Biblical use of soul and spirit.

The words soul and spirit have often been used interchangeably in many context, most often in speech. A study of the original meanings and Bible context suggests that these words have separate meanings.

My ascertian is that spirit and soul are not synonyms. From this we derive that the soul is not immortal.

There are numerous examples throughout the Bible; space dictates only an introduction. I will, confine my w/u to the definition and use of soul.

Let’s take a look at the original words and meanings attributed to them.

In Hebrew : nephesh


soul, person, appetite, living being, emotion, passion, life, creature, desire, emotion, mind. Meaning that which breathes and breath substance.

In Greek: psuche


Breath of life, life, living being, feeling, desire, life essence.

Latin: anima.

Definitions: breath, life

Spirit: pneuma (Hebrew)

The Hebrew, Greek and Latin words are used interchangeably.

An important point to note is that the applications of soul are used for humans as well as the whole of the animal kingdom. Soul is not a distinguishing human essence. This is crucial because the tendency is to equate soul with that unique essence in humans that will transcend from earth in death or ressurection.

Biblical usage:

The following are examples when soul is used for animals.

Gen 1:20 And God said, "Let the waters swarm with swarms of living (nephesh) creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the heavens."

Gen 1:21 So God created the great sea creatures and every living (nephesh) creature that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.

Prov 12:10 Whoever is righteous has regard for the life (nephesh) of his beast, but the mercy of the wicked is cruel.

So the Hebrew word nephesh is originally attributed all animals. This includes their form and their life essence.

The following are examples when soul (nephesh) is used for humans.

Isa 29:8 As when a hungry man dreams he is eating and awakes with his hunger (nephesh) not satisfied, or as when a thirsty man dreams he is drinking and awakes faint, with his thirst (nephesh) not quenched…

1 Sam 19:11 Saul sent messengers to David's house to watch him, that he might kill him in the morning. But Michal, David's wife, told him, "If you do not escape with your life (soul, nephesh) tonight, tomorrow you will be killed."

Psa 22:29 All the prosperous of the earth eat and worship; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, even the one who could not keep himself (soul, nephesh) alive.

Deut 27:25Cursed be anyone who takes a bribe to shed innocent blood.’ (soul, nephesh) And all the people shall say, 'Amen.'

Soul has been used in place of feelings, physical states, life and the individual. We also see in some of the above examples another important aspect; the soul can die. Even humans can kill it.

In the New Testament, we find that when the Old Testament is quoted, the Hebrew nephesh is interchanged with the Greek psuche.

1 Cor 15:44 It is sown a natural (soul-like, from psuchikos – psuche) body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.

1 Cor 15:50 tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood (psuche)cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.

Paul is addressing the Jewish and Greek beliefs. The Jews believed in the resurrection of the actual body, while the Greeks disregarded resurrection but believed the soul was immortal. In fact, it was from the Greeks that the dualist nature of body and soul first arose. Once again we read that souls die.

Rev 16:3 The second angel poured out his bowl into the sea, and it became like the blood of a corpse, and every living thing (psuche) died that was in the sea.

One last important distinction:

John 19:30 When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, "It is finished," and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. (pneuma)

He gives up his spirit to the Father.

John 10:15 Just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life (psuche) for the sheep.

He gives up his body and living breath to the people.

This is a clear statement of the wholistic concept that soul and body are one. It is the spirit of God that returns to Him.

Why are these distinctions important?

Three reasons.

  • Without them you cannot understand scripture.
  • They are scriptural and therefore not imposed meaning.
  • They carry consequences for other scriptural concepts such as, hell, eternal torture, resurrection and so forth.

This comes from my own study (including dialogue) of the Hebrew language and the Bible but the following is a good resource for definitions:

Bible used for this article: ESV