The Soul And The Unseen

Death and Judgment


IN APPROACHING; the question of the scriptural meaning of the Hebrew sheol and the Greek hadês, it is necessary first of all to establish the scriptural significance of “soul.” This is because, in Scripture, man, who is said both to be a soul and to have a soul, returns in death to the “unseen,” which is sheol or hades.

Since man is a corporeal being which, both by association with and as the representation thereof, is a living “soul,” it is evident that when he returns to the unseen, his soul returns there as well. Since in death, man, who “is” a “soul,” does indeed return to the unseen (e.g., Psa.9:17), it is correct to say of any certain man who dies, not only that that “soul” has returned to the unseen, with reference to the man himself, but that his soul has returned there as well, with respect to his sensations or experiences.

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From a realization of this fact alone, it becomes evident that orthodoxy is mistaken, at least in part. For while the soul’s pre-existence is repudiated, its post-existence is insisted upon, its survival after death, prior to resurrection. Yet whatever the lot of the human soul after this life (prior to resurrection), it is that which obtained unto it as well prior to this life. Therefore the orthodox view cannot be correct in both of its claims.

Orthodoxy is mistaken as well in conceiving the human soul to be not the human experience itself, but to be instead, an intangible, immortal entity, a spirit (or “ghost”) which, while possessing personal traits and partaking of personal experience, is nonetheless not a person or corporeal being at all.

Wherever the Scriptures declare that a certain man “died,” or wherever they speak of his “death,” the orthodox insist that we are not to understand that that man died, but only that his present lifetime ended and that his body died. It is not that these traditionalists do not know what death is, but that they insist that it does not appertain to man. Indeed, like the spiritualist, they assure us that they are correct in their claim that, in death, man does not die because he cannot die.

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Nevertheless, scripturally speaking, the human “soul” is simply the human experience. Soul is the sensation which results from the combination of an organic body with breath or spirit (Gen.2:7; cp 1:21). Soul is connected with the blood (Lev.17:14; “life” AV), and is possessed not only by man but by all living creatures that move or “roam” (Lev.11:46).

The expression “living souls” speaks of the entire animate creation generally, “every animal of the field and every flyer of the heavens” (Gen.2:19; cp 1:24,30), even “the great sea monsters and all the moving living souls with which the waters swarm” (Gen.1:20,21).

Soul is a phenomenon; it is the perception of the senses. It encompasses all sensation, all that is experienced by means of the sentient faculties. By association, soul is the capacity for seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, and smelling. In itself, soul consists in the sensation of these things themselves. Man, like the animals, is a “living soul” (Gen.1:21; 2:7). While both are living creatures, they are termed (by association) living “souls.” This is because they are not only living creatures but are living creatures which possess soul, that is, sentient capacity. Both man and beast are termed living souls because they are living creatures which, through sentient faculties, are capable of experience.

“Soul” (Hebrew, nephesh, Greek, psuchê) does not mean “life,” though it is often incorrectly translated “life” in the Authorized Version. Soul is not life itself, though it is intimately connected with it. A man’s “soul,” speaks of a man’s sensations or experiences. A man who is termed a “soul,” speaks of a man from the standpoint of his sensations or experiences.

In Scripture, it is common to speak of men as “souls.” Through this means man comes before us not simply as an organic entity such as a tree, but as a sentient creature partaking of experience. Literally, soul is not something that man is, but something that he partakes of.

When a man is spoken of as a “soul,” the word is a figure of speech (metaphor [representation] and metonymy [association]). And, even when man is spoken of as possessing a soul, technically, this too is a figure of speech (ellipsis [omission]).

When man is spoken of as being a soul, he thus becomes representative of that with which he is closely associated. Yet when man is spoken of as possessing a soul, the evident thought in view, while understood, is not expressed. This is because it would be both tedious and needless to do so.

The inherent idea which is present though not expressed when man is spoken of as possessing “a” soul is, the capacity of or means of experiencing. The full thought is that man has “a (capacity of] soul,” or sensation. Strictly speaking, man does not have “a” soul but a capacity of soul, a means by which he engages in sentient activity, a facility by which he experiences life.

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“The connection of soul with the senses is evidenced by a selection of interesting passages. ‘My soul is disgusted with my life; I shall give free rein to myself and my concern; Let me speak in the bitterness of my soul’ (Job.10:1). The taste is especially intended in such scriptures as, ‘with all the yearning of your soul you may sacrifice and eat flesh’ (Deut.12:15; cp vss. 20,21); ‘you may eat grapes to your soul’s desire, to your satisfaction’ (Deut.23:24); ‘their soul abhorred all food’ (Psa.107:18);‘ . . . a thief when he steals, in order to fill his soul’s needs when he is famishing’ (Prov.6:30); ‘The just man knows the soul’s needs of even his domestic beast, yet the compassions of the wicked are cruel’ (Prov.12:10); ‘eating to his soul’s satisfaction’ (Prov.13:25); ‘ . . . honey of the comb, [is] sweet to the soul and healing to the bones’ (Prov.20:24); ‘if you are a person of soulish appetite’ (Prov.23:2); ‘The soul that is surfeited tramples on honeycomb, yet to the famished soul, any bitter thing is sweet’ (Prov.27:7); ‘cause his soul to see good from his toil’ (Ecc.2:24); ‘All of a man’s toil is for his mouth, yet even then the soul is never filled’ (Ecc.6:7); ‘ . . . to make the soul of the famished empty’ (Isa.32:6). In all of these cases, the point lies in the sensation accompanying the use of food, the physical satisfaction which the soul furnishes when we partake of its products.

“This is amply confirmed by our Lord’s words: ‘Do not worry about your soul, what you may be eating, or what you may be drinking . . . Is not the soul more than nourishment?’ (Matt.6:25). These creature needs are what the soul craves, yet true satisfaction is not to be found in them. Even as He said on another occasion: ‘For what will a man be benefited, if he should ever be gaining the whole world, yet be forfeiting his soul? Or what will a man be giving in exchange for his soul?’ (Matt. 16: 26). This is the evil which the wise man saw: ‘A man to whom the One, Elohim, gives riches and substance and glory, and he has no lack to his soul of all that he yearns for, yet the One, Elohim, does not give him power to eat of it’ (Ecc.6:2). . . .

“How luminous does our Lord’s invitation become in the light of a true understanding of the soul! ‘Hither to Me, all who are toiling and laden, . . . and you shall be finding rest in your souls’ (Matt.11:28,29). It is the soul that feels the pressure and distress of life’s burdens and responsibilities, and it is the soul that finds its rest in His yoke.”[1]

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Having established the meaning of soul, that it is a phenomenon or that which pertains to the senses, we must emphasize that, in death, the human soul undergoes a return. It returns to that concerning which, apart from revelation, we can only inquire. Yet we do so because we are interested in the whence and whither of things, especially in the whence and whither of man. From where did he come, and to where does he go?

Now if we should ask, What are we, where did we come from and where are we going? the answer is, From the ground you were taken, For soil you are, And to the soil you shall return (cf Gen.3:19). But if we should ask, Yet what of the human soul; what becomes of it? the answer is, the soul returns to the unseen.

That is, the human soul, man’s experience, has the same status subsequent to this life that it had prior to this life. If it had life before this present, corporeal lifetime, then, when that which we term “death” ensues, it returns to its previous life. Alternatively, if it did not have life prior to this present, corporeal lifetime, then, when that which we term “death” ensues, human experience returns to its previous status, that of non-existence.

Job knew that God would return him to death. “I know that You are turning me back to death, to that house appointed for all the living” (Job.30:23). “If He places it in His heart concerning him, He can gather back His spirit to Himself; all flesh would expire together, and humanity would return to the soil” (Job 34: 15). “You conceal Your face; they are flustered. You gather away their spirit; they expire and return to their soil” (Psa.104:29). “All are going to one place; all have come from the soil, and all return to the soil” (Ecc.3:20).

It is thus, through such passages of Scripture as these, that we become aware that, essentially, death itself is a return. Man is soil and returns to the soil (Gen.3:19). The spirit—the imperceptible power of life, action, and intelligence in death, returns to God Who gave it (Ecc.12:7). “Death,” then, is simply the specialized term signifying the absence of life which follows mortality as contrasted with the absence of life which precedes it.

We may speak of our soul even as we speak of our body. Even as the elements, however, which compose our body are entirely decomposed in death, the experiences which comprise our soul are entirely terminated in death. This is because “soul” is that which is produced when an organic body is endowed with spirit or breath, that is, with life-giving, soul-enabling power (Gen.2:7).

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The Hebrew for that to which, in death, man returns (the unseen, CV; grave, hell, or pit, AV), is sheol, which signifies “ASK,”[2] and corresponds to the Greek hadês, meaning “unseen” (cp Psa.16:10; Acts 2:27,31). Thus, in death, the soul returns to the “ask”; that is, it returns to that which must be asked about in order to be known, being unseen. Since it is imperceptible, that to which the soul returns is naturally the subject of inquiry. How appropriate, then, that the Hebrew should speak of it as the “ask” and that the Greek should speak of it as the “unseen.”

It is true that sheol is ordinarily concerned with the state of those who are in “the tombs” (John 5:28), or as we would say, according to our own burial customs, that it is ordinarily concerned with those who are in their graves. Nevertheless, sheol does not mean “grave.” it means “ask,” and is used in reference to something that is unseen, which is an object of inquiry. In Matthew 16:18, the Greek equivalent of sheol, which is hadês, is used in reference to the unseen domain of the Adversary. Yet in Matthew 11:23, it is used in reference to the unseen state (as a consequence of its destruction and desolation) to which the city of Capernaum would one day subside.

In Genesis 37:35, Jacob declared, “I shall go down mourning to my son, to the unseen.” These words, however, do not refer to being lowered into a grave, but to that which he claimed as his portion for the remainder of his lifetime (i.e., mourning for his son). We use a similar idiom when we say, “having traveled down the road of life and come to the end of our journey.” The sense of “go down mourning” is parallel to the modern idiom, “go down fighting,” namely, to continue on, unintermittingly, until the end. It should also be noted that Jacob’s words, “to my son,” are elliptical; they are not complete in themselves. Since it would be a neutral expression, the objective ellipsis must be, “to [the status of] my son” —regardless of what that status may be. To say the least, it is begging the question to insist upon some sort of extraordinary, double ellipsis such as, “to [the dwelling place of] my son [where he is still alive, even though not in a body].”

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“We have learned that the soul is not substance; nor is it immaterial spirit. It is only the result of a combination of the spirit with the body . . . .

“A point which seems to have been entirely overlooked, and which will help us much at this juncture, is the fact that the soul only is coupled with the unseen. The spirit must never be associated with sheol or hades. The body is never connected with the unseen, except in such extraordinary cases as the sons of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, who ‘descended . . . alive toward the unseen’ [i.e., into the unseen substratum, below the earth’s surface], when ‘the ground which was under them was rent, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up’ (Num.16:31-33), or Jonah, who found his sheol in the fish’s belly (Jonah 2:2).[3] In contrast to this, the soul is definitely spoken of as in sheol in at least six passages (Psa.16:10; 30:3; 49:15; 86:13; 89:48; Prov.23:14), as well as in hades in two (Acts 2:27,31). Besides this, the thought latent in the context of these two words is always concerned with sensation when the reference is to humanity.”[4]

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It does not follow from the fact that the Greek word hadês signifies “unseen,” that, when speaking of the human soul in death, hadês, therefore, speaks of an unseen place, much less that it speaks of an unseen place where “disembodied spirits” abide. An “abode” is the place where one remains or dwells; it is the place where one lives or resides. Our inquiry is that of the nature of the unseen. It will not do simply to make the bald claim that hadês is “the abode of disembodied spirits.” We are aware that such were the notions of certain intertestamental Jews and of many ancient Greeks. We also realize that many modern scholars are of the same opinion. Tales, however, about disembodied spirits in the unseen world of Greek mythology even as historical records concerning ancient Jews who, under the influence of such myths, claimed that similar doctrines are to be found in the Hebrew Scriptures, are no basis for truth. What we are interested in is what the Scriptures actually reveal concerning the unseen. If it is a sufficient revelation, God granting us eyes to see, we will then know from the Scriptures themselves whether such sources as those to which so many appeal are right or wrong.

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The Scriptures always speak of the death and resurrection of man himself; they never speak of either the death or resurrection merely of the body. It is the dead who are in their tombs (John 5:28); and, the dead are in their tombs, not in “the abode of disembodied spirits.” Indeed, why should we deem it unbelievable that God is rousing the dead? (Acts 26:8).

Concerning believers who are reposing (not, believers’ bodies which are merely lying in the grave; 1 Thess.4:13), we are told to console one another with the words that the dead in Christ shall be rising first, and thereupon the living shall at the same time be snatched away together with them, to meet the Lord in the air and always to be together with Him (1 Thess.4:16, 17). It is remarkable indeed, then, if the dead in Christ are not really dead but are instead in the joy of heaven, that, in a context in which the theme is the consolation of the bereaved, we are only told to console one another with these words (1 Thess.4:18), the words of the apostle Paul concerning resurrection, and are not at all told to console one another as well with some testimony to the effect that our loved ones are not really dead at all but are gloriously alive, even in the presence of Christ Himself.

Howbeit, resolute claims seeking to justify the immortality of the soul are the order of the day. Such claims are regularly set forth, even in the face of the most explicit, scriptural declarations to the contrary. For example, the testimony of Ecclesiastes concerning the dead is viewed as utterly mistaken, and is appraised as but “humanistic thought,” the “perspective of autonomous man.”[5] Such claims are freely set forth by many, notwithstanding the fact that Ecclesiastes’ own author, concerning this same testimony, under divine inspiration, insists that “what was written is uprightness and words of truth” (Ecc.12:10).

Similarly, it is claimed that what the psalmist meant when declaring, “The dead cannot praise Yah, nor all those descending into stillness” (Psa.115:17), was that, in death, one can no longer praise God before men, in this life: “in the church militant, as is done by saints in the land of the living.”[6] This, however, we hardly need to be told. Besides, since the dead descend into “stillness,” it is evident that they do not praise God at all.

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The Scriptures make it clear that the dead are not alive and that the soul (sensation or experience) is impossible in death. The fact is that the dead do not live . . .” (cf Rev.20:5).

The unseen is not only commonly set in parallel to death as its practical equivalent (e.g., 1 Sam.2:6; Psa.6:5,6; 89:48; Hos. 13:14), but, the apostle Paul, in a close adaptation of Hosea 13:14, even substitutes the Greek word for “death” (thanate) where the prophet had used the Hebrew sheol (1 Cor.15:55).

Similarly, earlier in the same chapter, in reply to the claim of some of the Corinthians “that there is no resurrection of the dead” (v. 12), the apostle argues that if the dead are not being roused, (1) neither has Christ been roused; (2) vain is your faith; (3) you are still in your sins! and (4) “Consequently those also, who are put to repose in Christ, perished. “The apostle does not say that if there is no resurrection, that those no longer having bodies will just have to continue to make do without them, but, that if there is no resurrection, that the dead in Christ perished.

In many places, the Scriptures speak of the dead as destitute of knowledge or speech, and as knowing nothing until resurrection. These scriptures are to be believed, not twisted. They make it clear that death is truly death, not life in some other form. The following is a selection of notable passages concerning sheol and the state of the dead. May God give us grace to believe them.

“Do return Yahweh! Do extricate my soul! Save me on account of Your benignity. For in death there is no remembrance of You; in the unseen, who shall acclaim You?” (Psa.6:4,5). “What gain is there in my blood poured out, in my descending to the grave? Does soil acclaim You? Does it tell Your faithfulness?” (Psa.30:9). “O Yahweh, let me not be ashamed, for I have called out to You. Let the wicked be ashamed; let them be silent in the unseen” (Psa.31:17). “The dead cannot praise Yah, nor all those descending into stillness” (Psa.115:17). “Let me praise Yahweh throughout my life; let me make melody to my Elohim through all my future. Do not trust in patrons, in a son of humanity with whom there is no salvation. His spirit shall go forth, and he shall return to his ground; in that day his reflections perish” (Psa. 146:2-4).

“This is the evil in all that is done under the sun: That one destiny is for all; moreover, the heart of the sons of humanity is full of evil, and ravings are in their heart throughout their life, yet after it, they are joined to the dead. Indeed for anyone who is joined with all the living, there is trust; for it is better for a living cur than a dead lion. For the living know that they shall die, but the dead know nothing whatsoever” (Ecc. 9:3-5). “All that your hand finds to do, do with your vigor, for there is no doing or devising or knowledge or wisdom in the unseen where you are going” (Ecc.9:10). “Indeed the unseen cannot acclaim You, nor can death praise You; and those who descend into a crypt cannot look forward to Your faithfulness. The living! the living one! he is acclaiming You as I do today; the father makes known to his sons Your faithfulness” (Isa.38:18,19).

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From the scriptural facts set forth in this present exposition, we may be certain that, with reference to the human soul after death, the “unseen” is not a place (i.e., a realm or locale) at all, but a status. In death, the status of the human soul is that of post-existence. Except for the fact that it follows rather than precedes the time of the soul’s existence, the post-death status of a man’s soul is the same as that of its pre-generative status, namely, that of non-existence. Therefore, we may be certain that any and all who claim otherwise—be they ancient Jews or Greeks or modern scholars—are mistaken in their beliefs.

Let us rejoice that the day will come when Christ will have gloriously placed all His enemies “under His feet” (1 Cor.15: 25). “Under His feet,” is a figure of speech signifying subjection. The secret of God’s will is to head up all in the Christ (Eph.1:10). Thus all will become “in Christ,” their Head, to Whom all will be subject. This will come to pass in a way that accords with God’s delight and as the achievement of that which He purposed in Christ (Eph.1:9).

Let us rejoice that after all other enemies have been subjected, that even the very last of all Christ’s enemies will also be subjected. But while we await that day, let us recognize what that last enemy is. “The last enemy is being abolished: death” (1 Cor.15:26).


[1] A. E. Knoch, “What is the Soul?” pp.8,9,11

[2] Sheol belongs to the Hebrew word family of the stem shal, ASK, which is regularly used in that sense; cf THE NEW ENGLISHMAN’S HEBREW CONCORDANCE, P.1220, cp entries 2 and 6 (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1984).

[3] It is as foolish to claim that “hell” (where “lost souls” are tormented prior to judgment) is within the bowels of the earth as it would be to claim that it is within the belly of the great fish which swallowed up Jonah.

[4] “A. E. Knoch, UNSEARCHABLE RICHES, “Sheol and Hades,” vol.54, pp.167,168

[5] Robert A. Morey, DEATH AND THE AFTERLIFE, pp.65,216 (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1984)

[6] John Gill, BODY OF DIVINITY, vol.2, p.208 (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1978)

James Coram

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