Immortality of the Soul

by William J. Stewart

A recent e-mail correspondent, influenced by Jehovah’s Witness doctrine, has stated, “…man does not live on after he dies…” The Witnesses case against life after death is primarily based on the claim that such is pagan philosophy, not Scriptural. In addition, the misapplication of some Bible texts, in conjunction with the disregard of others, simulates support for this godless doctrine.

It may be true that pagans accepted the existence of an immortal soul. However, this fact does not automatically nullify the validity of such a doctrine in Christianity. If every thought which existed among the pagans invalidated a similar thought among God’s people, then we must of necessity reject the Bible account of creation, the flood, the virgin birth, and perhaps much more. Biblical truth needs to be determined by what the Bible says, not what the pagans believed.

IS THE SOUL MERELY THE BODY?
Having cited Genesis 2:7, the Witnesses conclude, “Clearly, the soul is not what a man has but what he is.” (1) The contention is made that the soul and the body are one and the same. When the body dies, the soul of necessity dies, for the soul is the body. Thus, it is stated, “Before God created him from the dust, Adam did not exist. After his death, Adam returned to the same state of nonexistence.” (2)

If there is no distinction to be made between the soul and body, why did the apostle Paul pen, “…may your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Thes 5:23)? Surely if body and soul are synonymous, the apostle would have known it! Again, to demonstrate that the soul is distinct from the body, consider the death of Rachel. While giving birth to Benjamin, we are told that “…her soul was departing (for she died)…” (Gen 35:18). What was her soul departing from? Was it not her body, which was subsequently buried (v 19-20)?

THE SOULS WHO SINS SHALL DIE

These words can be found in Ezekiel 18:4, 20. Witnesses use this, and similar texts to support their doctrine of soul annihilation. The text certainly speaks of the soul dying, but it is NOT the same death which come upon the body. Our bodies die a physical death (Gen 3:19; Heb 9:27), the only exceptions being those who are alive at the Lord’s coming (1 Cor 15:51-53). The soul dies a spiritual death, not related to the physical design of the body (dust), but the actions of the person (Ro 6:23). From the text, note that the wicked will die, but the righteous will live. And yet our constant experience, when it comes to physical death, is that both wicked and righteous die.

A quick summary of Ezekiel 18:

  • the false proverb (inherited sin) in Israel (18:1-2)
  • each one is accountable for his own sin (18:3-4)
  • the man who lives righteously will live (18:5-9)
  • the wicked son of a righteous man will die (18:10-13)
  • the righteous son of a wicked man will live (18:14-17)
  • the wicked father of a righteous son will die (18:18)
  • Principle: the righteousness of the righteous is upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked is upon him (18:19-20)
  • the wicked man who turns from his evil will live (18:21-23)
  • the righteous man who turns and commits sin will die (18:24)
  • the ways of the Lord are fair (18:25-29)
  • God judges each according to his own ways, therefore repent and live (18:30-32)

Abraham, Isaac and Jacob all died (Gen 25:8; 35:29; 49:33), and yet the Lord speaks of them as living (Mt 22:32). They died physically, as all men do, but spiritually, they live (Jn 11:25), for they were faithful to the Lord.

THE DEAD KNOW NOTHING
Ecclesiastes 9:5 is another favourite text of those who believe the soul ceases with the death of the body. Solomon records, “For the living know that they will die; but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten.” This verse, by itself, appears to be a solid proof that those who are dead cease to be. But let’s set it in context. Verse 6 reads, “Also their love, their hatred, and their envy have now perished; nevermore will they have a share in anything done under the sun.”

Solomon is not affirming that the dead have slipped into nonexistence, but that they have no more part on this earth. They “know nothing” about “anything done under the sun”. Consider the circumstances of the rich man and Lazarus, as revealed by the Lord. Neither man is spoken of as annihilated. They existed in a different realm; Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom and the rich man in torments. Both had completed their allotted life on earth, and now reaped accordingly. The rich man could not effect the fate of his brothers, though he desired that Lazarus be sent back to them. “Nevermore will they have a share in anything done under the sun.”

THE HADEAN REALM
Hades is a Greek word which has been translated “hell” in some Bibles, while others simply transliterate it. In Greek mythology, “Hades is the lord of the dead and ruler of the nether world, which is referred to as the domain of Hades or, by transference, as Hades alone.” (3) Again, the Witnesses will focus on the fact that the hadean realm is found in Greek mythology. Shall we set aside a Bible teaching simply because the Greeks had in their mythology something nigh to reality? Jesus taught that Hades was a real place (Mt 11:23; 16:18; Lk 16:23). The apostle Peter associated it with the Old Testament “sheol” (Acts 2:27; cf. Ps 16:10), the abode of departed souls.

In Luke 16:19-31, Jesus teaches about this hadean realm. Two abodes exist there, Abraham’s bosom (paradise) and torments. Souls in hades are not “asleep in the grave” as the Witnesses would tell us, but in fact are alert, able to receive comfort and torments (v 25). The body has gone to the ground (v 22), but the person has gone to a spirit realm.

The common argument levied against this text is that Jesus was simply teaching a parable. A whole complex explanation has been devised to give credence to this interpretation. However, the text does not fit the fabric of a parable. A parable is “a usually short fictitious story that illustrates a moral attitude or a religious principle.” (4) When Jesus taught via parables, He used examples that His audience were familiar with (ie. fishing, sowing seed, harvesting, etc.). Since the living have not died, they would not be acquainted with what He spoke. How were they to learn the spiritual principles involved if they didn’t understand the story itself? Furthermore, the Witnesses reject the existence of life after death, and yet, in Jesus’ “parable”, He declares there to be. Did Jesus speak of things which were not (ie. lie) in order to teach this “parable”?

This is not a parable. Jesus taught in short about the diverse lifestyles of two men, and their respective rewards after death. The rich man, guided by greed (v 19, 21, 25) and wicked living (v 30), received condemnation; Lazarus, leading a troubled life (v 20-21, 25), but apparently faithful to the Lord, receiving comforts.

If we live faithfully, we also have the hope of comfort in Abraham’s bosom. While on the cross, Jesus promised the penitent thief, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.” (Lk 23:43). What a blessed hope, and thereafter, to be raised to dwell with the Lord eternally (1 Thes 4:16-18).

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(1) Jehovah’s Witnesses, “Should You Believe In Reincarnation?” (www.watchtower.org)
(2) Jehovah’s Witnesses, “Should You Believe In Reincarnation?” (www.watchtower.org)
(3) Micha F. Lindemans, “Hades”, (www.pantheon.org)
(4) Merriam-Webster Deluxe Dictionary

 

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