Jehovah's Witnesses and the Human Soul

by Luke Wayne

Jehovah's Witnesses claim that there is no part of a man that continues to exist consciously after death. They insist that human beings entirely cease to exist at the moment of physical death. They deny that humans have a "soul" or any spiritual component to their being. They claim that the soul "is the entire creature, not something inside that survives the death of the body."1 Man (according to the Watchtower) does not have a soul, man is a soul, and "soul" simply means a living, breathing, physical being. This is, of course, one way the biblical authors use the word "soul," though hardly the only way. The same word can have different meanings in different contexts. If I am teaching a class at a gym and instruct a group of men to exercise their right arms, I mean something very different than a militia leader who urges his men to exercise their right to bear arms. The sentences are nearly identical, but the words "exercise," "right," and "arms" all have completely different meanings derived from the context in which they are being used.

The Old Testament and the Soul

Similarly, the word "soul" holds more than one meaning in Scripture. It certainly can simply mean "a person," such as when we today say something like "you poor soul." In the creation account, for example, the Bible does say:

"Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being [soul]" (Genesis 2:7).

And commenting on the same passage, Paul says:

"So also it is written, 'The first man, Adam, became a living soul.' The last Adam became a life-giving spirit" (2 Corinthians 15:45).

Indeed, people are often referred to as "souls" when they are numbered, such as when Luke writes of the day of Pentecost:

"So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls" (Acts 2:41).

So it is true that the word "soul" can simply refer to a person rather than to an inner component of a person. But is that really all that soul can mean? Not at all. Remember what Jesus identified as the greatest commandment in all the law:

"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might" (Deuteronomy 6:5).

Indeed, this formula of "with all your heart and with all your soul," is frequently used throughout the book of Deuteronomy and several times beyond it. Joshua, for example, also says:

"love the Lord your God and walk in all His ways and keep His commandments and hold fast to Him and serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul" (Joshua 22:5).

And of King Josiah it is said:

"Before him there was no king like him who turned to the Lord with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might, according to all the law of Moses; nor did any like him arise after him" (2 Kings 23:25).

Such passages clearly treat the "soul" as a thing that man has, not a term for what man is. In this sense, "soul" is no more a word for the entirety of a man than "heart" or "might" is. The soul is one aspect that makes up the totality of a man.

Jehovah's Witnesses attempt to sidestep this by claiming that "soul," though meaning the whole person, came to be used as a euphemism for "life."2 When the "soul" goes out of a person, it just means that their life goes out of them (i.e., they die) and to love God with all your "soul" just means to love Him with all of your life. This, however, makes little sense in light of the whole of Scripture. Uriah, for example, swears to David, "By your life and the life of your soul, I will not do this thing" (2 Samuel 11:11). David's soul has life and is not a mere synonym for David's life. His soul is listed as a distinct thing from David's life.

If we look just in the book of Genesis, we see an interesting pattern. The word soul is used consistently in the narrative of the patriarchs for a conscious, feeling aspect of a person within their being. For example:

"and prepare a savory dish for me such as I love, and bring it to me that I may eat, so that my soul may bless you before I die" (Genesis 27:4).

"But Hamor spoke with them, saying, 'The soul of my son Shechem longs for your daughter; please give her to him in marriage'" (Genesis 34:8).

"Then they said to one another, 'Truly we are guilty concerning our brother, because we saw the distress of his soul when he pleaded with us, yet we would not listen; therefore this distress has come upon us'" (Genesis 42:21).

It is in this consistent context that we read of Rachel:

"It came about as her soul was departing (for she died), that she named him Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin" (Genesis 35:18).

What was departing her at death was not some vague idea of life, but rather an essential personal aspect of her being. Indeed, the verse says plainly that she died when the soul left her, which would hardly be necessary to say if soul simply meant life. Her "soul," in this case, is a conscious aspect of her inner self.

The New Testament and the Soul

This reality becomes even clearer in the New Testament, whose writers frequently use the word "soul" for an inner aspect of the person distinct from the body, such as when Paul says:

"Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Thessalonians 5:23).

That the soul (in this sense of the word) transcends the death of the body is clear in Jesus' words:

"Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell" (Matthew 10:28).

Jesus is not speaking in a vacuum here. The writings of the Jews of Jesus' day show that they also held to the idea of a soul that transcends death as well. For example, in one of the accounts of the Maccabean revolt we read:

"Let us not fear him who thinks he is killing us, for great is the struggle of the soul and the danger of eternal torment lying before those who transgress the commandment of God. Therefore let us put on the full armor of self-control, which is divine reason. For if we so die, Abraham and Isaac and Jacob will welcome us, and all the fathers will praise us" (4 Maccabees 13:14-16).

Such language is very similar to what Jesus uses in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus:

"Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom" (Luke 16:22-23).

Watchtower literature may argue that, as a parable, one need not believe that this in any way represents reality, but it fits with Jesus' plain teaching quoted above. We should also note that all of Jesus' other parables draw on true aspects of life like debt, farming, servants left in charge of their master's possessions, men robbed when traveling alone, and strong men defending their houses from thieves. That Jesus would here draw on and encourage completely mythical beliefs about the state of human existence after death without ever correcting them, would be dishonest and wholly unthinkable in light of the rest of His teaching. Jesus went out of His way to refute false traditions of the first-century Jews when they came up. Jesus does not treat the belief in an enduring soul as such a tradition.

In the Book of Revelation, John writes:

"When the Lamb broke the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained" (Revelation 6:9).

Of these souls, John also says:

"Then I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was given to them. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony of Jesus and because of the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received the mark on their forehead and on their hand; and they came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years" (Revelation 20:4).

Again, this idea was common in Jewish literature of the day. We read in the apocalyptic Esdras literature:3

"Did not the souls of the righteous in their chambers ask about these matters, saying, ‘How long are we to remain here? And when will the harvest of our reward come?’ And the archangel Jeremiel answered and said, ‘When the number of those like yourselves is completed; for he has weighed the age in the balance, and measured the times by measure, and numbered the times by number; and he will not move or arouse them until that measure is fulfilled'" (2 Esdras 4:35-36 NRSV).

And again:

"He answered me and said, “'Go and ask a pregnant woman whether, when her nine months have been completed, her womb can keep the fetus within her any longer.”' And I said, “No, lord, it cannot.” He said to me, “;In Hades the chambers of the souls are like the womb. For just as a woman who is in labor makes haste to escape the pangs of birth, so also do these places hasten to give back those things that were committed to them from the beginning. Then the things that you desire to see will be disclosed to you'" (2 Esdras 4:40-43 NRSV).

Thus, John's Revelation utilized imagery very familiar to the Jewish mind of Jesus' day. His words would have carried a specific meaning, and that meaning would have included the idea of conscious souls of the righteous dead eagerly awaiting their future resurrection. The first-century Jewish historian, Josephus, describes the beliefs which most Jews of the day accepted (though the Sadducees did not), saying:

"They also believe that souls have an immortal vigor in them, and that under the earth there will be rewards or punishments, according as they have lived virtuously or viciously in this life. The latter are to be detained in an everlasting prison, but the former shall have the power to revive and live again" (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews: Book 18, Chapter 1, Section 2).

And again in another of his writings:

"They say that all souls are incorruptible; but that only the souls of good men are returned into bodies. The souls of bad are subject to eternal punishment" (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, Book 2, Chapter 8, Section 14).

Again, while the New Testament is quick to point out and reject false human traditions that developed in the Jewish community, it does not treat this belief as such. It affirms and expounds on it. This is because, as we have seen, the belief is rooted in the Old Testament. It is not a later human tradition. It is a biblical revelation about the true nature of man. It is the Jehovah's Witnesses who are reintroducing a central aspect of the false human tradition of the Sadducees in claiming that there is no enduring, spiritual aspect of man that is consciously awaiting future resurrection or eternal judgment. This is the sort of human tradition that the New Testament does, indeed, refute. On such matters of eternal significance, I think we would do well to go with the teachings of Jesus rather than the traditions of the Watchtower Society.


Inside the Bible

The Prophets say:
Isaiah 14:9-10, "Sheol from beneath is excited over you to meet you when you come; It arouses for you the spirits of the dead, all the leaders of the earth; It raises all the kings of the nations from their thrones. They will all respond and say to you, ‘Even you have been made weak as we, you have become like us.'"

Paul says:
Philippians 1:21-24, "For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose. But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better; yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake."

2 Corinthians 5:8, "we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord."

Jesus says:
Luke 23:43, "And He said to him, 'Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.'"


Inside CARM

Does the soul cease to exist after death?
No, the soul does not cease to exist after death. The Bible clearly teaches us in the New Testament that we continue on after death.

Is annihilationism true?
You can see that "forever and ever" is a phrase used of the glory of God that will never cease (1 Tim. 1:17; Rev. 5:13). The same phrase is used to speak of the torment of people that will never cease (Rev. 19:3; 20:10; ). Therefore, annihilationism simply can't work in light of what the Scriptures teach.

What is soul sleep?
Soul sleep is the teaching that when a person dies his soul "sleeps" until the time of the future resurrection. In this condition, the person is not aware or conscious. The Jehovah's Witnesses and the Seventh-day Adventists hold to this doctrine.

  • 1. (accessed 6/13/17)
  • 2. ibid
  • 3. The Esdras literature is numbered differently in different collections and by different scholars. The work cited here is called "2 Esdras" in the NRSV (from which I here quote) and in much of the Protestant tradition, but is called "4 Esdras" in the Latin Vulgate, the King James Version, and in many modern critical editions.