The Heart of It All: Humanity

August 14, 2012

by Peter Amsterdam

Material and Immaterial

Audio length: 11:58

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(For an introduction and explanation regarding this series overall, please see The Heart of It All: Introduction.)

The Bible teaches that human beings consist of a material element and an immaterial element that together form the unity of a human being. The material element (the body) and the immaterial element (the soul or spirit) combine to constitute a complete human being. Both our body and our soul inherently make up who we are, and after a period of separation, between our deaths and when Jesus returns, they will be reunited forever. Not everyone agrees that our souls continue living after we die, so it’s helpful to understand the Bible’s premise regarding our physical and spiritual elements.

The immortality of the soul is something of such vital importance to us, affecting us so deeply, that one must have lost all feeling not to care about knowing the facts of the matter.—Blaise Pascal[1]

I think we ought to hold not only that man has a soul, but that it is important that he should know that he has a soul.—J. Gresham Machen[2]

According to Scripture the spirit (or soul)—the immaterial element—is distinct from the physical body. After the body dies, the spirit continues to carry on, consciously acting and relating to God apart from the physical body.[3]

While dying on the cross, Jesus told the thief being crucified next to Him that on that day he would be with Jesus in paradise. Knowing that physical death was imminent, Jesus referred to the immaterial (soul/spirit) continuing on in nonphysical life. The apostle Paul speaks of a choice between living in the flesh or departing and being with Christ, showing his belief that he would continue on with the Lord even without his physical body. In Revelation, the souls of the martyrs are described as being under the altar, showing that their souls live beyond physical death.

[The thief] said, “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” And He said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.”[4]

For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.[5]

We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord.[6]

When He opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before You will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”[7]

Some Differing Outlooks

It is generally standard Christian belief that humans are composed of material and immaterial elements. There are differing outlooks within that basic principle regarding whether humans consist of one material element (the body) and one immaterial element (which is interchangeably called soul or spirit), or whether humans consist of the body and two immaterial parts—the soul and the spirit, distinct from each other.

The theological term for humans consisting of two elements, body and spirit/soul, is dichotomy, which comes from two Greek words: dicha, meaning in two or asunder, and tomos, meaning cutting. The belief that humans consist of three elements is referred to as trichotomy, also from Greek, with tricha meaning three and tomos meaning cutting. Either of these views fits within Christianity, as each holds that human beings are composed of both physical and spiritual elements which act together. Dichotomy is a much more widely held view within Christianity, but there are many who hold to trichotomy.

Another outlook on the human makeup is the belief that humans cannot exist without the physical body. This stance holds that there is no life outside of the physical, and that man consists of only the physical element; that there is no soul or spirit, that humans are monistic or unitary, a single entity with no immaterial element. When the body dies, all life is extinguished. Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventists believe this, and both believe that all wicked human beings will be utterly or completely annihilated at death or immediately after being resurrected and will cease to exist.[8] This unitary or monistic point of view gained some popularity in the early 1900s among some theologians. Those who hold to this point of view believe that the body can be resurrected and can become alive again at that point, but that there is no soul or spirit which lives in the period of time between the death of the body and the resurrection of the body. The New Testament makes many references, however, to the spirit or soul living beyond the death of the body.

Here are some examples of that concept as portrayed in the Bible:

Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit!” And having said this He breathed His last.[9]

As they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.[10]

As her soul was departing (for she was dying), she called his name Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin.[11]

We are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.[12]

Two of the early church fathers, Augustine and Aquinas, confirmed the position of humans consisting of both immaterial and material elements:

The soul is present as a whole not only in the entire mass of a body, but also in every least part of the body at the same time.[13]

[W]e now proceed to treat of man, who is composed of a spiritual and corporeal substance.[14]

Both the dichotomous and trichotomous views are compatible with standard Christian belief. Both positions hold that humans have physical and spiritual elements (though they disagree on the number of elements), and both agree that the spiritual and physical elements work as one, in unity, so that everything a person does—every action, mental or physical—is done by the whole person; in other words, physical and spiritual elements are present in each action.

J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig give the following explanation of this belief:

It is virtually self-evident to most people that they are different from their bodies. Almost all societies throughout history (unless they are taught to think otherwise) have believed in some form of life after death, and this belief arises naturally when a human being reflects on his or her own constitution. Moreover, throughout church history, the vast majority of Christian thinkers have correctly understood the Scriptures to teach the following: (1) Human beings exhibit a holistic functional unity. (2) While a functional unity, humans are nevertheless a duality of immaterial soul/spirit and material body, both of which are intrinsically good. Setting aside the question as to whether the soul and spirit are the same or different, and acknowledging that the biblical terms for soul (nephesh, psyche) and spirit (ruach, pneuma) have a wide variety of different meanings, it is still clear that the Scriptures teach that the soul/spirit is an immaterial component different from the body (Ecclesiastes 12:7; Matthew 10:28), that death involves the soul’s leaving the body (Genesis 35:18; 1 Kings 17:21, 22), and that after death, the soul continues to exist in a disembodied intermediate state while awaiting the resurrection of the body (Hebrews 12:23; Luke 23:46; 2 Corinthians 5:110, Philippians 1:2124).[15]

The Unity of a Human Being

The core concept is that human beings have physical and spiritual elements: body and soul/spirit—which are a unity and act as one being. When the mind thinks, the spirit and brain (which is part of the physical body) work together as one; when the body moves, it is the spirit, brain, and body working together. Each element can also affect the other, such as how the spirit can be willing but the body can be weak and tired and thus weigh down the spirit.[16] Another example is a joyful heart being good medicine for the body, but a crushed spirit “drying up the bones.”[17] Both the material and spiritual function together in all of our actions, because body and soul are a unity.

Because each of these elements is integral to our being, we should not look at one of the elements as good and the other as bad, that our physical bodies are inherently negative and our spirits are good. The idea that our bodies are essentially evil crept into Christian thought in the earlier centuries of Christianity, which resulted in ascetic movements with followers who would starve, deprive, and beat their bodies in order to be more spiritual. Our bodies are not inherently evil. As Christians, our body and spirit are both redeemed through Christ.

When we die, our bodies do not continue living, but our souls do. And yet, that isn’t the end of our bodies, for after a time of separation, during which our spirits continue living, our changed incorruptible bodies and our spirits will be reunited at the Lord’s return, and will remain together forever.

So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body.[18]

Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.”[19]

[1] Blaise Pascal, Pensees, Lafuma Edition, 427.

[2] J. Gresham Machen, The Christian View of Man, Banner of Truth Trust, 1984.

[3] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: InterVarsity Press, 2000), p. 483.

[4] Luke 23:42–43.

[5] Philippians 1:21–24.

[6] 2 Corinthians 5:6.

[7] Revelation 6:9–10.

[8] James Leo Garrett, Jr., Systematic Theology, Biblical, Historical, and Evangelical, Vol. 1 (N. Richland Hills: BIBAL Press, 2000), p .512.

[9] Luke 23:46.

[10] Acts 7:59.

[11] Genesis 35:18.

[12] 2 Corinthians 5:8.

[13] Augustine, On the Immortality of the Soul, 26.25.

[14] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Part 1, Q. 75.

[15] J. P. Moreland, William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Intervarsity Press, 2003), p. 228–229.

[16] Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak (Matthew 26:41).

[17] Proverbs 17:22.

[18] 1 Corinthians 15:42–44.

[19] 1 Corinthians 15:51–54.