What Does it Mean to be Human?
Understanding what it means to human—our very humanity—is both an ancient and modern question. Not surprisingly, the Bible has something to say about the subject (a lot actually). Unfortunately, the stage is set for the question to become one of this century's great challenges to the church. This isn’t because there is no biblical answer. Rather, it’s because few Christians know it’s a subject for serious thought.
The issue of a biblical understanding of anthropology (what it means to be human) can be cast in two ways:
The first order of business to articulating a biblical worldview of what makes up a human being is to find out what Scripture affirms. We’ll naturally begin in the Old Testament.
Part of the reason that this issue hasn't been thought through very well is because it isn’t easy. The word ruach ("spirit") is very common, and we're after "spirit" as it applies to humans (the makeup of a human being). Nephesh is a notoriously difficult word. It is used of conscious life, emotions, animal life, and even for a corpse (See my notes on the range of meanings of nephesh).
Here are three documents on all of the occurrences within our interest of nephesh and ruach. I will synthesize this data below, but feel free to look through all of the occurrences of these two words in these PDF’s here:
Indeed "breath" (Hebrew: nishmat) and ruach are interchanged in a few passages (note the parallelism): Isa 42:5; 57:16.
Nephesh: Gen 1:20–21, 24, 30; 9:4–5; 12:13; 19:19; 35:18; Exod 4:19; Job 11:20; 33:22, 28, 30
Nephesh: Gen 34:3, 8; 42:21; Exod 15:19; 23:19; Lev 26:15, 30, 43; Num 21:4; 1 Sam 1:10, 15; 2 Sam 5:8; 17:8; 2 Kings 4:27; Job 14:22; Pss 6:3; 13:2; 23:3; 35:25; 42:1–2; Jer 13:17; 14:19; Lam 3:17.
Nephesh: Lev 26:16; Deut 4:29; 6:5; 10:12; 11:13, 18; 14.26; 21:14; 23:24; Judges 16:16; 1 Sam 2:33; 23:20; Pss 42:6; 107:26; Prov 19:2.
Now for the differences between the terms.
Nephesh is the more "comprehensive" term. While nephesh can refer to the animation of life and the inner life, it can also refer to the whole person (body/flesh inner, immaterial life). Here are some examples where nephesh is basically equal to "whole person" (including equivalence to personal pronouns like "I," "me," and "them"):
Gen 12:5; 27:19; 46:18, 22, 25–26; Lev 2:1; 4:2, 27; 5:1; 11:43–44; Num 31:35, 40, 46; Ezek 18:4.
But how can nephesh refer to only the body (e.g., a corpse)?
Since we live in the corporeal realm, it is a natural human inclination to equate a person with their body. If you came home and saw your spouse lying on the floor, you wouldn’t call 911 and say "There's an unconscious body on my floor!" or "My wife's unconscious body is on the floor!" No. You'd say, "My wife is laying on the floor unconscious!" At funerals, people frequently refer to the corpse of the deceased by name, retaining its personal identity. Our lives are lived in the realm of embodiment; we can't help but think this way.
What Does it Mean to be Human? How Many “Parts” to Humanity in the Old Testament?
It appears that we have a dichotomous view of humankind from the Old Testament evidence: humans are material and immaterial, body and soul. There are some passages that have “body and soul” (nephesh) together (Ps 31:9; Isa 10:18). Nephesh can encompass the totality of a person; ruach cannot. It can merely refer to the inner life and all its capacities, and it is not distinct from nepheshwhich also often refers to the inner life. Examples can be seen in Lev 21:1, 11; 22:4; Num 5:2; 6:6, 11; 9:6–7, 10; 19:13.
Now we have to test this hypothesis. Here are some questions and passages that need close attention:
For you will not abandon mysoulto Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption.
It's clear that this verse sees the total person (body and soul), but there are two interpretive options here.
First, the word translated "corruption" (shachat) here often means "pit" elsewhere (cf. Ezek 19:4; cf. Job 9:31; Ps 7:15). As such, there is parallelism between "Sheol" and "pit," which both mean a grave. The verse, then, could be a statement of physical deliverance from death. This seems the most coherent view. Since death involved the cessation of life in terms of both body and its animation, we'd have a "whole person" reference here if the psalmist is talking about physical deliverance from lethal danger.
Second, the statement could also be a statement of afterlife deliverance from Sheol, meaning the immaterial part of a person goes to Sheol, but the body does not. That idea may be expressed more clearly in other verses (below, but it has problems here. Here's how the verse would break down:
For you will not abandon my soul(inner immaterial part)to Sheol(the Underworld), or let your holy one(the body?)see the pit(the grave).
"Holy one" would have to stand in for the body. This is a stretch. We'd also have to separate “Sheol” from “the pit” and have one refer to the Underworld while the other refers only to a dirt grave.
O Lord, you have brought up mysoulfrom Sheol; you restored me to life from among those who go down to the pit.
Here we have the same “Sheol”/”pit” parallel, but “pit” is a different (and very common) Hebrew word (bor). It's a hole in the ground (see Gen 37:20).
The verb "restored me to life" is the common verb chayah ("to make or keep alive"; "revive"). This text also refers to physical deliverance from fatal harm, and is not commenting on the afterlife.
For you have delivered mysoulfrom death, yes, my feet from falling, that I may walk before God in the light of life.
This is also easy to identify as physical deliverance. The psalmist wants to continue in the "light of life," and one can walk before God in this life (cf. Gen 17:1–2 for the same phrase).
Now for the second question.
Ecclesiastes 3:21, “Who knows whether thespiritof man goes upward and thespiritof the beast goes down into the earth?”
Ecclesiastes 12:7, “And the dust returns to the earth as it was, and thespiritreturns to God who gave it.”
The first one may target a cultural/religious belief that there is a difference between humans and animals when it comes to death and the afterlife ("Who knows"), but that difference isn't made clear. I think both verses taken together point to the idea that, upon death, the spirit, the immaterial part of a human being which animates the body, returns to God who is perceived as dwelling above the firmament/heavens. Does this refer to afterlife, or something more general?
First, this could speak universally in that the ancient writer conceived of the "life spark" (the “soul”), originally imparted to humanity by God (Gen 2:7), returns to God at death. The body would go to the grave. The problem, then, would be matching this up with Sheol. It is clear there is a consciousness associated with the afterlife, even in Sheol. How is this possible without the “spirit/soul” in which the inner life is associated with in the rest of the Hebrew Bible? If gone, how can there be any afterlife in Sheol?
Our second option: this language speaks of the "dust" (a euphemism for the body, which was created from "the dust of the ground"; cf. Genesis 2:7) returning to the ground—here conceived of as the Underworld—and the spirit (the immaterial part) returning to God in a salvation-afterlife sense.
In other words, it's poetic language for a positive afterlife with the body staying behind. This is possible in Israelite thinking, since the subject of a physical resurrection is asserted only in texts that are demonstrably late (Ezekiel and Daniel 12). To be consistent with the rest of the canon, one would have to argue that such salvation is only for the righteous, not all.
My inclination is to the first view, with a slight adjustment. "Sheol" is simply a cosmic-geographical conception that refers to two "places" in Israelite thinking:
(1) "Where everyone goes when they die";
(2) "Where the unrighteous remain after going there when they die."
This double-duty of the word is important.
These verses in Ecclesiastes do not contradict the ideas related to the negative and positive view of the afterlife in the Old Testament:
everyone dies and goes "to the great beyond" (a general description even we use today to refer to the "spiritual realm"; Sheol referent #1);
the righteous among them go to be with the Lord (there's the spirit departing to God idea from Ecclesiastes) and the unrighteous do not (they remain in Sheol, which is anything but pleasant—Sheol referent #2).
Those in Sheol have a conscious afterlife because their spirit, which left the body and now belongs to the "spiritual realm." Their spirit hasn't left Sheol to go anywhere else. The righteous also have a conscious afterlife because their spirit is at a different address in the "spiritual realm." This isn't as developed as the New Testament thinking, but it's one the same page.
And, lastly, the third question.
“Therefore I will not restrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of myspirit; I will complain in the bitterness of mysoul.
1 Samuel 1:15
But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman troubled inspirit. I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out mysoulbefore the Lord.
It would be silly to think that one set of emotions come from the spirit and another set comes from the soul. We've already seen that the terms overlap with each other in a whole range of emotions. They are clearly parallel and synonyms here in both passages.
In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of all mankind.
The terms are also synonyms here, by virtue of the abundant references for each term as referring to life itself and breath (a "vital sign").
My soul yearns for you in the night; my spirit within me earnestly seeks you. For when your judgments are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world learn righteousness.
To this point, we’ve seen that a two-part view of humankind emerges from the Old Testament evidence: humans are material and immaterial, body and soul-spirit, not body, soul, and spirit. We began to look at questions and objections that arise from certain passages with respect to this conclusion. There are additional questions to tackle.
What Does it Mean to be Human? What is the “Heart” of a Person?
Ezekiel 13:1–3, 1 The word of the Lord came to me: 2 “Son of man, prophesy against the prophets of Israel, who are prophesying, and say to those who prophesy from their own hearts (leb): ‘Hear the word of the Lord!’ 3 Thus says the Lord God, Woe to the foolish prophets who follow their own spirit (ruach), and have seen nothing!
Deuteronomy 10:12, And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart (lebab) and with all your soul (nephesh).
Deuteronomy 11:13, And if you will indeed obey my commandments that I command you today, to love the Lord your God, and to serve him with all your heart (lebab) and with all your soul (nephesh) ...
Ezekiel 18:31, Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart (leb) and a new spirit (ruach)! Why will you die, O house of Israel?
Psalm 78:8, and that they should not be like their fathers, a stubborn and rebellious generation, a generation whose heart (leb) was not steadfast, whose spirit (ruach) was not faithful to God.
Isaiah 65:14, behold, my servants shall sing for gladness of heart (leb), but you shall cry out for pain of heart (leb) and shall wail for breaking of spirit (ruach).
Proverbs 15:13, A glad heart makes a cheerful face, but by sorrow of heart (leb) the spirit (ruach) is crushed.
In summary, "heart" does not denote a separate inner part of man, distinguishable from ruach and/or nephesh, in the Old Testament. And since other "inward parts" (kidneys, bowels, etc.) are used in Old Testament expressions for the seat of emotions, the same would be said for those words.
What Does it Mean to be Human? What About Heart, Soul, and Mind in the Shema?
The next question to consider is a common one, as the Shemais the familiar creed of Judaism. (Deut 6:4-5). Once again, we need to answer it in light of the considerable amount of data we’ve discovered to this point.
Sometimes the Shema makes reference to only the inner being; other times it includes the physical. Here are the various expressions of the Shema in the Hebrew Bible. Some of the new words we'll see that refer (at least semantically) to physical strength or "whole being" are me'od (an adverb meaning "exceedingly" which can be used as a substantive);
Deuteronomy 6:5, You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might (me'od).
The only other Old Testament occurrence of this expression is in 2 Kings 23:25. Only elsewhere in the New Testament do we get this expression of strength, and so it is likely this is the verse the New Testament authors are drawing upon. However, as said above, me'od is an adverb meaning "very" or "exceedingly." It expresses totality and is not intended to mark out a separate part of a human being.
Deuteronomy 11:13, And if you will indeed obey my commandments that I command you today, to love the Lord your God, and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul.
Deuteronomy 13:3, you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams. For the Lord your God is testing you, to know whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.
Deuteronomy 30:6, And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.
Matthew 22:37, And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.
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.’
Luke 10:27, And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”
What we’ve seen up to this point is that the Old Testament material does not allow for a tripartite division of the "inner part(s)" of human beings. The terms all overlap in the same ways. That is what is missing in many systematic theologies that speak on this issue. Seldom does anyone look up all the occurrences of the relevant terms and group them as we did. Only one question remains.
What Does it Mean to be Human? Does the New Testament Disagree with the Old Testament?
If one considers the references to “soul” and “spirit” in the New Testament, it becomes apparent that nearly all the occurrences align easily with the two-part definition of human personhood in the Old Testament. There are two apparent outliers. This brings us to our final question.
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 of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
This verse is often part of the discussion to support a three-part (trichotomous) understanding of what it means to be human in biblical theology. It is actually supportive of the two-part position. That is only clear, however, when we allow the massive amount of Old Testament data to inform our reading.
The phrase "soul and spirit" no more speak to a separate "soul" and a separate "spirit" within humanity than these Old Testament verses do—verses that we’ve seen demonstrate that "soul" and "spirit" (and "heart" for that matter) overlap in what they describe:
Isaiah 26:9, My soul yearns for you in the night; my spirit within me earnestly seeks you. For when your judgments are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world learn righteousness.
1 Samuel 1:15, But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman troubled in spirit. I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord.”
In short, "soul" and "spirit" in Heb 4:12 are two ways of speaking to the same immaterial nature of a human being just “soul” and “spirit” are in overlapping Old Testament usage.
This brings us to the single verse in the Bible that appears truly problematic to a two-part understanding of what it means to be human: 1 Thessalonians 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.
It may surprise you that this is the only verse in the entire Bible that simultaneously includes "spirit" (pneuma), "soul" (psuche), and "body" (soma). Think about that. In one corner we have the truckload of data for dichotomous human nature, and in the other we have this one verse. It would seem pretty foolish to make this one verse reverse all the other data—hundreds of verses. And yet Bible students do that all too often. The problem with keeping all these terms separate should now be familiar to us: the terms absolutely and demonstrably overlap in the Old Testament, so it is a methodological (and interpretive) error to split them out in this one verse.
In other words, we ought to view 1 Thess 5:23 in light of the data pile that precedes it, not filter all of that material through this one verse. Think of it this way: if, as we have seen in a number of cases, "spirit" and "soul" are two different terms to describe the same inner, immaterial "part" of a human, they can be read as overlapping in this verse. The outcome is dichotomy (element 1: "spirit and soul" = immaterial; element 2: “body” = physical). Paul is praying that the Thessalonians would be sanctified in their whole being; he's not going against the grain of the entire Old Testament.
The Old and New Testament therefore define what it means to be human without contradiction. A human being is the totality of material substance (“body”) and immaterial nature (“soul”/”spirit”).
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