What the Bible Really Teaches About the Immaterial Soul

Scripture Text: "Now the just shall live by faith: but if any man draw back, my soul shall have no pleasure in him" (Hebrews 10:38).

Introductory Remarks

Though the majority of Christian churches do teach Scripturally on the subject of the indestructability and immateriality of the human soul, a small, but vocal minority still insists (using philosophic texts from God's word) that men and women essentially cease to exist upon the expiration of their last breath.  We want to reach beyond a superficial understanding of this subject and ask: If a soul is a body, does God have such a body?  For, in our Scripture reading, above, God himself declares that a Christian must live by faith, but if any of us should draw back God's own soul will be displeased.  We want to suggest on today that the word "soul" does not always mean the entire physical person, but the immaterial person (as context determines and permits).  We will demonstrate this below.

 The Late David Burge: An Example of Asking the Wrong Questions About a Text

The late David Burge, before he passed away, wrote:

What does Saul’s visit to the witch at Endor teach us about the state of the dead? (1 Samuel 28:1-20, 1 Chronicles 10:13, 14).

King Saul, rejected by God, asked a “medium” to raise up the prophet Samuel for him. This passage is often taken as evidence that the “soul” survives the death of the body. But note the following:

1. Neither the word “soul” nor the word “spirit” appears in the passage.
2. Solomon, despite being familiar with this incident, could write (only 80 years later) “the dead know nothing” (Ecclesiastes 9:5).
3. Samuel came “up from the ground”, not “down from Heaven.”
4. Samuel appeared as he had died, as “an old man in a robe.” (Do “disembodied souls” appear old? Do “immortal spirits” wear robes?).
5. Samuel asked Saul, “Why have you disturbed me?” as if he had been asleep not consciously alive in Paradise or Heaven.
6. Samuel told Saul, “Tomorrow you and your sons will be with me.” Saul did not go to heaven. At death, good and bad alike go to one place, the grave. (Source: David Burge)

First, the word soul and spirit do not have to appear in the passage: it is clear from the passage that the Witch of Endor was expecting a familiar spirit (and nowhere in the text does the Bible say it was a familiar spirit or a vison.  But it does say it was Samuel).  In fact, it is what the passage describes that tells us it was at least a spirit. Those who wish to do "damage control" by asking what the text does not say are clearly biased against the unspoken implications of the story.  If we had to rely on only what the narrative says and not on its intrinsic implications we would have to conclude the passage tells us NOTHING about the state of the dead.

Burge claims that, eighty years after this happened, Solomon was still able to write, the dead do not know anything.  Well, in fact, Solomon wrote that the dead do not know anything under the sun (Ecclessiastes 1:9).  King Solomon's discussion mentions what happens "under the sun" some thirty times.  It is clear that he is talking about the things of this world and of this physical life.  Go back and read what he says and be sure to note that he is discussing that the dead are unaware of what is going on in the world.  In our story the Prophet Samuel had no idea why in the world King Saul would disturb him and bring him up.  He definitely knew what he remembered about Saul's disobedient actions he had witnessed upon his becoming the first king of Israel (1 Samuel 15). 

Burge next claims that because Samuel came up from the ground and not down from heaven, this proves something.  This proves nothing!  What Burge and many others fail to realize is that at some time in antiquity the dead went below the earth.  The multitudes of Noah's time (including Noah and his family) all went into this world below.  In fact, the Bible clearly tells us that after Jesus descended into the lower parts of the earth that he went and preached to the spirits in prison who had been disobedient in the days of Noah.  Read what St. Peter said about it for yourself (and do not be disbelieving, but believe):--

"For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 20 because they formerly did not obey, when God's patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water" (1 Peter 3:18-20 ESV).

One has to ask, how is it that people who drowned more than two thousand years before Christ was born could be contacted and preached to in the first century?   They drowned; they did not have bodies!  They were already dead; yet the Bible says they were in prison!  How can people be incarcerated who do not still exist?  The Bible says they were in prison because they disobeyed Noah!  How could Jesus preach to spirits in prison if he was only a lifeless body in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea?  If the dead do not know anything, how did Jesus locate people who died because they refused to believe Noah?  Clearly Jesus was aware of where these people were and what they had failed to do.  And so, beloved Witness, there is more to this than you are now being taught and being told!

The truth of the matter is that everyone went down (with the exception of Enoch and Elijah, of course).  Therefore, Burge's objections (so far) are null and void! 

Next, Burge objects to this story because Samuel appears as he had died.  How else would he appear?  Does Burge even know?  This is merely a quibble!  Even in the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man, the Rich Man is able to recognize the poor man he had refused to help in this life (see:Luke 19:16-31).  He also was able to realize who Abraham was, quite possiby by his ancient appearance.  Now, it must be remembered that the resurrection and change of the saints had not happened at any time before the Parousia of Christ, so it would make sense that figures in the world of the dead would appear in a form recognizable to their former acquaintances.

Next, Burge asks, Do immortal spirits wear robes?  Well, God is an immortal spirit, does he wear robes (Isaiah 6:1)?  Such silly questions are meant to question the underlying significance of the text!  Of course, in the spirit world people can be either clothed or naked (just like in life).  First century Christians who had been killed by Zealots in their congregations, in the streets or in their homes were still cognizant of those crimes that caused them to be put to death.  But in death they still longed for the day when they would be vendicated as they waited under the altar of Herod's Temple.  See this:--

"When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne.  They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”  Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been" (Revelation 6:9-11).

Burge proves too much when he asks, "Samuel asked Saul, “Why have you disturbed me?” as if he had been asleep not consciously alive in Paradise or Heaven."  Of course Samuel was at rest!  Samuel's question to Saul assumes that his being brought up disrupted his time of rest.  Even when we go to bed at night or take a nap during the day, we do not go out of existence, do we?  Likewise, the story of Saul, the Witch of Endor and the Prophet Samuel proves that God brought Samuel up from the hadean world to pronounce final judgment on the desperate and disobedient King Saul.

Finally, it is interesting to note that Samuel issues a threat to king Saul that the Chronicler clearly believes was not, in fact, an evil spirit, but Samuel himself.  The text does not say, the "spirit" said, but Samuel said.  And what does God's word say Samuel said?  It says this: "Samuel told Saul, “Tomorrow you and your sons will be with me.” Burge thinks this proves something against the survival of the immaterial part of man after death.  It does not!  While it is perfectly true that Saul was not in heaven, that is not the point of the story, anyway.  The point of the story is that Samuel was dead; Samuel was in the world below; King Saul transgressed God's commandments by having a witch bring him up to tell him what to do about his military predicaments.  For these transgressions a looming death penalty was pronounced upon both him and his sons as soon as the very next day.

Dead Does Not Mean "Non-Existent"

As we began, we noted that God has a soul and that man, likewise, has a soul (an immaterial beingness that can survive the death of the physical body). 

13 And in the midst of the seven candlesticks one like unto the Son of man, clothed with a garment down to the foot, and girt about the paps with a golden girdle.

14 His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire;

15 And his feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace; and his voice as the sound of many waters.

16 And he had in his right hand seven stars: and out of his mouth went a sharp twoedged sword: and his countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength.

17 And when I saw him, I fell at his feet as dead. And he laid his right hand upon me, saying unto me, Fear not; I am the first and the last:

18 I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death" (Revelation 1:16-18).

How does the God who proclaimed Isaiah 44:6 allow a mere "angel" to take his title (of being the First and the Last).  How can this First and Last claim to have been dead and now is alive forevermore?  I want to suggest to you that either Jesus is inappropriately assuming God's honors upon himself, OR Jesus is someone different than what the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society represents in their doctrinal instructions.  In fact, God is immaterial and cannot go out of existence, but if Christ is claiming that he is first and the last and he was dead and is alive forever, he is claiming to be a God who died.  Dear Witness, now you have only to look back to what St. Peter said to see what Jesus did WHILE HE WAS "DEAD" (see, again, 1 Peter 3:18-20).

Conclusion

In the final analysis, what the story of Saul and the Witch of Endor indicate is a far, far cry from what groups teach who say the dead are non-existent.  Being sleep (as the Bible teaches) is not the same as going out of existence.  Can you see this?  To be sure, Samuel was asleep, but his reaction to being disturbed disproves that the Witch of Endor or King Saul " brought him back into existence."  The Bible teaches no such thing about death!  There is a difference between good questions and bad questions.  When we want to determine the significance of a text is it not proper or correct to poison the wells by asking what the passage only says: We must also discern what it implies.

The Bible does not answer the question of whether a spirit should look this way or that way; the Bible does not forbid that a spirit should have robes on; the Bible does not assume that Samuel was "up" in heaven (it assumes he was in an unseeen world below).  The Bible speaks of man as a living soul, but God's word also speaks of God (who is a spirit) as having a soul as well (Hebrews 10:38). 

Links:

Is the Holy Spirit God?

John 1:1 & Jehovah's Witnesses

Jesus is What?

Atavist Eschatology in Matthew: An Essay and Exegesis of the Olivet Discourse

What Christians Do Not Know and Jehovah's Witnesses Do