Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries Christian Dogmatics

Was Adam created perfect? // The two resurrections

The meaning of the word "soul", as a component of Man
by Michael Mavroforakis
Transcript of a radio broadcast of the Church of Piraeus, from the series of programs: "Orthodoxy and Heresy", 2nd Biblical and its collaborators.
Greek audio : Homily Νο.33

Certain heresies like the "Russellite" one, who insist on "Thnetopsychism"  (i.e., the mortality of the soul; that the soul disappears into nothingness after a person's biological death) have been striving to misinterpret certain passages of the Holy Bible in order to prove that the term "spirit" is always different to the term "breath".  However, it is our intention here to prove just how erroneous such an attempt is....

Homily 33

(First broadcast on the: 22-5-1992).

(Download homily in Greek, as MP3 audio file, here)

*( Previous Homily 32 still under construction -  Subject: The evolution of the word for "soul" through the Ages - coming soon  )

1. An overview of previous interpretations

In a previous study*, we dealt with the topic of the meaning of the term "soul".  We discerned how the Hellenic word for «soul», like the Hebrew word «nephes» are terms with multiple meanings. They do not have one exclusive meaning, but many.

On examining numerous passages of the Holy Bible, we discerned how, in this divinely-inspired book, the word for "soul", but also the Hebrew word "nephes" is found and used with a plethora of meanings.

Each time therefore that we encounter these words, it is imperative that we interpret them and understand them, always in conjunction with the remainder of the text in which they belong.

Without going into details - as these have been the object of another study - let us a take a look in brief at some of the meanings of the word for "soul" that we have already discerned so far, and proceed to its deeper and more significant meanings as well as perceive its theological content.

When examining the etymology of the word for soul, which does not differ in essence from the etymology of the corresponding Hebrew word "nephes", we realized that it has something to do with breathing. In fact, the word "nephes" was originally used to denote the larynx (one of the organs that belong to the respiratory system), but even the neck or cervix. Given that respiration is one of the main external characteristics, but also one of the basic expressions of the phenomenon called "life", this was why very soon the word for soul and of course the word "nephes" came to also signify the biological life of living organisms and especially of animals, but also of human beings. Besides, it is with this inference that the word for soul (Greek, "psyche" and Latin, "anima") is embodied in the term "animate", in order to denote beings with a biological life.  But especially in the case of human beings, it signifies their temporary biological life.

Going a little bit further, in certain instances such as Leviticus 17:11, the word "soul" is linked to the word blood, which, like breath, is another of the basic elements of living organisms. However, in parallel and as an extension to the significance of the soul as the temporary, biological life of animals -but mainly of human beings- this word was also used to define each single bearer of biological life, as an individual or a personality. As far as these meanings of the term "soul" are concerned, we can generally say that they apply equally and without restriction to both animals and people. That is why many stop at this point. They erase and they disregard all the other significances of the term "soul" in the Holy Bible, asserting that the soul of human beings does not differ in anything from the soul of animals, but that it simply denotes their temporary biological life. That is also why they teach that the soul of human beings is mortal; i.e., that it vanishes and is eliminated upon their biological death.  And yet, the Holy Bible disproves them sensationally, because it provides additional meanings to the term "soul" and it clearly distinguishes between the souls of humans and animals.  To the soul as the bearer of one's personality are ascribed various properties. We can -for classification purposes- list these properties in three major categories: 

1st : The inferior and biological ones like breathing, which merely denote that the individual is alive.

2nd : The psychological ones, which are split into physical sensations (such as hunger, thirst, touch, vision, etc.), and sentimental sensations (such as affection, love, hate, abhorrence, sorrow, grief, joy, neglect etc.). Thus we see the Holy Bible specifically mentioning that the soul "hungers", "thirsts", but also that it "loves", "hates", "rejoices", "grieves", etc.

3rd : The spiritual properties of the soul that are related to God. Thus, there is mention that "the  soul seeks God", "the soul glorifies the Lord", etc..

It is obvious that properties of this kind, i.e., spiritual ones, are exclusive only to the soul of human beings and therefore the unforced conclusion is reached, that the soul of a human being is differentiated from the soul of animals in the Holy Bible.

Other, similar meanings of the term "soul" that are encountered in the Holy Bible are: the soul as the seat of the ego, and as a personal or reflexive pronoun.


2. The erroneous use of terms with multiple meanings

In this study, we shall attempt to examine other meanings of the term "soul", as used in the Holy Bible, and in fact those that contain the Christian teaching and as such, differentiate themselves from the general usage of the term by idolaters.

For example, the word "god" (Greek = theos) is of an idolatrous origin, as is the word "soul" (Greek = psyche), and yet, it has been used profusely by the divinely-inspired authors of the Holy Bible, just as the word for "soul" has.  Thus, the word "god" (like the word "soul") has many meanings and is at times used to describe the idolaters' false, demonic gods, while elsewhere it is used to denote angels or humans; however, it is predominantly used when describing the one, true God.

In this way, if we were to follow the heretics' logic, we too would have to conclude that the word "god" has one single meaning, and as such, the God of the Christians and the Israelites would relate to angels and humans (since they too are characterized as "gods"). However, it could also be linked to idols - that is, the "gods" of the idolaters.

It therefore becomes obvious from the above simple example just where the imprudent, short-sighted and verbatim interpretation of the Holy Scriptures can lead us, as opposed to the authors of the Bible, who had taken the idolatrous terms "god" and "soul" and had expanded them, so that their meanings would also include the Christian truths that we need to seek out with a placid and humble spirit (not with an opinionated and arrogant one), with the Tradition of the Church as our gnomon and not the idolaters' perceptions.


3.  The soul as "a whole Man" AND as "a component of Man"

So far, we have noted several meanings of the word "soul", but not all of them of course. Before going on to the rest, let us linger a while on the significance of the word "soul" as the seat of a person's personal life - the seat of the "I". In other words, of the whole person.

In the part of the Book of Genesis where the creation of Man is described, it says the following:  "And the Lord God formed Man out of the soil of the earth. And He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and Man became a living soul."  First of all, we need to point out that everything that is anthropomorphically mentioned about God is "symbolically said", as Saint John of Damascus also tells us. That is, these words have a loftier meaning, given that God does not have physical hands per se in order to shape Man out of clay, nor does He have a mouth or lips or lungs to actually blow into Man's nostrils.  All these symbolisms have been analyzed by the Holy Fathers of the Church, with so many extensive references that there wouldn't be enough space in this article to include them all.

Let us therefore confine ourselves to quoting Saint John the Chrysostom in brief, that "there is a certain latent meaning that teaches us, out of our own (terminology), that which is for our benefit".  We shall confine ourselves to pointing out God's personal and specific care in the creation of Man, as opposed to the remaining material creations, which "He commanded, and they came into being".  At the same time, we would like to stress that the word "soul" as mentioned above denotes the whole Man. Neither is the body only - which is composite and visible and originating from the soil of the earth - the whole living person which is referred to here as a "living soul", nor is his other component, which is "plain" and virtual and invisible and originating from the energy of the Holy Spirit of God, and which gives life and animates the body.  A living person is both of these together, which is why, during the resurrection of mankind, both these components will be participating together, once again. However, the body will no longer be subject to the laws of deterioration, which will also apply to the rest of Creation (Rom.8:20-21).  This point is also stressed by Saint Justin, the philosopher and martyr who lived during the second century, who tells us that only the interlacing of body and soul comprises Man. That is why both these components of Man will participate during the resurrection of the dead.  We notice that the Saint does not refer to Man as only a body or only a soul, but that it is a Man only when these two components are joined together.  This same view is upheld by all the holy Fathers. We also observe that the term "living soul" mentioned in this passage is rendered as "the whole Man", and the breath of life as "the soul of Man" - something not unusual, even in the Holy Bible.

These quotes by Saint Justin (who martyred around 165 A.D.) are also useful as an additional element against those who erroneously assert that the meaning of "soul" as we perceive it today was foreign to the ancient Church and that it infiltrated it much later, around the 4th century, on account of the influence of Hellenistic (mainly Platonic) philosophy.

4. The idolatrous perception of the "BY NATURE" immortality of the soul

Equally erroneous however is the perception by some that the "soul" is "by nature immortal".  By actually being influenced by Plato's teaching on the soul, these have regarded the soul of Man as a part of the essence of God and subsequently immortal.  And they are supporting this cacodoxy of theirs, based on the very passage that we quoted previously, by saying that since God blew the breath of life into Man, then that which Man received and which keeps him alive -his soul, in its broadly-known sense - is a part of the essence of God and consequently immortal. This position has never been a teaching of the Church. In fact, it was condemned. Because, if the soul of Man was indeed a part of God's essence, then how can it be benevolent in one person and malevolent in another? Righteous in one person and unjust in another? Wise in one person and foolish and imprudent in another?  The fact is, that just as Christ  appeared before His disciples after His Resurrection and "blew upon them", saying to them "receive ye the Holy Spirit" (John 20:22), likewise here, the blowing denotes the energy of the Holy Spirit, which created the virtual and the logical soul inside Man.

Saint Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain clearly states: "this Spirit, which went forth, did not itself become a soul, but did create a soul; it did not itself become transformed into a soul, but did create a soul. For the Holy Spirit is a Creative one. It communes the creation of the body and the creation of the soul. For the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit by divine power create the creation."

With the occasion of this passage regarding the creation of Man, we will quote here one more point that the Fathers stress especially. "We do not have an existence of body without the soul, or an existence of soul without the body; only the two together can be created."  Immediately after God creates the body and it is suitable to receive the soul, He also creates the soul.  Saint Anastasios of Sinai writes: "for neither the body existed prior to the soul, nor the soul prior to the body".  In parallel, Saint John of Damascus stresses in a concise manner that "together are the body and the soul created; not the one first and the other after".  In this way, the Church has from long ago condemned as erroneous the perceptions and teachings regarding the pre-existence of the soul, whose roots are idolatrous and are linked to reincarnation and related Platonic or Pythagorean theories.

The Church has clearly and immovably declared Her opposition to all these cacodoxies, as apparent in many of Her Conciliar decisions. We could characteristically mention two of them, which originate from the Synodical of the 7th Ecumenical Council and are recited during the "Sunday of Orthodoxy" Feast, i.e.:

"to those who accept and teach the futile Hellenic words (=of Hellenic philosophy), that there is pre-existence in souls and that everything did not come into being and was produced from nil, let there be thrice anathema."  It is obvious that in these words are included Plato's theories on the soul and on ideas, while elsewhere, they are even quoted with their names. As for those who believe in reincarnation, or those who believe that the soul of Man is mortal and does not differ from that of animals, another clause of the Council states: "those who prefer the folly of the so-called wisdom of outside philosophers, who follow the teachers thereof and accept the reincarnations of human souls and any similarity with irrational animals and who can accept that souls are also dispatched into nothingness, let there be thrice anathema."

We notice here that the cacodoxy regarding the mortality of the soul and its similarity to that of animals and its annihilation during death, are placed by the Church on the same level as reincarnation. We also observe that this was a teaching of "outsider philosophers" as the Council's text refers to them - in other words, of idolaters who had no connection to the Christian faith, not even superficially.


5. The misinterpretations of the terms "soul" and "spirit" in Genesis

But let us return to that passage of Genesis, in order to elucidate one more obscure point that confuses those who regard the human soul as having the same nature and value as animals: "And the Lord God formed Man out of the soil of the earth. And He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and Man became a living soul". As we mentioned earlier, it becomes obvious from this passage that the "whole Man" - who is also mentioned as "living soul" in there - consists of two components: his body and his soul as we would say today, thus denoting the visible and the invisible element of his composition, or, the clay body and the breath of life according to the author of Genesis. In fact, instead of the word "breath", the Hebrew text has the word "nismah", a derivative of "neshamah" which literally also means "breath". This same word is also found in the Genesis passage 7:22, which speaks of the Flood: "...and everything having the breath of life and everyone who was upon dry land died..."

To determine what the breath of life was, we need to find out what had died. And we are in fact told what that was, in the preceding verse of Genesis, 7:21:  "....and every flesh of fowl and of beasts and of wild beasts moving upon the earth and every reptile moving upon the earth and every human, died...."  Hence, all of these living organisms - including Man - possess the "breath of life".  This is the verse used by all those who erroneously believe that the soul is mortal and impersonal and, by isolating the specific text, they assert two things: firstly, that the soul is mortal and is not the invisible and virtual component of Man but merely his "self"; and secondly, that the thing which finally animates the body of Man and is of course invisible is NOT called "soul" in the Holy Bible, but is called "breath of life" or "spirit".  In fact, they assert  that this component is not something personal/individual and the carrier of awareness, but merely an impersonal power common to all living creatures. They also usually assert that the Holy Bible does not say that Man has a soul but that he is a soul, while they assert on the contrary that Man is not "spirit" or "breath of life", but that he has the breath of life.  We can say - on both these points in general - that this is precisely how the erroneous dogmatic position is summarized - i.e., that the soul is mortal - and so these are the two points on which we shall focus our study from here on.  Because, if it is proven that these assertions do not hold, then the entire dogmatic position regarding the supposed mortality of the soul and its impersonal status will collapse.  Most assuredly, there are adequate references and clear testimonies in the Holy Bible that can prove these two hypotheses are incorrect.

Let us begin with the second cacodoxy, which is subdivided into 2 limbs:

1st - that this invisible component of Man which animates the earthen body is not mentioned in the Holy Bible as being the soul but the breath of life or, equally and in parallel, the spirit


2nd that this spirit or breath of life is common to all living creatures and consequently is an impersonal force.

Let us tackle the first limb first, and prove that the Holy Bible equally uses the word for "soul" and alternates it with the terms "breath of life" and "spirit".


6. The equivalence of the terms "spirit" and "breath"

There is no doubt that in the passages of Genesis that we examined, Gen.2:7 and 7:21-22, it clearly states that Man and animals are comprised of two components. One is their earthen body, and the other is the "breath of life" -  "nesamah" in Hebrew - which is the invisible element that animates and vivifies the body. Without it, the body falls dead.

Let us examine a few passages of the Holy Bible where it shows that when this invisible element departs we subsequently have death, or, when it returns, we have resurrection:

Job said to his three consolers that: "...for as long as my breath is within me and the spirit of God is in my nostrils...". [ Job 27:3 ] We notice here that in wanting to say "for as long as I live", he says "for as long as my breath is within me and the spirit of God is in my nostrils"; in other words, the word "breath" (of life, naturally) and "spirit" are used equivalently, in order to denote the invisible component of the living being.

Further down, in passage 27:5, he says: ".....until I expire, I will not remove my integrity from myself....".  The word "expire" - in its permanent sense, which is likewise used today as an equivalent term for "death" - evidently denotes death as the removal of the "respiratory" breath of life.

Indicatively, let us mention some more passages where the word "spirit" is used equally in place of the term "breath", for example, in Genesis 6:17:  "....For behold, I bring the flood of waters upon the earth, to exterminate every flesh having within it the spirit of life below the heavens; everything that is upon the earth shall die...." 

And in Genesis 7:15: ".....and they came towards Noah in the Ark, two by two, from every flesh in which there is the spirit of life... "  Again, we note the use of the term "spirit" instead of "breath of life".. 

There are many other similar passages, such as - for example - Ezekiel 1:20-21, as well as Ezekiel 10:17 etc.. It is very important that this "breath of life" or "spirit of life" is characterized as a creature, as a creation, and not as a part of the essence of God - as many believe, who have been influenced by Hellenic philosophy and have thus surmised that it is "by nature" immortal - because in the Book of Proverbs (24:12) we read the following: "....be advised, that the Lord knows everyone's hearts, and that the One Who formed breath for everyone (Trnl.note: in Septuagint** Greek text = ο πλάσας πνοήν πάσιν)  is the One Who knows everything, rendering unto each according to his works...."  We observe here that God is referred to as the "One Who has formed breath for everyone", hence, the breath of life, or the spirit, is a formed, created thing - a creation.

Let us take a look at two more, similar passages, this time from Isaiah: "....Thus says the Lord God, Who made the heavens and extended them; Who secured the earth and everything that is born out of it; Who gave breath to the people that are upon it and spirit to those who walk upon it...." (Isaiah 42:5).  In this passage, the words "breath" and "spirit" are used equally, in the sense that we mentioned previously; and this "spirit" - or "breath" - is something that is given by the Lord.  In another place, the prophet Isaiah writes: "...I shall not avenge you for eternity, nor shall I be forever angry with you, for the spirit comes forth from Me, and I have formed every breath...." (Isaiah 57:16)

We again observe here that "breath" - or its equivalent, "spirit" - in every living being is something formed by God; it is a creation, and not a part of His Nature - His Essence.

A similar passage is in Zechariah 12:1: "....says the Lord, Who extends the heavens and lays the foundations of the earth, and Who forms the spirit of Man within him...."   A notion such as that - ie., that the spirit of Man is a part of the essence of God - inevitably leads one to an irrational and idolatry-based pantheism, like the one that also exists in oriental religions - given that according to this erroneous perception, the essence of God exists in every single creature.  Albeit seemingly improbable (after the very few references that we have set out so far) that one could still be fooled into believing this kind of fallacy, it is however a cacodoxy that is widely  prevalent in the West, on account of the alienation - especially by Papism -  from the robust and proper teaching of the Church and the clinging to human philosophies, especially those of Plato and Aristotle. And of course it was from Papism that many of its offshoot Protestant groups inherited it also.

We could also mention only in brief, that it is not the object of this study to analyze how the latent cause behind this fallacy was the Papist confusion regarding the essence and the energies of God.

But, to revert to our subject, we have so far determined that:

1: the word "breath" is used in the Holy Scriptures equally and alternately with the word "spirit";

2: that it is responsible for life, and that when it is severed from the body, whatever is alive becomes dead;

and 3: that it is a created element, a creation, and not a part of God.

**Septuagint = The oldest available Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures by seventy scholars, that dates from the 3rd century B.C., acknowledged as the standard form of the Old Testament in the early Christian Church and still canonical in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Older by 800 years to the Hebrew Masorite text.


7. The association between the terms: "spirit" or "breath" and the term "soul"

Now let us take a look at the association between the words "spirit" (Greek = pnevma) - or its equivalent, "breath" (Greek = pnoe) - and the word "soul" (Greek = psyche) .

From what we have examined so far, it is obvious that the "spirit" animates living organisms, and that when it departs, they die biologically; that is, the body lies "breath-less" and "spirit-less" - in other words, dead.

Let us take a look at some Biblical references to that effect, beginning with the Book of Judges 15: 18-19, where it refers to Samson: "....and thirsting severely, he cried out to the Lord and said: 'You have provided this great deliverance by the hand of Your servant , and now, am I to die of thirst and fall into the hands of the uncircumcised?'  And God split apart the hollow that was in Lehi, and water came forth from it; and after drinking it, his spirit returned and he was revived...."  It is quite clear that, should the spirit leave the body, a human will die, and that when it returns, he will live again.

Another similar, touching passage is Job 34:14-15, where the prudent Elihu says of God:  "...Should He set His heart upon mankind, He will take back for Himself His Spirit and His Breath; every flesh shall expire (Greek= ek-pnoe) together, and man shall return to the soil..."  

A similar passage is in the Book of Psalms, 104:29-30: "....You turn away Your countenance, and they are agitated; You lift away their breath, and they die and  they return to their soil.  You send forth Your spirit and they are created, and You renew the face of the earth..."  

In the same manner, David had cried out to God to strengthen him because he was dying:  "... Hearken to me quickly, Lord; my spirit is vanishing; do not hide Your countenance from me, lest I resemble those who descend into the pit..." (Psalm 143:7). In other words, they would be burying him in a grave, as one who is dead.  And in another Psalm:  "...Do not rely on princes, or on a son of man, out of whom there is no salvation. For his spirit departs, and he returns to his soil. On that day, his contemplations (=his plans) are destroyed..." (Psalm 146:3-4)

We must pay careful attention to the fact that neither here, nor anywhere else, does it say that Man's spirit is destroyed or annihilated, but on the contrary, that the spirit departs, and that only man's plans are annihilated.

These passages clearly denote the equivalence of the terms "breath" and "spirit" inasmuch as they are the life-giving, invisible and created component of every living existence.  It is essential to note that the separation of the breath of life -or spirit- from the body will lead a body to necrosis, and an organism to biological death.

But now we must see how these two meanings are connected to the word for "soul".

Let us therefore see what happened when Rachel was dying while giving birth to Benjamin: ".... and it passed that while her soul was leaving her - for she was dying - she called her son's name 'the son of my pain'...". (Genesis 35:18) In this passage, we notice that it was not the "spirit" or "breath" that left the person - as we noticed elsewhere - but her "soul".  It is therefore obvious and absolutely clear that what the Holy Bible refers to as "spirit" and "breath" in some places, here, it refers to it as "soul".  So, we have here yet another significance behind the word for "soul", one that is not entirely unrelated to the previous ones, as we shall see further along.

Let us therefore highlight some more, equally explicit passages, in order to solidify the significance of the word for "soul", especially for the sake of those who would like to have additional references on the topic, and let us take a look at 1 Kings 17:21-22, where we read of the miracle of the resurrection of the widow's son by the prophet Elijah: "... and he (the prophet Elijah) stretched himself above the child and cried out to the Lord and said: "My Lord God, I beseech You, let the soul of this child return inside him." And the Lord hearkened to the voice of Elijah, and the soul of the youth returned inside him and he lived once again..." 

In this very important excerpt we must note the following:

1.  one should not assert that it is correct to say that someone is a soul, and that it is wrong to say that someone has a soul, because here, the living body of a child has a soul; his soul returned, and went back inside him. It does not say that the boy became a soul again. 

2. attempts by many to prove that in this instance, the word "soul" implies the "self" are both failed and irrational attempts, as it is irrational to interpret this passage as implying that it was the "self" of the boy that returned inside it. 

3. it is equally erroneous to interpret the word "soul" as denoting an impersonal and abstract notion of life, because it twice states the soul as belonging to the boy - i.e., that it is a specific soul; besides, it would not have stated that the boy's life returned inside it, but would have merely mentioned that "life returned to the boy".  Also, whatever "returns" must have previously "departed", and, as we noted earlier, that which departs is clearly referred to as breath of life or spirit, and not "life" generally.

Thus, even here we can surmise that the word "soul" also implies an invisible and re-animating element of man, which departs during death and returns during resurrection. In other words, the word "soul" in this context, is equivalent to the words "spirit" - "rouah" in Hebrew - and "breath" - "nesamah" in Hebrew.

Later, when the prophet Elijah had reached the point of exasperation, fear and sorrow on account of Jezebel's irreverence, he went into the desert, a day's walk away. We can read the continuation, in 1 Kings 19:4:  "...and he wished to himself to die and he said: 'Enough! Now, Lord, take my soul.'..."  The Lord takes away the the soul of man, or, equally, his spirit, or, his breath of life.

But let us also mention an example from within the New Testament, where the words "soul" and "spirit" are used equally and alternately, and in fact by the same author. The first excerpt is in the Gospel according to Luke, where Christ raised from the dead the daughter of Jaerus, the head of the synagogue: "...and when Christ came, He took hold of her hand, and cried out, saying 'o child, rise up!' and her spirit returned, and she rose up immediately...."  (Luke 8: 54-55). Here, Luke the evangelist is describing resurrection as the return of the daughter's spirit. We must notice here that He did not say simply and generally "the spirit" or "the spirit of God", but "her spirit"; i.e., the personal and specific spirit, and not an abstract or impersonal force....

Let us also see how the same evangelist, Luke, describes another resurrection; that of Eutychus, the youth from Troas.  During the hour of the Sunday Divine Eucharist, in which the Apostle Paul was chief officiator, Eutychus fell asleep  and fell from the third storey and was killed. "He was lifted up dead" specifies the text, and not "as though dead". Now let us see how the text continues, in the Book of Acts, 20:10:  "... and when Paul went downstairs, he fell upon him and embracing him (note: like the prophet Elijah), he said: 'Do not be alarmed, for his soul is within him...."   We see here that although we have the same kind of event in both excerpts - i.e., the resurrection of persons, or their return to life - in the first instance of the daughter of Jaerus, Luke the evangelist refers to "her spirit", whereas in the second instance, he refers to "his soul".

As one can easily perceive, it is more than clear that the terms "spirit" and "soul" are comfortably interchanged, simply because they have the same significance.    


Transcript by: Ν. T.

Translation:  K.N.

File created:  11-2-2009.

Last update: 11-2-2009.