What Is the Soul?
The Bible’s answer
The word “soul” in the Bible is a translation of the Hebrew word neʹphesh and the Greek word psy·kheʹ. The Hebrew word literally means “a creature that breathes,” and the Greek word means “a living being.” a The soul, then, is the entire creature, not something inside that survives the death of the body. Consider how the Bible shows that the human soul is the whole person:
When Jehovah God created the first man, Adam, the Bible says that “man became a living soul.” (Genesis 2:7, King James Version) Adam was not given a soul—he became a living soul, or person.
The Bible says that the soul can work, crave food, eat, obey laws, and touch a dead body. (Leviticus 5:2; 7:20; 23:30; Deuteronomy 12:20; Romans 13:1) Those activities involve the entire person.
Is the soul immortal?
No, the soul can die. Dozens of Bible verses refer to the soul as being mortal. Here are some examples:
“The soul that sinneth, it shall die.”—Ezekiel 18:4, 20, King James Version.
In ancient Israel, the punishment for the most serious offenses was that the “soul shall be cut off.” (Exodus 12:15, 19; Leviticus 7:20, 21, 27; 19:8, King James Version) The person would “be put to death.”—Exodus 31:14, King James Version.
After a person dies, the literal term “dead soul” is used for the corpse in some Bible verses. (Leviticus 21:11, footnote; Numbers 6:6, footnote) Although many Bible translations use the terms “dead body” or “dead person” in those verses, the original Hebrew uses the word neʹphesh, or “soul.”
“Soul” can mean “life”
The Bible also uses “soul” as a synonym for “life.” For example, Job 33:22 uses the Hebrew word for “soul” (neʹphesh) as a parallel for “life.” Similarly, the Bible shows that a person’s soul, or life, can be risked or lost.—Exodus 4:19; Judges 9:17; Philippians 2:30.
This use of the word for “soul” helps us to understand verses in which the soul is said to be “going out” or “departing.” (Genesis 35:18; King James Version) This figure of speech indicates that the person’s life is ending. Some translations render this expression at Genesis 35:18 as “she breathed her last.”—Good News Translation; New Jerusalem Bible.
Where belief in an immortal soul comes from
Christian denominations that believe in an immortal soul get this teaching, not from the Bible, but from ancient Greek philosophy. The Encyclopædia Britannica says: “Biblical references to the soul are related to the concept of breath and establish no distinction between the ethereal soul and the corporeal body. Christian concepts of a body-soul dichotomy originated with the ancient Greeks.”
God does not condone merging his teachings with human philosophies, such as belief in an immortal soul. Instead, the Bible warns: “Look out that no one takes you captive by means of the philosophy and empty deception according to human tradition.”—Colossians 2:8.
a See The New Brown, Driver, and Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, page 659, and the Lexicon in Veteris Testamenti Libros, page 627. Many Bible translations render the words neʹphesh and psy·kheʹ differently according to the context, using words such as “soul,” “life,” “person,” “creature,” or “body.”