Soul and Spirit —What’s the Difference?
“What is the difference between the spirit and soul of a human being?”
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.
The Hebrew term for “soul” is nephesh, 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 28 different words by which to translate the original term. Nephesh, therefore, signifies different things, depending upon the passage in which it occurs.
Similarly, in the Greek New Testament, the original word for “soul” is psuche, found 103 times. Our modern word “psychology” derives from this Greek term.
Here are some uses of “soul” in the Scriptures.
“Soul” may signify merely an individual person. The prophet Ezekiel declared that the “soul” (i.e., the person) who sins will surely die (Ezek. 18:20), or, as Peter would write centuries later, “eight souls” were saved by water in the days of Noah (1 Pet. 3:20). See also Exodus 1:5.
In some contexts, “soul” simply has reference to biological life, the animating principle 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).
“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), and that can exist apart from the physical body (Mt. 10:28; Rev. 6:9).
In the Old Testament, “spirit” is ruach, found some 378 times in the Hebrew Old Testament, and literally meaning “breath,” “wind,” etc. The corresponding Greek term is pneuma, occurring 379 times in the New Testament (the original form being found in our English word, pneumonia). Again, though, as with “soul,” the word “spirit” may take on different senses, depending upon its contextual setting.
The Air We Breathe
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, etc.).
A Non-physical Being
The term “spirit” can be employed, however, in a higher sense. It also 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), i.e., he is not a physical or material being (Lk. 24:39; Mt. 16:17; cf. also the expression, “Holy Spirit”). Similarly, angels are “spirit” in nature —though they are not deity in kind (Heb. 1:14).
“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; emp. added). Note that the term “spirits” is the equivalent of “false prophets” in this text.
“Spirit” may refer to the “inward man” (2 Cor. 4:16) that is fashioned in God’s image (Gen. 1:26-27), and thus be 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).
“Spirit” sometimes stands for a person’s disposition or attitude —either for bad or good, e.g., the spirit of fear, etc. (2 Tim. 1:7), a meek and submissive spirit (cf. 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 grammatical format. 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).
About the Author
Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.