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THEOLOGY > Man > Nature of Man > Nature of the Soul  


To speak of the nature of the “soul” is to speak of the nature of “man,” for they are not separate entities but both words refer to one and the same thing. The soul is man; man is his soul.

What is the nature of the soul? What characteristics do the Scriptures ascribe to the soul? Several will be discussed:

Life is attributed to the soul.

In Genesis 2:7 man is spoken of as “living soul” or “living being.” The life of man can be referred to as soul–life, that is, the life of man is the life of the soul. The point is that man and soul are one and the same. In Genesis 12:13 Abraham asks Sarah his wife to say that she is his sister, so “that I may live because of you” (lit., “that my soul shall live”); in other words, Abraham did not want to be killed; for him to continue to live, his soul must continue to live. Abraham and his soul are synonymous. 

The psalmist speaks to God: “let my soul live, and it shall praise you”; additionally, the psalmist says that his soul is waiting for Yahweh (130:5) and that he had “calmed and quieted my soul” (131:2). “Soul” is a synonym for “life,” for the person, the individual (see: Crucial Question).

In the same sense that life is attributed to the soul of man, animals are said to be souls, that is, animals are living creatures or living souls:

every living thing (nephesh) that moves (Gen. 1:21);
Let the earth bring forth the living creature (nephesh) (Gen. 1:24);
whatever Adam called each living creature (nephesh) (Gen. 2:19);
every living creature (nephesh) that is with you: the birds, the cattle . . . (Gen. 9:10);
and every living creature (nephesh) (Gen. 9:12, 15, 16);
every living creature (nephesh) that moves in the waters (Lev. 11:46);
every creature (nephesh) that creeps on the earth (Lev. 11:46);
animal (nephesh) for animal (nephesh) (Lev. 24:18);
a righteous man regards the soul (nephesh) of his animal (Prov. 12:10);
the living creatures (psuche) in the sea (Rev. 8:9);
every living creature (psuche) in the sea (Rev. 16:3).

Also in the sense of life, God is said to have a soul:

what is in My heart and My mind (nephesh) (I Sam. 2:35);
My soul (nephesh) (Isa. 1:14);
You make His soul (nephesh) an offering for sin (Isa. 53:10);
My mind (nephesh) would not be favorable toward this people (Jer. 15:1);
the Lord of Hosts has sworn by His soul (nephesh) (Jer. 51:14);
Then I alienated Myself (nephesh) from her (Ezek. 23:18);
I had alienated Myself (nephesh) from her sister (Ezek. 23:18);
the Lord God has sworn by His soul (nephesh) (Amos 6:8).

Desires and emotions are ascribed to the soul.

Being alive, the soul should be expected to have sentiments and feelings, and this the Scriptures affirm; the following verses are examples:

our soul (nephesh) loathes this worthless bread (Num. 21:5);
if you seek Him with all your heart and with all your soul (nephesh) (Deut. 4:29);
whatever your heart (nephesh) desires (Deut. 12:15);
she was in bitterness of soul (nephesh) (I Sam. 1:10);
my soul (nephesh) chooses strangling (Job 7:15);
so pants my soul (nephesh) for You, O God (Ps. 42:1);
My soul (nephesh) thirsts for God (Ps. 42:2);
rejoice the soul (nephesh) of Your servant (Ps. 86:4);
He satisfies the longing soul (nephesh), and fills the hungry soul (nephesh) (Ps. 107:9);
I have calmed and quieted my soul (nephesh) (Ps. 131:2);
as he thinks in his heart (nephesh), so is he (Prov. 23:7);
as cold water to a weary soul (nephesh) (Prov. 25:25);
Give . . . wine to those who are bitter of heart (nephesh) (Prov. 31:6);
My soul (nephesh) hates (Isa. 1:14);
with my soul (nephesh) I have desired You in the night (Isa. 26:9);
bitterness of heart (nephesh) Ezek. 27:31);
the first-fruit which my soul (nephesh) desires (Micah 7:1);
My soul (psuche) is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death (Mk. 14:34);
my soul (psuche) magnifies the Lord (Lu. 1:46);
fear came upon every soul (psuche) (Acts 2:43).

Sin and guilt are characteristic of the soul.

Since the soul is the man, then it is proper to speak of the sin that the soul commits and the guilt that is incurred by the soul.

and that person (nephesh) is guilty (Num. 5:6);
that person (nephesh) shall be cut off from his people (Gen. 17:14);
if a person (nephesh) sins (Lev. 4:2; 5:1, 17; 6:2);
the person (nephesh) who touches any unclean thing (Lev. 7:21);
when a man or woman commits . . . that person (nephesh) is guilty (Num. 5:6);
the soul (nephesh) who sins (Ezek. 18:4, 20);
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul (nephesh) (Micah 6:7);
every soul (psuche) of man who does evil (Rom. 2:9);
abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul (psuche) (I Pet. 2:11).

The soul needs salvation.

To speak of atonement or salvation for the soul is the same as speaking of the salvation of the individual.

every man (nephesh) shall give a ransom (lit., “atonement”) for himself (Ex. 30:12);
it is the blood that makes an atonement for the soul (nephesh) (Lev. 17:11);
to make atonement for ourselves (nephesh) before the Lord (Num. 31:50);
Hear and your soul (nephesh) shall live (Isa. 55:3);
My soul (nephesh) shall be joyful in my God, for He has clothed me with the garment of salvation (Isa. 61:10);
you will find rest for your souls (nephesh) (Jer. 6:16);
you will find rest for your souls (psuche) (Matt. 11:29);
the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives (psuche) (Lu. 9:56);
who believe to the saving of the soul (psuche) (Heb. 10:39);
which is able to save your souls (psuche) (Jas. 1:21);
the salvation of your souls (psuche) (I Pet. 1:9).

The soul dies.

The Scriptures plainly teach that the soul dies, a concept that many find difficult to accept; but the teaching is lucid in both Testaments:

you shall give life (nephesh) for life (nephesh) (Ex. 21:23);
none shall defile himself for the dead (nephesh) among his people (Lev. 21:1, 11);
defiled by a corpse (nephesh) (Num. 5:2);
he shall not go near a dead body (nephesh) (Num. 6:6; 9:6, 7, 10; 19:11, 13, 16);
he sinned in regard to the corpse (nephesh) (Num. 6:11);
whoever has killed any person (nephesh) (Num. 31:19; 35:11, 15, 30);
deliver our lives (nephesh) from death (Josh. 2:13);
who kills a person (nephesh) (Josh. 20:3, 9);
lest angry men fall upon you, and you lose your soul (nephesh) (Jud. 18:25);
take my life (nephesh) (I Ki. 19:4);
these men who have put their lives (nephesh) in jeopardy (I Chron. 11:19);
and their hope—loss of life (nephesh) (Job 11:20);
or caused its owners to lose their lives (nephesh) (Job 31:39);
He did not spare their soul (nephesh) from death (Ps. 78:50);
he did not know it would cost his life (nephesh) (Prov. 7:23);
those who seek their lives (nephesh) (Jer. 46:26);
as their life (nephesh) is poured out (Lam. 2:12; “poured out” speaks of dying);
the soul (nephesh) who sins shall die (Ezek. 18:4, 20);
to shed blood, to destroy people (nephesh) (Ezek. 22:27);
the sword comes and takes any person (nephesh) from among them (Ezek. 33:6);
unclean because of a dead body (nephesh) (Hag. 2:13);
this night your soul (psuche) will be required of you (Lu. 12:20);
the good shepherd gives His life (psuche) for the sheep (Jo. 10:11);
to lay down one’s life (psuche) for his friend (Jo. 15:13);
men who have risked their lives (psuche) for the name . . . (Acts 15:26);
there will be no loss of life (psuche) among you (Acts 27:22);
who risked their own necks for my life (psuche) (Rom. 16:4);
he came close to death, not regarding his life (psuche) (Phil. 2:30);
He laid down His life (psuche) for us (I Jo. 3:16);
the living creatures (psuche) in the sea died (Rev. 8:9);
they did not love their lives (psuche) to the death (Rev. 12:11);
every living creature (psuche) in the sea died (Rev. 16:3).

The soul must be delivered from the grave.

If the soul dies as the above verses clearly show, then the soul must be raised.

God works . . . to bring back his soul (nephesh) from the Pit, that he may be enlightened with the light of life (Job 30:33);
You will not leave my soul (nephesh) in Sheol (Ps. 16:10);
God will redeem my soul (nephesh) from the power of the grave (Sheol) (Ps. 49:15);
You have delivered my soul (nephesh) from the depths of Sheol (Ps. 86:13);
My soul (nephesh) clings to the dust; revive me according to Your word (Ps. 119:25);
His soul (psuche) was not left in Hades, nor did His flesh see corruption (Acts 2:31).

The soul is associated with the physical.

Instead of predicating a separation between the body and the soul, such that they are independent entities, with the soul possessing the body, the correct perspective is to see an interrelationship between the two such that there can be no separation between the two, so that the soul does not exist apart from the body.

This intricate relationship is seen at the time of Adam’s creation: Adam was not given a soul but “became” a soul. The dirt was animated, and the animated dirt was spoken of as “soul.” Man is from dust and returns to dust; in between he is living dust, animated by God.

The association of the two is seen in several passages:

But you shall not eat flesh with its life (nephesh), that is, its blood” (Gen. 9:4); note the relationship of “flesh,” “life” or “soul,” and “blood”; “blood,” spoken of as the “soul” of the flesh, is not to be eaten; the “flesh” and the “soul” are equated—the “flesh” has “life” (the “soul”) and the “life” (the “soul”) is the “blood”; in other words, that which facilitates the life (the “soul”) of the body is the blood;

The same association is in Leviticus: “the life (nephesh) of the flesh is in the blood” (17:11), “it is the life (nephesh) of all flesh; its blood sustains its life (nephesh) . . . for the life (nephesh) of all flesh is its blood” (17:14); instead of “life” read “soul” for nephesh in both translations; the translation of “life” veils the association of “flesh” and “soul”;

The relationship is also in Deuteronomy: “for the blood is the life (nephesh); you may not eat the life (nephesh) with the meat” (12:23; imagine the following translation: “for the blood is the soul; you may not eat the soul with the meat”); and in Proverbs: “a man burdened with bloodshed (nephesh; lit. the blood of any person (nephesh)” (28:17);

In Psalm 35:9-10, “soul” and “bones” are used in the same way: “And my soul (nephesh) shall be joyful in the Lord; it shall rejoice in His salvation. All my bones shall say, ‘Lord, who is like You’ ”;

Consider Psalm 63:1: “Early will I seek You; my soul (nephesh) thirsts for You; my flesh longs for You”; note the three words, “I,” “soul,” and “flesh”; they are all used in the same way, to refer to the psalmist, the individual; soul (nephesh) and flesh (basar) form an example of Hebrew parallelism, with both serving as representations of “I”.

The point is not that the “soul” or “life” and the “body” are the same thing, but that all three words can be used to speak of the same thing, the individual or the person. In this sense “body” and “soul” are synonyms for the individual.

When all the above points are considered together (life, desires and emotions, sin and guilt, salvation, death, resurrection, and the physical), the conclusion is that these points refer to an individual, a person; that is, they do not speak of something separate from the person, or of something that the person possesses—an independent entity that occupies the body. These are different characteristics of man.

Man is a psycho-physical being and psychical functions are bound so closely to his physical nature that they are all localized in bodily organs which themselves only draw their life from the vital force that animates them (Edmond Jacob, Theology of the Old Testament, 157).

Consider the following quotes from two acclaimed scholars:

The Hebrew conceived man as an animated body and not as an incarnate soul (H. Wheeler Robinson, Inspiration and Revelation in the Old Testament, 70).

Nephesh is not a spiritual entity which enters the body at birth and leaves it as such at death; it is simply a principle of life which makes the body effective, and the body is the real basis of personality (Ibid).

Nephesh is never used in the Old Testament of a disembodied soul or spirit; the inhabitants of Sheol are never called "souls" (Ibid).

As Gen. iii. 19 shows, man is essentially . . . dust, and at death becomes dust again (Ibid).

Soul (nephesh) is not a higher part of man standing over against his body but designates the vitality or life principle in man. God breathed into man’s nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living nephesh (Gen. 2:7). Body and the divine breath together make the vital, active nephesh. The word is then extended from the life principle to include the feelings, passions, will, and even the mentality of man. It then comes to be used as a synonym for man himself. Families were numbered as so many souls (Gen. 12:5; 46:27). Incorporeal life for the nephesh is never visualized. Death afflicted the nephesh (Num. 23:10) as well as the body (George Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, 458).

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