The Journal of Biblical Accuracy

The origins of the doctrine of the “immortality of the soul” (PDF) PDF version

The origins of the doctrine of the “immortality of the soul”

We have seen in the article: “Resurrection or life immediately after the death?” that the Bible clearly and unanimously presents the dead as sleeping and having no consciousness. Just to give again some of the related passages:

Daniel 12:2 says:
“And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.”

Everlasting life starts not with death but with the resurrection! Till then those who have died are presented as “sleeping in the dust of the earth”. See that God did not tell Daniel “and many of them whose souls are now in heaven”.

Same also with Paul: when speaking to the Thessalonians about the dead and the hope we have in the resurrection he spoke about those “sleeping”: In every verse of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-16 he mentions the dead. See the terms that he uses:

1 Thessalonians 4:13-16
“But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him. For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep. For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first:”

Paul’s hope, the hope that God gave to us in his Word has only one name: resurrection. Sometime between now and the resurrection some of us, perhaps all (depending on when the Lord will come – this time nobody knows), will die. We will not then enter into a blissful state in heaven or in paradise. Instead we will be sleeping. Where? In the dust of the ground, or as it is usually called in the Word “Sheol” or “Hades”, the gravedom ). This is the simple and easy to grasp truth of the Word of God.

Immortality of the soul: the common belief vs. the Bible

The truth that the dead are now sleeping and will be made alive in the resurrection is unfortunately not what most Christians believe and which can be summarized as follows:

“A person is composed by body and soul. The body is the physical flesh-and-blood "shell” that works as a house for the soul. The soul is the nonmaterial part, the mind the feelings etc. At death the soul leaves the body, and continues to live consciously forever in heaven or hell.”

In the article “body, soul and spirit” we have dealt with the soul and what exactly it is. Perhaps there is no better summary to the meaning of the respective Hebrew word (“nephesh”), translated as “soul” in the English Bible, than the one given by Vine in his dictionary:

“Nephesh: “the essence of life, the act of breathing, taking breath ... The problem with the English term 'soul' is that no actual equivalent of the term or the idea behind it is represented in the Hebrew language. The Hebrew system of thought does not include the combination or opposition of the 'body' and 'soul' which are really Greek and Latin in origin" (Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, 1985, p. 237-238, emphasis added).

“Nephesh” (or “Psuchi” in the Greek New Testament), soul, is, according to the Word of God simply the breath, the life. Genesis 2:7 demonstrates this truth very clearly:

Genesis 2:7
“And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul [“nephesh” in Hebrew]. ”

See that the Word does not speak about soul as something separate from the body. “Man became a living soul”. Everyone of us that breaths today is a living soul. When we will have breathed our last, we will no longer be living souls. We would be sleeping, having no consciousness, exactly as during deep sleep people have no consciousness.

If we adopt the definition the Word of God gives to soul and not the one of the “Greek and Latin in origin”, as Vine calls it, we will not then have a problem when we realize that the animals also have soul:

Genesis 1:20-21
"And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature [nephesh, soul] that has life [nephesh, soul] and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven. And God created great whales, and every living creature [“nephesh”, soul, so also in the MKJV and others] that moves, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good"

and Genesis 1:29-30
"And God said "Behold I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree whose fruit yield seed; to you it shall be for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps upon the earth , wherein there is a living soul [nephesh in Hebrew] I have given every green herb for meat:" and it was so."

There is obviously nothing metaphysic in soul. Whatever breathes, man or animal, is a living soul. Where then does the belief of the so called “immortal soul” come from? This is something we will deal with next.

Immortality of the soul: a platonic belief

Concerning the origins of the idea of the immortality of the soul, Vine already gave us some hinds above: this belief comes from Greek philosophy, expounded especially by two of the chief Greek Philosophers: Plato and Socrates. Plato, though not the first to assert the doctrine of the immortal soul, he was definitely the most eloquent one. As Werner Jaeger of Harvard University says:

“The immortality of man was one of the foundational creeds of the philosophical religion of Platonism that was in part adopted by the Christian church” (Werner Jaeger, “The Greek ideas of immortality”, Harvard Theological Review, Volume LII, July 1959, Number 3, emphasis added ).

As The Catholic Encyclopedia (Topic: the platonic school) also informs us:

“The great majority of the Christian philosophers down to St. Augustine were Platonists.”

What did then Plato believe about the soul? Plato was a disciple of another great Greek philosopher, Socrates. Plato’s work “Phaedo” is a dialogue which depicts the death of Socrates. The dialogue supposedly took place on the last day of Socrates, before being executed by drinking hemlock. As Wikipedia says: “one of the main themes in the Phaedo is the idea that the soul is immortal”. We could consider “Phaedo” a work that gives the combined beliefs of Plato and Socrates, the two greatest Greek philosophers on the matter. Here are some passages from this work (Taken from the following website: ):

“The soul is in the very likeness of the divine, and immortal, and intelligible, and uniform, and indissoluble, and unchangeable …. It goes away to the pure, and eternal, and immortal, and unchangeable, to which she is kin." (Phaedo)

And again:

“The soul whose inseparable attitude is life will never admit of life's opposite, death. Thus the soul is shown to be immortal, and since immortal, indestructible ... Do we believe there is such a thing as death? To be sure. And is this anything but the separation of the soul and body? And being dead is the attainment of this separation, when the soul exists in herself and separate from the body, and the body is parted from the soul. That is death.... Death is merely the separation of the soul and body." (emphasis added)


“Be of good cheer, and do not lament my passing … When you lay me down in my grave, say that you are burying my body only, and not my soul”

Does what Plato and Socrates say sound very familiar? Indeed it does. It could very well be a summary of what the average Christian also believes!

As the church historian Philip Schaff says:

“Plato gives prominence also to the doctrine of a future state of rewards and punishments. At death, by an inevitable law of its own being, as well as by the appointment of God, every soul goes to its own place; the evil gravitating to the evil, and the good rising to the supreme good.” (The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, article: Platonism and Christianity).

All the above, sound indeed like written by a contemporary Christian preacher. In fact, compare what we read from Phaedo with what the most celebrated preacher of contemporary Christianity says about our topic:

“….you are an immortal soul. Your soul is eternal and will live forever. In other words, the real you -- the part of you that thinks, feels, dreams, aspires; the ego, the personality -- will never die. … your soul will live forever in one of two places -- heaven or hell …. whether we are saved or lost, there is conscious and everlasting existence of the soul and personality.” (Billy Graham, Peace With God, chapter 6, paragraphs 25 and 28).

Now compare this with what God and His archenemy, the devil, said in Genesis 2 and 3:

Genesis 2:16-17, 3:4
“And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, "You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die ….. “But the serpent said to the woman, "You will NOT surely die.””

The first that taught that man is – though fallen - supposedly immortal was the devil in the garden of Eden. Compare his “you shall not surely die” with the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. “Your soul is immortal and will live forever”, Billy Graham said. As much as I respect him, the same also Plato, Socrates and the devil said. According to them: there is no real death. “You will not surely die”, “You soul just leaves the body and lives eternally in heaven or in hell, depending on what it has done”. This is not a Christian belief brothers; it is a heathen belief, taught first by the father of lies in the Garden of Eden.

Immortality of the soul: Tyndale and Luther

Let’s now see what 2 of the greatest reformers thought about the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. Tyndale that great reformer and revered Bible translator, who was burned in the stake, said about the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, answering to Papal supporter Thomas More :

“And ye, in putting them [the departed souls] in heaven, hell, and purgatory, destroy the arguments wherewith Christ and Paul prove the resurrection.... And again, if the souls be in heaven, tell me why they be not in as good case as the angels be? And then what cause is there of the resurrection? … The true faith putteth [setteth forth] the resurrection, which we be warned to look for every hour. The heathen philosophers, denying that, did put [set forth] that the souls did ever live. And the pope joineth the spiritual doctrine of Christ and the fleshly doctrine of philosophers together; things so contrary that they cannot agree, no more than the Spirit and the flesh do in a Christian man. And because the fleshly-minded pope consenteth unto heathen doctrine, therefore he corrupteth the Scripture to establish it.” (An Answer to Sir Thomas More's Dialogue (Parker's 1850 reprint), pp. 180, 181., emphasis added)

He also said:

“And I marvel that Paul had not comforted the Thessalonians with that doctrine [he means the doctrine of the immortality of the soul], if he had wist [known] it, that the souls of their dead had been in joy; as he did with the resurrection, that their dead should rise again. If the souls be in heaven, in as great glory as the angels, after your doctrine, show me what cause should be of the resurrection” (An Answer to Sir Thomas More's Dialogue (Parker's 1850 reprint), pp. 118, emphasis added).

Furthermore, Martin Luther, the great German Reformer, in response to the same doctrine and the same Bull of Leo X, classified the immortality of the soul to “monstrous opinions”. Here is what he said:

“However, I permit the Pope to establish articles of faith for himself and for his own faithful—such are: That the bread and wine are transubstantiated in the sacrament; that the essence of God neither generates nor is generated; that the soul is the substantial form of the human body that he [the pope] is emperor of the world and king of heaven, and earthly god; that the soul is immortal; and all these endless monstrosities…” (Assertion of all the articles of M. Luther condemned by the latest Bull of Leo X), article 27, Weimar edition of Luther's Works, vol. 7, pp. 131, 132, emphasis added)

The Lutheran scholar Dr. T. A. Kantonen (The Christian Hope, 1594, p. 37), summarized Luther's position on the death in these words:

"Luther, with a greater emphasis on the resurrection, preferred to concentrate on the scriptural metaphor of sleep. “For just as one who falls asleep and reaches morning unexpectedly when he awakes, without knowing what has happened to him we shall suddenly rise on the last day without knowing how we have come into death and through death. We shall sleep, until He comes and knocks on the little grave and says, ‘Doctor Martin, get up! Then I shall rise in a moment, and be with him forever.’ "

We couldn’t agree more with these two great Reformers. Death is indeed sleep! There is no such thing as immortal soul. The comfort of the Bible is NOT the comfort that most preachers give in funerals i.e. that the soul of the deceased supposedly lives on. This was the comfort of Plato and Socrates whose teaching their converted students (I remind again the quotation from the Catholic Encyclopedia: “The great majority of the Christian philosophers down to St. Augustine were Platonists.”) carried on! Will we continue believing on this or we will turn our ear to what the Word of God says?

Immortality of the soul: other sources, Church fathers

That the immortality of the soul doctrine is something foreign to the Scriptures is also stated by the Jewish Encyclopedia, which says concerning it:

"The belief that the soul continues its existence after the dissolution of the body is...nowhere expressly taught in Holy Scripture...The belief in the immortality of the soul came to the Jews from contact with Greek thought and chiefly through the philosophy of Plato its principle exponent, who was led to it through Orphic and Eleusinian mysteries in which Babylonian and Egyptian views were strangely blended" (The Jewish Encyclopedia, article, "Immortality of the Soul", emphasis added).

Similarly the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia says:

“We are influenced always more or less by the Greek, Platonic idea that the body dies, yet the soul is immortal. Such an idea is utterly contrary to the Israelite consciousness and is nowhere found in the Old Testament.” (1960, Vol. 2, p. 812, “Death”)

Brothers, the soul is NOT immortal. The soul is just what gives life to the body. You breath.. you have soul. You are a living soul. Same also for the animals: they are also living souls. You are dead.. there is no soul. The hope of the Christian rests on one and only one doctrine: the doctrine of the resurrection from the dead. When Paul went to Athens, the capital of Greek philosophy, the home of Plato and Socrates, he preached “Jesus and the resurrection” (Acts 17:18). By then the concept of the immortality of the soul was widespread in the Greek world. But Paul did not adopt it to appeal to the Greek philosophical mind. Instead he preached the only true doctrine on the matter: the doctrine of the resurrection. Paul would not compromise the truth to appeal to the philosophers and their opinion. In fact here is the warning he issued to all of us:

Colossians 2:8
“See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.”

The word “philosophers” is the word used in the Acts 17:18 to describe the Epicureans and the Stoics that were deriding Paul, because he was preaching the resurrection. It is the word Plato, Socrates and all others used to describe themselves. They were philosophers and their product was one thing: philosophy. While Paul warned: “see to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy”, the church Fathers – most of them - were taken captive by it. For example, the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology says about Origen, a Church father described by Encyclopedia Britannica as “the most important theologian and biblical scholar of the early Greek church”:

“Speculation about the soul in the subapostolic church was heavily influenced by Greek philosophy. This is seen in Origen’s acceptance of Plato’s doctrine of the preexistence of the soul as pure mind (nous)...” (1992, p. 1037, “Soul”)

Here is what Origen himself wrote:

“. . . The soul, having a substance and life of its own, shall after its departure from the world, be rewarded according to its deserts, being destined to obtain either an inheritance of eternal life and blessedness . . . or to be delivered up to eternal fire and punishments . . .” (Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 4, 1995, p. 240)”

Many of the Church Fathers, instead of rejecting their previous philosophical influences, they christianized them, getting captive by them and mixing the truth of the Word with the error of pagan philosophy. Here is what Ackermann says concerning one of the very early Greek Church Fathers, Justin Martyr:

"Justin was, as he himself relates, an enthusiastic admirer of Plato before he found in the Gospel that full satisfaction which he had sought earnestly, but in vain, in philosophy. And, though the Gospel stood infinitely higher in his view than the Platonic philosophy, yet he regarded the latter as a preliminary stage to the former. And in the same way did other apologetic writers express themselves concerning Plato and his philosophy.."” (Ackermann, Das Christliche im Plato, chap. i., Hamburg, 1835; Eng. transl., The Christian Element in Plato, Edinburgh, 1861)

In fact Encyclopedia Britannica, describes Justin Martyr as “the first Christian to use Greek philosophy in the service of the Christian faith”.

And as German Church historian Philip Schaff says in his Encyclopedia:

“many of the early Christians, .. found peculiar attractions in the doctrines of Plato, and employed them as weapons for the defense and extension of Christianity, or cast the truths of Christianity in a Platonic mold. The doctrines of the Logos and the Trinity received their shape from Greek Fathers, who, if not trained in the schools, were much influenced, directly or indirectly, by the Platonic philosophy, particularly in its Jewish-Alexandrian form. That errors and corruptions crept into the Church from this source can not be denied. ……. Among the most illustrious of the Fathers who were more or less Platonic, may be named Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, Theophilus, Ireneus, Hippolytus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Minutius Felix, Eusebius, Methodius, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Augustine.” (The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, article: Platonism and Christianity, emphasis added)

Immortality of the soul: conclusion

To conclude: the doctrine according to which the souls of the dead separate from the body at death and carry on living in heaven or hell, because the soul is supposedly immortal, is not a Christian innovation. It is something that was articulated by Socrates and Plato, who in turn had a profound influence on most of the Church Fathers, from Justin Martyr down to Augustine. This pagan doctrine although unfounded in the Bible and foreign to the Old Testament, to Jesus and the apostles was taken over together with other Greek philosophical ideas and practices and was renamed as Christian. This platonic pagan doctrine replaced the true Christian hope concerning the dead: the resurrection at the last trumpet, “for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible” (1 Corinthians 15:52). For though the resurrection of the dead is kept as a doctrine of the church, what is its meaning if the dead get immortality immediately upon death? Tyndale was very right to ask: If the souls be in heaven, in as great glory as the angels, after your doctrine, show me what cause should be of the resurrection”. The immortality of the soul doctrine is unbiblical, pagan and essentially incompatible with the Biblical doctrine of the resurrection of the dead: there is indeed no meaning to the resurrection if the dead are alive now, for the resurrection aims to make them alive! As Paul says in I Corinthians 15:22-23:

“For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. But every man in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ's at his coming.

All SHALL be made alive. It is future. The Word in saying that the dead SHALL be made alive at Christ’s coming, makes very clear that they are NOT alive now. Everything else is a lie, regardless of whether it is your pastor, your denomination, or your favorite Church saint that teaches it.

You and I have a choice to make: will we believe God and His Word, or we will believe Plato, Socrates and what they brought, through their disciples, into the church doctrines? Do you want to be a disciple of Plato or a disciple of Christ? Making the right choice may mean standing out against popular opinion (and believing in the immortality of the soul is the popular, established in church opinion) and bearing the respective costs. But do we care for this or we care for the truth? Do we care about what men say about us or about what God says about us? As Paul instructs us:

2 Timothy 2:15
“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.”

Keeping both the Word and our traditions is in this case no possible. One of the two will have to go and I pray you make the right decision which one it will be.

Anastasios Kioulachoglou