Does the Bible actually teach that souls live on when the body dies? Short story: no.
In part 1 of this series I looked at what the Bible does say about the mind-body question. You should read that before you read this post. In short, in Scripture there’s a fairly clear portrait of human beings as physical and mortal, returning to the earth when we die, and depending on the resurrection of the dead for any future life beyond the grave. The familiar view of human beings as immaterial souls that inhabit physical bodies and live on when the body dies is not one supported in the Bible.
But is it really that simple? The evidence we saw last time was surprisingly clear, but still, some Christian readers of Scripture are resistant to this message. There are some passages in the Bible – although not many – that seem to some Christians to suppose that actually human beings do not die when their bodies die, but they actually live on in non-material form. Their souls don’t die. Some passages of the Bible, some people think, teach dualism because they teach that the soul outlives the body.
Right at the outset the suggestion should jar in the mind of anyone familiar with the material that we looked at in part one. To say that the self – the soul – doesn’t die and instead it survives death and goes somewhere else, is simply not compatible with the vast majority of the biblical witness. Leroy Edwin Froom had it right when he described the situation like this:
To a whole army, as it were, of explicit witnesses, has been opposed a rear-guard action of a few seemingly dubious passages, which are by some invested with a meaning wholly foreign to the general tenor not only of the specific book of which they are a part but, more than that, of the New Testament as a whole—and even beyond that, of the Old Testament testimony as well. Yet some would, by such debatable passages, seek not only to counterbalance but even to outweigh hundreds of other explicit texts.
It is as if to contend that, on the scales, a pound outweighs a ton.1
My suspicion is that the proof texts used to support this view stand out and are so memorable precisely because they are so few in number and so different with what Scripture generally says (and they are all very different from each other). But nonetheless, many Christians think that they present a picture of human nature that is fundamentally different from the one we saw in part one, so let’s look at these passages now. I’ll do this in two parts.
In my estimation there are eight verses or passages in the Bible that could sensibly be used in this way, and they are also the most commonly used proof texts for dualism. They are (in order of appearance):
- 1 Samuel 28 (Saul, the witch of Endor and Samuel)
- Ecclesiastes 12:7 (The spirit shall return to God.)
- Matthew 17 (Moses and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration)
- Luke 16:19-31 (The story of the rich man and Lazarus)
- Luke 23:43 (The thief on the cross)
- 2 Corinthians 5:8 (away from the body and at home with the Lord)
- Philippians 1:23 (I want to depart and be with Christ)
- Revelation 6:9 (Souls under the altar)
Four of these, I think (Ecclesiastes 12:7, Matthew 17, Luke 23:43, Philippians 1:23), can be addressed fairly easily. Two of them (Luke 16:19-31 and 2 Corinthians 5:8) are understandable as arguments for dualism but still, on inspection, are not effective arguments for dualism at all. Two of them, however (1 Samuel 28 and Revelation 9:6), warrant more serious consideration and yet still have plausible explanations that are compatible with the wider biblical portrait of human nature and death that we saw in part one. I’ll look at the first group of verses in this post, and then I’ll look at the more involved examples in part three.
As an introductory comment, let me anticipate a possible criticism: “Oh come on Glenn, this is just an exercise in explaining away passages of the Bible that you don’t agree with.” But of course, the very purpose of this blog entry is to address some evidence that some people is inconsistent with the observations that I made in part 1. So of course this whole blog post will consist of me explaining “away” evidence: Explaining why the evidence does not really conflict with my thesis after all.
Let’s get started.
The argument from Ecclesiastes 12:7 is easily the most straightforward to respond to. In this familiar text, the writer talks about death, saying that “the dust shall return to the earth as it was, and the spirit shall return to God who gave it.” Since the spirit is said to return to God, and since the dualist (or at least, the dualist who uses this argument) believes that the word “spirit” returns to the immaterial undying self, this saying in Ecclesiastes 12:7, so the argument goes, means that even though the dust returns to the earth, the person lives on as a spirit, going to God (presumably in heaven, where God is).
This is an argument that collapses even under the briefest inspection. The meaning of “spirit” that this argument presupposes is simply mistaken, for one thing. We saw in part 1 that the “spirit” that creatures have to make them alive and which they must surrender at death is synonymous with the “breath of life,” something had in common by all animals. There is little doubt that the author of Ecclesiastes 12:7 had Genesis 2:7 in mind when he wrote it: God made the first man from the dust and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. Here, things are reversed. Notice the word “return” and the phrase “as it was.” The dust will go back to where it was, in the earth. The spirit or breath of life will be reclaimed by God. This is not a progression to the next stage of life, but an undoing. It is an irony that one of the proof texts used by some to show that we live on after death as spiritual beings was evidently written not to affirm survival, but to emphatically deny it. I have written in more detail about this passage over at Afterlife.
Matthew 17 – Moses and Elijah
The appearance of Moses and Elijah on the mountain with Jesus is said by some people to demonstrate that non-material souls remain alive while the body is dead, and hence a dualistic view of human beings must be true. After all, Moses and Elijah were dead, and yet here they are on the mountain. Surely we are seeing a clear-cut case of ghosts. How can non-material souls survive the death of the body unless they exist?
In order to assess this argument, we need to know how it is supposed to work. Although it is not typically spelled out with any clarity, I think it is supposed to work like this:
1) Moses and Elijah were miraculously present with Jesus on a mountain in the first century AD.
2) The only possible way that Moses and Elijah could have been miraculously present with Jesus on a mountain in the first century AD (given that they died many centuries earlier) is for their immaterial souls to have been present on a mountain with Jesus in the first century AD.
3) Therefore the immaterial souls of Moses and Elijah were present were present with Jesus on a mountain in the first century AD.
From which it seems obvious that:
4) Therefore immaterial souls of human beings exist.
The argument appears to be logically valid: Once you grant the premises 1) and 2), the conclusion 3) follows, as does 4). However, it is only a sound argument if premises 1) and 2) are both true, and it is only a persuasive argument if 1) and 2) are clearly true.
As soon as the argument is laid out clearly, it starts to falter. The simple fact is that there is no good reason to think that 2) is true, and 1) appears not to accord with Matthew 17 itself. Let’s start with 2).
Why suppose that the only way for Moses and Elijah to be miraculously present on the mountain in the first century AD is for their immaterial souls to be present? Why could this not have been a bodily appearance? It is hardly a natural event, after all, it is a one-off miraculous event.
More important, however, is the fact that 1) is, according to the narrative in Matthew 17, not true. Moses and Elijah were not miraculously present on the mountain. “But the disciples saw them!” Yes they did, but remember that this was a vision. If you rely solely on the New International Version then you might not have realised this. However in any fairly literal version, Matthew records Jesus as saying “Tell nobody the vision (horama) until the Son of Man has risen from the dead.” Horama is the standard Greek word for a “vision,” something that is seen but is not actually present.
According to the text of Matthew’s Gospel, and the words of Jesus in particular, Moses and Elijah were not actually present, but what the disciples saw was really a vision.
So in short: Even if Moses and Elijah were actually present, that fact would say nothing about mind-body dualism. After all, it was a miracle, and the miraculous presence of the immaterial souls of these two men is hardly the obvious explanation, as opposed to them being alive again. Secondly and more importantly, the presence of Moses and Elijah does not need to be explained at all, because they were not present. This was a vision, according to the very passage in question. It is a vision with a message that has clear emphasis in Matthew’s Gospel. In Matthew 5 Jesus declared that he had come to fulfil the Law and the Prophets, and now in Matthew 17 we have a vision of Moses (representing the law) and Elijah (representing the prophets) conversing with Jesus, who was the fulfilment of them both. This was a visionary depiction of Jesus’ teaching about himself.
Today you will be with me in Paradise
One of the most frequently cited passages used to show that dualism is the biblical view of human beings is Luke 23:43. In this account, not supplied by Matthew, Mark or John, Jesus tells the criminal who is crucified with him: “Assuredly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
There is a legitimate question about punctuation in this verse. As readers may know, early New Testament manuscripts had no punctuation at all. Greek scholar E. W. Bullinger has argued that the comma ought to be placed after the word “today / this day” (semeron), so that the saying would read: “Assuredly I tell you this day, you will be with me in paradise.” All I will say here about this proposal is that its critics tend not to take it seriously enough or to grapple with all of the relevant evidence. Some of that evidence is addressed in my blog: “Luke 23:43 and Soul Sleep” as well as in the comments thread, where a number of criticisms of Bullinger’s thesis were quickly seen to be ill-thought-out. Bullinger’s claim, based on evidence, is that the word semeron generally belongs with the preceding verb (that verb here being lego, “I say”). As a rule, he is correct. However there is a much more prevalent pattern in the New Testament of using “Assuredly I say to you” (amen lego soi) as an introduction to what the speaker wishes to say, which in this case would mean that what Luke wanted to recount Jesus as saying is “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Although the question of punctuation is a legitimate one to raise, any solution that relies on Bullinger’s argument will be highly tenuous.
But there is really no need to rely on such arguments. It is certainly true that the traditional interpretation is plausible on the basis of no more than what is said in Luke 23:43. That day, Jesus and the thief would be in paradise. But if the majority of what the biblical writers say about death gives us a reason to look for another interpretation, it is not far off. Was Jesus speaking to the thief about metaphysical realities, measurable from an outsider’s perspective – or was he speaking to a person who was undergoing an experience, so that his words would make sense in light of that experience? Suppose he was doing the latter: Not telling the man what would happen from an outsider’s perspective as he looked on, but rather what he was about to experience.
If the thief really did die without surviving as a disembodied soul, only to be resurrected thousands or millions of years later into paradise, what would we expect him to personally experience? Certainly not a long, long wait in the dark. Instead we would expect an experience of closing his eyes in agony, followed immediately by opening them again at the resurrection. It is hard for me not to agree with Peter Van Inwagen (in a quote that I have used before in this way):
The words of Jesus are, obviously, supposed to be what The Book of Common Prayer calls “comfortable words.” Let me ask a question in somewhat the same spirit as the question I asked a moment ago. Imagine that the Good Thief dies in agony; “the next thing he knows,” as the idiom has it, he is in Paradise. He presently discovers that over three thousand years have passed since he died. Was he deceived? Was it somehow wrong of Jesus to say to him, “Today you shall be with me in Paradise”? If so, what should Jesus have said? Should he have said, “After the general resurrection, which will occur after an indefinite period that only the Father knows, you shall be with me in Paradise – but it will seem to you as if no time has passed”? Are there not circumstances in which taking extreme care to frame one’s statements in words that express only the strict and literal truth is unsatisfactory from a pastoral point of view? And are there not, in fact, circumstances in which taking extreme care to frame one’s statements in words that express only the strict and literal truth can impede communication? (I know that a certain large structure in Manhattan is a terminal and not a station; nevertheless, I don’t generally call it Grand Central Terminal, because that’s not what most people call it. And from my calling it Grand Central Station you cannot infer that I believe that it’s a station rather than a terminal.) In any case, to suppose that Jesus and the Good Thief would have attached much importance to the distinction between the strict and the lax interpretations of Jesus’ words – the strict being the one insisted on by those who are treating these words as proof text, and the lax being the one I’m pushing – seems to me to attribute an analytical cast of mind to two first-century Jews (in their extreme agony, let us remember) that is probably unwarranted.2
What do you think Jesus should have said, if soul sleep were true?
The fact that Jesus (or perhaps somebody paraphrasing Jesus) used the word “paradise” (paradeisos in Luke’s Gospel) itself counts against the thought that this is a reference to a disembodied intermediate state. As I have discussed elsewhere, paradise is a thoroughly earth-bound term, referring to a restored, ideal creation rather than to an intermediate state without the body.
To depart and be with Christ
Philippians 1 contains St Paul’s famous proclamation that “to live is Christ, to die is gain.” But it also mentions departing and being with Christ. Verses 19-26 read as follows:
Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honoured in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labour for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again.
Some thoughtful dualists who notice Paul’s various references to being “with Christ” or with the Lord pause at this point. Elsewhere when Paul speaks explicitly of the time and means by which those who have died will be with the Lord, in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, it is at the time of the resurrection when “we will always be with the Lord” (v 17). And yet, on one reading of Philippians 1, Paul is expressing the desire to be with Christ in an intermediate state while his body is dead. Given this view of what Paul is saying, Hawthorne (who holds this view) says that “No completely satisfactory resolution to the problem posed by these seemingly contradictory views has as yet been given, and perhaps none can be given.”3
One solution is suggested by E. W. Bullinger, noting that the word for “depart” here, analuo, only occurs twice in the New Testament, and the other instance is Luke 12:36 where it refers to a master who will “return” home after being away at a wedding. His proposal for Paul’s meaning is: “I desire the return [of Christ] and to be with Christ, which is far better.”
Analuo, to loosen again with the idea of coming back to the same place (used of a ship returning home from a foreign part) hence to return, depart and return. Used in the Lxx of returning from a feast (occ. Phil. i.23, where it is unto the return of Christ, for only then and thus shall we be with him, 1 Thes. Iv.17.4
Bullinger’s thesis is certainly a possibility. However, analuo is often used simply to denote a departure. A number of commentators note that the word was used to refer to breaking camp and moving on, or a ship raising its anchor and sailing off. So the meaning of “depart” does loom large. St Paul actually uses the noun of this word, analusis, from when we directly get “analysis,” i.e. breaking something down to its smallest bits, in 2 Timothy 4:6, “I am already being poured out like a drink offering, the time of my departure (analusis) is at hand.”
And here is the key to understanding Paul’s expression in Philippians 1:23. On both instances he is referring to his death as an analusis (first he uses the verb, then the noun), and in both contexts he talks about being with the Lord afterwards. But in 2 Timothy he explains in more detail:
For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.
In 2 Timothy Paul also speaks about being with the Lord after his analusis, but not at the time of his departure – simply at some time after, “on that day” when the Lord rewards all his people.
This brings consistency to Paul’s thinking elsewhere when he speaks of our future hope entirely in terms of the return of Christ and the resurrection. It also means that my understanding of Philippians 1:23 is like my understanding of Luke 23:43. It speaks of what one will experience after death, but not of the mechanics of how one will get there. They are both quite consistent with death as a state of oblivion between now and the resurrection, so that there is no experience of time for the “sleeper.”
So although it is popular to use these four passages: Ecclesiastes 12:7, Matthew 17, Luke 23:43 and Philippians 1:23, as though they were only compatible with a dualistic view of human nature where the immaterial soul lives on after the body dies, this impression is only superficial. None of these passages requires dualism, all of them are compatible with dualism, and in truth, while some of them have nothing in particular to say about the mind-body question, one of them appears to be more supportive of a materialist view of human beings (Ecclesiastes 12:7, which depicts a reversal of the creation of man), and another of them (Philippians 1:23) bears strong similarities to another of St Paul’s writings where his comments are more compatible with “soul sleep” than with the release of the soul into the presence of God at death.
In part 3 we’ll look at the more involved passages that are sometimes used to demonstrate that mind-body dualism is biblical: 1 Samuel 28 (Saul, the witch of Endor and Samuel), Luke 16:19-31 (The story of the rich man and Lazarus), 2 Corinthians 5:8 (away from the body and at home with the Lord) and Revelation 6:9 (Souls under the altar).
- Leroy Edwin Froom, The Conditionalist Faith of Our Fathers (Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1959), Volume 1, 366.
- Peter Van Inwagen, “Dualism and Materialism: Athens and Jerusalem?” Faith and Philosophy 12:4 (1995), 484.
- G. F. Hawthorne, Philippians, Word Biblical Commentary Vol. 43 (Dallas: Word, 2004), 59.
- E. W. Bullinger, A Critical Lexicon and Concordance to the English and Greek New Testament (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1895), 644