The Nature of Mankind in the New Testament

Roman Pillars in Isreal


With a quick surface reading of the New Testament, it might appear as though the whole cast of characters, Jesus included, have shifted toward a Platonic Dualism belief system, where people have souls that can leave the body in a conscious state and move on to another plane of existence. And yet careful New Testament scholars, who have devoted their life to the study of the people, the times and the writings of the New Testament report back a completely different picture! How can this be?

Getting a handle on what the New Testament teaches on the Nature of mankind is not an easy task. To do it well requires the student to be willing to research the prevailing theories of the day, work with original Greek terms and be careful not to allow later philosophical or theological biases influence their research. To be successful in discovering what the pure words of the New Testament itself teaches, we need to let the New Testament speak for itself and not rely on what Church fathers may have taught some three or three or four hundred years later. We may also have to do our best to suspend our own worldview, or the teachings of our particular faith-tradition, lest we allow some of these ideas influence what we might read back into the New Testament. When searching for pure Biblical truth on any subject we need to be careful not to treat the Bible like a mirror that reflects back what we already believe to be true. Like I said, this might not be easy!

By the time that Jesus arrives on the scene things have changed in the religious teachings of Judaism. No longer were the people without hope of life after death. There was a new belief that had taken hold of the imagination of the people. The great prophet Daniel, who had been taken off in vision many times, had reported this amazing revelation:

“At that time Michael, the great prince who protects your people, will arise. There will be a time of distress such as has not happened from the beginning of nations until then. But at that time your people—everyone whose name is found written in the book—will be delivered.  Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.” Daniel 12: 1, 2

This was good news, and it changed the corporate mentality of the people and the general teachings of their rabbis. As the people returned from Babylonian exile and rebuilt their Temple, they also built on the new-found hope of an afterlife. But even though the nations around them began to believe that this afterlife was made possible through the human soul or spirit, the Jews insisted that the only way one could experience life after death was by having a body, reanimated by God’s power. People would die, their personhood or identities would "rest" or "sleep", and then at the end of the world, when Messiah came to establish the Kingdom, the bodies of the dead would be revived. Because of this re-creation of the body, they would live again. This great event was called the “resurrection”, and it is the view that the early church adopts as its mechanism for how people live again, after death.

New Testament Scholar N.T. Wright has this to say about the players of the New Testament saga,

“What then about the ancient Jewish world? Some Jews agreed with those pagans who denied any kind of future life, especially a re-embodied one. The Sadducees are famous for taking this position. Others agreed with those pagans who thought in terms of a glorious though disembodied future for the soul. Here the obvious example is the philosopher Philo. But most Jews of the day believed in an eventual resurrection—that is, that God would look after the soul after death until, at the last day, God would give his people new bodies when he judged and remade the whole world.”1 (Emphasis mine)

He goes on to say,

“Jesus own teaching during his brief public career simply reinforced the Jewish picture.”2

We will devote a separate essay on what Jesus believed. At the very least it can be said that he did not attempt to contradict the Jewish teaching of the resurrection, and he certainly did not promote Plato’s ideas, as some of today’s Christians might believe. He was resurrected Himself, in part to demonstrate that He had the victory and power over death and that He could give that gift to others.

Joel Green makes this observation about what current scholarship has concluded on the New Testament position,

“Until recently, the view of many theologians would have been that the Old Testament assumes or bears witness to anthropological monism, whereas the New Testament supports a dualist rendering of the human person, body and soul. Biblical scholars who have addressed the question, on the other hand, are almost unanimous in their conclusion that both the Old and the New Testaments assume or testify to an anthropological monism”3

Some might right away be thinking about some of the things that Paul says, and wondering where Green is coming up with this stuff! But really when you think of it, what does Paul teach about how one obtains life after death? Lest any think that Paul has abandoned his education at the "University of Jerusalem" and done a complete reversal on the concept of the afterlife coming through resurrection, and gone over to Plato, a reading of 1 Corinthians 15 and 1 Thessalonians 4 might help clarify things! In spite of a couple of unusual statements of Paul about wanting to "die and be with the Lord", or having some kind of “out of body” experience, Paul stays with the primary teaching of the Jews, that uses the resurrection as the only means to the afterlife. We will take a closer look at Paul soon enough.

Some might ask, but what of all of the references to the “soul”, found in the New Testament? Doesn’t this show that they believed in dualism? On a surface reading this may seem to be true. Some samples of this are:

Matthew 10:28 – "Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell”.
Matthew 16:26 - “What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?"
Matthew 26:41 - "Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak."
Luke 23:46 – “Jesus called out with a loud voice, 'Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.' When he had said this, he breathed his last”

How should we understand these, if the New Testament players were primarily monists?

In any study of Scripture it is important to remember that the Bible was not written in 21’st century English! It comes to us through multiple veils of translation. What do I mean by “multiple veils”? To get to us, the New Testament passes through much more than just a language translation. It also goes through a cultural translation.  Since we did not grow up on the streets of Jerusalem in 30 AD, we are most likely missing a lot of references and allusions to the pop culture of the day. 

However, probably the most significant "veil" that the New Testament passes through on its way to us is the veil of the major philosophical shift in the worldview and belief system of the Christian Church, especially when it has to do with matters of the afterlife, and how one gets there!

Today, the foundational NT teaching of the resurrection is hardly spoken of unless it is Easter Sunday, and only then as a description of what Jesus did, so we could, “go to heaven when we die”! When and how did the church move from a New Testament Resurrection model to a Platonic model for how people live after death? The history of that philosophical shift could fill a volume. In fact volumes have been written and the reader is encouraged to pick up one or two. To state it briefly, this transition took place after the NT authors had laid down their quills.

Our point for this essay is that as careful as translators attempt to be to preserve the original intent of the text, it is almost impossible for them not to bring their own philosophical “baggage” to work! This is seen most particularly, when one Greek word can have multiple meanings. For example, let’s take a look at the Greek word that has been translated by most English translators as soul, psuchē . Readers might recognize the modern English words of “psyche”, or psychology.  This Greek word can also be translated legitimately as “life”, “self”, “breath”, “breath of life”, “the seat of affections”, “the will”, “the person”, and “the individual”.4

Given a choice, what English word would you use if you were a translator, when you did your translation work? If you are like many people, you will most likely choose a word that lines up the best with your own belief system, especially if you think that you might be able to help people get a "true" understanding of what the Bible teaches, (ie, your understanding)

I don’t mean to disparage translators too much! They have given us much! I simply want to point out that if there are a few passages that seem to go against everything else the Bible has to say on a topic, the first thing that you might want to do is look up some Greek tools on the internet and take a look behind the curtain, to see what might be going on. The next time you come across a text that has the word “soul” in it, try plugging in the word, “mind”, or “person” instead, and see if that makes things a little more consistent with the rest of Scripture.

With this in mind let’s take a closer look at Matthew 10:28:

“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell”.

First, I feel compelled to point out that this passage actually makes it clear that Jesus did not believe in Plato’s immortal soul, or any kind of everlasting hell. God can and will bring a complete end, not only to an evil person’s body, but also his "soul", in the final judgment. 

What is the best translation of psuchē in this passage?  Before we decide, it might be pointed out that the concept of psuchē as a reference to the immortal soul comes primarily from late Greek philosophers such as Plato.  The question we should be asking of our translators is: "should we be taking our cue from Greek Philosophy and later church fathers who adopted Plato's views, or, might it be more responsible to carefully consider the primary Jewish concept of monism, that would not permit the concept of Plato's "soul", still believed in Jesus' day?  

These words of Jesus are most likely more authentically translated,

“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the person (who you really are.) Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both your personhood and body in hell”.

While there does seem to be a hint of some kind of allusion to dualism here, it would be difficult to make the case from this text alone that Jesus believed that people have a soul that survives death in a conscious state, waiting somewhere for God’s judgment at the end of time.  Even if Jesus was using psuchē in the Platonic sense, we don't know the conversation that led up to this statement.  We don't know the belief-system of the group of people he was talking to.  We can't catch the possible humor, satire, or irony in the voice of Jesus, or see the twinkle in His eye as He turns a phrase of pop-culture to make a point.

When this passage is taken in its full context, Jesus is basically saying, “don’t be too concerned about people who want to hurt you or persecute you. Even if they kill you, that is still nothing to worry about because they do not have any power over your eternal destiny! Don’t worry about these people. Instead, give your honor, your respect, your love, your obedience your “fear” to the One who really is in charge of the eternal destiny of your person." This was an important teaching for the followers of Jesus to remember in the days that followed His death.  We can imagine that Stephen and others were able to face death with courage, remembering this teaching of Jesus, which really had nothing to do with "souls".

To get a true sense of what Jesus believed and taught on this, we need to weigh this statement carefully with everything else he had to say about the same question.

In future articles we will deal with some of the passages most often used to show that the New Testament authors believed in dualism and going to your immediate reward at death, as well as attempting to get a deeper understanding of what Jesus and Paul believed.

1 Surprised by Hope – N.T. Wright Page 37
2 Surprised by Hope – N.T. Wright Page 37
3 In Search of the Soul: Four Views of the Mind-Body Problem – Joel B. Green Loc 227
4 Strong’s concordance