What happens to an unbeliever's spirit when his body dies? Will it return to God? Or as man is tripartite, will his spirit, body and soul suffer for eternity in Hell?
First, human beings consist of two parts: a material and immaterial part. Our body is the material and our spirit the immaterial. There is no third part. At times Scripture uses poetic language to describe human existence in terms beyond body and spirit, yet these instances were not intended to serve as literal descriptions of our existence.
For example, consider these passages:
1Th. 5:23 Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Luke 10:27 And he answered, “YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR STRENGTH, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND; AND YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.”
Mark 12:30 AND YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND, AND WITH ALL YOUR STRENGTH.’
Heb. 4:12 For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
Notice in each case, that the writer describes human existence with a variety of terms yet each example uses different terms. If these descriptions were intended to be definitive descriptions of the human existence, then we would have to say Scripture conflicts in its descriptions. Obviously, Scripture doesn’t conflict with itself, and therefore we must understand these descriptions to be poetic ways of emphasizing the “all” of a person’s being. In the same way we might write, “I love you with every part of my being,” these writers were describing the “all" of a person by using a variety of terms in poetic fashion.
Therefore, we cannot use such passages to teach the makeup of a human being. When Scripture does teach on this point, it always emphasizes two parts: a physical body that returns to dust and an eternal spirit that will find its home either with God or away from God. The Bible never speaks about the eternal disposition of a third part.
Secondly, the Bible is utterly clear that when the body dies, the spirit of a person must dwell forever either with God (i.e., a believer) or away from God (i.e., an unbeliever). The sin of a person is found in our spirit (called a “dead” spirit), and the spirit’s sin nature causes the body to be unclean as well. For this reason, God’s plan of salvation requires that the spirit be put to death and a new spirit be born inside us (Jesus calls this being “born again”), and likewise our body must be put to death and replaced with a new one.
All believers have been given a new, perfect spirit from the moment of salvation, yet we continue to live in our old, sinful body. Paul explains that we continue to sin because our flesh leads our spirit into sin, yet we should not allow this to happen. We should resist the flesh and live in the spirit. For a more complete understanding of these important matters, please listen to our Romans Bible Study.