Category Archives: Anthropology (nature of human beings)

Unpacking 1 Thessalonians 5:23

Is trichotomy supported?

By Spencer D Gear PhD

Image result for Bible image 1 Thessalonians 5:23

(image courtesy Heartlight)

I examine the controversial verse of 1 Thessalonians 5:23 (ESV): ‘Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ’.

On the surface this appears straight forward. People are made of three parts: spirit, soul and body. That’s signed, sealed and delivered. It’s as clear as crystal! Or, is it?

This verse is not an easy one to interpret for some of the following reasons. Are people tripartite beings – body, soul and spirit? Or are they bipartite – body and soul/spirit, with soul and spirit being interchangeable words for a person’s unseen, inner being?

It has caused long hours of study by Bible exegetes over the years. Commentator William Hendriksen gave his researched conclusions in 5 pages of small font in his commentary (Hendriksen & Kistemaker 1955/1983:146-150).

1. Introduction

Through the Judeo-Christian centuries, there have been three main views on the nature of human beings. They are:

1.1 Trichotomy

Human beings consist of body, soul and spirit. This was held by the Greek church fathers and has its origin with the Greek philosopher, Plato. This appears to be the view supported by 1 Thess 5:23. However, it’s the only NT verse I could find that stated this trichotomous view of people.

Kim Riddlebarger’s (2010) assessment was:

With its roots in Plato’s distinction between body and soul, and Aristotle’s further division of soul into “animal” and “rational” elements, the trichotomist notion of human nature as tri-partite is unmistakably Greek and pagan, rather than Hebrew and biblical. As Louis Berkhof notes, “the most familiar but also the crudest form of trichotomy is that which takes the body for the material part of man’s nature, the soul as the principle of animal life, and the spirit as the God-related rational and immortal element in man” (Berkhof 1941:191).

1.2 Dichotomy

Dichotomy means that human beings consist of body and soul/spirit. The immaterial part of a human being is described as either soul or spirit. This is the view of the Latin speaking Western theology in the early centuries of the church.

1.3 Unitarian or unitary

This view ‘rejects any kind of dualism. Man is simply made of the physical stuff of which the body is made. There is no soul, or spirit, or immaterial part of man that is distinct from the body’ (Craig 2009).

Therefore, I will not give a simplistic answer, especially in light of these …

2. Challenging verses

Le Brun, Charles - The Martyrdom of St. Andrew - Google Art Project.jpg(image of martyrdom of St. Andrew, courtesy Commons Wikimedia)

Matt 10:28 (NIV): Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell’. No ‘spirit’ here.

Matt 22:37 (NIV): ‘Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ No ‘spirit’ here.

Mark 8:36 (NLT): ‘And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul?’ No ‘spirit’ here.

Mark 12:30 (NIV): ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ No ‘spirit’ here.

Acts 20:10 (NASB): ‘But Paul went down and fell upon him and after embracing him, he said, “Do not be troubled, for his life [psuche] is in him.”’ Psuche is rightly translated as ‘life’. The term for ‘spirit’ is not used here.

1 Cor 2:14-15 (NASB), ‘But a natural [psuchikos] man does not accept the things of the Spirit [pneuma] of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually [pneumatikos] appraised. But he who is spiritual [pneumatikos] appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no one’.

So, the adjectives based on psuche (soul) and pneuma (spirit) are different in meaning.

1 Cor 7:34 (NIV), ‘An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband’. No ‘soul’ is used here.

Rom 1:9 (NIV), ‘God, whom I serve in my spirit in preaching the gospel of his Son, is my witness how constantly I remember you’. No ‘soul’ or ‘body’ here.

Heb 4:12 (NIV): ‘For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart’. Soul and spirit are clearly different words and they can be ‘divided’ according to this verse.

What does it mean to penetrate ‘even to dividing soul and spirit’?

1 Pet 3:9 (NIV): ‘After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits….’ No ‘souls’ here.

Rev 8:9 (NASB): ‘and a third of the creatures which were in the sea and had life [psuche], died; and a third of the ships were destroyed’. No ‘spirit’ here.

3. William Hendricksen’s conclusions

He provides exegesis in his commentary to support this conclusion:

a. The trichotomistic appearance of the passage is considerably reduced as soon as it is seen that the words in dispute are found not in one clause but in two clauses:

hence not: “And may your spirit and soul and body be kept …”


“And without flaw may be your spirit,

and your soul-and-body


May it be kept.”

But thus rendering the passage we can do justice to its grammatical syntax and even to its word-order [and may your the spirit, the soul, and the body be preserved (completely) whole].

b. Every trace of trichotomy which still remains can be obliterated in one of these ways:

(1) by considering the word “soul” to have the same meaning as “spirit,” the change from “spirit” to “soul” having been introduced for stylistic reasons. This eliminates trichotomy.

(2) by accepting the position that although both “spirit” and “soul” refer to the same immaterial substance (hence, no trichotomy here either!), this substance is viewed first (in one clause) from the aspect of its relation to God – the “spirit” being man’s power of grasping divine things, his invisible essence viewed as a recipient of divine influences and as an organ of divine worship – ; then, in the next clause, from the aspect of its relation to the lower realm, as the seat of sensations, affections, desires. This could well be the true element in theory e.

If a choice must be made, I would prefer this second alternative. It is in harmony with the distinction between the two words which is present elsewhere (as has been shown). There is also an interesting parallel in a somewhat similar passage, Heb. 4:12, where it is obvious that the two words have distinct meanings.

The main point has been proved, namely, that, either way, every trace of trichotomy has disappeared (Hendriksen & Kistemaker 1955/1984:150).

I have a problem with this kind of explanation as it seems to be a begging the question logical fallacy (circular reasoning) where the non-trichotomous view (dichotomy) is assumed at the beginning and leads to the same non-trichotomous (dichotomous) conclusion.

For a detailed discussion of the difficulties with this verse, see the commentary in Hendriksen & Kistemaker (1955/1985:146-150).

3.1 A better explanation

Let’s look at the Greek construction of 1 Thess 5:23 (transliterated): hagiazw hymeis holoteleskai kai terew hymeis ho pneuma kai ho psyche kai ho swma terew holokleros ...

The literal translation is: ‘and may [the God of peace] sanctify you completely your (the) spirit and the soul and the body be preserved (completely) whole’.

Therefore, the meaning is not to develop support for a trichotomous view of human beings but for a holistic view of people. Lenski explained:

The question is simple: “is man composed of two or of three parts?” In other words, can spirit and soul be divided as soul and body can? A reference to Heb. 4:12 does not establish the affirmative. Man’s material part can be separated from his immaterial part; but the immaterial part cannot be divided; it is not a duality of spirit and soul.

Where, as here [in 1 Thess 5:23], spirit and soul are distinguished, the spirit designates our immaterial part as it is related to God, as being capable of receiving the operations of the Spirit of God and of his Word; while soul (psuche) designates this same immaterial part in its function of animating the body and also as receiving impressions from the body it animates. Death is described as the spirit’s leaving the body and as the soul’s leaving, for it is the sundering of the immaterial from the material (Lenski 1937:366-367).

4. A simpler explanation

Let’s examine Heb 4:12 (NIV): ‘For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart’.

This verse states that we can differentiate between a human being’s unseen part and what is seen. But it is not decisive in dividing soul from spirit. From other Scriptures such as 1 Cor 2:14-15 and 1 Thess 5:23 we find the immaterial part of the “spirit” relating to God and are able to discern God’s Spirit and Scripture. The immaterial part, called the “soul” indicates that which relates to life in the body and is associated with perceptions and desires – often carnal.

Also, at death what happens? Is it the soul or spirit that leaves the body?

4.1 At death, the soul leaves the body:

Genesis 35:18 (ESV): ‘And as her [Rachel’s] soul was departing (for she was dying), she called his name Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin’.

Matt 10:28 (ESV): ‘And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell [Gehenna].

Rev 6:9 (NIV): ‘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’.

4.2 However, the spirit leaves the body at death:

Painting of a ship sinking by the bow, with people rowing a lifeboat in the foreground and other people in the water. Icebergs are visible in the background.(Painting “Untergang der Titanic” by Willy Stower, 1912, ‘ the sinking of the Titanic’, courtesy Wikipedia)

James 2:26 (ESV): ‘For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead’.

Eccl 12:7 (ESV): ‘and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it’.

Luke 23:36 (ESV): ‘Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last’.

Luke 8:54-55 (ESV): ‘But taking her by the hand he called, saying, “Child, arise.” And her spirit returned, and she got up at once. And he directed that something should be given to her to eat’.

Is this sending a contradictory message about the naming and function of the immaterial part of a human being? Some verses state the soul leaves the body at death while others take the view the spirit departs from the body. How do we resolve this difficulty?

5. Conclusion

There is enough biblical evidence to indicate that at death the immaterial part (whether named soul or spirit) leaves the body. i.e. the immaterial part leaves the material body to go to the Intermediate State to be with God or separated from God. The biblical data indicate the immaterial part of the human being is called soul or spirit. They are interchangeable words.

The Intermediate State is where all people go at death and it is not the grave. Only the body rots in the grave. See my article, The Intermediate State for believers and unbelievers: Where do they go at death?

John Calvin stated: ‘We, following the whole doctrine of God, will hold for certain that man is composed and consisteth of two parts, that is to say, body and soul’.

Leading apologist, William Lane Craig, in dialogue with a student stated:

When we get to the New Testament, it is indisputable that the language of the New Testament is dualistic throughout. You constantly have the dualism between soul and body, or spirit and body. No one denies that the language of the New Testament is dualistic. The only question is: is this to be taken literally, this dualistic language?

Here I think the answer is that this is meant to be taken literally especially when it concerns the intermediate state of the soul after death. When you have the intermediate state of the dead in Christ described, it is very evident that these persons are still existent, that they are in communion with Christ, and are awaiting the resurrection. In other words, it is exactly the traditional Jewish view that we have attested in the intertestamental Jewish literature.

The only difference is that the souls of the righteous dead are said to be with Christ, not kept in treasuries or chambers or sockets, but rather they have gone to be with Christ. So there is a Christian spin on it, but it is the traditional Jewish dualistic view (Craig 2009).

However, eminent Old Testament scholar, Gleason Archer, wrote of 1 Thess 5:23, ‘Quite clearly, then, the spirit is distinct from the soul, or else these verses add up to tautological nonsense. We therefore conclude that man is not dichotomic (to use the technical theological term) but trichotomic’ (Archer 1982:260).

In spite of Archer’s protestations, the evidence points to the soul and spirit being evidence for the unseen part of human beings.

I find Lenski’s explanation (as above) one of the simplest and soundest I’ve read to explain 1 Thess 5:23 and Heb 4:12,

Where, as here [in 1 Thess 5:23], spirit and soul are distinguished, the spirit designates our immaterial part as it is related to God, as being capable of receiving the operations of the Spirit of God and of his Word; while soul (psuche) designates this same immaterial part in its function of animating the body and also as receiving impressions from the body it animates.

6. Works consulted

Archer, G L 1982. Encyclopedia of Bible difficulties. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Regency Reference Library (Zondervan Publishing House). Available online HERE.

Berkhof, L 1941. Systematic theology. London: The Banner of Truth Trust.

Craig, W L 2009. The doctrine of man (Part 5). Reasonable Faith (podcast online), 15 March. Available at: (Accessed 23 June 2019).

Hendriksen, W & Kistemaker, S J 1955/1984. New Testament Commentary: Thessalonians, the Pastorals, and Hebrews. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic.

Lenski, R C H 1937. Commentary on the New Testament: The Interpretation of St. Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians, to the Thessalonians, to Timothy, to Titus, and to Philemon. Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers (1937 and assigned in 1961 by Augsburg Publishing House).

Riddlebarger, K 2010. Trichotomy: A Beachhead for Gnostic Influences. Reformed Perspectives, vol 12, no 47, November 21-27. Available at: (Accessed 31 July 2019).

Copyright © 2019 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 02 August 2019

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How could very good human beings commit the first sin?

Sticky Sin

(courtesy ChristArt)

By Spencer D Gear

In a moment of contemplation, have you ever thought on how the first human beings made by God could possibly fall into sin? Where did human wickedness start and how was it caused?

What was the condition of the first human beings whom God created? Genesis 1:31 could not be clearer: ‘And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day’ (ESV).

I got to thinking more deeply of this as a result of what a person online asked:

I’m having trouble understanding how sin and evil can exist in the first place since we know from God’s word that He did not create any of this (or am I understanding that in the wrong way). If that is the correct understanding then, and that God created everything, then how can it be that sin and evil can exist if they are not from God?[1]

Free choice not good enough

Sin Stain

(courtesy ChristArt)

My response[2] was that I find the simplest explanation is in what God did with the first human beings according to Genesis 2:17, ‘but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die’ (ESV).

God gave human beings choice (free will). Where would we be without it? The choice of spouse, chocolate or that Toyota?

In that choice, he gave human beings the free will to obey of disobey God. They chose to disobey with the sinful consequences that followed for the whole human race. And it infected our world.

Thus, God did not create the first sin but he created human beings with the free will to obey or disobey. The consequences of disobedience were that sin entered the world.

Yes, there are times when God intervenes with judgment (e.g. Noah’s Flood, Sodom & Gomorrah, etc).

God is absolutely good and his best plan for the world was to make human beings with free will to agree or disagree with Him and to give the opportunity to proclaim the Gospel.

But have a guess what? Judgment day is coming:

I’m looking forward to God’s Parousia. I think many in Ukraine, Syria, Sudan, North Korea, China, etc are also looking for the same.
God is the ultimate ‘winner’? Are you saved and do you love Him with all your being?

How would this woman respond to such a view? She wrote:

I understand that part very clearly, yet where did the sin come from? Where did the consequences of disobedience come from? Is there something outside of God then? I think there might almost have to be if unbelievers are in eternity cut off from Christ. Or is that annihilationism? (Which I think is probably not biblical).

I know our disobedience to God’s revealed will is what caused the entrance of sin into the world for we had the free will to obey God or to disobey Him. Yet that the consequence happened sounds like there is some force outside of God–which He has control over of course–yet that there is still some thing which exists outside of God, which He did not create. That is the part that I can’t understand.

(Rationalizing it further makes it sounds as though free will in itself is a power separate from God–almost that this is the source of the sin, though now there is this force which is not from God existing of itself somehow. Yet obviously free will can’t entirely be sinful all the time since when God condescends with the gift of faith to His chosen they come to Him of their own free will).[3]

An internal free act of revolt [4]

Sinful Behaviour

(courtesy ChristArt)

I have to admit that this person posed what is a legitimate and penetrating question. I consider it one of the substantive difficulties in understanding the Fall into sin by two ‘very good’ human beings. How could a ‘very good’ human being Fall and commit the first sin?

I’ve discussed free will, but how did it happen? God placed something in the constitution of the good first human beings that, in the purposes of God, would be used by human beings to trigger this first sin.

Theologian W G T Shedd put it this way:

The first sin of Adam was twofold: (a) Internal ; (b) External. The internal part of it was the originating and starting of a wrong inclination. The external part of it was the exertion of a wrong volition prompted by the wrong inclination. Adam first inclined to self instead of God, as
the ultimate end. He became an idolater, and ” worshipped and served the creature more than the creator,” Rom. 1 : 25. Then, in order to gratify this new inclination, he reached forth his hand and ate of the forbidden fruit. ” Our first parents fell into open disobedience, because already they were secretly corrupted ; for the evil act had never been done had not an evil inclination (voluntas) preceded it. And what is the origin of our evil inclination but pride? And what is pride but the craving for undue exaltation? And this is undue exaltation, when the soul abandons Him to whom it ought to cleave as its end.

Shedd then added,

The internal part of Adam’s first sin was the principal part of it. It was the real commencement of sin in man. It was the origination from nothing, of a sinful disposition in the human will. There was no previous sinful disposition to prompt it, or to produce it. When Adam inclined

away from God to the creature, he exercised an act of pure self-determination. He began sinning by a real beginning, analogous to that by which matter begins to be from nothing. In endowing Adam with a mutable holiness, God made it possible, but not necessary, for Adam to originate a sinful inclination, and thereby expel a holy one. The

finite will can fall from holiness to sin, if it is not ” kept from falling ” (Jude 24) by God’s special grace, because it is finite. The finite is the mutable, by the very definition (Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, vol 2, pp. 169, 171).

But how did this sinful disposition become a part of Adam’s nature? I do not believe that God put the motives into the first human beings to lead them to sin because that would make God responsible for sin and, therefore, human beings would be exempt from guilt. We need to understand that God’s grace was not removed from Adam in the fall into sin.

I don’t think this first sin was based on the power of choice as that would not explain how a good human being would make an ungodly choice.

I do not have a definitive explanation of how a depraved condition arose, but we know it did happen and the only explanation that is satisfactory for me is that the first human beings were given an internal mechanism that enabled them by free action to revolt against God.

Augustus Strong points in this direction:

Reason therefore, has no other recourse than to accept the Scripture doctrine that sin originated in man’s free act of revolt from God — the act of a will which, though inclined toward God, was not yet confirmed in virtue and was still capable of a contrary choice. The original possession of such power to the contrary seems to be the necessary condition of probation and moral development. Yet the exercise of this power in a sinful direction can never be explained upon grounds of reason, since sin is essentially unreason. It is an act of wicked arbitrariness, the only motive is the desire to depart from God and to render self-supreme (Systematic theology, Part 5, ch 1).


I am grateful for this provocative and challenging question that has caused me to think more deeply of how the first sin originated. Reason cannot explain it. But it seems to have originated in the God-given freedom to human beings by which a person could – in the purposes of God – choose to continue with obedience to God or be in revolt against God.

It originated in the unseen human heart – the inner part of human beings – but it was autonomous with the human individual. As a result it was communicated to all human beings.


[1] Christian Forums, General Theology, Hamartiology, ‘God did not create sin’, dhh712 #61, available at: (Accessed 2 March 2014).

[2] Ibid., OzSpen #62.

[3] Ibid., dhh712 #63.

[4] Ibid., OzSpen #64.


Copyright © 2014 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 29 October 2015.

What’s the difference between soul and spirit?

Soul ProsperBeloved, I wish above all things that you may prosper and be in health, even as your soul prospers. 3 John 1:2 (image courtesy ChristArt)

By Spencer D Gear

When somebody starts a discussion about, “What is the difference between body, soul and spirit?”[1], it’s interesting to see the developments. This person on an Internet Christian forum stated:

Understanding the body is simple, it is the physical entity by which we are in contact with the physical world.

The next two are a little more difficult to explain and have caused a lot of confusion, but because of some of the posts I have seen on this forum and the importance of the spirit, and a number of scriptures that cannot be properly understood without a proper understanding of the spirit, I felt it expedient to share what I learned a number of years ago regarding the spirit and soul.

The Greek and Hebrew words which are translated into English as the world “soul” come from words which literally mean “breath” in both languages. On the other hand, the word translated spirit from the Hebrew comes from a word that means “wind”, while the Greek word translated “spirit” comes form a word that means “a current of air” and it is derived from a word that means to breath hard, thus the spirit is an exaggerated breath and the part of man that is moved to action: thus the breath is labored.

The soul is simply the contemplative part of man and thus the breath is not labored, as no action is used to increase the intensity of the breath.

In English we say “he/she has a troubled soul”, or, “he/she has a vibrant spirit” and these are both very good analogizes of the soul and the spirit and how to distinguish between the two.[2]

I responded:

  • The words “soul” and “spirit” can be used interchangeably.

In John 12:27, Jesus said, “Now is my soul (psuche) troubled”, while in a similar context in the next chapter he said, “Jesus was troubled in his spirit (pneuma) [John 13:21]” This hardly means that Jesus’ “life force” (breath) was troubled.

  • At death, the “soul” or “spirit” departs.

When Rachel died, the Bible records: “Her soul (nephesh) was departing [she had died]” (Gen. 35:18), but Eccl. 12:7 records that at death, “the spirit (ruach) returns to God who gave it.” This hardly means that one’s “life force” was returning to God.

  • A human being is said to consist of either “body and soul” or “body and spirit.”

In Matt. 10: 28, we read, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul (psuche). Rather fear him who can destroy both soul (psuche) and body in hell” (ESV). It seems clear from this verse that “soul” refers to the part of the person that lives beyond death. If the “soul” was only a “life force”, it could be killed. That’s not what Jesus said. His authoritative view was that the “soul” cannot be killed. It cannot die.

But when Paul wants to deliver an erring brother over to Satan, he said that it was “for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit (pneuma) may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor. 5:5).

Therefore, in both OT and NT, “soul” and “spirit” can be used interchangeably.

So, what does “spirit” mean when applied to a human being, in the light of the above scriptural explanation? Most people, Christian and non-Christian, believe that there is an immaterial part to human beings, a soul / spirit that will live on when the “breath” or “life force” has left the body.

There are occasions in the Bible when “spirit” is used to refer to the breath of animals or human beings, but the above verses show that spirit / soul refers to the immaterial part of the human unity (body and soul/spirit) that goes to be with Christ and cannot be killed.

This soul can sin. This is implied from verses such as 1 Peter 1:22,

“Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart” (ESV).

Surely this does not refer to breath or life force!

Let’s get no more complicated than the simplicity of what the Bible states that the spirit/soul of a human being goes to God at death and it cannot be killed. Simply: the spirit/soul of a human being is the immaterial part of a person that survives death. [3]

Part of “2 know him’s” reply was:

Hey Oz, I see you are having trouble with my original post.
I know you have come to a conclusion that soul and spirit are the same, but I would like you to consider something written in Hebrews and try and understand what I am saying: before reposting.

Heb 4:12 For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit.

I have looked at your post and it seems you did not quite grasp what I was stating. When the spirit is troubled (normally through the soul: the intellect) you may or may not act, but it is the spirit that brings the action into effect and is the moving part of God and man. When the mind (soul) is engaged there is no movement to the body, as the soul is the intellectual part of a being.[4]

I’m calling on the help of Simon Kistemaker, an excellent exegete and commentator who affirms the authority of Scripture. In his commentary on the Book of Hebrews[5], he wrote of Hebrews 4:12c:

It penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart [NIV].

I do not think that the writer of Hebrews is teaching the doctrine that man consists of body, soul, and spirit (I Thess. 5:23). Of course, we can make a distinction between soul and spirit by saying that the soul relates to man’s physical existence; and the spirit, to God. But the author does not make distinctions in this verse. He speaks in terms of that which is not done and in a sense cannot be done.

Who is able to divide soul and spirit or joints and marrow? And what judge can know the thoughts and attitudes of the heart? The author uses symbolism to say that what man ordinarily does not divide, God’s Word separates thoroughly. Nothing remains untouched by Scripture, for it addresses every aspect of man’s life. The Word continues to divide the spiritual existence of man and even his physical being. All the recesses of body and soul—including the thoughts and attitudes—face the sharp edge of God’s dividing sword. Whereas man’s thoughts remain hidden from his neighbor’s probing eye, God’s Word uncovers them.

God’s Word is called a discerner of man’s thoughts and intentions. In the Psalter David says:

O LORD, you have searched me

And you know me.

You know when I sit and when I rise;

You perceive my thoughts from afar.

You discern my going out and my lying down;

You are familiar with all my ways. [Ps. 139:1-3]

And Jesus utters these words:

As for the person who hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge him. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save it. There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; that very word which I spoke will condemn him at the last day. [John 12:47-48]

The Lord with his Word exposes the motives hidden in a man’s heart. In his epistle the author stresses the act of God’s speaking to man. For instance, the introductory verses (Heb. 1;1-2) illustrate this fact clearly. And repeatedly, when quoting the Old Testament Scriptures, the writer uses this formula: God, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit says (consult the many quotations, for example, in the first four chapters). The Word is not a written document of past centuries. It is alive and current; it is powerful and effective; and it is undivided and unchanged. Written in times and cultures from which we are far removed, the Word of God nevertheless touches man today. God addresses man in the totality of his existence, and man is unable to escape the impact of God’s Word.[6]

I have found this to be a much better summary of what this portion of Heb. 4:12c means as far as the meaning of “dividing soul and spirit” is concerned, than the one you have given. Soul and spirit cannot be divided, just as joints and marrow cannot be divided, and the thoughts and attitudes of the heart cannot be understood by human beings. But God’s Word separates thoroughly what human beings cannot separate.

This is a marvellous message. We cannot get away from the glaring penetration of God’s Word.

My son, Paul, has studied the Hebrew language of the Old Testament. I asked him for his understanding of nephesh. This is what he wrote:

The Brown-Driver-Briggs (BDB) Hebrew and English Lexicon provides the following information about the Hebrew word, nephesh:

Its base meaning is “soul, living being, life, self, person, desire, appetite, emotion, and passion”, giving the sub-meanings:

1. that which breathes, the breathing substance or being (= psuche, anima), the soul, the inner being of man (noting Deut 12.23 as a reference for this meaning);

2. a living being; by God’s breathing into the nostrils, Gn 2.7; by implication of animals also Gn 2.19;

3. a. A living being whose life resides in the blood (also noting Dt 12.23);

b. a serious attack upon the life is an attack upon this inner living being;

c. used for life itself, of animals and man;

4. as the essential of man, stands for the man himself

a. paraphrase for personal pronoun, esp. in poetry and ornate discourse;

b. reflexive (self);

c. person of man, individual;

5. seat of the appetites: hunger, thirst, appetite in general;

6. seat of emotions and passions: desire, sorrow and distress, joy, love, alienation, hatred, revenge, other emotions and feelings;

7. used occasionally for mental acts;

8. for acts of the will is dubious (Gn 23.8, 2Ki 9.15);

9. character is still more dubious (Hb 2.4).

I am convinced that soul and spirit are used biblically for the unseen portion of a human being.

  1. The Scripture refers to the soul (nephesh in Hebrew; psuche in Greek) as distinct from the body in passages such as Gen. 35:18, “And as her [Rachel’s] soul was departing (for she was dying), she called his name Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin” (ESV). So, the soul leaves the body at death.
  2. I Thess 5:23, “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
  3. Revelation 6:9, “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.” So here the souls are separated from the bodies in heaven.

The word “soul” means “life” and refers to the principle of life in a human being. It gives life to the body and is sometimes used to refer to a dead body as in Lev. 19:28; 21:1; 23:4 as I might refer to my departed loved one as “the poor soul.”

Theologian Norman Geisler rightly states that “the primary meaning of soul can most often be captured best by translating it as person, which usually is embodied but is sometimes disembodied” (Systematic Theology, vol. 3, BethanyHouse Publishers, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2004, p. 47).

The word spirit (Greek, pneuma; Hebrew, ruach) almost always refers to the immaterial part of a human being and is sometimes used interchangeably with soul in many verses (cf. Luke 1:46). The body without the soul is dead (James 2:26) but at death, Jesus “bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (John 19:30).

So your statement that “man does not have a ‘soul'” is patently false.

The word “soul” can mean “life” and refers to the principle of life in a human being. It gives life to the body and is sometimes used to refer to a dead body as in Lev. 19:28; 21:1; 23:4 as I might refer to my departed loved one as “the poor soul.”

So a statement that “man does not have a ‘soul'”, as the above exposition demonstrates, is false.

I have had Jehovah’s Witnesses say to me, “Man does not have a soul, but man is a soul”. The JWs who knock on our doors carry a book, Reasoning from the Scriptures[8]. I have a copy of this book as one JW who was in discussion with me left my home very suddenly when he did not like what I was saying and left this book behind. In this Q&A for Witnesses it gives this definition of “soul”:

In the Bible, “soul” is translated from the Hebrew ne’phesh and the Greek psykhe’.[9] Bible usage shows the soul to be a person or an animal or the life that a person or an animal enjoys…. What does the Bible say that helps us to understand what the soul is? Gen. 2:7: “Jehovah God proceeded to form the man out of the dust from the ground and to blow into his nostrils the breath of life, and man came to be a living soul.” (Notice that this does not say that man was given a soul but that he became a soul, a living person.[10]


[1] It is in the “Christian Apologetics” directory of Christian Forums, available at: (Accessed 24 December 2011). The original poster is ‘2 know him’. My responses are as OzSpen.

[2] Ibid., #1.

[3] Ibid., #2.

[4] Ibid., #3.

[5] 1984. New Testament Commentary: Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, pp. i-441, in William Hendriksen and Simon J. Kistemaker, Thessalonians, the Pastorals, and Hebrews.

[6] Ibid., pp. 117-118.

[8] Reasoning from the Scriptures 1985. Brooklyn, New York: Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, International Bible Students’ Association.

[9] The Greek is generally better transliterated as psuche?. That’s what I learned when I took my first class in introductory Greek with Larry Hurtado at Regent College, Vancouver BC, Canada, in 1975.

[10] Reasoning from the Scriptures, p. 375.


Copyright © 2012 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 6 February 2016.