What the Bible says happens to the soul when we die

The word “soul” in the Bible is translated from two words: in the Old Testament, the Hebrew word nefesh, literally meaning throat, and from the New Testament, the Greek word psyche from which we get words like psychology.

When we talk about a person having a soul, however, that separates from their body when they die and goes somewhere else as in, for example, the Pixar movie Soul, that doesn’t come from the Bible. Rather, it comes from Plutarch, a middle Platonist of the 2nd century who had a large influence on the development of Christian theology about the soul.

In the Hebrew Bible, a person is instead seen as a unity. Essentially, God takes inanimate matter, dust or clay, and breaths life into it, making it animate. When a person or animal dies, they are simply no longer animate. They go back to being clay.

Later in the Hellenistic period following the return from exile in Babylon, the Jews developed a more nuanced view in which a person has flesh, in Greek, sarx, or a body, soma, and a psyche, which can be thought of as their life force. While this word is usually translated as “soul” or “life”, in English, it is not a person’s non-corporeal essence.

When Jesus says,

Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

Matthew 10:28

The word translated here as “soul” is the Greek psyche. Unlike the early Hebrew authors, who see the nefesh as a unity with the body, dead or alive, these writers recognized a distinction between body and soul.

An analogy from physics is to think of the soma/sarx as being like matter and the psyche like energy. Before Einstein, energy was not thought of as being separate from matter. Rather, it was simply an attribute of matter. We now know that energy has its own reality. For example, particles of light are essentially like packets of pure energy and you can interchange particles of light with other particles by nuclear interactions like matter and anti-matter colliding.

This more nuanced view would have been familiar to those listening to Jesus. Yet, Jewish listeners would not have necessarily agreed with the Greek attitude that the psyche was separable from the body.

In Greek thought, going back to Homer, the psyche is the immortal essence of a person. Upon death, it was liberated from the body and went somewhere else, such as Hades, to live a non-corporeal existence. Whether this was a good or bad thing depended. In Homer it was generally bad, meaning a loss of all fleshly pleasures. For the philosophers such as Socrates and Plato, it was good because it eliminated the wants of the flesh and allowed them to devote themselves fully to the work of the mind.

Many Christians today believe that the soul is a non-corporeal essence of a person, but it doesn’t come from the Bible. It comes from the Greeks, and unfortunately medieval Catholicism which embraced Platonism enforced this belief on people for centuries.

The New Testament writers, however, walked a balance between the two modes of thought and ultimately came up with a totally unique perspective which is that the body and soul, the soma and psyche, were two characteristics of a whole person.

While as early as Homer, the idea of the psyche leaving the body at death was normal to the Greeks, the NT authors considered it to be a disaster. The loss of the psyche meant a total destruction of the person, meaning both physical and spiritual death, while the loss of the soma was to be expected at death. This is why Jesus warns about it in Matthew 10:28 quoted above.

A few verses later, Jesus says, “Whoever finds his psyche will lose it, and whoever loses his psyche because of me will find it.” (Matt. 10:39) Most translations write psyche as “life” based on context, but there is the additional nuance that people who reject Jesus will lose their psyche while those who accept him will, even though they die physically, retain it.

Indeed, only bad people in the NT are said to exepsuxen or “give up their psyche” at death. These include Ananias and Sapphira as well as Herod (Acts 5:5, 5:10, and 12:23).

To the NT authors, however, the psyche was secondary to a much more important aspect of a person: their pneuma translated as “spirit”. While all human beings have a soma and a psyche, in the NT, only true Christians have a pneuma. For example, from Jude 1:19 “the people with the psyche, the ones lacking the pneuma.” Or 1 Corinthians 2:14-15 “The person with the psyche does not receive the things of the pneuma of God for they are foolishness to him and he is unable to have knowledge, because these things are discerned pneumatically. But the person with the pneuma discerns all things”

Christians today view this distinction through the lens of Trinitarian theology where the spirit is the indwelling of The Holy Spirit, the third person of the Triune God. The NT authors, however, did not possess this theology and saw the pneuma as an additional aspect of a person’s being which is gifted to them by God when they accept Christ and baptism.

When good people in the NT die, they don’t exepsuxen, give up their psyche, they exepneusen, give up their pneuma, and pray for God to receive it. This happens to Jesus on the cross as well as Stephen when he is martyred.

When Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 5:23, “Now may the God of peace himself make you completely holy and may your pneuma and psyche and soma be kept entirely blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” he is referring to the three aspects of those who have received the spirit.

The pneuma is not a figure of speech here as in “team spirit”. Instead, the pneuma is treated as an additional aspect of a person with its own separate wants, needs, personality, and even language. It is from the pneuma that the gifts of tongues and prophecy come. It adds to but does not replace the psyche.

Those lacking the pneuma are equated with evildoers such as Cain from Genesis who murdered his brother and the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah (Jude).

Hence, the pneuma represents a person’s inner transformation through Christ’s sacrifice. As 1 John 5:7-8 says, “For there are three that testify [to the truth], the pneuma and the water and the blood and these three are in agreement.” Thus, spirit, baptism, and the Lord’s supper all come together as one to agree to the truth of the Gospel.

As with the sarx or flesh and unlike the psyche, the pneuma had to be kept pure through spiritual activity and discipline. Paul exhorts Christians to look after their pneuma.

The pneuma complicates matters for a contemporary Platonist view of the soul because it suggests that it is a separate aspect of a saved person and that without it a person is essentially damned.

Like the body, and unlike the soul, the pneuma has to be fed with spiritual food: taking the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist, reading scripture, worship, fasting, and so on. It needs care and feeding.

This is why Jesus tells the multitude, after the feeding of the 5000, “I am the bread of life. The one who comes to me will never go hungry, and the one who believes in me will never be thirsty.” He is saying that he is the spiritual food that will feed their pneuma, but all they can think about is the food to feed their sarx.

Later he says, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood you have no life in yourselves. The one who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. The one who eats my flesh and drinks my blood resides in me and I in him.”

This says something more about the pneuma, which is that it is not just like a new body, but it is a relationship with Christ and through Christ to God the Father. It is this relationship that brings eternal life. Hence, it is not only a spiritual body. It is one that exists within Christ and he within it in loving relationship. It is the love of God made into a new kind of flesh, reconciling the owner to God.

Thus, it becomes a person’s spiritual body while they are alive and is then, upon their resurrection, transformed into their true body. Hence, it becomes the psyche‘s new home. Without a pneuma, a new and transformed self, a person’s psyche is lost after death.

This is why for the NT authors salvation is more than just a matter of what you believe. It is about what you have within you.

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