Ambassador College students were among the first to be introduced to a doctrine God was revealing through His servant Herbert W. Armstrong—the “spirit in man.” I was among those students on the Pasadena campus and remember some of the details of how it came about.
The mid to late 1960s was a long time ago, so I may not have every detail precisely correct. However, a bright young student came to Ambassador College while pursuing a doctorate at the University of California, Los Angeles. This man’s doctoral thesis explored the non-physical component of the human mind. He demonstrated through his studies that as the size and complexity of animal brains increase, so does the intelligence of the animals, but when it comes to human beings, the intelligence level far exceeds what it should be based on the size of the human brain.
Why? And why are the creatures with larger brains than ours not superior to man?
Both Mr. Armstrong and this young student recognized that there is something about the mind of man that lacks a physical explanation, but neither of them had the full explanation. Yet the answer they sought had been in the Bible ever since that book of all books had been completed near the end of the first century!
How much this answer was understood in antiquity, we do not know. But, at least in modern times, it was not understood by God’s Church until God began to open Mr. Armstrong’s eyes to it. Yet, once it is pointed out, the doctrine is obvious and easy to understand—and it is clearly biblical. Further, it lets us understand questions that cannot otherwise be answered.
An Immortal Soul Is Not the Answer
Mr. Armstrong saw early on that the doctrine of the immortal soul is one of the greatest deceptions ever foisted upon mankind. It is not only a satanic lie on its own, but also leads to other doctrinal errors. Consider: If one has an immortal soul, what happens to it at death? Does it go to heaven? To hell? To purgatory? What happens to the soul of one who has never heard the name of Jesus Christ? What about infants and children? Is there a name other than Jesus Christ by which we may be saved?
All these are questions arising out of the immortal soul lie and the many false doctrines spawned by that lie. It is important to know what a human spirit is not—and it is not an immortal soul!
Then, in the mid to late 1960s, Mr. Armstrong began to point the Church to scriptures—which had been in the Bible all along—that spoke of what the human spirit is: a spirit given to man that separates him from animals. Once one sets aside the erroneous immortal soul doctrine, the truth begins to become clear. It is easier to learn something new correctly than to understand truth when the mind is filled with falsehoods.
The idea of an immortal soul began in the Garden of Eden, as did many other false doctrines. God instructed the first man and woman about two trees—the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The latter tree symbolized man choosing to determine good and evil himself, and this is the tree our first parents chose. God told them that to choose this tree would bring death (Genesis 2:17).
Satan, in the form of a serpent, told them that God had lied! “Then the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not surely die’” (Genesis 3:4). That was only part of what he told them, as seen by God’s question in verse 11: “And He said, ‘Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you that you should not eat?’”
Notice the dual nature of the devil’s lie: He denied that Adam and Eve would die and induced them to sin and feel shame about their naked mortal bodies. This dual teaching was the beginning of the immortal soul lie: The body is evil, but there is a soul in it that will live forever. It was Satan, not God, who introduced shame—and the lie that man is immortal.
This is why most of the major religions believe in an immortal soul in one form or another. As Encyclopedia.com informs us, “With all their diversity of beliefs, the major religions are in accord in one great teaching: Human beings are immortal and their spirit comes from a divine world and may eventually return there” (“How the Major Religions View the Afterlife”).
Regarding professing Christian beliefs, “human beings seem always to have had some notion of a shadowy double that survives the death of the body. But the idea of the soul as a mental entity, with intellectual and moral qualities, interacting with a physical organism but capable of continuing after its dissolution [death], derives in Western thought from Plato and entered into Judaism during approximately the last century before the Common Era and thence into Christianity” (“Christianity,” Britannica.com).
The Problem Began in the Garden
Why is it that people do not believe God? They may quote it, but they do not truly accept His simple statement: “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:16–17). Neither do they believe the Apostle Paul’s plain declaration that “the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).
And what about the most famous verse of the Bible? “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). The seventh chapter of our booklet John 3:16: Hidden Truths of the Golden Verse presents more biblical evidence to prove that we are mortal beings.
Understanding of the biblical definition of the soul has been corrupted. The word translated soul in English comes from the Hebrew nephesh. Sometimes it is translated “soul,” other times “body” or “creature.” We learn from Genesis 2:7 that man does not have a soul, but rather is a soul (King James Version, Jubilee Bible 2000, World English Bible).
If man is a living soul, this indicates that there can be a dead soul! That is precisely what several passages tell us (Leviticus 21:11; Numbers 6:6; 19:11). In each of these scriptures, nephesh is translated “body.” Then there is Ezekiel 18, which translates nephesh as soul and tells us directly that a soul can die (vv. 4, 20)!
No wonder the New Bible Commentary: Revised breaks with popular “Christian” doctrine when commenting on Matthew 10:28: “The soul in biblical thought is not immortal, except when new life is conferred upon it through Christ.” So, while this truth is known in some circles, it rarely trickles down to the average churchgoer.
The Source of Man’s Intelligence
The doctrine of the spirit in man has nothing in common with the doctrine of the immortal soul, even though it is easy to confuse the two. While man does not have an ever-living soul, he does have a spirit within him. “But there is a spirit in man, and the breath of the Almighty gives him understanding” (Job 32:8). We also read of “the burden of the word of the Lord against Israel. Thus says the Lord, who stretches out the heavens, lays the foundation of the earth, and forms the spirit of man within him” (Zechariah 12:1).
It is difficult to unlearn error. That is why it must be emphasized that this spirit in man is not the same as the false concept of an immortal soul. It is something entirely different. The spirit in man has no separate consciousness that lives on after death. Scripture is explicit about that. “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work or device or knowledge or wisdom in the grave where you are going” (Ecclesiastes 9:10).
Whatever else this spirit is, it does not carry on with consciousness after death. “Do not put your trust in princes, nor in a son of man, in whom there is no help. His spirit departs, he returns to his earth; in that very day his plans [or “thoughts” (KJV, JUB, WEB)] perish” (Psalm 146:3–4). When a man dies, the spirit departs, and the man has no consciousness of anything until resurrection.
Paul gives us the clearest explanation of this spirit and, in doing so, gives us the clue to one of life’s greatest mysteries—why is man so high above the animals intellectually? The difference is staggering. How can man send men to the moon and bring them back safely? Consider everything that made it possible: metal, machines, computers, mathematical calculations, condensing oxygen into liquid form, drilling for and refining petroleum products, transmitting signals over vast distances, and so much more.
No animal, no matter how large its brain, comes remotely close to the intellect of man. The gulf could hardly be greater.
In the first part of 1 Corinthians 2:11, Paul explains this difference: “For what man knows the things of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him?” Without that human spirit, man would be no more intelligent than the beasts of the earth.
A dog or cat has a brain that can respond to stimuli received through its senses. Animals’ brains give them instincts and basic functions, letting you know when they are hungry, when they need to go outside, etc. They have memory enough to learn to avoid danger and know who feeds them. They even have differences in personality. They are marvelous creatures that we dearly love—but they cannot build a computer.
How different man is! The spirit in man empowers the brain not merely to learn, but to think, reason, calculate, invent, and innovate. Mankind can not only read and write, but can contemplate eternity. “He [God] has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, He has put eternity in their hearts, except that no one can find out the work that God does from beginning to end” (Ecclesiastes 3:11).
This spirit essence empowers man to think on a level far above the animals, but it does not of itself think. It does not live of itself. It does not experience pain or suffering. The human body and brain do that.
The average human being is totally oblivious to this. Unless he studies the subject of the human mind, he probably never even considers why he is different from the animals—he simply accepts that he is. Paul explains why only a few understand how the human mind truly works: The operating power of God’s Holy Spirit enables us to understand things that those without God’s Spirit cannot. In the second half of 1 Corinthians 2:11, Paul writes, “Even so no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God.”
So, we find two spirits. The first we are given as a result of being human, made in the form and image of God but with temporary, physical life. The second only comes to those who are called, are granted repentance and repent of sin—thus responding to God working in them—are baptized, and have hands laid upon them by the ministry in order to receive God’s Spirit.
But why did God empower the mind of man by means of some kind of spirit essence? Could He not just as easily have given him a more powerful brain? The answer is amazing!
God declared at the very beginning that He had a special purpose for us; He said, “‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:26–27).
God created us to have a special relationship with Him, unlike any other living physical creature. This relationship is revealed in Paul’s letter to the Romans: “For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God” (8:14). This Parent/child relationship is also spelled out in Hebrews 2:5–18.
This special family relationship begins with the joining of the spirit in man with the Holy Spirit of God. Notice: “The Spirit Himself [the Holy Spirit] bears witness with our spirit [the spirit in man] that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together” (Romans 8:16–17).
Imagine. Children of God, heirs of God, and joint heirs with Christ! I have used the masculine in this article for simplicity’s sake, as the English language for centuries used masculine forms rather than neuter to indicate a group of both sexes, but God does not leave women out of His plan:
As God has said: “I will dwell in them and walk among them. I will be their God, and they shall be My people.” Therefore “come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you.” “I will be a Father to you, and you shall be My sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty” (2 Corinthians 6:16–18).
This Father/child relationship is more than figurative. As we read above, the Spirit of God unites with the spirit in man. What we see here is conception, such as when a sperm and egg come together in the body of a woman. The egg is like the human spirit, while the seed represents the Holy Spirit, as shown in 1 John 3:9: “Whoever has been [begotten] of God does not [practice] sin, for His seed [Greek: sperma] remains in him; and he cannot [practice] sin, because he has been [begotten] of God.”
The Lesson for Us
What an amazing plan God is working out here below! Understanding the spirit in man opens a whole new vista. It explains how God is recording everything about us. Just as a tape, compact disc, or memory stick records information, so the spirit in man records who we are, what we look like, the knowledge we have learned, and the character—or lack thereof—that we have built during our lifetimes.
Our bodies will decay upon death and return to the dust from which they came, but the spirit in man will have preserved a record that will be “plugged into” a new body. If the Holy Spirit has united with our human spirit, that new body will be a spirit body of radiant power (1 Corinthians 15:35–49)! Others will have to wait for the second resurrection to have that opportunity.
Just as the combined sperm and egg must begin to grow within the mother, so must we grow following the conception brought about by the union of these two spirits. We are not to be “figurative” children, but truly sired, engendered by the Father, eventually to be spirit-born children of God at the resurrection, if we multiply our minas (Luke 19:12–27).
We were not called to sit back and do nothing. We were called to do a Work!
This is also why it is so important for us to draw close to Him, to respond to the promptings of the Spirit—to grow in grace, knowledge, and holy, righteous character. As the Master Potter, with our earnest cooperation, God will mold and shape us into His spiritual image and nature, crafting each of us into the unique child of His that He wants us to become.
“But now, O Lord, You are our Father; we are the clay, and You our potter; and all we are the work of Your hand” (Isaiah 64:8).