Do You Believe in the Dichotomy or the Trichotomy of Human Nature?

Question from a reader:

“The dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:7). In light of Genesis 2:7 (man is spirit, body, and soul), if the body returns to dust, and the spirit returns to God, then what about the soul? The redeemed soul goes to the intermediate heaven to be with Jesus, but how do I reconcile the spirit being separate from the soul in that it returns to God? In other words, what gives life to the soul, if the spirit returns to God who gave it?

Answer from Randy Alcorn:

I believe in the dichotomy, not the trichotomy of human nature. That is, that we are material and immaterial, and that spirit and soul are both terms used of the immaterial (nonphysical), as are the heart and mind and other terms. So when spirit, soul, and body are used, spirit and soul emphasize different aspects of the one unified nonphysical aspect of humanity.

Here is an explanation differentiating these terms from Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, a resource I highly recommend:

The view that man is made of three parts (body, soul, and spirit) is called trichotomy. Though this has been a common view in popular evangelical Bible teaching, there are few scholarly defenses of it today. According to many trichotomists, man's soul includes his intellect, his emotions, and his will. They maintain that all people have such a soul, and that the different elements of the soul can either serve God or be yielded to sin. They argue that man's spirit is a higher faculty in man that comes alive when a person becomes a Christian (see Rom. 8:10: "if Christ is in you, although your bodies are dead because of sin, your spirits are alive because of righteousness"). The spirit of a person then would be that part of him that most directly worships and prays to God (see John 4:24; Phil. 3:3).

Others have said that "spirit" is not a separate part of man, but simply another term for "soul" and that both terms are used interchangeably in Scripture to talk about the immaterial part of man, that part which lives on after our bodies die. The view that man is made up of two parts (body and soul/spirit) is called dichotomy. Those who hold this view often agree that Scripture uses the word "spirit" (Hebrew rûach and Greek pneuma) more frequently when referring to our relationship to God, but such usage (they say) is not uniform, and the word "soul" is also used in all the ways that "spirit" can be used….

Before asking whether Scripture views "soul" and "spirit" as distinct parts of man, we must at the outset make it clear that the emphasis of Scripture is on the overall unity of man as created by God. When God made man he "breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being" (Gen. 2:7). Here Adam is a unified person with body and soul living and acting together. This original harmonious and unified state of man will occur again when Christ returns and we are fully redeemed in our bodies as well as our souls to live with him forever (see 1 Cor. 15:51-54). Moreover, we are to grow in holiness and love for God in every aspect of our lives, in our bodies as well as in our spirits or souls (cf. 1 Cor. 7:34). We are to "cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, and make holiness perfect in the fear of God" (2 Cor. 7:1)…

When Rachel died, Scripture says, "her soul was departing (for she died)" (Gen. 35:18). Elijah prays that the dead child's "soul" would come into him again (1 Kgs. 17:21) and Isaiah predicts that the Servant of the Lord would "pour out his soul (Hebrew nephesh) to death" (Isa. 53:12). In the New Testament God tells the rich fool, "This night your soul (Greek psychēn) is required of you" (Luke 12:20).  On the other hand, sometimes death is viewed as the returning of the spirit to God. So David can pray, in words later quoted by Jesus on the cross, "Into your hand I commit my spirit" (Ps. 31:5; cf. Luke 23:46). At death, "the spirit returns to God who gave it" (Eccl. 12:7). In the New Testament, when Jesus was dying, "he bowed his head and gave up his spirit" (John 19:30), and likewise Stephen before dying prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit" (Acts 7:59).

In response to these passages, a trichotomist might argue that they are talking about different things, for when a person dies both his soul and his spirit do in fact go to heaven. But it should be noted that Scripture nowhere says that a person's "soul and spirit" departed or went to heaven or were yielded up to God. If soul and spirit were separate and distinct things we would expect that such language would be affirmed somewhere, if only to assure the reader that no essential part of the person is left behind. Yet we find no such language: the biblical authors do not seem to care whether they say that the soul departs or the spirit departs at death, for both seem to mean the same thing.

Grudem goes on to conclude that “Scripture does not seem to support any distinction between soul and spirit.” Therefore, at death, since the spirit and soul are most likely different words for the same concept, the soul/spirit is “returned to God” (i.e. Heaven or Hell) while the body remains.

Also see Wayne’s article What Is the Soul? Is It Different from the Spirit?

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Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries