The Unitary Nature of Man (and its Correspondence with the Nature of God)

Brief Bible Studies. Fall, 1993. Vol.24, No. 3.

In one seminary which I attended I was taught that man is two parts, body and soul. This was called the dichotomous view of man’s nature. In this view it is usually assumed that the soul is an immaterial entity that lives on after death.

In another seminary the teaching was trichotomy: man is three parts, body, soul, and spirit. The distinction between soul and spirit was rather fine-honed, the soul supposedly being related to aesthetic values on earth and the spirit to spiritual values from heaven.

Later, after the years in seminary and through personal study, I came to a different conclusion: man is neither dichotomous or trichotomous; rather, he is unitary.

In this new view—new to me at least—I came to see that man is not separable into two or three different entities but is a unit. The key passage, amongst others, which led to this conclusion was Genesis 2:7, “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.”

As a potter molds the clay, so the LORD God took some soil of the earth and formed man. Then He breathed into him “breath of life.” This breath or life was not a “soul” or immaterial entity but simply the force from God that made man alive.

The Hebrew word is neshamah. It is the word Elihu used when he said to Job, “The Spirit of God hath made me, and the breath of the Almighty hath given me life.”1 It is God’s “breath” or neshamah, Elihu says, that gives him life. More literally, that causes him to live or be alive.2

This then was the method God used: to mold the clay and breathe into it life-force, the result being “a living soul” or “living creature.” There is nothing here about immortal soul. Man is a unit.

As a matter of interest, it should be mentioned that the same term is used of the animals. In the Hebrew text of the creation account they too are “living souls” or “souls of life.”3 Also, Genesis 7:22 and Psalm 150:6 indicate that the animals also possess :

“life” or neshamah—the same “life” or neshamah as man.

There are many advantages to this unitary or materialist view of man’s nature. I mention here only a few.4

It is compatible with science. Christian people are not asked to believe in “souls” or ghosts.

It has a high regard for man’s body. It is the body that is made in the image of God.5 The Scriptures identify a person with his body. It is the body that is raised up in the resurrection, vivified, and glorified.6

It does not usurp God’s attribute of immortality.7 He alone possesses immortality. We shall put it on in the resurrection.8

It comes, as I have indicated already, directly from the Scriptures. The other view, that man possesses an immaterial entity that lives on after death, has come into the western world from the perverse and philosophical environment of ancient Greece.9

It is compatible with the physiological evidence that the power of thinking belongs to the brain. When a man dies, he ceases to think.10 In the resurrection, he begins to think again.

It leads to a simple and understandable view of death. The Scriptures illustrate the death state as an unconscious sleep.11 We awaken in the resurrection.

It eliminates from Christian doctrine the pagan and blasphemous idea of eternal torment for “lost souls.” No immortal soul means no eternal toment.

It is compatible with the kingdom hope. When Christ returns to earth to establish His kingdom, His saints are raised up to reign with Him.12

These are some of the advantages of the unitary view of man’s nature. There are others, of course, but I mention just one more: it corresponds with the nature of God.

God is one, so man is also one. God is unitary, not three-in-one.13 So man also is unitary, not two-in-one or three-in-one. What an encouragement this correspondence can be in our understanding of God and man!

Man is made in the image and likeness of God.14 The Hebrew text indicates that “image” and “likeness” refer to form and shape, not to some moral, spiritual, or metaphysical likeness. Nevertheless, it seems appropriate that if man is in the image of God, he should be unitary as God is unitary.

God is one substance or essence, and that substance is spirit.15 Man is one substance or essence, and that substance is clay or earth material.. As Paul has said, “man is of the earth, earthy.”16

In my own mind and heart, the discovery of the unitary view of man brought peace and joy into my Christian experience. It was a relief from the vagaries of dichotomy and trichotomy. In addition, it helped to confirm my understanding of God as unitary.

Sidney Hatch, TH.M.


1 Job 33:4.

2 The Hebrew verb is chayah, “to live.” In Job 33:4 it is in the Hebrew intensive or “piel” conjugation. In this conjugation chayah means “to cause to live, to make alive” or “to give life.” Compare Genenius-Tregelles, Hebrew Lexicon, pp.273-74.

3 Hebrew nephesh chayyah, Genesis 1:20-21, 24, 30; 2:19.

4 In my book, Daring to Differ: Adventures in Conditional Immortality, I draw a contrast between conditional immortality and immortal soulism. See Chapter 30, “What difference Does It Make?”

5 Genesis 1:26-27; 9:6; 1 Conrinthians 11:7; James 3:9.

6 So Jesus addressed the body when raising people from the dead. Compare Luke 7:14; 8:54; John 11:43. See also 1 Corinthians 15, the great resurrection chapter.

7 1 Timothy 6:16.

8 1 Corinthians 15:50-58.

9 Dollinger has written that paiderastia (pedophilia) was the “great national disease” of ancient Greece. The whole of society was infected with it and the people inhaled the pestilence with the air they breathed. Philosophers and poets glorified boy-passion in their writings. Parents commonly would not tolerate their children having any acquaintance with philosophers. See John J.I.Dollinger, The Gentile and the Jew, 2nd ed. (London: Gibbings & Company, 1906), II, 251-58. See also William Barclay, Flesh and Spirit, An Examination of Galatians 5.19-23 (London: SCM Press Ltd, 1962), p.26. This, I would remind my readers again. is the culture that gave the western world the doctrine of the immortality of the soul.

10 Psalm 6:5; 146:4; Ecclesiastes 9:5,10; Isaiah 38:18.

11 Deuteronomy 31:16; 1 Kings 2:10; 11:43; Psalm 127:2: Daniel 12:2; Matthew 9:24; John 11:11; Acts 7:60; 1 Corinthians 15:6;

1 Thessalonians 4:13 and other passages.

12 1 Thessalonians 4:13; 11 Timothy 4:1

13 Deuteronomy 6:4; 1 Corinthians 8:6; Ephesians 4:6; 1 Timothy 2:5.

14 Genesis 1:26-27.

15 John 4:24.

16 1 Corinthians 15:47.

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