"I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless..." (1 Thessalonians 5:23).

One of the most neglected subjects in the discussions about the problems of mankind in today's world is the question of what really comprises a human being, and why humans are different from all other forms of life.  Some groups, of course, maintain that there is no difference, and that humans have no right to control or manage or use animals in any way.  The uniqueness of man and the value of human life also seems to be missed in debates over war, capital punishment, abortion, euthanasia, cloning, infanticide, and religious tolerance.  Even our understandings of what happens to us when we die is connected to the concept of what a human is and what it is about our nature that allows us to experience and comprehend spiritual things.  As is true of all subjects, the scientific evidence and the biblical teachings have great commonality in this question, and each discipline has something to contribute to our understanding of our nature and uniqueness.  It is not an easy subject, but what we would like to attempt to do in this article is to point out some things that we hope will contribute to growth in our understandings of this vital subject.

The reason this is a difficult subject is because much of what we are talking about does not lend itself to empirical observation.  Words like soul and spirit do not describe physical things that are easy to measure or observe.  This is a common problem in science.  Our understandings of quantum mechanics, psychology, nuclear chemistry, and cosmology are all complicated by the fact that it is difficult and sometimes impossible to observe the quantities we are working with in a physical way. Neutrinos, quarks, strings, ego, and id are things that we have to observe indirectly.  Even defining something like time is difficult because it is not three-dimensional and does not lend itself to familiar methods of explanation.

Biblically we have another problem and that is that the languages of the Bible as well as our own language are frequently inadequate to describe the entities that are being considered.  In the Greek, for example, there are five different words that can be used to describe love.  The word "philadelphia" is used to describe brotherly love and is used in verses like Romans 12:10; 1 Thessalonians 4:9; and 1 Peter 1:22.  The word "phileo" is used in reference to the love for a friend (see Matthew 6:5; 10:37; and 23:6.  "Agape" is used when the love being described is an unselfish love, ready to serve and looking for opportunity to do good (See Matthew 5:43-46; 6:24; 19:19, etc.) This is the word used most commonly in the New Testament.  The Greek word "eros" from which our word erotic comes, is not in scripture, and yet for many people in the world that is the only concept that comes to mind when they hear the word love.  Since in English we do not have all these different words to describe love, it is easy to misunderstand what the Bible is saying about love if you do not take the time to see what Greek word is being used for love.

There is also an economy of words used in Hebrew and Greek on many subjects the Bible discusses.  In Matthew 16:25-26 for example, we read:

For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for me will find it.  What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?... (NIV)

The words life and soul are the same Greek word in these verses.  The context of the passage makes it clear what the author is attempting to convey, but the translators face a problem when a unique concept is used that does not have language accommodation available to it.  In the Old Testament there is very little information about the soul of man.  Ecclesiastes 12:7 talks about the soul returning to God, and Daniel 12:2-3 mentions everlasting life, but the only clear reference to the soul and its existence after life is in 2 Samuel 12:23 where David grieves for his lost son and says "I shall go to him, but he will not return to me."

In the New Testament there are two words in Greek that speak of the spirit and the soul of man--"pneuma" and "psuche".  In Hebrews 4:12 there is a discussion of the dividing of soul and spirit in which both words are used.  Translators have had a hard problem with these two words, and different translations will use the word soul and spirit in different applications.  Some examples of this are James 2:26; Matthew 10:28; 22:37; and Luke 12:19.  In Ephesians3:16 and Romans 7:22 the Greek word "eso" is used and is translated "inner" man.  If you read through these passages it is usually obvious what the author intends to say, but the translators were wrestling with a new concept, and the words chosen do not always match the context.

Scientifically we struggle with this concept, because we are describing something that is nonphysical and does not lend itself to observation through our senses.  Trying to understand time causes similar problems.  Even discussions of atoms, electrons, neutrinos, and quarks poses its own set of problems, because normal observation methods do not apply.  If we are going to understand the nature of the soul and how it differs from spirit and body we have to use the same methods we use when we study quantum mechanics or nuclear materials.  Our understandings come from indirect methods and usually involve the examination of properties that logically fit the nature of the thing we are trying to understand.

Understanding what man is needs to be approached by understanding what God is and how we are created in God's image.  God is a triune being--meaning that He has three autonomous persons making up His being.  In Genesis 1 the Hebrew word "Elohim" translated God is plural as in "Let US create man in OUR image" (verse 26).  In Acts 17:29 the term "Godhead" is used to indicate the nature of God.  In John 1:1-3 and Colossians 1:15-18, Jesus is identified as the creator.  Statements like "Go ye now therefore baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 28:19) further emphasize this triune nature of God.  If we are created in the image of God, there logically must be more to us than what we can see with our naked eyes.

The first part of what composes a human is the physical body.  In Genesis 2:7 we are told that God formed the body of man from the dust of the earth.  The word used for the process of forming man's body is the Hebrew word "yatshir" and is not a miraculous creation, but a molding or forming as a potter might mold or form clay.  In Genesis 2:19 the same description is used in the same way to describe the formation of animals.  Jesus talked about man getting a new body in heaven where there is no corruption (Matthew 6:19-21), and in 1 Corinthians 15:42-55, there is a description of our physical bodies being changed into something that is not corruptible.

The second part of what composes a human is spirit.  The best definition of spirit is "life force." In the Old Testament the Hebrew word "nephish" is used in the second part of Genesis 2:7.  This word is also used in reference to animals (see Job 41:21) and was understood to be a gift from God that was special.  Nephish is translated breath, but whether someone is breathing or not is not essential to having life force.  Many living things do not have lungs, but still have life force.  A person can have their breathing stopped in a surgery and yet still have life force.  This is not something you can hold in your hand or observe, and it is also not something peculiar to man.

The third part of what composes a human is soul.  The soul is what is created in the image of God.  The soul is what makes us uniquely human.  Genesis 1:26-27 uses the word "bara" to describe this unique and miraculous creation of God and man is identified as special and unique in His creation.  It is the soul that is the inner man of Romans 7:22 and Ephesians 3:16.  It is the soul that bears witness with God's Holy Spirit that we are children of God in Romans 8:16.  It is the soul that is separated from the life force in Hebrews 4:12.

When humans die they give up two things--their soul and their spirit.  The soul returns to God (Ecclesiastes 12:7) and the spirit leaves the body.  When Jesus died on the cross he gave up his life force, but since Christ was God He did not give up His soul as we do.  We are created in God's image, but we are not God.  An analogy that might be useful here is that if you own a car, you have an object that has three integral components.  It has a body, which consists of the engine, wheels, etc.  It also has a kind of life force--which is the gasoline.  The car actually would work with just these two.  You could tie the steering wheel all the way over, start it and throw it in gear and it would run in circles--perhaps for a long time.  For the car to be able to function as it was planned however, there has to be a driver. A human body can be kept alive by mechanical processes, but if the soul has left the body and the life force behind, it will never do what it was designed to do.  This is, of course, the dilemma facing modern medicine today.

There is strong evidence for all three of these components of man.  The body is easy to understand, but the life force is harder.  We struggle with how the brain is involved in life force, and what things we feel the life force involves.  The heart can be cut out of a human body and it will continue to beat, but that certainly would not be considered by most to still possess the life force.  While the life force is mysterious in some ways, it is undeniable in both man and in other forms of life.  The soul of man is seen in what man does.  Man's capacity to worship, his creative ability in art and music, his concept of self, his capacity for language (not speech), his ability to feel guilt and sympathy, to practice altruism, to express an agape type of love, and many other characteristics are functions of man's spiritual nature.  Retarded people do these things and smart animals do not.  Animals raised as humans do not do these things.  The genome may be 99% the same between us and some of our animal friends, but the difference in what we do and how we do it is massive.  All of this is evidence of man's soul and his unique creation in the image of God.

The notion of man being created in the image of God, and having three components has huge implications for many of the issues of our day.  If man is a special creation of God with a unique soul, then human life is infinitely precious.  The life force of all living things is of value and needs to be cared for and protected, but man's special nature means that special treatment should be given to all humans to allow the expression of our spiritual nature as well as our life force and our physical well being.  Denying man as being special results in massive human tragedy and suffering.  Religions that do not respect the uniqueness of man violate a fundamental mandate of how special man is.  Questions of euthanasia, abortion, disease, pain control, conception, and countless other issues are all dramatically impacted by what we understand humans to be.  It is important that Christians stand for the value of all humans, and that we teach our children and every human in the world that they have value and purpose in existing.  We need to love and care for one another.  If "God so loved the world [mankind] that He sent His only begotten Son.," should we not have that same love and concern for all humans? If we recognize the nature of all of God's children as special creations in His image, it will be a good beginning to addressing the ills of our day.

--John N. Clayton

Back to Contents Does God Exist?, MayJun06.