Fundamentals for Young Believers: Biblical Anthropology

Anthropology is the study of human beings. As with any area of inquiry, a proper understanding of this subject should begin and end with what the Holy Spirit reveals to us in the Bible. God’s Word answers the big questions we might ask about ourselves as humans: Where did we come from? What are we made of? What is our purpose? Will we exist forever?

Materialism is False

Materialists, such as the atheistic evolutionists who control secular education, believe that the physical universe is all that exists. They deny the existence of anything supernatural or spiritual. Thus they regard humans as “monistic”—made up entirely of a single substance, physical matter. To them, man is merely an interesting collection of chemical compounds and electrical impulses. If this view were accurate, then human life could not be unique from other life forms. We would have no logical reason to see ourselves as different from animals. Animal-rights activists have seized this point, and swear that all conscious beings must have equal value. But if life is just chemistry, why value conscious beings above plants? If materialism is true, then no form of life can have valid significance. And if human life is merely the chance association of molecules, if our existence is a freak accident with no intelligent design or ultimate purpose, if we do not survive beyond death, then we are ultimately worthless. Twentieth-century existentialists like Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre freely admitted this. Most humanist philosophers, however, keep trying to salvage some human value from this wreck-of-a-world-view. Like magicians pulling white rabbits from empty hats, they keep holding up human dignity as something that everyone ought to believe in. But this illusion should fool no one—you cannot find human significance in mere atoms.

God is Spirit

The Bible opens with, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1). Instantly we learn that a non-physical Being exists eternally, outside of the universe. That Being – the triune God – is spirit (John 4:24). The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are before time, beyond space, and distinct from matter. Now if God is the original authentic Person, and He is spirit, then personhood must be primarily a spiritual, not physical, reality.

Man is Spirit, Soul, and Body

If we remember that God is Spirit, we will know to look past the physical when we set out to understand His creature man. Genesis 2:7 clearly distinguishes the spiritual from the physical component of human life: “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.” The first phrase describes how God formed Adam’s body from prefabricated “dust.” However, we discover that Adam at that point was not yet alive. We may assume that the individual cells composing his body had biological life, just as microorganisms and plants do, but Adam himself was not yet living. We conclude again that human life is not merely the end result of the biochemical activity of cells and organs. Instead, the true life of the first man Adam began only when he received the breath of God, which imparted spiritual life and made him a living soul. At that point, Adam became wholly alive and fully human—an immaterial being fused with a pre-formed (and thus separable) body. Over time, individual body cells would die, and yet Adam’s immaterial soul-life remained intact. Adam died 930 years later; because of his sin, his biochemical life finally came to an end and returned to lifeless dust (Gen 5:5). His immaterial self, however, departed to another realm and lived on (Gen 35:18). Throughout the coming ages, his progeny would also die and be gathered to him (Gen 25:8).

Further, Genesis 2:7 hints that God actually fused two components—spirit and soul—in order to create Adam’s immaterial self. First, “the breath of life” (the life-giving breath of God) made Adam a spirit – one who partakes of God’s own life. The main Bible words for “spirit” (Hebrew ruach, Greek pneuma) also mean “wind” or “breath.” Wind is the closest analogy we have in our material world for immaterial beings. Although invisible, wind is obviously real, and so are spirits (John 3:8). So God Who is spirit (ruach) breathed into Adam’s nostrils, and this supplied Adam with his own spirit (ruach). Ezekiel 37:9 paints the same picture: the prophet is told to call on the wind (ruach) to blow on restored bodies in order to resuscitate them. Once these bodies are filled with wind, or spirit (ruach), they stand alive.

But Genesis 2:7 implies a second non-physical component in its final phrase, “a living soul.” As a result of God’s breathing, man himself began to breathe. The root meaning of “soul” (Hebrew nephesh, Greek psuche) is simply “one who breathes” (the usual definition, “living creature,” derives from this). So the breath of God not only instilled a living spirit into Adam, but it also made Adam a living soul—a creature whose physical body was now possessed and animated by an inner vital force. The Bible presents two physical phenomena as proof of the presence of this immaterial soul-life: the act of breathing and (as we shall see later) the coursing of blood.

This spirit-soul distinction is subtle in Genesis 2:7. However, further Biblical revelation explains that every human being in this world consists of a material body inhabited and animated by an immaterial self, and that this immaterial self has two distinct components: spirit and soul. In 1 Thessalonians 5:23, Paul states the truth about our constitution clearly: “And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The phrase “your spirit and soul and body” emphasizes the scope of sanctification: Paul’s concern is not how much holiness believers possess, but rather how far holiness should reach into their makeup. So the apostle prays that God would set apart the entire person—that His sanctifying work might reach every part of the human being—and so he takes the unusual step of citing all three of the components in our human selves. In the next article, we will note the great difference between human souls and animal souls.