Longing for the Divine

Body and Soul: Getting to the Heart of the Matter

Human beings have been charmed by the idea of immortality from the beginning of human history. The earliest myths and religions and the writings of ancient Greek philosophers include the notion of the soul’s immortality. However, the idea of inherent immortality is foreign to the Scriptures. The biblical view is that the soul ceases to exist after death; there is nothing then but a void or abyss (Ecclesiastes 9:5). Today, most religious people nonetheless believe in an immortal soul, a doctrine that professes that the soul separates from the body at death and continues to exist in heaven or hell. To claim that there is no immortal soul is to challenge the Christian notions of heaven and hell.

The Bible views existence as united: “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7). Here, body and breath equals a soul. Human existence is constituted by parts that form an inseparable whole.

God’s breath gave life to human beings. His life energy is what makes us alive, “for in Him we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28). The animating force of life is God’s. We do not possess immortality except as God makes us immortal (1 Timothy 6:16). In a sense, we all receive God’s life-giving current, but God also gives His living Spirit in transformation and bodily resurrection. According to Scripture, when God comes to revive the dead in Christ from their graves, He will bestow immortality, empowering them to live in His presence forever (1 Corinthians 15:42–44). When we ultimately receive this type of eternal life, we will experience a much higher form of what we call human life.

How can this biblical notion of the non immorality of the soul help me in my life? Many believe that if souls cannot die, wicked souls must suffer eternal torment, but you shouldn’t believe in an everlasting hell where the wicked remain eternally alive because it is inconsistent with the revelation about God. If you fear that God is so ugly and repugnantly cruel as to punish souls eternally, you should consider leaving this conscious torment view of God behind. That’s not God’s way. Genesis tells us that God is about life and that life is the most precious gift He has given. God hates death and everything associated with it, which is why He said, “choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:15). When God breathed the breath of life into man, man became a living being. In a very real way, human life is to reflect the divine quality of God’s self-giving character of love. The principle of existence is giving to others. Selfishness and sin are death; their consequences are destruction and annihilation of the soul. The divine quality of self-giving love, however, is the central reality of the universe and the life of the soul.

God created creatures for life, not death. The first man and woman lived in a place with access to continuing life. God gave them all they needed—the tree of life positioned in the middle of the garden. Immortality was placed within their grasp. They failed to receive it, however, when they believed the lie spoken by the serpent. “You won’t die,” he said, but in truth, we do (Genesis 3:4). Death was man’s life-shattering idea, not God’s. Living in mortal bodies is not bad, but immortal life has been placed within our grasp once again. Jesus came that we might have life and live more abundantly (John 10:10). I want the God that was revealed by Jesus. I want the same things He wants. He desires that we have life and yearns for our well-being and completion. “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:32). The God of the universe who embodied our humanity is for us.

The concept of the immortal soul is a flaw that runs not only through our theology about God but also deep into this earth. We were originally created for this earth, not as immortal souls for some other place. It is tragic that some Christians believe in withdrawing from this earth, leaving their bodies behind for an otherworldly afterlife. What about our treatment of the earth? Might our world be in this damaged and fragmented condition because we have not taken care of it as we were instructed (Genesis 2:15)? Have we ignored the earth as we have ignored the body?

I like Wendell Berry’s depth of perception when expressing the religious and secular idea of the soul separating from the body. He writes, “The Bible’s aim, as I read it, is not the freeing of the spirit from the world. It is the handbook of their interaction. It says that they cannot be divided; that their mutuality, their unity, is inescapable; that they are not reconciled in division, but in harmony. What else can be meant by the resurrection of the body?” (Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America, p. 113).

Our bodies and the earth are not temporary containers that include pains to be shed but permanent, glorious realities to be cared for, healed, and transformed (Isaiah 11:10). Our earth is not to be abandoned for an afterlife somewhere else. What does continuing to live here, and our future life on earth require of us? How can we fit into a universe where selfless, life-giving love is the central reality?

The God who promised the pleasures of paradise to Adam, a land flowing with milk and honey to Abraham, agricultural blessings to Moses, a glorious kingdom to David, and a renewed earth to Isaiah is the same God who promises an embodied union of heaven and earth at the end of the human story. The ideal Edenic state—with its pleasures evermore joined to our bodies and this earth and a beautiful God who loves His creation—is the real story. We are bodies that have been made for this earth. Heaven is part of the story too, but we are not bodies and souls. We are embodied souls. Eternal life is not about leaving our bodies behind and flying away to a place where immortal souls gather but rather being redeemed and at home in revived bodies and in a renewed heaven and earth (Revelation 21:1–5).

Craig Ashton Jr.

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