Soul, Heart, Spirit

By Adam Davis

The Bible is clear there are material (physical) and immaterial (non-physical) aspects of a person. Within the immaterial aspect, there are several Scriptural passages which seem to indicate distinctions between soul, spirit, heart and mind (Matthew 22:37, 1 Thessalonians 5:23 to name just a few). Since some passages in Scripture use the words soul and sprit interchangeably (Luke 1:46-47), and some do not (Hebrews 4:12), different Christian views (dichotomy vs. trichotomy) have developed to try and reconcile these differences. We can say with certainty the Bible is quite descriptive of the immaterial person, so God is telling us these matters are important.

With the preceding in mind, it is important for Christians not to think of the immaterial aspects of personhood as mutually exclusive of one another. Considering these aspects as working in a type of unity, instead of in isolation, is helpful to our overall understanding of how God created us and is useful for practical application. Many Christian philosophers, such as J.P. Moreland, refer to the heart, mind and spirit being under the umbrella term of the "soul." This thought appears consistent with Scripture.

Scripture both implicitly and explicitly confirms the reality of the soul and its existence in a disembodied intermediate state after physical death (before the final resurrection). The Hebrew word nephesh is used repeatedly in the Old Testament to refer to a soul that exists after the death of the physical body (Genesis 35:18, Psalm 16:10, 30:3, 49:15, 86:13, 139:8, 1 Kings 17:21-22). Old Testament writings often refer to Sheol as a shadowy realm of the dead. The dead in Sheol are described as being conscious (Isaiah 14:9-10).

We also read in the Old Testament about prohibitions against necromancy (communicating with the dead) and of the practice occurring anyway (Deuteronomy 18:11 and 1 Samuel 28). If there was no belief the dead existed in a disembodied intermediate state, then this command seems odd. Apocryphal books such as 1 Enoch (22:3, 4, 9) and 2 Esdras (7:75, 78-80) clearly show intertestamental Judaism understood the soul to continue on after the death of the body. While not part of the Protestant Christian Scriptural Canon, these apocryphal books provide useful insights.

The New Testament is replete with passages that teach the existence of the soul after death. Christ Himself and the Apostle Paul concurred with the Pharisee's understanding of this concept (Matthew 22:23-33, Acts 23:6-9). Paul's teachings in 2 Corinthians 5:1-10, 12:1-4 and Philippians 1:21-24 also provide strong evidence for continuity of the soul. Also consider 1 Peter 3:18-20 and Hebrews 12:23. Moreover, Jesus tells the thief on the cross next to Him that "today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:42-43).

We find several aspects of the immaterial person at work in various ways. For instance, when our eyes perceive a temptation, if we do not take captive the thoughts of our mind and make them obedient to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5), sin can/will take root in our heart (Matthew 5:27-30). When the Bible says "God knows the secrets of the heart" (Psalm 44:21), we understand this to mean that God knows our innermost feelings, inclinations, desires and motives (although He certainly knows what the physical organ looks like as well). By taking captive the thoughts of our mind to Christ, we are continually transformed to become more and more like Him (Romans 12:2). We are transformed to become more Christ-like, not in the sense that we will look like Christ did physically while He was on earth, rather that we will reflect His character, love, compassion and obedience.

On the flip side, if a person dies with an unrepentant heart (not placing saving faith in Jesus Christ), all aspects of that person are eternally separated from God (2 Thessalonians 1:8-9). We also read that faith comes by hearing and hearing through the Word of God (Romans 10:17). In this passage, we clearly see the mind (hearing, understanding), the heart (repentance and faith) and then the entire immaterial personhood receiving salvation.

Jesus Christ Himself provides us with instruction on this subject in Luke 16:19-31. Here, when Jesus teaches us about the rich man and Lazarus, we are shown that the rich man had all immaterial aspects of personhood present with him Hades being in torment. The rich man had cognitive function (thoughts of the mind, speaking) and feelings of the heart (worry for his brothers eternity) while he was separated by a fixed gulf from Abraham and Lazarus. Furthermore, when we hear Jesus say "Father into your hands I commit my spirit" (Luke 23:46), we do not take this to mean that only one part of Christ's immaterial person went to be with the Father, and that the others were somewhere else or stayed in His body. We are told in 2 Corinthians 5:8 that when we are "absent the body, we are present with the Lord."

Some Scriptures, the most prevalent being Proverbs 23:7 in the King James Version, seem to indicate the heart "thinks." But a contextual reading of this passage (as well as other sound Bible translations of the verse) makes it clear the meaning has nothing to do with the prospect of a "thinking heart." Rather, this passage instructs us to beware of people who are disingenuous, that the true motives of the heart of an evil person will manifest in observable ways.

Christians should exercise wisdom and sound adherence to Scripture when discussing matters of immaterial personhood with unbelievers. The subject of the soul can be difficult because of our predilection to the physical world. It is critical to understand that when God created man in His image, He created him in complete unity of all aspects of existence. As we look forward to Christ's return, all aspects of us will be unified again in harmony with our glorified bodies to live forever with God (1 Corinthians 15:35-54, Philippians 3:20-21, 2 Timothy 2:10-12).

Image Credit: Dhilung Kirat; "Spirit (2)"; Creative Commons

TagsBiblical-Truth  | Eternity-Forever  | Theological-Beliefs

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Published 10-27-2015