Whenever the Chinese people talk about ‘the human soul’, they would associate it with ‘ghost’ – something they would dread to discuss about - as they could not fathom the mystery of the origin of a human soul, which originates from the breath of God in the Garden of Eden. In both the Old and New Testaments, the word ‘soul’ is used with different meanings, which can cause confusion.
The word ‘soul’
Consulting the World’s Bible Dictionary1, we learned from the author Don Fleming that ‘the word ‘soul’ has a variety of meanings: in English, it can mean ‘spirit’ of a person; in Hebrew, it is ‘nephesh’; and in Greek, it is ‘psyche’’. Its other meanings of ‘inner character’, ‘spiritual/moral/artistic qualities’, ‘person’, or even ‘music’ can be found in the Oxford Advanced Learner’s English-Chinese Dictionary2.
Usages in the Old and New Testaments
In the Old Testament, Fleming cited that ‘the word ‘nephesh’ was not used as ‘something that exists apart from the body’, as a person should be understood as a perfect unity of body and soul’. He also cited that ‘in Genesis 1:21, 24, both animals and people are referred to as nephesh or the living creatures’. He further explained that ‘in the New Testament, the word ‘psyche’ means no more than ‘a person’ (Acts 2:41,43; 7:14; Rom 2:9; 13:1). Sometimes ‘soul’ refers to a person’s ‘heart’, which means the whole of a person’s inner life (Prov 2:10; Acts 4:32). The psyche or ‘the natural person’ (according to Paul) is the ordinary person of the world, living according to the principles and values of the sinful society. It is in strong contrast to the ‘spiritual person’, who lives according to God’s new principles and values (1 Cor 2:12-16; Jude 19)’3.
Life after death
Fleming also mentioned that ‘when a person dies, according to both the Old and New Testaments, his body returns to dust (Gen 3:19; Eccles 3:20), but his soul lives on in sheol (in Hebrew) or hades (in Greek)(Ps 6:5; 88:3-5; Luke 16:22-23). He said that ‘both the Old and New Testaments are unclear as in what way man lives on after death; although he lives on as a conscious personal being, he has no physical body (Ps 49:14; Ezek 26:20). The New Testament speaks of this bodiless person as a soul (Acts 2:27; Rev 6:9; 20:4), a spirit (Heb 12:23; 1 Peter 3:18), or as a resurrected body (1 Cor 15:42-53; Phil 3:20-21), like Jesus’4. Evidence of life after death could be seen in both the Old and New Testaments: The widow’s son (1 Kings 17:17-22); Shunammite’s son (2 Kings 4:32-35); unnamed man (2 Kings 13:20,21); Jairus’ daughter (Matthew 9:23-25); widow’s only son (Luke 7:11-15); Dorcas (Acts 9:36-40); Lazarus (John 11:43); many saints (Matthew 27:52.53); Jesus’ resurrection (Matthew 28; Mark 16; Luke 24; John 20) fulfilled the covenant, which gave hope to all believers who are ‘in Christ’5.
Do the dead enjoy the presence of Christ while awaiting their resurrection?
Whether the dead enjoy the presence of Christ while awaiting their resurrection is scarcely mentioned in the Old and New Testaments, except in the following places: a) In the incident of the rich man’s seeing Lazarus lying in the bosom of Abraham after death in Hades, assuming the other righteous dead also await in Abraham’s bosom for their resurrection (John 11:43); b) Enoch’s prophecy that “…the Lord is coming with thousands upon thousands of his holy ones to judge everyone…”, assuming the righteous dead have gone to heaven to be with Christ before the resurrection (Jude 14); and c) Lastly, in Matthew 27:52-53, “…the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus’ resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people”. These righteous dead were raised first from the dead when Jesus breathed his last.
As Goldsworthy6 concludes ‘Christians dying in this age are with the Lord, their resurrection to life is pending Christ’s second coming’.
1Fleming, D. World’s Bible Dictionary (World Bible Publishers, Inc., 1990) p.417.
2 Hornby, A.S. Oxford Advanced Learner’s English-Chinese Dictionary, Seventh edition (Oxford University Press, 2008), p.1921.
3 Fleming, World’s Bible Dictionary, p.93.
4 ibid p.417
5 Nelson’s Three-in-One Bible Reference Companion (Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982), p.585.
6 Goldsworthy, G. According to Plan: The unfolding revelation of God in the Bible (Inter-Varsity Press Lancer, 1991), p.317-318.