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; Ezekiel 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 (2Co 5:17) with spiritual life (John 3:6). Their renewed spirits now supervise their souls and control soulish appetites (Rom 6:12; 1Co 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; 2Co 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!