Genesis 1:26–27 indicates that God created mankind distinct from all the other creatures. Scripture clearly teaches that man is intended to experience intimate relationship with God, and, therefore, He created us as a unity of both material (physical) and immaterial (spiritual) aspects (Ecclesiastes 12:7, Matthew 10:28, 1 Corinthians 5:5, 2 Corinthians 4:16; 7:1, James 2:26). The material component of humans is obviously that which is tangible and temporal: the physical body. The immaterial aspects are intangible: soul, spirit, intellect, will, conscience, mind, emotions, etc. These exist unendingly beyond the lifespan of the physical body.
All human beings possess both material (physical) and immaterial (spiritual) characteristics. Each person has a physical body. However, the intangible, non-physical qualities of mankind are often debated. What does Scripture say about these? Genesis 2:7 states that man was created as a “living soul” (KJV). Numbers 16:22 names God as the “God of the spirits of all flesh” (ESV). Proverbs 4:23 tells us, “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it,” indicating that the heart (not the myocardium) is central to man’s will and emotions. In Acts 23:1 Paul refers to the conscience as that part of the mind that convicts us of right and wrong. Romans 12:2 speaks of the transformative power of a renewed mind. These verses, and numerous others, refer to the various aspects of the spiritual components of humanity. We are a unified combination of both material and immaterial qualities.
Somehow, the soul, spirit, emotions, conscience, will, and mind are connected and interrelated. Perhaps the soul-spirit is comprised of a combination of all the other immaterial human aspects. With this in mind, is humanity dichotomous (“cut in two”) or trichotomous (“cut in three”)? In other words, do we have two parts (body and soul-spirit), or do we have three parts (body, soul, and spirit)? It is impossible to be dogmatic. Theologians have differed over this issue for centuries, and there has never been a decisive orthodox declaration of which is true.
Those who believe Scripture teaches that man is a dichotomy see humans as comprised of two parts: a body and a spirit. There are two general views of this dichotomy. The first view is that man is a united body and spirit that together comprise a living soul. A human soul is the spirit and the body united as one personhood. This view is supported by Genesis 2:7; Numbers 9:13; Psalm 16:10; 97:10 and Jonah 4:8. This view emphasizes that the Hebrew word nephesh in these verses refers to an integrated (unified) soul, living being, life, or self—i.e., a unified person (soul) comprised of a body and spirit. It is noted that, when the Bible speaks of the ruach (“breath, wind, or spirit”) being separated from the body, the person is disintegrated (fractured)—dead (see Ecclesiastes 12:7; Psalm 104:29; 146:4).
The second dichotomic view is that the spirit and the soul are the same thing with two different names. This view emphasizes the fact that the words spirit and soul are often used interchangeably (Luke 1:46–47; Isaiah 26:9; Matthew 6:25; 10:28, 1 Corinthians 5:3, 5) and should be understood as synonyms referring to the same spiritual reality within each person. Therefore, the dichotomous position holds that man is comprised of two parts. Man is either a body and spirit, which makes a soul, or a body and soul-spirit.
Those who believe Scripture teaches that man is a trichotomy see man as comprised of three distinct parts: body, soul, and spirit. They emphasize 1 Thessalonians 5:23 and Hebrews 4:12, which seem to differentiate between spirit and soul. The dichotomist counters that, if 1 Thessalonians 5:23 teaches trichotomy, then, by the same hermeneutic, does Mark 12:30 teach tetrachotomy?
Is it important to conclusively decide between dichotomy and trichotomy? Perhaps not; however, a word of caution is appropriate. Some who hold the trichotomist view have erroneously taught that God can bypass our soul/intellect and communicate directly with our spirit; such teaching leads to irrational mysticism. Other churches have used the trichotomous position to teach the possibility of Christians being demon-possessed. Because they see the soul and spirit as two separate immaterial aspects within the Christian, they postulate that one can be indwelt by the Holy Spirit and the other can be possessed by demonic forces. This teaching is problematic in that there are no biblical references that those who are indwelt by the Holy Spirit can be simultaneously possessed by demons.
Regardless of whether a Christian believes dichotomy or trichotomy best represents an accurate understanding of Scripture, we can all unitedly praise God with the psalmist: “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well” (Psalm 139:14).