Human Nature — Spirit, Mind & Body
NOTE: This is a detail-oriented study and therefore only recommended for advanced Bible students (this is just a heads up).
Understanding human nature is important because it can help us comprehend ourselves and other people. It helps us to fathom or discern behaviors, motives and bondages. Knowledge is power (Proverbs 24:5) and truth sets free (John 8:31-32). ‘Truth’ is “reality” – the way it really is – and therefore properly understanding the reality of human nature will naturally help us walk in victory over the dark side of our psyche and mental illnesses. We can then, in turn, help others with the same knowledge and freedom we’ve acquired.
There has been much debate in the church on the subject of human nature. Some teach that people are essentially a dichotomy (two-part) consisting of the inner person—soul/spirit—and the outer person—body. Others maintain that we are a trichotomy (three-part) consisting of two separate inner facets—spirit and soul (mind)—and an outer facet—body. Others insist that human beings are essentially one psychosomatic unit by nature and therefore terms that the Bible uses, such as “soul,” “spirit,” “mind,” “body” and “heart,” are ways of looking at the individual from different angles and so on.
One popular description of human nature that I hear often is “man is a spirit that possesses a soul and lives in a body.” Although this description isn’t entirely biblically accurate, it is a workable description as long as we understand that “soul” in this context refers to the mind.
Most of the confusion over the subject of human nature can be traced to two problems: 1. Lack of depth in biblical studies, and 2. a narrow view of the Hebrew and Greek words for “soul,” “spirit,” etc. The purpose of this article is to see what the Bible has always clearly taught on the subject and avoid these two interpretational ruts. In doing this, the scriptural truth should be plain to see.
Human Beings are “Living Souls”
Naturally the best place to start a study on human nature is “the creation text.” This is the passage in the first book of the Bible that describes precisely how God created human beings:
And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul (nephesh).
Genesis 2:7 (KJV)
The LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and the man became a living being (nephesh).
Genesis 2:7 (NIV)
We see here that God created the human body out of “the dust of the earth”* breathed into it “the breath of life” and so man became “a living soul” (KJV) or “living being” (NIV).
* It’s a scientific fact that the human body is made up of the same essential chemical elements that are in the soil. Interestingly, humanity did not discover this until recent times, but the Creator revealed it here thousands of years ago.
The Hebrew word for “soul” or “being” is nephesh (neh-FESH). We know that nephesh is equivalent to the Greek psuche (soo-KHAY) because when this creation text is partially quoted in 2 Corinthians 15:45 nephesh is translated by the Greek word psuche. The Greek psuche is incidentally where we get the English words psychology, psychiatry and psyche.
As you can see, this foundational passage plainly states that human beings are living souls. Biblically, “Soul” (nephesh/psuche) in its broadest sense refers to the entire human person. We are living souls. We see this clearly in such passages as these:
All the souls (nephesh) that came with Jacob into Egypt, which came out of his loins, besides Jacob’s sons’ wives, all the souls (nephesh) were threescore and six.
Genesis 46:26a (KJV)
“Souls” in this verse simply refers to the people who accompanied Jacob to Egypt. The New International Version translates nephesh in this passage as “those” and “persons” respectively:
And that day Joshua took Makkedah, and smote it with the edge of the sword, and the king thereof he utterly destroyed, them, and all the souls (nephesh) that were therein; he let none remain:
Joshua 10:28 (KJV)
“Souls” here likewise refers to the people that Joshua and his troops slew. The NIV translates nephesh in this passage as “everyone.”
In both these examples, and numerous other passages, it is clear that “soul” does not refer to the immaterial facet of human beings, which is how “soul” is popularly understood, but rather to the whole person. It’s understandable why the average Bible reader would fail to see this because in most translations nephesh is not translated as “souls” in such passages, but rather as “those,” “persons,” “everyone,” “people,” etc.
Here are a couple examples from the New International Version where nephesh is translated as “people”:
… and the people (nephesh) they had acquired in Haran,
There were 4,600 people (nephesh) in all.
And here’s an example from the New Testament where psuche, the Greek equivalent to nephesh, is translated as “people”:
In it [Noah’s ark] only a few people (psuche), eight in all, were saved…
1 Peter 3:20b
Once again we see that “soul” (nephesh/psuche) in its broadest sense clearly refers to the whole person, the whole human being—spirit, mind and body. When nephesh/psuche is used in this broad sense “being” is perhaps the best translation. This is why the NIV translators decided to translate nephesh as “being” in the creation text, Genesis 2:7—the first man was a “living being.”
The Human Being (Soul): Spirit, Mind & Body
According to Scripture, human beings (souls) have three facets—spirit, mind and body. This will become clearer as our study progresses. All three of these facets are interconnected though not necessarily inseparable. God designed these facets to function as one unit. The Hebrew and Greek words for “soul”—nephesh and psuche—can refer to any one of these three facets depending upon the context of the passage.
For evidence of this, let’s start with passages where nephesh—“soul”—refers specifically to the body:
” ‘He [the high priest] must not enter a place where there is a dead body (nephesh).’ “
“Whoever touches the dead body (nephesh) of anyone will be unclean for seven days.”
The Hebrew word nephesh in these passages refers to the body, but not to mind or spirit. This is obvious because a dead body possesses neither mind nor spirit. There are many other such examples in the Bible.
Nephesh/psuche—“soul”—can also refer specifically to the human mind. The mind itself possesses three powerful qualities: volition (will), emotion (feeling) and reason (thinking). The mind is the decision-making center of our being. Here are a couple examples of nephesh/psuche used in reference to the mind:
“And you, my son Solomon, acknowledge the God of your father, and serve Him with wholehearted devotion and with a willing mind (nephesh), for the LORD searches every heart and understands every motive behind the thoughts.
1 Chronicles 28:9a,b
But the Jews who refused to believe stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds (psuche) against the brothers.
The first text speaks of Solomon’s “willing mind.” We know that nephesh here refers to the mind because the mind is the center of volition and will. It is the mind that makes willful decisions.
The second passage speaks of the Jews who poisoned the minds of the gentiles. We know that psuche in this verse refers to the mind because the Jews obviously corrupted the reasoning faculties of the Gentiles so they would make a willful decision to reject the gospel.
Nephesh/psuche—“soul”—can also refer specifically to the human spirit:
And Mary said: “My soul (psuche) glorifies the Lord (47) and my spirit (pneuma) rejoices in God my savior.”
This is an example of synthetic parallelism, a type of Hebraic poetry where the second part of the passage explains or adds something to the first. In this case, Mary says that her “soul”—psuche—glorifies the Lord (verse 46). Exactly what part of her being glorifies the Lord? Verse 47 specifies that it is her spirit that rejoices in Him. Thus “soul”—psuche—a broad term for the whole human being, refers here specifically to the spirit. Likewise nephesh is translated as “spirit” five times in the Old Testament in the New International Version.
“Soul” Used in Reference to the Entire Immaterial Being—Mind & Spirit
The Hebrew and Greek words nephesh and psuche at times refer to both mind and spirit—the entire immaterial being as separate from the body:
And he [Elijah] stretched himself upon the [dead] child three times, and cried unto the LORD, and said, O LORD my God, I pray thee, let this child’s soul (nephesh) come into him again.
1 Kings 17:21 (KJV)
Elijah is praying to God here that the boy’s immaterial being (“soul”)—his mind and spirit—return to his dead body. Our whole immaterial being—mind and spirit—is our life force, our very life. It is the mind and spirit that gives life to a fleshly body that would otherwise be dead. This is why the New International Version translates Elijah’s prayer as “O my God, let this boy’s life (nephesh) return to him.”
Here are a few other examples of nephesh/psuche used in reference to the entire immaterial being as separate from the physical body:
Be merciful to me, O LORD, for I am in distress; my eyes grow weak with sorrow, my soul (nephesh) and body with grief.
The glory of his forest and his fruitful land the LORD will destroy, both soul
(nephesh) and body, and it will be as when an invalid wastes away.
Isaiah 10:18 (NRSV)
“Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul (psuche) and body in hell.”
All three of these passages describe human nature as decidedly two separate parts—“soul and body”—non-physical and physical—immaterial and material. “Soul” in such cases clearly refers to the whole immaterial being, both mind and spirit.
Perhaps the best proof that nephesh/psuche can refer to the entire immaterial being is found in the book of Revelation where disembodied saints are described as “souls” (psuche) in John’s vision:
When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls (psuche) of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. (10) They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?
I saw thrones on which were seated those who had been given authority to judge. And I saw the souls (psuche) of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony for Jesus and because of the word of God.
Whether these passages are literal or symbolic isn’t important to our study (I believe they’re literal for reasons detailed here). What is important is that psuche (“souls”) is the biblical word used to describe disembodied people. It therefore refers to their entire immaterial being, both mind and spirit.
The fact that “soul”—nephesh/psuche—can refer to the mind in certain passages (and to the spirit on rare occasions), and to both mind & spirit in others, explains the seeming interchangeability of these terms in Scripture.
The Narrow View of “Soul” Must Be Rejected
In light of this data, to properly understand what the Bible teaches about human nature, the narrow view of the term “soul” (nephesh/psuche) must be rejected. I say this because many ministers and theologians give the impression that “soul” only refers to the mind or that it only refers to the immaterial part of human beings. We’ve just seen clear biblical proof that both of these views are narrow and erroneous. To recap our study, “soul” (nephesh/psuche) in its broadest sense refers to the entire human being. Depending on its context it can also refer specifically to each one of the three facets of human nature—body, mind or spirit. It can also refer to the entire immaterial being—mind and spirit. Thus the views that nephesh/psuche only refer to the mind or only refer to mind & spirit are only true in certain contexts.
Consider, for instance, Paul’s statement here:
May God Himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul (psuche) and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
1 Thessalonians 5:23
Even though psuche—“soul”—in its broadest sense refers to the entire human person, in this context it obviously refers to the mind. We know this because spirit, mind and body are the three interconnecting facets of human nature. Thus psuche must refer to the mind in this verse. This is in line with the hermeneutical rule: “Context is king.”
Or consider this passage:
For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul (psuche) and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.
It’s obvious here that “soul” refers to the mind because spirit and mind can be “divided” but spirit and the whole person cannot be divided since the whole person naturally includes the spirit. A person that lacks a spirit is no longer a whole person, are you following?
The Struggle of the Mind between Flesh and Spirit
In 1 Thessalonians 5:23 (cited above) Paul, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, describes human nature as having three basic facets—spirit, mind and body. Let’s observe further support for this in Paul’s inspired letter to the Romans:
For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. (19) For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. (20) Now If I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.
(21) So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. (22) For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self [i.e. spirit], (23) but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.
Romans 7:18-23 (NRSV)
Paul speaks of three facets of human nature in this passage. In verse 18 he mentions his “flesh” (or “sinful nature” in the NIV) and states that “nothing good dwells within” it.
In verse 22 he mentions his “inmost self” and says that this part of his being delights in God’s law. Paul is speaking of his spirit here; this will be more obvious in a moment.
In verse 23 he mentions his “mind” and the “war” that it is fighting. The precise nature of this “war” is made clearer just a few verses later (Keep in mind that Paul’s original letter to the Romans had no chapter and verse divisions. These divisions were added centuries later for convenience in scriptural study and citation):
For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the spirit* set their minds on the things of the spirit. (6) To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the spirit is life and peace.
Romans 8:5-6 (NRSV)
* Since there is no capitalization in the biblical Greek, translators must determine if “spirit” should be capitalized, in reference to the Holy Spirit, or not capitalized, in reference to the human spirit. Many translations capitalize “spirit” in these passages and some do not (for example The New English Bible). I believe these passages (and other such passages) are plainly referring to the human spirit and therefore “spirit” should not be capitalized. This will be made clearer as our study progresses. In a way it makes no significant difference since our born-again human spirit is indwelt and led by the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 3:16).
These divinely inspired words reveal two truths: 1. That there are three basic facets to human nature—flesh, mind and spirit; and 2. that the mind is caught in a struggle between the other two opposing facets—flesh and spirit. This is the “war” Paul is talking about in verse 23 above.
What exactly is the mind? The mind is our center of being. The Greek for “mind” is nous (noos) meaning “The intellect, i.e. the mind (divine or human; in thought, feeling or will)” (Strong 50). This definition reveals the aforementioned three qualities of the human mind: volition (will), intellect (reason) and emotion (feeling):
Since the mind is the center of volition and will, it is the mind that decides whether to live according to the flesh or according to the spirit, as the above passage shows.
What exactly are flesh and spirit? The flesh and spirit, once again, are the opposing facets of our being. In Romans 7:18 above Paul describes the flesh as the part of his being where “nothing good dwells.” In verse 22 he describes his spirit as the side of him that delights in God’s laws. We could therefore define flesh and spirit as follows: The “flesh” is that part of us that veers toward what is negative, destructive and carnal. The “spirit” is that part of us that inclines toward what is positive, productive and godly.
These contrasting facets of our being are repeatedly mentioned in Scripture:
“Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.
Matthew 26:41 (NKJV)
I say then: Walk in the spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh. (17) For the flesh lusts against the spirit, and spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish.
Galatians 5:16-17 (NKJV)
As you can see, the desires of the spirit and the lusts of the flesh are in conflict. Since both spirit and flesh have desires we could say that they have a voice, and each person determines which “voice” s/he will accept and follow. What do I mean by this? As noted above, our mind is the center of our being and the mind has the power of volition, meaning will. To put it simply, the mind decides. In your mind YOU decide to live by spirit or flesh, which will in turn determine whether you’re spirit-controlled or flesh-ruled. It’s completely up to YOU.
With this understanding, the desires of your spirit and your flesh are not you, they are your potential you. They only become you as you DECIDE in your mind to walk according to one or the other. The way you walk according to one or the other is by embracing and feeding the thoughts or desires of one or the other. For instance, you may be in a non-criminal conflict situation and your flesh flashes a crazy thought of killing the antagonist, but does this murderous desire of the flesh make you a murderer? No. You only become a murderer if you give in to the fleshly desire and act on it. It’s the same thing with desires of your spirit. For instance, you might be moved to give a large sum of money to a poor family, but does this spiritual desire make you a generous giver? No. You only become a generous giver by embracing the spiritual desire to grow in the grace of giving (2 Corinthians 8:7) and then acting on it.
Paul called the born-again human spirit the “new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:24). Your spirit is like God and is truly righteous and holy, but does this automatically mean every believer is godly and truly righteous and holy, as far as practice goes. Of course not. Believers will only be like God and walk in true righteousness and holiness to the degree that they identify with and live out of their spirit. Who you are in your spirit is your potential you; it’s the way God sees you and how he wants you to be, but you’ll only walk in it as you DECIDE to live out of your spirit and not your flesh, that is, putting on the new self and putting off the old self.
It’s interesting to note that the formulator of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, was able to discover these three basic facets of human nature through his studies. The mind is comparable to Freud’s “ego;” likewise the flesh coincides with his “id;” and the spirit corresponds to the “superego.” Although I’m obviously not an advocate of Freud, pointing this out may help readers who are familiar with psychological theories to better understand the biblical model of human nature—spirit, mind and body. I just find it fascinating that, with little or no biblical knowledge, Freud was able to discover these three basic facets of human nature through sheer scientific analysis, which shows that human nature is obvious to anyone who cares to honestly examine it from either an unbiased scientific or biblical approach. I am reminded of M. Scott Peck, the psychiatrist and bestselling author, who converted to Christianity not long after publishing his first book, The Road Less Traveled, at the age of 43. One of the main factors contributing to this decision, Peck said, was the Bible’s brutally honest and accurate depiction of human nature, as illustrated here:
With the understanding that the human being is a living soul consisting of spirit, mind and body, let’s take a closer look at the two opposing facets of human nature—flesh and spirit
Body (Soma) and Flesh (Sarx)
The Biblical Greek for “body” is soma (e.g. 1 Corinthians 6:19). This word can also refer metaphorically to the sinful nature:
For we know that the old self was crucified with him so that the body (soma) of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin.
The Greek word for “flesh” is sarx. Although sarx is most frequently used in the Bible in reference to the literal flesh of a person (e.g. John 3:6), it is often figuratively used in reference to the sinful nature. In such cases the New International Version understandably translates sarx as “sinful nature”:
I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature (sarx). For I have the desire to do good, but I cannot carry it out.
The acts of the sinful nature (sarx) are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; (20) idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions (21) and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
Both of these examples show sarx—“flesh”—being used as a metaphor for our carnal, sinful nature. In the first text Paul says that “nothing good lives in” his sarx. He’s obviously not talking about his body here. Likewise the second passage reveals the various sinful manifestations of the sarx.
Because sarx—“flesh”—plainly refers to the sinful nature in such cases, I use “flesh” and “sinful nature” interchangeably throughout this study.
Soma (body) and sarx (flesh) seem to be very closely related in Scripture:
And in him (Christ) you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body (soma) of the flesh (sarx) by the circumcision of Christ.
Colossians 2:11 (NASB)
Soma (body) and sarx (flesh) are so closely related in this passage that the NIV translators decided to translate them both simply as “sinful nature:”
In him you were also circumcised in the putting off of the sinful nature (soma/sarx), not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ.
The conclusion we draw from this biblical information is this: Although body and flesh are not technically one and the same, it’s obvious that the flesh—the sinful nature—is most closely related to the body rather than mind and spirit. In fact, the Bible tends to use body and flesh interchangeably. Because of this, I will do the same in this study.
The Human Spirit
Even though the flesh is most closely related to the body in Scripture, we know that it is somehow interwoven with the mind as well. We know this for certain because, if the sin nature were merely a condition of the body, then physical death would be the ultimate and absolute solution to humanity’s sin problem. Needless to say, this would render Christ’s death for humanity’s sins pointless.
So the flesh is somehow interwoven with the mind, but it also renders the spirit dead to God. Jesus thus taught that the first step in solving our sin problem is to have a spiritual rebirth. The human spirit must be regenerated. Once the spirit is born-again and becomes a “new creation” the mind needs to be “renewed” and trained so that it submits its will, intellect and emotions to the spirit and not to the flesh. This is the second step. The third and final step to solving the sin problem is to receive a new imperishable glorified body.
Before we get into all that, let’s define specifically what the human spirit is and what it desires to do.
The Koine Greek word for “spirit” is pneuma (NYOO-mah), which corresponds to the Hebrew ruwach (ROO-ahk). We’ve already seen in Scripture that the human spirit is that part of our being that “delights in God’s law.” It is that part of our nature that inclines toward what is positive, productive and godly. We could also add that the human spirit is that facet of our being that is aware of a spiritual dimension to reality and thus naturally attempts to “connect” with that dimension. Only this spiritual side of our being can know of God and desire to connect with Him because, as Jesus pointed out, “God is spirit” (John 4:24). Since the flesh is our “sinful nature,” we could properly define our spirit as our “godly nature.”
Both the non-believer and the spiritually born-again believer have a human spirit. The difference is that the non-believer is spiritually dead to God whereas the born-again believer is spiritually alive to God. Because born-again Christians are spiritually alive to the LORD they can have a relationship with Him, but because non-believers are spiritually dead to the Creator it is impossible for them to have a relationship with Him.
Non-Christians indeed have a spirit and therefore can be aware of God (or a spiritual dimension) and desire to “connect” with God (or the spiritual dimension) but they cannot connect with Him and have a relationship unless they are spiritually born-again. This universal attempt by humanity to connect with God (or a spiritual dimension) explains the existence of the world’s numerous religions. Because we have a spiritual side to our being, human beings are—as a race—incurably religious.
The difference between religion and biblical Christianity is that religion is humanity’s attempt to connect with God, whereas Christianity is God connecting with humanity. Religion is humanity’s way, but biblical Christianity is God’s way. Although it is certainly commendable that religious people are aware of a spiritual dimension to reality, and are attempting to connect with it—as they understand it—their attempt to connect with the Creator ultimately fails because they are spiritually dead to Him. It is therefore, once again, impossible for them to have a relationship with Him. This is why when Jesus’ disciples asked him who could be saved, he said: “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.” (Mark 10:27). You see, salvation through the flesh—through religion—is impossible. But with God it’s not only possible, it’s available to all. That’s Christianity—real Christianity, not the counterfeit legalism.
The Human Spirit must be “Born Again” to Connect with God
Biblical Christianity teaches that, in order to successfully connect with God and have a relationship with Him we need to be spiritually regenerated. As Jesus plainly taught:
“I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”
(5) “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. (6) Flesh gives birth to flesh, but Spirit gives birth to spirit.”
Jesus makes it clear in verse 3 that, in order to have a relationship with God, we must be “born again.” In verse 6 he clarifies specifically what kind of rebirth we need—spiritual rebirth. When a person is spiritually born again the Holy Spirit gives birth to a new human spirit—the spiritual facet of his or her being is born anew! This is the “new creation” that Paul writes about:
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come.
2 Corinthians 5:17
“New Creation” in the Greek literally means “a new species of being which never existed before.” The born again spirit is “God’s workmanship” (Ephesians 2:10) “created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:24). The intrinsic character of the new born-again spirit is righteous and holy, just as God is righteous and holy. When the apostle Paul spoke of the “treasure in jars of clay” that he and other born-again believers have, he was referring to the new born-again spirit, which is housed in the body or “jar of clay” (2 Corinthians 4:7).
I’m always amazed when I come across believers who either play down spiritual rebirth or deny it altogether when it’s actually a fundamental Christian doctrine (see Titus 3:3 and 1 Peter 1:23).
The Mind Needs Renewed – Trained to Live by the Born-Again Spirit
Once a person’s spirit is born anew something has to be done with the mind and body, the two remaining facets of the human soul:
Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship. (2) Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.
You were taught with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self [flesh], which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; (23) to be made new in the attitude of your minds; (24) and to put on the new self [born-again spirit] created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.
After a person is spiritually born again, his or her body needs to be offered to God as a “living sacrifice.” This means that we make a conscious decision to no longer offer the parts of our body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness but to God’s service as instruments of righteousness (Romans 6:13,19). This simply means we turn away from—repent of—behaviors that God informs us are unproductive or negative and start putting into practice positive and productive behaviors approved of Him. Repentance should never be viewed as a negative thing as it essentially means “to change for the better.”
As far as the mind is concerned, it needs to be “renewed.” As we are faithful and diligent to “be made new in the attitude of our minds” we will start to be “transformed.” “Transformed” is the Greek word metamorphoo (met-ah-mor-FOH) which means “to change into another form.” This is obviously where we get the English word metamorphosis. Just as an ugly worm-like caterpillar is transformed in its cocoon and emerges as a beautiful butterfly, so a wondrous metamorphosis will take place in our lives as we renew our minds.
The second passage above shows how to successfully do this: We put off the “old self”—the flesh—by stop setting our minds on this carnal side of our being. Instead we put on the “new self”—the born-again spirit “created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness”—by training our minds to live according to our born-again spirit:
Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the spirit have their minds set on what the spirit desires. (6) …the mind controlled by the spirit is life and peace.
There’s so much life, energy and peace when we train our minds to live according to our new born-again spirits as led of the Holy Spirit! Speaking of which, Ephesians 3:16 shows that the Holy Spirit indwells the believer’s regenerated spirit. The only reason the Holy Spirit can do this is because our reborn spirit was “created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness,” as shown in Ephesians 4:24. Chew on that.
When we successfully learn to be spirit-controlled the born-again spirit acts as a sort of “sixth sense,” tuning us in to God and enabling us to perceive reality from the “divine viewpoint.” People who are spiritually dead are limited to their five senses and consequently only perceive reality from the “human viewpoint” (sadly, this is also true of many legitimately born-again Christians who fail to train their minds to live according to their new born-again spirits). Intimate knowledge of God can only be attained through this sixth sense. With this understanding, it becomes increasingly clear why Jesus stressed that we must be spiritually born again to “see the kingdom of God.”
It should be every Christian’s goal and desire to be spirit-controlled; unfortunately, many never adequately learn to do this. They instead settle for being body-ruled Christians, thus cutting themselves off from the divine viewpoint and limiting themselves to the human perspective. A more common name for this is “carnal Christian.” Of course there are degrees to this limiting condition and not every carnal Christian is frothing at the mouth with extreme iniquity, but they are body-ruled and therefore impeded from the divine viewpoint. Carnal Christians can become so hardened in heart by their sin that they naturally become hostile toward God and Christianity. As it is written:
The sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. (8) Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God.
Some body-ruled Christians become so hardened in heart by their sin that they end up denying Christ (!!). This is the ultimate result of unrepentant and deceptive sin—it destroys your relationship with God. This is spiritual death—being dead to God—and explains why the Bible says: “The mind governed by the flesh is death” (Romans 8:6).
It should be pointed out that it takes time and effort to properly train the mind to habitually live according to the new born-again spirit with the help of the Holy Spirit. Most Christians will naturally need support from more mature brothers and sisters to learn to do this. In fact, the very reason God appoints and anoints spiritually mature believers to ministerial positions—like pastor, teacher or prophet—is so that believers might be encouraged and equipped to successfully discern and fulfill God’s will for their lives (see Ephesians 4:11-15).
The Positive Nature of the Flesh when Submitted to the Spirit
Allow me to add one important detail on this matter: When the mind is properly controlled by the spirit (which is, in turn, led by the indwelling Holy Spirit) the appetites and inclinations of the body actually become a positive force in a person’s life. This is naturally because the body is properly submitted to the spirit-led mind.
To illustrate, consider the sexual appetites of the body. If, in our mind, we choose to be flesh-ruled, the sexual appetite can be very destructive. For instance, unbridled sexual lust can lead us into fornication, adultery and perversion resulting in broken relationships, broken families, illegitimate children, horrible diseases, prison and even death. Yet when we choose to allow our mind to be spirit-led, our natural sexuality becomes a very positive and productive force in our lives. There’s nothing inherently wrong, for example, with the God-given male sex drive. The sex drive submitted to the spirit will compel a man to find a suitable wife, physically love her and produce children.
Another good example would be anger. Anger stems from our carnal nature. We all realize that uncontrolled anger can be quite destructive, even provoking people to murder. Yet, when we choose to allow our minds to be spirit-led rather than body-ruled, anger can be utilized for righteous and productive purposes, rather than childish temper tantrums. A mother’s anger over drunk driving is a fitting example; her anger, properly submitted to the spirit, will compel her to seek social justice. Or consider the biblical example of Jesus when he, in righteous anger, got out a whip (!) and drove everyone out of the temple—overturning tables, scattering coins and yelling (see John 2:13-17 and Mark 11:15-18). Needless to say, the common assumption that a good Christian must be a spineless doormat for other people is a lie. There’s something called tough love and it’s thoroughly biblical.
The Heart: The Core of the Mind
Many scriptural passages speak of the human “heart” (e.g. Mark 7:6,21). What exactly is the heart? And how does it fit into the biblical model of spirit, mind and body?
The Greek word for “heart” is kardia (kar-DEE-ah), which is where we get the English ‘cardiac.’ Like the English word “heart,” kardia literally refers to the blood-pumping organ but figuratively to the core thoughts or feelings of a person’s being or mind (Strong 39). E.W. Bullinger describes the heart as “the seat and center of man’s personal life in which the distinctive character of the human manifests itself” (362). The heart could therefore be best described as the core of the mind, the center of our being. It is part of the mind, but specifically refers to the deepest, most central part, i.e. the core.
What’s in your heart is determined by whether your mind has decided to live by the flesh or by the spirit. Jesus said, “The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45). If we, in our mind, decide to dwell on carnal thoughts, then carnal, negative, destructive things will naturally store up in our heart. If, on the other hand, we choose to dwell on spiritual thoughts, then good, positive, productive things will store up in our heart. The paraphrase of Proverbs 4:23 puts it like this: “Be careful what you think for your thoughts run your life” (NCV). Take heed—truer words have never been spoken!
The bottom line is that we decide what’s stored up in our hearts depending on whether we’re governed by the flesh or spirit.
I think it’s important to point out that carnal and crazy thoughts will at times flash through your mind; yet this doesn’t mean these thoughts are stemming from your heart. Having carnal and crazy thoughts flash through the mind is natural to the human experience; in other words, if you’re human, it will happen. Sometimes you may even be bombarded with such thoughts. These thoughts may originate from the flesh, unclean spirits, ungodly people, the environment you’re exposed to, or otherwise, but just because such thoughts flash through your mind it does not mean they’re in your heart. These thoughts are not you, and are not originating from your heart; but they can become you if you allow them to get lodged in your heart by dwelling on them and giving them life. Such thoughts should just be ignored or, if that doesn’t work, taken “captive” and made “obedient to Christ,” the Word of God (see 2 Corinthians 10:3-5). Otherwise they will become a weed with the potential of growing into a big, ugly tree of destructive bad fruit (e.g. bitterness, immorality, frustration, sloth, depression, arrogance, abuse, gossip/slander, rage, etc.).
The Resurrection Body: Imperishable, Glorified, Powerful & Spiritual
Even the most mature spirit-led Christian will fail to reach perfection as long as he or she dwells within a perishable flesh and blood body. Absolute escape from the sin nature will not be complete until the resurrection where God’s people will receive a new imperishable, glorified, powerful and spiritual body:
(35) But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?”
(42b) The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; (43) it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; (44) it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.
1 Corinthians 15:35, 42b-44
This passage describes the new bodies that born-again Christians will receive at the resurrection of the righteous, which takes place in stages, as detailed in here. It should be emphasized that this passage contextually only refers to spiritually born-again believers, not spiritually dead pagans. The latter will of course be resurrected later in order to be judged and “If anyone’s name is not found written in the book of life, he [will be] thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:11-15).
One of the best benefits of this new body will be that it will not have a flesh; that is, a sin nature. That’s why it’s called a spiritual body. Granting us such new bodies is God’s final measure in our obtaining freedom from sin. The power of sin and death will be “swallowed up in victory” (1 Corinthians 15:54-57)!
The above passage describes these new bodies as imperishable, glorified, powerful and spiritual in nature. We obviously know what “imperishable” means—our new bodies will never die (i.e. we will possess unconditional immortality); but what exactly do the other descriptive words mean? We of course don’t have all the answers since we presently “see through a glass darkly,” but to take a peek at how wondrous it will be in our new bodies, all we have to do is observe what the Bible says about Jesus after his resurrection. After all, we’re going to receive the same type of resurrection body he did. In light of this, we’ll evidently be able to walk through locked doors (John 20:26), instantly appear out of nowhere (Luke 24:36-37) and disappear (24:31). With this understanding we’ll no doubt be able to take instant “quantum leaps” to anywhere on the new earth or new universe—including planets and galaxies millions of light-years away. I personally find this extremely invigorating and excitedly look forward to it (unlike the traditional boring concept of living on a cloud playing a harp forever).
Spiritual Death Leads to Absolute Death (i.e. the Second Death)
The strongest proof that the born-again believer is spiritually alive to the LORD—and, by extension, the non-believer is spiritually dead to God—can be found in 1 Corinthians 6:17 and this passage:
You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ. (10) But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness.
The key statement for our subject is verse 10: “If Christ is in you… your spirit is alive”. The obvious implication is that, if the human spirit of a spiritually born-again believer is alive, the human spirit of a non-believer must be dead.
As noted in Chapter Six of HELL KNOW, spiritual death is a present state in the non-Christian’s life. They are spiritually dead to God and this explains why Paul described the Ephesian & Colossian believers as being “dead in their sins” before they accepted the Lord (see Ephesians 2:1 and Colossians 2:13). These believers were spiritually dead before their born-again experience. This is in contrast to all the many scriptural texts examined in HELL KNOW which clearly state that the second death—the literal destruction of soul and body in hell—is an experience that will take place in the future. In other words, the second death is not a present state but a future experience that will eventually occur, but only if the individual fails to reconcile with God and receive His gracious gift of eternal life.
We see this contrast between spiritual death and the second death in Romans 8:10 and 8:13. Romans 8:10 (above) clearly implies, once again, that the spirit of a non-believer is presently dead. Notice what Paul says about the second death a mere three verses later:
For if you live according to the sinful nature you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.
Do you see the clear contrast between spiritual death and the second death here? Paul says that people who choose to live according to the flesh will eventually have to reap the wages of their actions and die. This is the second death—absolute destruction of soul and body in hell. This, again, is a future event, not a present state.
The bottom line is that spiritual death ultimately results in absolute death. That’s why God sent His Son so that “whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
Can Non-Christians Live by their Un-regenerated Human Spirit?
The material we’ve been covering so far brings up an interesting question: Can a person who is spiritually dead to God train his or her mind to live according to his/her (unregenerated) human spirit? Absolutely, and this explains the many non-Christian people we run into regularly who display noble characteristics even though their spirit is dead to God.
We have to remember that Adam didn’t eat of the tree of the knowledge of evil; he ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (see Genesis 2:17 and 3:11-12). The entire human race, as Adam’s descendants, therefore possesses the capacity for both good and evil. However, even though we have the capacity for good, Adam passed on to us a sin nature (flesh)—the carnal proclivity to rebel against good, i.e. God’s righteous laws (Romans 7:12). As already determined, this sinful nature is largely a condition of the body, but negatively affects the rest of our being as well. As such, the unbeliever’s spirit is rendered dead to God—incapable of connecting with the Creator, unless it is born-again of the Holy Spirit via the seed (sperm) of Christ (1 John 3:9).
Because Adam ate of the tree of the knowledge of both good and evil, most people who are not spiritually regenerated are a mishmash of spiritual and carnal qualities; that is, they possess both good and bad traits.* Only a relatively small number of unbelievers could be designated as wholly wicked; and even they no doubt have some good qualities. (Although I sometimes wonder how “good” people would be if there were no human laws to keep them in check;** in other words, if they could “get away” with raping, murdering or stealing, would they do it? Only God knows their hearts).
* Spiritually born-again believers are also a mishmash of both good and bad traits; I’m not suggesting otherwise, but our topic here is individuals who are not spiritually reborn.
** If people don’t fear God’s law, the only law they have left to fear is human law; but if there’s no human law to constrain their lower impulses they would naturally have nothing to fear. This would be the ultimate test of character.
In any event, we regularly come across non-Christian individuals who are quite developed in character. Even though they’re spiritually dead to God, they appear to be humble, intelligent, loving, positive, moral, compassionate, etc. Such people have somehow trained their minds to live according to their spirit which, even though it’s dead to God and thus in dire need of regeneration, is still the facet of their being that inclines toward what is positive, productive and godly, as opposed to the flesh which veers toward negativity, destruction and perversion.
There’s always some training or discipline that enables people to do this. It could simply be the result of how they were raised, in which case they were trained by their parents or guardians to be loving and moral. It could also be the result of their exposure and submission to various “disciplines;” for example, religion, meditation, martial arts and generally positive philosophies, such as Sciencefictionology. Such disciplines could be considered good in that they inspire people to be the best that they can be, yet they ultimately fail to solve the sin problem and reconcile people to their Creator. For this reason they have the potential for harm as these disciplines can delude people into thinking they can attain righteousness by their own efforts or works without spiritual regeneration. This notion is rooted in human pride and arrogance, sins the LORD “hates” (Proverbs 8:13).
The message of the Bible is that humankind is cursed with a sin nature and a spirit that is dead to God. Thus no amount of human effort to attain righteousness can adequately remove our sinfulness and reconcile us to the Almighty. Although it is certainly commendable that a person makes a conscious decision to live by his/her spirit, in a sense it’s all flesh to God because the sin nature has tainted the human spirit and rendered it dead. It is utterly incapable of doing what it was originally designed to do—commune with God. Theologians refer to this as “total depravity;” not that human beings are as bad as we could possibly be, but that we are unable to contribute to our salvation in any way because we are spiritually dead in our fallen condition. The obvious exception is humble repentance & faith in response to the gospel (Acts 20:21).
It should be added that there is a danger in attempting to live out of the un-regenerated spirit. Anyone who does so will naturally become increasingly in tune with the spiritual realm. The problem with this is that there are both good and evil spirits. If a person’s spirit is dead to God it naturally stands to reason that the spiritual realm they’re more prone to get in tune with would not be of God. Unless intercessory prayer is made on their behalf—releasing the Holy Spirit to draw them to God—they are vulnerable to the deception and misleading of impure spirits. This is how false religions and philosophies develop. Their message is always the same: There’s another way to God besides the gospel of reconciliation through Christ. Perhaps the ultimate satanic deception is that humankind can somehow attain righteousness apart from God’s gift of righteousness in Christ. As already pointed out, this notion—that we can be good without God, that we don’t need our Creator—is rooted in human arrogance. Thus the human attempt to be righteous apart from God is a fleshly stench to the all-knowing LORD who knows the secrets and motivations of the heart.
The popular message of the day is that there are many paths to God, none superior to any other, so what I’m teaching here will be rejected by those who embrace the spirit of this age. The bottom line is that God loves the whole world and has provided a way to spiritual regeneration, reconciliation and eternal life. Let’s be wise and go with God’s way (biblical, Spirit-led Christianity), and reject man’s way (religion). Amen?
So, to answer the question, can spiritually un-regenerated persons learn to live out of their human spirit and consequently produce good works and develop in character? Certainly. This is commendable, but whatever discipline they follow ultimately fails to heal their sinful condition and reconcile them to the LORD. This is “total depravity.”
“Spirit” and “the Breath of Life”
Take a deep breath (no pun intended) because this is where the topic gets a little confusing due to the limitations of human language, which I’ll explain later. Stick with me and it will all make perfect sense.
In our study we’ve determined that the human spirit is the facet of human nature that is opposed to the flesh; it is the part of our being that compels us toward what is positive & godly and inspires our desire to connect with our Creator. It should be pointed out that in certain contexts ‘spirit’ refers to “the breath of life.” The breath of life could also be referred to as the spirit of life because “breath” is translated from the same Hebrew and Greek words for “spirit”—ruwach and pneuma respectively.
The “breath of life” describes the human spirit on the most basic level as separate from mind and body: The human spirit is essentially a breath of life from God. As such, the breath of life is not our being; it is the life force from God that gives consciousness to our being. In other words, the very reason we have consciousness is because of the breath of life, but the breath of life is not our consciousness.
We could draw a parallel to the human body. The body is the facet of human nature that enables our being to dwell in the physical realm. It is indeed a part of our being, but it is not our consciousness, rather it enables our consciousness to dwell in the physical realm. Separate from spirit and mind, the body is just a carcass, a slab of nonliving flesh. This is what the body is on the most basic level separate from spirit and mind. Likewise, separate from mind and body, the human spirit is simply a breath of life from God.
We’ve discovered from the Scriptures that the mind is the center of our being. Our mind has the power of will and therefore makes decisions. The mind is also the emotional and intellectual seat of our being; we therefore feel and reason with our mind.
The breath of life gives consciousness to the mind, the center of our being. The breath of life, or spirit of life, could thus be described as the animating spiritual life force from God. You see, our being consists of material and immaterial facets, physical and non-physical. Our immaterial being is our mind (disembodied soul). We could describe the mind as spiritual in nature and substance. Our spiritual being (mind) requires a spiritual breath of life to live just as our physical being requires a physical breath of life to live. In fact, “breath of life” often refers simultaneously to both spiritual and physical breath in the Scriptures. This will be made clear as we continue.
The Scriptures reveal that animals have a breath of life just as human beings do. We could therefore say that animals have a spirit, yet only in the sense that they have a breath of life. They certainly don’t have a spirit in the sense that they possess a godly nature. The human being, as God’s highest order of living creature on earth was created in God’s image. Our spiritual makeup therefore prompts a desire to connect and commune with God and drives us toward goodness and productivity. The human spirit is endowed with this “godly nature.” This is a fact whether the spirit is born-again or not. All the passages we’ve looked at so far on the human spirit refer to this godly nature (e.g. Matthew 26:41). The passages we will now address refer to the breath of life.
Two words are used for ‘breath’ in the phrase “breath of life”: The Hebrew word ruwach, which corresponds to the Greek pneuma, and the Hebrew word neshamah (nesh-aw-MAW). Neshamah, like ruwach/pneuma, can refer to “breath,” “wind” or “spirit.” *
* Although neshamah rarely refers to the human spirit’s godly nature, it does so in Proverbs 20:27.
So ruwach/pneuma and neshamah are basically interchangeable words. Let’s turn to Genesis 7 to observe biblical support for this:
Pairs of all creatures that have the breath (ruwach) of life in them came to Noah and entered the ark.
Everything on dry land that had the breath (neshamah) of life in its nostrils died. (23) Every living thing on the face of the earth was wiped out; men and animals… Only Noah was left, and those with him in the ark.
The first text refers to the animals that accompanied Noah to his ark. They had “the breath of life.” The second text refers to every living thing on earth that had “the breath of life”—human and animal—that died as a result of the flood. This is plain evidence that ruwach and neshamah are used interchangeably in the Bible.
These two passages clearly show that animals as well as humans have the breath of life. This proves that the breath of life cannot be a reference to the human spirit’s “godly nature” because the animal spirit possesses no such nature. This is what distinguishes animalkind from humankind: The human spirit, which is created in the image of God, possesses a godly nature whereas the animal spirit is merely a breath of life, an animating life force from the Creator. Because the human spirit is endowed with a godly nature, people possess an inherent inclination toward goodness, productivity and godliness; which is contrasted by the carnal nature, the inclination toward destruction, negativity and evil.
Animals of course have neither a spirit (godly nature) nor flesh (sinful nature). Animals are instinctual creatures that live and act by instinct. Their actions are therefore neither good nor evil, unlike human beings. Chapter Four of Hell Know offers scriptural proof that the same Hebrew and Greek words for “soul” (nephesh/psuche) are used in reference to animals in the Bible. Biblical translators usually render nephesh/psuche as “creature(s)” or “thing” in such cases (see for example Genesis 1:20,24 and Revelation 8:9 & 16:3). In these contexts “soul” (nephesh/psuche) must be defined in its broadest sense as “a living being.” Like humans, animals are living beings or living souls, but unlike humans they lack both a spiritual dimension and carnal dimension. In other words, animals are living souls but they do not have a spirit or flesh—a godly nature or sinful nature. Because they lack the higher spiritual dimension inherent to people, animals are unaware of the existence of God and lack the ability or desire to commune with Him.
In light of this, whenever the Hebrew word for “spirit”—ruwach—is used in reference to animals in the Scriptures we know it always refers to the breath of life, the animating life-force of the Almighty that enables them to live. This is the extent and limit of their spiritual dimension. Let’s observe support for this:
“I [God] am going to bring floodwaters on the earth to destroy all life under the heavens, every creature (nephesh) that has the breath (ruwach) of life in it. Everything on earth will perish.”
This verse describes both animals and humans as nephesh (“creatures”), which is the Hebrew word for “soul;” and then goes on to state that these creatures (souls) have the “breath of life.” “Breath” here is the Hebrew word for ‘spirit,’ ruwach. Since ruwach is used in reference to both animals and humans we know it refers to the breath of life, the animating life force from the Almighty that sustains all living creatures, and not to what we understand as the human spirit’s godly nature, the human inclination toward goodness and godliness. Animals, once again, do not have a spirit as such. Keep in mind that “breath” in this passage simultaneously refers to physical breath, which we’ll look at in a moment.
All this is made clear in this passage from Psalm 104, which contextually refers to animals of all kinds (see verses 17-25) and, in fact, includes human beings as well (verse 23):
Thou [God] dost take away their spirit (ruwach), they expire. And return to their dust.
(30) Thou dost send forth thy spirit (ruwach), they are created;
Psalm 104:29b-30a (NASB)
This text plainly shows that all animals are created by a ruwach from God (verse 30) and expire when God takes this ruwach away. *
* Many translations translate ruwach in verse 30 as “Spirit” (capitalized) giving the impression that the verse refers to God’s Spirit; but let’s remember that there is no capitalization in the original Hebrew. With this understanding, it is clear that ruwach in verse 30 refers to the same ruwach referred to in verse 29, that is, the breath of life—the spiritual animating life force of the Almighty. See the NRSV rendition of this text and the accompanying footnote for support.
Animals do not have a spirit in the sense of a godly nature as humans do, but both animals and humans have a spirit in the sense of a breath of life that animates and sustains them; and that’s what ruwach in this passage is referring to. This is why most other translations do not translate ruwach as “spirit” in verse 29, but as “breath” (see for example the NIV, KJV and NRSV).
Let’s observe another passage:
Man’s fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies so dies the other. All have the same breath (ruwach); man has no advantage over the animal. Everything is meaningless.
This is an enlightening verse. It says that both humans and animals have “the same ruwach.” While there is the possibility that ruwach in this verse is referring to mere physical breath, we will see momentarily why this conclusion must be ruled out. Ruwach here, again, refers to the breath of life—the animating spiritual life force from God—and not to what we understand as the human spirit’s godly nature. This is obvious for two reasons: 1. The text plainly states that both humans and animals have the same ruwach. Since animals don’t have a spirit (ruwach) in the sense that humans have a spirit (ruwach), ruwach in this passage must refer to the breath (ruwach) of life because we know from other passages that both humans and animals are sustained by a “breath of life.” 2. Notice that the text says that both humans and animals have “the same ruwach.” All creatures have the same animating life force from the Almighty—the same spiritual breath (ruwach) of life. This ruwach of life is a depersonalized life force. In other words, it is the spiritual life force that gives life to the person, but is not itself the person; it gives consciousness to the being but is not the consciousness of the being. It’s comparable to electricity that lights up a lamp: The electricity enables the lamp to have light, but the electricity is not the lamp’s light. Furthermore, when the lamp is unplugged and loses its source of electricity, its light expires. The same is true in regards to God’s breath (ruwach) of life; as the aforementioned Psalm states, “Thou [God] dost take away their spirit (ruwach), they expire” (104:29 NASB).
Two verses later, in Ecclesiastes 3:21, the writer of the book speculates on where the spirit of a person and the spirit of an animal go after death: “Who knows if the spirit (ruwach) of man rises upward and if the spirit (ruwach) of the animal goes down into the earth?” It’s once again obvious that ruwach here refers to the breath of life and this is why the NASB translates ruwach as “breath” in this passage (even though most others translate it as “spirit”). This verse gives evidence that the writer was not referring to mere physical oxygen—in both this passage and verse 19 above—since it would be ludicrous to argue whether oxygen “rises upward” or “goes down into the earth.” What then is the writer trying to express by this question? He’s simply pointing out that, from a purely natural viewpoint (“under the sun”—the perspective of Ecclesiastes), human beings appear to be little different than the animals and both ultimately perish from this plane of existence. In reality, however, the human soul, unlike the animal soul, is created in the image of its Creator and thus possesses a higher spiritual dimension enabling us to be aware of our Creator and desire to commune with Him.
“The Breath of Life” – The Animating Spiritual Life Force from God
Continuing our study on the breath of life, let’s turn to “the creation text” once again to observe how the breath of life figures into God’s creation of human beings:
The LORD formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath (neshamah) of life, and the man became a living being (nephesh).
We see here that God formed the body of man out of the essential chemical elements of the earth and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and thus he became “a living soul.” Earlier in this appendix we saw that nephesh, the Hebrew word for “being” or “soul,” can refer more specifically to the body. You see, a body without the breath of life is a dead soul (nephesh), but, as seen above, a body with the breath of life is a living soul (nephesh). As such, it’s obvious that it’s the breath of life—God’s spiritual life force—that animates the mind or soul and enables us to actually live (the body, once again, is merely the facet of human nature that enables us to function in the physical realm). Elihu makes this clear:
“If it were His intention and He withdrew His spirit (ruwach) and breath (neshamah),
(15) all mankind would perish together and man would return to the dust.” *
* Elihu’s words are reliable, as he is a type of Christ. The biblical support for this is as follows: 1. Elihu claimed to be “perfect in knowledge” (Job 36:4) whereas only the LORD is “perfect in knowledge” (37:16); the Lord, as well as Job and his three friends, would have certainly rebuked Elihu for this seemingly arrogant statement if, in fact, it were not true; 2. Elihu’s questioning rebuke to Job in 37:14-23 coincides perfectly with the LORD’s questioning rebuke to Job in chapters 38-41; 3. God rebuked Job because he “spoke words without knowledge” (38:1-2), as did Elihu (35:16); 4. Job would not or could not respond to Elihu’s rebuke (as he was sure to do with each of his three friends); 5. God rebuked Job (38:1-3; 40:1-2 & chapters 38-41) and his three friends—Eliphaz, Zophar and Bildad (42:7-9)—for their error, but He never rebukes or even mentions Elihu. Apparently Elihu was right and just in God’s eyes; 6. Like Christ, Elihu acted as the mediator between God and man: Elihu spoke after Job and his three friends and before God (mediating between the two); 7. Elihu righteously showed no partiality and refused to flatter (32:21).
We see here further proof that ruwach and neshamah are used interchangeably; although in this specific passage ruwach would refer to God’s spiritual breath—his animating life force—and neshamah would refer to physical breath. God’s spiritual breath of life animates the mind (disembodied soul) which in turn animates the body; and the body is physically sustained by physical breath. The ruwach breath of life could be viewed as the spiritual counterpart to the physical neshamah breath of life. Just as our physical body needs air to live and function, so our disembodied soul—our mind—needs spiritual breath to live and function. Just as physical breath is not a person; neither is spiritual breath a person.
Greek and Hebrew scholar, W.E. Vine, helps us to understand this relationship between the breath of life, the disembodied soul (mind) and the body: “The spirit may be recognized as the life principle bestowed on man by God, the soul as the resulting life constituted in the individual, the body being the material organism animated by soul and spirit” (Vine 589). Keep in mind that when Vine refers to “spirit” he’s referring to the breath of life and when he refers to “soul” he’s referring to the mind.
Secondly, we see further proof that if God withdrew His breath of life all humanity would perish and our bodies would decay back to dust.
This is evident in this Psalm passage:
Do not put your trust in princes, in mortal men, who cannot save.
(4) When their spirit (ruwach) departs, they return to the ground; on that very day their plans come to nothing.
Ruwach (“spirit”) here refers to the breath of life. When the breath of life departs, the human body merely decays into the ground.
At Death the Breath of Life Goes Back to God
So what happens to the breath of life when a person (or animal) dies? It merely goes back to God from whence it came. As it is written:
Remember Him [God]—before the silver cord is severed, or the golden bowl is broken; before the pitcher is shattered at the spring, or the wheel broken at the well, and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit (ruwach) returns to God who gave it.
Verse 6 uses various metaphors to encourage us to think of our Creator before death inevitably overtakes us. Verse 7 then simply explains what happens to the human body and the breath of life when we die. The breath of life, once again, is the spiritual life force from God that animates the human being and makes it a living soul. The breath of life gives life to the mind/spirit in the human body. When an unredeemed person dies this depersonalized life force merely returns to the Creator who gave it. This is further proof that the breath of life is not just physical oxygen. When people die their physical breath simply returns to the atmosphere; there’s no need for it to return to God. Yet when we understand that the breath of life is a spiritual breath—an animating life force from God—it then makes sense that it returns to its source, the Giver of Life from which all life flows (Psalm 36:9).
The fact that the breath of life returns to God is evident in Elihu’s previously quoted statement: “If it were His intention and He withdrew His spirit and breath all mankind would perish together and man would return to the dust” (Job 34:14-15). The statement “If God withdrew His spirit and breath” implies that the breath of life will simply return to God who gave it.
Keep in mind, of course, that the writer of Ecclesiastes wrote this well before Jesus Christ died for our sins and was raised for our justification and, in the process, “destroyed death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:10). Consequently, believers who are born-again of the imperishable seed (Greek: sperm) of Christ (1 Peter 1:23; see 1:3 & 2:3 as well) don’t have to fear death since Jesus destroyed him who holds the power of death – the devil (Hebrews 2:14-15). When we physically perish we are ushered into the presence of the Lord, Praise God! Philippians 1:21-24, 2 Corinthians 5:8, Revelation 6:9-11 and 7:9-17 verify this beyond any shadow of doubt (go here for more details). Bear in mind, however, that this is only the “intermediate state” of believers between physical death and bodily resurrection, and is therefore a temporary condition. See the article Eternal Life — What will it be Like? for more details.
The Limitations of Human Language
Getting back to “the breath of life,” some readers may feel that I’ve gone into this issue a little too deeply, but it’s important for us to understand that the Hebrew and Greek words for “spirit” (ruwach and pneuma) can refer to either the human spirit or the breath of life in biblical passages pertaining to human nature. The passage and context will determine which of these ruwach and pneuma refer to. If we assume that ruwach and pneuma always refer to the human spirit, the part of human nature that is opposed to the flesh, then the Scriptures can become very confusing. For instance, we would have to conclude that animals have a spirit just like humans have a spirit. Yet, we must understand that when God inspired people to write the Scriptures by his Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:20-21) he was limited to flawed human language. No human language is an exact science. Language is indeed a wondrous human creation, but it often makes little sense. We saw proof of this earlier in this appendix when we saw that the Hebrew word for “soul,” nephesh, can refer to a dead body, a living whole person (spirit, mind and body), or the immaterial facet of human nature (mind or mind & spirit). To further confuse the issue nephesh most often refers to “life” in the Bible. Needless to say, the definition of nephesh depends on the passage and its context. So it is with the Hebrew and Greek words for “spirit.”
The Greek Pneuma in Reference to the Breath of Life
Let us now turn our attention to the New Testament and observe occasions where the Greek pneuma obviously refers to the breath of life and not to the human spirit.
The following verse from Revelation is talking about God’s anointed two witnesses who were killed by “the beast” and laid dead in the street for three and a half days:
But after three and a half days a breath (pneuma) of life from God entered them, and they stood on their feet, and terror struck those who saw them.
Pneuma, the Greek word translated as “breath” here, obviously refers to the breath of life—God’s animating life force—and not to the human spirit as described earlier in this appendix. The breath of life animates the mind and spirit, the disembodied soul, which in turn animates the body. The way this verse describes how God resurrects these two people coincides with how he gave life to Adam (Genesis 2:7) and how he miraculously brought to life a bunch of dry bones and flesh in Ezekiel 37:1-14 (a vision that the LORD gave Ezekiel).
Pneuma likely refers to the breath of life in this popular passage as well:
As the body without the spirit (pneuma) is dead, so faith without works is dead.
In light of the above-cited texts, it makes sense to regard pneuma here as a reference to the breath of life—the animating life force from God. If it is not a reference to the breath of life then we would have to conclude that pneuma in this case refers to the entire immaterial facet of human nature, mind and spirit (this is W. E. Vine’s interpretation ). It makes little difference however, as it is God’s breath of life that animates this immaterial facet of human nature which, in turn, animates the body.
Conclusion: The Biblical Definition of Human Nature
In light of all the scriptural data we have examined, human nature could best be defined as such: The human being is a living soul consisting of spirit, mind and body animated by a breath of life from God.
Here’s a diagram to illustrate this (click image to enlarge):
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