Jesus on hell (2): a diversion on the soul

Before going on to look at some more sayings where Jesus spoke of hell, I feel I should write some more about the sayings mentioned in my previous post, specifically what Jesus meant by soul when he spoke of “body and soul”. It would be easy to conclude that Jesus had a dualistic view of human nature, namely that the human being is made up of two principal parts, the physical body and an immaterial soul. This would certainly be a common Greek way of thinking, and seeing that the Gospels as we have them are written in Greek and use the terms σῶμα sōma (body) and ψυχή psychē (soul) which are frequently used in Greek discussions about a dual nature we could be excused for assuming that Jesus was using these terms in the same way. Interestingly, however, Luke’s account doesn’t use these terms at all: he has Jesus saying “fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into Gehenna” (Luke 12:5), without any mention of a soul or any hint of a dual nature.

The Gospels as we have them are written in Greek, and Jesus almost certainly knew some Greek, but it’s equally certain that Jesus’ native language was either Hebrew or Aramaic and that he taught primarily in one or both of these languages rather than Greek. So if he referred to a soul we can be confident that it would have been in the Hebrew sense of the word, and the word which is most frequently translated as ‘soul’ in the Hebrew Bible is נֶפֶשׁ nephesh. The first time it appears in the Bible is in the story of the creation of the first human being: “then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” The word translated here (in the NRSV) as being is the Hebrew word נֶפֶשׁ nephesh which several translations (such as the KJV) give as soul. In this story the breath of life is breathed into a lifeless body and it becomes a living nephesh. It does not have a nephesh. The nephesh is not what is breathed into the body. The human being became a nephesh.

In Hebraic thinking and usage a living human being is a nephesh – the nephesh is not a seperate part of a dual nature made up of body and soul. In the Hebrew Bible the nephesh is said to become hungry (Proverbs 10:3; 27:7; Isaiah 29:8), and thirsty (Proverbs 25:25), expressions which in Greek thinking would apply to the body but not to the soul. Consequently the word most often simply means a human being, rather than an immaterial part of that being, and as such the nephesh can die. For example, when Ezekiel was discussing the issue of whether children can be punished for the sons of their fathers he wrote: “The person (Heb. נֶפֶשׁ nephesh) who sins shall die. A child shall not suffer for the iniquity of a parent, nor a parent suffer for the iniquity of a child” (Ezekiel 18:20). The King James Version translates nephesh here as soul: “The soul that sinneth, it shall die”, making it quite clear that Hebrew speakers did not think of the nephesh in the same way that Greeks thought of the psychēas an immaterial and immortal part of the human being. Priests were even instructed not to come near a נֶפֶשׁ מֵת a dead nephesh (Numbers 6:6 – most English translations have ‘a dead body’ as ‘a dead soul’ would sound too strange).

In Hebrew, souls die!

So, when Jesus spoke of ‘souls’ being destroyed in Gehenna there would be nothing unusual in this for his Hebrew or Aramaic speaking audience. His expression “body and soul” would not have implied to them that he was making a distinction between two parts of a dual nature, but rather as an emphasis on killing not only the body but the entire person including their name and reputation.

3 comments on “Jesus on hell (2): a diversion on the soul

  1. Peace says:

    Thanks Steve for writing on this important and sometimes controversial subject!In Ecclesiastes chapter 12,verse 7, we read”Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was; and the SPIRIT shall RETURN UNTO GOD who gave it.” I was wondering if you could please explain the best way to interpret this passage in relation to the concept of the soul…

    • Stephen Cook says:

      Thanks for the question, but I personally think that Ecclesiastes (or Qoheleth) is one of the most difficult books in the Bible, more difficult than Job or The Revelation! (well, ok, maybe not Revelation). In fact, one well known commentator on Ecclesiastes wrote: “Qoheleth 12:1-8 is the most difficult passage in a difficult book” (Michael V. Fox, Qoheleth and His Contradictions, Decatur: The Almond Press 1989).

      Throughout the book the writer doesn’t appear to show any awareness of a life beyond death. For him death is the end and one’s “eternal home” (12:5) is the grave, or sheol, not heaven. His message is one of enjoying life before we grow old and die. The language of verse 7 alludes very strongly to Genesis 2:7 where God breathed into Adam the breath of life and he became a living soul (nephesh). In the Ecclesiastes text there is a reversal of creation: the Spirit (Hebrew ruach, meaning wind or spirit, perhaps referring to the ‘wind’ which was the means of God ‘breathing’ into Adam) goes back to God and the body goes back to dust. The ‘spirit’ or ‘wind’ returning to God who gave it is not alluding to some kind of existence with God after death, but simply returning to a previous situation, a reversal of creation (or birth).

  2. Peace says:

    I agree, Ecclesiastes can be a difficulty book and even sometimes appearing contradictory!Your comment has certainly helped clarify the language used in chapter 12:v.1-8.Thanks for the reply:)

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