Christians: How does the Bible explain aspects of what it means to be human?
The Scriptures speak of human beings in many ways and terms that, when understood together, give us a thorough picture of the aspects of our humanity.1
First it describes humans as a single person with material and immaterial substances existing as a personal duality.2 Furthermore, the material part of our being does affect our immaterial part, and vice-versa.3 For example, the Bible reports that the disciples’ bodily fatigue overcame their willing immaterial spirits, and that a Christian can change the actions in their material body by having a renewed immaterial mind.4
Many in our world reduce humans to nothing more than electro-chemical machines determined by our genetics and worldly circumstances without freedom, dignity, or purpose.5 This is sadly common in biological sciences, medicine, and education. Others reduce humans to their minds or consciousness, making the body temporary, evil, or even unreal. This was developed from roots in Hindu and Greek philosophy by such 19thcentury idealists as Berkeley, Kant, Hegel, and into 20thcentury existentialism and the New Age (also called New Spirituality). It became mythic with Star Wars, is promoted by Oprah, and pervades much of contemporary health care.
Everyone has a functional view of humanity. And, every view sets in motion an entire worldview of how we see the world and our place in it. Furthermore, that view of our humanity determines for us what us what path forward we should take to improve our lives. For these reasons, it is vital that God’s people not only know what the Bible says about God, but also know what the Bible says about them.
Aspects of Our Humanity in the Old Testament
The Bible speaks of the soul(nepesh). Nepesh refers to the person as a creation in relation to God rather than immortal, immaterial substance. The term is occasionally used for God. In the broadest sense, it connotes all biological life. Both humans and animals are called living nepesh in Genesis, which simply means, “living creature.” It is not that people possess souls but that we are souls.
The Bible speaks of spirit(ruach) in reference to God, people, and animals. The basic meaning is “wind” or “breath,” especially when speaking of the Holy Spirit. In humans it can mean “mind,”6 “resolve,”7 or “will.”8 None of these comes from humans themselves, but from God who breathed life into dust in creation to make us alive.
The Bible speaks of flesh(basar), one-third of the time in reference to animals and never to God. It refers to what humans share with animals in contradistinction to God. Most often it means flesh as characteristic of bodily existence.9 It often stands for the human body as a whole—a concept for which Hebrew has no distinct word.10 Flesh in the Old Testament has none of the sinful connotations that we find in Paul’s usage throughout the New Testament to speak of our proclivity to sin.11
The Bible speaks of blood(dam). It refers to the physical life of humans and animals.12 Subsequently, shedding blood is shedding life.13
Lastly, the Bible speaks of the heart(leb) and almost always in reference to humans. Only rarely does it refer to the anatomical heart. The heart is the focus of the personal life—the reasoning, responding, deciding self. It is the deepest center of the human person, the driving force, and the most fundamental values from which our acts and attitudes come.14 It is so deep that only God fully knows it.15 The heart is the source of the deepest wishes and desires16 and decisions of the will.17 The heart is the center of the intellectual and rational functions that we usually ascribe to the mind.18 It appears one hundred times in Proverbs alone, and the distinction between head and heart is totally foreign in the Old Testament.19 A godly person is a person after God’s own heart.20
Together, these aspects of our humanity help reveal to us that people are complex. This helps us seek to understand people with humility and patience. Furthermore, as we seek to improve our own lives, and help others do the same, it is important to remember that there is no such thing as a simple person or a one size fits all solution for every problem.
Aspects of Our Humanity in the New Testament
The constellations of words and images in the New Testament that speak of aspects of our humanity are, generally speaking, broken into the categories of the inward and outward person.21 Our outward existence is visible, physical, and world-oriented, and primarily involves our physical body. Conversely, our inward existence is invisible, spiritual, and God-oriented, and involves our mind, heart, and spirit. Importantly, these are both aspects of one person and not independent entities that operate apart from the others. Nonetheless, the New Testament does distinguish, though not divide, these aspects of our humanity.
When the New Testament speaks of the bodyit is referring to the physical aspect of a person or animal.22 In this way the body is our outward existence in contrast to our inward existence.23 Humans are created to be embodied for all eternity.
The soul(psuche) for Paul throughout the New Testament is neither the immortal in a person nor only the immaterial part of the person.24 Instead, the soul in Paul’s thinking refers to the whole person created by God with an inner life of motive, thought, feeling, and the like. At times, Paul also speaks of the soul negatively, as that part of our being that is stained and marred by sin, or lived without God in view.25
When the Bible speaks of the human spirit(pneuma) it describes our inner being as juxtaposed with our outer being26 and is sometimes equivalent to the soul,27 flesh,28 and sometimes contrasted with that which is soulish.29
When the New Testament speaks of the heart(kardia), as Jesus often does, it is speaking of human beings as emotional with feelings, intellectual with thoughts, volitional with a will, moral with decisions, and religious with worship. It is therefore used to denote that which is central and vital in human nature.
By mind(nous), the New Testament speaks of the human person as knowing, thinking, judging, self-determining, and responsible. In many contexts, mind connotes one’s outlook on life, or what is called “worldview” today. Fundamentally, it refers to the rational activity of the person and is not exalted as the summum bonum of our being but rather a very vital and helpful part of our person.
In speaking of the conscience(suneidesis), the New Testament is referring to the capacity of universal moral judgment. The primary role of our conscience is to give warning when an action violates it. While modern thinking sees conscience as a reliable standard of morality, the Bible sees it as a tool to be trusted only when it is enlightened by God.
How is your heart-level relationship with God?