If there is any fundamental belief that transcends most cultural and religious boundaries, it’s the notion that human beings possess an immortal “soul” or “spirit” that exists independently of the body and ventures off somewhere at the moment of death. In other words, we are all immortal ghosts housed in temporary containers of flesh. Your soul, spirit, or “ghost” is allegedly the “real you.”
This teaching is a staple in evangelical circles, so much so that I doubt whether many Christians have ever taken the time to really examine what the Bible has to say about the nature of mankind. Certain passages—such as the account Saul’s meeting with the witch of Endor, and Moses and Elijah appearing at Jesus’ transfiguration—are often read in light of preconceived notions and/or without full consideration of either the immediate context or the overall context of scripture.
Additionally, there is a strong emotional component to the conception of man as a spirit able to survive the death of the body. Whereas the New Testament states that God alone is immortal (1 Timothy 6:15-16) and its writers consistently stress the hope of resurrection and entrance into the Kingdom of God upon Christ’s return, most Christians who have suffered the loss of a loved one tend to seek comfort in the idea that he or she is already “in a better place,” “walking the streets of gold with Jesus,” and “not dead at all but more alive than ever.” The idea that this might not be so is frequently met with consternation bordering on outrage.
As it happens, the Bible offers compelling evidence against the ghost concept, starting at the very beginning with the Genesis account of Adam’s creation.
What is Man?
“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
There are several things to notice here:
First, note that Adam’s physical body is called “man” even before it is given life—“And the Lord God formed man of the dust…” If man is actually a spirit, the body is merely the spirit’s temporary dwelling, how much sense does it make for the Bible to refer to Adam’s body—in its initial, lifeless, ‘uninhabited’ condition—as “man”?
Second, note that after God created Adam, he “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.” Where in this verse do we read that God fashioned a ghost and placed it into Adam’s body? Nothing of the kind is even implied here. The text simply says that God imparted the “breath of life” to Adam. Adam then became “a living soul” (or “a living being”). He was not given a soul; he was given breath and became a soul. The term “breath” in the phrase “the breath of life” is translated from the Hebrew word neshamah, which, along with the related term, ruwach, is sometimes also translated as “spirit” or “wind” in the Bible. The term “soul” is translated from the Hebrew word nephesh. Adam’s lifeless body was given neshamah and became nephesh as a result.
Interestingly enough, Genesis also uses these same terms in reference to animals:
“And God created great whales and every living creature [nephesh] that moves, which the waters brought forth abundantly.” – Genesis 1:21
“And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them to Adam…and whatever Adam called every living creature [nephesh], that was the name of it.” – Genesis 2:19
“All flesh that moved on the Earth perished, birds and cattle and beasts and every swarming thing that swarms upon the Earth, and all mankind; of all that was on the dry land, all in whose nostrils was the breath [neshamah] of the spirit of life, died.” – Genesis 7:21-22
So we have both man and animals being called nephesh (‘souls’ or ‘living beings’) in scripture. Both were formed from the dust and both were given life by the same neshamah. Thus the Bible portrays human beings and animals as being no different in their essential composition. There is no evidence that man was given a different type of “breath” than was given to animals. Solomon underscores this for us in Ecclesiastes 3:19-20 and 12:5 and 7:
“For the fate of humans and the fate of animals are the same: As one dies, so dies the other; both have the same breath…Both go to the same place, both come from the dust, and to dust both return.” (NET Bible)
“For man goes to his eternal home while mourners go about in the street…then the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the breath will return to God who gave it.”
God himself illustrates this in Genesis 3:17-19:
“And unto Adam he said…In the sweat of your face shall you eat bread, until you return unto the ground; for out of it you were taken: for dust you are, and unto dust you shall return.”
“Dust you are.” Not “your body is dust,” but “you” are dust. Why would God call Adam—the conscious, thinking, feeling, reasoning, moral, spirit being—“dust” if humans are, in fact, immaterial spirits? Recall here that Genesis 2:7 refers to Adam’s lifeless body as “man.” I would be more persuaded of the view of man as a spirit if God had said something like, “Your body will return to the dust from which it was taken, for it dust, but you shall depart into Sheol,” or words to that effect, as this would suggest a true dichotomy; but, no, God plainly tells Adam, “YOU are dust.”
Also note what God says concerning man in Genesis 6:3:
“My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, for he is indeed flesh; yet his days shall be one hundred and twenty years.”
Here, God refers to man as “flesh.” “He is flesh.” This is strange phraseology if man is actually a spirit encased in a temporary housing of flesh.
We see the essential nature of man referenced again in Ezekiel 37:1-14, the famous “Valley of Dry Bones” passage. This passage concerns the future of Israel, illustrated in terms of human resurrection. Ezekiel was shown a valley full of bones, and when he prophesied to them “the bones came together…the sinews and flesh came upon them, and the skin covered them above: but there was no breath in them.” Ezekiel was then instructed to prophesy to the “wind” (literally “breath”), “…and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood upon their feet.”
Note the similarity to Adam’s creation: lifeless bodies united with “breath” from God become living beings. Further, note that Ezekiel is not told to prophesy to individual spirits, or to heaven or Sheol to release the dead, or any other thing that might fit with popular conceptions of life after death; instead, he is told to prophesy to one “breath” of life.
For a last example, consider Revelation 11:1-11. Two end-time prophets are killed in Jerusalem and lie dead in the streets for three days, after which “the breath of life from God entered them, and they stood upon their feet.” No spirits return from heaven or any such thing here; rather, a singular breath of life from God enters both men and restores them to life. This reference to a singular breath of life hearkens back to Ecclesiastes 12:7, where Solomon notes that the man’s breath “returns to God who gave it.” The “breath” is not something that is inherently man’s or a part of man; it comes from God, and returns to him at the time of death.
Scriptural Problems with the “Ghost” Theory
Popular teachings in regard to the nature of man as a spirit that is able to exist in a disembodied “afterlife” state prior to the resurrection also create awkward exegetical problems.
For one, the Bible states repeatedly that the dead are “asleep” (Daniel 12:2, 1 Kings 1:21, Job 14:12, John 11:11-13, Matthew 27:52, Luke 8:52-53, 1 Corinthians 15:51). Ecclesiastes tells us that “the dead know nothing” (9:5), that there is “no activity or planning or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol,” the realm of the dead (9:10). Psalm 6:5 says that there is no praise of God in Sheol, while 146:4 adds that, when a man dies, even “his thoughts perish.” None of these passages are compatible with traditional views of the afterlife or alleged near-death experiences in which persons who temporarily died supposedly interacted with deceased loved ones.
Even various scripture passages that supposedly show disembodied spirits are in conflict with other passages. A prime example of this is the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, which many Bible teachers claim is an accurate glimpse of the afterlife given by Jesus himself. In the story, we’re told that the rich man finds himself in agony in the flames of Hades, and desires that Lazarus be sent to him to cool his tongue with water. Yet, this imagery conflicts with what Jesus had to say about the nature of spirits in Luke 24:43, when he first appeared to his disciples following his resurrection:
“While they were telling these things, He [Jesus] Himself stood in their midst and said, ‘Peace be to you.’ But they were startled and frightened and thought they were seeing a spirit. And He said to them, ‘Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.’ And when He had said this, He showed them His hands and His feet. While they still could not believe it because of their joy and amazement, He said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ They gave Him a piece of a broiled fish; and He took it and ate it before them.”
In this passage, Jesus indicates that spirits do not have physical substance, and he demonstrates that he is not a spirit by inviting his disciples to touch him and by eating a piece of a fish. This leads me to ask: If the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus depicts disembodied spirits in the afterlife, how is it that the rich man could be tormented by fire or comforted by water? Why are he and Lazarus described as having physical characteristics (eyes, fingers, and a tongue)? How could Lazarus touch the rich man, as the rich man desired him to do?
Defenders of the traditional view of the afterlife have resorted to explaining these discrepancies away by resorting to speculation about “spirit bodies” and “spiritual fire” (concepts that are nowhere found in scripture), but I feel it is more sensible to approach the Rich Man and Lazarus as the final parable in a long series of parables aimed at the Pharisees—a story full of illustrative symbolism, rather than a glimpse into the afterlife. Both Matthew and Mark tell us that that Jesus taught the crowds in parables, “and did not speak to them without a parable” (Matthew 13:34, Mark 4:34), whereas he explained things clearly to his disciples in private. Again, the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus comes at the end of a series of parables, which Luke clearly tells us Jesus taught in public:
“Now all the tax-collectors and the sinners were coming near Him to listen to Him. Both the Pharisees and the scribes began to grumble, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’” – Luke 15:1-2
The united witness of scripture strongly suggests that man is not a spirit encased in flesh, but rather, a being of flesh who, upon death, returns to the dust from which he was formed. Man was created when God united his breath with the physical form he had fashioned from the ground, and death is essentially the reversal of the creation process; man’s components separate and return to their point of origin: his body returns to the dust, while his “breath returns to God who gave it.” Man is not inherently immortal. Immortality is a gift that God will give to the righteous following the return of Christ:
“Now I say this, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold, I tell you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, and then will come about the saying that is written, ‘Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O Death, where is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” – 1 Corinthians 15:50-57
In this passage, Paul tells us that neither the dead nor the living are able to inherit the kingdom of God without “putting on” “immortality” and “the imperishable,” which necessarily means that neither is immortal or imperishable at present. Traditionalists will stress that Paul is referring only to physical bodies here, rather than to the immortal spirit of man, which they insist is able to exist independently of the body and exhibit and experience all manner of what we think of as physical actions and sensations: sight, sound, touch, speech, pain, comfort, etc. If this is so, then the body of man seems superfluous, even detrimental, because it somehow hinders the superior spirit it houses.
Indeed, if immortality is the criteria for inheriting the kingdom, why does the immortal spirit not qualify on its own, since it is able to do and experience virtually everything the body can do and experience? Why must the immortal spirit be joined to an immortal physical body before it can inherit the kingdom of a God who is himself “spirit” (John 4:24)? If the immortal spirit—the supposed “real person”—never dies but is really “more alive than ever” when apart from the body, then why is death only overcome when the physical body rises? The person never died, after all; only their fleshly housing died.
Why, for that matter, did Jesus come to pay the penalty for sin in the flesh?
“For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh.” – Romans 8:3
If the body is merely a housing for a spirit, a ghost—the “real person”—why is it the flesh that is sinful? Why did Christ have to come and die in the flesh if it is really the spirit within the flesh that sins and the body is merely a helpless tool used to carry out the spirit’s wishes? Why is it the flesh that dies and not the spirit? Some will answer with an appeal to what theologians refer to as “spiritual death,” but if the spirit dies—‘spiritually speaking,’ that is, since it supposedly cannot actually die—why, again, was the price for redeeming man’s spirit’s paid in flesh? If the primary death man suffers is “spiritual,” why is death not said to be “swallowed up in victory” until the body rises? If it is “spiritual death” that Christ contended against, why is the rising of man’s cast-off physical body not said to be a formality rather than the quintessential moment of victory?
If, on the other hand, man really is what God called him way back in Genesis: nephesh, conscious, breathing “flesh,” then the problems I’ve outlined above disappear entirely. Christ came and paid the penalty for sin in the flesh because man is flesh, and when flesh that has died rises from the dust, unable to die again, then death is defeated indeed.
And for one last exegetical issue, there is the matter of how unrighteous spirits can be suffering torment without the judgment having taken place yet. I’ve heard traditionalists refer to Hades (usually just termed “hell”) as a “holding cell for judgment day,” but their teaching clearly indicates that they see it as much more than that. Essentially, they view it as a torture chamber, a place of active punishment. Yet, how is it that the unrighteous spirits consigned there are being punished without having had their day in court, without “the books” having been opened against them (Revelation 2011-13)? This flies in the face, not only of Christ’s kingdom parables and much other New Testament teaching (such as Hebrews 9:27), but also of the Old Testament precedents that God himself set under the Law of Moses.
The “ghost” doctrine also raises other questions even apart from purely scriptural considerations, such as the matter of how spirit beings are propagated by physical union. Can spirits procreate? Do men and women somehow combine in their spirits as well as their DNA when they conceive children, with the result that a new human spirit is generated along with a new body? Or does God create a new person each time sperm and egg successfully join, and then implant that spirit in the reproducing cells of the embryo? The question is certainly interesting, if not rather bizarre.
Serious Bible students need to re-examine this issue of the immortal soul/spirit/ghost, and along with it the various common inferences drawn from scripture where the nature of death and the subject of an afterlife are concerned. I would argue that our concept of the human soul or spirit has been more heavily influenced by Platonism and popular culture (including reports of near-death experiences) than what the Bible actually reveals about the nature of man and the divine “breath” that gives us life. This is a dangerous state of affairs, particularly in light of the Bible’s warnings that deception will be rampant in the last days. If Christians believe that their dead friends and relatives continue to live on in some ethereal, ghostly state—rather than being well and truly dead until the time of resurrection, as the Bible actually teaches—then they are likely to be open to still greater deceptions. Already, some Christian teachers are promoting the idea that spirits of the dead can interact with the living and even provide them with guidance, pointing to the examples of how C.S. Lewis and J.B. Philips were supposedly influenced by “godly ghosts.”
The danger here should be self-evident, but I fear that many Christians are too gullible to see it. The popularity of books such as Heaven is for Real and 13 Minutes in Hell have captivated their imaginations and encouraged them to place more faith in alleged spiritual experiences than in the authority of the Bible itself. Even occultists will testify that spirits often lie and misrepresent themselves. Christians would do well to rethink these matters, avoid sensational claims, and heed the Apostle John’s advice:
“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God…” – 1 John 4:1
For a detailed look at alleged ghosts of the Bible, see this article: Do the Dead return to visit the Living?
For discussions of the Rich Man and Lazarus, see the following resources:
* Unless otherwise noted, all scriptures are taken from the NASB