Photo by Miguel Bruna on Unsplash
I read many books and articles aimed at making me a better writer. Most of them say to me, “write about things you know.” But I recently came across a different suggestion: Write about things you don’t understand.
That sounds counterintuitive, but I was challenged, so I chose a topic I do not understand.
What is the difference between the soul and the spirit, as those terms are used in the Bible?
Why didn’t I choose to write about how the Internet works, another thing I don’t understand? It too is a very complex subject, but it is a benign topic. Most of my readers don’t care how the Internet works. They just care that it works.
But writing about the difference between one’s soul and one’s spirit (if there is a difference) is a spiritual issue. My readers do care about this topic.
I am no expert on this subject. But, like my readers, I am interested in it. Therefore, I have studied both what the Bible reveals about it and what Biblical scholars have written about it.
Since everyone agrees that we have a mortal nature, the body, that topic will not be discussed.
INTRODUCTION: Some theologians believe humans have a three-part nature: body, soul and spirit. Other theologians believe we have only a two-part nature: body and soul/spirit, with the words soul and spirit being interchangeable words meaning the same thing.
According to my count on www.biblegateway.com, the words spirit and Spirit in all their forms appear in the NIV version of the Bible over 400 times. The words soul and Soul in all their forms appear just under 100 times in the NIV. Are those numbers significant?
Does this mean that soul and spirit are two different entities, and the Bible has much more to say about the spirit than it does about the soul? Or could the words be interchangeable, and whatever is said of the soul is also said of the spirit?
In the Old Testament: The word soul first appears in Genesis 2:7: And 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. (KJV)
In many of the Old Testament (NIV) verses that use the word soul, the word appears within this phrase: with all your heart and with all your soul.
The Old Testament was written in Hebrew, and the Hebrew word nephesh, which is often translated as soul, means: one who breathes. The word appears over 700 times in various English versions of the Old Testament and is not always translated soul.
This word (nephesh/soul) is at times translated as life. Look at the following example.
1 Kings 17 records the account of Elijah raising to life the son of the widow of Zarephath. Verse 22 reads: The Lord heard Elijah’s cry, and the boy’s life (nephesh/soul) returned to him, and he lived.
The same Hebrew word is sometimes translated as person(s), as in this example.
All those who went to Egypt with Jacob—those who were his direct descendants, not counting his sons’ wives—numbered sixty-six persons (nepheshes/souls) (Genesis 46:26 KJV).
The King James Version uses over 20 different English words to represent the original Hebrew term. We have looked at only three of them.
In addition to soul, person and life, the word is sometimes used to represent the seat of the appetites, emotions and passions; and others.
To review, the Hebrew word nephesh means one who breathes. In English, the word is translated as soul, as life, as person(s), and as other words.
In the New Testament. The New Testament was written in Greek. The Hebrew word nephesh corresponds to the Greek words psuche or psyche.
The Greek word psyche or psuche is often translated as the English word, soul. It refers to a living, breathing, conscious body.
Like the Hebrew word, nephesh, the Greek word, psyche, is sometimes translated in the English language as breath, life and that which has life.
To recap, both the English Old Testament and English New Testament use words translated as soul to mean life, breath, and those having breath (people).
The English word Spirit first appears in Scripture in Genesis 1:2. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. (KJV)
The Hebrew term rûach elohim is the basis of the words translated in English as Spirit of God.
Rûach is translated as wind, breath and spirit. Some believe it can also represent man’s intelligence and will.
The Greek word pneuma, meaning breath or wind, is often translated spirit and can also be used to refer to a person (1 John 4:1) and to life (Mark 3:4). It is said to represent man’s vital spirit or the soul.
For those few who are still reading, I will state two theories regarding soul and spirit.
Because the meanings of these two words are so similar, many theologians today believe they are interchangeable terms. They would say that a person is made up of only two parts: a body and a soul/spirit. This view is called dichotomy.
Other theologians disagree. They believe a person is made up of three parts: a body, a soul and a spirit.
Man’s soul includes his intellect, emotions and will. All people have souls, and all can choose whether to serve God or serve sin.
The spirit, they say, is the part of us that worships God and prays to Him. The spirit is a “higher faculty” and comes alive when a person becomes a Christian. This view is called trichotomy.
Those who subscribe to this theory use Hebrews 4:12 to support it. For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.
Proponents of the dichotomy theory, however, believe this verse simply puts a fine point to how completely God’s Word penetrates the core of our moral and spiritual life.
If you are thinking: This woman, who reads neither Hebrew nor Greek, has no business writing about this subject, I agree that I have no business writing about it as one with authority.
I am not writing as one with authority. I am writing as a Christian woman who wanted to know more about the terms spirit and soul in the Bible. I studied the terms and am recapping for you my findings.
This much I know without question. There is a part of me that is destined for the grave. But there is also a part of me that death cannot touch.
For that part of me, be it spirit or soul/spirit, I hold to the promise found in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17.
For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.