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And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul (Gk. psuche); but rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell (Gehenna), (Matt. 10:28).

This verse has been quoted in support of the belief that man has an immortal soul, although it clearly teaches the opposite. If Jesus had used hades some might argue that he was referring to some form of cleansing process after death, such as purgatory. But Jesus used Gehenna, a metaphor for utter destruction. So while it is obvious that this verse contradicts the doctrine of the immortal soul, the fact that no human can destroy our soul raises two questions: what did Jesus mean by psuche (soul) and what happens to that soul after death?

What is the soul in Matt. 10:28?

The Greek word psuche literally means ‘breath,’ but in the New Testament it is obviously being used metaphorically because in all the 58 passages where psuche is translated ‘soul’ it means a person, as when Luke informs us that there were 276 souls in the ship (Acts 27:37). Psuche is translated ‘life’ on 40 occasions, as when Paul promised that there would be no loss of life among those 276 souls. Psuche is also translated ‘mind’ three times and ‘heart’ once. Moreover in every case it relates exclusively to human beings.* Combining these uses, we see that psuche basically means a living person; a person as distinct from an animal. But within this broad definition there are many different shades of meaning, depending on the context.

The passage under consideration is unique in scripture as it speaks of a psuche that cannot be killed. We are seeking to understand the particular meaning that Jesus is attaching to the word psuche. What is the psuche that is not killed when the body is killed? Jesus is using psuche as a metaphor for something that in some way outlasts the death of our natural or animal bodies. In this passage psuche does not simply mean ‘animal life,’ as defined by Young, so the meaning may be found by exploring the differences between man and the animals.*

Difference between man and animals

The essential differences are summarised in Genesis 1:26. Man alone was created ‘in the image of God.’ Genesis 1 does not explain what is meant by God’s image but clearly it does not relate to our physical bodies which, like those of all animals, are designed to survive and reproduce in a competitive material world. The detail is in Genesis 2 and 3, where we learn about abilities we share with God. Here we find God giving man language which enables us to understand abstract concepts such as good and evil. We are also endowed with consciousness of self, with consciousness of an authority outside ourselves and with the freewill to control our instinctive patterns of behaviour. None of these mental faculties is present in the animal kingdom.

Animals in nature are driven entirely by instincts imprinted on their genes. They have no conscious control over their instincts, which determine how they react to their environment. Man’s consciousness of self gives him the unique capacity to control his instincts and modify his environment by the exercise of freewill. It is this freewill that determines the kind of characters we become.

Since unenlightened men are ‘like the beasts that perish’ (Ps. 49:12), the ‘image of God’ cannot refer to any inherent divine goodness. So it must refer to our divine potential. Being in the image of God does not make us virtuous because there is no guarantee that we will use our abilities for good. We are all endowed with freewill and, as in the parable of the talents, we are responsible for how we use our talents. We have the choice as to how we use our divine image. Those who believe man has an immortal soul assume it means that we are born with a divine self. But Scripture makes it clear that this has to be developed, as explained in Col. 3:9-10 NRSV:

Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.

A new or divine self is only acquired through knowledge of the word of God. Jesus Christ, who was ‘the word made flesh’, is the only perfectly developed image of God and only by striving to follow in his footsteps can we be conformed to the image of the son of God (Rom.8:29). We suggest, therefore, that the psuche or soul referred to by Jesus in Matthew 10:28 is the character we have developed over our lifetime, which we hope will be found ‘unblameable in holiness at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (I Thes.3:13). This brings us to the second question: in what way does this soul or character survive death of the body and remain until the coming of the Lord and the day of judgement?

What happens to this soul after death?

The Bible makes it abundantly clear that at death we lose consciousness and cease to think:

For in death there is no remembrance of thee; in Sheol who can give thee praise? (Ps. 6:5)

Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no help. When his breath departs he returns to his earth; on that very day his plans perish. (Ps. 146:3)

So where does this psuche, in Matthew 10:28, which man cannot kill, go when the body dies? This is a question raised but not answered by Solomon: “Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down to the earth?” (Ecc. 3:21).

Orthodox Christianity asserts that we have an inborn divine soul that goes to heaven, assuring continuity of consciousness after death. In refuting this false hope there is a danger that we may go to the other extreme in stating that our character or soul ceases to exist in any way until the resurrection. Scripture teaches that there is a continuity in the sense that a record of our character, continues its existence in divine ‘books.’ This theme runs through Scripture, especially in the apocalyptic books of Daniel and Revelation:

…at that time your people shall be delivered, every one whose name shall be found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life and some to shame and everlasting contempt. (Dan. 12:1-2)

He who conquers shall be clad in white garments and I will not blot his name out of the book of life ( Rev. 3:5)

…and all who dwell on earth will worship it (the beast) every one whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb that was slain. (Rev. 13:8)

And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, by what they had done. (Rev. 20:12)

There are other references to this symbolic book of life in Scripture. Moses offers to have his name blotted out from God’s book (Ex. 32:32); Malachi refers to a book of remembrance of those who feared the LORD (Mal. 3:16), and Paul alludes to his fellow workers whose names were in the book of life (Phil. 4:3).

It is evident from the passage in Rev.20 that there are two kinds of books; the Lamb’s book of life recording the names of the saints and also books of judgement. The opening of the books coincides with the resurrection and the judgement, and the verdict will depend on whether our names are written in the Lamb’s book of life. The ‘books’ are metaphors for the divine ‘memory’ which stores our characters, or souls. Just as God retains a perfect record of our character, so we, to a very limited extent, have the record of saints of old, as we sing in our hymn 261:

Those characters shall firm remain,
Our everlasting trust,
When gems and monuments and crowns
Have mouldered into dust.

The stupendous miracle of the resurrection involves not just the re-creation of a body, it involves the restoration of a person, a unique individual, a character or soul that has been forged during the passage of a life time. The resurrection of the just involves the fusion of this psuche or soul, stored in the divine memory, into a celestial (heavenly) body.

Resurrection of the dead

With this concept in mind, we can understand more fully the Scripture metaphor that likens death to sleep. We can also appreciate why the resurrection at the last day is called the ‘resurrection of the dead,’ or the ‘resurrection of the just.’ It is never described as the resurrection of the body. The phrase ‘resurrection of the body’ occurs in various creeds but not in the Bible. This does not mean that a body is not raised but it suggests that the resurrection is more about characters than about bodies. The miracle of the resurrection is that it involves the re-creation of a whole person composed of body, soul (character) and spirit (life).

Conclusion

In refuting the doctrine of the immortality of the soul we can easily show that Matthew 10:28 teaches the opposite but we also need to be able to provide a convincing explanation of what Jesus meant when he said that it is not possible for anyone except God to destroy a human soul. The scriptural concept of divine ‘books,’ or’ records’ seems to provide a satisfactory answer. It also provides a good explanation of Peter’s assurance that our inheritance is ‘reserved in heaven’ (I Peter 1:4).

Alan Fowler

Footnotes

* In this respect psuche differs from the closely related Old Testament Hebrew word nephesh which, unlike psuche, is also applied to animals, as in Genesis 1:20-24, where it is translated ‘creature.’ Of course this does not support the Hindu doctrine of a universal ‘soul’ shared by both humans and animals and the belief in the transmigration of souls. Neither nephesh nor psuche carries any hint of immortality.

Quotations from the RSV unless otherwise stated

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