What’s the difference between soul and spirit?

Soul ProsperBeloved, I wish above all things that you may prosper and be in health, even as your soul prospers. 3 John 1:2 (image courtesy ChristArt)

By Spencer D Gear

When somebody starts a discussion about, “What is the difference between body, soul and spirit?”[1], it’s interesting to see the developments. This person on an Internet Christian forum stated:

Understanding the body is simple, it is the physical entity by which we are in contact with the physical world.

The next two are a little more difficult to explain and have caused a lot of confusion, but because of some of the posts I have seen on this forum and the importance of the spirit, and a number of scriptures that cannot be properly understood without a proper understanding of the spirit, I felt it expedient to share what I learned a number of years ago regarding the spirit and soul.

The Greek and Hebrew words which are translated into English as the world “soul” come from words which literally mean “breath” in both languages. On the other hand, the word translated spirit from the Hebrew comes from a word that means “wind”, while the Greek word translated “spirit” comes form a word that means “a current of air” and it is derived from a word that means to breath hard, thus the spirit is an exaggerated breath and the part of man that is moved to action: thus the breath is labored.

The soul is simply the contemplative part of man and thus the breath is not labored, as no action is used to increase the intensity of the breath.

In English we say “he/she has a troubled soul”, or, “he/she has a vibrant spirit” and these are both very good analogizes of the soul and the spirit and how to distinguish between the two.[2]

I responded:

  • The words “soul” and “spirit” can be used interchangeably.

In John 12:27, Jesus said, “Now is my soul (psuche) troubled”, while in a similar context in the next chapter he said, “Jesus was troubled in his spirit (pneuma) [John 13:21]” This hardly means that Jesus’ “life force” (breath) was troubled.

  • At death, the “soul” or “spirit” departs.

When Rachel died, the Bible records: “Her soul (nephesh) was departing [she had died]” (Gen. 35:18), but Eccl. 12:7 records that at death, “the spirit (ruach) returns to God who gave it.” This hardly means that one’s “life force” was returning to God.

  • A human being is said to consist of either “body and soul” or “body and spirit.”

In Matt. 10: 28, we read, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul (psuche). Rather fear him who can destroy both soul (psuche) and body in hell” (ESV). It seems clear from this verse that “soul” refers to the part of the person that lives beyond death. If the “soul” was only a “life force”, it could be killed. That’s not what Jesus said. His authoritative view was that the “soul” cannot be killed. It cannot die.

But when Paul wants to deliver an erring brother over to Satan, he said that it was “for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit (pneuma) may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor. 5:5).

Therefore, in both OT and NT, “soul” and “spirit” can be used interchangeably.

So, what does “spirit” mean when applied to a human being, in the light of the above scriptural explanation? Most people, Christian and non-Christian, believe that there is an immaterial part to human beings, a soul / spirit that will live on when the “breath” or “life force” has left the body.

There are occasions in the Bible when “spirit” is used to refer to the breath of animals or human beings, but the above verses show that spirit / soul refers to the immaterial part of the human unity (body and soul/spirit) that goes to be with Christ and cannot be killed.

This soul can sin. This is implied from verses such as 1 Peter 1:22,

“Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart” (ESV).

Surely this does not refer to breath or life force!

Let’s get no more complicated than the simplicity of what the Bible states that the spirit/soul of a human being goes to God at death and it cannot be killed. Simply: the spirit/soul of a human being is the immaterial part of a person that survives death. [3]

Part of “2 know him’s” reply was:

Hey Oz, I see you are having trouble with my original post.
I know you have come to a conclusion that soul and spirit are the same, but I would like you to consider something written in Hebrews and try and understand what I am saying: before reposting.

Heb 4:12 For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit.

I have looked at your post and it seems you did not quite grasp what I was stating. When the spirit is troubled (normally through the soul: the intellect) you may or may not act, but it is the spirit that brings the action into effect and is the moving part of God and man. When the mind (soul) is engaged there is no movement to the body, as the soul is the intellectual part of a being.[4]

I’m calling on the help of Simon Kistemaker, an excellent exegete and commentator who affirms the authority of Scripture. In his commentary on the Book of Hebrews[5], he wrote of Hebrews 4:12c:

It penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart [NIV].

I do not think that the writer of Hebrews is teaching the doctrine that man consists of body, soul, and spirit (I Thess. 5:23). Of course, we can make a distinction between soul and spirit by saying that the soul relates to man’s physical existence; and the spirit, to God. But the author does not make distinctions in this verse. He speaks in terms of that which is not done and in a sense cannot be done.

Who is able to divide soul and spirit or joints and marrow? And what judge can know the thoughts and attitudes of the heart? The author uses symbolism to say that what man ordinarily does not divide, God’s Word separates thoroughly. Nothing remains untouched by Scripture, for it addresses every aspect of man’s life. The Word continues to divide the spiritual existence of man and even his physical being. All the recesses of body and soul—including the thoughts and attitudes—face the sharp edge of God’s dividing sword. Whereas man’s thoughts remain hidden from his neighbor’s probing eye, God’s Word uncovers them.

God’s Word is called a discerner of man’s thoughts and intentions. In the Psalter David says:

O LORD, you have searched me

And you know me.

You know when I sit and when I rise;

You perceive my thoughts from afar.

You discern my going out and my lying down;

You are familiar with all my ways. [Ps. 139:1-3]

And Jesus utters these words:

As for the person who hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge him. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save it. There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; that very word which I spoke will condemn him at the last day. [John 12:47-48]

The Lord with his Word exposes the motives hidden in a man’s heart. In his epistle the author stresses the act of God’s speaking to man. For instance, the introductory verses (Heb. 1;1-2) illustrate this fact clearly. And repeatedly, when quoting the Old Testament Scriptures, the writer uses this formula: God, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit says (consult the many quotations, for example, in the first four chapters). The Word is not a written document of past centuries. It is alive and current; it is powerful and effective; and it is undivided and unchanged. Written in times and cultures from which we are far removed, the Word of God nevertheless touches man today. God addresses man in the totality of his existence, and man is unable to escape the impact of God’s Word.[6]

I have found this to be a much better summary of what this portion of Heb. 4:12c means as far as the meaning of “dividing soul and spirit” is concerned, than the one you have given. Soul and spirit cannot be divided, just as joints and marrow cannot be divided, and the thoughts and attitudes of the heart cannot be understood by human beings. But God’s Word separates thoroughly what human beings cannot separate.

This is a marvellous message. We cannot get away from the glaring penetration of God’s Word.

My son, Paul, has studied the Hebrew language of the Old Testament. I asked him for his understanding of nephesh. This is what he wrote:

The Brown-Driver-Briggs (BDB) Hebrew and English Lexicon provides the following information about the Hebrew word, nephesh:

Its base meaning is “soul, living being, life, self, person, desire, appetite, emotion, and passion”, giving the sub-meanings:

1. that which breathes, the breathing substance or being (= psuche, anima), the soul, the inner being of man (noting Deut 12.23 as a reference for this meaning);

2. a living being; by God’s breathing into the nostrils, Gn 2.7; by implication of animals also Gn 2.19;

3. a. A living being whose life resides in the blood (also noting Dt 12.23);

b. a serious attack upon the life is an attack upon this inner living being;

c. used for life itself, of animals and man;

4. as the essential of man, stands for the man himself

a. paraphrase for personal pronoun, esp. in poetry and ornate discourse;

b. reflexive (self);

c. person of man, individual;

5. seat of the appetites: hunger, thirst, appetite in general;

6. seat of emotions and passions: desire, sorrow and distress, joy, love, alienation, hatred, revenge, other emotions and feelings;

7. used occasionally for mental acts;

8. for acts of the will is dubious (Gn 23.8, 2Ki 9.15);

9. character is still more dubious (Hb 2.4).

I am convinced that soul and spirit are used biblically for the unseen portion of a human being.

  1. The Scripture refers to the soul (nephesh in Hebrew; psuche in Greek) as distinct from the body in passages such as Gen. 35:18, “And as her [Rachel’s] soul was departing (for she was dying), she called his name Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin” (ESV). So, the soul leaves the body at death.
  2. I Thess 5:23, “Now 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.”
  3. Revelation 6:9, “When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne.” So here the souls are separated from the bodies in heaven.

The word “soul” means “life” and refers to the principle of life in a human being. It gives life to the body and is sometimes used to refer to a dead body as in Lev. 19:28; 21:1; 23:4 as I might refer to my departed loved one as “the poor soul.”

Theologian Norman Geisler rightly states that “the primary meaning of soul can most often be captured best by translating it as person, which usually is embodied but is sometimes disembodied” (Systematic Theology, vol. 3, BethanyHouse Publishers, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2004, p. 47).

The word spirit (Greek, pneuma; Hebrew, ruach) almost always refers to the immaterial part of a human being and is sometimes used interchangeably with soul in many verses (cf. Luke 1:46). The body without the soul is dead (James 2:26) but at death, Jesus “bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (John 19:30).

So your statement that “man does not have a ‘soul'” is patently false.

The word “soul” can mean “life” and refers to the principle of life in a human being. It gives life to the body and is sometimes used to refer to a dead body as in Lev. 19:28; 21:1; 23:4 as I might refer to my departed loved one as “the poor soul.”

So a statement that “man does not have a ‘soul'”, as the above exposition demonstrates, is false.

I have had Jehovah’s Witnesses say to me, “Man does not have a soul, but man is a soul”. The JWs who knock on our doors carry a book, Reasoning from the Scriptures[8]. I have a copy of this book as one JW who was in discussion with me left my home very suddenly when he did not like what I was saying and left this book behind. In this Q&A for Witnesses it gives this definition of “soul”:

In the Bible, “soul” is translated from the Hebrew ne’phesh and the Greek psykhe’.[9] Bible usage shows the soul to be a person or an animal or the life that a person or an animal enjoys…. What does the Bible say that helps us to understand what the soul is? Gen. 2:7: “Jehovah God proceeded to form the man out of the dust from the ground and to blow into his nostrils the breath of life, and man came to be a living soul.” (Notice that this does not say that man was given a soul but that he became a soul, a living person.[10]


[1] It is in the “Christian Apologetics” directory of Christian Forums, available at: http://www.christianforums.com/t7616830/ (Accessed 24 December 2011). The original poster is ‘2 know him’. My responses are as OzSpen.

[2] Ibid., #1.

[3] Ibid., #2.

[4] Ibid., #3.

[5] 1984. New Testament Commentary: Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, pp. i-441, in William Hendriksen and Simon J. Kistemaker, Thessalonians, the Pastorals, and Hebrews.

[6] Ibid., pp. 117-118.

[8] Reasoning from the Scriptures 1985. Brooklyn, New York: Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, International Bible Students’ Association.

[9] The Greek is generally better transliterated as psuche?. That’s what I learned when I took my first class in introductory Greek with Larry Hurtado at Regent College, Vancouver BC, Canada, in 1975.

[10] Reasoning from the Scriptures, p. 375.


Copyright © 2012 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 6 February 2016.