Whole books have been written on this subject and the reader is encouraged to do their own survey of the literature! This is a sensitive area for some Christians. Some see any argument for the monistic nature of man as a direct attack on a sacred, and dearly held belief-system. Some may not even be able to conceive of a Christian worldview at all, without the belief that all of us have an immortal soul.
It is not the purpose of this article to defend or persuade, but to simply outline the arguments that have been made for a position that presents the human nature as a complex whole within the context of Bible teaching. It is hoped that the reader will be given some new ideas to consider, and at the very least be given a brief introduction to monism!
When I first started studying this question, I was surprised to learn that the Old Testament does not really speak much about an afterlife at all. Almost everything was centered on this one life we live and how it can be best lived by entering in to a covenant agreement with God. Those who lived in obedience to God's covenant were blessed. Those who chose not to were cursed. Little, if anything is said about an eternal reward in either heaven or hell!
To the person who is investigating this for the first time, this idea may seem very strange! When so much of the New Testament does talk about the afterlife, it can be very disconcerting to learn that the Old Testament is virtually silent on the idea. If God is the one who inspired both the Old and the New Testament, we would expect there to be a harmonious consistency of all life themes presented in all of the books of the Bible. Yet careful scholarship has shown that for one reason or another, God chose not to say much about the idea of the afterlife, to our OT ancestors!
However, rather than be “thrown for a loop”, I believe that it is possible to see why God may have chosen to do this, and come to peace with the idea that God inspired the whole Bible, both Old and New Testaments! The most important thing that I believe that we must always do, when investigating any concept or teaching of the Bible, is to do our best to let the original text speak for itself. Even if we are not gifted in Greek or Hebrew, we need to do our best to gather as many tools as we can, that will help us read and understand the books of the Bible within the context of the original intended audience and work from that standpoint. If we come to the Bible with the lens of our presuppositions, our current worldview or philosophies, we will never advance our understanding!
In the Old Testament, the Hebrew terms that have been translated into the English words, “soul” and “spirit” are nephesh and ruach.
One of the biggest problems that Bible scholars and translators have had with the books of the Old Testament is that Biblical Hebrew has a very limited vocabulary. Out of necessity, one word can have a variety of different meanings, depending on the context in which it is found. Nephesh, usually translated into our word “soul”, can actually also mean, among many other things, a “life force”, or "vital energy", that makes not only humans, but also animals alive. The Hebrew word, Ruach is used to convey a variety of ideas as diverse as "God's Spirit", "the wind", "breath", "the throat", and "human emotions".
Great care needs to be taken when developing important doctrines based on words with such diverse meanings. If we are not careful, what can often happen is we can superimpose current ideas and philosophies back in to the words of ancient texts. We need to do our best to “clear the slate” and try our very best to read the Old Testament from the perspective of the original or “primary” audience. For example, we might ask questions like, "If Plato had not given the world his idea of the “immortal soul”, what word might we now be using to translate the Hebrew word, Nephesh?" "Are the ideas of Plato a good guide when trying to understand the message of God to the Israelites?"
One of the first passages that talks about the “soul” is found in the second chapter of Genesis, verse 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.” (KJV)
It is interesting to note here that the text implies that after God prepared a physical body, God breathed into Adam His own powerful breath, and man becomes a “soul”. The idea given here is not that man has a soul or is given a soul, he becomes or is now a “soul”.
Or, as the NIV Bible puts it,
“and the man became a living being."
This living being, or "person" is, as far as we know from the original Hebrew wording, a single whole (physical) being. The word "soul", used by the King James translators, with all if its current connotations in English, was probably not the best choice.
The “breath of God”, the same energy that brings the stars into existence, is perhaps best understood as an “animating force”. It is an energy, or “life force” that makes things live! When a person dies, this “life-force” is seen as returning to God who gave it.
“ … the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” Ecclesiastes 12:7
When the Old Testament writers talk about what happens at death, we see them say such things as:
“For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing;
they have no further reward, and even their name is forgotten.
Their love, their hate and their jealousy have long since vanished;
never again will they have a part in anything that happens under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 9:5,6
However, the biggest argument in the Old Testament for monism is the deafening silence about anything that would point to dualism! An immortal soul, the promise of heaven, the threat of hell, or for that matter, any kind of afterlife at all, are virtually non-subjects in the Old Testament! Concepts this important should not be missing from the text, especially when the religious beliefs of the surrounding nations such as the Canaanites and Egyptians are so centered on these ideas!
For example, when we look at the covenant agreement that God makes with Abraham, the promises that God makes include such things as making Abraham the father of a great nation. He was told that his descendants would be as countless as the stars and the dust of the earth. The land of Canaan was promised to his descendants, and he would be a blessing to all families of the earth. Where was the promise of eternal life, heaven, a great reward in the afterlife? It is strangely absent from the agreement! Instead, all that God promises Abraham is a good long life on this earth, full of blessings.
“And thou shalt go to thy fathers in peace; thou shalt be buried in a good old age.” Genesis 15:15
The same thing is repeated when God comes and makes a Covenant agreement with Abraham's descendants. God tells Moses to tell the people,
"Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." Exodus 19:5,6 (NIV)
God later encourages the people to keep the covenant with wonderful incentives such as:
• You will be blessed in the country and the city
• You will have many children, rich crops and your animal herds will be increased
• You will have many material blessings
• You will have victory over your enemies
• You will be respected and feared by surrounding nations.
• Everything that you put forth your hand will be blessed.
No promise is made of an afterlife, eternal life, the joys of heaven, or an eternal soul. Just a nice long life with lots of blessings!
God then follows these up with many curses that will fall upon those who do not keep the covenant with God, but again all of the bad things that are mentioned, will happen to people in their lifetime, not in some eternal torment of a hell fire.
Either way you look at it, afterlife incentives or disincentives are completely absent from the Old Covenant agreement between God and the Israelites!
With the exception of a few hints found in the book of Job, the Psalms and a promise made to Daniel, the Old Testament is virtually silent on any kind of life after the death of the body. On the rare occasion that the dead are referred to it was almost always within the context of their remaining body parts, their bones, rather than a spirit. Resurrection from death, on the few occasions that it is mentioned, is always accomplished through some type of reanimation of the physical body.
In addition to this silence, God seems to go to great lengths to protect the Israelites from any cultic practices that dealt with death, or the concept of life after death. After living in Egypt for 400 years, and then living side by side with other nations that were steeped in ancestor worship, it is not like the concept of an afterlife or “spirits of the dead” were foreign ideas, not yet conceived. It was all around them!
It is not fully clear why God was so adamant that His people not practice anything to do with the dead. It could be that He saw this as a form of worshiping other gods, something strictly forbidden in the Covenant, and indeed stated in the very first line of the first law in the Ten Commandments. Or, it may be that God was trying to protect His people from falling into the deceptions of the occult that so often accompany any investigations into the afterlife.
Whatever His reasons, the admonitions are very clear.
"When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there. Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord." Deuteronomy 18: 9-12 (NIV)
It would seem that part of God's ideal for His people to become a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” would only be possible if they could be kept from the contaminating rituals of afterlife belief systems.
If people struggle with the question as to why God would inspire His prophets in the Old Testament to avoid topics on the afterlife, it is here where we might find the answer. It could be that the Lord was so concerned that His people would be deceived and led astray by the practice of ancestor worship, that He purposely choose not to say anything about an afterlife for anyone, including the righteous.
As Alan Segal notes:
“That the Bible lacks a concrete narrative of the afterlife, as we have seen so often manifested in the pagan cultures around it, must, we suspect, not be just accidental or deficient; it must be part of the Biblical polemic against its environment. In contrast to the plethora of the different ideas about life after death, in the great river cultures surrounding Israel, early Bible traditions seem uninterested in the notion of an afterlife. Practically every scholar who systematically surveys the oldest sections of the Biblical text is impressed with the lack of a beatific notion of the hereafter for anyone,” 1
Profound changes take place during the inter-testamental period. By the time that Jesus arrives on the scene, the Jews have a highly developed belief system about the afterlife, souls, heaven and hell, and the resurrection. While some groups, like the Sadducees hold out for more conservative, traditional beliefs, most of the people had adopted some variance of a belief in the afterlife, that included forms of dualism, no doubt influenced to a large extent by Greek philosophy. It is as if “Pandora's box” has burst open, and there is no going back to the worldview that the Lord tried so hard to preserve for the people of the OT. By the time Jesus comes, and the New Testament writers share their message, everything has changed. In order to be current, in order to be relevant, in order to communicate the principles of Universal truths to this generation, God inspires the authors of the New Testament in new ways.
Coincidentally, or perhaps as a result of "Pandora's box" bursting open, a big part of the message that Jesus brings is a promise of an eternal afterlife to all who believe in Him. The question that remains is, “does this mean that the 'life force' of the Old Testament has now graduated to become something more than just animating energy?” Is it even possible to think rationally about an afterlife or a future resurrection without the concept of a human spirit or soul? What does the New Testament teach about an immortal soul?
These are questions that we will take up in our next installment
1. Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion, Alan Segal: Chapter 3 (Loc 2576)