The following is information written to one inquirer who raised questions about this subject:
As for your question about the meaning of soul, spirit and immortality in the Scriptures, it often comes down to a more basic question and that is, what the Scriptures teach about death and the condition of the dead. The frequent Christian use of the term “sleep” with reference to death certainly indicates that the dead person is not conscious. (Acts 7:60; 13:36; 1 Corinthians 7:39; 11:30; 15:6, 18, 20; 1 Thessalonians 4:14, 15) This agrees with what the Hebrew Scriptures state.
Those who have put their trust in God’s Son and his ransom have the full assurance of a resurrection. Because of the absolute certainty of that promise, Jesus speaks of them as though already possessing everlasting life. (John 3:36; 5:24) From God’s standpoint therefore, even though they have died they are all alive, as Jesus said at Luke 20:37, 38. So, we have to recognize that God’s standpoint is superior to ours. Because He knows that He is going to do something, He can, as the apostle puts it, “call things that are not as though they were.” (Romans 4:17) So, when we read the Scriptures we need to keep in mind that while from the human standpoint we go into the unconscious sleep of death, from God’s standpoint our life is still a reality, a certainty. For us, death has “lost its sting.” —1 Corinthians 15:55-57
As for those who do not place their faith in God’s provision through Christ, who reject it, the Scriptures show that they have chosen death in place of life, and death is the opposite of life. The original Bible terms for “hell” (in Hebrew sheol, and in Greek hades) clearly refer to the death state into which all who die and are buried are found. Even Christ is spoken of as having entered this state and the term hades is used in connection with his death and resurrection. (Acts 2:24-32) I think it is worth noting here also that some of the finest Biblical scholars acknowledge that the Bible does not teach the mysterious view of the soul that so many religious persons have in their mind, and that this concept was adopted from Greek philosophy. That influence has continued on and is reflected in a large portion of the various church organizations. We should be guided, however, not by how widespread a belief may be (some majority viewpoint) but rather by what God’s Word actually teaches on the subject. If you have the book In Search of Christian Freedom you can read information on this Greek philosophy influence on pages 706, 707. Immortality in Scripture is always presented as something to be gained, not as something inherent.
As you say, both Stephen and Jesus prayed to God saying, “receive my spirit”. Did that mean they were transferred to heaven upon death? Not according to Scripture since it shows that Christ died and was in the grave during parts of three days, “tasting death for every man.” (Heb. 2:9; Acts 10:39, 40; 1 Corinthians 15:4) Since Christ was the “first fruits” of the resurrection, it is evident that no others had preceded him in being raised permanently from death to life. (1 Corinthians 15:20-23) You may do well to re-read chapter 15 of 1 Corinthians to see how the apostle presents matters and note his regular reference to those dead (including those who accepted Christ) as sleeping in death.
I realize that it is not possible to cover matters completely or answer all your questions in a letter. But perhaps some of the above points may at least be of some help to you and as you read the Scriptures and let them mold your thinking you will find that the truly important things will come through. We can go to God for help and for the wisdom necessary, not only to understand his message for us but also wisdom to live our lives in a way that will result in good, for us and for those we love.—James 1:2-6.
[Copyright 2002 by RF. Reproduced with permission.]