Spirit, Soul, and Body—Musings on I Corinthians 2:12-16

Spirit, Soul, and Body—Musings on I Corinthians 2:12-16

Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual [πνευματικoς pneumatikos]. Those who are unspiritual [ψυχικoς psychikos] do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. Those who are spiritual [πνευματικoς pneumatikos] discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny. “For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ. –I  Corinthians 2:12-16 NRS

Disclaimer: Of all the essays I have written, this makes me most nervous because I suspect my scholarly friends will want to burn me at the stake. The scriptures are not transparent on this topic (presumably because God didn’t think it was particularly important that people understand it?). Yes, I know I’m not supposed to care what other people think, but still. . . 

I do not have a firm understanding of all this stuff. My ideas arise as much from observation and personal experience—and just from thinking/praying a lot about it—as from clear statements in scripture. I dare offer these reflections only because I have noticed widespread confusion within the church on these topics, and believe I can contribute a few relatively defensible ideas to help point others in the right direction. I feel basically like a person trying to lead a group of people lost in a dark cave—but all I have is a dim penlight with weak batteries.


We are unified beings

According to the way the vast majority of scholars understand the Hebrew Bible, human beings are unified entities; we are not divided into different parts—a body plus a soul, or perhaps a soul dwelling within a body. That understanding, common among Western Christians and non-Christians alike, comes from pagan/Greek philosophy, not from biblical tradition. There isn’t really a biblical concept of a bodiless soul, nor of an immortal soul. (The idea of immortal souls came into Christianity from Greek philosophy in the early centuries of the Christian era, possibly facilitated by various Eastern religions that were beginning to gain favor in the West. But the concept of immortal souls is not in the Bible.)

The Hebrew word typically translated as “soul” isנפשׁ  nephesh and its Greek equivalent is ψυχή psychē (pronounced something like psoo-kay). The Bible does not describe existence of a soul without a body. A human being is a unit, not a collection of two or three parts. It’s not that we have souls that inhabit our bodies, or bodies that possess souls. Plato taught that souls (psychēs) are immortal and pre-existent, coming into a human body at birth and returning as a bodiless soul to wherever it is that souls go after death. And, to the great detriment of Western Christianity, at least the second portion of that concept—the idea that our souls continue forever after our bodies die—has been with us for most of the Christian era. But Plato had it wrong, and most Christians have it wrong. Our very beings by definition (and, I might say, by simple observation) involve our bodies as well as our sentient qualities; and the latter, as we know from modern science, are a function of our physical brains which, of course, are part of our bodies—damage the brain, and there’s no “self” left. No “soul” left.

Perhaps self is as good a translation as any of nephesh/psychē (in many modern translations rendered as “life”). There is no good translation of nephesh/psychē, since every potential English word carries baggage or connotations that lead to muddled understanding of the original. Besides soul and life, both of which are widely used in English Bible translations, other possibilities rarely if ever used by translators are self, mind (or perhaps even better: mind/emotions as a single term), identity, person. Nothing works particularly well.

Perhaps it helps to point out that you do not have a soul—you are a soul, a living being. The creation story in Genesis 2:7 describes how Yahweh God breathed life into the first human, who became a living being (Hebrewנפשׁ  nephesh, Greek ψυχή psychē). It is also instructive to note that, in Genesis 1:20,21,24,30, the Hebrew word that most translations render as creatures (referring in this case to crawfish, salamanders, trout, crocodiles, ospreys, impalas, jaguars, etc.) is נפשׁ nephesh (translated as ψυχή psychē in the Greek Old Testament). That’s the same term that described what humans became when God breathed life into them. In sum: you are a נפשׁ nephesh. You are a “soul.” More simply, you just are.

Soul—a useful definition

I am going to commit a nearly unforgivable scholarly “sin” now. I want to redefine soul [נפש nephesh, ψυχή psychē] in a way that isn’t necessarily justified from the standpoint of biblical scholarship, but that seems eminently useful. Let’s call it a “working definition.” If I didn’t hijack the word soul for this purpose, I would have to use another term that is probably even more objectionable, so I’ll stick with soul. Ignoring what this term may or may not mean when it translates the Hebrew nephesh or the Greek psychē, I provisionally define soul as the cognitive/emotional faculties we possess by virtue of our having brains. Whether or not this definition is compatible with scripture [I believe it is], I believe we need a term that is defined in that way, and soul is as good as anything. In many places within this website (and in the present essay), the word soul will denote what I have just described.

What about the spirit?

Then there is the human spirit—Hebrew‎ רוח ruach, Greek πνεῦμα pneuma. From the standpoint of various biblical texts, it seems clear that your spirit (not your soul) is what survives death. Concerning the human spirit, see I Peter 3:18-19, referring to the spirits to whom Jesus preached when he was in the realm of the dead; also Hebrews 12:23, which refers to the spirits of righteous men made perfect; also Luke 23:46 (Father, into your hands I commit my spirit), Luke 24:39 (a spirit does not have flesh and bones), Acts 7:59 (Lord Jesus, receive my spirit), I Corinthians 5:5 (so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus), James 2:26 (the body apart from the spirit is dead). These few biblical passages, along with human experiences across the ages, imply that after death our spirits, even in (presumably) immaterial form, retain the cognitive capabilities that we had during our biological lives. How that works is fascinating and mysterious, especially to someone like myself with a scientific bent. I long to know how in the world we can maintain the functions that had been performed by brain cells—but without our brains! I dearly hope that someday, after all the apocalyptic and resurrection and judgment stuff is over, God will sit down for a very long question-and-answer session in which he will explain all sorts of current mysteries.

So it appears that your spirit survives death. But our long-term post-earthly existence in no way consists of an ethereal, disembodied existence, no matter how many thousand New Yorker cartoons have described it as such. You are promised (eventually) a new, better body (feet, faces, fingernails, etc.). That’s what the resurrection is all about.

Although we are not inherently immortal (that’s a pagan doctrine), in some way we appear to survive in the spirit after death at least long enough to decide whether to throw our lot in with Jesus and accept eternal life with him in new bodies, or to cease existing because without him there simply is no life at all.

But let’s continue to focus on this life.

Our experiences as mortals

At any moment your sense of self (your soul) is strongly affected by social factors—e.g., how you have been treated at work or at school, what traumas or commendations you received in the past (especially in your childhood); also by neural factors—the way your amygdala (a small part of the brain strongly involved with emotions) is wired, for example; also by more general biological influences—e.g., what you eat, your level of physical exercise, and the amount of sleep you usually experience. These are factors related to our souls (as defined earlier in our “working definition”).

Your sense of self is similarly affected by what is going on in the spiritual world—e.g., the extent to which you are tuned into the presence of the Holy Spirit, the degree to which your friends are praying for you, the level of demonic activity in your immediate environs.

All these things work together, along with myriad other factors, to affect your emotional as well as spiritual state—including whatever music may be playing in the background, the level of negative ions in the air you’re breathing, the amount and intensity of yellow light hitting your retinas, leftover subconscious effects of your dreams from last night, the degree to which you have been able to connect spiritually with your friends. And so on. We are very complex creatures: spirit, soul, body, affected by factors in all three areas.

Psychoses, addictions, worship. . .

Let’s try to focus on tangible experiences. Here are a smattering of disparate examples to illustrate inductively the realities of as well as the differences between various aspects of our selves:

Psychoses. These are disorders in which a person is genuinely disconnected from reality. Psychoses can be (and probably are in most cases) caused by faulty neural wiring stemming from genetic or developmental factors. Psychoses also can be created by long-term emotional abuse during childhood. Identical symptoms can be caused by intake of various chemicals. Demon possession can cause the same symptoms. Yet no matter what the ultimate causes (even if they are spiritual), various drugs—e.g., haloperidol or chlorpromazine—will have some kind of effect on the symptoms in the large majority of cases.

There is no way to unambiguously separate biochemical from psychosocial from spiritual factors.

Even if people’s disorders are caused by demon possession and the demons are driven out, individuals’ brain chemistry may remain scrambled. They will need a significant period of strong social support, and will need to attend carefully to their diet, and will need to engage in a great deal of personal prayer while also receiving a lot of supporting prayer from their friends; and no doubt they will do well to engage in vigorous exercise—all in a holistic approach to restoring the biochemical and psychosocial and spiritual balance of their personalities.

Medical professionals tend to focus narrowly on chemical remedies and/or on psychological counseling—while often ignoring such factors as social support and diet and exercise, and totally dismissing spiritual effects. Christians involved in “deliverance” ministries often completely ignore everything but the spiritual factors. Yet because we are spiritual/psychosocial/physical beings, from a practical standpoint we must focus on all factors that influence our beings.

Addictions. Virtually all addictions have in common a mechanism in which dopamine receptors in the brain’s so-called “pleasure center” (especially the nucleus accumbens) have been compromised. The addictive behaviors—e.g., use of drugs, alcohol, sugar, sex, video games, or even the excitement of skydiving or rock climbing—substitute for more “normal” or prosaic stimuli, and become necessary for activation of the dopamine (“pleasure”) receptors. But multiple factors influence addiction, from genetics to diet to exercise to parental practices to social milieu to spiritual attacks.

Christian worship. People sometimes are moved deeply by something that occurs during worship, concluding that they have had a powerful spiritual experience. That may or may not be true. In many such cases people have had powerful emotional experiences—i.e., reactions informed by the emotional and/or intellectual capacities of their brains (for purposes of this essay, their souls)—not spiritual experiences. A spiritual experience is one in which our spirits encounter and interact with the spiritual world, which exists all around us but is invisible, and hopefully in which God’s Holy Spirit is the principal actor (for one can also have a genuine spiritual experience by encountering evil spirits).

I have been in churches where a mesmerizing leader could play the crowd like a guitar, where there was much emotion and many tears, and profound feelings of religious fervor—but where, so far as my spiritual discernment could determine, the Holy Spirit’s activity was minimal. It was all human activity—experienced on the level of the soul, to use that imperfect terminology. Emotionally moving sermons or powerful music do not equate with experiences of the spirit.

More concisely: an emotional experience does not equate to a spiritual experience.

Here is an oversimplified picture of the interrelationships of various aspects of our natures: In general, we want our spirits (i.e., that aspect of our selves that communes with God’s Spirit and that is sensitive to what is going on in the spiritual world) to be sovereign over our souls (which I conveniently define here as our thoughts and emotions), and our souls to be sovereign over our bodies (i.e., we do not want to be slaves to our appetites or physical desires, but rather to control our appetites and desires according to our intellectual, moral, and spiritual natures). It’s spirit over soul over body. Roughly. As long as you don’t take the separation of these aspects of our beings too seriously.

 Two mundane illustrations

These stories may help.

(1) It was very late, and for months I had been averaging perhaps four hours of sleep, so my body ached/yearned to get home and go to bed. The friend I was with, however, exhibited a limitless supply of inconsequential chatter. Every few minutes I made up my mind to terminate the conversation. It was the rational thing to do. But every time that happened, I was checked by a vague feeling in my spirit that I shouldn’t do it. Finally, I decided that I MUST take her home and get back home so I could sleep; but at that point my spirit strongly perceived the Holy Spirit speaking to me very clearly, saying that I should continue to sit and listen to her talk until she was able to bring herself to share something that had haunted her for years (the Spirit told me what that was, but I won’t share it here in case anyone can deduce who I’m talking about)—she was just trying to build up the courage to bring it up!

So in this case my body was 100% in favor of retiring for the night; my human intellectual and emotional capacities (my soul, if you will) saw every reason to terminate the conversation; but my spirit, informed by God’s Spirit, directed otherwise. Which was extremely fortunate, because my friend’s eventual disclosure and our prayer together began a chain of events that led to incredibly wonderful results—including the creation of two subsequent generations of wonderful human beings who might never have been born had I acted solely on the basis of my human faculties and taken my friend home prematurely.

(2) Many years ago I frequently found myself weeping during Sunday morning communion. I began to look forward more than usual to communion, because of the intensity of the “spiritual experience” I often had at those times. Then one Sunday, when I had become extremely emotional, the Holy Spirit gently (and, I felt, with a certain amount of mirth!) spoke to me: “You’re not having a deep spiritual experience, you know. The degree to which you are emotionally overcome during communion is strongly dependent on your having gotten very little sleep the night before.” And when I thought back to my schedule over the previous few months, I realized that was absolutely true. When I began to feel bad about my foolishness, the Spirit further intervened: “Don’t worry! The emotional response is fine. It’s even good for you. I just want you to understand that the cause of this particular response is neurological and not spiritual. It’s good to be aware of the difference.”

Putting it all together. . .

Paul’s statement in I Thessalonians 5 (see the end of this essay) should not properly be understood as describing a tripartite nature in the sense that humans are a combination of a spirit plus a soul plus a body (take one of each, mix well, and voilà, you have a human being!). This is no more the case than that a chunk of aged Gouda is a combination of taste, smell, and texture; or a given day’s weather is a combination of temperature, wind speed, and humidity. The cheese just is—three major attributes are taste, odor, and texture, but it is impossible and counterproductive to consider separating one major characteristic from the others. Likewise, weather just is—and as I walk down the street on a bright, cloudless winter day with my coat unbuttoned, I revel in the entirety of it, not just in the fact that there is little wind, the air is delightfully dry, the temperature invigorating.

We want to be attuned to the Holy Spirit at all times, and we do that through our own spirits, redeemed and renewed as they are through the blood of Jesus. Our aim is to live, not according to the mere capabilities of our brains, i.e., not as unspiritual people (ψυχικὸς psychikos, the term Paul uses in the opening passage from I Corinthians 2—a better but awkward translation would be “soulical” or “soul-level”). We want to be spiritual people (πνευματικὸς pneumatikos), living according to supernatural faculties provided by the continuing presence of the Holy Spirit dwelling within us.

As whole spiritual human beings, we aim to live in a way that is possible only through the redemption that comes through Jesus the Messiah, and through the constant presence in our lives of the Spirit of God. Our Lord intends that his children, born of the Spirit, should lead supernatural lives—that is, lives that are informed and empowered by his presence, not merely by the faculties inherent in our brains (i.e., not as ψυχικὸς psychikos = soul-level people, lacking that vital spiritual connection). As mere soul-level human beings, we are limited to the abilities afforded by our bodies and brains. These are indeed astounding abilities, and we occasionally glimpse what human brains/bodies are capable of—for example, in Fanny Mendelssohn, Einstein, and Simone Biles. But over and above our merely human capacities, there are those capacities afforded to us because the Spirit of Almighty God dwells within us. It is our pleasure and privilege to seek to live increasingly according to the principles of that spiritual life that is immeasurably more powerful and more gracious than what we can experience as mere biological (“soul-level”) creatures. (E.g., see the story “Kiper and the Burglar” on this website, under the heading True Stories.)

It’s possible to accomplish wonderful things by working solely on the level of human, biological/psychological capacities. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, for example, does indeed work. Positive thinking works. If we take advantage of these paths to wholeness—paths that are consistent with the way our brains are put together—and if we treat our bodies as we ought to treat them, we are well on the way to having an integrated, happy life. It’s the way we’re made as sentient primates.

But the mental/emotional and the physical do not completely describe our lives. There is also the spiritual. Doing all the right things from the standpoint of psychology and physiology can be very helpful, and many people’s lives are significantly improved by doing that. But our goal is to have all aspects of our lives perfectly in synch: spiritual, mental/emotional, physical. In order to be completely whole, we need the spiritual element—being filled with the Holy Spirit of God, cultivating his supernatural presence, choosing constantly to give thanks to him and worshiping him for his great love. Add that to the best that psychology has to offer, and top it off with treating our bodies as we ought to treat them, and we have the best possible situation in this fallen world.

No aspect of our selves should be ignored. Just as psychological wholeness is best sought along with spiritual wholeness, the reverse is true. Often it is not sufficient to lead emotionally broken individuals to the point where they are “saved” and “filled with the Holy Spirit,” imagining that their problems will thenceforth be overcome. Drug addicts delivered by God from their slavery, for example, need long-term emotional/social support, and ideally they need a new living situation that will not expose them to the people and places previously associated with their addiction. Moreover, whether a person’s initial or primary healing has come from spiritual or psychological sources, permanent healing will be enormously facilitated by a consistent commitment to exercise and a good diet. It’s just the way we are made.

The most effective path to wholeness includes excellent physical habits (e.g., exercise, diet, sleep) and social/psychological health and the constant presence of the Holy Spirit.

Emphasizing one of these aspects of wholeness but excluding the others can still be helpful on occasion; ideally, however, we want all three at the same time. We want healthy spirits, healthy souls, healthy bodies.

You cannot experience the full potential for which you were created without having a deep, intimate relationship with your Creator through his Spirit’s dwelling within you and supernaturally empowering your life. You cannot do so without addressing any emotional/psychological wounds that hobble you in your daily life. And you cannot do so without caring properly for your body through wise habits of healthy living such as physical activity, sleep, and diet.

May the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.  —I Thessalonians 5:23 RSV