Soul and Spirit: What’s the Difference?
There is no simple answer to this question because the words soul and spirit are employed in varying senses within the different biblical contexts in which they may be found.
The following represents a very brief summary of some of these major uses.
What Is the Soul?
The Hebrew term for “soul” is
nephesh. It is found more than 780 times in the Old Testament.
Because of the variety of contextual meanings, it is not always rendered by the English word soul. The King James Version uses twenty-eight different words by which to translate the original term.
Nephesh, therefore, signifies different things depending on the passage in which it occurs.
Similarly, in the Greek New Testament, the original word for soul is
psuche. It is found 103 times. Our modern word “psychology” derives from this Greek term.
Here are some uses of the word soul in the Scriptures.
A soul is a person.
Sometimes the word soul signifies merely an individual person. The prophet Ezekiel declared that the soul (i.e., the person) who sins will surely die (Ezek. 18:20). Peter would write centuries later that eight souls were saved by water in the days of Noah (1 Pet. 3:20). See also Exodus 1:5.
A soul is life itself.
In some contexts, a soul simply has reference to biological life. It is the animating force that is common to both humans and animals. All creatures have “life” (see Gen. 1:30; cf. ASV footnote).
The wicked king, Herod the Great, sought to take the “life” of baby Jesus (Mt. 2:20; cf. Rev. 12:11). In one of the visions of the Apocalypse, certain creatures of the sea were said to possess
psuche or life (Rev. 8:9).
A soul can refer to the mind.
A soul can have to do with that aspect of man that is characterized by the intellectual and emotional (Gen. 27:25; Job 30:16). It is the eternal component of man that is fashioned in the very image of God (Gen. 1:26). It can exist apart from the physical body (Mt. 10:28; Rev. 6:9).
What Is the Human Spirit?
In the Old Testament, “spirit” is
ruach. It is found some 378 times in the Hebrew Old Testament. Literally, the word means breath or wind.
The corresponding Greek term is
pneuma, and that word occurs 379 times in the New Testament. This Greek word forms the bases of our English word, pneumonia).
As with soul, the word “spirit” may take on different senses, depending upon its contextual setting.
Spirit can refer to the air we breathe or wind.
Ruach can literally denote a person’s breath. The queen of Sheba was breathless when she viewed the splendor of Solomon’s kingdom (see 1 Kgs. 10:4-5).
The word can also signify the wind. For instance, some people pursuing empty goals are but striving after the wind (Eccl. 1:14, 17).
A spirit can refer to a non-physical being.
The term spirit can be employed, however, in a higher sense. It sometimes is used to depict the nature of a non-material being (e.g. God).
God (the Father), as to his essence, is spirit (Jn. 4:24). He is not a physical or material being (Lk. 24:39; Mt. 16:17). Another member of the godhead is specifically designated as the “Holy Spirit”).
Similarly, angels are spirit in nature, though they are not deity (Heb. 1:14).
A spirit can refer to a person.
Sometimes the word spirit can be used by way of the figure of speech known as the synecdoche (part for the whole, or vice versa) for a person himself. John wrote:
“Beloved, believe not every spirit, but prove the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets are gone out into the world (1 Jn. 4:1; emphasis added).
Note that the term “spirits” is the equivalent of “false prophets” in this text.
Spirit can be used as a synonym for the soul.
Spirit may refer to the “inward man” (2 Cor. 4:16) that is fashioned in God’s image (Gen. 1:26-27). Thus, it is a synonym of “soul.”
A sacred writer noted that the “spirit of man is the lamp of Jehovah” (Prov. 20:27). This is an allusion to that element of man that distinguishes him from the beasts of the earth.
Daniel affirmed that his spirit was grieved within his body (Dan. 7:15). And Paul noted that it is man’s spirit that is capable of “knowing” things (1 Cor. 2:11). Paul also affirmed that church discipline is designed to save a man’s “spirit” in the day of the Lord (1 Cor. 5:5; see also, 1 Cor. 16:18; 2 Cor. 7:1; Jas. 2:26).
A spirit can refer to a mental state or disposition.
Spirit sometimes stands for a person’s mental disposition or attitude — either for bad or good. Examples include the following: a spirit of fear (2 Tim. 1:7), a meek and submissive spirit (1 Pet. 3:4), or a spirit of gentleness (Gal. 6:1).
From this brief discussion, then, it is readily apparent that the careful student must examine biblical words in their context. The context can override all other linguistic considerations (e.g., etymology and grammar).
A Bible term, extracted from its original context, loses its divine authority.
One thing is for certain. An honest student cannot study the uses of “soul” and “spirit” in the documents of Scripture, and then conclude that humans are wholly mortal. And yet this is what skeptics contend, and some religionists allege as well (e.g., “Jehovah’s Witnesses” and Seventh-day Adventists).