Theology: Soul and Spirit in Scripture

Christians sometimes wonder about the difference between the “soul” and the “spirit.” When discussing the “soul,” they wonder if it is immortal – or what happens to the “soul” when a person dies.

In order to answer these questions, we must have some basis or frame of reference for our discussion. There are many ideas about what the “soul” or “spirit” might be, but these are often simply based on feelings and speculation. A general and open-ended discussion on these concepts can bog down into a clash of uninformed opinions.

Our discussion can be more productive if we ask what the Bible say about the “soul” and “spirit.” How does Scripture use these words and how does it explain what these are?

The “Soul”

“Soul” in the Old Testament

Let’s begin with the Bible’s explanation of the “soul.” The usual word for “soul” in the Old Testament is the Hebrew word transliterated by the letters nephesh or nepes. We will use nephesh. This word occurs over 750 times in the Old Testament. We find one example in Genesis 2:7: “The Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul [nephesh]” (King James Version). The New International Version says “man became a living being.”

In the New Testament, the Greek word for “soul” is transliterated as psuche or psyche. We will use psuche. This word occurs over 100 times in the New Testament. One example is in Matthew 16:26: “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul [psuche]? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” (King James Version). In this case, the NIV retains the use of the word “soul.”

We know that nephesh and psuche are equivalent or carry essentially the same meanings because the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Septuagint, uses the Greek word to render the Hebrew term. It’s also interesting to note that the King James Version almost always uses the word “soul” to render both the Hebrew nephesh and Greek psuche. Modern translations use a variety of English words and idioms that more precisely express the meaning of these biblical words in their specific contexts. We saw that in the example of Genesis 2:7, in which the NIV translated nephesh as “a living being.”

For the above reason, to get the best sense of the meaning of “soul” as used in Scripture, and to see where the Hebrew nephesh and Greek psucheappear, it is recommended that the reader first read the citations in the King James Version. This article generally quotes from the New International Version.

Let’s begin by seeing how the Old Testament uses the word nephesh, or “soul.” A human being becomes alive (that is, “a living being” or “soul”) only when the “breath of God” is breathed into him (Genesis 2:7). Nephesh can be applied to animals as well as human beings, and thus, either are “souls” (Genesis 1:20, 24, 30; Ezekiel 47:9). This simply means that animals, as well as humans, are living beings or creatures.

The death or disappearance of the “soul” is described as the breath ceasing from an individual (Genesis 35:18). The “soul,” then, is seen as the life possessing quality of humans and animals, and it is that which makes them living beings. In modern terms, we could say the “soul” or nephesh is the life-principle, or simply, life. Put in an existential context the nephesh is the self or person. In this way, the word can even refer to a “dead self” – a dead body (Leviticus 19:28; Numbers 6:6 Haggai 2:13). Usually, however, the nephesh is said to “depart” at death (Genesis 35:18). But this is a reference to life itself ceasing. Nephesh is not used for anything like the “spirit” of the dead, and this is important to note in any discussion about any supposed transcendental nature of “soul.” Quite simply put, when the Hebrew word for “soul” is used, nothing more than the person as such – as human being – is meant.

The nephesh is said to be the seat of spiritual as well as physical needs and cravings, including one’s need for God’s presence (Psalm 42:1; 63:1; 84:2; 119:20). It is the state of consciousness itself. In this connection, nephesh can be used in a general sense to stand for the seat of emotions and experiences. The “soul” can be sad, grieved, weep, rejoice, bless the Lord, be distressed, be anxious and troubled, hate and love (Genesis 42:21; Deuteronomy 28:65; 1 Samuel 18:1; Job 30:25; Psalm 6:3; 35:9; 103:1; Jeremiah 13:17). (Interestingly, the Psalmist even speaks, in Psalm 11:5, of God’s “soul” as hating wickedness.) It is associated with will as well as moral and spiritual action (Genesis 49:6; Numbers 15:27). Nephesh can stand for the full range of human needs, desires and feelings, including thought, memory and consciousness (Lamentations 3:20).

The “soul” is integral to life itself. Thus, there is a relationship between blood and the nephesh. Deuteronomy 12:23 states that “the blood is the life [nephesh].” The “soul,” then, depends on blood for its physical existence.

The “soul,” that is, the person, can die (Ezekiel 18:4, 20). Here it is said that the “soul” who sins will die. We shouldn’t make too much of this, as all this verse is saying is the obvious – a person, in this case a sinning person, will die. “Soul” is simply another word for “person,” and persons die (Numbers 35:11, 15). In this physical sense, the soul can be taken by God (Job 27:8) or be forfeited by a person (Habakkuk 2:10).

The “soul” can also be the object of salvation and redemption (Psalm 116:4; 2 Samuel 4:9). It can even be saved from Sheol, or the state or situation of death (Psalm 86:13).

The death of the nephesh, then, results in the loss of personhood. But the soul is not something we possess as such as though the person existed as a person outside of the “soul.” The “soul” is the person. The “soul” is what each person is as a human being. In fact, some modern translations often translate nephesh as “person,” as does the King James Version on occasion (1 Samuel 22:22).

The Old Testament, however, says nothing about any pre-existence or “immortality” of the nephesh, or soul. Also, we are not informed in any specific sense in the Old Testament about what happens to a person (the “soul”) who dies after his or her death. That’s because the word nepheshsimply stands for the living person as human being in this life.

Of course, in the Old Testament the dead are said to go to sheol, which is the grave, the underworld or the state of the dead (Psalm 86:13). This reflects the ancient Near Eastern idea that the dead existed in an undefined subterranean realm. But this idea only reflects an ancient way of thinking about what happens at death in terms of a “place” for the deceased. It doesn’t inform us about what really happens to the “soul” (person) at death, or if anything “happens” to him or her.

“Soul” in the New Testament

Let us now turn to the use of “soul” (psuche) in the New Testament. We have already noted that this word is equivalent to the Old Testamentnephesh. Whatever was said about the “soul” by the Old Testament word nephesh can generally apply to psuche.

Psuche denotes one’s inner life or actual personhood. God, who has created the “soul,” can also destroy it. Jesus said: “Be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). Here, Jesus differentiated between the “soul” and the body. “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul,” he said (verse 28). His words indicate that while the body is corrupted at death, the “soul” continues on, though both “soul” and body can end in soul-destroying hell.

Jesus also said: “Whoever wants to save his life [psuche] will lose it, but whoever loses his life [psuche] for me will find it” (Mathew 16:25). This is presumably speaking in metaphorical terms. While one can literally lose one’s life or “soul” as a martyr, Jesus is referring to “losing” one’s life in service to him. In related terms, the apostle Paul speaks of Christians as being willing to offer their bodies as “living sacrifices” (Romans 12:1). Paul uses the Greek word soma, which is “body.” But he obviously means that the self as a complete person is to be a living sacrifice.

Still, further, Jesus said, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life [psuche] as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). Thus, Jesus’ as “soul” or person died to pay for our sins. To play out the point, this verse implies that the “soul” can be given up in death.

Thus, while Matthew 10:28 seems to differentiate the “soul” from the body, and implies that the former cannot be killed by humans, yet paradoxically the same writer says that “soul” can be killed (Matthew 2:20). Matthew 20:28, in essence, implies that Jesus’ “soul” was killed by men at the crucifixion. As well, one can “lose” one’s “soul,” and in doing so can find Jesus. Clearly, the word psuche is used in various contexts, and it is difficult to draw any final conclusions as to what “it” (the “soul”) might be in any transcendental sense.

Notice some of these contexts. Souls can also be purified by the truth (1 Peter 1:22). They can be strengthened by ministry (Acts 14:22). Hope in God’s covenant promises provides Christians with an “anchor for the soul” (Hebrews 6:19). Souls are to be entrusted to God (1 Peter 4:19). Those who endure suffering without a loss of faith will “keep their souls” (Hebrews 10:39). But, the “soul” (person) can die, by drowning, for example (Acts 27:22).

In certain places, it appears that psuche stands for more than physical life that ceases at death. Jesus said, “The man who loves his life [psuche] will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:25). The apostle John sees, in vision, “the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained” (Revelation 6:9). Of course, we should be careful not to make too much of this usage, since Revelation is a highly symbolic book.

In 1 Thessalonians 5:23, Paul says: “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul [psuche] and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul’s use of “soul,” “spirit” and “body” in the same sentence has caused much debate over the meaning and significance of these words. In recent times, most scholars have come to view these terms as being differing aspects of one reality, which is personhood.

Paul’s use of “soul,” “spirit,” and “body” is taking note of one single human reality, but breaking it up into three component parts, which is to state the obvious. It is a way of perceiving the totality of human life. Psuche, however, we might want to further define it, is an important part of this oneness of life. If we then look at Hebrews 4:12, where the word of God is said to penetrate so deeply that it divides “soul and spirit,” we see that psuche simply means that the word of God (who is, ultimately, Jesus himself) probes the deepest parts of our personhood, or human self.

The “Spirit”

“Spirit” in the Old Testament

The Hebrew word translated in many places in the Old Testament as “spirit” is ruach. The word appears over 375 times. It can mean “wind,” “breath” or “spirit.” Most often ruach refers to the Spirit of God or to the “spirit” of human beings. But it does not mean the “spirit” as “part” of a human persona, but that which designates the self as person, which is viewed from an internal, psychological place of motivation, emotion and thought. In fact, in earliest times there was little distinction in Hebrew thought between a person’s God-breathed ruach and his or her nephesh or soul.

Anciently, ruach was thought to be a mysterious divine power that was demonstrated in the wind, was responsible for the ecstatic power of the prophet, or animated the life of the human being. Ruach was the power of God that made life possible, and which powered it in all its manifestations.

When ruach refers to a person, it sees him or her as acting and thinking from an inner motivation, or consciousness. In the Old Testament, it is God who sustains humans as living beings. He breathes into Adam the breath of life, and Adam then becomes a living being. God is seen as the God “of the spirits of all mankind” (Numbers 27:15). This implies that God is the source of “spirit,” and that spirit is sovereign to his direction. Death is seen as the release of the spirit God gives: “When their spirit departs, they return to the ground; on that very day their plans come to nothing” (Psalm 146:4). The “spirit,” then, is that which makes possible and sustains life, or the conscious person. The Psalmist says, “When you send your Spirit, they are created” (Psalm 104:30) but “when you take away their breath [ruach], they die and return to the dust” (verse 29).

Ruach is the seat of emotional expression. For example, Isaiah 19:14 says, “The Lord has poured into them a spirit of dizziness.” Sometimes characteristics or traits of personality are attributed to the spirits of persons, which account for their actions. Caleb had a “different spirit” than the rest of those who came out of Egypt in the Exodus, and this caused him to follow God “wholeheartedly” (Numbers 14:24).

A person’s “spirit” can be marked by a whole range of characteristics, evil and good, including unfaithfulness (Psalm 78:8), sincerity (Psalm 32:2), and humility (Isaiah 57:15). The “spirit” can indicate a person’s mental and emotional condition. The “spirit” of a human can be broken and crushed (Joshua 5:1), but it can also be revived and refreshed (Isaiah 57:15).

God is able to look into the ruach of a person and to examine his or her inner motives (Proverbs 16:2). This implies that the “spirit” of a person is synonymous with the “place” of a person’s innermost thoughts. It is there that a person’s search for and communion with God occurs. The psalmist says: “My soul yearns for you in the night; in the morning my spirit longs for you” (Isaiah 26:9). Interestingly, both the “soul” and the “spirit,” or the psalmist’s whole being, are involved in the desire to know God.

God can “stir up” the spirit of individuals so that they carry out some undertaking or purpose of his (1 Chronicles 5:26; Ezra 1:1, 5; Jeremiah 51:1). God can intervene in the mental and emotional aspects of a human psyche to accomplish his will. Saul was able both to prophecy and lead Israel to victory through the Spirit from God (1 Samuel 10:6, 10; 11:6) and to be cast into a state of fear and mental confusion by “an evil spirit” from him (1 Samuel 16:14-16; 18:10; 19:9).

The “spirit of wisdom” was an extension of the concept of the “spirit” from God which functioned as the animating principle in the prophets. The “spirit” possesed by the prophets allowed them to prophecy (Numbers 11:17; Deuteronomy 34:9; Isaiah 28:6).

“Spirit” in the New Testament

The equivalent word for ruach in the New Testament is pneuma. It appears about 375 times. About 250 of these times, ruach refers to the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit.

When pneuma refers to the human “spirit” it is that which makes the human being a living person (Luke 8:55). Death results in the release of the “spirit” to God (Matthew 27:50; Acts 7:59). The pneuma represents an individual’s deepest thoughts and emotions (Mark 2:8; John 11:33; 1 Corinthians 2:11). The “spirit” – in conjunction with the “body” (soma, 1 Corinthians 7:34), the flesh (sarx, 2 Corinthians 7:1) and “soul” (psuche, 1 Thessalonians 5:23) – represents the whole person.

The pneuma is the realm where relations between God and a human being can take place (Philippians 3:3). Pneuma is used almost 40 times to describe that aspect of human personality or self through which these relations are possible (Romans 1:9; 1 Corinthians 5:3-5). Coming to faith is sometimes seen as a revival of the human “spirit” (Romans 8:10; 1 Peter 4:6). A person’s “spirit” can be united with the Spirit of God (1 Corinthians 6:17) or remain a “spirit of slavery” without it (Romans 8:15).

“Spirit” and “flesh” are seen as opposities and contenders within the human psyche. The “spirit” represents the new way of life in communion with God and the “flesh” the old way of sin (Romans 8:1-11). It is the “spirit” that experiences the final salvation, not the “flesh” as such (1 Corinthiasn 5:5). While the “flesh” dies, the Spirit of God makes alive (1 Peter 3:18).

The gift of the Spirit marks the beginning of the Christian life and experience (Galatians 3:2-5). A person does not belong to Christ unless he or she has the pneuma of God (Romans 8:9); cannot be united with Christ except through the Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:17); cannot share sonship with Christ apart from sharing in the Spirit (Romans 8:14-17); is not a member of the body of Christ without the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:13).

The pneuma from God – from above – is what provides and creates the new birth resulting in spiritual oneness with the Father (John 3:3-8), and of course with Jesus and the Holy Spirit as well (John 14:15-23). “Possession” of the “spirit” of God is the defining characteristic of the Christian (Romans 8:9; 1 John 3:24; 4:13).

Immortal “Soul” or “Spirit”?

Regarding the nature of the soul, we would have to look at such Scriptures as Matthew 10:28, in which Jesus said the soul could be destroyed. Reflecting on such passages, it can hardly be said that the soul is immortal, unless one were to argue that “destroyed” in biblical usage meant something different from our normal conception of this word.

“Immortality,” of course, suggests infinite existence not only into the future but also throughout the past. Nothing in Scripture suggests that the “soul” has such a quality. Some early church fathers, such as Origen, taught the preexistence of the human “soul,” but this is not sustainable by Scripture.

As we have seen, the “soul” in Scripture is really the person as human being, who has been created by God. That which is created does not have eternal preexistence. As far as the “spirit” is concerned, this is something that is “breathed into” the human, and which creates the life of the person, as it were. Again, no idea of preexistence of the person as “soul” or “spirit” is implied in Scripture.

In some ways, from the biblical perspective, it seems that the phrase “immortal soul” may be an oxymoron, or contradiction in terms. The Bible tends to see human beings as mortal creatures, subject to death as persons, that is, as “souls” in whom the “spirit” resides. Immortality is something that humans must “put on” in the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:50-54). It is not said to be a quality inherent in the “soul” or “spirit” of a person.

This, of course, brings up the question of how we are to understand what “soul” is. Is mind an expression of “soul,” and if it is, what does this say about the latter? Do humans have a “spirit,” and what would be its nature? The Bible doesn’t seem to answer these questions in any direct way, as our study of the biblical usage of nephesh, psuche, ruach and pneuma indicate.

To summarize, the Bible does not appear to be explicit about what exactly makes up human consciousness, self-awareness or mind – and how this might relate to something called “soul” or “spirit.” Because of the Bible’s ambiguity or silence on the matter, the church has not issued any formal and dogmatic statements on the “soul” or “spirit in man.” Our hope – and the emphasis of Scripture – is that in the resurrection we shall “put on” immortality, and through this “putting on” we shall have eternal life in God.

What this “putting on” is in an experiential way we do not know as human beings. As John says: “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).

Author: Paul Kroll


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