Body, soul, and spirit
Published: 19 June 2021 (GMT+10)
Jacob R from Australia asks about the meaning of the biblical terms translated ‘soul’, plus the material and immaterial aspects of man. Dr Jonathan Sarfati responds, largely based on his Genesis 1–11 commentary The Genesis Account (right).
I firstly want to thank you for posting my question about an astronomy. It was nice to see it as an article.
This is a slightly different topic I’m confused about now. So CMI holds the view that there is a non-physical and a physical side to people (which I agree with), sometimes referred to as the soul or spirit. And this is linked closely to the body but isn’t the same. I watched a video from the Bible Project which explains that Nephesh is actually a more physical word used to describe a person but literally means their throat (or similiar). The video kinda went on to say that the idea that we are a spirit/soul which has a body/is mixed with the body as incorrect and rather that is Greek mythology or a Greek idea that gave us this notion. Is there any way you guys could reinforce your view and maybe explain where this alternative view comes from?
Thank you for your further questions.
First of all, alarm bells should go up when a traditional Christian doctrine is blamed on Greek mythology or philosophy, or in other circles on “Platonic corruption”. Such authors seem to forget both that the New Testament (NT) was written in Greek, and that the Apostles were still Jews strongly opposed to paganism. Many of the early Church writers also wrote in Greek, but were highly critical of aspects of the culture opposed to Scripture, such as homosexual behaviour, a low view of women, and infanticide. So the Platonic corruption view doesn’t make any logical or historical sense.
CMI affirms that humans have both a material and immaterial aspect. The video is extremely superficial, inventing a meaning of the Hebrew nephesh as ‘throat’ that is not found in the standard lexica, and citing only some of the biblical usages. It of course totally ignores the Greek NT uses of the equivalent word psychē (ψυχή).
It also ignores other clear NT teachings. For example, Peter was a Jewish fisherman, not a Greek philosopher, and he literally said:
I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to stir you up by way of reminder, since I know that the putting off of my body will be soon, as our Lord Jesus Christ made clear to me. And I will make every effort so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things. (2 Peter 1:13–15)
The Greek word translated as “body” in both cases above is (Greek σκήνωμα skēnōma = dwelling; from the root word, σκηνη skēnē, meaning, tabernacle, pitched tent).” (2 Peter 1:13) Here, Peter describes his identity “I” as something temporarily residing in his body, a tent, and something “I” would depart from.
Paul was a Pharisee, and also well versed in Greek philosophy and culture, but was mainly critical of it. But in one of his inspired epistles, he also used language comparing the body with a temporary tent (using a similar Greek word, σκῆνος skēnos, 2 Corinthians 5:1–4). He continued (vv. 6–8):
So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.
Like Peter, he regarded his “I” as something residing in his tent of a body, but could exist outside of the body with Christ.
However, once the immaterial aspect is established, there are differences of opinion about its nature. CMI doesn’t take an official stand, but I will present my own view with reasons. The slightly modified extract from my commentary, Ch. 12, should explain:
The components of man
The phrase “living creature” is again nephesh chayyāh (נפש היה), the same phrase used to describe the vertebrates God created on Days 5 and 6. Thus the word nephesh in Genesis 1 emphasizes physical aspects, meaning “possession of life,” whether human or animal.1
The translation “living soul” is not without reason, however, because nephesh is the normal Hebrew word for ‘soul’; the Greek equivalent is psychē (ψυχή). But here, nephesh is used to mean the whole being of man. Nevertheless, we see in God’s method of creation that man has both a material aspect (which came from the dust) and immaterial aspect (when he received God’s “breath of life”).
However, Adam was a special case in being made from non-living matter, unlike other humans, which required the special inbreathing of God to making him alive. McKeown notes:
Just as creation in the image of God marked the human beings as unique in the first creation account (1:26), the bestowal of the breath of God brought them into a much closer relationship with God and rendered them compatible with him at a level enjoyed by no other creature.1
In contrast, all humans who descended from Adam and Eve come from parents and started off as living creatures—a single fertilized egg or zygote. While man has an immaterial aspect, there is no moment of ‘ensoulment’ where this non-material aspect is added. Rather, this is present right from the beginning of life—man is a ‘psychomatic unity’—a union of ‘soul’ and body. This includes those conceived by IVF (in-vitro fertilization) or ‘test-tube babies’. These tiny zygotes and embryos are just as human, because where a being is located is irrelevant to what this being is.
This teaching is reinforced in (Psalm 51:5), “and in sin2 did my mother conceive me.” Here, the Psalmist explicitly states that it was ‘me’ that existed from conception, not some blob of cells that later became ‘me’. The whole tenor of Scripture is that the individual is a human being right from the beginning of biological life; there is nothing to indicate that there is any secondary event of ‘ensoulment’ after the beginning of biological life.
This body-soul unity lasts from conception to physical death, which breaks this connection. For believers, this connection will be restored in the final glorified Resurrection bodies. Paul explains this in detail in 1 Corinthians 15:35–55.
Transmission of this immaterial aspect
Given the above, that the immaterial aspect of man is there from the beginning of the material aspect, there are different views of how this began since Adam and Eve. My view is called the traducian theory, which means: in the process of generation, both material and non-material aspects are transmitted by the parents. It seems to be taught by Psalm 51:5, John 1:14, 3:6, Romans 5:12 and Hebrews 7:10. This would apply to offspring such as identical twins (a form of natural cloning), and to artificially generated persons from IVF and hypothetical reproductive cloning. This explains how original sin could be passed on—via the non-material aspect, not via physical blood or DNA information.
There is another view which is also called the ‘creationist’ theory, which in this case means that God creates each individual immaterial aspect (or that God creates a new soul at conception). This would seem to contradict:
- God’s creation having finished (Genesis 2:2)
- God not creating anything fallen (Genesis 1:31)
There is room for both views under the tent of orthodox Christianity. Those who favour traducianism include Tertullian and many Western Church Fathers, the Eastern Orthodox Church, as well as Lutherans since the Reformation. Roman Catholics and most Reformed theologians are creationists (in this meaning), though Shedd and Strong favoured traducianism, as did the eminent American philosopher and apologist Gordon Clark (1902–1985) who wrote a detailed defence.3
Dichotomous vs trichotomous view of man
In this commentary, I will mainly just refer to the immaterial aspect of man. But there is some debate about the nature of this aspect according to Scripture. One view is called the bipartite or dichotomous4 view, where man comprises two parts: a material aspect (body) and a non-material aspect (soul/spirit used interchangeably). Others believe that soul and spirit are distinct, so man has three parts—body, soul, and spirit, the tripartite or trichotomous5 view. CMI doesn’t have a corporate stand but I personally support a bipartite view.
For example, trichotomists appeal to “Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely; and may your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:23). Dichotomist theologian Wayne Grudem argues in response that Paul was piling up synonyms rather than delineating different parts. We also have Jesus telling us 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 these were all distinct parts of man, we would be pentachotomous or hexachotomous. So these lists could prove too much. But according to Grudem, Jesus was piling up synonyms to command us to love God with all our being, and Paul was telling us, whatever our immaterial part is called, he prays that God will continue to sanctify our whole being. Similarly with Hebrews 4:12, where the Word of God is “piercing to the division of soul and of spirit”. Grudem argues that Scripture penetrates our innermost being.
Meaning of ‘soul’ vs. Annihilationism
There are various groups who believe that the final destiny of man is annihilation, rather than eternal conscious punishment as CMI teaches in its Statement of Faith:
Those who do not believe in Christ are subject to everlasting conscious punishment, but believers enjoy eternal life with God.6,7
Many annihilationists appeal to the meaning of ‘soul’ in Genesis 2:7, “the man became a living soul.” That is, the man is all ‘soul’ (nephesh); the soul in this passage refers to the entire being of man, including the physical. This meaning also occurs in Ezekiel 18:20, “The soul [nephesh] who sins shall die.”
However, the word ‘soul’ doesn’t only mean the entire person; its meaning depends on context. Indeed, what word only ever has one meaning regardless of context (even ‘day’)? For example, Rachel’s death in Genesis 35:18 is equated with her soul (nephesh) departing, and Elijah prays in 1 Kings 17:21 for the return of the boy to life, “O LORD my God, I pray you, let this child’s nephesh come into him again.” In both cases, the nephesh is something immaterial and distinct from the body that leaves upon death.
In the NT, Jesus warns, “And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul (psychē): but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). Again, the soul in this context is something not killed when the body is killed.
Another passage concerns, the “souls” (psychas ψυχάς) of martyred saints in Heaven after their martyrdom. They are pictured as crying out for justice on earth (Revelation 6:9–11), so there is ample evidence that they are conscious. They know that they have been murdered, and they know that their murderers have not been punished for the crime yet. They are able to petition God for justice. So this teaches that they know what happens on earth, and that they can intercede for God to influence worldly events.
As above, this disembodied ‘intermediate state’ is not the end. These slain martyrs, along with all the redeemed, will receive Resurrection bodies for the Eternal State.
Refuting a dishonest pro-abortion argument
It’s notable that former US President Bill Clinton (1946– ) misused Genesis 2:7 to try to justify his obsessive support for abortion while trying to impress gullible evangelicals that he was one of them. He claimed that the mention of ‘breath of life’ shows that babies aren’t human until they start breathing, i.e. until they are born. This was an excuse for him to veto even bans on ‘partial birth abortion’. But it would be just as (il)logical to claim that since Adam began life as an adult, human life today doesn’t begin till adulthood! As shown in ‘The components of man’, above, Adam was a special case, while all descendants of him and Eve were living long before they took their first breath—at conception.
References and notes
- McKeown, J., Genesis, Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary series, p. 32, 2008. Return to text.
- This is not saying that the act of conception was sinful. As stated in the section “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” in ch. 10, sex and procreation were God’s idea, before the Fall. Rather, the Psalmist is lamenting his sin nature that existed from his conception. Return to text.
- Clark, G.H., Traducianism, Trinity Review, July–August 1982; trinityfoundation.org. Return to text.
- Compare Liddell and Scott: dichotomeō (διχοτομέω), cut in two; from dicha (δίχα), in two parts, and tomē (τομή), ‘cut/slice’. Return to text.
- As above, but with treis (τρεῖς), three. Return to text.
- Cosner, L., Why would a loving God send people to Hell?, creation.com/hell, 16 Oct 2012. Return to text.
- Cosner, L., Hell questions answered [responses to criticisms of the above], creation.com/hell2, 17 Nov 2012. Return to text.