“What is Man?”, and “Do Animals Have Souls?”
by Dr. David Vallance (Ann Arbor, MI, USA)
Anthropology is the study of human beings. As with any area of inquiry, a proper understanding of this subject should begin and end with what the Holy Spirit reveals to us in the Bible. God’s Word answers the big questions we might ask about ourselves as humans: Where did we come from? What are we made of? What is our purpose? Will we exist forever?
Materialism is False
Materialists, such as the atheistic evolutionists who control secular education, believe that the physical universe is all that exists. They deny the existence of anything supernatural or spiritual. Thus they regard humans as “monistic” — made up entirely of a single substance, physical matter. To them, man is merely an interesting collection of chemical compounds and electrical impulses. If this view were accurate, then human life could not be unique from other life forms. We would have no logical reason to see ourselves as different from animals. Animal-rights activists have seized this point, and swear that all conscious beings must have equal value. But if life is just chemistry, why value conscious beings above plants? If materialism is true, then no form of life can have valid significance. And if human life is merely the chance association of molecules, if our existence is a freak accident with no intelligent design or ultimate purpose, if we do not survive beyond death, then we are ultimately worthless. 20th-century existentialists like Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre freely admitted this. Most humanist philosophers, however, keep trying to salvage some human value from this wreck-of-a-world-view. Like magicians pulling white rabbits from empty hats, they keep holding up human dignity as something that everyone ought to believe in. But this illusion should fool no one — you cannot find human significance in mere atoms.
God is Spirit
The Bible opens with, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1). Instantly we learn that a non-physical Being exists eternally, outside of the universe. That Being – the triune God – is spirit (John 4:24). The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are before time, beyond space, and distinct from matter. Now if God is the original authentic Person, and He is spirit, then personhood must be primarily a spiritual, not physical, reality.
Man is Spirit, Soul, and Body
If we remember that God is Spirit, we will know to look past the physical when we set out to understand His creature man. Genesis 2:7 clearly distinguishes the spiritual from the physical component of human life: “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.” The first phrase describes how God formed Adam’s body from prefabricated “dust”. However, we discover that Adam at that point was not yet alive. We may assume that the individual cells composing his body had biological life, just as microorganisms and plants do, but Adam himself was not yet living. We conclude again that human life is not merely the end result of the biochemical activity of cells and organs. Instead, the true life of the first man Adam began only when he received the breath of God, which imparted spiritual life and made him a living soul. At that point, Adam became wholly alive and fully human — an immaterial being fused with a pre-formed (and thus separable) body. Over time, individual body cells would die, and yet Adam’s immaterial soul-life remained intact. Adam died 930 years later; because of his sin, his biochemical life finally came to an end and returned to lifeless dust (Gen 5:5). His immaterial self, however, departed to another realm and lived on (Gen 35:18). Throughout the coming ages, his progeny would also die and be gathered to him (Gen 25:8).
Further, Genesis 2:7 hints that God actually fused two components — spirit and soul — in order to create Adam’s immaterial self. First, “the breath of life” (the life-giving breath of God) made Adam a spirit – one who partakes of God’s own life. The main Bible words for “spirit” (Hebrew ruach, Greek pneuma) also mean “wind” or “breath”. Wind is the closest analogy we have in our material world for immaterial beings. Although invisible, wind is obviously real, and so are spirits (John 3:8). So God who is spirit (ruach) breathed into Adam’s nostrils, and this supplied Adam with his own spirit (ruach). Ezekiel 37:9 paints the same picture: the prophet is told to call on the wind (ruach) to blow on restored bodies in order to resuscitate them. Once these bodies are filled with wind, or spirit (ruach), they stand alive.
But Genesis 2:7 implies a second non-physical component in its final phrase, “a living soul”. As a result of God’s breathing, man himself began to breathe. The root meaning of “soul” (Hebrew nephesh, Greek psuche) is simply “one who breathes” (the usual definition, “living creature,” derives from this). So the breath of God not only instilled a living spirit into Adam, but it also made Adam a living soul — a creature whose physical body was now possessed and animated by an inner vital force. The Bible presents two physical phenomena as proof of the presence of this immaterial soul-life: the act of breathing and (as we shall see later) the coursing of blood.
This spirit-soul distinction is subtle in Genesis 2:7. However, further Biblical revelation explains that every human being in this world consists of a material body inhabited and animated by an immaterial self, and that this immaterial self has two distinct components: spirit and soul. In 1 Thessalonians 5:23, Paul states the truth about our constitution clearly: “And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The phrase “your spirit and soul and body” emphasizes the scope of sanctification: Paul’s concern is not how much holiness believers possess, but rather how far holiness should reach into their makeup. So the apostle prays that God would set apart the entire person — that His sanctifying work might reach every part of the human being—and so he takes the unusual step of citing all three of the components in our human selves.
Human Souls Differ from Animal Souls
Man is unique from all other creatures. “And God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness’” (Gen 1:26). Notice that God discusses only the creation of man, not animals. Man’s formation differs from other creatures’: only man is created as an individual, personally formed from dust, and separately receives the breath of life directly from God. This unique life equips man with spiritual understanding (Job 32:8) and a conscience (Prov 20:27). Made in God’s image, man alone represents God; made after God’s likeness, man alone resembles God. Only man has a spirit, uniquely enabling him for fellowship with God. Only Adam was the “son of God” by creation (Luke 3:38), and he, with Eve, had dominion over the rest of creation.
We must recognise, however, that animals are also living souls. Genesis 1:20, 21, 24, and 30 use the expression nephesh hayyah (literally “a soul of life”) for fish and birds and land creatures, and Genesis 2:7 uses the identical expression for man. Animals have souls in the sense that their life, like ours, cannot be reduced merely to the biological functioning of their cells. They have an immaterial life force. However, the Bible nowhere suggests that the souls of animals exist unendingly. Thousands of animal souls accompanied Noah in the ark, but 1 Peter 3:20 states that only eight souls were saved. Human souls are therefore wholly different from animal souls. Only human souls are responsible to God, only human souls outlive their bodies, and only human souls inhabit heaven or hell forever.
Regarding Old Testament sacrifices, it is imperative to see the significance of animal soul-life. Leviticus 17:11 teaches that “the life [nephesh, soul] of the flesh is in the blood.” The shed blood of animals makes atonement for the human soul. Blood itself permeates the entire body, bringing a single coherent life to the organism; blood illustrates the existence of an immaterial life force within the physical body (Deut 12:23). The coursing blood signals the presence of an inner, shapeless soul-life that transcends mere biological life. The shedding of animal blood meant the expenditure of an animal soul, which provided ceremonial cleansing for human souls. God did not breathe into the animals, and they therefore do not possess spirits. Admittedly, Genesis 6:17 and 7:15, 22 do use the term ruach (“spirit” or “breath”) for animals, but these verses from the Flood narrative refer to literal breath. All air-breathing animals drowned in the flood, except for those in Noah’s ark (Psa 104:29 and Ecc 3:21 also speak of literal breathing). Animals do not have actual spirits or never-ending souls.
Soul and Spirit are Distinct
How the spirit differs from the soul is not obvious or easy. In fact, the writer to the Hebrews points out that only the Word of God can cleanly distinguish the two: “piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit…” (Heb 4:12).
In the interior body (depicted by its bones), a scalpel can dissect joints from marrow. So in the inner non-physical sector, the Word of God differentiates the human soul from the human spirit. The phrase “the dividing asunder of soul and spirit” does not mean that the Word of God actually disconnects these immaterial components from each other. Although physical death separates the spirit-and-soul from the body, nothing can dislocate the spirit from the soul. The spiritual part of man, comprised of spirit and soul together, is indivisible; yet God’s Word can figuratively separate soul and spirit by distinguishing them.
Despite this, many modern theologians teach that the terms “soul” and “spirit” are identical, claiming that human beings have only two components, not three. They base this on the fact that the Word of God often seems to use “soul” and “spirit” interchangeably. Mary’s words in Luke 1:46-47 are an example of this: “My soul doth magnify…and my spirit hath rejoiced” (cf Job 7:11; Isa 26:9). When the Spirit of God places parallel phrases together, however, He does not intend us to see the matching words as precisely identical. If we fail to look for fine distinctions we will let valuable truth slip through our fingers. As an example, those who understand identical meanings for the phrases “in our image” and “after our likeness” in Genesis 1:26 forfeit the truth that God made man in His image to represent Him, but made man after His likeness to resemble Him. Similar phrases are not identical phrases.
Why do the terms “soul” and “spirit” seem to overlap in the Word of God? The Bible often uses either term to stand for both, or even for the whole person. We call this literary device “synecdoche” — a figure of speech in which a part stands for the whole (as hand for sailor in all hands on deck), or the whole stands for a part (as the law for police officer). So Luke records in Act 27:37, “And we were…two hundred threescore and sixteen souls.” In this verse, the term “soul” is a synecdoche for entire persons. Similarly, the Bible sometimes uses “spirit” or “flesh” or “heart” or “body” to mean the whole person. Therefore, some passages speak of our having “body” and “soul” (Matt 10:28), some use the terms “body” and “spirit” (Jas 2:26; 2 Cor 7:1), and some pair “flesh” and “heart” (Psa 16:9; 73:26; Ez 44:7). In each case, “spirit”, “soul”, or “heart” stands for the immaterial, spiritual component of man, in contrast to the physical.
The Spirit is Conscious of God
In order to be conscious of God, to love Him, and to commune with Him, we need to have spirits. Although plants have physical bodies, and animals have souls, only human beings possess spirits. By our spirits alone we are aware of God, the Father of spirits (Heb 12:9). “God is Spirit: and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). God’s Word assigns to the spirit abilities like reason, faith, and hope. Man’s spirit makes him conscious of God and able to relate to God (1 Cor 14:2, 14-16). Further, his spirit makes him aware of his own thoughts, and able to understand himself (1 Cor 2:11). It gives him or her imagination and creativity. A person’s spirit has the moral sense to make ethical judgments and to form convictions, and carries the ability to overrule instincts. The human spirit is capable of reverence and worship. No animal has such capacities.
Before conversion, our spirits were alienated from God (Eph 4:18). However, salvation brought spiritual life, and “he that is joined unto the Lord is one spirit”, describing the closest union possible (1 Cor 6:17). Just as the breath of God brought life to Adam, so the Spirit of God brings eternal life to us (John 6:63). The Spirit of God continues to work closely with our spirits: “the Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom 8:16 ESV). In fact, this contact is so close that at times we are unsure whether certain verses refer to our spirits or to God’s Spirit who enables them (e.g. Phil 3:3). By the gracious control of the Holy Spirit, “the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets” (1 Cor 14:32). The highest service we can render to God is service arising from our spirits (Rom 1:9).
God expects us to be spiritually minded (Rom 8:6). The spiritual mind learns to yield to the Spirit and receives spiritual truth from Him (1 Cor 2:10-16). It longs for close fellowship with God.
The Soul is Conscious of Self
Like the spirit, the soul is not physical. However, it makes sense to position the soul between the spirit and the body, and to regard it as the “lower” part of our spiritual makeup, because the Bible closely connects the soul with the body. Mentally, the soul is aware of itself and able to reason and remember. Through an interface with the physical brain, the soul receives bodily senses, and directs bodily actions. The soul, for example, eats (Lev 7:20), touches (Lev 5:2; 22:6; Num 19:13), and swears (Lev 5:4). Further, the soul displays the whole range of emotions: it loves (1 Sam 18:1), hates (2 Sam 5:8), rejoices (Psalm 35:9), sorrows (Matt 26:38), and is “cast down” (Psalm 42:6).
When we read of souls eating and touching and swearing, we understand that Scripture is using “soul” as a synecdoche for the entire person. But why such emphasis on the soul? Why does the Word of God call the entire man a “living soul” rather than a living body? Because the Holy Spirit wants us to understand that the true, enduring person is the unseen soul, not the visible body—a flat contradiction of the philosophy of materialism.
God holds the soul responsible for sin (Lev 5:15, 17; Ezek 18:4). It can yield to fleshly lusts, warring against it (1 Pet 2:11). On the other hand, the believing soul, in tune with the human spirit, can praise God (Luke 1:46). So the soul makes choices.
The Bible calls those who do not have God’s Spirit dwelling in them “soulish” (psuchikos), because their lost souls dominate their lives and suppress their dysfunctional human spirits (1Co 2:14; James 3:15; Jude 19). In fact, they behave like animals, which have no spirits. These people have no consciousness of God and cannot grasp spiritual truths; they act on physical drives, indulge in creature comforts, seek instant gratification, and give in to every lust. But those in Christ are new creations (2 Cor 5:17) with spiritual life (John 3:6). Their renewed spirits now supervise their souls and control soulish appetites (Rom 6:12; 1 Cor 9:27). They walk in step with God’s Spirit, who produces His fruit in them (Gal 5:16, 22-23).
God claims our souls, and we are responsible to make right choices for Him. The soul who serves God will take responsibility for his or her thought life (Phil 4:8). He will allow Christian doctrine to fortify his mind and will exclude all unworthy thoughts. Obedience to God’s Word and love for our brothers and sisters will keep our souls pure: “Seeing ye have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit unto unfeigned love of the brethren, see that ye love one another with a pure heart fervently” (1 Pet 1:22).
The Body is Conscious of the World
God designed the spirit and soul to inhabit a material body. We experience our physical surroundings through the body’s sensory systems, and we control our environment through its motor systems. With our bodies, we relate to other physical beings. Although materialists insist that the body is the entire person, Scripture sees the body as the possession and dwelling of the soul and spirit. After death, a person’s location is the location of his spirit and soul, in heaven or hell; the body returns to dust (Phi 1:23; 2 Cor 5:8; Luke 16:22-23). Thus a body alone is not a person, but a spirit and soul alone is a person.
Despite the fact that the body is the most peripheral and least essential part of the human being, Scripture still views it as necessary for human wholeness. Currently, both heaven and hell are populated by disembodied people, described, for example, as “spirits of just men made perfect” (Heb 12:23) or “spirits in prison” (1 Pet 3:19). These are incomplete people, “naked” souls, awaiting a final reunion with their bodies (2 Cor 5:1-3). Whether saved or lost, men and women will enter their eternal abode as complete persons with their bodies, souls, and spirits.
Ancient Greek philosophers like Plato, the Sadducees of Christ’s day, and later Gnostics viewed the body as an evil prison. In fact, they believed that the body polluted the soul, hindering it from obtaining its true potential. To these thinkers, salvation and freedom come only when the soul escapes the chains of the body and the entanglements of the physical world. Today, New-Age thinkers teach essentially the same thing: through meditation and other means, one can harness spiritual energies to escape the body, transcend the physical, and achieve oneness with the cosmos.
The Bible completely negates these views. When God made Adam, he was “very good” – his body was not evil or corruptible. If sin had not come in, the physical aging and wasting that leads to death would not have been part of human life (Gen 2:17; 3:19, 22; Rom 5:12). The Bible teaches that sin has marred and humiliated the body (Phil 3:21), but never blames the physical body for sin (Matt 15:19; Rom 1:28; Eph 2:3). Salvation, then, is not the release of the soul from the body. On the contrary, salvation first must purify the soul and spirit. In a coming day redemption will transform the body to become like “the body of His glory” (Rom 8:23; Phil 3:21).
The Bible regards the body as a garment that the soul puts on at conception, takes off at death, and dons again at resurrection. Paul also likens the body to a tent — a temporary habitation for the soul and spirit (2 Cor 5:1, 4). The stakes can be pulled up and the tent folded down at any time. At the Rapture, however, we will trade in our tents for permanent homes — we will exchange this earthly body for an everlasting heavenly body (2 Cor 5:2).
Paul calls our bodies in their current condition “soulish” (psuchikos) because God primarily designed them as vehicles for the soul (1 Cor 15:44). Our bodies are associated with Adam, the “living soul” (1 Cor 15:45). They are not fully equipped for the spirit to express itself. But one day, in resurrection, they will show their association with Christ the “life-giving Spirit”. We will then receive spiritual bodies, not bodies composed of spirit (an oxymoron), but spirit-governed bodies. As our present bodies express the life of the soul, so our future bodies will express the life of the spirit. They will have abilities for God’s service beyond what we can now imagine.
We are to present our bodies “as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1 ESV). Our bodies are now the temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19). God values them, and so should we. The people of the world tell God and the government to “keep your laws off my body”. The believer, however, knows that he or she is only a steward of the body — not the owner: “For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body…” (1 Cor 6:20). We should not surrender our bodies to addictions and other unhealthy habits; we should never presume on God’s rights by altering our bodies with tattoos, piercing, or medically unnecessary cosmetic surgery. “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey it in the lusts thereof. Neither yield ye your members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin: but yield yourselves unto God, as those that are alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness unto God” (Rom 6:12-13).
In conclusion, with our spirits, we are conscious of God; with our souls, we are aware of ourselves; with our bodies, we relate to the physical world. When we speak of having “three parts,” however, we should remember that each of us is a unity with a single consciousness. Sin ruined our entire beings, but Christ’s redemption has cleansed and claimed our whole selves, and He will perfect us as intact human beings. Still, God has revealed these truths for our learning, so that we may serve Him more intelligently. May our spirits commune with God and accept instruction from the Holy Spirit; may our souls respond to our spirits’ direction and resolve to be set apart for God; and may our bodies honor and serve the Lord Jesus!
Originally published in Truth and Tidings magazine as a 3 part series entitled Biblical Anthropology