The clearest and most concise inspired definition of death was written by Solomon, "Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it" (Ecclesiastes 12:7).
Immediately we are struck by the word "return." After death everything seems to go back from whence it came. The dust returns to the earth from which it was taken, and the spirit returns to God who gave it. Death is just the opposite of creation.
It is easy for us to picture the process of bodily decay and decomposition. We understand very well that the physical components of the body are the very same as the earth itself. When it is buried, the body reverts to the chemical elements of the ground from which the Creator took it in the beginning.
But what about the spirit which goes back to God? That is not so easy to understand. There is not a man in the world who can explain it with human wisdom. Nevertheless, many verses in the Bible throw light on this crucial point. lames wrote, "For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also" (lames 2:26). The word "spirit" has a marginal reference which reads, "or breath." This is very important. The actual root word in the Greek is "pneuma," a word which means "breath" or "air." We take our English word "pneumonia" from pneuma because it is a disease of the lungs, or of breathing. We have pneumatic tires, also derived from pneuma, because they have air in them. But that same Greek word "pneuma" also has another meaning. It means "spirit." For example, the Greek term for "Holy Spirit" is
"Hagios pneumatos," "Holy Breath" or "Holy Spirit."
This brings us to a very interesting conclusion. The words "breath" and "spirit" are often used interchangeably in the Bible. Job said, "All the while my breath is in me, and the spirit of God is in my nostrils" (Job 27:3). Now, it doesn't take a high degree of intelligence to know that Job was describing the same thing by the words "breath" and "spirit" Man has only breath in his nostrils. In fact, that is what God breathed into man's nostrils at the time of creation. "And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul" (Genesis 2:7).
Now the picture begins to clear up. When Solomon described the spirit returning to God, he had to be referring to the breath, because that was what God gave in the beginning, and therefore, it was the only thing that could now "return" to the One who gave it. The marginal note for Genesis 7:22 refers to the breath of life as "the breath of the spirit of life."
The psalmist describes death in these words, "Thou takest away their breath, they die, and return to their dust. Thou sendest forth thy spirit, they are created" (Psalm 104:29, 30).
Here the order is reversed, and their breath returns to God at death. Solomon said the spirit returns. Here God gives the spirit to create, but Genesis says He gave the breath to create. It only makes sense when we understand that the two words are used interchangeably and mean the same thing.
Please take note that this "spirit of life" is not necessarily the same as the Holy Spirit, neither is the "breath of life" the same as the regular air we breathe. This breath or spirit is the special, life-giving power of God which makes the body a functioning organism. Read Genesis 2:7 again, and try to visualize the act of creation. "And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground." We have no difficulty with this. We can see that dead body, perfectly formed and containing the very elements necessary for life. But there was no life. The heart wasn't beating. The blood was there, but it wasn't flowing. The brain was there, but it wasn't thinking.
Then God added one more thing to the body He had made. He "breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul" (Genesis 2:7). Do not miss the significance of these words—they are often misconstrued. God did not put a soul into the body. He added only one thing—breath or spirit. Then, as a result of the body and breath uniting, man BECAME a soul.
Millions have accepted the false, traditional view that God put a soul into the body to create man. This is based entirely upon the common, erroneous doctrine of all non-Christian religions. In the Bible, except in poetical or allegorical usage, the soul does not go in and out of the body; neither does it have an independent existence outside of the body. Because the Greek word "psuche," meaning "life," has sometimes been translated as "soul" in our King James Version, some have drawn wrong conclusions; but only because they apply a false definition to the word "soul." Millions have been taught that the soul possesses a natural immortality, and every time they read or hear the word they assume something that is totally false and unbiblical. Not even one time in the Bible is the soul referred to as being immortal or undying.
The fact is, the soul is the conscious life which resulted when God added the breath or spirit to the body. A simple illustration will help us see this truth more clearly. Let us liken the body to a light bulb. The electric current flowing into that bulb represents the breath of life which God put into the body, and the light itself will represent the soul which man became after the breath joined the body. As we look at the shining light we see a perfect representation of the completed creation. Now we press the button and turn the light off. What has happened? The current has left the bulb, just as the breath leaves the body at death. Now where is the light? Did it go up into the electric socket? No, it simply ceased to exist when the current separated from the bulb. Then let us ask, where is the soul when the breath separates from the body? There simply is no soul until, in the resurrection, God restores the breath of life to the body.
That should not sound so strange to us, now that we have discovered how everything "returns" at death to the way it was before. Before creation, man did not exist in some disembodied form. There was no personality, no conscious emotions before God added the breath to the body. At that moment man "became a living soul." If the soul came to be as a result of that union, when does the soul cease to be? Surely as a result of the breaking of that union.
Suppose we have two things before us: boards and nails. We take a hammer and drive the nails into the boards, making a box. Now we have three things instead of two; we have boards, nails and a box. Later, we carefully pull out the nails and lay them down beside the boards. Again, we have only two things before us: boards and nails. What happened to the box? There is no box, because it requires the two things together to cause it to be.
In the same way God started with two things, the body and the spirit. When He put them together, the soul "became"—it came into being, it began to exist. At death, the wise man tells us, the spirit returns to God and the body returns to dust. And nowhere in the Bible are we told that any soul survives the body, or continues to exist without a body. The soul, or the life, has no existence without the power of God residing in the body. At death that power is removed; it returns to God; and the state of that man is exactly what it was before the breath joined the body. That means no life, no consciousness and no personality.
Even animals are referred to as souls in the Bible, because they have the same power from God to make them live (Revelation 16:3). The wise man wrote, "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; ... All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again" (Ecclesiastes 3:19, 20). This does not mean, of course, that man and animals have the same ultimate end. There will be a resurrection and judgment for God's moral creatures, but life comes only from God, whether it be human or animal. And that life is often referred to in the Bible as the soul.
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