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Reason and Revelation Volume 20 #3

The Origin, Nature, and Destiny of the Soul [Part II]

by  Bert Thompson, Ph.D.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Part I of this five-part series appeared in the February issue. Part II follows below and continues, without introductory comments, where the first article ended. Part III appeared in May issue. Part IV appeared in the June issue. Part V appeared in the July issue.]


Biblical teaching regarding man acknowledges that he is composed of two distinct parts—the physical and the spiritual. We get an introduction to the origin of the physical portion as early as Genesis 2:7 when the text states: “Jehovah God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul (nephesh chayyah).” It is important to recognize both what this passage is discussing and what it is not. Genesis 2:7 is teaching that man was given physical life; it is not teaching that man was instilled with an immortal nature. The immediate (as well as the remote) context is important to a clear understanding of the intent of Moses’ statement. Both the King James and American Standard Versions translate nephesh chayyah as “living soul.” The Revised Standard Version, New American Standard Version, New International Version, and the New Jerusalem Bible all translate the phrase as “living being.” The New English Bible translates it as “living creature.”

The variety of terms employed in our English translations has caused some confusion as to the exact meaning of the phrase “living soul” or “living being.” Some have suggested, for example, that Genesis 2:7 is speaking specifically of man’s receiving his immortal soul and/or spirit. This is not the case, however, as a closer examination of the immediate and remote contexts clearly indicates. For example, the apostle Paul quoted Genesis 2:7 in 1 Corinthians 15:44-45 when he wrote: “If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. So also it is written, ‘The first man Adam became a living soul.’ The last Adam became a life-giving spirit.” The comparison/contrast offered by the apostle between the first Adam’s “natural body” and the last Adam (Christ) as a “life-giving spirit” is critical to an understanding of Paul’s central message (and the theme of the great “resurrection chapter” of the Bible, 1 Corinthians 15), and must not be overlooked in any examination of Moses’ statement in Genesis 2:7.

There are six additional places in the Old Testament where similar phraseology is employed, and in each case the text obviously is speaking of members of the animal kingdom. In Genesis 1:24, God said: “Let the earth bring forth living creatures (nephesh chayyah) after their kind.” Genesis 1:30 records that God provided plants as food “to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life (nishmath chayyah).” When the Genesis Flood covered the Earth, God made a rainbow covenant with Noah and with every living creature (nephesh chayyah) that was in the ark with Him (Genesis 9:12). God pledged that He would remember the covenant that He made with every “living creature” (nephesh chayyah; Genesis 9:12), and therefore He never again would destroy the Earth by such a Flood. The rainbow, He stated, would serve as a reminder of that “everlasting covenant” between God and every living creature (nephesh chayyah, Genesis 9:15). The final occurrence of the phrase is found in Ezekiel’s description of the river flowing from the temple in which every living creature (nephesh chayyah) that swarms will live (47:9).

Additionally, the Bible declares: “For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; and man hath no preeminence above the beasts” (Ecclesiastes 3:19). Does this mean, therefore, that man possesses only a material nature and has no immortal soul/spirit? No, it does not! In speaking to this very point, Jack P. Lewis wrote:

It would seem that arguments which try to present the distinctiveness of man from the term “living soul” are actually based on the phenomena of variety in translation of the KJV and have no validity in fact. Had the translators rendered all seven occurrences by the same term, we would have been aware of the fact that both men and animals are described by it. To make this observation is not at all to affirm that the Old Testament is materialistic. We are concerned at this time only with the biblical usage of one term. Neither is it to deny a distinction in biblical thought between men and other animals when one takes in consideration the whole Old Testament view. Man may perish like the animals, but he is different from them. Even here in Genesis in the creation account, God is not said to breathe into the animals the breath of life; animals are made male and female; there is no separate account of the making of the female animal; they are not said to be in God’s image and likeness; they are not given dominion. Man is the crown of God’s creation (1988, p. 7).

When Dr. Lewis suggested that “man may perish like the animals,” he captured the essence of the passage in Ecclesiastes 3:19. It is true that both men and beasts ultimately die, and that in this regard man “hath no preeminence above the beasts.” Yet while both creatures are referred to as nephesh chayyah, the Scriptures make it clear that God did something special in reference to man. Genesis 1:26-27 records: “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. ...And God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” Nowhere does the Bible state or imply that animals are created in the image of God. What is it, then, that makes man different from the animals?

The answer, of course, lies in the fact that man possesses an immortal nature. Animals do not. God Himself is a spirit (John 4:24). And a spirit “hath not flesh and bones” (Luke 24:39). In some fashion, God has placed within man a portion of His own essence—in the sense that man possesses a spirit that never will die. The prophet Zechariah spoke of Jehovah, Who “stretcheth forth the heavens, and layeth the foundation of the earth, and formeth the spirit (ruach) of man within him” (12:1). The Hebrew word for “formeth,” yatsar, is defined as to form, fashion, or shape (as in a potter working with clay; Harris, et al., 1980, 1:396). The same word is used in Genesis 2:7, thereby indicating that both man’s physical body and his spiritual nature were formed, shaped, molded, or fashioned by God. The authors of the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament noted:

The participial form meaning “potter” is applied to God in Isa. 64:7 where mankind is the work of his hand. When applied to the objects of God’s creative work, the emphasis of the word is on the forming or structuring of these phenomena. The word speaks to the mode of creation of these phenomena only insofar as the act of shaping or forming an object may also imply the initiation of that object (Harris, et al., 1980, 1:396, emp. added).

As the Creator, God “initiates” the object we know as man’s immortal nature (i.e., his soul or spirit). Solomon, writing in Ecclesiastes, noted that “the dust returneth to the earth as it was, and the spirit returneth unto God who gave it” (12:7, emp. added). Man’s physical body was formed of the physical dust of the Earth. Would it not follow, then, that his spiritual portion would be formed from that which is spiritual? When the writer of Hebrews referred to God as “the Father of our spirits” (12:9), he revealed the spiritual source of the soul—God.


When does man receive his soul/spirit? In one of the most illustrative passages within the Bible on this topic, James wrote: “The body apart from the spirit is dead” (2:26). This brief but important observation—offered by inspiration on the part of the Bible writer—carries tremendous implications. Without the presence of the spirit (pneuma), the physical body cannot live. There is, however, an important corollary to James’ assessment. If the body is living, then the spirit (pneuma) must be present!

But when does life actually begin? The answer, quite simply, is that it begins at conception. When the male and female gametes join to form the zygote that eventually will grow into the fetus, it is at that very moment that the formation of a new body begins. It is the result of a viable male gamete joined sexually with a viable female gamete which has formed a zygote that will move through a variety of important stages.

The first step in the process—which eventually will result in the highly differentiated tissues and organs that compose the body of the neonatal child—is the initial mitotic cleavage of that primal cell, the zygote. At this point, the genetic material doubles, matching copies of the chromosomes move to opposite poles, and the cell cleaves into two daughter cells. Shortly afterwards, each of these cells divides again, forming the embryo. [In humans and animals, the term “embryo” applies to any stage after cleavage but before birth (see Rudin, 1997, p. 125).]

As the cells of the embryo continue to divide, they form a cluster, or ball, of cells. These divisions are accompanied by additional changes that produce a hollow, fluid-filled cavity inside the ball, which now is a one-layer-thick grouping of cells known as a blastula. Early in the second day after fertilization, the embryo undergoes a process known as gastrulation in which the single-layer blastula turns into a three-layered gastrula consisting of ectoderm, mesoderm, and endoderm surrounding a cavity known as the archenteron. Each of these layers will give rise to very specific structures. For example, the ectoderm will form the outermost layer of the skin and other structures, including the sense organs, parts of the skeleton, and the nervous system. The mesoderm will form tissues associated with support, movement, transport, reproduction, and excretion (i.e., muscle, bone, cartilage, blood, heart, blood vessels, gonads, and kidneys). The endoderm will produce structures associated with breathing and digestion (including the lungs, liver, pancreas, and other digestive glands) [see Wallace, 1975, p. 187].

Within 72 hours after fertilization, the embryo will have divided a total of four times, and will consist of sixteen cells. Each cell will divide before it reaches the size of the cell that produced it; hence, the cells will become progressively smaller with each division. By the end of the first month, the embryo will have reached a length of only one-eighth of an inch but already will consist of millions of cells. By the end of the ninth month, if all proceeds via normal channels, a baby is ready to be born. As one biologist (and author of a widely used secular university biology textbook) noted: “As soon as the egg is touched by the head of a sperm, it undergoes violent pulsating movements which unite the twenty-three chromosomes of the sperm with its own genetic complement. From this single cell, about 1/175 of an inch in diameter, a baby weighing several pounds and composed of trillions of cells will be delivered about 266 days later” (Wallace, 1975, p. 194, emp. added).

Is it alive? Of course it is alive. In fact, herein lies one of the most illogical absurdities of arguments set forth by those who support and defend abortion. They opine that the “thing” in the human womb is not “alive.” If it is not alive, why the need to abort it? Simply leave it alone! Obviously, of course, from their perspective that is not an option because, as everyone knows, in nine months that growing, vibrant, developing fetus results in a living, human baby. The truth of the matter is that human life begins at conception and is continuous, whether intrauterine or extrauterine, until death. Consider the following important scientific facts regarding the living nature of the fetus.

(1) The baby’s heart starts beating 18-25 days after conception.

(2) By the age of two months, the heart beats so strongly that a doctor actually can listen to it with a special stethoscope.

(3) At about this same time, brain activity can be recorded by use of an electroencephalogram. Brain waves are readily apparent.

(4) By the age of two months, everything is “in place”—feet, hands, head, organs, etc. Upon close examination, fingerprints are evident. Although less than an inch long, the embryo has a head with eyes and ears, a simple digestive system, kidneys, liver, a heart that beats, a bloodstream of its own, and the beginning of a brain.

(5) The unborn child hiccups, sucks his thumb, wakes, and sleeps.

(6) The unborn child responds to touch, pain, cold, sound, and light.

Is the child alive? Do you know any dead creature that attains such marvelous accomplishments?

But is the fetus growing in the uterus actually human? It is the result of the union of the human male gamete (spermatozoon) and the human female gamete (ovum)—something that certainly guarantees its humanness. [The Washington Post of May 11, 1975 contained an “Open Letter to the Supreme Court”—signed by 209 medical doctors—which stated: “We physicians reaffirm our dedication to the awesome splendor of human life—from one-celled infant to dottering elder.”]

And how, exactly, does God view this unborn yet fully human child? He said to the prophet Jeremiah: “Before I formed thee in the belly, I knew thee, and before thou camest forth out of the womb, I sanctified thee” (Jeremiah 1:5, emp. added). Jehovah knew the prophet—even while he was in utero—and viewed him as a living person. Further, God already had “sanctified” Jeremiah. If his mother had aborted the baby, she would have killed someone that God recognized as a living person.

The same concept applied to the prophet Isaiah who said: “Listen, O isles, unto me, and hearken ye peoples, from afar; Jehovah hath called me from the womb; from the bowels of my mother hath he made mention of my name.... And now, saith Jehovah that formed me from the womb to be his servant...” (Isaiah 49:1,5, emp. added). Jehovah not only viewed Isaiah as a person prior to his birth, but even called him by name.

David, in Psalm 139:13-16, provided one of the clearest and most compelling discussions on the nature and importance of life in utero when he wrote:

For thou didst form my inward parts: Thou didst cover me in my mother’s womb. I will give thanks unto thee; For I am fearfully and wonderfully made: Wonderful are thy works; And that my soul knoweth right well. My frame was not hidden from thee, When I was made in secret, And curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth. Thine eyes did see mine unformed substance; And in thy book they were all written, Even the days that were ordained for me, When as yet there was none of them.

The phrases, “I was made in secret” and “curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth,” refer to the psalmist’s development in the womb (see Young, 1965, p. 76). Notice also that David employed the pronouns “me,” “my,” and “I” throughout the passage in reference to his own prenatal state. Such usage clearly shows that David was referring to himself, and one cannot talk about himself without having reference to a living human being. The Bible thus acknowledges that David was a human being while he inhabited his mother’s womb (and prior to his birth).

Job, who was undergoing a terrible life crisis, cursed the day he was born when he said: “Why did I not die from the womb? Why did I not give up the ghost when my mother bore me?” (3:11). It is clear that if the fetus had died in the womb, prior to that it must have been living. Something (or someone) cannot die if it (or they) never lived. It also is of interest to observe that in Job 3:13-16, the patriarch listed several formerly-living-but-now-dead people with whom he would have had something in common if he had died in utero. Included in the list—along with kings and princes—was the child who experienced a “hidden untimely birth” (i.e., a miscarriage). Job considered the miscarried child to be in the same category as others who once lived but had died. Obviously, the Holy Spirit (Who guided the author of the book of Job in what he wrote) considered an unborn fetus as much a human being as a king, a prince, or a stillborn infant.

In the Old Testament, even the accidental termination of a pregnancy was a punishable crime. Consider Exodus 21:22—“If men strive together, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart, and yet no harm follows; he shall be surely fined, according as the woman’s husband shall lay upon him...but if any harm follows, then thou shalt give life for life.” The meaning of the passage is this: If the child was born prematurely as the result of this accident, but “no harm follows” (i.e. the child survived), then a fine was to be exacted; however, if “harm follows” (i.e., either mother or child died), then the guilty party was to be put to death. Look at it this way. Why would God exact such a severe punishment for the accidental death of an unborn child—if that child were not living?

The same understanding of the fetus as a living child is found within the pages of the New Testament. The angel Gabriel told Mary that “Elisabeth thy kinswoman, she also hath conceived a son in her old age” (Luke 1:36, emp. added). Please note that the conception resulted in neither an “it” nor a “thing,” but in a son. In Luke 1:41,44, the Bible states (in speaking of Elisabeth, who was pregnant with John the Baptist) that “the babe leaped in her womb.” The word for “babe” in these passages is the Greek term brephos, and is used here for an unborn fetus. The same word is used in both Luke 18:15 and Acts 7:19 for young or newborn children. It also is used in Luke 2:12,16 for the newborn Christ-child. Brephos therefore can refer to a young child, a newborn infant, or even an unborn fetus (see Thayer, 1958, p. 105). In each of these cases a living human being must be under consideration because the same word is used to describe all three.

The fact that the zygote/embryo/fetus is living (an inescapable conclusion supported by both weighty scientific and biblical evidence) thus becomes critically important in answering the question, “When does man receive his immortal nature?” When James observed that “the body apart from the spirit is dead” (2:26), the corollary automatically inherent in his statement became the fact that if the body is living, then the spirit must be present. Since at each stage of its development the zygote/embryo/fetus is living, it must have had a soul/spirit instilled at conception. No other view is in accord with both the biblical and scientific evidence.

[to be continued]


Harris, R.L., G.L. Archer, Jr., and B.K. Waltke (1980), Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago, IL: Moody).

Lewis, Jack P. (1988), “Living Soul,” Exegesis of Difficult Passages (Searcy, AR: Resource Publications).

Rudin, Norah (1997), Dictionary of Modern Biology (Hauppauge, NY: Barrons).

Thayer, J.H. (1958 reprint), A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark).

Wallace, Robert A. (1975), Biology: The World of Life (Pacific Palisades, CA: Goodyear).

Young, Edward J. (1965), Psalm 139 (London: The Banner of Truth Trust).

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