Jehovah's Witnesses and the Immortal Soul
Jehovah's Witnesses have long argued against the existence of an immortal soul. For example, the Watchtower states,
[Most churches] hold to the unscriptural doctrine that man has an immortal soul. 'Is that teaching so bad?' some may wonder. Do not forget that Satan's first lie was that sin would not bring death.the teaching that man has an immortal soul tends to further Satan's lie. It has led millions of persons into fearful dealings with demons who pose as the souls of the dead. And the doctrine makes the Bible truth about a coming resurrection meaningless.1
The charge that the doctrine of the soul is an unscriptural lie of Satan is significant, because the doctrine is central to Christian soteriology and eschatology. Is the Watchtower Society right? And, if there is no immortal soul, what would be the future of humanity?
What Happens to Us When We Die?The Society attempts to answer the second of the above questions in their new booklet, What Happens to Us When We Die (henceforth referred to as What Happens)? The Society explains, "The word 'soul' as used in the Bible refers to a person or an animal or to the life that a person or an animal enjoys."2 Because the soul is simply life of a being, the soul ceases to exist after death.3 The majority of faithful Jehovah's Witnesses, however, will be resurrected after Armageddon; they will then be given a soul, or life, that exactly duplicates their personality in a new body that will live forever on earth.4 Only 144,000 Jehovah's Witnesses will go to heaven.5
What Happens attempts to refute the doctrine of the soul using two approaches: historic and hermeneutic.
The Historical Argument
The first half of the booklet allegedly traces the historic development of the concept of an eternal soul in the world religions. There are several critical weaknesses in this section. First, the majority of the sources are out-of-date, having been written in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; a substantial amount of more recent and authoritative scholarship has been published on the subject. Second, the Society does not objectively analyze the significance of the universality of the concept of immortality. It instead simply shows that all world religions have a concept of the afterlife,implying that the "kaleidoscope of beliefs" proves that the Christian doctrine of an eternal soul is therefore inherently unreliable and unbiblical.6
Third, using a tactic that many Christians have noted in the earlier Watchtower booklet, Should You Believe in the Trinity, the Society makes unsubstantiated claims. One such claim is that the concept of an immortal soul can be traced to the worship of Nimrod at the tower of Babel.7
The Hermeneutic ArgumentThe Society's hermeneutic argument against the doctrine of the soul constitutes its most significant challenge to orthodox Christianity. The Society, through an analysis of the Hebrew word ne'phesh and the Greek word psykhe' in selective biblical passages, attempts to prove that the Bible does not teach that humans have an immortal soul.
An example of the Society's argument using the Old Testament is Genesis 2:7, which states, "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 [ne'phesh]." The Society comments, "Note that Adam did not have a soul; he was a soul - just as someone who becomes a doctor is a doctor. The word 'soul,' then, can describe a whole person."8 The booklet then cites the use of ne'phesh in Leviticus 5:1 and22:30, Deuteronomy 24:7, Judges 16:16, and Job 19:2 to show that "there is no indication in these passages that the soul is some shadowy entity that lives on after death."9 As this article will later show, however, these passages do not disprove that the soul is immortal.
The Society uses a similar argument with the word psy khe' in the New Testament. Quoting Acts 2:43 ("And fear came upon every soul"),John 12:27, Romans 13:1, 1 Thessalonians 5:14, and 1 Peter 3:20, What Happens claims that the word psy khe', like ne'phesh, refers to the whole person.10 Interestingly, the Society makes a critical mistake in its attempt to use an outside source as proof for its interpretation. The booklet quotes Nigel Turner as saying that psy khe' "signifies what is characteristically God's ruah [spirit] breathed into it. The emphasis is on the whole self."11 That the Society is using Turner out of context can be seen from his using the word ruah, the Hebrew word for spirit. If Turner were addressing the New Testament presentation of God breathing His Spirit into a soul, he would have used the Greek word pneuma for Spirit (terms used by the Society elsewhere in the booklet12). Excluding this obvious error, the numerous New Testament comments on the afterlife easily disprove the Society's teaching.
The Society uses a similar hermeneutic strategy to prove that, since the soul is merely a person's life, the soul is extinguished at death. A particularly notable example, one which also exemplifies the errors in the Watchtower's New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, is the booklet's analysis of Mark 3:4. The NWT quotes Jesus as asking, "Is it lawful on the sabbath to do a good deed or to do a bad deed, to save or to kill a soul?" The Society concludes, "The death of the soul simply means the death of the person."13 The problem is that the word soul (psy khe') does not appear in this verse. Instead, Jesus asks whether it is permissible to save or take a life (psuche). Psuche, which literally means "breath," is different from the Greek words for the immortal soul (psy khe') or for the vitality of life (zoe). The Society has deliberately inserted a different word into its Bible in order to support its doctrine.
What the Bible Really Teaches About the SoulIt is clear at this point that the Watchtower cannot be relied upon to accurately teach what the Bible teaches about the soul. Nonetheless, the existence of this booklet requires a thoughtful Christian response.
The Society is correct that the Old Testament is not explicit in its teaching about the immortal soul. Eerdmans Bible Dictionary notes,"As with other terms such as 'body,' 'heart,' and 'spirit,' 'soul' does not designate a part of a human being, but rather the whole person considered from one particular aspect of functioning. As such, it represents primarily the life force of the body or the inner life of the person, encompassing desires and emotions."14
This does not settle the matter, however, because Christian doctrine is not formed solely upon one section of the Bible. The most effective interpreter of Scripture is Scripture; all Scripture is inspired by God,who does not contradict Himself.15 The Old Testament passages about the soul must be therefore understood in context with the New Testament.
In reference to the patriarchs of the Old Testament, Jesus said that Moses' reference to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob shows that Jehovah is God of the living;16 the patriarchs are therefore alive with God, and thus their souls are immortal. The appearance of Moses and Elijah at the Transfiguration also proves this point17 - God would be cruel to temporarily resurrect the prophets for that moment,only to kill them again.
The Society frequently quotes Ecclesiastes 9:5, 10 to prove that the soul is extinguished at death, "The dead know not any thing, for there is no work, nor device, no knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest." The problem for the Society is that this passage does not necessarily teach the annihilation of the soul. Because Ecclesiastes contrasts two opposing perspectives of the world - the human perspective, and the perspective given through God's revelation - many Christian scholars understand this passage to be stating that, from a fatalistic human perspective, the dead are conscious of nothing.18 Other Christian scholars understand the passage to mean that the dead are conscious of nothing in that continues to happen in the physical realm.19
Support for the conclusions of Christian scholars about Ecclesiastes can be found in the New Testament, which teaches that believers who have died currently experience unsurpassable joy,20 while unbelievers suffer conscious torment.21 These passages clarify the statement that "there is no work, nor device" in the grave. Ecclesiastes 9, when taken in context with New Testament passages describing the judgment of Christ,22 show that there is nothing that can be done to improve the morality or spirituality of actions after death, for humans live only once and then face judgment.23
ConclusionThe answer to the question asked by the Watchtower Society's new booklet, What Happens to Us When We Die, is not the answer given by the Society. While the Bible does use the word soul to refer to the mortal life, it also clearly refers to that part of humans that exists eternally. This understanding is crucial, because the ultimate state of a person's eternal soul depends on whether one has a relationship with Jesus Christ.
1 Happiness - How to Find It, Brooklyn,NY: The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, 1980, p. 171.
2 What Happens to Us When We Die?, Brooklyn, NY: The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, 1998, p. 20.
3 Ibid., p. 22.
4 Ibid., pp. 26-28.
5 Ibid., p. 27.
6 Ibid., p. 17.
7 Ibid., p. 7.
8 Ibid., p. 19.
10 Ibid., pp. 19-20.
11 Ibid., p. 20. Insertion and ellipses in original.
12 Ibid., p. 24.
13 Ibid., p. 22.
14 The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary, s.v. "soul."
15 2 Timothy 3:15-16; 2 Peter 1:21.
16 Luke 20:37-38.
17 Matthew 17:3.
18 Ron Rhodes, Reasoning from the Scriptures with the Jehovah's Witnesses, Eugene, Or: Harvest House, 1993, pp. 321-22.
19 Ibid., p. 323.
20 Philippians 1:23.
21 Luke 16:22, 23; Mark 9:47, 48; Revelation19:20.
22 See Matthew 25.
23 Hebrews 9:27.