Trichotomy has been defended in a number of ways. In popular Christian literature and preaching, it is asserted that since God is a Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and since humans are created in God’s image, humans too are tripartite, composed of a body, a soul, and a spirit. But such analogies are unnecessary inferences and not properly drawn from the biblical data.
Two biblical texts are often used to demonstrate trichotomy to be the biblical teaching. Several early Christian writers found confirmation of trichotomy in the words of Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5:23: “May the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Yet in the light of the cumulative biblical data, another intention on Paul’s part is apparent. The Apostle is not cataloging the constituent elements of human nature any more than Jesus was doing so in Luke 10:27 when He said, “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.” As Jesus does, Paul uses multiple terms for the sake of emphasis.
The most widely used proof-text for trichotomy is Hebrews 4:12: “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.” Trichotomists argue that a division is made between soul and spirit, indicating that they cannot be synonymous. But the idea of “division” is never used in Scripture in the sense of distinguishing between two different things. It is always used when distributing and dividing up various aspects of the same thing (Matt. 27:35; Luke 11:17–18; John 19:24; Heb. 2:4). The author’s point is not that the Word divides soul from spirit as though these were two distinct elements of human nature but that the Word of God divides soul and spirit in the sense of penetrating into our innermost parts.
The difference between trichotomy and biblical dichotomy has significant consequences that inevitably inform a Christian understanding of the creation account and essential human nature. For instance, trichotomy holds that God does not redeem the whole person in this life (body and soul) but places a regenerate (eternal) spirit within us that does not need redemption.
God has made us in His image, entailing a bodily element suitable for earthly existence and prefiguring Christ’s incarnation. God gives us souls (or spirits) with conscious self-awareness that desire to and are able to commune with Him. Death (our great enemy) is the separation of that which God has joined together. It is the curse upon a fallen race, not our liberation from things material. In the general resurrection at the end of the age, God raises us as “spiritual bodies” (redeemed bodies and souls) that are imperishable and that, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15, are raised in power and therefore suited for the eternal glories of heaven.