What Is a Human Being?

October 2, 2018 · 1570 words · 8 minute read Philosophy   Ontology   Human Beings   Christian Worldview   Psychosomatic Unity   Gnosticism   Naturalism  

A brief consideration of what a human being is from a Christian worldview and why it matters.

“Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth. God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them."1

“What is man that You magnify him, and the You set Your heart on him…"2

“To properly understand man, one must do so from a God-centered perspective."3

“The Chest - Magnanimity - Sentiment - these are the indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man. It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal."4

Why Does it Matter?

Before diving into an ontological description of a human being, I would like to convince you of the importance of this question. It is easy to approach questions like this in a way that does not appreciate the importance of the question for everyday, practical life. To demonstrate the importance of how we define a human being, let’s consider two prevalent, erroneous views of a human being and examine the repercussions of accepting one of these worldviews.

Worldview Case-Study 1: Naturalism

The first and most common worldview we will examine is the worldview of naturalism. This view, held by most in the modern, Western world, asserts that a human being is only physical; that is, a human being and a human being’s actions can be explained entirely by biological, chemical, and physical processes. Consider the questions and repercussions which attend this worldview. For example, if our actions are the result merely of the chemical processes in our brains (which are determined by our genetics and upbringing - both of which are outside of our control), are human beings responsible for evil? Is there even such a thing as evil if everything determined by physical processes? The atrocities of the twentieth century attest to the devastating impacts of worldviews which view human beings as merely physical machines.5 As a short aside, I want to be clear that I do not intend this paragraph as a refutation of the naturlistic view of a human being (although I disagree with this ideology). An idea is not necessarily wrong just because it raises many difficult questions and has led to atrocities. The same thing could be said of Christianity. My point is that how someone defines a human being raises important questions and has a tremendous effect on how life is to be lived.

Worldview Case-Study 2: Gnosticism

The second erroneous view of a human being states that human beings are “merely spiritual beings dwelling in a temporary shell”.6 This is the position of Gnosticism (and similar ideologies). Christianity has done battle against Gnosticism for centuries. Adopting Gnosticism has historically led to a misuse of the body either in the form of asceticism (because the body is evil and ought to be punished rather than cherished) or of licentiousness (because the body is viewed as separate from the spirit and, therefore, the deeds done in the body do not effect the spirit). Again we see that our understanding of what a human being is has a tremendous impact on how we live.

What is a Human Being?

Human Beings are Both Physical and Non-Physical

So what is a human being according to a Christian worldview? Tertullian of Carthage put it this way:

“Now, neither the soul by itself alone is ‘man’… nor is the flesh without the soul ‘man’: for after the exile of the soul from it, it has the title of corpse. Thus the designation of man is, in a certain sense, the bond between the two closely united substances, under which designation they cannot but be coherent natures."7

The Christian view of a human is that a human being has both a physical (material) and non-physical (immaterial) component. This unity of physical and non-physical is called the “Psychosomatic Unity”. Exactly how many components make up a human being is the subject of debate.8 The “Biblical Doctrine” systematic theology book describes a human being as a “complex unity” because the “material (body) and immaterial (soul/spirit) function together in one person, embracing both unity and diversity. This complex unity is conditional, since death in a fallen world separates body and spirit (James 2:26). Yet this separation is temporary, since all people are headed for resurrection, a reunion of body and spirit in eternal forms”.8 The argument that a human being has both a physical and non-physical components based on passages like:

“For just as the body without the spirit is dead…"9

“At night my soul longs for You, Indeed, my spirit within me seeks You diligently”10

“Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell”11

God Has Future Plans for Both the Physical and Non-Physical

Not only do human beings have both a physical and non-physical components, but God also has a plan for both the body and the soul. Consider the following passages:

“But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you."12

“For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body."13

“For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself."14

“Many of those who sleep in the dust of the group will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting abhorrence."15

“For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol;Nor will You allow Your Holy One to undergo decay."16

There are numerous passages which equate our resurrections with Christ’s, which, in my thinking, implies we will experience both a physical and spiritual resurrection as Christ did.17


How does the psychosomatic unity impact the way we live? There are many impacts of this truth; perhaps many more ways that may at first appear. I will only touch on two of these ways. First, understanding what a human being is should help us understand that a life well lived is one that balances the different parts of who we are. You are at least a body and a spirit/soul. You have a mind, emotions, and will. Every day, you should be living in a way that takes care of and addresses each of these parts. Do you train, protect, and grow your body? Do you do the same for your mind? How about your soul? The way you spend time every day should reflect the components that make you a human being. As a professor once put it:

If I see you in the library every day but never in the gym, that makes me nervous. And if I see you in the gym every day but never in the library, that makes me nervous too.

As it relates to your sanctification:

“Christian spirituality must take into consideration the whole person. Physically, believers must encourage healthy habits of diet, activity, sleep, and other bodily disciplines that promote a healthy mind and spiritual disposition (1 Tim. 4:8, 5:23; 3 John 1:2). Intellectually, believers must acquire knowledge of a variety of subjects and develop skills in critical thinking and communication (1 kings 4:29-34; Prov. 1:5; Dan. 1:17)."18

The second way that the psychosomatic unity impacts our lives that I’m going to address is in the area of helping others and meeting needs. Christian counseling and the practice of giving to fellow believers in need are both founded on the principle that human beings have physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual needs. Believers must recognize and met physical needs as well as spiritual and other needs (see James 2:12-17 and 1 John 3:17-18). Additionally, believers must today must be wary not to over-emphasize physical needs. One of the mistakes of the “social justice” movement is that it puts a greater emphasis on physical (bodily) needs rather than spiritual needs.19 Physical needs are important and should be met as much as possible, but Christians must also be concerned with meeting eternity-defining, spiritual needs.


How we define a human being is important. It will dictate how we live and how we treat other human beings. The biblically-derived doctrine of psychosomatic unity helps us understand what a human being is and live in light of this ontological truth.

Future Research

If human beings are ontologically and essentially a psychosomatic unity, when a human being dies and the body is separated from the soul (James 2:26), does that mean that a human being ceases to be a human being? I hope to research this question in the future, but I’d love some input if you have thoughts on the matter.