Man’s Body and Soul (and Spirit?)

What is Our Soul or Spirit?

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 (Genesis 2:7).

In this passage we learn that God breathed the breath of life into the lifeless body of the first man, Adam. Such a breath could only come from God, the Giver of life. And man, therefore, became a living soul. Thus, the soul is not a reference to the concept of body, soul/spirit but rather to the fact that man became a living being. Man is distinguished from animals by being created in the image of God (LIBERTY BIBLE COMMENTARY, Vol. I, p. 16). An additional Bible passage that refers to the soul being the breath in man is Genesis 7:15, 22.

Psalm 104:29 says: Thou hidest thy face, they are troubled; thou takest away their breath, they die, and return to their dust. In this passage we find that if God withdraws the light of His countenance from His living creatures, they are confounded [see Psalm 30:71]. He [God] who gave them breath should He take away that breath- they die, and return to their dust, the dust from which they were formed (LIBERTY BIBLE COMMENTARY, Vol. I, p. 1121).

One other possible passage which gives reference to the breath of man is Psalm 146:4: His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish.

In addition to the term “soul,” there is another term used interchangeably with the same concept — “the spirit of man.” Please note the usage of the word “spirit” in the following passage: Into thine hand I commit my spirit: thou hast redeemed me, 0 Lord God of truth (Psalm 31:5). This passage was also one of the seven sayings uttered by our Lord and Savior as He hung on the cross.

Another passage using the term “spirit of man” is found in Proverbs 20:27: The spirit of man is the candle of the Lord, searching all the inward parts of the belly. In this passage we learn that man’s spirit was breathed into him by the Lord of creation. The spirit is the candle of the Lord that gives to man an inward light. Man is enabled to think, plan, and weigh matters through the guidance of His spirit. At death, the body of man goes to the dust; and the spirit returns unto the Lord who gave it [see Ecclessiastes 12:71] (LIBERTY BIBLE COMMENTARY, Vol. I, pp. 1235, 1236).”

The Debate of Soul vs Spirit

Theologians often debate the question of whether man is a two-part being (dichotomy) or a three-part being (trichotomy). Some verses seem to teach that man consists only of a body and soul, while others apparently teach a third aspect to man, the spirit. Sometimes the Bible seems to use the terms “soul” and “spirit” interchangeably, yet at other times a distinction between the two is more clearly made.

Part of the problem is solved when we study the verses more closely and realize there are actually two ways to look at man. When we consider the nature or makeup of man, he is a two-part being. He consists of both material (the body) and the immaterial (the soul). In activity or function, however, the body, soul, and spirit of man each has a function. The distinction and similarity of the soul and spirit can be seen in a biblical discussion of the Word of God.

“For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). The writer makes an interesting parallel. The joints and marrow are different in function, yet both are similar in that they are part of the bone structure of man.

Thoughts and interests are also two distinct mental activities, yet they are similar in that they are activities of the mind. So the soul and spirit are distinct in function yet both are similar in immaterial composition. The writer is drawing five distinctions between things we may class together because of their similarity.


The Bible makes a clear distinction between the body and soul (Isa. 10:18). The term is used in the Bible to identify something that cannot be defined materially. The soul is that part of us that is life. At the creation of Adam, God “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (Gen. 2:7). Man did not have a soul but he became a soul, and the life-principle was the breath (Hebrew ruah: spirit) of God. As a result, we say when man no longer has breath that he is dead. When Rachel died in childbirth, the Bible described it “as her soul was in departing, (for she died)” (Gen. 35:18). In the Old Testament, the word “soul” is used to speak of the whole person (Song of Sol. 1:7).


A further consideration of the immaterial side of man will reveal additional aspects of truth in examining the spirit of man. The term “spirit” is sometimes used in Scripture to speak of the mind (Gen. 8:1) or breath (1 Thess. 2:8).

That part of man which survives death is called the “spirit” in the Bible. When Stephen was stoned to death, the Bible identifies his spirit as departing the body when his life ended. “And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59). This principle is seen in the biblical definition of death. “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also” (James 2:28).

Relationship between the Soul and spirit

The “soul” and “spirit” sometimes appear to be used interchangeably in Scripture (Gen. 41:8, and Ps. 42:6; John 12:27 and 13:21), because they both refer to the life-principle. We do not say man is a spirit, but that he has a spirit. On the other hand, we say man is a soul. The soul seems to be related to man’s earthly life while the spirit relates to man’s heavenly life. The knowledge of God is received by man’s spirit (1 Cor. 2:2-16) and interprets it for the total man.

It is this spirit in man that is related to the higher things in man. The spirit of man is definitely related to the conversion experience. The apostle Paul acknowledged “The Spirit itself [the Holy Spirit] beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God” (Rom. 8:16).

Man is a Unity

Man is the spiritual link between the life of God and the physical life of this planet. Man is a twofold being, possessing a dual nature in unity; a dual nature because he is spiritual and he is physical. At times these two natures seem separate but they operate as one. Man has one personality, but possesses two natures that interact on each other. First, man’s physical body is regulated by the material universe. He must eat, sleep, breathe, and live in dependence upon the earth.

Man’s body is an essential part of his constitution, so much so that he would not be man without a body. But in the second place, man is immaterial. This is the life of God that entered man when God breathed into him and he became a living soul. Man became immortal and will live forever because God, his source, is eternal. Since man was made in the image of God who created all things, man has creative abilities, to rule the physical earth.

Man with his dual nature is a unity. The material receives direction by the immaterial, and man’s spiritual nature grows in harmony with physical well-being. God created man as a well-balanced unity Those who harm their body sear their personality.

Sin entered God’s perfect world as a foreign element and violated divine law. As a result, man was ruined spiritually and will die physically. God’s purpose was thwarted and man’s constitution was affected. The only thing that can restore his spiritual condition is the grace of God through the message of the gospel. Man’s spiritual rebirth also guarantees for him a resurrected body that will again be made like his Maker.

Man has a body that is composed of the basic elements found in the physical universe, specifically those found in the dust of the ground from which he was created. Though it is possible for a skilled craftsman to carve the physical form of man out of a rock, and the most advanced medical technician to assemble the elements that compose a body, neither can make his creation live.

Life, either material or immaterial, cannot be duplicated by man. The apostle Paul teaches there is a distinction between bodies (1 Cor. 15:39-41), and the seed that produces one kind of body will not produce a body for a different realm (1 Cor. 15:38).

Distinction Between Various Created Bodies (1 Cor. 15:38)

Human body – 1 Cor. 15:39
Body of a beast – 1 Cor. 15:39
Body of a fish – 1 Cor. 15:39
Body of a bird – 1 Cor. 15:39
Celestial bodies – 1 Cor. 15:41
Terrestrial bodies – 1 Cor. 15:40

Created Body

Man was created by God on the sixth day of creation and is the grand climax of all God had accomplished in that week of miracles. -The greatest aspect of man is the joining of material and immaterial, “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” (Gen. 2:7). If we were to stand before Michelangelo’s David we might be moved by the high quality of its craftsmanship. How much more impressed ought we to be with God who can create not just a replica of himself, but inhabit the same body from birth through old age with a soul.

Our formation by natural birth is no less noteworthy than Adam’s formation from the dust. With David we need to say, “I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvelous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well” (Ps. 139:14).

Physical Body

The body is not the total man; the body is only the temporary dwelling place of man. The apostle Paul discussed the various physical bodies in our world (see chart). He recognized that each body had a different purpose: “to every seed his own body. All flesh is not the same flesh: there is one kind of flesh of men, another flesh of beast, another of birds. There are celestial bodies, and bodies terrestrial” (1 Cor. 15:38-40).

Body of Death

Someone has observed, “From the moment we are born, we begin to die.” Death was not part of the original creation of God. The philosopher called death “obscene,” and he was right. Death is not natural to man; it is abnormal. Man was created to live, not die. However, death is the result of the judgment on sin. God warned Adam in the garden, “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (Gen. 2:17).

Paul recognized that death was a part of the human experience as a result of the Fall. “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin, and so death passed upon all men, for all have sinned” (Rom. 5:12). In his struggle with the influence of sin at work in his physical life, he cried out, “Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” (Rom. 7:24).

Body of Sin

Our bodies die as a consequence of sin. Since the fall of Adam, everyone of us was born with a body that will die because of sin. As Adam was head of the race, his sin was transferred to every person. “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners” (Rom. 5:19). The only sinless man born of a woman was Jesus. Because he was sinless, he could become the substitute for lost sinners.

Body of Humiliation

Most would agree that their physical body is not what it should be. Each year, millions of people engage in jogging and other physical fitness and recreational programs to increase the effectiveness of their bodies. Almost everyone is unsatisfied with the performance level of his body, wishing he could lose weight or occasionally gain some weight, wishing he were as agile as he was when he was younger, or as coordinated as he will be when he gets older. Not only are our bodies not what they should be, the Bible tells us they are not what they could be.

The apostle Paul identified Jesus Christ as his Savior and the one “Who shall change our vile body [literally “body of humiliation”], that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working by which he is able to subdue all things unto himself” (Phil. 3:21). It may be dangerous to draw too many specific conclusions from this single verse regarding our resurrection bodies, except to say they will be vastly improved over the ones we currently possess.

Our present bodies are something less than God intended in creation, but our bodies will be much more useful and glorious. Disciplined body. The evidence and consequence of sin in our physical bodies is no reason to continue some of our harmful practices. As a Christian, “Your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost, which is in you” (1 Cor 6:19).

Since God lives in our bodies, we need to take greater care of them. Paul suggests a second reason for disciplining the body, that it may be more useful in the service of God. “But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway” (1 Cor. 9:27). This verse tells us that we should make the body serve the inner man, rather than the reverse. Many Christians have adopted a “luxurious life-style” and actually harm their bodies by not providing them with proper nutrition or opportunity for exercise.

The opposite is also practiced by some through asceticism and physical abuse. It is conceivable that a Christian may harm his body by violating the basic principles of health and care. Other Christians may harm their souls by allowing the luxuries of the body to starve the effectiveness of their service for God. The key is to discipline the body.

The following two tabs change content below.
Dr. Elmer Towns is a college and seminary professor, an author of popular and scholarly works (the editor of two encyclopedias), a popular seminar lecturer, and dedicated worker in Sunday school, and has developed over 20 resource packets for leadership education.His personal education includes a B.S. from Northwestern College in Minneapolis, Minnesota, a M.A. from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, a Th.M. from Dallas Theological Seminary also in Dallas, a MRE from Garrett Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois, and a D.Min. from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California.He is co-founder of Liberty University, with Jerry Falwell, in 1971, and was the only full-time teacher in the first year of Liberty’s existence. Today, the University has over 11,400 students on campus with 39,000 in the Distance Learning Program (now Liberty University Online), and he is the Dean of the School of Religion.Dr. Towns has given theological lectures and taught intensive seminars at over 50 theological seminaries in America and abroad. He holds visiting professorship rank in five seminaries. He has written over 2,000 reference and/or popular articles and received six honorary doctoral degrees. Four doctoral dissertations have analyzed his contribution to religious education and evangelism.

Latest posts by Dr. Elmer Towns (see all)