Chapter 2

Have you an immortal soul?

One of the most popular broadcasts at Christmas is the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College Chapel at Cambridge, UK. The Dean’s prayer at the commencement includes the following: Lastly let us remember before God all those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore and in a greater light.1 This highlights the universal belief that at death an immaterial essence residing in people, usually termed the “soul”, leaves the body and continues a conscious existence elsewhere. This belief has been so ingrained into Christian thought over nearly 2000 years that it is regarded as an absolutely basic doctrine.

But what would you say if I told you that it is not taught in the Bible? True, the word “soul” appears often, but never, repeat never, the words “immortal soul”.

Don’t be misled by this word “soul”. In the original language in which the Bible was written it simply means something that is alive. It is applied to animals as well as humans. We often use the word in everyday speech to describe the actual person rather than some immaterial essence. When terrified passengers on a sinking ship sent out the distress call SOS, “save our souls”, they were calling for a lifeboat, not the saving offices of a clergyman.

Sometimes in the Bible the word “soul” is also used to denote some activities of living things, such as thoughts or feelings — but all these activities cease when the living creature dies. The Bible is adamant that existence and thought ceases at death.

Think on these passages:

Note that these references contain the key to the Bible’s teaching about life after death. Only after the resurrection, will eternal life be granted to those who at Christ’s judgement seat are deemed faithful.

The fact that Christians will appear at some sort of tribunal to be either rewarded or punished is consistent Bible teaching. Here is just a selection:

This makes sense of an otherwise illogical situation. If a Christian’s reward is immediate on his death, why is he later resurrected, then judged to see if he or she ought to have received that reward?

If you have any doubts about people possessing immortal souls I would like to give you the words of William Tyndale. He was the sixteenth-century translator of the Bible into English, so he ought to have known just what it contained. He said, when debating with a Roman priest in 1535: “Ye, in putting departed souls in heaven, hell, and purgatory, destroy the arguments wherewith Christ and Paul prove the resurrection… If the dead are already in a blissful paradise, why must there yet be a resurrection?”

John Wesley, the famous founder of the Methodist Church, had the same view: “It is indeed generally supposed that the souls of good men as soon as dislodged from the body, go directly to heaven, but this opinion has not the least foundation in the oracles of God… We are in good company when we stand firmly upon the Bible truth that man is a mortal creature, who sleeps in death, and whose only hope for conscious existence after death is in resurrection to immortality when Jesus comes again.”

Where did the idea of an immortal soul originate?

If it is not found in the Bible from where did the idea of an immortal soul come? The concept of the soul’s supposed immortality was taught in ancient Egypt and Babylon. It was developed further by Greek philosophers in the fifth and fourth centuries BC, especially by Plato. In the years between the Old and New Testaments, the Jews, despite the teaching of their sacred book the Bible, readily accepted it. As one authority says: The belief in the immortality of the soul came to the Jews from contact with Greek thought and chiefly through the philosophy of Plato, its principal exponent.10 Christ’s parable of the rich man and Lazarus was directed against the Jewish leaders of his day who had accepted this non-scriptural belief.11

Early Christianity was also influenced and corrupted by the same Greek philosophies and by AD 200 the doctrine of the immortality of the soul became adopted by Christian believers. Origen (185—253), regarded as one of the early church fathers, strongly advocated the doctrine, having himself been influenced by these Greek thinkers.12 Later, Augustine (354—430) taught that death meant the destruction of the body, but the conscious soul would continue to live in either a blissful state with God or an agonising state of separation from God.

This belief soon became widespread, and in 1513, at the fifth Lateran Council, Pope Leo X pronounced the doctrine of the immortality of the soul to be a fundamental Christian doctrine. He then issued a Papal Bull13 that condemned all who would deny the individual immortality of the human soul or suggest doubts on these matters. Incidentally, it was this Bull that provoked the response by William Tyndale quoted earlier.

And this error is still taught. In the current Church of England “Order of service for the burial of the dead” a prayer is recommended which commences: Almighty God, with whom do live the spirits of them that depart hence in the Lord, and with whom the souls of the faithful, after they are delivered from the burden of the flesh, are in joy and felicity.14

What is your reaction to all this? Do you, as a Christian, pin your hope for the future on something that was not taught by your leader and is not found in God’s inspired Word? Do you realise that in believing in an immortal soul you are not following Christ, but merely the human reasoning of ancient pagan nations and some old Greek philosophers?

If you dispute the foregoing conclusions you can check their validity by accessing “immortal soul” in any Internet search engine.

In fact, the belief that humans have an immortal soul is the cardinal error of almost all the world’s religions, not only Christianity. As such, it even has political ramifications, for do not many terrorists fervently believe that their murderous actions gain for them immediate access to heaven? But in this book we are addressing Christians, and saying that by their acceptance of this fundamental error many other wrong doctrines have been built, such as hell torments and heaven-going, which we will consider next.

Accepting overall Bible teaching

At this point it is worth making the general comment that if one comes to the Bible with preconceived ideas it is sometimes possible to find a few verses that appear to support them. But that is entirely different from coming to the Bible with an open mind to learn what it really teaches. An example is the one mentioned earlier — Christ’s parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Superficially, this suggests that both these characters had a continued existence after death. But in fact Jesus was not defining the state of the dead but using the wrong beliefs of the Jewish leaders to make a telling point concerning his resurrection. Ambiguous passages or those with abstract meanings must never be used to disagree with straightforward Bible statements. I will often refer to this point in later pages.