The Biblical authors used two words currently translated as “soul”: “nephesh” (neh’-fesh) in the Old Testament and “psuche” (psoo-khay’) in the New Testament. These Hebrew and Greek words are used to describe many characteristics of animals and humans other than their soulish nature, so for the most part, they typically don’t tell us much about the nature of the soul. There are, however, two places in the New Testament where the word “psuche” does seem to be describing our dual nature as soulish creatures:
“And do not fear those who kill the body, but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.”
2 Corinthians 5:1-8
For we know that if the earthly tent which is our house is torn down, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For indeed in this house we groan, longing to be clothed with our dwelling from heaven; inasmuch as we, having put it on, shall not be found naked. For indeed while we are in this tent, we groan, being burdened, because we do not want to be unclothed, but to be clothed, in order that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now He who prepared us for this very purpose is God, who gave to us the Spirit as a pledge. Therefore, being always of good courage, and knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord — for we walk by faith, not by sight — we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord.
In these two passages, a clear distinction is drawn between the body and the soul. In the Matthew passage, although the word for “soul” (psuche) can be translated in a number of ways, the most reasonable inference here is Paul’s use of the word to describe our dual nature as physical beings with immaterial, everlasting, “souls”. These souls cannot be destroyed by the death of the body. Paul calls the soul our “house” made by God; as soon as we are away from the body we are at home with the Lord. We can learn a lot from these (and other) passages describing the clear disembodied life of the soul (I’ve posted an entire section on the nature of the soul at the ColdCaseChristianity.com website). Here is a quick summary of what the Bible teaches about the nature of our souls:
We Are Immortal Living Souls
There are two realities in the universe: the unseen, immaterial, spiritual realm and the visible, physical, material world. The soul does exist and we, in fact, are living souls. We live, even when our bodies die. (Refer to the passages cited in “What the Bible Does (and Doesn’t) Say About the Life (or Death) of the Soul”)
Souls Return to God
The spiritual world is the realm of God, and as living souls, we are spiritual beings. Therefore, the moment we are not living in the physical world, we will be living in the spiritual world with God. (Refer to Luke 16:19-31, Luke 23:39-43, 2 Corinthians 5:1-8)
Souls Animate Bodies
The soul animates the body. While the soul obviously lives without the body, the body cannot live without the soul. When a soul returns to a lifeless body, the body is said to “rise from the dead” or to be “revived”. We are living souls, and our souls are “seen” in this physical world when they are united with, and animating, our physical bodies. (Refer to Luke 16-19-31, 1 Kings 17:19-23)
Souls Are Active
Even after our bodies die, as living souls, we are not passively waiting for our resurrection bodies. In the time between our physical death and our resurrection at the Second Coming of Christ, we will not be in a state of dormancy. We will be active and available to God. (Refer to Ecclesiastes 12:5-7, Matthew 17:1-3)
Souls are aware of each other in the spiritual realm. They are able to fellowship and communicate with each other, but it Heaven and Hell are separate spiritual realms. There is no Biblical evidence to support the idea we will have awareness or interaction with the physical world after our physical death. (Refer to Luke 16-19-31)
Souls Have Experiences
Our souls are alive, and for this reason, they share some traits commonly held by physical, living persons. It is possible, for example, for the soul to experience great joy and great torment. (Refer to Luke 16:19-31)
Souls Are Subject to God’s Judgment
Physical death does not end our life. God has complete control over our true life (as living souls), and our final death is not dependent on our body, but is instead dependent on our relationship with God through Jesus Christ. (Refer to Luke 23:39-43, John 11:17-26, John 8:51)
We come to these conclusions about the soul based on what the Scripture teaches us, but none of these characteristics violate or contradict what can be understood about the soul by way of analytical and philosophical reflection. God’s Word makes sense of the world around us. His natural revelation confirms what He’s already revealed to us in His Word. The Bible has much to say about our true nature as living souls created in the image of God.
For more information about the scientific and philosophical evidence pointing to a Divine Creator, please read God’s Crime Scene: A Cold-Case Detective Examines the Evidence for a Divinely Created Universe. This book employs a simple crime scene strategy to investigate eight pieces of evidence in the universe to determine the most reasonable explanation. The book is accompanied by an eight-session God’s Crime Scene DVD Set(and Participant’s Guide) to help individuals or small groups examine the evidence and make the case.
J. Warner Wallace is a Dateline featured Cold-Case Detective, Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, Adj. Professor of Christian Apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, author of Cold-Case Christianity, God’s Crime Scene, and Forensic Faith, and creator of the Case Makers Academy for kids.
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