The Revelation: Riddles and Enigmas (“Souls”)

lion-dove-lamb-yeshuaThe Revelation has 22 chapters, and each verse is packed with allusions not only to the OT but also the apocryphal literature and perhaps even Greek materials. And there are plenty of excellent commentaries that cover this ground.

Therefore, to avoid over-taxing the patience of the readers, I’m going to hit the high points of the remaining chapters, until we get to the very end of it all. We’ll linger a bit over the last two chapters.

But I figure there are a number of particular images that merit pondering in greater depth. There are certain passages, such as the Thousand-Year Reign, that have captured the church’s imagination over the years.

I don’t claim any special insight, but hopefully, like you, I’m curious. What do these things mean?

“Souls”

The Revelation has a handful of references to “souls” in heaven —

(Rev. 6:9 ESV) When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne.

(Rev. 8:9 ESV) A third of the living creatures [souls] in the sea died, and a third of the ships were destroyed.

(Rev. 12:11 ESV) And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives [souls] even unto death.

(Rev. 16:3 ESV)  3 The second angel poured out his bowl into the sea, and it became like the blood of a corpse, and every living thing [soul] died that was in the sea.

(Rev. 18:11-13 ESV)  11 And the merchants of the earth weep and mourn for her, since no one buys their cargo anymore,  12 cargo of gold, silver, jewels, pearls, fine linen, purple cloth, silk, scarlet cloth, all kinds of scented wood, all kinds of articles of ivory, all kinds of articles of costly wood, bronze, iron and marble,  13 cinnamon, spice, incense, myrrh, frankincense, wine, oil, fine flour, wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots, and slaves, that is, human souls.

(Rev. 18:14 ESV)  14 “The fruit for which your soul longed has gone from you, and all your delicacies and your splendors are lost to you, never to be found again!”

(Rev. 20:4 ESV)  4 Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.

The Greek word sometimes translated “soul” is psychē (or psuchē). In the Septuagint, psychē translates the Hebrew nephesh. The NT use of psychē is always colored by the OT usage of nephesh.

Now, we desperately want to read “soul” the way it’s used in popular English speech — to refer to the eternal part of the human that survives death. This is a very Platonic concept, and there are verses where it might fit, but lots of verses where it clearly doesn’t fit at all.

For example, in Rev 8:9 and 16:3, “souls” refers to sea creatures — not even people — and to their mortal existence. This would not surprise a scholar of Gen 1. After all, in the LXX we find —

(Gen. 1:20 ESV) And God said, “Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures [souls], and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the heavens.”

(Gen. 1:21 ESV) So God created the great sea creatures and every living creature [soul]  that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.

(Gen. 1:24 ESV) And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures [souls] according to their kinds– livestock and creeping things and beasts of the earth according to their kinds.” And it was so.

John is taking his vocabulary from Gen 1 — where “soul” refers to sea creatures and land animals — and has nothing to do with eternal existence.

In Rev 12:11, “soul” means mortal life — the life one gives up when he dies.

In Rev 18:13, “soul” refers to slaves, that is, human life in captivity.

In Rev 18:14, “soul” refers to the inward man prior to death.

Thus, only Rev 6:9 and 20:4 sound like the immortal part of a human. And both passages speak of martyrs for Jesus — Christians who gave their lives. And yet Rev 12:11 also refers to martyrs —

That John has the martyrs in mind is clear from the words they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death.

Leon Morris, Revelation: An Introduction and Commentary (Tyndale NTC 20; IVP/Accordance electronic ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1987), 158.

And so, with respect to martyrs, their “souls” in 12:11 is simply their lives. And this makes better sense of Rev 6:9, which speaks of the martyrs’ “souls” being under the altar of heaven. In the Temple, the blood of the sacrifice was poured under the altar — and the Torah says — over and over — that the “life” is in the blood.

In fact, there’s wordplay in the Hebrew and Greek making this very point —

(Lev. 17:11 ESV) For the life [soul] of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life [soul].

Therefore, the better translation in Rev 6:9 and 20:4 is “life” rather than “soul,” because the point John is making is that the martyrs’ have given up their lives in the form of shed blood, the life is in the blood, and so their blood/lives are now underneath the altar as a sacrifice, but a sacrifice which cries out for God’s justice. It’s just that when the Bible speaks of there being “life” in the blood, the Greek word is psychē  and the Hebrew is nephesh — because these words don’t refer to the eternal part of our being.

This translation better fits the Torah passages alluded to as well as NT theology that, contrary to Greek thought, does not image a “soul” being in heaven after we die. Rather, the biblical concept is that we’ll have resurrected bodies — just like the body of Jesus. Jesus’ resurrected body was very different from an ordinary human body, but it was a body. After all, it was Jesus’ body that left the tomb. His soul didn’t fly off to heaven while he body remained in the grave.

In further support of this view, consider —

(1 Cor. 15:42-46 ESV)  42 So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable.  43 It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power.  44 It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.  45 Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.  46 But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual. 

This is not badly translated at all, but the translation hides the meaning of “soul.” Let’s try it with Greek subtitles —

(1 Cor. 15:42-46 ESV)  42 So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable.  43 It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power.  44 It is sown a natural [psychikos = soul-ish] body; it is raised a spiritual [pneumatikos = spirit-ish] body. If there is a natural [psychikos = soul-ish] body, there is also a spiritual body.  45 Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being [psychē = soul]”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit [pneuma = spirit].  46 But it is not the spiritual [pneumatikos = spirit-ish] that is first but the natural [psychikos = soul-ish], and then the spiritual [pneumatikos = spirit-ish]

When Paul needs to reach for a word that means “natural” or “mortal,” he grabs psychē, that is, “soul.” Our bodies are, first, natural/soul-ish/psychikos. But for the saved, after we die, we experience the resurrection, and our bodies are no longer natural/soul-ish/psychikos but rather they become supernatural/spirit-ish/pneumatikos.

Paul could not be plainer that “soul” in the NT vocabulary refers to the mortal portion of our existence.

Therefore, the “souls” John see beneath the altar are the lives of the martyrs — their natural lives sacrificed for the sake of Jesus — crying out for vengeance so that the resurrection may take place.

Or to put it another way: yes, it’s their souls, but “souls” refers to their natural lives, not to their immortal lives. What is preserved is not their immortal essence but the sacrifices they made. They gave their very lives, represented as blood poured out under the altar, which cries out as does the blood of Abel —

(Gen. 4:10 ESV) And the LORD said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.”

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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16 Responses to The Revelation: Riddles and Enigmas (“Souls”)

  1. Jeff Hennen says:

    Excellent post! One of your best ever. For the purposes of the vision, after the fifth seal was opened, John saw some imagery of lives that were lost.–Not “disembodied spirits”.

  2. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Jeff,

    Thanks. 🙂

  3. Dan Harris says:

    Jay; Not to be too contrarian but if the souls under the altar were simply the lives of murdered martyrs, then how could they be around anymore to loll about under the alter. John said he saw souls, not blood stains.Yes, souls means life. But a man’s soul is not the same as an animal’s soul. Hence Luke 12:5 and Matthew 10:28, “fear him who can destroy BOTH body and soul in hell.” ….just Hebraic poetic language? or does “both” mean “both” in contrast to ‘why fear a man who can only kill the body and not the soul.’

    Just because Plato believed in a separate soul from the body does not make it wrong.

    And, I haven’t heard or seen anyone address the most Gothic of defenses for a body and a separate soul. That is (don’t laugh) that some have actually seen the disembodied ghosts (souls?) of the departed. I must admit I have never seen such that I know of, but I do talk to people fairly regularly who have seen such and in ways that seem as inexplicable as they are obvious as something that is outside of the norm of what can be explained rationally. People have seen “ghosts” for thousands of years. Perhaps many of the people who saw such things were a bit odd, but all of them???

    If body and soul are inseparable, God would have no need of hell. Those dying outside of grace would simply be dead never to be heard from again. Or if they were raised for judgement, they could be dispatched rather handily with a bullet or arrow. But instead they are to be utterly destroyed in an eternal hell that consumes every essence of them. Perhaps when God creates a soul, it is not such an easy thing to annihilate, unlike the body which can be destroyed by a few microbes unseen to the human eye.

    Dan

  4. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Dan asked,

    Hence Luke 12:5 and Matthew 10:28, “fear him who can destroy BOTH body and soul in hell.” ….just Hebraic poetic language? or does “both” mean “both” in contrast to ‘why fear a man who can only kill the body and not the soul.’

    Well, if you take a conditionalist perspective, then you expect God to destroy both body and soul in gehenna. As they are inseparable elements of the same person, the fact that God destroys both affirms their unity. The traditional view would be that God destroys the body and preserves the soul to torture it for eternity.

    Psychē, here translated soul, also means ‘life’. The intention is not to separate man into two parts, ‘body’ and ‘soul’, but to point out that there is more to man than his animal existence; men may terminate that, but they cannot touch his real self. But God, who made them, can also destroy both soul and body in hell (gehenna: see on 5:22). ‘Soul’ and ‘body’ are again not two separable parts of man; each one alone, and both together, can be used to indicate the whole person. The emphasis here is on the total and final destruction in hell, as opposed to the limited nature of merely physical death. Destroy (apolesai) carries the connotation of ‘loss’ and ‘ruin’ as well as of literal destruction, so that the expression does not necessarily, though it may, imply a view of the annihilation of the impenitent as opposed to eternal punishment.47 Compared with the fate which awaits the disobedient and apostate, martyrdom is a far less fearful prospect.

    R. T. France, Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary (Tyndale NTC 1; IVP/Accordance electronic ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 190.

    It could be argued that Matthew’s version of the saying betokens some kind of anthropological dualism in which the soul survives the body’s death to face a further fatal challenge in another place; though it’s strange, if this is meant, that Jesus speaks of the one who can destroy soul and body in Gehenna. And I note that in the Lukan version of the saying, Luke 12:4–5, the word psychē is missing from the whole passage. Luke simply has, ‘Don’t fear those who can kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. I will show you who to fear: fear the one who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into Gehenna.’ Perhaps Luke knew that the word psychē at that point would send his Hellenistic audience in the wrong direction

    N. T. Wright, Pauline Perspectives: Essays on Paul, 1978–2013, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2013), 464.

    The ultimacy of death is relativized by the image of a more fearful ‘death’ experience. Talk of killing ‘the body’ already implies that there is more to a person than the body, but the presence of the body again in the post-death state warns against a division along the lines of mortal body and immortal soul. On ψυχή more generally see the comments at 6:25. There is no better word with which to render it with here than ‘soul’, but it means more the essential person than an ontologically separable component of a person. Matthew’s point is not that the soul is deathless, but that only God has power over it.93 Death is a dreadful reversal, but not the most extreme one possible. Fear of God is to displace fear of death-dealing persecutors. The stakes are higher with God.

    ‘Destroy’ replaces ‘kill’ as more appropriate for the post-death situation contemplated here. ‘Destroy’ would naturally imply annihilation. While there are no Matthean texts incompatible with such an understanding, there is probably some early Jewish tradition of perpetual punishment,95 and some biblical texts are naturally read this way.

    ‘Soul and body’ provide a comprehensive designation for all that makes up a person. On the word ‘Gehenna’ used of the place of punitive judgment see the discussion at 5:22. Matthew will have understood that one comes to this situation of judgment via resurrection (see 22:23–33).

    Nolland John, The Gospel of Matthew: a Commentary on the Greek Text, (NIGNTC 2005), 436–437.

    That’s a pretty impressive list of scholars and commentaries.

  5. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Dan, in a Gothic mood, wrote,

    And, I haven’t heard or seen anyone address the most Gothic of defenses for a body and a separate soul. That is (don’t laugh) that some have actually seen the disembodied ghosts (souls?) of the departed. I must admit I have never seen such that I know of, but I do talk to people fairly regularly who have seen such and in ways that seem as inexplicable as they are obvious as something that is outside of the norm of what can be explained rationally. People have seen “ghosts” for thousands of years. Perhaps many of the people who saw such things were a bit odd, but all of them???

    “Ghost” is from Geist, being the German for “spirit.” (Remember Dickens’ Christmas Carol where the ghosts are sometimes referred as “spirit”). https://www.google.com/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&ion=1&espv=2&ie=UTF-8#q=etymology%20ghost This is, of course, the reason for the Jacobean English term “Holy Ghost” to mean “Holy Spirit.” Compare “poltergeist.”

    NT Wright in the Resurrection of the Son of God deals with First Century Jewish folklore regarding the deceased. They sometimes thought they saw the deceased as an “angel” — Acts 12:15 being an example — as well as countless Warner Brother cartoons.

    And there’s —

    (Matt. 14:26 ESV) But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, “It is a ghost!” and they cried out in fear.

    “Ghost” translates phantasma. This is the Greek word for ghost — the apparition of a dead person. They didn’t use “soul” this possibility.

    So, no, I’m not sold that what people see of their deceased loved ones is the “soul” as the Bible uses the word. There’s no support for such a usage in the scriptures. “Vision” or “apparition” perhaps. I don’t believe in souls trapped between the here and the hereafter. The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus seems to deny this possibility – but whatever these things are, none is a psyche.

    It’s not impossible in Christian teaching, as the Transfiguration shows. But Moses and Elijah came back embodied but with glorious bodies — which is interesting.

    Now, going even further back, we have the really odd story of Samuel’s “ghost” —

    (1 Sam. 28:10-21 ESV) 10 But Saul swore to her by the LORD, “As the LORD lives, no punishment shall come upon you for this thing.” 11 Then the woman said, “Whom shall I bring up for you?” He said, “Bring up Samuel for me.” 12 When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out with a loud voice. And the woman said to Saul, “Why have you deceived me? You are Saul.” 13 The king said to her, “Do not be afraid. What do you see?” And the woman said to Saul, “I see a god coming up out of the earth.” 14 He said to her, “What is his appearance?” And she said, “An old man is coming up, and he is wrapped in a robe.” And Saul knew that it was Samuel, and he bowed with his face to the ground and paid homage. 15 Then Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?” Saul answered, “I am in great distress, for the Philistines are warring against me, and God has turned away from me and answers me no more, either by prophets or by dreams. Therefore I have summoned you to tell me what I shall do.” 16 And Samuel said, “Why then do you ask me, since the LORD has turned from you and become your enemy? 17 The LORD has done to you as he spoke by me, for the LORD has torn the kingdom out of your hand and given it to your neighbor, David. 18 Because you did not obey the voice of the LORD and did not carry out his fierce wrath against Amalek, therefore the LORD has done this thing to you this day. 19 Moreover, the LORD will give Israel also with you into the hand of the Philistines, and tomorrow you and your sons shall be with me. The LORD will give the army of Israel also into the hand of the Philistines.” 20 Then Saul fell at once full length on the ground, filled with fear because of the words of Samuel. And there was no strength in him, for he had eaten nothing all day and all night. 21 And the woman came to Saul, and when she saw that he was terrified, she said to him, “Behold, your servant has obeyed you. I have taken my life in my hand and have listened to what you have said to me.

    The deceased Samuel is referred as “Samuel” and “a god” (v. 13), translating (believe it or not) elohim, which can refer to a god instead of just God himself (rather like god/God in English). But nothing in the text says “soul.” Rather, it’s more consistent with a glorified embodied person – like the Transfiguration — although we are given very little detail to suss out the metaphysics.

  6. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Dan concludes,

    If body and soul are inseparable, God would have no need of hell. Those dying outside of grace would simply be dead never to be heard from again. Or if they were raised for judgement, they could be dispatched rather handily with a bullet or arrow. But instead they are to be utterly destroyed in an eternal hell that consumes every essence of them. Perhaps when God creates a soul, it is not such an easy thing to annihilate, unlike the body which can be destroyed by a few microbes unseen to the human eye.

    The NT is clear that immortality is a gift from God for the saved. I’ve cited those verses here many times. No one has found anything to contradict them. Just do a word search on “mortal” and “immortal” and “perishable” and “imperishable.” It’s easy and, for me, convicting.

    In conditionalism or annihilationism, the damned are resurrected, not so they can be killed, but so they can suffer a just punishment. Then they die what the Revelation calls “the second death.” And death is death for sure. They are dead for all eternity with no hope of yet another resurrection.

    I think part of their just punishment is to feel separation from God and to be aware of their sins and the impact of their sins on others. Justice requires that the damned know why they are being punished — not just the principle but to truly understand the pain they have inflicted on others. Moreover, I think part of their punishment is to know that they could have lived forever. And that, itself, may be the pain of gehenna, the dump. But I’m speculating … But it’s easy to imagine such a moment of realization to be excruciatingly painful.

  7. dan says:

    I guess i am missing something important. If body and soul are one, then the soul is dead with the body when you die (the whole being). And that means that the soul IS something that mortal man can kill. Then God raises up both body and soul (the complete person) so he can utterly destroy that person (again?) in hell? If man kills me, then I am dead; not be be alive again till God raises me up to kill me (annihilate) both body and soul?

    Or does a murderer kill only a part of me or only a certain aspect of me, but another aspect of me continues in some way. If I am totally dead then from where does the re-invigorated me come from? If I am outside of grace, then I don’t see how that the reinvigorated me could come from God or else that would seem to mean that God is carrying around the seeds of a lot of bad people so he can quicken them in the day of judgement. However that couldn’t be since there is no evil in God. And if God reinvigorates me from some element outside of himself, then is God creating evil? It seems easier to believe that God could give an evil man his body back so both body and soul are destroyed in hell. In that case God would not be creating the evil, only allowing that evil soul to inhabit a body until both body and soul are destroyed in hell.

    I don’t deny that God raises up body and soul. But I can’t see why he would if I’m already dead- both body and soul- and I won’t be around to bother anybody else. If I’m not dead when man kills me, then what part is still alive?—- not the body—– must be something else. IF BODY and soul are totally and inexorably together and inseparable then can’t both man and God can kill body and soul forever? But if I’m murdered and something is still alive is it the soul? Mind? Spirit? ghost? Whatever it is, it is not a human or complete being. ….. I get that….. but it must be something essential or present that will once again inhabit or combine with the body at the time when all are raised. If there is no aspect of me that lives beyond the body, then why does God bother to renew (re-create, enliven) me just to throw me in Gehenna? Why not just leave the evil dead; dead? Unless, the evil dead must be rejoined to the body for the evil to be completely destroyed in the place prepared for them.

    I do admit to being a bit thick. perhaps this is one thing that is just beyond me for now. Dan

  8. Larry Cheek says:

    I posted on a later article before I encountered these, but my conclusion has not been addressed here. There is some other passages of scripture which identify three separate parts of our beings.

    1Th 5:23 ESV 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 Christ.
    The conjunction “and” should display a equal quality of each object being connected.

    Heb 4:12 ESV For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
    In this passage, “of joints and of marrow” are part of a physical body. But, we know that spirit in this application is not part of a physical body, why would the spiritual, be placed between two identifiers of a physical body. To make it simple, the Word can separate between these three identity’s of our beings of which only one can be killed by natural events or man.

  9. John F says:

    I also see almost a trichotomy view: body – soul – spirit. Satan normally attacks through the body; God seeks to reach us through the spirit, and the soul becomes the battle ground. The old cartoon portrayal of angel / satan on each shoulder may have more than cartoonish implications. A bit of oversimplification, but it makes some sense. While animals have a “soulish” nature, they do not have a “spiritual” nature — only man has been so gifted. So if body and soul are destroyed, the spirit continues to live?

  10. Alabama John says:

    I keep remembering the story of the bad spirits that were put in the pigs. They were different after those spirits were thrown out. So were the pigs. How they get in us and how we get rid of them is still something to study on. Everything bad just might not be our fault.

  11. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    John F asked,

    While animals have a “soulish” nature, they do not have a “spiritual” nature — only man has been so gifted. So if body and soul are destroyed, the spirit continues to live?

    It depends.

    “Spirit” can mean lots of things. Context controls. It often means “life” (just as is true of soul). It can refer to an attitude (“spirit of zeal”). It can refer to the nature of God (“God is spirit”). It can refer to the Holy Spirit. In the NT, the adjective pneumatikos (spiritual) always refers to the Holy Spirit, I think. It doesn’t mean “made out of Spirit” or “made out of spirit” but “given or powered by the Spirit.” It never means “religious” as in English.

    Thus, in NT language, only humans have a spiritual nature as only humans receive the Spirit and are regenerated by Spirit. But this doesn’t give them a ghostly existence that survives death. Rather, it assures us of receiving a spiritual body (Spirit-given body) at the resurrection.

    Now, there are lots of theories re what happens between death and the resurrection. The most common NT description is “sleep.” Some think we go to heaven in a temporarily disembodied state to await the resurrection, when we’ll be again embodied. Wright takes this view — although tentatively.

    I’m more inclined to see us moving from death straight to Judgment Day by virtue of Judgment Day being outside earth time. We all arrive there at the same moment in God-time.

    Hence, to an observer on earth, it’s as though we time-traveled to the future, only to pop up at Judgment Day. In fact, we traveled from earth-time to God-time or to non-time (depends on how you look at it). We left earth time and so weren’t anywhere during the wait for the Second Coming. We had already passed to Judgment Day.

    All theories have their problems. Mine has some, too. I just think it works better than any other theory I’ve heard. But it’s nothing to be dogmatic about. I just find the thought of a Great Waiting Room in the Sky depressing. Maybe I’ve sat in too many doctors’ waiting rooms.

  12. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Larry wrote,

    1Th 5:23 ESV 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 Christ.
    The conjunction “and” should display a equal quality of each object being connected.

    “And” does not imply equality of the nouns joined. Not that I’ve ever heard. In fact, in some Greek constructions, one is intentionally subordinated to the other. Of course, they could be equal. Just not necessarily. In fact, I doubt that Paul had equality in mind as something he was saying or not saying. Rather, his point is to refer to the entirety of the person — be blameless in all aspects of yourself.

    Thus, with a play on the sound of the two Greek words holoteleis and holoklēron, Paul shifts from a prayer for the community as a whole to a unique moment of individualizing his concern for each of them. To make this clear he expresses that “wholeness” by referring to some ways of understanding the individual “parts” that make up the human person: “spirit, soul, and body.” Unfortunately, what Paul most likely intended simply as a way of throwing the net wide in terms of being human has generated an enormous amount of energy and literature, not to mention theological groupings.77 But this was most likely a somewhat off-handed moment in Paul. Indeed, it is highly doubtful whether he was trying to be precise, or even whether he himself could easily distinguish between “spirit” and “soul.” His concern is with the adjective-turned-adverb “in entirety”; and to make that point he includes the terms that he uses elsewhere to speak of the human person. …

    Most of the discussion on the three anthropological terms has centered either in determining whether or not Paul intended some kind of distinction between the first two terms—and if so, what?—or in the related question whether Paul was a dichotomist or trichotomist. That discussion, however, while not insignificant, has missed Paul’s point altogether. His use of the term “spirit” may indeed have been occasioned by its proximity to verse 19; nonetheless, Paul’s concern is singular: that they be sanctified completely. In the context of this letter, and especially in light of the sentence’s ties to 4:3–8, the present emphasis lies with his inclusion of the body. Very much as in 1 Corinthians 6:12–20, although without the express language of the body as the Spirit’s temple, Paul is concerned that this early, almost totally Gentile (cf. 1:9–10), congregation understand that salvation in Christ includes the sanctification of the body: it is now to be holy, and wholly for God’s own purposes. Thus he wants them to stand blameless in holiness before God at the coming of Christ, and he insists (now in prayer) that such holiness be thoroughgoing in their lives, including the purity of the body.

    What, then, shall we say of the first two terms? First, it is very likely, given the way Paul here expresses himself, that he might think of the human spirit and soul as distinct entities in some way. But how he might think of them in this way is not at all clear from the rest of his letters. Since he tends to use such terms both broadly and somewhat interchangeably, one is hard pressed to come to final conclusions. Moreover, the emphasis on entirety suggests that he could easily have included “mind” without for a moment deviating from his concern. That is, whatever distinctions he may have understood are quite secondary to the greater concern of completeness.

    Nonetheless, Paul probably did understand some distinction between “spirit” and “soul”; but it is not easy for us from this distance to discern what that might have been. In fact he does not often refer to the human spirit. Whatever else, it refers to the interior, nonmaterial component of the human personality (see esp. 1 Cor 2:11). Moreover, those who see this usage as denoting that part of human existence that serves as the place of intersection between the human and the divine by means of the Holy Spirit are most likely moving in the right direction. In any case, the stress here is that the body as well as the human spirit be kept blameless until the coming of Christ.

    Gordon D. Fee, The First and Second Letters to the Thessalonians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2009), 227–230.

    If I say my Sunday school class is committed to Bible study “body and soul,” I’m just saying they are fully committed, not just to the form of study but to the heart or “soul” of study. You can’t glean from that my view on the immortality of humanity or some part of humanity. Paul addresses immortality very specifically in other places, and that’s where we should find Paul’s views.

  13. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Larry wrote,

    Heb 4:12 ESV For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
    In this passage, “of joints and of marrow” are part of a physical body. But, we know that spirit in this application is not part of a physical body, why would the spiritual, be placed between two identifiers of a physical body.

    I’ve always wondered what was meant by “soul and spirit” in this passage; so thanks for pushing me to look it up.

    Whether this phrase means the division of “life from spirit” and “joints from marrow,” as most affirm, or whether it means the division of each entity, “life,” “spirit,” “joints,” and “marrow,” as Ellingworth contends, is of little moment. God’s word is so sharp that it can divide the indivisible.11 It has more than laser-like penetrating quality. This description gives the hearers a visceral feeling for the sharp, penetrating power of the word of God. The desire to evoke this feeling accords well with the evidence Smillie has provided suggesting that the pastor is picturing the word of God as the surgeon’s knife.13 The pastor, however, does not develop such imagery lest he detract from the warning nature of this passage.

    Gareth Lee Cockerill, The Epistle to the Hebrews, The New International Commentary on the Old and New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012), 216.

    The sentences that follow are merely a development of this metaphor and are not meant to convey information extraneous to the point being made. The writer does not here reveal his view of the nature of humanity (dividing soul and spirit; the thoughts and attitudes of the heart). All of these details are concerned only to stress the utter effectiveness of God’s word.

    Donald A. Hagner, Hebrews, Understanding the Bible Commentary Series, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011), 73.

    The list of parallel elements that God’s word penetrates is first psychological—the immaterial forces that animate a person (soul and spirit)—and then physical, the material aspects (joints and marrow). Together they summarize human existence. Spirit and soul are virtually identical,137 and Hebrews uses the terms for the inner person (6:19; 10:38; 12:3). The result of this penetrating power of God’s word is that it is able to probe the inmost recesses of our being and bring the subconscious motives to light (note 1 Cor. 4:5): it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. The heart is the seat of thought and will. The listeners were urged not to harden their hearts (3:8), and to recognize that an evil heart turns away from the living God (3:12). Now they learn that the word of God sifts and judges the thoughts and intentions of the heart in a thoroughgoing and comprehensive manner.

    Peter T. O’Brien, The Letter to the Hebrews, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI; Nottingham, England: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010), 176–177.

    The commentaries seem to agree that there’s not much difference between “soul” and “spirit.” I was taught growing up that “soul” is the immortal part and “spirit” was the mortal life. But that distinction does not hold to close inspection in NT or OT usage. Obviously, when “spirit” refers to the Holy Spirit there is a very real distinction. But the mortal spirit is nearly synonymous with soul — which is why the Torah can use “soul” to say that there’s “life” in the blood — which plainly a reference to mortality.

  14. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Dan wrote,

    If body and soul are one, then the soul is dead with the body when you die (the whole being). And that means that the soul IS something that mortal man can kill. Then God raises up both body and soul (the complete person) so he can utterly destroy that person (again?) in hell? If man kills me, then I am dead; not be be alive again till God raises me up to kill me (annihilate) both body and soul?

    Jesus speaks of both the saved and damned being resurrected by God. Not by their innately immortal natures. God resurrects. It’s a miracle. It’s not how we are made. It’s how God re-creates us. Doesn’t that make better sense? I mean, we speak as though we are by nature immortal and so, of course, we live after we die. And the scriptures credit God with resurrection as though it’s amazing and contrary to nature. It’s a miracle — not mere survival of our super-tough immortal essence.

    The Revelation speaks of the Second Death. We die once and we’re and truly dead — until God resurrects us (as seen from the land of the mortal; from God’s perspective, we pass straight from death to resurrection). “Dead” means dead, body and soul and spirit and whatever else you want to add. Really and truly dead.

    God resurrects the saved with new bodies designed to live in a world without entropy so they can live forever. We will have bodies like Jesus’ resurrected body, and the new Spirit-given bodies will renew, transform, and somehow even replace our mortal bodies that suffer high rates of entropy — higher every day.

    God resurrects the damned so that perfect justice will be realized. They suffer perfectly just punishment and then cease to exist — forever. The Second Death. Body and soul are destroyed in the fires of gehenna.

    If I am totally dead then from where does the re-invigorated me come from?

    This is, of course, the question Plato would be asking. But it’s a miracle. God doesn’t need to store the essence of your personality in a jar called a “soul” to preserve you. He could. And this may be exactly what he does. But he could also move the essence of who you are directly into a transformed body immediately after your death — even if you’re annihilated and atomized in a nuclear holocaust. God is able to do such things. He doesn’t share his methods with us, and if he did, I’m sure we’d not understand.

    IF BODY and soul are totally and inexorably together and inseparable then can’t both man and God can kill body and soul forever?

    No. Man can kill body and soul (as “soul” is used in the Bible), but not forever. God can resurrect the dead. He doesn’t need an immortal soul to do that. I mean, God is bigger than space and time. Older, too. He invented math before there were chalkboards and things to count.

    So surely the problem isn’t that it’s too hard for God to do. And the scriptures plainly teach that immortality is a gift for just the saved, which means the damned aren’t immortal.

    (1 Tim. 6:15-16 ESV) 15 which he will display at the proper time– he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, 16 who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.

    (1 Cor. 15:53-54 ESV) 53 For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. 54 When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.”

    We are innately mortal — meaning we die and really and truly die — unless God gives us immortality.

    But —

    (Jn. 5:28-29 ESV) 28 Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice 29 and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.

    Notice that Jesus says the damned come out of their tombs to judgment at the resurrection — not that their souls go to heaven to be judged, leaving their bodies in the ground. Jesus is alluding to —

    (Dan. 12:2-3 ESV) 2 And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. 3 And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.

    Daniel says the very same thing — which is no surprise unless you believe the OT denies the afterlife.

    But Jesus and Daniel don’t fit neatly with immortal souls going to heaven NOW — although, as I’ve said, some believe in an in-between Great Waiting Room in the Sky — which is a very respectable position – which I disagree with.

    If there is no aspect of me that lives beyond the body, then why does God bother to renew (re-create, enliven) me just to throw me in Gehenna? Why not just leave the evil dead; dead?

    You speak as though God is driven by our immortality; whereas in fact our immortality comes, if at all, from God. Why raise the damned? Well, Daniel says, for “shame and everlasting contempt” which, in an honor culture, is worse than hell as you and I envision it. Jesus says the damned are raised for “judgment,” surely meaning “justice.” Jesus is one who bring “gehenna” to the NT vocabulary.

    For the saved, well, because God wants to save you — not to save your soul from eternal torture but, as he so often says and we so often fail to hear, from death. We wants to give you immortality and live with you forever — reigning over his renewed Creation forever on the throne of heaven together.

  15. John F says:

    “Spirit and soul are virtually identical,137 and Hebrews uses the terms for the inner person (6:19; 10:38; 12:3).:

    If one takes a trichotomist view, the soul is seen as comprised of reason and emotion — the place spiritual battles are fought. Satan seldom if ever appeals to reason; Satan asks, “How do you FEEL about that (Eve)! God appeals to our reason through Isaiah 1:18-20

    Come now, and let us reason together,”
    Says the Lord,
    “Though your sins are as scarlet,
    They will be as white as snow;
    Though they are red like crimson,
    They will be like wool.
    19 “If you consent and obey,
    You will eat the best of the land;
    20 “But if you refuse and rebel,
    You will be devoured by the sword.”
    Truly, the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

    NASU

    Is scripture completely clear on our “spiritual” nature? Perhaps not as much as we would like, but likely as much as we need.

  16. dan says:

    Thanks for your thoughtfulness, Jay,

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