Thursday, February 22, 2018

Body, Soul & Spirit: Are They Different Or Same?

            What are we made of? Are we unitary wholes or are we made up of two or more components? If so, what are those components? These important questions demand a reasonable answer.

            Human constitution is an important theme because there are far-reaching existential applications intricately connected to our constitution. For instance, is it right for a person to think that he can disregard his rest, diet, and exercise and still be spiritually healthy (close to God)?

            There are many views on human constitution, but we will only consider the three most popular views. Some subscribe to a point of view that human beings are dualistic i.e. there is a spiritual and a physical component. Contrarily, others subscribe to a point of view that humans are a singular being i.e. they are made of one substance. If so, what is that one substance – is it a body, a soul or what?

            The three most popular views of the human constitution from the biblical perspective are:


            Humans are composed of three elements: physical body, soul (psychological element), and a spirit (seat of spiritual qualities). According to this view, humans are different from animals because of their spirit, which perceives spiritual matters and responds to spiritual stimuli.

            Consider two verses from the Bible that support this view:

            1 Thessalonians 5:23: “May the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (RSV; Emphasis Mine).

            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 spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (RSV; Emphasis Mine).


            This view claims that the ‘spirit’ is not a separate part of man, but another term for the ‘soul.’ Whenever the Bible refers to the immaterial part of man, these terms are used interchangeably.

            This view could be construed as a form of dualism where the humans are believed to be composed of body and soul - the body is the material component and a soul or a spirit is the immaterial component. If humans are dualistic, then some could argue that their spiritual life is independent of their physical condition.

            The body disintegrates at death whereas the soul - the immaterial component - survives death. This immortal nature of the soul sets humans apart from all other creatures.

            Certain verses from the Bible support this view as well:

            (1) The Bible uses the terms ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’ interchangeably: John 12:27 & 13:21states that Jesus was troubled in HIS soul and spirit. Those who have died and gone to heaven or hell are referred to as either soul (Revelation 6:9, 20:4) or spirit (Hebrews 12:23; 1 Peter 3:19).

            (2) At death, the Bible states that either the soul or the spirit departs from the body (Soul: Genesis 35:18; 1 Kings 17:21; Luke 12:20 & Spirit: Psalm 31:5 & Luke 23:46; John 19:30; Acts 7:59).

            (3) Man is said to be either “Body & Soul” or “Body & Spirit” (Matthew 10:28; 1 Corinthians 5:5; James 2:26).

            Both trichotomism and dichotomism acknowledge the complex constitution of a human being. However, a major problem with these views is the biblical emphasis that man is a unitary being, and not dualistic.


            Monism is another view that thinks of the human being as an indivisible entity. Monism recognizes the fact that the Bible does not view a human as body, soul, and spirit, but simply as a self. The terms body, soul and spirit are basically synonymous. However, the possibility of a post-death existence is simply untenable in this view.

            None of these views subscribe to the entire range of the biblical data. Hence there is a need for another model that remains faithful to the Bible.  

Conditional Unity

            This model, which strives to accommodate the entire range of the biblical data, was proposed by the much-acclaimed theologian, Millard J. Erickson.    

            This view is predicated on two fundamental aspects:

            (1) The agreement between trichotomism and dichotomism that the human being is complex or compound, made up of separable parts.

            (2) The Old Testament presents a unitary view of the human being since it makes no distinction between the flesh and the body. In fact, there is no Hebrew word for body.1 So Paul’s writings, in the New Testament, on flesh and body cannot be differentiated since it refers to the whole person. The terms ‘body’ and ‘soul’ are not contrasting terms, but interchangeable synonyms. Therefore, the body-soul dualism cannot be biblical.

            Furthermore, another significant biblical teaching should be accommodated in our view of the human constitution. There is an immaterial aspect of the human that is separable from material existence.

            When we die, the Bible teaches that there is an intermediate state between death and resurrection (Cf. Luke 16: 19-31, 23:43; 2 Corinthians 5:8). This is to say that when we die, we will remain in a disembodied existence wherein our soul will exist apart from our body. This is an incomplete or an abnormal state of existence (2 Corinthians 5:2-4). We will receive our glorified bodies only in the coming resurrection (1 Corinthians 15).

            Thus far two assertions are in order:

            A. The body-soul dualism is not biblical.

            B. The human constitution includes a material (body) and an immaterial aspect (soul).

            This effectively means that the humans are to be treated as unities. Our spiritual condition cannot be dealt with independently of our physical and psychological condition, and vice versa. A Christian who desires to be spiritually healthy will give adequate consideration to matters such as diet, rest and exercise. Any attempt to treat a Christian’s spiritual condition apart from their physical condition and the mental and emotional state will only be partially successful. Similarly, human emotions can only be understood in tandem with the said person’s relationship with God.

            A human being is also a complex being. The nature of a human being cannot be reduced to a single principle.

            The different aspects of human nature should be attended to and respected. One cannot depreciate the body or the emotions or the intellect. The gospel is an appeal to the whole person.

            No part of human makeup is evil per se. Total depravity means that sin infects all of what we are, not merely our body or mind or emotions. So it is erroneous to think that we need to bring our body under the control of our soul. No one part of our makeup is an exclusive seat of good or righteousness.


            A human being is a unitary being, yet a complex being. We have a material body and an immaterial soul as a part of our constitution. Our soul is separable from our body. Nonetheless, we cannot translate this separation into a form of dualism, for the Bible teaches that we are a unitary being.  


The primary source for this article is: Christian Theology (Second Edition) by Millard J. Erickson.

1John A.T. Robinson’s work “The Body.”

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