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What do you mean "Immortal Soul"?

Where did the idea of an "immortal soul" come from?
The Bible?


FEW BELIEFS are more widely held than that of the "immortal soul.“ Virtually everyone is familiar with the concept. The average religious person, if asked, would state it something like this:

A human person is both body and soul. The body is the physical flesh-and-blood "shell" temporarily housing the soul. The soul is the nonmaterial aspect, made of spirit. At death the soul leaves the body, and lives on consciously forever in heaven or in hell. (Some hold that liberated souls are reborn in new bodies in a series of "reincarnations" or "transmigrations.")

Some form of this concept is found among virtually all peoples and religions in the world today. The average religious person generally takes the idea for granted.

Science, which deals with the material universe, cannot verify or deny the existence of any such soul.

How, then, can one know whether or not man really has an "immortal soul"?

Few have stopped to ask where the concept came from. Many simply assume it is found in the Bible.

So prepare yourself for what could be one of the big surprises of your life!


Back to Egypt

The idea of an "immortal soul" long predates the founding of today's major religions. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus (5th century B.C) tells us in his History that the ancient Egyptians were the first to teach that the soul of man is separable from the body, and immortal. This Egyptian idea was centuries before Judaism, or Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam came onto the scene.

Nowhere in the ancient world was the afterlife of more concern than in Egypt. The countless tombs unearthed by archaeologists along the Nile provide eloquent testimony to the Egyptian belief that man possessed a spiritual aspect extending beyond his physical life.

To the east, the ancient Babylonians also held a belief in a future life of the soul in a "lower world." But Babylonian beliefs were nowhere so elaborate as the Egyptian.

A person, the Egyptians believed, consisted of a physical body and not one but two souls that lived on after his death: a ka soul and a ba soul.

The ka was said to be a spirit replica of a man, containing the "vital force" given to him at birth. At death, the ka was believed to take up residence in a statue or picture of the deceased.

The statue or picture was placed in the tomb for that very purpose. As the tomb was to be the eternal home of the ka, it was provided with everything the ka would need for a happy afterlife — food, furniture, games, reading material, grooming aids and the like.

The other soul, the ba, was held to be that part of man that enjoyed an eternal existence in heaven. It was believed to fly from the body with the last breath. The ba was often depicted on tomb paintings as a human-headed hawk hovering over the deceased's body. The ancient Egyptians believed the ba occasionally came back to "visit" the body in the tomb and to partake of the food and drink offerings there.

The famous Book of The Dead — a collection of ancient Egyptian funerary and ritual texts — lays out in great detail the many Egyptian beliefs about the afterlife. In one version of the work, dating from the 15th century B.C., the ba of a deceased person is pictured as asking one of the Egyptian gods, "How long have I to live?" To which the god replied:

"Thou shalt exist for millions of millions of years, a period of millions of years." What better depiction of the concept of immortality?


Passed on to Greeks

The idea of the soul's immortality did not cease with ancient Egyptian civilization. Notice again the testimony of the historian Herodotus:

"The Egyptians were the first that asserted that the soul of man is immortal. . . . This opinion some among the Greeks have at different periods of time adopted as their own" (from Euterpe, the second book of Herodotus' History).

The pagan Greeks got the concept of an immortal soul from the Egyptians!

The foremost advocate among the ancient Greeks of the idea of an "immortal soul" was the Athenian philosopher Plato (428-348 B.C.), the pupil of Socrates. Plato was the founder of the Academy, an institute for philosophical and scientific research just outside of Athens.

The pre-Socratic Greek philosophers had no real conception of any nonmaterial element in man. The philosophers Socrates and Pythagoras were among the first of the Greeks to adopt the Egyptian view. They subsequently had a great influence on the thought of Plato.

It was Plato who popularized the immortal soul concept throughout the Greek world.

In the Phaedo — one of Plato's most famous works — Plato recounts Socrates' final conversation with his friends on the last day of Socrates' life. Socrates declared to them:

"Be of good cheer, and do not lament my passing. . . . When you lay me down in my grave, say that you are burying my body only, and not my soul."

Socrates' statement is little different from the teaching of most churches today!

Notice also the following assertion from Plato, again taken from the Phaedo:

"The soul whose inseparable attitude is life will never admit of life's opposite, death. Thus the soul is shown to be immortal, and since immortal, indestructible. . . . Do we believe there is such a thing as death? To be sure. And is this anything but the separation of the soul and body? And being dead is the attainment of this separation, when the soul exists in herself and separate from the body, and the body is parted from the soul. That is death. . . Death is merely the separation of the soul and body."

In Book X of The Republic — another of Plato's major works — he again wrote: "The soul of man is immortal and imperishable."

Yeshiva University

The foremost advocate
among the ancient Greeks
of the idea of an
"immortal soul" was the
Athenian philosopher
Plato (428-348 B.C.),
the pupil of Socrates.
Plato was the founder of the
Academy, an institute for
philosophical and
scientific research.

Statements by such ancient Greek and Roman writers as Polybius, Cicero, Seneca, Strabo — and even Plato himself — have led some modern historians to question whether Plato really personally believed the immortal soul doctrine. They suggest that he may have simply popularized what he knew to be a fiction as a means of keeping the citizenry in line through the fear of mysterious "unseen things" beyond this life.

The immortal soul concept, in other words, was a necessary companion doctrine to the doctrine of the terrible torments of parts of Hades or hell. Such fearsome teachings, some philosophers thought, were necessary to scare the masses into being good citizens.

Regardless of his motives and personal beliefs, Plato's teachings did have a wide impact. They spread throughout the known world and were accepted as truth by millions.


Plato and the Jews

The Jewish communities of antiquity were deeply influenced by Greek philosophical ideas. Many will suppose that the Platonic view of the soul imprisoned in the flesh would have been nothing new to the Jews. But notice the testimony of Jewish scholars themselves:

"The belief that the soul continues its existence after the dissolution of the body is . . . nowhere expressly taught in Holy Scripture. . . . 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, who was led to it through Orphic and Eleusinian mysteries in which Babylonian and Egyptian views were strangely blended" (The Jewish Encyclopedia, article, "Immortality of the Soul").

Many of you will undoubtedly be surprised to discover that the idea of the immortality of the soul was not derived by the Jews from the Old Testament scriptures, but rather taken from Plato!

As we shall see, the Old Testament takes a completely different view!


Another Surprise!

But what of the professing Christian world? Certainly here we should find the doctrine of an immortal soul independent of any Greek influence.

Now consider this fact:

Many of the early theologians and scholars of the professing Christian religion — including such men as Origen, Tertullian and Augustine — were closely associated with Platonism.

Tertullian (A.D. 155-220), for example, wrote: "For some things are known even by nature: the immortality of the soul, for instance, is held by many . . . I may use, therefore, the opinion of a Plato, when he declares: 'Every soul is immortal' " (The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. III).

Notice, it is the opinion of Plato that is cited!

Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354-430) — held to be the greatest thinker of Christian antiquity — also taught the immaterial and spiritual nature of the human soul. But notice the source of his teachings. The Encyclopedia Britannica admits: "He [Augustine] fused the religion of the New Testament with the Platonic tradition of Greek philosophy."

Why should those early professing Christian scholars have resorted to the opinions of a pagan Greek philosopher? Could it be that the immortal soul doctrine is not clearly supported in Christian Scripture?

Notice the much later view of Martin Luther, leader of the Protestant Reformation in Germany. More than a thousand years later, in 1522, he wrote:

"It is probable, in my opinion, that, with very few exceptions, indeed, the dead sleep in utter insensibility till the day of judgment. . . . On what authority can it be said that the souls of the dead may not sleep . . . in the same way that the living pass in profound slumber the interval between their down-lying at night and their uprising in the morning?"

Luther himself encountered difficulty in finding support for the immortal soul doctrine in the pages of Scripture. Notice that he asked, "On what authority . . .?"

But the deep-seated teachings of centuries were not to be easily dislodged, even by Protestant reformers. Theologians and churchgoers alike persisted, for the most part, in their unquestioning embrace of the ideas passed down from the ancient pagan philosophers. As the Encyclopedia Britannica summarizes:

"Traditional Western philosophy, starting with the ancient Greeks . . . shaped the basic Western concepts of the soul."