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How do we know we have a soul?


Question & Answer

Harvey L. via the Internet, writes:


How do we know we have a soul? I see only three mentions in the Bible and they aren’t definitive.

Answer: By Fred C. Plumer

Dear Harvey,

Harvey, believe it or not, you have picked a question that requires some explanation.

First, you are right but you will probably need an excellent Concordance or some savvy computer skills to demonstrate it. Yes, most translations of the Bible seem to only use the term soul three times. When writing about the soul, the original writers used the Hebrew word neʹphesh or in the New Testament, the Greek word psy·kheʹ. These two words actually occur well over 800 times in the Scriptures. These words were not only written in Hebrew and Greek but it was ancient Hebrew and Greek. So clearly, there was a lot of wiggle room for the many translators and scribes over the centuries. That being said, if you actually read the text and then read the footnote in some Bibles (or look it up in a Concordance), in most cases, you will discover that the word they are translating is either ne’phesh or psy’khe depending on which Testament they are translating. These words usually mean: 1) a person, 2) an animal.

Now most of us think of the soul as the thing that is left when the physical body is gone. It is something immortal, something that lasts or goes on. However, when we read the text closely, we discover that is not necessarily the way the Bible translators meant it to be. And this is where a good quality Concordance is necessary.

In 1 Peter 3:20 we find reference to ne’phesh as people; “In Noah’s day. . . a few people, that is, eight souls, were carried safely through the water.” Here the word “souls” clearly stands for people—Noah, his wife, his three sons, and their wives. Exodus 16:16 mentions instructions given to the Israelites regarding the gathering of manna. They were told to gather it according to the number of the people “souls,” each of them had in his tent. So the amount of manna that was gathered was based on the number of people in each family. You can check out some other Biblical examples of the application of “soul” or “souls” to a person or to people in the footnotes found at Genesis 46:18; Joshua 11:11; Acts 27:37; and Romans 13:1. Be certain to read the footnotes or your Concordance.

The writers and story tellers of the Bible also referred to animals as souls: “Then God said: ‘Let the waters swarm with living creatures, or “souls,” and let flying creatures fly above the earth across the expanse of the heavens.’ Then God said: ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures or “souls,” according to their kinds, domestic animals and creeping animals and wild animals of the earth according to their kinds.’ And it was so.” (Genesis 1:20, 24) You can also see that birds and other animals are called souls in the footnotes or Concordance found in Genesis 9:10; Leviticus 11:46; and Numbers 31:28.

The truth of the matter is that nowhere in the entire Bible are the terms “immortal” or “everlasting” linked with the word “soul.” Although it can be confusing because of our common usage of the word soul today, scriptures state very clearly that a soul is mortal, meaning that it dies. (Ezekiel 18:4, 20) Therefore, the Bible calls someone who has died, simply a “dead soul.”—Leviticus 21:11.

However, we can find something about the beliefs of something that goes on once our soul dies. And that is Spirit. Today in its common usage, soul and spirit are typically the same thing. However, according to scriptures, that is not the case. The Bible is quite clear that these two words have a very different meaning in the original context.

Bible writers used the Hebrew word ruʹach, in the Hebrew Scriptures or the Greek word pneuʹma the New Testament, when writing about the “spirit.” Ru’ach is one of my favorite Jewish words. It has several meanings depending how it is used and what words surround it. “The Spirit of God [Ru’ach Elohim] was hovering over the waters” (Genesis 1:2). In Genesis 6:17 ru’ach is translated as “breath of life.” Genesis 8:1 uses ru’ach to describe the “wind” God sent over the earth to recede the Flood waters. Altogether, the word ru’ach is found almost 400 times in the Old Testament and the Greek term pneu’ma almost as often in the New Testament.

Regarding our discussion, these are some of the instances that are closer to our common understanding today of “soul”. For instance, Psalm 104:29 states: “If you take away their spirit [ruʹach], they die and return to the dust.” And James 2:26 notes that “the body without spirit [pneuʹma] is dead.” In these verses, “spirit” refers to that which gives life to a body. Without spirit, the body is dead. Therefore, in the Bible the word ruʹach is translated not only as “spirit” but also as “force,” wind, or life-force. For example, concerning the Flood in Noah’s day, God said: “I am going to bring floodwaters upon the earth to destroy from under the heavens all flesh that has the breath, or ruʹach of life.” “Spirit” thus refers to an invisible force (the spark of life) that animates all living creatures. (Genesis 6:17; 7:15)

Spirit is like electricity is to a light bulb in our houses. Without it, the light does not shine. With it, the room is illumined. Without it, it is dark. The body needs the light, the spirit to be alive. But without that spirit, or life-force, our bodies “die and return to the dust,” as the psalmist stated.

So as you can see over the centuries we have changed the meaning of soul and spirit. But to state that the Bible only mentions soul or spirit four times is just not accurate. The question is, what are you going to do with that information? If you are going to argue from a biblical perspective, you will need to really study these verses, all 800 hundred of them, unless you are going to drag a Concordance around to your social gatherings.

It might be enough just to say that according to scripture, when we no longer have “spirit” our soul dies. But it may be helpful to recall in the book of Ecclesiastic, the least theological and the most humanistic book in the bible, that “the dust (of his body) returns to the earth, just as it was, and the spirit returns to the true God who gave it.” (Ecclesiastes 12:7)

~ Fred C. Plumer, President

This Q&A was originally published on Progressing Spirit – As a member of this online community, you’ll receive insightful weekly essays, access to all of the essay archives (including all of Bishop John Shelby Spong), and answers to your questions in our free weekly Q&A. Click here to see free sample essays.

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