What are human beings? Are we made of a mortal body plus an immortal soul that leaves the body at death? Or are we an indivisible whole, all of which perishes at death and is brought to life again at the resurrection? This article explores what the Bible teaches about human nature at Creation, after the Fall, and after Redemption.
Genesis 1:26, 27 tells us that when God created Adam and Eve, He said, “Let us make mankind in our image.” What is this image of God? Some contend that it is an immaterial soul implanted in the human body. The New Testament speaks of Christians being conformed to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29; 1 Corinthians 15:49). Some people say that since God is immortal, we, too, must be immortal, since we were made in His image. However, God is also all knowing, all-powerful, and everywhere present, but we would not say that we humans have these qualities. An image is always less than the person or thing it represents.
Our being made in the image of God means that we have rational minds that can understand technical concepts, especially moral issues. The image of God that we received at Creation is not an immortal “soul.” It is our reflection of God’s moral character.
Genesis has another biblical statement important to understanding human nature at Creation. “God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7, KJV).
Many Bible students have assumed that the “breath of life” was an immaterial, immortal soul that God placed in Adam and Eve when He created them. They interpret the phrase “man became a living soul” to mean “man obtained a living soul.” However, the breath of life that God breathed into Adam’s nostrils was not an immortal soul; it was God’s life-giving Spirit. Job 33:4 says, “The Spirit of God has made me; the breath of the Almighty gives me life.” The parallelism between the “Spirit of God” and the “breath of the Almighty” suggests that the two phrases are used interchangeably and that both refer to the gift of life God imparts to His creatures.
A person who no longer breathes is dead. Job said, “As long as my breath is in me, and the spirit of God is in my nostrils; my lips will not speak falsehood” (Job 27:3, 4, RSV).1 Here the human “breath” and the divine “spirit” are equated, because breathing is seen as a manifestation of the sustaining power of God’s Spirit.
Possession of the breath of life does not in itself confer immortality, because at death this breath returns to God. Ecclesiastes 12:7 expresses this truth: “The dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit [or breath] returns to God who gave it.”
This spirit, or breath, is not an immortal spirit or soul that God confers on His creatures. Rather, it is the gift of life that human beings possess for the duration of their earthly existence. As long as the “breath of life” remains in them, human beings are “living souls.” But when the breath departs, they become dead souls. This explains why the Bible sometimes refers to human death as the death of the soul (see Ezekiel 18:4, 20, KJV).
Most Bible scholars recognize that the “soul” (Hebrew nephesh) in Genesis 2:7 is not an immortal essence implanted in the body but is the life that God placed in the body. For instance, commenting on this verse in his book The Biblical Meaning of Man, Catholic scholar Dom Wulstan Mork said, “It is nephesh [soul] that gives life to the bashar [body], but not as a distinct substance. Adam does not have nephesh [soul]; he is nephesh [soul], just as he is bashar [body]. The body, far from being divided from its animating principle, is the visible nephesh [soul].”
A most compelling proof that the words living soul in Genesis 2:7 do not mean “immortal soul” is the Bible’s use of the same two words to describe the creation of animals (Genesis 1:20, 21, 24, 30). This is not apparent in most English translations, because the Hebrew words for “living soul” in Genesis 2:7 (nephesh hayyah) are translated “living creatures” when they refer to the creation of animals. In his article “Justice and Immortality,” published in the Scottish Journal of Theology, Norman Snaith says the failure to translate nephesh hayyah the same way, whether the words refer to humans or animals, is “most reprehensible,” because “the Hebrew phrase should be translated exactly the same way in both cases. To do otherwise is to mislead all those who do not read Hebrew.” The distinction between human beings and animals is not that humans have an immortal soul. Rather, it’s in the fact that humans were created in God’s image—that is, with godlike mental and moral possibilities that are unavailable to animals.
After the Fall
The Fall did not change our human nature, but it did change us from a state in which it was possible for us to live forever to a state in which it was inevitable that we would die. Prior to the Fall, Adam and Eve had the assurance of immortality because they had access to the tree of life, not because they possessed immortal souls. After the Fall, they no longer had access to the tree of life (Genesis 3:22, 23). Consequently, they began to experience the dying process.
The warning God gave Adam and Eve shows a clear connection between life and obedience on the one hand and death and disobedience on the other (see Genesis 2:17). Disobedience resulted in death, not just for the body, but for the whole person. God did not say, “In the day that you eat of it your body shall die but your soul will survive in a disembodied state.” Rather He said, “You”—that is, your whole person—“shall die.”
This is a fundamental teaching of the Bible. The wages of sin is death, not just for the body, but for the whole person (Romans 6:23). “The soul who sins shall die” (Ezekiel 18:4, NKJV).2 The death of the body is linked to the death of the soul because the body is the visible form of the soul.
Jesus didn’t come to liberate our souls from our bodies. He came to provide (1) the spiritual regeneration of the whole person in this present life and (2) the physical resurrection of the whole person in the world to come.
Spiritual regeneration. Paul attributed vital importance to the role of the Spirit in the new life of the believer (2 Corinthians 5:17). This is indicated by the fact that in his letters he referred to the “spirit” 146 times and, by contrast, referred to the “soul” (Greek: psyche) only thirteen times. Furthermore, Paul never used the word “soul” (psyche) to denote life that survives death. On the contrary, he used a phrase that means “soulish body” to describe the physical body that will be changed into a spiritual body at the resurrection.
Physical resurrection. The ultimate transformation of the human nature will be realized on the glorious day of Christ’s coming, when “this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality” (1 Corinthians 15:54). Paul reassured believers that “the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead . . . will also give life to your mortal bodies” (Romans 8:11). It is evident that immortality is not a natural endowment of the soul, but a divine gift that mortal bodies will receive at the resurrection.
Paul didn’t mention the soul in 1 Corinthians 15, the only chapter in the Bible entirely devoted to the resurrection of believers. If the resurrection does involve the reattachment of the soul to the body, it surely is strange that Paul failed to mention it even once in this chapter.
This brief survey has shown that the biblical view of human nature is wholistic, consisting of an indivisible person in whom the “soul” is the animating principle of the body. At Creation the whole human nature was conditionally immortal. The Fall made the whole human nature become unconditionally mortal. But in redemption, God has provided a way for the whole human nature to be morally renewed in this present life and physically restored in the world to come. This is God’s glorious plan for us.