There have long been two schools of thought on this question. Some have
maintained that man was created mortal, so far as his body was concerned, but
that he possessed an immortal entity called either a "soul" or a
"spirit." Others have felt equally certain that man was not in any
sense created immortal.* They have been convinced that man was not in possession
of an ethereal soul, or spirit, which survived death as a conscious entity,
apart from the body.
Before we can discuss the question of immortality, either innate or conditional,
it would seem best to define our terms; hence we will answer the second question
first. In a case like this, where there is a difference of understanding
regarding the meaning of
*The basis for such a conclusion is the statement of God to man in Eden:
"In the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die" (Gen.
2:17). The fact that man was created with the possibility of dying should he
sin, evidences the fact that he was not immortal.
words, we should let the Bible itself, with the help of the original language
usages, define its own terms.
The Bible Meaning of "Soul"
In the Old Testament the word "soul" is translated from nephesh, a
Hebrew word that occurs 755 times in the Old Testament. It is most frequently
translated "soul," but it is also translated in many other ways.
Nephesh comes from the root naphash, a verb occurring only three times in the
Old Testament (Ex. 23:12; 31:17; 2 Sam. 16:14), each time meaning "to
revive oneself" or "to refresh oneself." The verb seems to go
back to the basic meaning of breathing.
A definition for nephesh may be derived from the Bible account of the creation
of man (Gen. 2:7). The record states that when God gave life to the body He had
formed, the man literally "became a soul of life." The
"soul" had not previously existed, but came into existence at the
creation of Adam. A new soul comes into existence every time a child is born.
Each birth represents a new unit of life uniquely different and separate from
similar units. The new unit can never merge into another unit. It will always be
itself. There may be countless individuals like it, but none that is exactly
that unit. This uniqueness of individuality seems to be the idea emphasized in
the Hebrew term nephesh.
Nephesh is applied not only to men but to animals. The clause "let the
waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life" (Gen.
1:20) is literally, "let the waters swarm swarms of souls of life [individuals of life]." Hence animals as well as human beings are
This basic idea of "soul" being the individual rather than a
constituent part of the individual seems to underlie the various occurrences of
nephesh. It is therefore more accurate to say that a certain person is a soul
than to say he has a soul. This is clearly expressed in Genesis 2:7: "Man
became a living soul."
From the basic idea of a nephesh being an individual, or a person, springs the
idiomatic use of nephesh for the personal pronoun. Expressions such as "my
soul" are idiomatic for "I," "me"; "thy
soul," for "you"; "their soul," for "they" or
Since each new nephesh represents a new unit of life, nephesh is often used
synonymously with "life." In 119 instances the K.J.V. translates
nephesh by "life," and there are other instances where
"life" would have been a more accurate translation.
The majority of the occurrences of nephesh may be appropriately translated by
"person," "individual," "life," or by the
appropriate personal pronoun. "The souls that they had gotten in Haran"
(Gen. 12:5) is simply "the persons that they had gotten in Haran."
"That soul shall be cut off" (Lev. 19:8) is simply "he shall be
When we turn to the New Testament, we find that the word "soul" is
translated from the Greek word Psuchi, with the meanings "life,"
"breath," or "soul." Psuchi is translated forty times in the
New Testament as "life" or "lives," clearly with the meaning
commonly attributed to the word "life" (Matt. 2:20; 6:25; 16: 25). It
is rendered fifty-eight times as "soul" or "souls"
(Matt. 10:28; 11:29; 12:18). In some of these instances it means simply
"people" (Acts 7:14; 27:37; 1 Peter 3:20). In other instances it is
translated as, or equivalent to, some personal pronoun (Matt. 12:18; 2 Cor.
12:15). At times it refers to the emotions (Mark 14:34; Luke 2:35), to the
natural appetites (Rev. 18:14), to the mind (Acts 14:2; Phil. 1:27), or to the
heart (Eph. 6:6). There is nothing in the word psuche itself that even remotely
implies a conscious entity that is able to survive the death of the body. And
there is nothing in the Bible use of the word indicating that the Bible writers
held any such belief.
We fully concur with the following paragraphs from a well-known British scholar,
H. Wheeler Robinson, M.A., former principal of Regents Park College, London,
appearing in his book, Hebrew Psychology:
Nephesh is not at all adequately rendered by "soul." Literary usage
shows that there are three more or less distinct meanings covered by the
word. . . . The first group relates to the principle of life, without any emphasis
on what we should call its physical side. Thus the Israelite captain, threatened
with destruction, says to Elijah, "Let my nephesh and the nephesh [life] of
these fifty thy servants be precious in thy sight (2 Kings 1:15)."
Here the proper rendering is "life," as in the R.V., though in Jer.
38:16 the K.J.V. has "As the Lord liveth, that made us this soul"
where "life" should be rendered.
There remains a second group of usages, the only one that can be called physical
in the proper sense (though, for the Hebrew, "physical" includes much
that we should call physiological; they simply do not distinguish the two). In
this group nephesh denotes the human consciousness in its full extent, as in Job
16: 4: "I also speak like you, if your nephesh were instead of my nephesh
There is no reason to doubt that the primary meaning of nephesh was
"breath," like that of the Arabic, Nafsunsoul (Nafasunbreath),
though there is but one instance in the Old
Testament in which "breath" is the natural rendering. It is found in
Job 41:19-21.If then we ask the question, "What is man?" and try to answer it, not
in the old theological, but in the new physiological fashion, we shall see, that
for the Hebrew, man is a unity, and that that unity in a body is a complex of
parts, drawing their life and activity from a breath-soul, which has no
existence apart from the body.
The Hebrews had never thought of a disembodied soul.Quoted by the Methodist
leader, Arthur S. Peake, in The People and the Book. Oxford: Clarendon Press,
In harmony with the foregoing we as Adventists believe that, in general, the
Scriptures teach that the soul of man represents the whole man, and not a
particular part independent of the other component parts of man's nature; and
further, that the soul cannot exist apart from the body, for man is a unit.
The Bible Definition of "Spirit"
Some Bible students, recognizing that the word "soul" as used in the
Old Testament hardly supports the idea that man possesses a separate, component
part that can survive the death of the body, have turned to Ecclesiastes 12:7 to
support the doctrine that man has an immortal something that can exist apart
from the body. This text reads, "Then shall the dust return to the earth as
it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it."
The word "spirit" in this text is translated from the Hebrew word
roach, which has the various meanings of "breath," "wind,"
and "spirit." In the Old Testament, roach is translated
"breath" of the body 33 times, as in Ezekiel 37:5; "wind"
117 times, as in Genesis 8:1; "spirit" 76 times in the sense of
15:19); "courage" (Joshua 2:11); temper or "anger" (Judges
8:3); and in reference to the disposition (Isa. 54:6). Ruach is also used to
describe the living principle in men and animals 25 times, as in Psalm 146:4;
the seat of the emotions 3 times, as in 1 Samuel 1:15; the "mind" 9
times, as in Ezekiel 11:5; and of the Spirit of God 94 times, as in Isaiah
63:10. In not one of the 379 instances of its use in the Old Testament does
ruach denote that in man there is a separate entity capable of conscious
existence apart from the physical body. In Ecclesiastes 12:7, that which returns
to God, we believe, is the life principle imparted to man by God.
When we turn to the New Testament, we find that the word "spirit" is
translated 2 times from the Greek word phantasma, and 288 times from pneuma. The
Greek word pneuma is translated in the K.J.V. 288 times as "spirit,"
93 times as "ghost" (modern revisions have entirely abandoned the use
of the word "ghost" in favor of "spirit," where the word
pneuma is being translated), 1 time as "life," 1 time as
"wind," and 1 time as "spiritual."
Pneuma is used (1) of air in motion, such as "wind" in John 3:8, and
"breath" in Revelation 11:11; (2) of the principle of life, as in Luke
8:55; (3) of the frame of mind, disposition, influence, or attitudes that govern
man, the basis of his character, as in 1 Corinthians 4:21; 2 Corinthians 12:18;
(4) of incorporeal beings, such as angels (Heb. 1:14), demons, or evil spirits
(Matt. 8:16); (5) of the Holy Spirit, as in Matthew 1:18, et cetera. There are
also other shades of meaning related to the applications cited here.
There is nothing inherent in the word pneuma by which it may be taken to mean
some supposed conscious entity of man capable of existing apart from the body,
nor does the usage of the word with respect to man in the New Testament in any
way imply such a concept.
Is Either the Soul or the Spirit Immortal?
As far as the Bible is concerned, the word "immortal" is applied only
to God: "Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God,
be honour and glory for ever and ever" (1 Tim. 1:17). This is the only
occurrence of the word in the Scriptures. Innate immortality is ascribed only to
Deity: "I give thee charge in the sight of God, . . . who is the blessed
and only Potentate, the King of kings, and Lord of lords; who only hath
immortality" (1 Tim. 6: 13-16). The gift of immortality is promised to man,
and he is urged to seek for it (Rom. 2:7). In fact, it is promised to the
faithful at the second coming of Christ: "We shall not all sleep [die], but
we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last
trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible,
and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this
mortal must put on immortality" (1 Cor. 15: 51-53). In 1 Thessalonians 4:16
the apostle makes it clear that the "last trump" and the raising of
the dead are at the second advent.
If man is urged to seek for immortality, it is clear that he does not now
possess it. At the creation of man in the beginning, death was set before him as
the sure result of disobedience: "In the day that thou eatest
thereof [the fruit of the forbidden tree] thou shalt surely die" (Gen.
2:17). It is obvious that man was not created incapable of dying. It is equally
clear from the account of the Fall that man could have lived forever if he had
continued to partake of the tree of life. After Adam's sin God said, "Now,
lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live
for ever" (Gen. 3:22). It is simple to deduce from the account of creation
and of the fall of man, that God promised him eternal life on condition of
obedience, and death if he disobeyed.
If it be thought that the New Testament use of such expressions as "body
and soul" and "body, soul, and spirit" may indicate that man
really is composed of three divisible, component parts, and that at least one of
them is immortal, we must consider the following:
1. Christ declared that both soul and body can be destroyed in hell: "Fear
not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear
him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell" (Matt. 10:28).
2. A careful study of all the adjectives used in Scripture to qualify the word
"spirit," as applied to man, indicates that not one even remotely
approaches the idea of immortality as one of the qualities of the human
3. The Spirit of God is the only spirit that has the appellative
"eternal" (Heb. 9:14).
Seventh-day Adventists do not believe that the whole man or any part of him is
inherently immortal. We believe the Bible picture of man is of a creature
subject to death, with the possibility of eternal life only
because Christ has paid the penalty for sin and offers His life to the repentant
sinner. Jesus Christ "hath abolished death, and hath brought life and
immortality to light through the gospel" (2 Tim. 1:10). In Him is our
hopeour only hope.