Armstrong’s Doctrine Of The Soul

By Mike Willis

One of the false doctrines propagated and defended by Herbert W. Armstrong and the Worldwide Church of God pertains to the soul. In the brochure What Is Man?, Armstrong described the doctrine of man which he opposed. He wrote,

The Common Assumption. The ancient pagans taught (and it has continued to be taught for many, many centuries) that man is a spiritual being – that he really is an “immortal soul” composed of spirit. The pagans further taught that this immortal soul is housed in what you might call a house of flesh – that the human body is merely the house we dwell in, or the cloak we put around us temporarily – and that the real you is not the body, but an immortal invisible soul – and yet a soul that knows, that thinks, that hears, that sees, and that will live on consciously forever . . . .

And the Bible does not reveal anything about an “immortal soul” that resides in a body of flesh, though many men have tried to read such a meaning into it. . .

You can see very plainly from the account in Genesis that man had no immortality and no “immortal soul” either!

Writing in the booklet Life After Death?, Mr. Armstrong stated that the dead are unconscious. He wrote,

But, what in the meantime – what between the second of one’s death and the resurrection? The Bible teaching, contrary to much religious and church teaching – that is the Word of God teaching – is that the dead are dead – utterly unconscious. . . (p. 4).

These quotations rather explicitly state the doctrine of the soul which has been espoused and propagated by Herbert W. Armstrong and the Worldwide Church of God.

Comparison To Adventists Movements

The doctrine of the soul which is taught by Herbert Armstrong comes from his association with the Seventh Day Adventists. He became affiliated with the Adventists as a result of the strong urgings of his wife (Norman Midgette, “The Cults View of the Future: Armstrongism,” Florida College Lectures 1974, pp. 143-144). The Seventh-Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses came out of a common religious heritage and share many of the same beliefs. Common to each of them is the denial of the immortality of the soul.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses teach the following regarding the soul:

So we see that the claim of religionists that man has an immortal soul and therefore differs from the beast is not Scriptural. . . The result of such a thorough search will be that you cannot find a single text in which either of those original words for “soul” is connected or associated with such words as “immortal, everlasting, eternal, or deathless.” There is not one Bible text that states the human soul is immortal (Let God Be True, pp. 68, 69).

. . Consistent with this basic truth, not once in any of its verses does the Bible say that either human or animal souls are immortal, deathless, cannot be destroyed or cannot perish (The Truth That Leads To Eternal Life, p. 37).

The Seventh-Day Adventists hold a similar doctrine of the soul of man. In his book The Four Major Cults, Anthony A. Hoekema surveyed the doctrine of the Seventh-Day Adventists with reference to the soul. Quoting from the Questions on Doctrine (pp. 512-514), published by the Adventists, Hoekema wrote:

“The Scriptures teach,” the authors summarize, “that the soul of man represents the whole man, and not a particular part independent of the other component parts of man’s nature; and further, that the soul cannot exist apart from the body, for man is a unit.”

What these authors are driving at is that, in their judgment, there is no soul which survives after the body dies (p. 111).

Discussing the Adventist’s doctrine of immortality, Hoekema continued:

Seventh-day Adventists thus believe in conditional immortality: immortality is bestowed upon believers at the Second Coming of Christ. Man possesses no inherent immortality, and man has no immortal soul. Immortality in the absolute sense is possessed only by God. Immortality in a relative sense is bestowed only upon certain people – namely, those who believe. Unbelievers will be raised from the dead after the millennium, but they will not receive immortality. They will be raised only to be annihilated (p. 136).

This is the point of doctrine which is common to Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists and the Worldwide Church of God under the leadership of Herbert W. Armstrong. Armstrong denies that man has an immortal soul. He teaches, like the Adventists, that man has conditional immortality. Armstrong said, “if you then live a life of overcoming and grow in grace and knowledge, you shall be made immortal at the second coming of Christ by a resurrection from the dead. Or, if you are living at that time, you shall be changed into immortal spirit composition and live forever!” (What Is Man?, p. 4). Armstrong identifies the new birth with the reception of an immortal spirit.

Does man have an immortal spirit? Is there something in man which survives death? Is man’s soul mortal or immortal? These are the questions which must be answered.

The Word “Soul”

Confusion has been created by Jehovah’s Witnesses, Adventists and the Worldwide Church of God by their statements that man does not have an “immortal soul.” Going into houses of those with little or no biblical knowledge, these false teachers confuse the hearts of the simple by pretending to have extensive knowledge of the original languages. They use the Hebrew word nephesh and the Greek words psuche and pneuma as if they were graduates in Bible languages. They positively assert that these words do not refer to an immortal soul, claim that “man is a soul; he does not have a soul,” and that man and animal both have the same nature, so far as “soul” is concerned.

The word “soul” is used in a number of senses. The following chart shows how the word is used:

Animal Life Human Life Persons Immortal Past of Man
Rev. 16:13 Matt. 2:20 Gen. 17:4; 46:18 Matt. 10:28
Num. 31:28 Lk. 12:22 Acts 2:41, 43 Acts 2:27
  Acts 20:10 1 Pet. 3:20 Rev. 6:9; 20:4
  Rev. 8:9, 12:11 Rom. 13:1 Jas. 5:20

This list is not exhaustive; however, it does show several of the usages of the word “soul.” The word “soul” like other English words, has several different meanings (cf. for example “heart,” “draw,” etc.). The problem which a person usually has when talking about the word “soul” is the failure to recognize these different usages. Christians sometimes fail to realize that the word “soul” is used to refer to “animal life,” human life, or just persons. One will be making a serious mistake not to admit that the word “soul” is sometimes used to refer to apart of man which dies. However, the word “soul” is also used to refer to a part of man which lives beyond death. The word psuche has, as one of its definitions, “the soul as an essence which differs from the body and is not dissolved by death” (Joseph H. Thayer, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, p. 677).

Here are some passages in which the word “soul” is used but refers to some part of man which survives death:

(1) Matthew 10:28 – “And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” The Lord Jesus indicates that God can destroy a part of man which man cannot destroy, namely the soul. However, in the teachings of Herbert W. Armstrong, when a man dies, his soul dies. One man can kill another man; hence, according to Armstrong, a man can destroy the soul. Jesus said that only God can destroy the soul of man.

(2) Acts 2:27 – “. . .because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.” This quotation of Psalm 16 as a Messianic prophecy of Christ states that God did not leave Jesus in the realm of the dead but raised Him from the dead. When Jesus’ soul was .in “hell” (hades), was it dead or alive, conscious or unconscious?

(3) Revelation 6:9-10 – “And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held: and they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?” Here are souls which had been slain but who were crying and speaking. If the soul dies when the body dies, how is this verse to be explained? These persons who had been slain for the testimony of Christ had conscious existence after their bodies had died. See Revelation 20:4 for another passage referring to conscious existence of slain Christians.

(4) James 5:19-20 – “Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth, and one convert him; let him know, that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins.” The conversion of an erring child of God saves a soul from death. Does conversion keep a Christian from experiencing physical death? There must be some kind of death in addition to physical death which affects man. The righteous and wicked alike die physically. How can conversion save a soul from death in the Armstrong sense of the soul?

Other Passages

In addition to those passages which show that the word “soul” is used to refer to an immortal part of man, there are a number of other evidences which show that man has a spirit which survives death.

1. 1 Peter 3:4. In teaching women to put their emphasis on spiritual things, Peter told women to be concerned with adorning the inner “man of the heart” more than the outward adorning of the body. He wrote, “Whose adorning let it not be that outward adorning of the plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel; but let it be the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is .in the sight of God of great price” (3:3-4). Woman has “the hidden man of the heart” which is “not corruptible” (aphthartos: imperishable; cf. 1 Tim. 1:17 where it describes God). Man’s soul is immortal, the claims of Armstrong to the contrary not withstanding.

2. 2 Corinthians 4:16-18. This passage contrasts the outward and inward man. Paul wrote, “For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day . For our light affliction, which- is but for a moment, worketh-f”.or us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.” Notice the contrasts in this passage:

Outward Man Inward Man
Perishes Renewed
Seen Not Seen
Temporal Eternal

Armstrong teaches that man is never described as having an eternal soul. We have seen that the “hidden man of the heart” is eternal (1 Pet. 3:4) and here that the “inward man” is not temporal but eternal.

3. 2 Corinthians 5:6-8. Paul continued in the same context to describe what happens to man at death. In these verses, he described our present life as being at “home in the body” but absent from God. However, when the “earthly house of our tabernacle is dissolved” (2 Cor. 5:1), we have the confident assurance that we go to be present with the Lord (v. 8). Paul did not describe death as the cessation of existence; rather, he described it as going to be at home with Christ.

4. Philippians 1:21-24. This passage is very similar to 2 Corinthians 5:6-8. Again Paul expressed his desire to go be with Christ at the time of his death. He did not describe death as a state of unconscious existence.

5. Luke 23:43. As Jesus hung on the cross, He said to the thief on the cross, “Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise.” Jesus expected to die that day, as also did the thief. Where did Jesus expect to go with the thief on that day? Did he describe unconscious existence in death as “paradise”? Or, did His soul survive the ordeal of physical death and go to some place of rest and bliss in the presence of God? I, believe the latter best explains Jesus’ statement.

6. Matthew 22:32. Jesus replied to the Sadducees who denied the resurrection of the body by showing that the dead are still “living.” He said, “But as touching the resurrection of the dead, have ye not read that which was spoken unto you by God, saying, I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.” Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had died centuries before Jesus lived on earth. Yet, Jesus described Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as “living” years after their death.

Replying To Armstrong Arguments

Those who argue that the soul of man dies and has no conscious existence after death usually argue from several standard passages. Let us look at two or three of these:

1. Ecclesiastes 9:5. This passage is used to show that the dead are in a state of unconscious existence. The passage says, “For the living know that they shall die; but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten. Also their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now perished; neither have they any more a portion for ever in any thing that is done under the sun” (9:5-6). The emphasis of this passage is one the fact that death ends man’s earthly existence – his life under the sun. “The fact of a retribution in a world beyond, is only apparently denied here, for the author now sees only the conditions of this world… :” (Otto Zockler, “Ecclesiastes,” Lange’s Commentary on the Holy Scriptures, Vol. V, p. 125). As the author of Ecclesiastes went on to describe death, he wrote, “Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it” (12:7). The book speaks of the judgment of the righteous and the wicked (11:9; 12:13-14). Hence, the most consistent interpretation of this passage is to understand that it is only discussing “life under the sun.”

2. Passages which speak of souls dying. Several passages which use the word “soul” in some sense other than the immortal part of man speak of souls dying. For example, Ezekiel 18:4, 20 is quoted (“the soul that sinneth, it shall die”) to show that man’s soul dies. This same chapter shows that the righteous shall “live” (Ezek. 18:9, 21). If “the soul that sinneth, it shall die” proves the mortality of the soul, “he shall surely live, he shall not die” (18:21) in the same context must prove the immortality of the soul! Hence, we are in a hopeless conflict unless we realize that “live” and “die” in this chapter is referring to spiritual life and spiritual death.

Other verses are cited in which “soul” is used to describe “persons.” Passages describe “souls” as dying (cf. Rev. 16:3; Lev. 24:18). These passages must be understood as referring to “soul” as meaning a “person” or mere animal life. Not understanding the contextual meaning of a word causes confusion. Think of what this sentence means: “Do you have a heart?” The sentence has different meaning depending upon whether one is speaking of the emotional make-up of a man, a suit of cards, or organ transplanting. To answer that sentence demands that one use the term in the same sense as that in which the question was asked; otherwise accurate communication has not occurred. This same problem occurs when Armstrong, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Seventh-Day Adventists change the meaning on the word “soul” in passages which speak of people dying and use that to state that man does not have a part of him which exists consciously after death. A shift in the meaning of the word “soul” occurs.

3. Immortality is given to the righteous at the resurrection. Armstrong and the Adventists both teach that man is given an immortal spirit at the resurrection. However, one should be reminded that the soul is not what is placed in the tomb or what will come forth from the tomb. The spirit of man returns to God who gave it at death (Ecc. 12:7); it is never placed in a tomb. The body of man is placed in a tomb and it returns to the dust from which it came. This natural body will be given immortality (1 Cor. 15:42-44). The soul of man already has immortality.

Passages which use “life” in a qualitative sense are sometimes cited to substantiate the position that man’s soul is given immortality. Armstrong contends that the new birth of John 3:3, 5 refers to what happens when the righteous dead are raised arid given, an immortal body. This “new birth” is said to be the means of gaining immortality (What Is Man? by Herbert Armstrong, p. 4). Every soul of man will be raised from the dead (John 5:28-29), not just the righteous. The dead will receive eternal destruction (Matt. 25:46), a punishment which will be torment day and night forever (Mark 9:44-1(; Rev. 20:10, 15).


Jesus gave us an accurate picture of what happens to man at death in Luke 16:19-31. So long as this passage is in the Bible, men such as Herbert Armstrong and religious groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Seventh-Day Adventists cannot be successful in denying the immortality of the soul and its conscious existence after death. Read this passage with me:

There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fi e linen, and fared sumptuously every day: and there was a certau beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate, full of sores, and desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried; and in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame. But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented. And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us,, that would come from thence. Then he said, I pray thee therefore, father, that thou wouldest send him to my father’s house: for I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment. Abraham saith unto him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them. And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent. And he said unto him. If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.

The entire background of this story assumes that the soul of man exists after death. Jesus knew more about this than Herbert W. Armstrong!

Guardian of Truth XXVII: 11, pp. 327-330
June 2, 1983