SPIRIT, SOUL & BODY
The Bible teaches that there is but one God, and yet it also presents God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We are forced to conclude that within the nature of the one God, there are three distinct persons. Thus, since God is a triune being, and because the Scriptures also say that we are made in the image of God, we shouldn’t be surprised to learn that man also has three aspects of his being. First Thessalonians 5:23 makes this very clear:
“Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely; and may your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
This article is not designed to be a complete treatise on human beings nor of the salvation God has provided us. That would require a book, and in fact I’ve written one on this topic called What Is Saving Faith? However, here I would like to deal briefly with a few of the penetrating questions often received from other Christians relative to the way God has designed us. Questions like: “Where does the spirit go at death?”, “Where does the soul go at death?”, “Is there really a difference between spirit and soul?”, “How is unconfessed sin dealt with if a person dies with sin left to his charge?”, “What and where is hell?”, “Where do the spirits and souls of unbelievers go when they die?”, etc., etc. First, let’s define some terms.
In the New Testament, spirit comes from the Greek word pneuma. Here are some of the ways other commentators and theologians have applied the word pneuma, which is found in the New Testament 288 times.
Pneuma (Strong’s 4151) = breeze, blow, breathe hard, a current of air, a human spirit, vital disposition, mental disposition, an angel, demon, or (divine) God, Christ’s spirit, the Holy Spirit, ghost, life, mind.
As you can see, there are a great variety of English applications based on Strong’s 4151. However, there is a commonality in all the above translations and uses of this super-important word: that which is unseen.
The application that is most pertinent to this study is the “human spirit”. I am not talking about an action, attitude or disposition of people, as might be used like this: “Cheerleaders enhance the spirit of a game!” The spirit I’m referring to is the undying, unseen part of a person. The spirit is a real entity which can be influenced by both God and Satan. Because of the fall of Adam and all mankind’s kinship with him, there is no righteous life in us until God imparts it into the spirit. Once God places new life into the spirit, one has the potential to communicate effectively with the Holy Spirit, other human spirits and one’s own soul. At physical death, if one is saved, the spirit goes immediately to be with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8). But if unsaved, the spirit goes to Hades to await the Great White Throne Judgment at the end of the Millennial reign of Christ on this earth (Rev. 20:13). The spirit is everlasting. It will either go to heaven to be with God, or to hell to be with Satan, for eternity.
Psuche (Strong’s 5590) = breath (the animal sentient principle only, as distinguished from 4151 pneuma). Other definitions: seat of life itself; the source of the will and emotions; transcends mere earthly existence; that which has life; soul.
Thus, these two words are a bit confusing since the dictionaries relate both pneuma and psuche to air or breath. But there is one big distinction: pneuma has an application which refers to one’s spiritual being --- that is, the unseen, intangible, completely-nonphysically-endowed central being of a person. Whereas, breath or air in the psuche sense refers to the human life. (Note how Strong put it: “the animal-sentient-principle-only”.) One’s natural personality is in view here. The will, mind and emotions are all linked together in the soul. It is the place where willful decisions are made, and once acted upon, are carried over into physical reality. The warfare between God’s influence and Satan’s influence upon humans occurs primarily in the “psuche”, i.e., the soul. Bottom line: psuche = soul = life.
Soma (Strong’s 4983) = body, or covering.
The physical, human body is much easier to define and to understand since it’s seeable and touchable. It’s interesting that one of the interpretations of “soma” is “covering”. A covering of what? The implication is that the body is the tangible, outer garment of one’s spirit and soul.
The body’s frame is comprised of bones, ligaments, muscles, organs, blood, skin and a variety of other physical necessities, all of which make up a being which can walk, think, talk, eat, sleep, learn, communicate, etc., etc. And with the soul and spirit implanted in this “covering”, one can also communicate with the God who created us, which brings us back to where we began in this study.
The fundamental problem with man is sin. Because of the fall of Adam and Eve and by inheritance, we are born in sin and separated from God. We don’t become sinners because we sin. We sin because we are sinners. But thankfully, God has dealt with the sin issue through His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, Who gave His life and shed His blood for those who would put their trust in Him. When one truly believes the simplicity of the Gospel that Jesus died for our sins, he/she becomes a new creation in Christ Jesus. The Bible says that at this point a spiritual birth occurs. Jesus referred to this as being born “from above”. This means that God implants a new being in us which gives us a new kind of life. It is a spiritual birth which occurs in one’s spirit. Not in the body. Not in the soul. The spirit can relate God’s wisdom to the soul and body. In its isolated state, the re-born spirit can be considered pure because of it’s God-impregnated state.
This new creation is called the “new man”. (Col. 3:10) One is said to have been “begotten” when this happens. (1 John 5:18) This is a glorious thing, far more magnificent than our natural birth, which in itself is fantastic. But the mere existence of 70 or 80 years on this earth as a “normal” human being provides but a taste of what God has prepared for those who love Him and look to His Son for salvation. God has planned to have a people for Himself for eternity’s sake and that’s what every Christian dreams and shouts about (or should anyway). (Luke 12:32 & Eph. 1:5) Today Jesus is preparing to receive believers in Him. He is also preparing rewards for those who have served Him well. (1 Cor. 3:14 & Rev. 22:12.)
The main thing that I want to emphasize is that there are three salvations associated with the three aspects of our being. Just as a human has a spirit, a soul and a body, so also there is a separate salvation God has prepared for each. Now certainly we are composite beings and we are responsible for the whole “house”, i.e., spirit, soul and body. But to grow in the things of God, it is very important to ascertain how God has explained to us in His word the different ways in which He has dealt, is dealing, and will deal, with the separate parts of our being.
1 Thessalonians 5:23 above makes exceedingly clear that God wants us to know that all three of our parts should be “blameless” and “preserved” at the coming of the Lord. But since Paul uttered this as a prayer for people who were already believers gives the distinct impression that this will not automatically nor necessarily be the case. Christians are being urged to give proper attention to all aspects of everything that comprises their makeup. We need to recognize that Paul’s hopeful prayer for his Thessalonian friends includes us too. We are being urged to get all the components of our lives in order. In other words, becoming “blameless” and “preserved” in our spirit and soul and body is obviously partly our responsibility.
In the past several years I have purposed to investigate more intensely the Bible’s meanings, particularly those relative to salvation. This is a summary of some of the most important, most difficult-to-digest, most shocking discoveries that were made. The new understanding was startling at first, but with every new insight that came along, there has been a new level of freedom reached in my mind never before realized. Here are the main points. That...
1. ...spirit and soul are not synonymous terms.
2. ...the salvations of both spirit and soul are likewise very different processes.
3. ...salvation of the spirit is totally God’s work (John 6:29, Acts 16:31 & Eph. 2:8-10). We have nothing to do with it other than believing God has provided it. Spirit salvation is God’s work alone. Even one’s faith to believe is a gift (Eph. 2:8-10). This salvation cannot be lost for any reason. Ever. This is a spiritual birth and those experiencing it will spend eternity with God and other believers.
4. ...salvation of the soul is dependant upon the work of believers in Christ. Soul salvation can only occur subsequent to spirit salvation. Soul salvation is attained by Christian works done in the power of the Holy Spirit (Phil. 2:12&13). Salvation of the soul can be progressive or regressive. One must choose which way he/she is willing to go relative to God’s commands. One can improve or degrade his/her soul salvation. The most startling wisdom of all is that soul salvation can in fact be lost! (This last statement will very likely be troublesome for most readers. Please, for now just try to stay open to the concept, and think about it very carefully as we proceed.)
5. ...the rewards which Jesus brings with Him and gives to believers in Him at the Judgment Seat of Christ will be primarily determined by Christian works.
6. ...even though all Christians will go to heaven some day, not all Christians will enter into Christ’s coming kingdom at the same level of authority and responsibility!
7. ...salvation of the body is also a separate issue and won’t occur until believers receive new, physical, glorified bodies on resurrection day. (1 John 3:2; 1 Cor. 15:50-54)
Some of the above statements may cause some readers to squirm, or perhaps to believe I’m totally off my rocker. The reason for this will likely be due to having believed what they have been told, rather than resulting from careful Bible studies (as was once true in my case). I have been a Christian for 55 years. Most of the conclusions you see above came about in the past twenty years. So, for about 35 years of my life, I confess that my fundamental beliefs were based on traditional reasoning rather than Bible study. Next let’s look closer at a few, newer concepts.
TWO KINDS OF GRACE
For the Bible’s truths to be accurately understood, God’s grace must be seen as having two different kinds of applications:
1. Unmerited-favor grace
The fact is, Jesus paid the total sin debt at Calvary when He gave His life and shed His blood as a ransom for the sins of mankind. Nothing can be added to that payment. When Jesus said, “It is finished!”, and then drew His last breath, sin was dealt a spiritual death blow. It was over and done with.
Then, when God calls someone to salvation, and he/she believes on the Lord Jesus Christ as a result of this call, he/she becomes a child of God and moves from a position of death (due to sin, which was paid for by Jesus’ shed blood and physical death) to life (in association with Christ and His resurrection). The spirit is then sealed until the day of redemption. (Eph.1:13) This initial salvation applies to the spirit in terms of where the person will go when he/she dies. (2 Cor. 5:8 & Phil. 1:21) God’s unmerited-favor grace is the highest benefit of all blessings bestowed upon mankind. It is totally God’s work with no part attributable to man. (John 6:29)
2. Desire-and-power grace
This is the least understood form of grace and yet the most important in terms of practical Christianity. A perfect work has been done in one’s spirit at the new birth, and there’s no doubt that once the spirit is sealed, that part becomes heaven bound. However, Christians will still sin subsequent to the new birth. 1 John 1:8 teaches very clearly that believers will sin and if they say otherwise, they are deceived. However, 1 John 1:9 promises that if we believers confess our sins that God will be faithful to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. To do this requires an exercise of “desire and power” grace. Yes, God has prepared the way here but we have something to do with obtaining the victory. Sinning Christians must regularly confess their sins if they want to be cleansed and used by God in their daily walk. This grace applies to the soul, not the spirit which is already perfected by God at the new birth.
In addition, Christians are also commanded to do good works if they want to affect the rewards which will be received at the Judgment Seat of Christ. (See 1 Cor. 3: 8-15 and Rev. 22:12.) Works done by believers will be either burned or salvaged through fire at this judgment. This work applies only to the soul, but will affect the total and positional outcome in eternity.
Those sins never confessed and repented of prior to natural death will also be dealt with at the Judgment Seat of Christ. 1 Corinthians 3:13 says: “...each one’s work will become manifest; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is.”
It’s true that all sin has been paid for by Christ. We also know that no sin can be taken to heaven. I believe there will be subtractions from our “account” relative to rewards for those sins (never confessed and repented of) committed in our “soulical” nature during our present lifetimes.
To understand unmerited-favor grace, we must look to Jesus Christ and His work as God’s gift to mankind. Spirit salvation that results from this favor is a begotten-of-God work (1 John 5:18). It is a perfect work which cannot be lost or altered in any way. This initiating act of God is the highest form of grace because it determines where one goes in eternity.
To understand desire-and-power grace, we must look to soul works. This gift can be considered gracious because the desire and power is provided by the Holy Spirit. It comes into play after one becomes a Christian. This work, if positively appraised by Jesus at the Judgment Seat of Christ, will add to one’s “account” relative to the rewards He dispenses.
I believe that to not distinguish between the spirit and the soul and their respective salvations will inevitably result in distorted concepts. The fact is that many Scriptures clearly make the distinctions. (If these concepts at first appear strange or confusing, let me assure you that the only interpretive skill required to come up with the conclusions being presented here is simply to carefully read, re-read, meditate and then believe the Scriptures which relate to the subjects.)
It is a gross error to lump both of the above kinds of grace into one type and apply it only to the “spiritual” side of a person. To do so leads to the unscriptural idea of what one Berean brother calls “ultra grace”. This teaching is very much alive today. Basically, it means that everything which God plans to do for Christian believers has already been done and that the believer has nothing at all to do to affect the final outcome of his/her spiritual future once he/she is saved. Those who believe in “ultra grace” would say this gives God all the glory and therefore that this understanding shows a greater degree of humility. But actually, the concept leads to slothfulness. Think about it, if everything is already complete, then what possible value would there be for anyone to attempt doing anything that would please the Lord? The fact is, throughout the Bible Christians are called to obedience if they desire excellence in the things of God to be present in their lives. Being commanded doesn’t mean that obedience will automatically follow. Obedience requires willful action on the part of believers.
In the final analysis, works done under the “ultra grace” rule represents blind obedience with no purpose, objective or consequence at all in sight. This would mean that a Christian could live any way he/she wants to after experiencing the new birth, and it wouldn’t make a hill of beans of difference with regards to one’s ultimate future! The whole notion is ludicrous, isn’t it? This teaching is man’s idea, not God’s. To help remove “ultra grace” thoughts, I recommend reading Romans 6, 7 and 8 until engrafted in the soul. Memorizing the chapters would be even better. (It’s important to note these chapters were written to believers.)
SUMMARY ON GRACE
Unmerited-favor grace is surely all God’s work. It’s unconditional. But it must be remembered that this supernatural favor applies primarily to the spirit. It’s the kind of grace that gets one into God’s arena. It is only through this grace that one has a chance to be repentant and obedient. This work is totally God’s doing. The “new man” must be alive in one’s spirit before he can hear the Holy Spirit and thus be able to respond in his soul to do that which is right and good. Effective Christian work flows from the inside out --- from spirit to soul to body.
But, once the “new man” is in one’s spirit, the soul has a chance of being renewed. We don’t renew the spirit. The “old man” (i.e., the old nature), who formerly dominated us, is crucified immediately upon the new birth. Even though he hangs around to battle the spirit’s new “begotten” authority, spiritually he’s dethroned. The “old man” must be continually reckoned as dead by the believer before he can achieve victory regularly in his daily walk with Christ as his leader. This is orchestrated to the soul by the Holy Spirit via the “new man” in one’s spirit. To do this is based on desire-and-power grace. This grace is conditional. It requires personal obedience, volitional effort, study, choices, determination and believer action.
RIGHTEOUSNESS = “RIGHT-WISE-NESS”
When we are born again, we have entered into the first stage of becoming righteous. What does it mean to be “righteous”? Most of us have the idea this means goodness. And of course, goodness is linked to being righteous. But this doesn’t really get to the meat of the word.
Righteousness used to be spelled “right-wise-ness”, which better conveys the biblical meaning of the word. To be “right” and “wise” is to know and exercise God’s ways. There’s no way a person can be truly right or wise until God makes him so. And God starts this process the day He calls and extends the new birth to us. He calls us by name to Himself, very much as He did when Jesus called all His disciples by name to Himself when He was here in the physical 2000 years ago. God wants to impart His wisdom to us. He wants us to be followers of the most righteous (“right-wise”) man to have ever lived — His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. When we have experienced the new birth, the “new man” in us has access to the ultimate “right-wise” Thinker (God), and if we apply what we hear from Him, our souls can grow in righteousness.
But how can we stay pure so that we can grow in righteousness (“right-wise-ness”). It helps a lot by seeing the difference between spiritual and natural reality. It is imperative to recognize that the will, mind and emotions reside in the soul. These areas need to be transformed. There’s still a lot of junk in the soul after the new birth. All Christians must continue to make choices. The “old man” is killed at the new birth, spiritually speaking. But God permits this “thorn” to remain, and if unchecked, the old nature can still manifest his presence through our flesh. It is for this reason that believers can and will still sin after spirit salvation has occurred.
How any part of us can be spiritually dead and yet naturally still alive is a mystery God alone fully understands. But the Bible says it’s true, so we can believe it whether or not we grasp the full essence of it. We win battles over the flesh and sin by daily confessions and repentance, by “reckoning” ability, plus “desire and power” grace. (1 John 1:8&9, Rom.6:11 & 2Cor12:9)
This means we must exercise our faith by trusting that God has told us the truth — i.e., that our “old man” is dead. This is perhaps best done by visualizing yourself dying on the cross with Jesus, then visualizing your “new man” as alive with Christ in His resurrection. This is truly the power that is available to believers. And the closer you can get to seeing this truth, the closer you will be to Christ and the more you will be like Him in all your ways. This is not hocus-pocus. This is God’s truth that has been laid before us in His word.
CHRISTIAN “FEET” MUST BE WASHED REGULARLY
The truth that sin would still affect followers is so vital that it was one of our Lord’s last teachings to his disciples. It’s found in John 13:1-10. Please read the whole account at this time.
After the last supper Jesus had risen, removed His garments and girded himself with a towel. He then began to wash the disciples feet and wiping them with the towel. When Jesus got to Peter, at first he refused to accept Jesus washing his feet. But Jesus persuaded Peter that it was a necessity in order to have any part of Him. After thinking it over, Peter decided to allow it, but then suggested that the Lord wash his hands and head also. Now here’s the clincher from the Lord Himself that spirit salvation is a permanent thing and can never be lost: Jesus said, “He who is bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean; and you are clean...” Let’s unravel the beautiful truth Jesus was teaching here.
Walking through the dirty streets of Jerusalem would result in getting one’s sandle-clad feet dirty. Traditionally we’re told, when people would come into the house, the visitor’s shoes would often be removed by a servant who would then wash the guest’s feet to protect the house from dirt being brought in. In this situation, Jesus became the servant (demonstrating that humility and serving others is of utmost value to Him).
But there is an even greater spiritual truth here. When Jesus said to Peter that since he was already bathed and thus “completely clean” means that Peter was already spiritually saved. Jesus was saying that there was nothing which could be added to his present spiritual position. But the teaching didn’t stop there. Here’s the major point: soiling the feet by walking through dirty streets pictures the reality that believers would falter and sin as they walk in this life facing the temptations presented by the world, Satan and sin, all of which are ever before us.
In saying that only the feet needed to be washed means that even though all believers are heaven-bound, regular confession of sin and repentance would be an ongoing necessity if we want to have continuing close-fellowship with Christ. Notice I said “fellowship”, not “relationship”. The “relationship” is already fixed. That was achieved at the new birth, which is exactly what Jesus was teaching.
But for our body and soul to be useful to the Holy Spirit for the provision of Godly influence upon the lives of others, our walk must be kept purified. God’s way is for us to be Spirit-directed from a position of righteousness (i.e., right standing based on accepting God’s wisdom) to holiness (conducting our lives according to God’s holy standards). In plain talk, this means that we study and learn God’s truths, apply them to our own lives and teach them to others. If we Christians desire to be used by God, our vessels need regular attention and cleansing. According to Jesus, if we refuse to abide by this principle, we face this consequence: “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me.” It is very important to realize Jesus made this statement having also said that one who believes in Him is already “completely clean”. This seems a little paradoxical. But it’s God’s truth. So, let’s expand on this a little more.
EFFECTIVE CHRISTIANS MUST BE “DOUBLE CLEAN”
“Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” (John 3:5)
Brothers and sisters, according to Jesus, if you and I desire to enter the kingdom of God, we had better understand exactly what it means to be “born of water and the Spirit”. From the above two passages (i.e., the daily foot-washing necessity coupled with the “completely clean” state a believer already holds) and now this two-part, water-and-Spirit requirement in John 3:5, indicates that there are two levels, or two kinds of cleaning. Clearly, we can see that it doesn’t mean only to be born again. I can think of no single label that fully encapsulates salvation in all its dimensions (although most preachers and teachers mistakenly promote that being “saved” is all that’s necessary to receive all that God has in mind for our spiritual future). Jesus said we need a “water” and “Spirit” birth in order to enter the kingdom of God. What does this mean?
The plain, literal truth of this is that one must first be born physically (from the mother’s water sac in her womb) and then be born again by the Spirit. In other words, two births are in view here, the natural and the spiritual. Let’s look at a verse which precedes the above verse:
“...Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3)
In saying “cannot see”, Jesus is not yet talking about entering the kingdom. He wants us to know first that only those who are born from above (born again) will have even a chance of understanding what the kingdom is about. This statement is preparatory to the requirement of being born of water and the Spirit in order to enter the kingdom of God.
Being “born of water” means more than the literal, physical birth. Also, while being baptized by immersion in water pictures our death, burial and resurrection with Christ is correct theology, this passage is not limited to that either. Jesus is talking about what must happen in the lives of His followers if they want to enter the kingdom of God. His Kingdom. Entering this kingdom does not refer only to being heaven bound. Jesus is referring to the kingdom that is within us and with regards to the real kingdom He will rule during the Millennium.
It appears if you and I want to enter and participate in this kingdom we must have more than the new birth in our spirit man. Something about us must also be cleaned with “water”. Here’s what I believe it is: this second washing applies to the soul, not the spirit. Jesus is saying that we can’t possibly even “see” how to enter this kingdom until we are first born again. But once in, we have the opportunity to both “see” and to “enter” if we are willing and obedient followers of Christ. The apostle Paul understood and further elaborated on this to the Ephesians:
“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for it, that He might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word.”
The instruction is fittingly found in association with husbands and wives. Why so? Because the Church is called to be fully consecrated and betrothed as a bride-in-waiting for her eventual husband, Christ. But we know very well that not all Christians are equally dedicated to Christ. Only those who have received spirit salvation and who subsequently allow themselves to be washed with the “water by the word” are so cleansed. Those who willingly go through this process are the only ones who will enter the kingdom of God which Jesus referred to in John 3:5.
I used to think the entire church was in view here. But notice the word “might” sanctify. It doesn’t say “is” sanctified and “is” cleansed. It says “...might sanctify and cleanse.” After the new birth, the possibility exists. Think of it this way: After marriage, some wives “might” respond to instruction and input from a Godly husband and some “might” not. Thus, some wives choose to enter into a greater fellowship with their husbands and there are those who choose not to. Relationship-wise, the wife who doesn’t still remains married to the husband but she doesn’t “enter” into the deeper position the husband desired of her. So also will be true of the Church: some will follow Christ more accurately, more intimately, and more obediently; some not.
The key point here is that the cleansing is to be done “with the washing of water by the word”. This is what Jesus was talking about also in John 3:5. This washing is a lifelong project which commences after the new birth. After one has experienced the new birth, which insures one will definitely go to heaven some day, he still needs to be washed regularly with the water of the word in order to enter the kingdom of God. It takes the Spirit and the water. Birth by the Spirit perfectly washes our spirit for eternity sake; washing with the word cleanses our souls. The former was all God’s work. The latter takes our work too. We take the word of God into our souls through diligent effort. And it must be done on a regular basis in order to stay in full, up-to-the-minute fellowship with the Lord. We must routinely and regularly come to Christ in confession of sin and repentance. This is surely what Jesus meant by His daily “foot washing” requirement being added to the “completely clean” state a believer already possesses.
This is work, my friends. Obedient, hard work. Spirit salvation and daily soul cleansing by the water of the word prepares us for the coming kingdom. Obedience also conditions us to lay our lives down as servants. In addition to what He has planned for our future, God’s way is to reap gains through us which He has purposed for others.
To further clarify the difference between the “kingdom of God” and “heaven”: The kingdom of God is more than a place, it’s a position, a status, as described by Jesus when He said that the kingdom of God is within you. (See Luke 17:21.) But, those reaching this state of Godly living in the here and now, having entered it through the “water and the Spirit”, will also ultimately be in a place reigning with Christ when He returns physically to rule on this earth as Lord and King.
I realize that the above teaching will come as shock to most readers. It was a shock when first presented to me. Most of us have been taught that entering the “kingdom of God” is simply going to heaven when one dies as a result of being saved, but the scriptures don’t really align with this limitation. The kingdom of God is something very specific and not all are willing to enter it. If you are born again, you can “see” the entrance, but entering isn’t automatic. It requires diligent, consecrated, obedient and holy living. This understanding should never produce a “holier than thou” attitude in hard-working believers. However, there’s certainly nothing wrong with having the hope continually pictured in the forefront of your mind. God alone knows for sure those who have sufficiently readied themselves to enter the kingdom of God, but humbly laying our lives down as servants of Christ should be the intent of every Christian.
Thus, we must conclude that there’s a vast difference between spirit and soul and their salvations because the Lord Himself taught it through these beautiful illustrations.
Now let’s get back to some of those other questions initially raised:
Where does the spirit go at death? What happens to the soul at death? How is unconfessed sin dealt with if a person dies with sin left to his charge? What and where is hell? Where do the spirits of the unsaved go upon natural death?
The apostle Paul makes clear in 2 Corinthians 5:8 that he was “confident” and “pleased” that to be absent from the body would be to be “present with the Lord”. He was surely referring to the fact that some aspect of his being would go immediately to be with Christ if he were to die. The same connotation is revealed in Philippeans 1:21 where Paul also said, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Paul obviously believed that his “gain” was to go be with the Lord at physical death. What, specifically, goes to be with the Lord?
Well, whether saved or unsaved, the body goes to the grave at death, so that part is clearly and unarguably understood by all. That leaves the soul and the spirit. Does the soul go immediately into the presence of the Lord upon natural death? I don’t think so, not exactly in the same sense as the believer’s spirit anyway. But we’ll look at that a little later.
So, this leaves the sealed spirit to consider. We know from 1 John 5:18 that those born of God “sinneth not”, which refers to the spiritual state of saved spirits only. This verse is usually interpreted like this: “A saved person will not practice sin as a way of life”. This may be a true statement for some Christians, but it does not allow the verse to be literally believed. However, we can see that the verse can also be taken at face value once we understand that the “new man” is an absolutely perfect being in one’s spirit. Even sinless. This is the part that goes to heaven upon natural death. Only the sealed spirit is presently fully prepared to approach God at His throne, for it alone is already the absolutely-perfected part of us. This is what Paul was alluding to when he said, “We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord”. (2 Cor. 5:8)
To recap, after physical death, the only part of us which is fully prepared to be absent from the body and then be present with the Lord is the saved “new man” who is sealed in our spirit. Actually, the Bible teaches that the saved spirit is in Christ Jesus even now. (See Eph. 2:6&7.) We are also called the “body of Christ” (1 Cor.12:27). If our still-sin-prone souls were fully sealed into Christ Jesus now, then He would still have sin in Him and that just can’t be so in His resurrected body. Jesus became sin only once, and sin shall never again taint Him or His present position. Today, He can only have in Him that which is absolutely perfect. Since the cross, it is only the total number of perfect, “new man” spirits for whom He died who are in Him.
But what about the soul? Does it go immediately to heaven when one dies? In discussing this issue of whether the spirit and soul are synonymous terms, some have referred me to Revelation 6:9 which says:
“When He opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held.”
Superficial reading of this verse might cause one to conclude that these souls couldn’t be viewed any differently than if they had been called spirits. But let me point out something that may have been overlooked. Notice where the souls are. They are “under the altar”. The Greek is even more emphatic, rendering the place as “underneath the altar”. The precise location of this reference point is unclear, but I suspect would likely be associated with “paradise” (Luke 23:43; 2 Cor.12:4; Rev. 2:7) and “Abraham’s bosom” (Luke 16:22). I think all the souls of all the spirits which have been born again in Christ are here.
These souls are obviously not in the same place the apostle Paul foresaw himself if he should die. Paul said he would be “present” with the Lord, whereas these saints mentioned in Rev. 6:9 are “underneath” the altar. This is obviously a special place of reservation for certain souls (remembering that the soul is comprised of the mental, willful and emotional side of believers as opposed to the perfected, spiritual “new man” state of the sealed spirit). The soul represents the human side of life and personality. That’s why their outcry sounds so common and normal to us as they say, “...How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”
There is no doubt that these are the souls of saved people destined to spend eternity with God. In fact, they are a very special group of believers: martyred saints. Apparently these would include all the saints of God throughout all the ages who have literally given their lives for the cause of God. In a later verse (11), they are told to “...rest a little while longer, until both the number of their fellow servants and their brethren, who would be killed as they were, was completed.”
It’s interesting that these are told to “rest”. It would be unreasonable to believe that the “begotten”, born-of-God spirit will ever be impatient. God’s “begotten” work is perfect work. It needs no improvement. Man had no part in this work. The “new man” will never seek a better state or need to rest. The “new man” rests in Christ alone and that is quite sufficient. But even after physical death, the soul is still in a holding state, waiting for its final perfection which will occur at the Judgment Seat of Christ where any residual “wood, hay and stubble” will be burned away. Souls, even deceased ones, are still capable of looking longingly ahead for their final purification and portion which God has prepared for them.
Wherever “underneath the altar” is, we know there will be no need for the set-aside soul to struggle anymore to overcome the devil, the world, and sin. But, based on this scripture it appears that there will be a certain restlessness experienced in deceased souls until all three aspects of their total being are rejoined on resurrection day. For all the saved, there will be a perfect new body and a perfected soul which will be united with the already-perfect spirit. The martyred saints were given white robes as a token of promise in anticipation of that day.
What about the unsaved?
The Bible teaches that the unsaved will go to hell. Everlasting fire was designed for the devil and his angels but the unsaved will go there too (Matt. 25:41).
There are two Greek names for which hell is used by translators of our English Bibles. Hades and Gehenna. Hades is the place for departed spirits and souls of the unsaved. (Luke 10:15; 16:23; Acts 2:27, 31; Rev. 1:16; Rev. 6:8; Rev. 20:13 & 14.) Gehenna is the place of final and awful torment by fire, which is what most of us think of when we speak of hell. (Matt. 5:22,29&30; Matt. 10:28; Matt. 18:9; Matt. 23:15&33; Mark 9:43,45,47; Luke 12:5; James 3:6)
The body is obviously destined for the grave in everyone. The unsaved will have never had a “new man” implanted in their spirits, so these spirits will likely remain joined to the soul when physical death occurs. Thus, in this case we can probably correctly label the everlasting part of the unsaved like this: spirit/soul. All the unsaved spirits/souls will be sent to Hades to wait for the Great White Throne Judgment. (Rev. 20:11-15) The resurrection of these will occur after the 1000-year reign of Christ on this earth when they will face their final judgment.
There is another subject which ties in here. What does the apostle Paul mean in 1 Corinthians chapter 3 when he speaks of Christian works being tested by “fire”? What and where is this fire? Does it relate to Gehenna hell fire? Most Christians believe that Gehenna is only for the unsaved where they will join the devil and his angels. But let’s look at a Scripture which addresses this:
“But the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.” (Rev. 21:8)
Is it possible that this could be referring to unfaithful, carnal Christians (rather than the unsaved, as most teachers ascribe to this verse)?
Christians can be “unbelieving” (i.e., lacking in faithful works). Actually, some people who claim to be Christians have been guilty of all the above practices. Now one may pose the question as to whether they were ever truly saved. However, as we have discussed throughout this study, all Christians still face temptations and do in fact still sin. If the above verse refers to the unsaved being sent to everlasting torment, this would mean that anyone who has ever committed any of these particular sins could never be saved. We know this is impossible for many saints of God in the past have committed such acts and yet later received God’s forgiveness. Going to heaven is a certain thing if one has ever been spiritually set aside for salvation.
But notice the language, it doesn’t say that those who commit these things shall spend eternity in this place, it says they “shall have their part” there. Could this not be the “fire” which Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 3? This is an awesome thing to consider, isn’t it? It goes strongly against the teaching that once you are saved, you never have to worry about punishment because Jesus took God’s total wrath against sin upon Himself. Truly, Christ paid for our sins, but that doesn’t mean there are no consequences resulting from sins which believers continue to commit. We have the option of dealing with our sins through confession and repentance as we live out our daily lives, but some Christians continue to live sinfully. Such people are carnal Christians. Carnality will have to be dealt with sometime, somewhere. It seems quite reasonable that the time and place could be as described in the above Scripture.
Please don’t misunderstand me. Gehenna hell is a permanent place of destruction which lasts forever. And all the unsaved will be there forever. But this may possibly be the crucible where Christian works are tested (1 Cor. 3:13). We know that the “wood, hay and stubble” will be burned somewhere, so that the “gold, silver, and precious stones” can remain. Is it Gehenna? This understanding seems quite feasible to me. Someday we shall know for sure.
We have covered in some detail the answers to certain perplexing questions which many brothers and sisters have asked over the years. Some key points are that careful study of the Bible reveals that there are remarkable and distinct differences between the spirit and soul and body of humans, and that likewise their salvations are also quite different. This is true in spite of the fact that surface understanding tends to limit our reasoning that a human being is only one composite entity. And in a sense, this is of course true. As we walk about in this life, the spirit and soul are all tied together in our one body. But as we look at the scriptures, we see descriptions of what we are that only make good sense when we differentiate each aspect of the way the Bible says we are made, i.e., in the “image of God”, meaning triune in nature.
The salvation of the spirit is a work done by the Lord Jesus Christ and becomes completed in the life of an individual when God calls us by name unto Himself. We saw that this requires no work on the part of the person. Even the faith to believe the Gospel is a gift, the Bible says.
However, the Bible also declares in many places that believers are called to obedience, and that the results of obedience will lead to rewards which will be dispensed at the Judgment Seat of Christ. We also learned that if believers disobey and/or are slothful, that the poor “construction” works put on the foundation of their faith will be burned away and the rewards that could have been theirs will be disallowed. All this is a function of what happens in the process of soul salvation during this life. Soul salvation is works based. (See Phil. 2:12 & 13.)
I believe that a new soul will be given to every believer some day (which for the saved of this generation, will occur at the Judgment Seat of Christ). We see through a “glass darkly” here, but I think this new soul will be comprised of what God the Father and Jesus have sovereignly prepared, plus what we, empowered by the Holy Spirit, have personally put on the foundation of our faith in Jesus during our current, human lifetimes. We know that we can put “...gold, silver, precious stones” on our foundation, or we can put on “wood, hay, or straw”. This is partly how we “save” our souls. We save our souls by laying our lives down for the cause of Christ. (Remember, saving our souls is not the same thing as saving our spirits, which is an already-accomplished work of God through the Lord Jesus Christ.)
The Bible says that the quality of what we place on the foundation will be tested by “fire”. The foundation in all cases is the same, for that is Christ Himself. And that part is perfect, which as we have seen, applies first to the spirit alone. What we add is our business, which is probably one of the main misunderstandings of Scripture found among teachers and believers in the Church today, thus my reason for belaboring the point in several different ways throughout this study.
Lastly, even though we should strive to do good works and so-doing enhance our rewards to be received at the Judgment Seat of Christ, expectation of the rewards should not be the main motivation to be obedient. The exaltation of good and faithful Christians which will come later is God’s business. Our chief desire should simply be to serve our Master for what He has already done for us. Jesus saved us believers from everlasting destruction. He also walks with us in the here and now, providing us great joy by shedding His love abroad in our hearts for Him, other believers, and also for the whole, lost-and-dying world.
Personal meekness and humility are a hard goal to reach. Jesus manifested this trait perfectly when He walked the earth. Our primary attempt should be to emulate Him. God’s rewards will be a great bonus in addition to spending eternity with Him. Rewards represent the “icing on the cake”. But isn’t it wonderful to ponder all the awesome things God has prepared for those of us who love Christ our Lord and look gladly towards His soon, second coming?
Lance Johnson, O.D