Before stating what it means to be human, it should be noted by whom we are made. God made us. “God rules the world because he made the world. Like a potter with his clay, God fashioned the world into just the shape he wished, with all its amazing details. He made it, and he owns it.”
“Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.” (Revelation 4:11 ESV)
God made us to know Him, to love Him and to be known and loved by Him. All people are sons and daughters of Adam and Eve; we are made by God.
“then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.” (Genesis 2:7 ESV)
The question that this post seeks to answer is not how did God make man? or for what purpose did God make man? Instead the question pursued here is what is a human made of—what is our essence?
The Essence of Man is Two Distinct Elements: Body (Material) and Soul (Immaterial)
That humans have physical bodies is no debate. Hardly anyone would seriously contend that man does not have a material existence. Most people (not just Christians) have some idea or sense of an immaterial part of themselves—they might call it a soul or they might just call it a mind. However, there are a number of materialists who would contend that what you see is what you get; they would contend that we have a physical existence and that is all. If you can’t touch it, it isn’t real, the thinking goes. What evidence do we see that we are more than just material and that we have a soul?
Observations About the Human Soul:
Observation #1: It is a “substance”; its existence is evident.
Substance here is meant along the lines of distinct element, entity, basic feature, or component.
We are conscious of our thoughts, feelings, and volitions. We do not have the same thoughts or experience the exact same feelings and volitions at all times. Still, even while one’s thoughts and experiences constantly change, one realizes that their thoughts and experiences have their source in the same self. My thoughts are mine and they come from the same identifiable self: me. It is the same idea that gives potency to René Descartes’ famous philosophical proposition, I think, therefore I am. Whatever acts has existence and whatever exists is an entity.
Observation #2: The soul is distinct from the body; it is not matter.
The phenomena that point to the existence of the soul (thoughts, feelings, volitions, etc.) are different from (and incompatible with) the phenomena and properties of matter. The body’s properties relate to matter: mass, form, volume, state, etc. The properties of the soul are thought, sensation, will, etc. We are forced to conclude that matter and mind are distinct; the soul is not material nor is the body spiritual. To hold that matter and mind are essentially the same, one must pretend that sensation, thought, and will are reducible to mass, form, volume, state, and the like.
That the soul has spiritual (or, immaterial, if you prefer) properties makes it no less real than the body (the material). The materialist or the naturalist will probably disagree with that assertion—but why? Does experience not make us certain that body and soul are the two distinct substances in the constitution of man? That is the testimony of the Bible.
The Scriptural Testimony of the Two Substances of Man
In the Original Creation Account
Genesis 2:7 makes a clear distinction between the body which was formed out of the dust of the earth and the life that God breathed into man. Genesis 3:19 makes it clear that the body will return to the ground: “…till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Ecclesiastes 12:7 further clarifies the destiny of the soul: “and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.”
In Describing Judgement
Speaking of complete judgement, Isaiah 10:18 says “…the LORD will destroy, both soul and body…”
A Distinction Made by Jesus
Jesus makes the distinction in Matthew 10:28: “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
Scripture Uses “Soul” and “Spirit” Interchangeably
“When we look at the usage of the biblical words translated ‘soul’ (Heb. nephesh and Gk. psychē) and ‘spirit’ (Heb. rûach and Gk. pneuma), it appears that they are sometimes used interchangeably.” For example, Luke 1:46-47: “…My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…” Another example is found in a comparison of John 12:27 and John 13:21.
“This interchangeability of terms also explains why people who have died and gone to heaven or hell can be called either ‘spirits’ (Heb. 12:23, ‘the spirits of just men made perfect’; 1 Peter 3:19, ‘spirits in prison’) or souls (Rev. 6:9, ‘the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne’; 20:4, ‘the souls of those who had been beheaded for their testimony to Jesus’).”
What is the Relationship of Body and Soul?
“Man, then, according to the Scriptures, is a created spirit in vital union with a material organized body. The relation between these two constituents of our nature is admitted to be mysterious. That is, it is incomprehensible. We do not know how the body acts on the mind, or how the mind acts on the body.” However, Charles Hodge notes some plain facts of their relationship:
- The body cannot live without the soul: The relation between the two is a vital union in such a sense that the soul is the source of life to the body. When the soul leaves the body, the body ceases to live. When the soul leaves, the body loses its sensibility and activity, and becomes at once subject to the chemical laws which govern unorganized matter, and by their operation is soon reduced to dust, undistinguishable from the earth from which is was originally taken.
- The body and the soul each have a corresponding effect on the other: Certain states of the body produce certain corresponding states of the mind. The mind is conscious of impressions made by external objects on the senses belonging to the body. The mind sees, the mind hears, and the mind feels, but not directly or immediately, but through means of the appropriate organs of the body. It is a matter of daily experience that a healthful condition of the body is necessary to a healthful state of the mind; certain diseases or disorders of the one produce derangement in the operations of the other. Emotions of the mind affect the body; shame makes the cheek blush; joy causes the heart to beat and the eyes to shine. A blow on the head renders the mind unconscious—that is to say that it renders the brain unfit to be the organ of its activity; and a diseased condition of the brain may cause irregular action in the mind (dementia). All this is incomprehensible, but it is undeniable.
- Certain operations of the body are independent of the conscious voluntary action of the mind: The processes of respiration, digestion, sweating, etc. are not conscious operations of the mind. Other actions are dependent on the will. We can will to move and exert a greater or lesser degree of muscular force.
It is best to acknowledge these facts of consciousness and experience that prove an intimate and vital union between the mind and body and confess that they do not enable us to comprehend the nature of that union. We cannot exhaustively explain every detail of how body and soul relate, but that is no reason to deny the plain facts about the relationship of body and soul.
Body and Soul Were Made to Relate Perfectly; We Anticipate a Return of that Perfect Relationship in Glory
In Genesis 2:7 “Adam is a unified person with body and soul living and acting together. This original harmonious and unified state of man will occur again when Christ returns and we are fully redeemed in our bodies as well as our souls to live with him forever (see 1 Cor. 15:51-54).” Our present experience is one where both our body and soul are marred by the effects of sin, corruption, and death from the Fall (Genesis 3:1-24). Our body and soul operate in unity, even as that unity is imperfect here and now. “God created us to have a unity between body and soul…every action we take in this life is an act of our whole person, involving to some extent both body and soul.”
Man is not Three Substances
There is a view that man is three distinct substances: body (corpus, Greek: soma, σῶμα), soul (Hebrew: nephesh, נֶפֶשׁ; Greek: psuche, ψυχή), and spirit (Hebrew: ruach, רוּחַ; Greek: pneuma, πνεῦμα). This faulty view comes from the assumption that man must also be trinitarian in nature since God is a trinity. (We should be quick to affirm that the Bible certainly teaches that God is a trinity and that man is made in His image. However, the Genesis account details image-bearer qualities such as being [a] relational, [b] creative, and [c] having dominion and stewardship of God’s creation.) According to the view that the makeup of man is three parts, spirit would be the part unique to man in creation and it is where reason, will, and conscience reside; soul would be the element of animal life that we have in common with animals (the part where understanding, feelings, and sensibility reside); and body would be the purely material part of a human.
Those holding to this three parts (trichotomy) view mean well, but the view has a few problems:
The Trichotomy View is Incompatible with the Whole of Scripture
The Bible doesn’t make a distinction between spirit and soul; the words (nephesh/psuche and ruach/pneuma) designate the same thing and are used interchangeably. The Scriptures speak of spirit and soul both as not only the part that lives but also as that which thinks and feels, can be saved or lost, and that which survives the body and is immortal. The Bible portrays nothing in man higher than the soul; it is often used as a synonym for self. “Every soul is every man; my soul is I; his soul is he. What shall a man give in exchange for his soul? It is the soul that sins (Lev. 4:2), it is the soul that loves God.”
The Trichotomy (Body, Spirit, and Soul) View of the Nature of Man is Incompatible with Real Life
We are conscious of our bodies and we are conscious of our souls—that is we are conscious of their exercises. We are not conscious, however, of our soul as distinct from our spirit.
Inner and Outer: A More Helpful Way to Think of How the Bible Describes the Material and Immaterial Elements of Man
“While the Bible doesn’t make the overly precise distinction between body, soul, and spirit, it does describe man as complex. At the most general level the Bible makes a distinction between the ‘outer’ and the ‘inner’ man. The ‘inner’ man refers to the level of thoughts, desires, will, emotions, and any other ‘psychological’ activity we may ascribe to man, as well as his ‘spirit’. The multifaceted nature of the inner man is usually encapsulated in the term ‘heart’ (1 Sam. 25:36; 2 Sam. 6:16; 1 Kings 3:12; Ps. 4:7; 33:11). The ‘outer man’ refers to actions and words that can be observed. The outer man consists of the physical self subject to decay (2 Cor. 4:16), and carries out the desires of the inner man through its “members” (Rom. 6:13), ‘mouth’ (Luke 6:45), ‘feet’ (Prov. 1:16), or ‘hands’ (Prov. 12:14). While the Bible recognizes the distinction between inner and outer man, it stresses the ultimate unity of the person. God relates to man as a whole, not just ‘spiritually’…The Bible’s frequent use of the term ‘heart’ to capture the varied activity of the inner man strengthens our understanding of man’s unity and suggests Scripture’s reluctance to make unnecessary distinctions.”
The Bible Passages Cited as Favoring the Trichotomy View Do Not Make a Strong Case for Trichotomy
1 Thessalonians 5:23: Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
“The phrase ‘ your spirit and soul and body’ is by itself inconclusive. Paul could be simply piling up synonyms for emphasis, as is sometimes done in Scripture. For example, Jesus says, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind’ (Matt. 22:37). Does this mean that the soul is different from the mind or from the heart? The problem is even greater in Mark 12:30: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ If we go on the principle that such lists of terms tell us about more parts to man, then if we also add spirit to this list (and perhaps body as well), we would have five or six parts to man! But that is certainly a false conclusion. It is far better to understand Jesus as simply piling up roughly synonymous terms for emphasis to demonstrate that we must love God with all our being.
Likewise, in 1 Thessalonians 5:23 Paul is not saying that soul and spirit are distinct entities, but simply that, whatever our immaterial part is called, he wants God to continue to sanctify us wholly to the day of Christ.”
Hebrews 4:12: For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
Just as joints and marrow are not different substances—they are different forms of the same material substance—the soul and the spirit are different expressions of the same immaterial substance. It has already been demonstrated that soul and spirit are used interchangeably in Scripture. The point of this verse is that God’s Word penetrates even the inner, immaterial parts of our being (whether we call it soul or spirit). “Or if we wish to think metaphorically of our inmost being as hidden in our joints and in the marrow, then we can think of Scripture being like a sword that divides our joints or that pierces deeply into our bones and even divides the marrow in the midst of the bones. In all of these cases the Word of God is so powerful that it will search out and expose all disobedience and lack of submission to God. In any case, soul and spirit are not thought of as separate parts; they are simply additional terms for our inmost being.”
The Human Soul Can Exist Without the Body
The Scripture plainly teaches that the soul can exist and act after the death of the body. Possibly the easiest illustration of the point is Jesus stating—to the believing thief dying on the cross—“Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43, emphasis added). It is worth noting that Jesus refers to the thief’s soon-to-be existence in paradise with the term “you.”
“Therefore, although we must agree that, in this life, Scripture views us as a unity in which body and spirit act together as one person, nonetheless, there will be a time between our death and the day Christ returns when our spirits will temporarily exist apart from our physical bodies.”
1 Corinthians 15 and the descriptions of the new heaven and new earth in Revelation 21 indicate that our existence will be physical again—a perfect union of human body and soul free from the effects of the Fall.
- Matthias Media, “Two Ways to Live,” http://www.matthiasmedia.com.au/2wtl/2wtlonline.html
- Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Volume 2, 7th Printing, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, 2016, p. 42.
- Ibid., pp. 42-43.
- Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1994, p. 474.
- Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Volume 2, 7th Printing, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, 2016, p. 44.
- Ibid., p. 45.
- Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1994, p. 473.
- Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Volume 2, 7th Printing, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, 2016, p. 48.
- Winston Smith, Dichotomy or Trichotomy? How the Doctrine of Man Shapes the Treatment of Depression, The Journal of Biblical Counseling, Volume 18, Number 3, 2000.
- Grudem notes that “the ‘heart’ in Scripture is an expression for the deepest, inmost thoughts and feelings of a person (cf. Gen 6:5, 6; Lev. 19:17; Pss. 14:1; 15:2; 37:4; 119:10; Prov. 3:5; Acts 2:37; Rom. 2:5; 10:9; 1 Cor. 4:5; 14:25; Heb. 4:12; 1 Peter 3:4; Rev 2:23; et al.).”
- Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1994, pp. 478-479.
- From Grudem: “ Note that we do not divide joints from marrow, for joints are the places where bones meet, not the places where joints meet marrow.
- Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1994, p. 479.
- Other helpful passages include: 2 Cor. 5:8; Phil. 1:19-26; 1 Thes. 4:13-18.
- Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1994, p. 483.