What The Bible Really Says About The Soul

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This is a response to Matt DeStefano’s post, “The Bible Says The Soul Is Not Immaterial.” The Bible does not say—anywhere—that the soul is not immaterial. Before we get too far into this, I want to say where I think DeStefano gets it right:

This view of the soul has ramifications when discussing the afterlife. Heaven becomes a physical resurrection by which our bodies are continually existing.

Well, partly right. I agree that the Bible implies a physical resurrection, but on a new Earth, not Heaven. I cite the pertinent verses for my position in the link, so I won’t go over them again here.

Of the belief that humans have a soul or spirit that can exist apart from the body, DeStefano writes:

This belief is in stark contrast with what the Bible actually teaches.

Is that true? If so, one would expect DeStefano to provide exegesis showing what the Bible actually teaches–right? Well, if that’s what you’re expecting, you’ll be disappointed. DeStefano doesn’t offer any original exegesis to support his claim. He simply points the reader to a few comments made by others, only one of whom actually references the Bible. First, Avery-Peck’s commentary in The Encyclopedia of Judaism:

Even as we are conscious of the broad and very common biblical usage of the term “soul,” we must be clear that Scripture does not present even a rudimentarily developed theology of the soul. The creation narrative is clear that all life originates with God. Yet the Hebrew Scripture offers no specific understanding of the origin of individual souls, of when and how they become attached to specific bodies, or of their potential existence, apart from the body, after death. The reason for this is that, as we noted at the beginning, the Hebrew Bible does not present a theory of the soul developed much beyond the simple concept of a force associated with respiration, hence, a life-force.

…then, Wendell Berry’s Christianity and the Survival of Creation:

The formula given in Genesis 2:7 is not man equals body plus soul; the formula there is soul equals dust plus breath. According to this verse, God did not make a body and put a soul into it, like a letter into an envelope. He formed man of dust; then, by breathing His breath into it, He made the dust live. The dust, formed as man and made to live, did not embody a soul, it became a soul-that is, a whole creature. Humanity is thus presented to us, in Adam, not as a creature of two discrete parts temporarily glued together but as a single mystery.

Of course, we can see that DeStefano only alludes to one single Bible verse in all of this: Genesis 2:7. His post should have been titled, “Avery-Peck and Wendell Berry Say The Bible Says The Soul Is Not Immaterial.” Should we rely on third-party opinion of a single proof text? What does the rest of the Bible say about this matter? Quite a bit, actually. It bothers me that DeStefano didn’t dedicate even a single word to the idea of spirit as delineated in the Bible. As I explain here, the Bible seems to teach that man is a tripartite being composed of body, soul and spirit. Soul is not treated as equivalent to spirit in the Bible, so to focus only on the word soul [nepesh] is to completely omit a very important part of the discussion. Such scant treatment of a complex issue is certainly ground for skepticism, in my book. Aside from that, many questions remain. Here’s Paul, in 2 Corinthians 12:1-5:

Boasting is necessary, though it is not profitable; but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago—whether in the body I do not know, or out of the body I do not know, God knows—such a man was caught up to the third heaven. And I know how such a man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, God knows—was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which a man is not permitted to speak.

Very clearly, Paul expresses agnosticism here. Specifically, he expresses agnosticism about whether this man was “in the body” or “out of the body” at the time of the alleged visions. If we were to go off this verse alone, we’d be forced to conclude that the Bible neither denies nor endorses the concept. Further, if Paul was under the impression that being “out of the body” is impossible, why would he express agnosticism regarding this particular vision? Why would he even entertain the possibility? Matthew 10:28 also provides some insight:

And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

Matthew seems to allude to the idea that the body can be destroyed, while the soul cannot [except by God of course]. In another direction, what was the writer talking about in I Peter 3:18-20, when mentioning the “spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built?” Or, what of Saul and the witch of Endor? Clearly, the Bible teaches that consciousness can exist without a physical body. There are seemingly only two options here: either the witch really did bring up Samuel’s spirit, or some other spirit impersonated Samuel–perhaps something like a demon. I’m more favorable to the latter, especially because Luke 16:26 seems to state that nobody can get out of Sheol once they die. Of course, this verse is not proof that humans have “immaterial souls,” either. We need to be careful, but either way, the Bible seems to teach that consciousness does not require a body.

So, why is DeStefano so sure, and that on only a single verse mentioned? Why doesn’t DeStefano even attempt an examination of these concepts throughout the entire Bible? Let the buyer beware!


  1. Hey CL, thanks for taking the time to respond. I went ahead and responded to your response. (A lot of responding is occurring!)

  2. Rufus


    This is complicated by the fact that there was a belief in “spiritual matter” in antiquity. The Manichees, for instance, argued that soul is made up of a very diffuse “ether-like” matter. Augustine, throughout his conversion process, noted that materialism was the biggest stumbling block for his acceptance of Christianity. This is a bit odd since many Christians at the time were materialists. However, Augustine’s main issue with materialism and Christianity had to do with the incarnation. It was through his encounter with the Milanese Neo-Platonic Christians, like Ambrose, that Augustine was able to find an answer to this problem. After this, Christianity became more closely tied to Platonism and dualism.

    So one avenue to explore is why Augustine thought the Incarnation would be problematic given materialism. If Augustine is right, then the Bible does entail the immateriality of the soul even if it does not explicitly state it. This would be like the doctrine of the Trinity, which is entailed by what is said in scripture, though the word “Trinity” is not found there.

    It may be that Augustine’s arguments only prove the immateriality of God. But if Jesus is fully man and fully God, then would he have an immaterial spirit and also a material soul? When Jesus died and descended to Hell, prior to his resurrection, was he in no way human at that point? Some difficult questions!

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