Weekly Series on the Soul, Part 42 – The Afterlife According to the Bible

+JMJ+ Welcome to part 42 of our weekly series on the soul just in time for All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days. I’ve been reading Dr. John W. Cooper’s book, Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting. The main reason I’m reading it is that so many non-Catholic Christians have rejected the Christian teachings on the afterlife, handed on from the beginning, with some rejecting the idea of the immortal soul. In fact, there’s a heated debate going on about what the soul is and whether or not it even exists. But as the author says in the preface to the second printing (page xv), 

“The book makes the case that as Holy Scripture progressively discloses what happens to humans when they die, it teaches not only that each of us will undergo bodily resurrection, but that believers continue to exist ‘with the Lord’ until the resurrection.”

Since the battlecry of the Reformation was sola scriptura, it’s seems odd that the descendants of the Reformers would reject such an important teaching of Scripture. I guess “Scripture alone” doesn’t mean the same thing as “All of the Scriptures” or “Everything the Scriptures teach” but I digress. Notes and links will be at the end of this post. 

Dr. Cooper provides evidence from the periods of the Old Testament, the Intertestamental, and the New Testament, to show that the concepts of body and soul, life with the Lord after bodily death, and later the bodily resurrection, are taught in the Bible and have been accepted by Christians for two thousand years, and by the Jews and Hebrews before that.

But some Christians (and theologians) argue that true Biblical anthropology contains no idea of a soul, or that if it does, that it got the idea from the pagan Greeks, and should, therefore, be purged from Christian thinking and teaching.

“There is a way of making the body-soul distinction which is faithful to Scripture, upholds the traditional teaching of the church about the afterlife, and is perfectly consistent with the “assured results” of contemporary science and philosophy. Making this case is the purpose of this study.”

Cooper, J. W. (2000). Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting: Biblical Anthropology and the Monism-Dualism Debate  (p. 4). Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Verbum/Logos edition.

Cooper goes over a lot of material in his new introduction to his book which is back in print after being out of print for years. He surveys the research that has been done in science and philosophy, along with the thinking of some theologians and Bible scholars, and after he reviewed the new studies out there, he decided that his original argument still held up well against the arguments. 

What interests me most about the book (so far, that is; I’m not finished reading it) is discovering what the Old Testament has to say about the soul and the afterlife. I had some misconceptions about that. So I think here in this post I want to look at Chapter 3: Old Testament Anthropology: The Dualistic Interpretation, Old Testament View of Existence After Death. The introduction to this chapter is titled, The Rephaim in Sheol. That sounds interesting. And it’s not what I thought it was, neither the Rephaim nor Sheol. At least, it’s not what I thought the people of the Old Testament thought it was. I thought that the New Testament taught a different idea altogether about the afterlife. And there are differences but there are also important similarities. (See, this is why I still have to study. There is so much I don’t know, or that I know partially but I need to know more. There is always more. And that I find to be exciting.)

Cooper says that there is “virtual concensus that the Israelites did believe in some sort of ethereal existence after death in a place called Sheol.” (Ibid., 52.) But consider this which he quotes from H. Wheeler Robinson: 

The dead are thus supposed to go on existing in some sense or other, even by the early thought of Israel. But it is an existence which has no attraction for the Israelite.… It is not his soul that survives at all; the dead are called “shades” (rephaim), not “souls” in the Old Testament. The subterranean place of their abiding is called Sheol, and in many particulars it is like the Greek Hades.

H. Wheeler Robinson, The Christian Doctrine of Man (Edinburgh: Clark, 1911), p. 92., quoted in Cooper (2000), pp. 52–53.

That kind of thing is where I must have gotten the mistaken notion that the Israelites didn’t believe in the soul. But wait, you say, Robinson clearly said that the dead are called rephaim and that this means “shades” and not “souls” in the OT.

Ah, but Dr. Cooper says, not so fast. Let’s look at what Sheol is according to the OT. “Once we are clear on what the OT actually says” then we can go on more fully argue about dualism, monism, and holism, which are the main ways (or some of them) the body-soul problem is being thought about these days. (There are other ways, too, but this is enough to think about for our purposes here. I might go into the others after I’ve spent more time with these ideas and terminology which are pretty new to me right now.)

What do these terms mean, dualism, monism, holism, or, rather, how are they being used in the debate going on? (This is in my own words, don’t blame Dr. Cooper. For the next post I’ll see if I can find his succinct descriptions of these positions and I’ll include them there.)

Dualism: As I understand it, dualism is basically saying that there is a body and there is a soul, and a human person is a union of body and soul; that the body dies, the soul continues, and one day they are reunited. Sounds very Catholic, doesn’t it? As it should, since this is what Christianity has taught for a couple of thousand years. It’s Catholic and it’s Biblical. Of course.

Monism: As I understand it, monism refers to there not being a “separable soul” in a human person. Some still accept the idea of the resurrection of the body after death, but what of the person between death and resurrection? Some mind-boggling juggling goes on to hold those ideas together in one heart and mind and mine cannot do it. Cooper is not convinced by it, either.

Holism: As I understand it, holism refers to the idea that nothing can survive death because the human person is one thing, not a composite of things, and once that one thing dies, that is it. How to account for the resurrection, then? Once again, some mind-boggling fancy footwork has to be done to pull this off and I haven’t found it to be convincing. Neither does Dr. Cooper. He’s read more of it and understands much more about this than I do, so I think I’m on the right track. 

As my studies continue, I’ll try to make these things clearer, but right now I’m just discovering and getting used to the ideas. You can skip all of my working this out in my mind by getting the book and studying it for yourself, which I highly recommend. It may take me awhile. A long while.

Cooper presents the case that:

“…some sort of ontic duality or dualism is entailed, even if that is non-Platonic. For if something of personal existence survives biological death, then personal existence is separable from earthly, bodily life. The dead survive apart from their flesh and bones.”

Ibid., 53.

Dr. Cooper looks at the way antidualists use the Hebrew terms, nephesh and ruach, “soul” and “spirit”.  Antidualists basically try to deny that these terms “denote personal immaterial entities which survive death. The ‘spirit’ which returns to God is not a person but a power.” But, Cooper says, even if were true about the word nephesh, that it is not a soul or a person but a power, it’s irrelevant to the debate. 

Image 1: Nefesh, Soul, Hebrew. Part of the Bible Word Study in Verbum or Logos. There’s more to it, a lot more, most of it goes right over my head but I find it fascinating, anyway.

Image 2: Ruach, or Breath, or Spirit, Hebrew.

“It simply does not follow from the proposition that nephesh and ruach never refer to the discarnate dead[,] that the dead were thought not to exist.”

Ibid., 54. 

And further on, 

“For in reality the Israelites did affirm the existence of the departed. As indicated by Robinson above, they simply had another term for them—rephaim. To draw the conclusion that the Hebrews were nondualists or annihilationists from the premise that they did not use nephesh and ruach to refer to existing dead persons is to commit the fallacy of non sequitur. The conclusion does not follow because the premise by itself is not relevant to the point at issue.”

Ibid, 54.

Image 3: Rephaim, Shades, or The Dead (No, not THAT Dead), Hebrew.

From the Catholic Bible Dictionary‘s second meaning of rephaim:

2. Rephaim, translated ‘the shades’ or ‘the dead’ in the RSV, is also used to describe the inhabitants of Sheol (Ps 88:10; Prov 2:18; 9:18; 21:16; Isa 14:9; 26:14, 19). In Proverbs, the Rephaim are the dead who live in the netherworld; the house of folly leads to death and to ‘the shades’ (Prov 2:18; cf. Prov 9:18; 21:16). The word also appears in Ugaritic.”

Hahn, S. (Ed.). (2009). Catholic Bible Dictionary (p. 765). New York; London; Toronto; Sydney; Auckland: Doubleday.

What of the idea of “soul sleep” then? Many non-Catholics use this idea to bash the Catholic teachings on purgatory and the saints. Sheol is the place of soul sleep, they say. Well, there is in the OT the “the general picture” of “overpowering lethargy and inactivity in Sheol, a lack of all the usual modes of existance on earth…[h]owever, occasional emergence from this generallly comatose condition was still thought possible for the rephaim.”

Cooper provides several passages from the OT that do seem to reinforce this idea that the “dead possess nothing more than sheer unconscious existence.” (Job 3:13, Eccl. 9:10, Isa. 38:18, Ps. 115:17-18, Ps. 88:10-12.) BUT there are some texts which suggest that at least sometimes the rephaim are conscious and active. In Isaiah 14:9-10 the king of Babylon is taunted by one of the dead who is able to “remember and recognize [him], speak to him, and compare their former situations with the present.”

“But even in death they retain something of their former status. They are still identifiable as former rulers and they sit on thrones. Admittedly unusual, a great deal more than mere comatose existence is attributed to the dead in this passage. It seems to indicate that occasional activity was at least in principle possible in the Hebrew view of the deceased.”

Cooper, 56–57.

Consider this: Isaiah reminds the people not to resort to mediums and spritists. It’s against the Law of the Lord to consult the dead (Lev. 19:31, 20:6, Deut. 18:11) as Israel’s neighbors were doing (and as is still being done today). But, he asks, if the Israelites didn’t believe the dead existed or could be consulted, why warn them against consulting them?

Here Dr. Cooper gives “the most graphic example of necromancy” in the OT: the story of Saul and the Witch of Endor in 1 Sam. 28. Now let me just say that he is not saying that all contact with those who have died is necromancy. That’s something that I have heard our separated brothers and sisters say, too, that all contact with the souls of the dead is necromancy and forbidden, whether the dead are in purgatory (which most Protestants do not believe exists) or in heaven (where many Protestants think all of their dead relatives go directly after death, or become angels, or that no humans are there yet because the dead are in soul sleep, but I digress again.)

There’s so much more to cover but this post is already long, so I’ll stop here so I can format it and get it up on the blog. And because I find such things fascinating, I added some graphics to the post from some word studies in Verbum (Catholic study software for Scripture, Magisterium, and Liturgy) which is where I’m reading and taking notes for this part of the series. I can go into it a little, but I’m a beginner so I can only go so far. :)

Image 4: You can do Bible Word Studies in Verbum or Logos in Greek, too. Here is part of the Word Study for the Biblical Greek word for Soul: Psyche.

Thank you for visiting and reading. I hope you’ll join me again. Until next time, whoever and wherever you are, please stay safe and well, virtuous and holy. May the Lord bless and keep you, and may His peace be always with you. +JMJ


Notes and Links

  • Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting: Biblical Anthropology and the Monism-Dualism Debate, by Dr. John W. Cooper: Paperback, Kindle (those are Amazon affiliate links), Verbum, Logos (and these last two are not affiliate links). (The same text but used in both apps. Verbum is the Catholic one. This book could easily be used by Catholics or non-Catholics.)
  • The Christian Doctrine of Man, by H. Wheeler Robinson (Edinburgh: Clark, 1911), Free PDF at archive.org.
  • Catholic Bible Dictionary, edited by Scott Hahn. Hardcover, Kindle (Amazon affiliate links, see Full Disclosure for more). Verbum or Logos format.
  • Verbum, Catholic study software for Scripture, Magisterium, and Liturgy, and more.
  • Logos, the original and non-Catholic version of the software. I remember discovering this in a Baptist bookstore right around the time it first came out. I waited and waited for a Catholic version. And we finally got one!

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4 thoughts on “Weekly Series on the Soul, Part 42 – The Afterlife According to the Bible

  1. Pingback: Weekly Series on the Soul, Part 42 – The Afterlife According to the Bible – Nelson MCBS

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