The Soul and the Afterlife

Christians sometimes hold to the idea that body and soul are separate entities which can survive independently. Of course, body and soul are concepts of the Bible, but the distinct separation and destiny of body and soul, in the way that many people understand, is questionable. Is the soul really an immortal entity that survives the death of the body? There is reason for doubt that this idea is supported by the Bible.[1]

In the Old Testament the Hebrew word for soul is nephesh (also spelled nepes or nehphesh). In the New Testament, the Greek word for soul is psyche (sometimes spelled psukee, psuchay, or psuche). You can look up these words, if you want to take the time, in the online Blue Letter Bible lexicon at Then, go to “Search” in the upper left-hand corner. Then, in the “Lexiconic Search,” for nephesh type in the Strong’s Number which is H5315. For psyche, use Strong’s Number G5590. Or, you can go to these URL’s:

nephesh (Hebrew):


psyche (Greek):


Wikipedia has a short introduction to this here:

Many people argue that the idea of the soul being an eternal entity separate from the body originated from Greek thought, and Christians have borrowed from Greek philosophy and adopted the concept in error. Check the endnotes for some helpful articles on this.[2]

What does the Bible really teach? Of particular interest, about one-third of the uses of soul (nephesh) in the Old Testament are associated with the death of the soul. For examples, see Joshua 10:28; Judges 16:16; Job 7:15; Psalm 33:19; 35:17; 78:50; Isaiah 53:12; Ezekiel 13:19; 18:4, 20, 27. (Note: Nephesh is often translated as something other than “soul” in English. Since you will not always see the word “soul” in these passages, you may have to use an interlinear Bible such as the Blue Letter Bible that shows the Hebrew in order to see that the word nephesh-soul is actually in these passages.) In fact, the word nephesh appears over 750 times in the Old Testament and is subject to death over 200 times.

Many people, by the way, think that only humans have a soul. But in Genesis we see that animals also have a soul. In several places (for example, Genesis 1:21, 24, 30) we see nephesh applied to animals and is usually translated as “living creatures” or as “life.”

Similarly, in the New Testament there are numerous passages in which soul (psyche) means life and can die, be killed, or perish! See Matthew 10:28; 26:38; Acts 3:23; James 5:20, and Revelation 16:3. Psyche (or a derivation)appears over 100 times in the New Testament and is subject to death approximately 30 times. The word “immortal” never appears in the Bible together with “soul.” The analysis of this can become confusing because there are a wide variety of uses for Hebrew and Greek words. But the preponderance of the evidence indicates that soul is not really an entity that lives apart from the body. Rather soul is a term that means life or the essence of life. Thus, the soul is more about what one is rather that what one has.

So, the standard view that an immortal soul is an entity that lives separately or independently from the body—is problematic. But, what does the Bible teach about our heavenly existence? We enter heaven in new glorified bodies (Philippians 3:20-21, or “spiritual bodies” per 1 Corinthians 15), which is the ultimate hope of the believer. You don’t have to have an immortal soul to have eternal life. While Christians debate these things, the best inference is our heavenly bodies are not our earthly bodies that return to dust in the grave. We get new a new body. Jesus said that we will be like angels in heaven (Matthew 22:30).  

We also remember the vision of Moses and Elijah at the Transfiguration (Matthew 17), which helps us conclude that we will have a recognizable body in the resurrection, even though not the same one we had that perishes and returns to dust. Such passages as Job 1;6; 2:1; Matthew 5:12; 22:30; 2 Corinthians 5:8; 1 Peter 1:4; etc. make it clear that the afterlife for believers is in heaven, not on earth.

What is heaven like? Actually, the Bible does not give us much detail.  Heaven is described as a place of rest (Revelation 14:13). It is described as a better existence than on earth in the flesh (2 Corinthians 5:8; Philippians 1:23). It is described as different from earth (Ecclesiastes 5:2; Matthew 5:11-12; 16:19; John 3:13; 6:38; Philippians 2:10; Colossians 1:20; Revelation 10:1; etc.) and the hope of the believer (Matthew 5:12; 1 Corinthians 15:19; Ephesians 1:10; Colossians 1:5; Titus 1:2; Hebrews 6:19-20; 1 Peter 1:4). If one takes the time look up the many passages about heaven, you will certainly be convinced that it is not earth. Rather it is a “place” that is distinct from earth.[3]

Some Christians believe that at death our body and soul are separated until the end of time, then reunited. But, you would be hard-pressed to support that idea in Scripture.

What is hades? Hades was the temporary abode of the dead. It is alluded to in different ways in the Bible. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word is sheol. In the New Testament, it is apparently mentioned in these passages:

  • “Paradise”―In Luke 23:43, Jesus tells the thief on the cross that he will be with Jesus that day in Paradise (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:2-4).

  • “Abraham’s Bosom”―In Luke 16:19-31, in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, Lazarus reclined at Abrahams bosom (or side) in hades.
  • “Prison”―In 1 Peter 3:19, Peter says that Jesus “proclaimed” to the spirits in prison.

Piecing together the information that we are given, it seems that hades had two “regions.” One region was for the faithful, the other was for the damned. Some theologians teach that the “section” of hades where the damned resided until the general resurrection was tartarus (2 Peter 2:5).[4]

Is hades still in existence? Revelation 20 declares that hades was emptied (20:13) and dissolved (20:14). This most likely happened at the end of the Old Covenant Age when God judged Israel in finality in AD 70. There was no longer any reason for hades to remain open. At that time, everyone in hades went to their eternal destination―either heaven for the faithful or Gehenna for the damned. Remember, Revelation is about events that “must shortly take place” soon after it was written (Revelation 1:1-3; 22:6).[5]

 When do believers today go to heaven? One clue is Hebrews 9:27 which says, “Once to die, then judgment.” That suggests, though may not settle the issue, that believers now go to heaven immediately at death. This is consistent with hades being abolished in the distant past. It is also good news!

Some people believe that humans have three components: body, soul, and spirit. Is this biblical? There are a couple of places in the Bible where we see the terms body, soul, and spirit used together, for example 1 Thessalonians 5:23, which reads “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

What about the difference between soul and spirit as used in Scripture? Well, the distinction is muddled somewhat. Consider these uses of “spirit”– In Luke 23:46 Jesus commended his SPIRIT to the father. In 1 Peter 3:19 Jesus “preached to the SPIRITS in prison.” Taking these two passages together, it seems that while Jesus’ body was lying in the tomb, He visited people in hades, apparently in his spiritual body, to announce the good news to other people in spiritual body form.

Are we three-part persons? Passages such as 1 Thessalonians 5:23 would suggest as much: “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus.” But there could be a different interpretation. Here is how the Reformation Study Bible puts it in the annotations:

“Three words are used to emphasize the wholeness of the perfection. ‘Spirit’ and ‘soul’ are used as virtual synonyms in the Bible for the spiritual component of a person. When the terms appear together (in 1 Thessalonians 5:23 and in Hebrews 4:12) it is difficult to find any significant difference in meaning. Compare the fourfold representation of ‘heart,’ ‘soul,’ ‘mind,’ and ‘strength’ in Mark 12:30.”[6]



[1] The passages that are often given to prove that the soul survives the body include: Luke 16:22-26; 23:43; Philippians 1:21-23; 2 Corinthians 5:8; Revelation 6:9-11; 20:4, 14; 21:8. But even John Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) said this: “The immortality of the soul must be firmly rejected as an idea which goes against the grain of biblical thought.” (Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology, Death and Eternal Life, Second Edition (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1988, originally published in German in 1977), page 74.) Ratzinger also stated concerning the duality of soul and body, “. . . the work of Thomas and the Council of Vienne, has conceived this duality in such a way that it is not dualistic but rather brings to light the worth and unity of the human being as a whole.” (Ibid, page 159)

[2] Here’s a smattering of articles I found on the Internet:





[3] For the biblical foundation of heaven, see: Nehemiah 9:6; Job 19:26; Psalm 23:6; 33:13-14; 49:14-15; 89:5; 103:4; Daniel 12:1-2; Matthew 5:8, 12; 6:9, 19-20; 8:11; 18:10; 22:30; Mark 12:25; 16:19; Luke 6:23; 23:43; John 1:32; 3:13-16; 6:38; 11:24-26; 14:1-6; 17:24; Acts 23:6-8; Romans 8:11; 1 Corinthians 2:9; 13:12; 15:12-20, 35-54; 2 Corinthians 4:14-18; 5:1-10; Ephesians 1:20; 4:10; Philippians 1:19-23; 3:10-14; Colossians 1:5, 20; 3:2; 1 Thessalonians 4:14-16; 5:8-11; 2 Timothy 4:18; Titus 1:2; 3:7; Hebrews 8:1; 9:24; 11:13-16; 1 Peter 1:3-9; 22; Revelation 3:21; 11:12; 14:1-13; 19:1-9; 22:8-9.


[5] See my article on the General Resurrection here:

 [6] The Reformation Study Bible (Lake Mary, Florida: Ligonier Ministries, 2005), page 1743.

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