' spirit also went immediately to God at His death when He said, "Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit." (Luke 23:46)
Since spirit and soul separate at death, they must be different. We cannot be conscious in two places at the same time, so only one can be our consciousness. While a few passages imply the spirit is conscious inside the body (e.g. Job 32:18, Psalm 51:10), this does not prove the spirit is a conscious entity outside the body.
On the other hand, the soul is more important than the whole world (Matthew 16:26, Mark 8:36-37). This makes it a better choice. We see throughout the Bible that the soul is our essence. Since the soul goes to Sheol/Hades at death, we will examine these words in the next chapter.
1John Blanchard, Whatever Happened to Hell?, 1995, p. 215
2Robert Morey, Death and the Afterlife, 1984, p. 48-49
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