Body and Soul in the New Testament

Dr. Michael Gleghorn draws on John Cooper’s book Body, Soul and Life Everlasting to provide an overview of what the NT teaches about the body-soul connection.

The Teaching of Jesus

What does the New Testament teach about the nature and destiny of human beings? In a previous article, I discussed what the Old Testament has to say about these issues, giving special attention to the human body and soul. In this article, we’ll consider what the New Testament has to say.

download-podcastAbout 400 years separate the end of the Old Testament from the beginning of the New. During this so-called “intertestamental” period, Jewish biblical scholars, like the Pharisees, continued to teach and write about what God had revealed in the Hebrew Scriptures. According to John Cooper, the Pharisees taught that when a person dies, the soul leaves the body to continue its existence “in an intermediate state, already enjoying or lamenting the anticipated consequences of God’s judgment.”{1} Interestingly, both Jesus and the Apostle Paul also seem to have held this view.{2}

Consider, for example, some of the last words spoken by Jesus just prior to His death on the cross. You may remember that Jesus was crucified between two criminals. While one of these men railed against Jesus, the other (aware of his guilt), asked Jesus to “remember” him when He came into His kingdom (Luke 23:39-42). Jesus responded by promising this man that he would join Him “in Paradise” that very day (v. 43). Paradise, in the Jewish thinking of the time, was understood to be a pleasant and refreshing place where the souls of the righteous continue their existence between the death and resurrection of the body.{3}

The body, in other words, may die, but the soul, or person, continues to exist apart from their body. Although this criminal had only hours left to live, his elementary confession of faith in Jesus resulted in Jesus promising him that they would be together in Paradise that very day! This ought to encourage all of us who have put our hope in Christ for salvation. Our bodies may wear out and die. But when they do, we shall go to be with Christ, awaiting the resurrection of our bodies while enjoying the presence of the Lord!

But what about the other criminal, the one who mocked and insulted Jesus? Although we’re not told what happened to him, we know from elsewhere in Scripture that the souls of the unrepentant also continue to exist after the death of the body. In the next section we’ll take a closer look at the fate of the righteous and unrighteous dead.

The Rich Man and Lazarus

What happens to us when we die? Do we continue to exist in some sense? Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus appears to offer some answers to these questions (see Luke 16:19-31). The story concerns a rich man, who lacks for nothing, and a poor beggar, named Lazarus, who is laid at the rich man’s gate (v. 20). The story implies that the rich man could have helped Lazarus, but never did so.

Eventually, both men died. Lazarus is said to be “carried by the angels to Abraham’s side” (v. 22). Essentially, he is depicted as being with the Jewish patriarch Abraham in Paradise. Paradise, you’ll remember, was considered a place of rest and refreshment for the righteous dead. By contrast, the rich man, his body having been buried, finds himself in “torment” in Hades (vv. 22-23). Seeing both Abraham and Lazarus at a great distance, he pleads with them for help. Abraham, however, tells him that this just isn’t possible (vv. 24-31).

What might this story teach us about the nature and destiny of human beings? Though we should perhaps be careful about reading the story too literally, it seems to teach that we will each continue to exist (in some sense) even after the death of our body. Moreover, this existence will be experienced as either joyful or sorrowful, depending on our relationship with God. Although the story seems to depict the rich man and Lazarus as if they still have bodies of some sort, John Cooper offers several reasons for believing that the story is using figurative language to describe a time in which these men exist apart from their bodies.{4} This would be the period between the death and resurrection of the body. What are some of the reasons that Cooper offers for this view?

First, at the time Jesus tells this story, He regarded the resurrection as a still future event (see Luke 20:34-36). It is thus unlikely that the story here concerns some sort of literal bodily existence. Second, the story locates the rich man in “Hades”—and this term appears only to be used of the intermediate state, between the death and resurrection of the body.{5} The story thus appears to depict the rich man and Lazarus as consciously existing persons between the death and resurrection of their bodies. And if this is so, then we are more than just our bodies (as we’ll see more fully in the next section).

Paul’s Heavenly Vision

Do you view yourself as more than just your body? Might you also have a soul? We’ve previously considered evidence for the human soul in the teachings of Jesus. In this section, we’ll consider further evidence from the writings of the Apostle Paul. In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul recounts an extraordinary experience which he had fourteen years earlier (see 2 Corinthians 12:1-4, 7). He describes being “caught up . . . into paradise” and hearing “things that cannot be told, which man may not utter” (vv. 2-4).

For our purposes, the most important element of this experience concerns a peculiar detail mentioned twice by the apostle. According to Paul, he was unsure whether he had this experience while “in the body or out of the body” (vv. 2-3). That is, Paul was unsure whether he had been “caught up into Paradise” (v. 3) in his body, or out of it. But why is this important? Because it shows that Paul regarded the “out of body” option as a genuine possibility.{6}

You see, many scholars have argued that Paul did not believe in any sort of conscious existence apart from the body. The great New Testament scholar F. F. Bruce claimed that Paul “could not conceive” of a situation in which he might exist and have experiences apart from his body.{7} Now you might be thinking, “Well wait just a minute. Didn’t you say that Paul was unsure whether this experience had occurred while in the body or out of it? Maybe he remained in his body and the experience was just a vision of Paradise, occurring while he was in some sort of trance-like state on earth.”{8}

Yes, you’re right. That is possible (although it doesn’t seem consistent with what Paul actually says).{9} And here’s the thing: the very fact that Paul was unsure whether this experience occurred while he was in (or out of) his body, tells us that he regarded the “out of body” explanation as a genuine possibility. And if this is so, then contrary to what some scholars have said, Paul most certainly could conceive of conscious existence apart from his body. Indeed, he thought he may have had just such an experience himself.

But we can take this argument further. For as we’ll see in the next section, Paul (like the Pharisees and Jesus), seemed to think that we’ll continue to exist and have experiences between the death and resurrection of our bodies.

Our Heavenly Dwelling

When I was a child, our family would occasionally go camping. Although we usually went in a camper, with air-conditioning and beds, I’ve also spent a few nights camping out in a tent. Most of us have probably had such an experience (though whether we enjoyed it or not is another matter). A tent is basically a portable structure that provides a temporary place to stay while we’re away from our permanent home.

In 2 Corinthians 5 the Apostle Paul has a fascinating discussion that touches on some of these issues (see vv. 1-10). The discussion is challenging, but if we consider it step by step, I think we can get a handle on what the apostle is saying. He begins, “For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (v. 1).

When Paul writes of “the tent that is our earthly home,” he is referring to our physical bodies here and now. If our body is “destroyed,” and we die physically, “we have,” says Paul, “a building from God . . . eternal in the heavens” awaiting us. According to John Cooper, this “building” can plausibly refer to one of two things.{10} It might refer to our future resurrection body. However, it may also refer simply to “being ‘with Christ’.” If the second option is meant, then Paul is speaking about going to be “with Christ” at the time of death, in which we are (as he later puts it), “at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8; see also Philippians 1:23).

Paul characterizes our present “earthly” state as one of groaning, “longing to put on our heavenly dwelling” that “we may not be found naked” (1 Corinthians 5:2-3). Although these verses are difficult to interpret, it is probable that “nakedness” refers to temporarily existing without a body when we die. If so, then Paul is saying that when we die, we go immediately to be “with Christ.” There we are “at home with the Lord,” awaiting that day in which we will “put on our heavenly dwelling” (v. 2). This likely refers to our resurrection body. At the time of the resurrection, our souls will be united with a glorious new body, so that we might eternally enjoy life with Christ ad fellow believers in the new heaven and new earth. We will consider these issues more fully in the next section.

The Resurrection of the Body

The Bible envisions a future time in which all who have died will be raised from the dead into some sort of physical, bodily existence. The New Testament writers refer to this as “the resurrection of the dead” and it will include both believers and unbelievers. Hence Jesus, referring to His own unique role in executing divine judgment, claims that “an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear His voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment” (John 5:28-29). Although evidence elsewhere in the New Testament suggests that different groups of people may be raised at different times, the key point here is that this event has not yet taken place. It’s still in the future.

Paul says much the same thing in several of his letters. To cite just one example, he tells the Philippians that “we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables Him even to subject all things to Himself” (Philippians 3:20-21). Elsewhere Paul tells us that our resurrection bodies will be “imperishable,” “powerful,” and glorious (1 Corinthians 15:42-43). It’s incredibly exciting to contemplate the fact that the Lord intends to give his people marvelous new bodies, patterned after his own resurrection body, so that we might enjoy eternal life with him forever. When that day dawns, our joy will truly be complete!

So how might we attempt to summarize our discussion in this article? First, both Jesus and Paul seem to have taught that human beings are (in some sense) composed of both a body and a soul. John Cooper describes the relationship of soul and body as one of “functional holism.” Our body and soul function as a thoroughly integrated whole during our present earthly lives. But when our body dies, our soul continues to exist, awaiting the resurrection of our body at some future time.{11}

On that day, our soul will be united with our resurrection body, either to enjoy eternal life with Jesus, or face eternal judgment in hell. This, it seems to me, is what the New Testament has to say about the nature and destiny of humanity. In Christ we are offered a sure and steadfast hope for both our soul—and our body!

1. John W. Cooper, Body, Soul & Life Everlasting: Biblical Anthropology and the Monism-Dualism Debate (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), Kindle Loc. 1208.
2. J. P. Moreland, The Soul: How We Know It’s Real and Why It Matters (Chicago: Moody, 2014), 55, Kindle.
3. This becomes a bit complicated. John Cooper points out that Jewish thinking about the afterlife continued its development during the intertestamental period. While some Rabbis conceived of “Paradise” as a special place for the righteous dead within Sheol, others began to think of Paradise as outside Sheol altogether. Regardless of such differences, however, Cooper reminds us that “Paradise” was understood as the place “where the blessed dwell with the Lord” (see Cooper, Body, Soul & Life Everlasting, Kindle Loc. 1175-1200).
4. Cooper, Body, Soul & Life Everlasting, Kindle Loc. 1605; see also Loc. 1592-1607.
5. Again, see Cooper’s discussion in Body, Soul & Life Everlasting, Kindle Loc. 1592-1607.
6. Cooper makes this point emphatically in Body, Soul & Life Everlasting, Kindle Loc. 1880-86.
7. F. F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), 313; cited in John Cooper, Body, Soul & Life Everlasting, Kindle Loc. 1840.
8. This possibility is also mentioned in Cooper, Body, Soul & Life Everlasting, Kindle Loc. 1871.
9. Again, see Cooper, Body, Soul & Life Everlasting, Kindle Loc. 1872.
10. See Cooper, Body, Soul & Life Everlasting, Kindle Loc. 1837.
11. See Cooper’s discussion in Body, Soul & Life Everlasting, Kindle Loc. 699-712.

©2023 Probe Ministries

“If Judged at Death, Why Judged Later?”

I found your article on what happens at death. My question is, if we are judged at death immediately, why do we say the in the creeds that at the second coming Jesus will judge the quick (living) and the dead since the dead have already been judged? Anxious to hear back from you. Thanks.

Thanks for your letter. There is what some have called a “judgment of faith” which takes place immediately at death and a “judgment of works” which takes place at some time afterward.

The “judgment of faith” may be in view in Hebrews 9:27. A good biblical example is the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31. Notice that the rich man finds himself in “Hades” after death, while Lazarus is in Paradise. This judgment is based on one’s relationship with the Lord and has nothing to do with works per se.

However, the Bible also speaks of a “judgment of works.” For unbelievers, this judgment will apparently take place just prior to the creation of the new heavens and new earth (see Rev. 20:11 – 21:1). Notice that even death and Hades are cast into the lake of fire at this time (Rev. 20:14). In other words, “Hades” (where the rich man went at death) is not to be equated with the lake of fire (which is where unbelievers will spend eternity after the Great White Throne judgment).

Believers will also experience a “judgment of works” at the judgment seat of Christ (see 1 Cor. 3:10-15). This judgment does not determine whether the person is saved or not, for this judgment only includes those who are already saved. It rather determines whether one will receive eternal rewards or not. Apparently, some believers will not receive any rewards (1 Cor. 3:15). Theologians do not agree on precisely when this judgment will take place. But most believe that it follows the initial “judgment of faith” at some later time. It certainly occurs before the creation of the new heavens and new earth (where resurrected believers will spend eternity in joyful fellowship with God and one another).

Hope this helps clear up some of the confusion.


Michael Gleghorn

© 2008 Probe Ministries

Romantic Hyperbole: A Humorous Look at Honesty in Love

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

It would be a great way to express my enduring affection for my wife. I would find seven romantic birthday cards and give one to Meg each day for a week, starting on her birthday. It would continue a sweet tradition begun before we married.

Each card would have a simple picture that would tenderly convey our feelings for one another. Inside would be an endearing slogan or affirmation to which I would add a personal expression of my love for her.

I didn’t foresee that Day Three would bring an ethical dilemma.

I carefully selected the cards and arranged them in an appropriate sequence. Day One showed a cute puppy with a pink rose. Inside: “You’re the one I love.”

Day Two featured a picture of a little boy and girl in a meadow with their arms over each other’s shoulders. The slogan: “Happy Birthday to my favorite playmate.”

Day Three depicted a beautiful tropical sunset: bluish pink sky, vast ocean, silhouetted palm trees. You could almost feel the balmy breeze. Inside: “Paradise is anywhere with you”, to which I added personal mention of places holding special memories for us: an island vacation spot, a North Carolina hotel, our home.

I completed the remaining cards, dated the envelopes, and planned to bestow one card each morning of her birth week. Then reality happened.

You see, I had agreed to go camping with her for Days One and Two. Camping is something Meg thrives on—outdoor living, clean air, hiking, camp fires. It’s in her blood. Camping is something I did in Boy Scouts—dust, mosquitoes, noisy campers, smelly latrines. It ranks just below root canals on my list of favorites.

We camped at a state park only fifteen minutes from our home. On her birthday morning, she liked the fluffy puppy. Day Two, the cute kids made her smile. So far, so good.

Meanwhile, I was tolerating camping, doing my best to keep my attitude positive. The food was OK; the bugs were scarce. After two days, I was ready to go home as planned. Meg wanted to stay an extra day. We each got our wish.

Once home and alone, I pulled out Meg’s card for “Day Three,” the one with the tropical sunset and the “paradise is anywhere with you” slogan.

Should I give her the card? I had chosen to leave the campground. “But,” I reasoned with myself, “the slogan was true lots of the time.”

I settled on a compromise, a post-it note on the envelope explaining, “You may find that this card contains just a bit of romantic hyperbole.”

Might giving it a clever-sounding label defuse my hypocrisy?

The echoes of her laughter still reverberate through our home. I got off easy.

“Speak the truth to each other,” wrote a Jewish sage. “Speak. . . the truth in love,” advocated a first-century biblical writer. Wise advice for just about any relationship.

“Romantic hyperbole” has become a humorous gauge of truthfulness in our relationship, a test for honesty. Neither of us enjoys every location on earth. She feels some sporting events are a waste of time. I can get bored at shopping malls. But as long as we are honest with each other about our feelings, the bond seems to grow stronger.

That’s no hyperbole.

© 2002 Rusty Wright