Does the Bible Teach That Humans Are More Than Their Bodies?

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  • Does the Bible Teach That Humans Are More Than Their Bodies?

    by J.P. Moreland

    Throughout history most Christians have believed in “the souls of men and beasts,” to take an expression from Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Animals and humans are composed of an immaterial entity- a soul-- and a body. The main biblical emphasis is on the functional, holistic unity of a human being. But this unity includes a dualist distinction of body and soul. The human soul, while not by nature immortal, is nevertheless capable of entering an intermediate disembodied state upon death and, eventually, being reunited with a resurrected body. By contrast, animal souls do not reflect the image of God and most likely do not survive death.

    1. Old Testament anthropological terms. Biblical anthropological terms exhibit a wide field of meanings, and so we must take care to interpret each occurrence in its context. The two most important OT terms are nephesh (frequently translated “soul”) and ruach (frequently translated “spirit”)

    Nephesh sometimes refers to God as an immaterial, transcendent self, a seat of mind, will, emotion, ect.
    (see Jb 12:13; Am 6:8 ). It is similarly applied to humans (Dt 6:5; 21:14; Pr 21:10; Is 26:9; Mc 7:1). It also refers to a vital entity that makes something alive (Ps 30:3; 86:13; Pr 3:22.). Finally, nephesh refers to the continuing center of personal identity that departs to the afterlife as the last breath ceases (Gn 35:18; cp. 1Kg 17:21-22; Ps 16:10; 30:3 49:15; 86:13 139:8; Lm 1:1). The Bible regularly speaks of death and resurrection in terms of the departure and return of the soul. Indeed, the problem of necromancy throughout Israel’s history (the practice of trying to communicate with the dead in Sheol; see Dt 18:9-14; 1 Sm 28:7-25) seems to presuppose the view that people continue to live conscious lives after the death of their bodies.

    Ruach, frequently translated “spirit,” sometimes signifies a vital power that infuses something, animates it, and gives it life and consciousness. Thus the ruach in man is formed by Yahweh (Zch 12:1), proceeds from and returns to Him, and is that which gives man life (Jb 34:14). In Ezekiel 37, God takes dry bones, reconstitutes human bodies of flesh, and then adds a ruach to these bodies to make them living persons (see Gn 2:7.) There is no ruach in physical idols and thus they cannot arise and possess consciousness (Jr 10:14; Hab 2:19). Ruach also refers to an independent, invisible, conscious being as when God employs a spirit to accomplish some purpose (2 Kg 19:7; 22:21-23). In this sense Yahweh is called the God of the vital spirits of all flesh (Nm 27:16; cp. 16:22). Here “spirit” means an individual, conscious being distinct from the body. Moreover, ruach also refers to the seat of various states of consciousness, including will (Dt 2:30; Ps 51:10-12; Jr 51:11), thought (Is 29:24), emotion (Jdg 8:3; 1Kg 21:4) and one’s moral or spiritual condition (Pr 18:14; Ec 7:8 ).

    2. The OT on life after death. The OT depicts individual survival after physical death in a disembodied form. The dead in Sheol are called rephaim. Old Testament teaching about life after death is best understood in terms of a diminished though conscious form of disembodied personal survival in an intermediate state. First, the OT often depicts life in Sheol as lethargic, inactive, and resembling an unconscious coma (Jb 3:13; Ps 88:10-12; 115:17-18; Ec 9:10; Is 38:18). However, it also describes the dead in Sheol as being with family, awake, and active on occasion (Is 14:9-10). Second, the Hebrew Scriptures clearly teach the practice of necromancy (communicating with the dead) as a real possibility and, on some occasions, an actuality (see Lv 19:31; 20:6; Dt 18:11; 1 Sm 28; Is 8:19). Third, according to the OT, the nephesh-- a conscious person without flesh and bone-- departs to God upon death (see Ps 49:15).

    3. New Testament anthropological terms. Several NT passages use pneuma (spirit) or psyche (soul) in a dualistic sense. Hebrews 12:23 refers to deceased but existing human beings in the heavenly Jerusalem as “the spirits of righteous people made perfect.” Revelation 6:9-11 refers to dead saints as the “souls” of the martyrs who are in the intermediate state awaiting the final resurrection (20:5-6). Several texts refer to death as “giving up the spirit” (Mt 27:50; Lk 23:46; 24:37; Jn 19:30). Matthew 10:28 says, “Don’t fear those who kill the body but are not able to kill the soul; rather, fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” In this text psyche seems clearly to refer to something that can exist without the body.

    4. New Testament teaching on the intermediate state. Certain NT passages seem to affirm a disembodied intermediate state between death and final resurrection. For instance, there is the transfiguration passage (see Mt 17:1-13) in which Elijah (who never died) and Moses (who had died) appear with Jesus. The most natural way to interpret this text is to understand that Moses and Elijah have continued to exist (Moses was not re-created for this one event) and were made temporarily visible. Thus the transfiguration passage seems to imply a disembodied intermediate state.

    In Luke 23:43, Jesus promised the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with Me in paradise.” The term “today” should be taken in its natural sense, namely as meaning that the man would be with Jesus that very day in the intermediate state after their deaths.

    In 2 Corinthians 5:1-10 and Philippians 1:21-24, Paul referred to a state after death and prior to the resurrection in which people experience a conscious disembodied (“naked,” “unclothed”) existence in God’s presence.

    In 2 Corinthians 12:1-4 Paul admitted that, during a visionary experience, he did not know whether he was in his body or temporarily disembodied. Because Paul understood himself as a soul/spirit united to a body, the latter state of being disembodied was a real possibility for him.
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