Rethinking Man—What are We?

The modern view of man allows for as many numerous variations and differing opinions as were present when Jesus first arrived on the scene. 2000 years have come and gone and we still question what we are made of. Are we a dualism of sorts (i.e. body and soul)? Perhaps a trinity (body, soul, spirit)? Or maybe we, as the atheists have tried to tell us all along, are purely materialistic. Despite bringing up the topic, I would like to bypass the discussion and focus purely on the view of man in relation to God, as I think this is a more fruitful conversation to have. This means combing through the stories of Genesis along with the Old and New Testaments to look at how we are described and what we have been bestowed with, whether it be immortality of perishability.

The story of man begins with the narrative of creation (I will be treating this as the meaning/truth-conveying story it is meant to be, not as the literal and historical account of creation that some believe it to be.) in the infamous Garden where God makes man in His own image (Gen 1:27). “…the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.” (Gen 2:7) “Living soul” is another way in which that last word is translated. The tree of life residing within the garden was the representation of the immortality to be had in fellowship with God. (Whether this tree is real or symbolic does not matter to the present discussion.) This man, Adam, was instructed “17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat[d] of it you shall surely die.” (Gen 2:17) Later in the narrative and after the Fall into evil, Adam and Eve were cast out from the Garden and away from the tree lest they eat from it and live forever. (Gen 3:22-24) Afterwards, Adam “fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image…” (Gen 5:3)[1]

Moving on from Genesis and into the rest of the OT, the ancient Hebrew view of man’s anthropology was holistic in nature. The same terms applied to man are applied to animals, essentially anything with life.[2] To quote Fudge citing Heller quoting T.A. Kantonen’s summary of a study done by Aimo Nikolainen (Sorry guys. I am obligated to work with the footnotes I am given. Sometimes the footnotes I am given are really long.):

Man is an indivisible whole. Seen from different points of view, he is by turns body, flesh and blood, soul, spirit, and heart. Each of these portrays a specific human characteristic, but they are not parts into which man may be divided. Body is man as a concrete being; “flesh and blood” is man as a creature distinguished from the Creator; soul is the living human individual; spirit is man as having his source in God; heart is man as a whole in action. What is distinctively human is in every respect derived from God. Man is in every cell the work of God (body), he is in all circumstances the property of God (soul), he is absolutely dependent on God (spirit), and in all his activity he is either obedient to God or disobedient (heart). The God-relationship is not merely the life of the “highest part” of man. The whole man “from top to bottom” exists only be relation to God.[3]

This is why many of the writers of the OT refer to the soul dying (See Gen 35:18, Ezek 18:4 for examples). Ezekiel 22:25, 27 also speak of the soul as being destroyed or consumed. (The word for soul, nephesh, is translated as lives in these two verses) The word for soul, though having various meanings/translations, refers to the entire person within the context of death. We are indivisible persons not meant to be separated and chopped up into cute little parts as the various non-Christian world views would have us do. In the eyes of the Hebrews, the entire person dies, and the only hope man has for life after death is the faithfulness of God. Solomon, more than others who thought about death, fully embraced this view:

Ecc 3:19-21 “19 For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity.[b]20 All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return.21 Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth?”

Ecc 12:5-7 “…because man is going to his eternal home, and the mourners go about the streets— before the silver cord is snapped, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher is shattered at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.”

Though we have reason because of Jesus to not succumb to the pessimistic outlook of Solomon revealed in his brutally honest depiction of life, these words have a place within our understanding of life and man. As we are fashioned by God from the dust, we return to the dust, and the life-animating spirit of God returns to the one who gave it.

What about the NT? The writers of the NT do not differ in this understanding. “Paul uses “soul” (psychē) only 13 times, usually with reference to the natural life of man. The adjectival form of this word designates the unspiritual or carnal man as opposed to the spiritual man (1 Cor 2:14), or the natural body of the present life in contrast to the spiritual body of the life to come (1 Cor. 15:44).”[4] In fact, Paul’s view of the anthropology of man is distinctly Hebraic, even within his Hellenistic culture.[5] Furthermore, Jesus himself stood within the tradition of the Old Testament view.

Because of this understanding, we should not look within ourselves to find some sort of immortality. All immortality is a gift from and the sole prerogative of God. We can exclaim the words of David (Psalm 23:6)  as he faced death with no guarantee of further life except for his own hope in God, the faithful shepherd:

“Surely[d] goodness and mercy[e] shall follow me
    all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell[f] in the house of the Lord
    forever.[g]”        
We may also utter the words of the writer of 1 Timothy with full confidence:
13 I charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things…he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, 16 who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.” (1 Tim 6:13-16)
[1] Edward William Fudge, The Fire That Consumes, p. 59
[2] Fudge, p. 60
[3] T.A. Kantonen (The Christian Hope [1954], pp. 30ff) so summarizes Aimo Nikolainen’s 1941 Finnish-language study, Man in the Light of the Gospel. Quoted here from Heller, “The Resurrection of Man,” p.222, as cited in Fudge, The Fire That Consumes, p. 61.
[4] Fudge, p. 62
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