Is the Soul Immortal?
In almost every way, Qohelet (Ecclesiastes) is an unusual text in the biblical canon: its language, ideas, and rhetoric differ dramatically from what we commonly find in the biblical corpus. At times, the viewpoints expressed in the book even appear “heretical,” denying what seem to be basic tenets of other biblical books. A striking example appears toward the end of the book’s third chapter.
Human and Animal Souls
Qohelet 3:18–22 raises two, interlocking philosophical questions:
- What is the difference between humans and animals?
- Does the human soul live on after death?
The opening verse of the passage is difficult, but the gist is that Qohelet rebuffs the idea that humans are a special species, above other animals. His proof is that the fate of both humans and animals is the same: both die the same way, and thus ultimately, humans have no superior position over animals:
קהלת ג:יט כִּי מִקְרֶה בְנֵי הָאָדָם וּמִקְרֶה הַבְּהֵמָה וּמִקְרֶה אֶחָד לָהֶם כְּמוֹת זֶה כֵּן מוֹת זֶה וְרוּחַ אֶחָד לַכֹּל וּמוֹתַר הָאָדָם מִן הַבְּהֵמָה אָיִן...
Eccl 3:19 For the fate of humans and the fate of beasts—they have one and the same fate. As one dies so dies the other, all have the same spirit. Humans have no superiority over beasts…
Qohelet then considers the possibility that it is only human bodies that have the same fate as animal bodies, but that their spirits or souls have a different fate: the human soul rises to heaven and the animal soul descends into the earth, but he foregrounds this proposition with doubt (vv. 20–21).
Qohelet thus appears to lean towards the likelihood that the souls of humans and animals experience the same fate upon the death of the body. Thus, he concludes that, without any solid evidence regarding what happens after people die, it is best for them to concentrate on enjoying their physical lives here on earth (v. 22).
קהלת ג:כב וְרָאִיתִי כִּי אֵין טוֹב מֵאֲשֶׁר יִשְׂמַח הָאָדָם בְּמַעֲשָׂיו כִּי הוּא חֶלְקוֹ כִּי מִי יְבִיאֶנּוּ לִרְאוֹת בְּמֶה שֶׁיִּהְיֶה אַחֲרָיו:
Eccl 3:22 I saw that there is nothing better for humans than to enjoy their possessions, since that is their portion. For who can enable them to see what will happen afterward?
Qohelet Versus Other Biblical Authors
The questions that Qohelet asks in this passage, and the possible answers he considers, stand out as unusual when compared with other biblical passages.
1. Humans Are Superior to Animals
Biblical creation stories usually emphasize human superiority over the animals:
בראשית א:כו וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים נַעֲשֶׂה אָדָם בְּצַלְמֵנוּ כִּדְמוּתֵנוּ וְיִרְדּוּ בִדְגַת הַיָּם וּבְעוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם וּבַבְּהֵמָה וּבְכָל הָאָרֶץ וּבְכָל הָרֶמֶשׂ הָרֹמֵשׂ עַל הָאָרֶץ.
Gen 1:26 Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth (NRSV).
This same view also appears in psalmodic literature:
תהלים ח:ה מָה אֱנוֹשׁ כִּי תִזְכְּרֶנּוּ וּבֶן אָדָם כִּי תִפְקְדֶנּוּ. ח:ו וַתְּחַסְּרֵהוּ מְּעַט מֵאֱלֹהִים וְכָבוֹד וְהָדָר תְּעַטְּרֵהוּ. ח:ז תַּמְשִׁילֵהוּ בְּמַעֲשֵׂי יָדֶיךָ כֹּל שַׁתָּה תַחַת רַגְלָיו. ח:ח צֹנֶה וַאֲלָפִים כֻּלָּם וְגַם בַּהֲמוֹת שָׂדָי. ח:ט צִפּוֹר שָׁמַיִם וּדְגֵי הַיָּם עֹבֵר אָרְחוֹת יַמִּים.
Ps 8:5 what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? 8:6 Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. 8:7 You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet, 8:8 all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, 8:9 the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea (NRSV).
2. What Happens after Death
The Bible does not express much interest in the afterlife, in contrast to some of its neighbors such as Egypt, Ugarit, and Mesopotamia. The basic view of the afterlife expressed in the Bible is that the dead go down to Sheʾol (Gen 37:35). This term sometimes refers to the underworld or sometimes to the underground grave or tomb itself (Ps 30:4). Sheʾol is dark and quiet (Ps 88:13, 115:17). The dead living in Sheʾol continue their existence in a permanent torpor (Ps 13:4, Job 3:13); their physical existence is minimal or limited, like a shadow of their former selves (Isa 14:10–19).
Qohelet’s speculation in 3:21 concerning the possibility of a soul or spirit separate from the body, which grants a person a kind of immortal afterlife, is almost entirely absent from other biblical texts, where the words רוח (rûaḥ) and נשמה (nĕšāmâ) refer to breathing or breath, and more expansively to the lifeforce granted a person who can breathe.
Breath of Life
When YHWH creates the first man, the text states:
בראשית ב:ז וַיִּיצֶר יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהִים אֶת הָאָדָם עָפָר מִן הָאֲדָמָה וַיִּפַּח בְּאַפָּיו נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים וַיְהִי הָאָדָם לְנֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה.
Gen 2:7 then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being (NRSV).
When a person dies, God in essence takes back this lifebreath, and the person returns to the pre-creation state, reverting to dust of the earth:
תהלים קד:כט תַּסְתִּיר פָּנֶיךָ יִבָּהֵלוּן תֹּסֵף רוּחָם יִגְוָעוּן וְאֶל עֲפָרָם יְשׁוּבוּן. קד:ל תְּשַׁלַּח רוּחֲךָ יִבָּרֵאוּן וּתְחַדֵּשׁ פְּנֵי אֲדָמָה.
Ps 104:29 When you hide your face, they are terrified; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. 104:30 When you send forth your breath, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.
Biblical texts that refer to the gathering up of a person’s breath at death do not describe this breath/soul/spirit as living on in some independent form. Instead, it seems that the breath returns to God, and that the person’s spirit does not continue on in some independent sense.
Animals and Humans in the Hellenistic Worldview
Based on the language and ideas of Qohelet, most modern scholars posit that it was composed during the Ptolemaic period, in the 3rd century B.C.E. Qohelet’s inquiry into whether animals and humans are essentially different was debated by Greek philosophers.
Diogenes of Apollonia (5th century B.C.E.) argued that humans and animals have the same soul, which can be demonstrated by the fact that they breath the same air. Similarly, Pythagoras is said to have believed that all living creatures share the same pneuma (πνεῦμα) “spirit,” which is the shared spirit of the universe.
On the opposite side, the Skeptics, the Stoics, and the Epicureans all believed that humans are different in their essence from animals. Different philosophers in these and other schools pointed to various features of humans that showed them to be distinct. Some such traits include: the desire to act justly; comprehension of the abstract as opposed to animals’ purely sensory perception; insightfulness; the ability to innovate technologically and socially; use of language; and similarity to the divine.
The Immortal Soul and the Hellenistic World
The belief in the immortality of the soul is most associated with Socrates (ca. 470–399 B.C.E), as depicted by Plato’s dialogue Phaedo, the final dialogue in a series of four, which describes Socrates’ trial and execution. In this dialogue, Socrates is about to take the hemlock, and offers a discourse on the afterlife, in conversation with Cebes and Simmias, his students, who are concerned about his immanent death (Phaedo, 80d–81a):
Will the soul, the invisible part which makes its way to a region of the same kind, noble and pure and invisible, to Hades in fact, to the good and wise god whither, god willing, my soul must soon be going—will the soul, being of this kind and nature, be scattered and destroyed on leaving the body, as the majority of men say?
Far from it, my dear Cebes and Simmias, but what happens is much more like this: if it is pure when it leaves the body and drags nothing bodily with it, as it had no willing association with the body in life...
A soul in this state makes its way to the invisible, which is like itself, the divine and immortal and wise, and arriving there it can be happy, having rid itself of confusion, ignorance, fear, violent desires and other human ills and… truly spend the rest of time with the gods.
One of the tragedies of Euripides (480–406 B.C.E.) similarly declares that that which comes from the dust returns to the dust, but that which comes from the ether sails into the heavens. This is somewhat similar to Qohelet 3:21, which asks whether the human soul “goes up.”
Thus, Qohelet’s ideas seem to have been inspired, in one way or another, by the author’s encounter with Hellenistic culture—and he was not the only one.
Soul’s Immortality in Judean Thinking
Various ideas regarding afterlife thrived in Judean thinking during the Ptolemaic period. In this period, we see the development of the belief in the resurrection of the dead (Dan 12:1–3; 2 Macc 7) and in the survival of the soul as an independent entity after a person’s death.
For example, the Book of the Watchers (ca. 250–200 B.C.E.)—which now makes up chapters 1–36 of the book of Enoch—describes the journey of Enoch to the ends of the earth, where he is shown where the souls of the dead, the righteous in one place, the wicked in another, awaiting the day of judgment (1 Enoch 22). In Enoch’s visions, the deceased righteous are promised that as a reward for their suffering in this world, their souls will merit eternal life and happiness in the hereafter.
The question of where, exactly, these souls are located cosmologically speaking, which bothers Qohelet—do they go up or down—is also discussed in another part of the book of Enoch, which explains that the souls of the righteous, which descend temporarily to Sheʾol, will, in the end, travel up to the heavens (1 Enoch 102–103).
The Afterlife in Motivational Speeches: Josephus
In the Roman period, Josephus presents the belief in the immortality of the soul as a key tenet in of Jewish theology. In his narration of Elazar ben Yair’s final speech, immediately before the mass suicide in Masada, Josephus includes a long passage that describes the eternal features of the soul (Jewish War 7:7–8 §338–388). For example, Elazar states:
§344 For it is death which gives liberty to the soul and permits it to depart to its pure abode, there to be free of all calamity…. §346 [I]t is not until, freed from the weight that drags it down to earth and clings about it, the soul restored to its proper sphere, that it enjoys a blessed energy and a power untrammeled on every side, remaining, like God Himself, invisible to human eyes.
Similarly, in quoting his own speech to his men, Josephus reports that he said (Jewish War 3:5 §372):
All of us, it is true, have mortal bodies, composed of perishable matter, but the soul lives forever, immortal, it is a portion of the Deity housed in our bodies.
These ideas were developed further by the Sages and became a standard part of later Jewish belief. However, in the Hellenistic period, the concept of an immortal soul that separates from the body after death was still young. Some Judean works from this period, such as Ben Sira and 1 Maccabees, take going down to Sheʾol for granted. Other texts describe actual debates between those who believe in the immortality of the soul and those who do not.
The Book of Enoch Argues Against the Views of the Wicked
In a passage from the Visions of Enoch (1 Enoch 102–104), Enoch consoles the righteous:
Enoch 102:4 Do not be afraid, you souls of the righteous, and be hopeful, [you] who have died in your righteousness. 102:5 And do not be sad that your souls have gone down into Sheol in sadness, and [that] your bodies did not obtain during your life [a reward] in accordance with your goodness…
As part of his exhortation, Enoch attacks the views of the wicked, who deny that there will be any afterlife at all:
Enoch 102:6 But when you die, the sinners say about you: “As we die, the righteous have died, and of what use to them were their deeds? 102:7 Behold, like us they have died in sadness and in darkness, and what advantage do they have over us? From now on we are equal, 102:8 and what will they receive, and what will they see forever? For behold, they too have died, and from now on they will never again see light.”
The view of the wicked here is surprisingly reminiscent of what we find in Qohelet, with the claim that everybody dies, and nobody, righteous or wicked, is remembered. In response to this view, Enoch explains that while everybody dies, the righteous are rewarded in the afterlife:
Enoch 103:3 [A]ll good and joy and honor have been made ready and written down for the spirits of those who have died in righteousness, and [that] much good will be given to you in recompense for your toil, and [that] your lot [will be] more excellent than the lot of the living. 103:4 and the spirits of you who have died in righteousness will live, and their spirits will rejoice and be glad, and the memory of them [will remain] before the Great One for all the generations of eternity.
Clearly, the book of Enoch sees belief in the afterlife as an essential tenet of Judean religion, and the denial of this belief is part of wickedness itself.
Wisdom of Solomon Caricatures the Views of the Wicked
The Jewish Apocryphal book known as Wisdom of Solomon, composed in Greek in first century C.E. Alexandria (Egypt) describes the views of the wicked as being based on the sheer pointlessness of life:
Wisdom 2:1 …Short and sorrowful is our life, and there is no remedy when a human being dies, and no one is known who has returned from Hades. 2:2 Because we came into being by chance and hereafter we shall be as though we had never existed, because the breath in our nostrils is smoke and reason is a spark within the beating of our hearts, 2:3 when it is extinguished, the body will turn to ashes, and the spirit will be dispersed as thin air.
2:4 And our name will be forgotten in time, and no one will remember our deeds; our life will pass away as the traces of a cloud and will be scattered as mist that is chased by the rays of the sun and weighed down by its heat. 2:5 For our allotted time is the passing of a shadow, and there is no putting back of our death, because it has been sealed and no one turns it back. (NETS)
This sounds very much like Qohelet, as does another deduction this group makes from their perception of reality, that the only thing worthwhile is to enjoy life:
Wisdom 2:6 Come, therefore, let us enjoy the good things that exist, and let us make good use of the creation as in youth; 2:7 let us take our fill of costly wine and perfumes, and let no flower of spring pass us by. 2:8 Let us crown ourselves with rosebuds before they are withered. 2:9 Let none of us be without share in our revelry; everywhere let us leave signs of enjoyment, because this is our portion and this our lot.
At this point, the wicked continue by declaring that they will not even maintain moral propriety, that they will crush widows and orphans, and will lie in wait to destroy the righteous. Such an attitude, however, backfires on them when they encounter the righteous in the afterlife, and realize too late that they were wrong:
Wisdom 5:4 “These are they whom we once held in derision and as a byword of reproach—we fools! We thought their life to be folly and their end to be without honor. 5:5 How have they been counted amongst divine sons, and how is their lot amongst the holy ones? 5:6 Surely we strayed from the way of truth, and the light of righteousness did not shine on us, and the sun did not rise on us.”
Thus, according to Wisdom of Solomon, those who take the nihilistic approach in this world will learn of their folly when they are condemned to a negative afterlife for all time, while the righteous live on in heaven.
Carpe Diem: Qohelet the Wicked?
Seen against the backdrop of these other texts, Qohelet reflects one side of a polemical argument among the Jews of the Hellenistic and Roman period, about what happens after death. Qohelet shows himself to be unsure about the relative truth of two philosophies, one of which speaks about the immortality of the human soul after death ‒ meaning that the soul rises to heaven ‒ and the other of which denies this and believes that death is the ultimate end, and thus enjoyment of life the only relevant goal. As he sees no evidence for the first view, Qohelet opts for the latter.
There is an interesting similarity between Qohelet’s conclusions in this passage—that the soul does not live on, that death is final, and that people aren’t remembered—and the position described as that of the wicked in Wisdom of Solomon and 1 Enoch. Moreover, elsewhere Qohelet expands on this theme, claiming that there is no difference between the death of the wicked and that of the righteous:
קהלת ט:ב הַכֹּל כַּאֲשֶׁר לַכֹּל מִקְרֶה אֶחָד לַצַּדִּיק וְלָרָשָׁע לַטּוֹב וְלַטָּהוֹר וְלַטָּמֵא וְלַזֹּבֵחַ וְלַאֲשֶׁר אֵינֶנּוּ זֹבֵחַ כַּטּוֹב כַּחֹטֶא הַנִּשְׁבָּע כַּאֲשֶׁר שְׁבוּעָה יָרֵא.
Eccl 9:2 For the same fate is in store for all: for the righteous, and for the wicked; for the good and pure, and for the impure; for him who sacrifices, and for him who does not; for him who is pleasing, and for him who is displeasing; and for him who swears, and for him who shuns oaths.
Accordingly, Qohelet claims that enjoying what life has to offer is the best strategy:
קהלת ט:ז לֵךְ אֱכֹל בְּשִׂמְחָה לַחְמֶךָ וּשֲׁתֵה בְלֶב טוֹב יֵינֶךָ כִּי כְבָר רָצָה הָאֱלֹהִים אֶת מַעֲשֶׂיךָ. ט:ח בְּכָל עֵת יִהְיוּ בְגָדֶיךָ לְבָנִים וְשֶׁמֶן עַל רֹאשְׁךָ אַל יֶחְסָר. ט:ט רְאֵה חַיִּים עִם אִשָּׁה אֲשֶׁר אָהַבְתָּ כָּל יְמֵי חַיֵּי הֶבְלֶךָ אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לְךָ תַּחַת הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ כֹּל יְמֵי הֶבְלֶךָ כִּי הוּא חֶלְקְךָ בַּחַיִּים וּבַעֲמָלְךָ אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה עָמֵל תַּחַת הַשָּׁמֶשׁ.
Eccl 9:7 Go, eat your bread in gladness, and drink your wine in joy; for your action was long ago approved by God. 9:8 Let your clothes always be freshly washed, and your head never lack ointment. 9:9 Enjoy happiness with a woman you love all the fleeting days of life that have been granted to you under the sun—all your fleeting days. For that alone is what you can get out of life and out of the means you acquire under the sun.
Certainly, Qohelet differs in one significant way from opinions cited in Enoch and Wisdom of Solomon: He does not support immoral behavior, such as cheating widows or attacking the righteous. Such a position, however, likely was not advocated by any group, but is probably a rhetorical product of the authors of Enoch and Wisdom of Solomon, who wanted to present the opposition unfavorably.
Thus, Qohelet may surprisingly represent the school of thought that Enoch and Wisdom call “the wicked.” Indeed, Qohelet might be the only surviving representative of this group, described so harshly by their opponents. It may be seen as a somewhat ironic fact, then, that unlike Enoch and Wisdom of Solomon, Qohelet became canonized as part of the biblical corpus, and is read in synagogues everywhere as the words of King Solomon, while while other contemporary texts, like parts of the book of Enoch, were not included in the Jewish canon despite their pious attitudes.
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Dr. Nili Samet teaches Bible and Assyriology at the department of Bible in Bar-Ilan University. She holds a Ph.D. in Bible from Bar-Ilan University and an M.A. in Assyriology from the Hebrew University. She is the author of The Lamentation over the Destruction of Ur: A Revised Edition and is currently working on her commentary on Ecclesiastes for the Mikra LeYisrael series.
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