Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Doctrine of the Soul

The Watchtower Society teaches that human beings do not possess a soul separate from the physical body. They say that the word “soul” does not refer to an “immaterial” part of a person that survives death, but to the very life that a person has. Every person is a “soul” not because he or she possesses an invisible or immaterial nature, but because he or she is a living being (Genesis 9:5).

Genesis 2:7 is often used to support this perspective. The New World Translation presents this verse as follows: “And Jehovah God proceeded to form the man out of dust from the ground and to blow into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man came to be a living soul.” This verse supposedly demonstrates that humans are composed of physical matter combined with “breath,” which together create a living soul.

Luke 23:46 is another verse that is cited (or twisted) to support this view. This verse depicts Jesus, just before He died, saying to the Father: “Into your hands I entrust my spirit.” Jehovah’s Witnesses claim that the man Jesus was mortal and did not have an immortal soul that consciously survived death. He entrusted His “spirit” to the Father in the sense that He knew that when He died, His future life prospects rested entirely with God.

The question of what happens after death is closely connected to the doctrine of the soul. According to Witnesses, human beings die and return to the dust, just like animals, due to the inherited sin from Adam. They do not possess a spirit that continues to exist as a conscious being after death. Instead, their “spirit” is understood as the life-force within them, which gradually fades away at the time of death. 

Psalm 146:3-4 is often cited by Jehovah’s Witnesses to support the belief that consciousness ceases at death. The New World Translation rendering of this passage says that a man, following death, “goes back to his ground; In that day his thoughts do perish.” 

They also point to Ecclesiastes 9:5: “The living are conscious that they will die; but as for the dead, they are conscious of nothing at all.”

Because man has no immaterial nature that survives death, he is manifestly unconscious after death. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that “when a person is dead he is completely out of existence. He is not conscious of anything.”[1] Even for the righteous, the dead remain unconscious and inactive in the grave until the future resurrection. Nor do people consciously suffer in hell. Hell is viewed not as a fiery place of suffering but as the common grave of all humankind. All the wicked are annihilated.  

A Biblical Assessment

The verses used by Jehovah’s Witnesses as proof that the “soul” is only a life-force are taken out of context. Their reading of these verses is mistaken as is their conclusion about the nature of the soul in the afterlife.

Let us start with Genesis 2:7, which, in the New World Translation, reads: “And Jehovah God proceeded to form the man out of dust from the ground and to blow into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man came to be a living soul.” Context is always determinative in what the word soul means in the Hebrew Bible. In some instances, the term can refer to a living being. Genesis 2:7 is one example of this. However, just because the word is employed in this sense in this verse does not suggest that it is restricted to this meaning or that humans do not have an immaterial nature. The same word might signify different things in different contexts.

The same is true for the English language. Depending on the context, the English term “trunk” might mean the front of an elephant, the back of a car, the bottom of a tree, a man’s rear end, or luggage. 

When we look at how the word “soul” is employed throughout Scripture, it becomes evident that one of its meanings is an immaterial nature that is distinct from the physical body. Let us look at few examples: 

Genesis 35:18: This verse speaks of Rachel’s death as she was giving birth: “And it came about as her soul was departing (for she died), that she named him Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin.” This verse distinguishes the soul from the physical body that dies, for at death, the soul “departs” from the body.

Revelation 6:9-10: This passage describes Christians who have been martyred: “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; and they cried out with a loud voice, saying, ‘How long, O Lord, holy and true, wilt Thou refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?’” In this passage, the word soul cannot refer to “living being”—otherwise, the passage would read, “I saw underneath the altar the living beings of those who had been slain.” Notice that the souls exist and are conscious despite the fact that they had been physically slain. 

Luke 23:46: In this verse, we discover what Jesus said as He died on the cross: “‘Father, into Thy hands I commit My spirit.’ And having said this, He breathed His last.” The Greek term for “spirit” in this verse is pneuma. A straightforward reading of the text indicates that Jesus is entrusting His human immaterial soul or spirit to the Father.

Acts 7:59: This verse tells us about Stephen’s death: “They went on stoning Stephen as he called upon the Lord and said, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” This verse makes little sense if we take “spirit” (pneuma) as simply Stephen’s life-force, which would cease to exist at the point of death. Why would Stephen ask Jesus to “receive” something that was going to cease to exist? Stephen is plainly asking Jesus to receive the part of him that will survive the death of his physical body.

Philippians 1:21-23: In this passage we read the words of the apostle Paul: “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.” The question that immediately comes to mind is: How could Paul in his right mind refer to death as “gain” if death meant nonexistence? What Paul means by “gain” is evident from the context, as he defines it as leaving the physical body to be with Christ. Being with Christ is “very much better” than being in the physical body. (Being in a state of nonexistence cannot be described as “very much better” under any circumstances.)

2 Corinthians 5:6-8: This passage reads: “Therefore, being always of good courage, and knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord—for we walk by faith, not by sight—we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord.”

The Greek word pros is used for the English word “with” in the phrase, “be at home with the Lord.” This word suggests close, personal fellowship. It is a word used for intimate relationships. Paul is indicating that the fellowship he expects to have with Christ immediately after his physical death will be one of great intimacy. Furthermore, the Greek tenses in this passage indicate that the moment one is absent from the body, one is immediately at home with the Lord. There is no lag time. It is an instantaneous transition.

In light of such passages (and there are others), Scripture is clear that man has an immaterial nature that consciously survives death. But if this is the case, what are we to make of the Bible verses that Jehovah’s Witnesses cite to support their position—Psalm 146:3-4 and Ecclesiastes 9:5? Let’s examine them briefly.

Psalm 146:3-4: As previously stated, the New World Translation translates this passage to say that on the day of death, a man’s “spirit goes out, he goes back to his ground; In that day his thoughts do perish.” While the perishing of thoughts may seem to indicate a lack of consciousness after death, this is a misinterpretation. The passage does not mean that people will think no thoughts at all after the moment of death (see Revelation 6:9-10 where we witness “souls” conversing with God). Rather—in context and in faithfulness to the original Hebrew—it means that people’s plans, ambitions, and ideas for the future will cease and come to nought at the moment of death. This is what the Hebrew word for “thoughts” in Psalm 146:3-4 conveys. A person’s plans and ideas for the future die with him. For example, when President John F. Kennedy died, his plans and programs for the country died with him. This is reflected in the ESV translation of verse 4: “When his breath departs, he returns to the earth; on that very day his plans perish.” 

Ecclesiastes 9:5: As previously stated, the New World Translation renders this verse: “For the living are conscious that they will die; but as for the dead, they are conscious of nothing at all.” While the Watchtower interprets this as indicating a lack of consciousness following death, the Bible teaches that the soul does indeed survive death in a state of conscious awareness (see 2 Kings 14:29; 2 Corinthians 5:8). Contextually (see Ecclesiastes 9:6,10), Ecclesiastes 9:5 merely states that the dead know nothing about earthly affairs. While they are unaware of what is going on on Earth, they are well aware of what is going on in heaven (Revelation 6:9) or hell (Luke 16:19-31), depending on their location. 

In light of the foregoing, the Watchtower’s use of Psalm 146:3-4 and Ecclesiastes 9:5 to “prove” that there is no conscious existence in the afterlife is invalid.

Before concluding, let us briefly consider the Watchtower’s contention that hell is the “common grave of humankind.” The Bible clearly states that hell is a place of eternal conscious torture for the wicked after death (Matthew 5:22; 18:8; 25:41; Jude 7; Revelation 20:14). The Scriptures use a variety of words to describe the horrors of hell, including fire, fiery furnace, unquenchable fire, the lake of burning sulfur, the Lake of Fire, everlasting contempt, perdition, the place of weeping and gnashing of teeth, eternal punishment, darkness, the wrath to come, torments, damnation, exclusion, condemnation, retribution, woe, and the second death (see, for example, Mark 9:43 and Revelation 14:11). Hell is a horrific and real fate.

As horrifying as it is, there are numerous lines of scriptural evidence that support the idea of eternal consciousness of the lost in hell:

  • The rich man who died and went to hell was in conscious torment (Luke 16:22-28), and there is no indication in the text that it will ever end.
  • Jesus on several occasions described the people in hell as “weeping and gnashing their teeth” (Matthew 8:12; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30). There is no indication in any of these verses that this is a temporary situation.
  • The same Greek term for “eternal” is used in the phrase “eternal punishment” (Matthew 25:46) and “eternal life” (same verse). This implies that the punishment of the wicked is as eternal as the life of the righteous.
  • Jesus on several occasions described hell as a realm of “unquenchable flames” (Mark 9:43-48), where the bodies of the wicked will never expire (Luke 12:4-5). 

The Watchtower’s claim that the wicked are annihilated is therefore proven incorrect. We can also observe that there are no degrees of annihilation, but Scripture shows that the lost in hell will experience varying degrees of anguish (see Matthew 10:15; 11:21-24; 16:27; Luke 12:47-48; John 15:22; Hebrews 10:29; Revelation 20:11-15; 22:12). The fact that people will face varied degrees of punishment in hell demonstrates that annihilation, or the extinction of consciousness, is unbiblical. 

In summary, the word “soul” has several important meanings, one of the most important being an immaterial nature (as distinct from the physical body) that consciously survives death. Human beings are conscious in the afterlife. Hell is an actual place of eternal suffering.

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If you’re looking for a thorough study of this topic, I recommend my 464-page book, Reasoning from the Scriptures with the Jehovah’s Witnesses (published by Harvest House).

  1. You Can Live Forever in Paradise on Earth (Brooklyn: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1982), p. 88.

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