Do human beings have an indwelling spirit, or do they have spirit? Answering affirmatively to the first question (i.e., humans have an indwelling spirit?), then one seems to be thinking dualistically. That is to say, human beings possess an inner ethereal spiritual "essence" that is distinguishable from the "stuff" of the material body.
In the Western literary tradition the idea that human beings are dualistically comprised is found as early as Homer (8th century BCE?): "In Homer, the psyche [soul] is what leaves the body on death (i.e., life, or breath?), but also [it is]an insubstantial image of the dead person, existing in Hades and emphatically not something alive. But some vague idea of psyche as the essence of the individual, capable of surviving the body…is well-established by the fifth century…"1 In the Western Philosophical tradition the survival of the soul (psyche) is well established in Plato's writings (5th century?): "Throughout the dialogues Plato expresses that a person's soul is an entity distinct from the living embodied person, attached to it…"2
Among the Greeks this survivable essence of human beings was also described as spirit (pneuma), a term coterminous with psyche (soul): "[a]t death it (pneuma/psyche) is separated from [the body], for, breath-like, it escapes with the last breath, returning to fulfill its higher destiny in the element from which it came or in the upper region to which it is by nature related, in the atmosphere of heaven or the aether…"3
The Apostle Paul used similar language (e.g., 1 Thess 5:23) and embraced the idea that after death there was still a future for a regenerated human being (Phil 1:19-24). Nevertheless, Paul did not share the Greek idea that the human body was a perishable shell housing an eternal spirit or soul; rather, Paul shared the Hebrew idea (Gen 2:7) that people are living beings whose perishable nature in the end will become imperishable, immortal, and spiritual (1 Cor 15:35-57; what is transformed is the whole person not an ethereal spirit or soul that indwells the body and leaves the body behind at death. Although at times he certainly sounds dualistic (2 Cor 5:1-10).4
In a secular modern sense, however, the human spirit is regarded as "an attitude or principle that inspires, animates, or pervades thought, feeling, or action."5 To judge from human behavior the human spirit can be either evil or idealistic—that is, it can inspire actions that are either egregiously harmful or inspirationally helpful to the human situation. The seat of attitudes lies in the mind, and arises from our intellect, emotions, fears, passions, creativity, and will, and is conditioned by our nurture and personal experiences.
Hence, if the Greeks are correct, human beings are dualistically conceived; they are comprised of an eternal spirit/soul housed in a perishable body. If Paul is correct, human beings do not house either a spirit or a soul but are living beings. If current secular sentiment is correct human beings have spirit, that is to say they have attitudes that excel, flounder, or lie somewhere in between. How does it seem to you?
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
1Christopher Rowe, "Soul," Oxford Classical Dictionary, 1428.
2Kenneth Dover, "Plato," Oxford Classical Dictionary, 1192.
3Hermann Kleinknecht, "pneuma," Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 6.336.
4For a discussion of Pauline anthropology see Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, 203-10.
5Random House Dictionary, s.v. "spirit."