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Which part of human beings goes to be with the Lord at death?
Listen to Alan Jackson sing, ‘I’ll fly away’.
Dottie Rambo & The Crabb Family, ‘Tears will never stain the streets of that city’
By Spencer D Gear PhD
A person asked on a Christian forum:
What is the actual substance of spirit? We know God is a Spirit [John 4:24]; Jesus says so and I do believe scripture states that God is the Father of spirits [Heb 12:9].
But what is spirit and the substances thereof? Also, just how powerful is spirit in comparison to the physical part of creation? Which is greater?
I’m not sure Christians as a whole really understand just what spirit is.
1. What is spirit?
Scripture uses various descriptions of the inner, immaterial part of human beings. These include mind (Phil 4:7), heart (Prov 4:23), spirit (1 Cor 2:11) and soul (Rom 13:1).
The purpose of this article is not to differentiate among these aspects of the inner being. I seek to examine the meaning of spirit as it applies to human beings and to God.
The Old Testament speaks of the ‘Spirit of the Lord’ (Isa 61:1; Job 33:4) or the ‘Spirit of God’ (Gen 1:2). The word for ‘Spirit’ is the Hebrew, ruach, or pneuma (Greek). When it is associated with the human spirit, it can mean:
The immaterial part of human beings that is often used interchangeably with ‘soul’. However, are soul and spirit two different unseen parts of the human being or are the words used interchangeably? Spirit is the unseen part of human beings that is associated with,
(a) ‘one’s mood, emotional state, or general disposition’;
(b) A leading Hebrew Lexicon gives the meaning as ‘spirit (of the living, breathing being in man and animals). As gift, preserved by God, God’s spirit, departing at death, disembodied being; spirit (as seat of emotion), desire, sorrow, trouble; as seat or organ of mental acts; rarely of the will; as seat especially of moral character’.
(c) breath (Gen 6:17; 2 Chron 9:4) or wind (Gen 8:1; Amos 4:13), and
(d) that which leaves the body at death to be present with the Lord (Eccl 12:7): ‘The dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it’. This harmonises with 2 Cor 5:8, ‘We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord’.
It is not the human body that is in the presence of the Lord but the unseen dimensions of people – the soul/spirit. However, Eccl 12:7 doesn’t differentiate between believers and non-believers and their location at death. Therefore, I’m left to conclude that the spirits of all people return to God. The NT affirms: ‘Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment’ (Heb 9:27 NIV).
This Hebrew word means:
‘soul, self, life, creature, person, appetite, mind, living being, desire, emotion, passion
that which breathes, the breathing substance or being, soul, the inner being of man
From these two definitions of ruach and nephesh, one could conclude that the verses are used interchangeably and there is no point in trying to separate their meanings.
I’ve found only one verse in Scripture that divides soul from spirit: ‘For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart’ (Heb 4:12 ESV).
We can get into long discussions of tripartite (body, soul & spirit) vs bipartite (body & soul/spirit) dimensions of human beings. There is no point to separate Christian friendship over these theological matters as the Scriptures are not emphatic either way.
I find it simplest to leave it as defined by the Scriptures:
Matt 10:28 (NIV): Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell’. No ‘spirit’ is mentioned here.
James 2:26 (ESV): ‘For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead’.
Eccl 12:7 (ESV): ‘And the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it’. James 2:26 (ESV) states: ‘For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead’.
Some commentators who deny the continuation of the soul/spirit at death. They want to make Eccl 12:7 mean,
The spirit that returns to God at death is the breath of life. Nowhere in all of God’s book does the “spirit” have any life, wisdom, or feeling after a person dies. It is the “breath of life” and nothing more.
This is skipping over the above understanding of ‘spirit’.
“Spirit” represents something non-physical and normally invisible. We can conclude, except in the one case where “spirit,” ruach, or pneuma describes a being that has revealed itself, that spirit is never seen. All that is ever seen is what spirit causes, motivates, inspires, encourages, impels, triggers, stirs, provokes, stimulates, influences, or activates. Why? Because in every other sense, except where spirit clearly means a spirit being who has revealed himself, spirit is seen as a function of the mind, whether it is God’s mind, angel’s mind, or man’s mind (John D Ritenbaugh).
2. Meaning of ‘God is spirit’ (John 4:24)
This verse states: ‘God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth’.
It’s a strong pointer to the function of the human spirit. It is the immaterial dimension of human beings through which we worship God ‘in spirit and truth’. God has given spirits by which they are enabled to give God adoration.
2.1 Welcome to anthropomorphisms
Before examining the meaning of ‘spirit’ in John 4:24, we need to understand that Scripture uses anthropomorphisms to refer to God on some occasions. An anthropomorphism is ‘the attribution of human characteristics or behaviour to a god, animal, or object’ (lexico.com 2020. s.v. anthropomorphism).
Examples of this in Scripture include: God having a face (Lev 20:6), hands (Isa 23:11), arm (Ps 89:10), finger (Ex 31:18), eyes (Deut 11:12), and ear (2 Kings 19:16). God has emotions such as sorrow (Gen 6:6), jealousy (Ex 20:5), and anger (Ps 7:11).
These examples help us to better understand what God does and his emotions. We know that these examples cannot be taken literally …
‘But He answered, “You cannot see My face, for no one can see Me and live”’ (Ex 33:20 HCSB). Surely the spirit of God does not have an actual, physical face!
‘And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or repent; for he is not a man, that he should repent’ (1 Sam 15:29 RSV).
Technically, the John 4:24 text has some challenges that must not be ignored. It states, pneuma ho theos = spirit the God. There is no verb ‘to be’ in the Greek text. It has to be inserted for it to make sense in English. When we add ‘is’ [estin] we know that God is the subject of the sentence because His name is accompanied by the definite article, ‘the’. Pneuma (without the article) is the complement of the sentence (after the verb to be). However, pneuma is at the beginning of the sentence, thus placing it in the emphatic position.
This is a sound, biblical summary of the meaning of ‘God is spirit’:
Jesus told the Samaritan woman, “God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). Even though the King James Version uses the article “a” with Spirit, God should not be referred to as a Spirit, which means “one of many.” The original languages should be interpreted to read “God is spirit,” which describes his nature.
As Spirit, God is not limited by a physical body. “Spirit” means incorporeal being. God is a real Being who does not exist in or through a physical body (Luke 24:39). Although God is said to have hands (Isa. 65:2), feet (Ps. 8:6), eyes (1 Kings 8:29) and fingers (Exod. 8:19), he is not to be understood as having a physical body. God attributes human form and personality to himself in order to relate to humanity in terms meaningful to us. In some passages God is also said to have wings (Ps. 17:8; 36:7) and feathers (Ps. 91:4), but this figurative language, depicting God as a protecting mother bird, does not imply that God has a physical body.
A spirit is also invisible. Though God was in the pillar of fire that led Israel through the wilderness, he was never visible to the nation (Deut. 4:15). There are some passages in Scripture where it seems that men actually saw God (Gen. 32:30; Exod. 3:6; 34:9, 10; Num. 12:6-8; Deut. 34:10; Isa. 6:1). Actually, it would be more correct to say these men saw a reflection of God, but did not see him directly. The only ones who have seen God are those who saw Christ, “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). Because God is invisible Spirit, no one has ever seen him (John 1:18; 1 Tim. 1:17).
Since the emphasis is on ‘spirit’, it is promoting another dimension of …
2.2 God’s spirituality
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‘Spirit’ is a quality or attribute of God’s nature, as is ‘God is light’ and ‘God is love’ (1 John 1:5; 4:8). It means that God …
He is invisible. When the Lord appeared to the Israelites at Mt Horeb (Deut 4:15-19), they didn’t see any form of God. He spoke to them ‘out of the midst of the fire’. God warned Moses: ‘You cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live’ (Ex 33:20).
The Scripture writers ascribe both self-consciousness (Ex. 3: 14; Isa. 45:5; 1 Cor. 2: 10) and self-determination (Job 23:13; Rom. 9:ll; Eph. 1:9, 11; Heb. 6:17) to God. He is a being who can say “I” and “me” (Ex. 20:2f.) and can respond when addressed as “You” (Ps. 90: l ff).
Scripture also represents God as possessing the psychological characteristics of personality: intellect (Gen. 18:19; Ex. 3:7; Acts 15:18), sensibility (Gen. 6:6; Ps. 103:8,-14; John 3:16), and volition (Gen. 3:15; Ps. 115:3; John 6:38). Furthermore, it ascribes qualities and relations of personality to God. He is represented as speaking (Gen. 1:3), seeing (Gen. 11:5), hearing (Ps. 94:9), grieving (Gen. 6:6), repenting (Gen. 6:6), and being angry (Deut. 1:37), jealous (Exod. 20:5), and compassionate (Ps. 111:4). He is said to be the creator (Acts 14:15), upholder (Neh. 9:6), ruler (Ps. 75:7; Dan.-1:32), and sustainer (Ps. 104:27-30; Matt. 6:26-30) of all things (Thiessen 1949/1979:77)
God’s spirituality requires that he be
Ex 3:14: ‘God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM’ has sent me to you’”. God did not cause himself to exist. He didn’t bring himself into being. Self-existence is fundamental to his nature. Of this attribute, Thomas Aquinas (AD 1225-1274) said: He is ‘the first cause, Himself uncaused’.
All of these attributes are incorporated in God’s attribute of spirit. This is a sound description of God’s being spirit:
God’s spirituality means that God exists as a being [who] who is not made of any matter, has no parts or dimensions, is unable to be perceived by our bodily senses, and is more excellent than any other kind of existence (Grudem 1999:86).
The human spirit is the unseen internal dimension that is the fountain of the emotions and morality. It also means breath and wind. However, it is the part of human beings that goes to be with God at death.
As for ‘God is spirit’ (John 4:24), it refers to God’s spirituality. This is an attribute of God that refers to his being immaterial (no flesh & blood), invisible, living, a person, and he’s self-existent. He does not need any outside help to exist.
4. Works consulted
Grudem, W 1999. Bible doctrine: Essential teachings of the Christian faith. Inter-Varsity Press, Leicester, England.
Thiessen, H C 1949/1979. Lectures in systematic theology (rev. V D Doerksen). Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Available online at: http://media.sabda.org/alkitab-2/PDF%20Books/00045%20Thiessen%20Lectures%20in%20Systematic%20Theology.pdf (Accessed 11 August 2020).
 Christianity Board 2020. Spirit? (online), 7 August, DPMartin#1. Available at: https://www.christianityboard.com/threads/spirit.34170/ (Accessed 8 August 2020). I have taken the liberty to edit the original poster’s punctuation to make it more readable.
 This is my response as OzSpen#34.
 See NAS Old Testament Lexicon. Ruwach (online). Available at: https://www.biblestudytools.com/lexicons/hebrew/nas/ruwach-2.html. Got Questions Ministries 2020. What is the meaning of the Hebrew word ruach? (online). Available at: https://www.gotquestions.org/meaning-ruach.html (Accessed 11 August 2020).
 Ibid., NAS Old Testament Lexicon.
 The NAS Old Testament Hebrew Lexicon n.d. Nephesh (online). Available at: https://www.biblestudytools.com/lexicons/hebrew/nas/nephesh.html (Accessed 11 August 2020).
 Truth about Death n.d. What is the ‘spirit’ that returns to God at death? (online) Available at: https://www.truthaboutdeath.com/q-and-a/id/1843/what-is-the-spirit-that-returns-to-god-at-death (Accessed 11 August 2020).
 This list with references is from Compelling Truth (online) 2020. How does the Bible use anthropomorphism to talk about God? Available at: https://www.compellingtruth.org/anthropomorphism.html (Accessed 10 August 2020).
 BibleSprout.com 2020. How is God described in the Bible: The 7 special qualities of God (online). Available at: https://www.biblesprout.com/articles/god/described-in-the-bible/ (Accessed 10 August 2020).
 In Thiessen (1949/1979:78).
 The original used the impersonal, ‘that’.
Copyright © 2020 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 12 August 2020.