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What Does the Bible Teach about Disembodied Souls?
By Alin Christoph Cucu
In my previous articles (here and here), I have argued that a view that regards the human soul as a substantial entity is philosophically superior to both materialism and property dualism, and that such a view must take into account the soul’s intimate relationship to the body to do justice to the biblical account of human beings.
In this article, I address the question whether the Bible teaches that souls can exist disembodied, for which the substantial view of the soul is a precondition. In theological terms, the question is whether there is an intermediate state of the human being between death and resurrection.
The soul in the Old Testament
The basis for understanding how humans are made up is, of course, found in the creation account:
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. (Gen 2:7, KJV)
“Soul” is the translation of the Hebrew word nephesh. Does nephesh refer to a substantial soul? This does not seem to be the idea here, as evidenced by the fact that other relatively literal translations pick different terms (ESV: “living creature”, Segond 21: “être vivant”), indicating that nephesh describes the embodied man as now being alive through animation by God‘s breath of life (Hebrew, ruach). Still, the verse has a dualistic flavor: matter (“dust of the ground”) alone is not enough to produce a human being. It takes an extra ingredient, and that ingredient is clearly immaterial. Whether that ingredient is a soul separable from the body, however, cannot be inferred from the context of Genesis 2.
Another reference from Genesis citing nephesh is the passage where Rachel dies:
And as her soul was departing (for she was dying)... (Gen 35:18, ESV)
At first glance, this sounds exactly like a description of Schiavonetti’s drawing. However, less literal translations paraphrase the sentence in a metaphysically less demanding way (e.g., NIRV: “she took her last breath”).
Another interesting verse appears in Ecclesiastes:
And the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it. (Eccl 12:7, ESV)
This verse describes a sort of reversal of the creation process in Genesis 2:7. The dust returns to the earth, but something remains—the human spirit (ruach). It seems clear, then, that man consists of a material and an immaterial part. However, a substantial view of the soul cannot be deduced from this verse either. After all, ruach also translates as “breath” or “wind”, and surely none of these are substances in the relevant sense, so a “ruach-spirit” might be far less substantial than is required.
The verses examined so far neither buttress nor contradict a substantial view of the soul. There is, however, one passage that clearly lends support to the idea of disembodied souls: 1 Samuel 28:12-19. There is no doubt that the appearing spirit really is Samuel: it looks like Samuel and talks like Samuel, and knows things Samuel experienced in his lifetime. Moreover, the medium describes Samuel’s spirit as elohim, that is, a personal presence. But whatever is present of Samuel, it must be his immaterial part, because his body was lying in a grave somewhere.
On balance, though the bulk of the Old Testament seems to treat human beings as essentially bodily creatures, there are some hints that their immaterial part (i.e., soul) can come apart from the body and exist on its own.
The Soul in the New Testament
The most important passage in the New Testament regarding the disembodied existence of the soul is undoubtedly Jesus’ answer to the Sadducees’ objections to the resurrection:
And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God: ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living. (Mt 22:31-32, ESV)
To understand the full import of this retort, consider that the Sadducees denied not only the resurrection, but also the existence of spirit (Acts 23:8). In his answer, Jesus points out that the patriarchs were alive at a time when they had already been dead for several hundred years, because God is a God of the living and not of the dead. Apart from guaranteeing the possibility of a resurrection, this also raises the question in what way the patriarchs were ‘alive’ given that their bodies lay in tombs. The most straightforward answer is: as disembodied souls. This passage, therefore, provides strong support for the substantial view of the soul. And it is directly underpinned by the authority of Jesus.
More support for the intermediate state comes from the apostle Paul:
For we know that when our earthly tent house is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in the heavens not made with hands. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. (2 Cor 5:1-4, ESV)
These statements are traditionally interpreted as Paul speaking of the death of the present body and the hope of the resurrection body to come. But the metaphors of “house” and “tent” for the body only make sense if the person is distinct from the body; after all, a resident is not identical with his house. Thus, Paul indirectly provides evidence for the possibility of the human person existing without its body.
Consider also Revelation 6:8-10 and 20:4, where reference is made to martyrs whose souls stand before the throne of God. The most natural reading is that these are disembodied souls—these people have previously died a martyr’s death.
However, like the OT, the NT also contains an important passage that counterbalances the overall impression given by the other references. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul defuses doubts about the resurrection of the saints by addressing how it will take place, what kind of body the saints will receive. This suggests that human beings are meant to be embodied, albeit without invalidating the other scriptural evidence for the disembodied intermediate state; a state Paul characterizes (as noted above, see 2 Corinthians 5) as a state of “nakedness” and “longing” for a better state, which is of course the resurrection in a new and glorious body.
I conclude that the Bible does teach the possibility of disembodied existence as a soul, but also that disembodiment is not the state human beings are supposed to be in permanently.
 Which admits only of mental properties, but not of mental entities.
 The word elohim is otherwise used for God, angels, or powerful people.
 The quotation is taken from God's conversation with Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3).
— Alin Christoph Cucu (PhD, University of Lausanne) is a lecturer and postdoctoral researcher in philosophy at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland. He is the author of a PhD thesis as well as several peer-reviewed papers on mind-body-interaction, especially its scientific aspects, and co-editor of an anthology with the title “Religious Hypotheses and the Study of Human Nature” (in Romanian, Institutul European, forthcoming). His co-authored paper “How Dualists Should (Not) Respond to the Objection From Energy Conservation” (with J. Brian Pitts) was awarded the Best Paper Prize of the Mind and Matter Society. In recent years he won three Templeton grants for research projects at the intersection of theology, philosophy and science. You can follow his work at his newsletter, Pensees.
image: The Soul hovering over the Body reluctantly parting with Life (L. Schiavonetti)
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