Are we Body, Soul and Spirit?
My dog passed away a few days ago. On the way home from the vet, I was listening to the radio and the pastor was saying that we’re made up of body, soul and spirit:
“Only people have three parts. Plants have bodies but no soul or spirit. Animals have bodies and souls but no spirits. You never see a dog praying because they have no spirit. Only people have bodies, souls and spirits.”
Hearing this at that moment was painful. It was painful because I had just lost my dog. More than that, it was painful because it was ignorant. I don’t mean to be argumentative, but why do so many pastors teach something as fact when that “fact” is at best debatable and often just plain wrong?
Body, Soul and Spirit?
Sadly, most Christians actually agree with this pastor. Overwhelmingly, Christians think that we are made of three parts – body, soul and spirit. This is called a trichotomy. I suppose Christians believe this because it is what they hear from most pulpits and pastors on the radio.
Let me share an opposing view that I think makes more sense. I may be right or I may be wrong. You decide. At least you will now know both sides of this debate.
Belief that we are divided into three parts is an ancient belief. However, ancient Christians considered this belief incorrect. In fact, it isn’t a Christian belief but comes from Greek philosophy. According to Charles Hodge in his Systematic Theology, volume 2, Section 2 titled “Trichotomy”:
This doctrine of a threefold constitution of man being adopted by Plato, was introduced partially into the early Church, but soon came to be regarded as dangerous, if not heretical. It being held by the Gnostics that the spirit in man was a part of the divine essence, and incapable of sin; and by the Apollinarians that Christ had only a human body and soul, but not a human spirit, the Church rejected the doctrine that the soul and spirit were distinct substances, since upon it those heresies were founded. In later times the Semi-Pelagians taught that the soul and body, but not the spirit in man were the subjects of original sin. All Protestants, Lutheran and Reformed, were, therefore, the more zealous in maintaining that the soul and spirit are one and the same substance and essence. And this, as before remarked, has been the common doctrine of the Church.
We find backing for Hodges’ claim regarding the Reformation leaders in Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 1, chapter 15, section 2:
Moreover, there can be no question that man consists of a body and a soul; meaning by soul, an immortal though created essence, which is his nobler part. Sometimes he is called a spirit. But though the two terms, while they are used together differ in their meaning, still, when spirit is used by itself it is equivalent to soul…
Body & Soul/Spirit
Calvin’s point is still valid. Throughout the Bible, the words “soul” and “spirit” are used interchangeably.
Soul/Spirit is what can be saved from hell:
Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. – Matthew 10:28
I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. – 1 Corinthians 5:5
Soul/Spirit is what leaves the body at death:
It came about as her soul was departing (for she died), that she named him Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin. – Genesis 35:18
Into Your hand I commit my spirit; – Psalm 31:5
Soul/Spirit is what exists in the next life:
When the Lamb broke the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained; – Revelation 6:9
But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, – Hebrews 12:22-23
These are just some of the examples we can use. There are many more. The fact is, God uses “spirit” and “soul” interchangeably throughout His word.
Do your own reality-check to prove this: Take any verse that mentions the “soul”; as you understand the verse, are you thinking about the boundaries and definitions of the word “soul” and then separating this from “spirit”? Of course not. You read “soul” and you think, “the nonmaterial part of me.” You can repeat this check with any verse regarding the word “spirit.”
God Created Man with Two Parts
When God creates man, He does not create a three-part being. He creates a two-part being. This is called a dichotomy:
Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. – Genesis 2:7
Notice how God created Man: He formed a body from the dust of the ground and breathed into him the nonmaterial part. We can call this second part his soul or we can call it his spirit. It doesn’t matter. They are the same. God created man in two parts and it was all he needed to become a living being. The first part was physical and the second part was nonphysical.
Here’s another way of thinking about it. What is the difference between the soul and the spirit? Go ahead and do an internet search. I’ll wait…
So, now that you’re back, do you have a solid understanding of the difference? Or did you find that most of the answers didn’t really help. I’ve yet to find a good answer to this question and there is an excellent reason why. It’s because there is no difference. People need to come up with some crazy ideas and definitions to distinguish soul and spirit.
If soul and spirit are two different things, then which is it that goes to heaven or hell? When I get to heaven, will I not remember anything, have any feelings or emotions, have no desires? Obviously, all of these questions are silly. Yet they are only silly because soul and spirit are the same thing. If they weren’t, these questions would be hard to answer.
Here’s what the Bible teaches: when we die, our physical part goes to the ground and our nonphysical part goes to be with the LORD. At the Rapture, both will be reunited. Hence, there are only two parts in our creation, two parts in our death and two parts in our resurrection. To believe otherwise is Platonic in thinking and the Church throughout history has denied it.
Body, Soul, and Spirit Proof Verses
So why do so many Christians think there are three parts? Two verses. The first is:
Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. – Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5:23
Regarding this verse, Paul is simply listing three things. He is not differentiating them. He very well could have used four, like Jesus does in Mark 12:30:
and 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. – Jesus in Mark 12:30
Both Paul and Jesus are making this point with their list: “every part of you.” Paul could have added “heart” and “strength” to his statement and it wouldn’t have changed its meaning at all. Jesus could have added “spirit” to his list and turned us from a four-part being into a five-part being. Neither of these verses are defining the parts that make up a person.
The second verse used to defend a trichotomy is:
For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.- Hebrews 4:12
People believe soul and spirit are two different things because it seems Paul is telling us here that they can be divided. However, Paul is not saying that soul and spirit can be divided. Paul is writing metaphorically. The word of God is not living (it has no breath or body). It’s not active (it doesn’t move around much on its own). It’s not sharp at all. It certainly isn’t sharper than a sword. I cannot cut softened butter with it, let alone separate bone and marrow. I can tell that butter, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me!” and the butter will remain uncut.
When Paul says that the Bible is living, active and sharp, he is saying that it can speak to the core of our being and expose those dark places where we hide our sin.
Paul concludes this verse saying the Bible is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. Paul is not differentiating between our thoughts and the intentions of our heart. They mean the same thing. Our inner thoughts, our inner intentions – Paul could have used one or the other. He chose to use both.
Paul is an effective writer, so he uses repetition, comparison, imagery and metaphor to make his point. Paul is using metaphor to say that the Bible can judge our intentions. He uses the imagery of sharp swords to help us understand. There is no differentiating going on in this verse. He is not differentiating between intentions and thought. He is not differentiating between soul and spirit.
So we go back to the beginning. Are we body, soul, and spirit? Yes, but we are not a trichotomy. Let me answer this way: we are mind, spirit, soul, and heart. We are also strength, body, human and person. However, we are not eight parts. We are a dichotomy, a two-part being. We have a material part and a nonmaterial part. We can break these two parts up into many other parts or use synonyms and other words to label one of the parts. This doesn’t change the fact that there are only two parts. Spirit and soul are two labels for the same thing – the nonmaterial part.
 According to the Old Testament, the same word translated “soul” for humans is also used for animals. As to what happens to animals when they die, we don’t know. So says the Bible: “For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same. As one dies so dies the other; indeed, they all have the same breath and there is no advantage for man over beast, for all is vanity. All go to the same place. All came from the dust and all return to the dust. Who knows that the breath (spirit) of man ascends upward and the breath (spirit) of the beast descends downward to the earth?” (Ecclesiastes 3:19-21) If the God-inspired words of Ecclesiastes are obscure regarding the fate of the soul/spirit of animals, how can we be so definitive?
We return to our animals. All came from the dust and all return to the dust. Who knows that the breath (spirit) of man ascends upward and the breath (spirit) of the beast descends downward to the earth?” (Ecclesiastes 3:20-21) Notice the two-part statement. The physical returns to dust. We don’t know what happens to the nonphysical.
 In this case, to make his point, Paul would be best served by using an illustration of something that cannot be divided to give his metaphor the most impact. Hence, by using spirit and soul, which are one, he uses an example of something that cannot be divided. That’s how sharp the word of God is. For example, “For the Grand Canyon is a great distance and jumping over it would prove my love for you,” shows how great my love is because of the impossibility of actually doing what has been proposed. Just like dividing spirit and soul.