Our Understanding of the “Soul” is a Pagan Invention

Updated: May 15


“My soul is the real me.”


“When I die my soul will leave my body.”


“After death, my soul will go to heaven.”


“Jesus came to save our souls from hell.”


“Our bodies don’t matter; only our souls.”


These are not Biblical statements.


They sound Biblical to us, and they’re certainly theologically aligned with Western Christianity, but they are alien to Biblical thought.


Most Christians hold one of two views about the constitution of humans:

  1. Dichotomous: people are a body and a soul

  2. Trichotomous: people are a body, a soul, and a spirit

In both views, the soul is thought of as a sub-physical, immaterial entity like a ghost or spirit. This spirit is seen as:

  • The truest part of a person

  • Trapped in a suboptimal physicality (a body)

  • The part that lives on after death

  • The part that goes to the spirit world of heaven or hell

Have you seen Pixar's Soul?


It fully takes this understanding of a soul, extrapolating a cute story out of it. But don’t be fooled: this is a thoroughly pagan idea that has no place in a Biblical theology.


The Jews did not believe this way.


Neither did the Christians, at least not initially. This image of the soul is the result of syncretism: when two philosophies or religious ideologies blend together to produce a hybrid.


Specifically, soul is part of the package that came out of the unholy union between Platonism (Gnosticism) and Biblical Christianity. It’s as if Christianity had a child with a foreign philosophy, resulting in the bastard system we see in mainstream Christianity today.


We’ll see how this happened later, but first: what is the Biblical view?


Hebrew Theology


The best place to start for understanding how the Biblical authors thought about anything is the Hebrew text of the Tanach, or Old Testament. Even the Greek words the New Testament authors used have more Hebrew intention than Greek meaning.


What does the Tanach say about the soul?


Technically, nothing.


The Hebrew word behind our English word, “soul”, is נֶפֶש, pronounced like nep̱eš (or if you prefer, neh-fish). Here are some quick facts about nep̱eš:

  • Originally it was the word for “throat”

  • Other Ancient Near Eastern languages had a similar word

  • It’s rarely used of God

  • It’s never used of Yahweh

  • It’s translated into Greek as ψυχὴ (psoo-khay´, as in the word “psychology”)

  • It can mean breath, refreshment, life, self, person, even a human body

  • It never means an Immaterialgüterrecht entity

  • It never refers to something that exists independent from a person’s body

  • It doesn’t go on to live in an immaterial afterlife

These are all the ways nep̱eš was thought of by the Biblical authors, none of which correlate with an Evangelical understanding of a soul.


Here are the main uses of nep̱eš and how they developed. Notice how they are quite different from a “soul”.


Throat


Like other ancient languages, Hebrew words were originally pictorials, similar to hieroglyphics. The picture for nep̱eš was originally a throat.


Think of this verse: “Sheol has enlarged its nep̱eš and opened its mouth beyond measure” (Is. 5:14). Some translate this as “appetite” (ESV), “herself” (KJV), or “jaw” (NIV) because the image is of a mouth opening up to swallow.


This isn’t a “soul”.


Hunger


As the language evolved, nep̱eš referred to activities related to the throat, such as swallowing food.


Consider Hos. 9:4: “Their bread is only for their nep̱eš.”


Is Hosea saying bread is for their spirits or souls? No, ancient and modern translators correctly interpret this to mean “hunger”.


This isn’t a “soul”.


Desire


Nep̱eš also came to mean appetites in general, as in Dt. 23:24: “If you go into your neighbor’s vineyard, you may eat your fill of grapes, as many as you nep̱eš.” Here, it’s used as a verb and accurately translated as “wish”, as in desire.


This usage naturally spilled over into human passions in general, as when Hannah was weeping and crying out to God for a child. She said, “I have been pouring out my nep̱eš before Yahweh” (1 Sam. 1:15).


What was Hannah metaphorically pouring out? Her strong passion to have children. This abstraction is nep̱eš too. It’s even used of crying infants (Lam. 2:12).


This isn’t even close to a “soul”.


Breath


Interesting fact: “Breath” is also from the Hebrew word רוּחַ (roo´-akh), which is translated into Greek as πνεῦμα (pnyoo´-mah) (as in pneumonia).


Why is this interesting?


Because this is the word for “spirit”, meaning that “soul” and “spirit” were used interchangeably. This is true of the Hebrew Old Testament as well as the Greek New Testament.


They’re synonymous in usage.


That’s why dichotomous theologians (where there’s only a soul/spirit and a body) bring this up in their arguments, but there’s more to it.


For instance, what do you think nep̱eš means in this verse: “the nep̱eš departed” from Rachel when she died (Gen. 35:18)?


From our perspective, it sounds like her soul left her body.


But is this what happened? Is that what the language means? Is that what the Hebrew audience would have thought?


No. No. No!


First, nep̱eš never means “soul”.


Second, as “desire” developed from the throat’s function of swallowing food, “breath” did too, as when God “breathed into” Adam “the breath of life” (Gen. 2:7).


It’s not that Rachel’s soul left her body and flew far away into the spirit realm (as we might picture it), but it was her breath. And it didn’t literally depart from her—as if it packed up its belongings and skipped away into a cloud.


She stopped breathing. She died.


That’s it.


Although it can appear similar to our understanding of a “soul”, that is not at all the case. It’s extremely close to the idea of life, so it’s easy to see how nep̱eš as “breath” naturally spilled over into the next category.


Life


When Elijah resuscitated a dead child, the text says, “And the nep̱eš of the child came into him again, and he revived” (1 Kings 17:21). The King James Version translated this (in 1611) as “soul”, and many modern people who read this think of a “soul” as a disembodied spirit, so they picture a spirit entering back into the boy.


But that’s not what the word means. At all. Ever.


It means “life” here.


These are some examples of nep̱eš that will hopefully convince you of this:

  • Sea life is called “swarms of nep̱eš creatures” (Gen. 1:20)

  • Don't “eat the flesh with its nep̱eš in it, that is, its blood” (Gen. 9:4)

  • When Abram’s family took “all their possessions that they had gathered and the nep̱eš they had acquired” (Gen. 12:5)

  • “Whoever touches the dead nep̱eš of a person shall be unclean” (Num. 19:11)

  • “If anyone kills a nep̱eš, the murderer will be put to death” (Num. 35:30)

If nep̱eš means “soul”, then we should believe that fish are souls, blood is a soul, Abram had a collection of souls, and souls can die and even be touched.


Rather, fish don’t have souls, they are living things.


A murderer is someone who kills a person, not a “soul”.


Abram had a collection of servants, not ghosts, even as life is in the blood, not a spirit.


Hopefully, this proves the point: there is no such thing as “soul”, at least not how we think of it.


How Plato Warped Christian Theology


Where did this idea come from? Or more importantly: why do many Christians think it’s in the Bible?


The lingering influence of Pagan philosophy on Christianity today began with Plato and his contemporaries.


Plato himself was inspired by an earlier philosopher, Pythagoras (as in the Pythagorean theorem). He was fascinated by mathematics and he invented helpful innovations in it that are still used today.


What was so interesting about math?


It’s more precise than anything we meet in nature. In this sense, it’s the only perfect thing we can interface with this way.


For example, is there such a thing as a perfectly straight line in the world?


Anywhere?


No, because the closer you look at any line, the more imperfections and deviations you will discover.


Not so with math. In the realm of math, a line is perfectly straight, a circle is perfectly round, and 1 is exactly 1.


In the world of math, everything is100% and perfectly predictable.


And unlike physical things, they won’t ever decay, grow old, or change.


Plato was also fascinated by this realization, which planted a seed in the world of ideas that is still bearing fruit today.


“What is a perfect chair?”, he pondered. Every chair has differences and defects, so the only “perfect” chair is a mental construct.


It’s the idea of a chair.


This is what he called forms. Forms only exist in the abstract realm of the mind.


But they exist, nevertheless.


It’s not difficult to see how this evolved into a foundational worldview shifter where ideas are more important than anything in this reality.

Ideas, like math, were the only eternally perfect thing in an otherwise decaying universe (to them).


Ideas were ideal.


From this root, Plato’s theory branched out. Influenced by his mentor, Socrates, Plato subscribed to the concept of a soul.


For him, a soul was:

  • The essence of a person

  • Incorporeal (non-physical)

  • Composed of the intellect, the emotions, and the will

  • The perfect opposite of a material body

  • Everlasting in its duration

  • Eternally pre-existent in its origin

  • Reborn, or trapped, in subsequent bodies (reincarnation)

Can you guess which one of these Plato favored: the intellect, emotions, or will?


The intellect!


Why?


It’s immaterial so it can interact with the perfect world of ideas, while emotions and urges of the body only hinder intellectual purity.


Plato also taught that the soul was unwillingly subjected to an unfortunate vehicle—the human body. This inferior material prison was thought to decay the purity of the soul and delude the purity of the intellect.


Does any of this sound familiar?


It should.


Because it produced Gnosticism, which then produced strands of Gnostic Christianity, which has oozed down church history to this very moment. Before flying over the early history of the church, let's peek at the New Testament to see if Plato's soul is hiding in there.


How Does the Greek Use "Soul"?


The Jews compiled a Greek translation of the Old Testament, called the Septuagint (LXX), in the 3rd century B.C. It varies from the Hebrew text considerably in certain places, but it is also relied on and quoted by the New Testament authors more than the Hebrew version (the Masoretic text, or MT), even though they were familiar with both.


Why is it written in Greek instead of Hebrew?


Greek was the lingua franca of the entire Meditteranean region, so it's telling that the New Testament authors don't write it in their native Hebrew or Aramaic. It points to the international scope of the new covenant, which is aimed at all nations.


It adapts to the target audience with the gospel in mind.


Now to the point: How does the LXX translate nep̱eš?


Usually as ψυχη, the Greek equivalent (psoo-khay, as in psychology), but often as:

  • A pronoun like "himself" or "you" (Gen. 14:21, Deut. 12:15)

  • Person (Num. 31:19)

  • Desire (Deut. 12:14)

  • Body (Gen. 36:6)

  • Refreshment (Ex. 23:12)

  • Breath (Josh. 10:28)

  • Life (Judges 16:16)

  • Swallowing (Prov. 23:7)

The LXX never translates the Hebrew word nep̱eš as "soul".


Now to the million-dollar question, the pinnacle of this argumentation: how does the New Testament use the word "soul"?


Some people believe the Platonic image of the soul is in fact in the New Testament because, they say, the Hellenization (Greek influence) of Judaism had already infiltrated the New Testament church with Platonic doctrines.


This is certainly in the realm of possibilities, even as many scholars suppose that Persian Zoarastrianism (an ancient dualistic religion similar in some ways to Platonism) influenced Judaism during Israel's time under Persian rule.


The New Testament is listed as using ψυχη over a hundred times for:

  • Any living creature (Rev. 16:3)

  • A life (Mt. 2:20)

  • Being alive (Rom. 7:1)

  • Feelings (Lk. 2:35)

  • Thoughts or desires (Php. 1:27)

Certain usages of ψυχη are difficult to distinguish, as in Mt. 10:39, where Jesus said, "Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it."


What kind of life is he talking about?


Is this the life of the soul that departs after death to live on in heaven or hell?


Greek scholars debate if this specific usage may refer to "a particular quality of life" (Louw & Nida; entry 23.114). This is conceptually similar to an immaterial life, but it does not have Platonism in mind, but rather the kind of life one has without refererence to an afterlife.


Others think this word instead can refer here to a"life principle" that leaves the body at death (BDAG, under Lk. 12:20).


Others insist that it may instead refer to the "inner self", as in the mind, feelings, or desire (as in Ac 2:41, Rom. 2:9). This usage is tantamount to the Hebrew for "desire", making it synonymous in usage with heart and mind (see the Hebrew paralellism in Deut. 6:4).


Three of these usages could be used in ways that sound similar to Plato's soul, but the evidence is flimsy for arguing that the New Testament authors intended this nuance.


In fact, the top Greek scholars warn that "Even in contexts in which ψυχή refers to existence beyond death", it is likely, "referring figuratively to the person." (Louw & Nida; 26.4). If this is the case, then, this usage goes no further than the ones already listed under nep̱eš for "life".


That "life", rather than "soul", is in mind, is supported by such passages as Acts 2:27, where Peter quotes the Psalms about Jesus: "you will not abandon my soul to Hades". It sounds like he's speaking about the soul as an entity living in the afterlife, until the Hebrew context in which this is found is considered.


Peter is quoting Psalm 16:8, a poem which uses language that is certainly metaphorical, as nep̱eš (which never means "soul" in Hebrew), and "Sheol" (which meant death, the grave (Ps. 6:5, 9:17), even sorrow (Ps. 86:13, 88:3)).


What about this verse:"Fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell" (Mt. 10:28)?


This is admitantly the hardest usage of "soul" in the Bible to not read in a Platonic way, because it can easily sound like Jesus is saying that the soul is an immaterial life force that goes on to live in the afterlife.


But is this the case?


It if was, it would be a rare usage foreign to the Hebrew perspective and language behind it.


But more: if this was the case, it would need to be first proven that Jesus did not have "life", "life force", or "quality of life" in mind.


This challenge is difficult to convincingly do, since there is a lack of evidence to support it.


Jesus' point is that God alone should be feared because he alone can actually reach beyond the body to a person's very life. For Jesus, and most orthodox Jews in the first century, to live after death was to be resurrected–not as a ghost or spirit, but in a physical body (like Jesus's).


Resurrection was the life that Jesus promised those who followed him, which started in this life, but lasted forever (Jn. 5:21, 17:3).


It therefore seems most likely that he is saying that God alone has the ability to destroy a person's life., in this life and in the next.


This interpretation is also supported by John's gospel, which says that "the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live...those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment" (Jn. 5:25-29).


It is therefore unlikely that Jesus has Plato's soul in mind because:

  • It is foreign to the Hebrew perspective

  • It is foreign to the Hebrew language

  • It is not supported by Greek scholarship

  • It is not supported by the Greek usage in the New Testament

  • It is not supported by any other passage in the gospels

  • It contradicts a great amount of Biblical theology

It is most probable that Jesus is simply saying that we should not fear people who can merely hurt our bodies but who cannot truly harm our lives.


Only God has that ability.


Gnosticism in Early Christianity


Gnosticism is an umbrella term that refers to several variations of Platonic offshoots, but they are rooted in common themes:

  • A strong dichotomy between the material and the immaterial

  • Highly valuing the immaterial over the material

  • Anti-physical, anti-body, anti-cosmic

  • The belief in immaterial souls

  • The belief that souls are trapped in inferior matter (bodies)

  • People are blind to their prison by their bodily lusts

  • Only special knowledge (gnosis) can open their eyes

  • Only special knowledge can save them

  • Salvation is going to an immaterial heaven

Gnostic Christians infused these ideas into the Biblical story, defining terms like “soul”, “heaven”, and “salvation” according to Platonism.


Then they reinterpreted the story of Adam and Eve so that Yahweh was just one of many gods. He was actually an ignorant god because he wrongfully trapped souls in the prison of physicality.


Then the serpent tried to free the humans by giving them secret wisdom.


The gnosis.


In the Gnostic gospel, the serpent is the hero trying to save humanity so we can escape our bodies to go to heaven.


In the Gnostic perspective, no god would become a physical person, because this is antithetical to gnostic values. They rather taught that Jesus appeared to be resurrected (docetism).


As early as the first century, these ideas were swimming in the same air as the gospel.


This explains why the New Testament authors so frequently defend the good of physicality against Gnostic themes, especially concerning Jesus’s resurrected body:

  • “See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me and see.” (Lk. 24:39)

  • “For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (Lk. 24:39)

  • “And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet” (Lk. 24:40)

  • John wrote about “that which…we have heard…seen with our eyes…and have touched with our hands” (1 Jn. 1:1)

Paul also combated the gnostic heresy:

  • “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy” (Col. 2:8)

  • “Avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called ‘knowledge’” (gnosis) (1 Tim. 6:20)

  • He exalted Jesus as the only source of knowledge, “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3)

  • The Gnostic disdain of the body “has an appearance of wisdom…but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (Co. 2:23)

Many of the Gnostic themes listed above were read into the Bible for centuries, which is why Christians today still believe this line of thought. They’ve been led to read the Bible like this because that’s how the Catholics read it, then the Reformers, then the Puritans, and now Evangelicals.


That’s why when people see words like “soul”, “heaven”, or “salvation”, they imagine this narrative.


Gnostic thought has saturated Western Christianity, even some parts of Western culture.

Interestingly, this satanic gospel inspired many items in pop culture cinema, such as movies like The Matrix, The Truman Show, Vanilla Sky, The Thirteenth Floor, Dark City, and The Da Vinci Code.


These movies perpetuate the theme that we’re souls imprisoned in awful bodies and we need to be delivered so we can go to the real world.


The spirit realm.


But this is far from the Biblical narrative.


What God designed for us is far greater than this myth.


What God promises for us is far greater than being a disembodied ghost in a cloud. Read here for the forgotten hope of Christianity.


The Gnosticism of the Church Fathers


After the apostles died out, the waves of gnostic propaganda continually crashed against the delicate front of Christian theology, slowly eroding it.


Then cracking it.


Then filling it with Gnostic, Platonic perversions.


While some apologists fought against the Gnostic heresy (like Irenaeus), most Christians fell into Platonism by borrowing the pagan idea of an immaterial, immortal soul, teaching that God infused it to the body at conception, where it would remain until death.


Yet the most influential church fathers got the most drunk from Platonism’s toxic tonic.


One of the most notable church fathers who swallowed Gnostic thought was Origen. Like Plato, Origen also taught:

  • The superiority of immateriality

  • The immateriality of the soul

  • The immortality of the soul

  • The reincarnation of souls

Like Plato, Origen perpetuated the idea that the soul was the superior and truest part of a person, but that it was trapped in an obscenely soiled prison—a physical body.


Like Plato, Origen taught that the body should be starved of pleasures, but the intellect should be gorged with knowledge (gnosis).


True to his philosophy, Origen was a scholar who eventually castrated himself.


Another notable church father who drank deeply from Gnosticism was Augustine.

Like Origin, Augustine was a prolific writer and a popular teacher.


In fact, it is an undisputed fact that Augustine has had more of an impact on the course of Christian thought than any other person since.

Some argue that he influenced the church as much as the apostle Paul.


Perhaps more.


That should feel like a splash of ice water.


On all accounts, Augustine was a brilliant, passionate, and noble man. To his credit, he taught:

  • For the goodness of creation

  • Against the idea of polytheism (that there are numerous gods)

  • That the church is one, united entity

  • Augustine did and said many decent things.

But Augustine didn’t have access to the Jewish context of the Bible. Augustine did not:

  • Read Greek or Hebrew

  • Have a Greek or Hebrew Bible

  • Know about Ancient Mesopotamian culture (the Old Testament context)

  • Know about Greek or Roman culture (the New Testament context)

  • Know Hebrew culture (the main Biblical context)

  • Know about the non-canonical Jewish writings that influenced the New Testament

  • Know how different Hebrews thought or communicated

Augustine was nearly 400 years removed from the Jewish context of Jesus, so he was unfamiliar with their culture or way of life.


That’s about as far removed as we are today from the Puritans who fled from King James in the 17th century.


And worse, he was also heavily steeped in Greek philosophy. Before becoming a Christian, he was a Manichaean, then a Neoplatonist (both of which are gnostic).


Neoplatonism is just Platonism that’s more developed and repackaged, and it is Gnostic in many respects.


Here are some Neoplatonic elements in Augustine’s teachings:

  • Humans have a body and a soul

  • The soul is an immaterial entity

  • The soul is the supreme part of a person

  • Souls eternally pre-existed in an immaterial heaven

  • The soul is imprisoned in the body

  • The fall of humans resulted in being embodied

  • Salvation is defined as returning to an immaterial heaven

  • Salvation is acquired by knowledge (gnosis) and putting off the body

This may shock some followers of Augustine, but early on he wrote that the soul is immaterial, pre-existent, and trapped in a burden of a body awaiting release into the ethereal realm.


In his work Against the Academicians, he said, “…and having shown on earth some signs, as it were, of things to come, will it [the soul] not hasten back to heaven when the burden of the entire body will have been cast off?”


Platonism all over again.


Augustine’s influence cannot be overstated. His creeds set the examples for creeds thereon after. His teachings became the standards of the church (the “Rule of Saint Augustine”). He even had friars and strands of monasticism based on his conclusions.


Augustinianism was born out of Paganism and Christianity, yet this hybrid lodged itself in Western Christianity, growing inside as Christianity covered the globe.


That's why everywhere Western Christianity spreads, Gnostic ideals are always present.


Martin Luther himself was an Augustinian monk, even as John Calvin demonstrates his dependence on Augustine by quoting him extensively in his Institutes. And like Luther and Calvin, Huldrych Zwingli was also an avid student of Augustine.


What’s the point?


  1. Augustine did not read the Bible like a first-century Hebrew

  2. Augustine did not read the Bible like a first-century Christian

  3. Augustine read the Bible like a 5th century, Gnostic Platonist

  4. Augustine was the main influence on the Catholic Church

  5. Augustine was the main influence on the Reformers

  6. The Reformers are the main influence on how Western Christians read the Bible

  7. Therefore, most Christians today unknowingly read the Bible through an Augustinian, Gnostic, Platonic lens

  8. Most Christians today (unknowingly) misunderstand the Bible according to Gnostic themes, rather than Biblical themes

What’s So Bad About Gnosticism?


This view, which the early church considered a heresy, denies the goodness of God’s blessings in creation, which has a negative impact on our lives.


In this view:

  • Emotions are useless

  • Bodily urges are hindrances or

  • Bodily urges can be indulged in indefinitely because they don’t matter

  • Physical health doesn’t matter

  • Taking care of others' bodies doesn’t matter

  • The environment isn’t important

  • How we live isn’t that important

  • Only believing and teaching correct (gnostic) ideas is important

The fruit of Platonism always views theories over actions, the abstract over the concrete, the immaterial over the material, the spiritual over the physical.


This is antithetical to Biblical values.


This is also why Evangelical and Catholic sex scandals should not be surprising.


Platonism essentially turns people into machines that memorize doctrinal theories while awaiting an immaterial eternity in a mathematical “heaven”.


And that’s not a coincidence: machines operate on the language of math.


But God didn't design us to be machines.


He didn't make us to suppress our physicality. He didn't create us with bodies to ignore our bodies.


He designed us to be so much more.


This doesn’t mean that whatever “us“ truly is doesn’t go on to live in the presence of God. Believers definitely go immediately into the presence of God after passing into death.

The point if this article is:

  • This is not how the word “soul“ is used in the Bible

  • The afterlife is not “spiritual” in the sense of being immaterial

  • God’s plan for us was and remains a physical existence, as we see in Eden, and in the new Eden (Revelation 21-22)

Instead of having a Platonic view of the soul, we should have a Biblical view of the physical:

  • Physicality is “very good” (Gen. 1-2)

  • God made us as physical bodies

  • God invented sex and it’s good

  • God gave us good desires

  • God gave us good emotions

  • God gave us a good physical creation to live in

  • God designed us to enjoy physical blessings

  • God designed us to give physical blessings

  • God designed us to live out our human calling in a physical context

  • Jesus resurrected into a physical body

  • Jesus will resurrect his saints in physical bodies (1Cor. 15)

  • Jesus will recreate a new physical heaven and earth (Rom. 8, 2 Pt. 3, Rev. 21-22)

He designed us to be so much more.


In the Biblical view of humanity, it matters:

  • How we live

  • How we use our bodies

  • How we treat our bodies

  • How we live out our sexuality

  • How we live out our emotions

  • How we balance our urges

  • How we treat each other's bodies

  • How we treat the planet

  • That we hope in a physical recreation of the old creation

God didn't make us to hope in an immaterial, disembodied "heaven", "But according to his promise we are waiting for a new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells" (2 Pet. 3:13).


To learn more about the physicality of the afterlife, read this about the dimension of heaven.