Michael Boling – What Happens When You Die: Was Man Created a Living Soul or a Living Being?

Now that we have established the stark difference between the Greek and Hebrew/biblical understanding of the nature of man, we can begin to examine what God outlines for us in Scripture regarding this doctrine. As with anything in Scripture, in particular when it comes to the biblical doctrine of man, any discussion on this topic must begin in Genesis.

We are told in Genesis how God made man:

“And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” (Genesis 1:2-27)

“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)

We have some basic facts provided to us in these passages. First, God made man in His image, giving man dominion over creation. Secondly, and perhaps most germane to this conversation is man was formed from the dust of the ground and was given life by God breathing into man the breath of life. When and only when God breathed into man the breath of life, man became something.

Now it is this something that forms much of the crux of the “what happens when you die” debate. Some translations (such as the KJV which I quoted above), state “man became a living soul”. Others translate this portion of Genesis 2:7 as “man became a living being”. What if any difference exists between the terms soul and being? Actually, at least in how the term soul is typically applied in much of today’s theology, there is a significant difference between what many understand how to define soul and what the biblical definition actually provides.

Before we dive into the establishment of a foundational understanding of the term soul, we must back up a second and take a look at the terms “breathed” and “breath”. In doing so, we will identify what allowed man to become a living soul/being.

God breathed into man the breath of life. These are important terms to understand, in particular as they are presented from the Hebraic/biblical mindset. It is common knowledge that in order for one to be alive, they have to be breathing. Stop breathing and you are quite frankly dead. Even if assisted breathing devices are what is allowing an individual to breath, it is still the process of breathing (albeit through a machine), that keeps the person alive.

In Genesis, we see God forming man from the dust of the earth (an important element we will return to later in our study). Then God breathes into man which animates the created body. The word translated as “breathed” is the Hebrew verb naphach, meaning “to blow out”, in this case air. God breathed into man something very specific – the breath of life. The word translated as “breath is the Hebrew noun nĕshamah, meaning breath. As noted by C. Ryder Smith, “As the text in Genesis implies, it is something from outside that God gives to man. Man is not neshamah, but has it.”[1] Thus, because man has the breath of life given by God, man then becomes something.

What does Genesis state man became once God breathed into man the breath of life? Man became what is noted in Hebrew as nephesh chayyah (living being). It is the term often translated as “soul” that becomes the source of debate if you will. What is a nephesh? Is it a soul in the idea of something that is or can become removed from the physical body? Or does nephesh define the entirety of what makes up a man? This is where we begin to note the important differences between Greek and Hebrew/biblical thought in the pages of Scripture.

In the Hebraic/biblical mindset and definition of terms, nephesh means something substantially different. Jewish scholar Neil Gillman saliently notes the following:

“In Greek thought, the soul is a distinctive entity which preexists the life of the person, enters the body at birth, separates from the body at death and continues to exist in some supernal realm.

The Bible, in contrast, portrays each human as a single entity, clothed in clay-life flesh which is animated or vivified by a life-giving spark or impulse variously called ruah, nefesh, neshamah, or nishmat hayyim.

In the later tradition, these terms came to be understood as synonymous with the Greek “soul.” But this identification is not in the Bible. The term “nefesh” signifies the neck or the throat (as in Psalm 69:2), or the breath (that passes through the throat, as in Job 41:13), or the life-blood (as in Leviticus (17:10-11). By extension, it signifies a living human being since it refers to the two characteristics that make a person alive: Breath and blood. When Exodus 1:5 numbers Jacob’s progeny as “seventy nefesh,” it means simply seventy persons, not seventy disembodied “souls.”[2]

Man became something when God breathed into man the breath of life. It is clear the correct definitely is not that a disembodied soul was placed into the physical body of man that resulted in man having life. Such a position is entirely a pagan Greek Platonic notion. Scripture teaches that God gave man (and by extension all of humanity from that point forward) the break of life and that breathe of life results in man as a living being. Nephesh represents the entirety of man. The idea of a soul that somehow is able to be separate at any point from the physical body is a concept foreign to the Hebraic/biblical position found in Scripture, most notably in the creation story found in Genesis.

Life and the ability to main life comes from God. It is a gift to us from the Creator. It is that breathe of life which makes us a living being.
Do we have a soul or are we a soul? According to Genesis 2:7, we are a living being. Nephesh refers to man as a living person, not a physical body that has a soul that can depart somewhere upon death. It is high time we recognize the negative influence of Greek pagan philosophy on our understanding of the nature of man. This process begins with recognizing how God created man as outlined in Genesis 1-2.

References:

[1] C. Ryder Smith, The Bible Doctrine of Man (Eugene: WIPF and Stock, 2009), 6.
[2] Neil Gillman, The Death of Death (Woodstock: Jewish Lights, 1997), 76.

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