DEAR FATHER PAUL: I read in the Bible many places where “soul” and “spirit” are used seemingly interchangeably to mean the same thing. Are they the same, and if not, what are the differences? Glen
DEAR GLEN: You have asked a very interesting and challenging question. There is indeed often confusion about the human “soul” vs. the human “spirit,” even among theologians. You are right too that the Bible itself sometimes even seems to use the words “soul” and “spirit’ almost interchangeably. However, there IS a difference according to the Bible as noted in both Hebrews and I Thessalonians as-well-as in many other places.
Hebrews 4:12 (New International Version) says this: “For the word of God (the Bible) is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow (the flesh / body); it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” Here we see that there IS indeed a difference between the human “soul” and the human “spirit.” If there were NOT a difference between “soul” and “spirit” how could the two be divided as Hebrews says? Having said that, this passage does make clear that the two are so closely interrelated that only God himself can fully divide them. Perhaps this is why we have such difficulty keeping them separate ourselves.
This closeness in meaning presents real challenges to Christians. Since “soul” and “spirit” are so very closely related, yet different, we must take care to differentiate between the two. Closely looking at the context in which the two terms are used in the Bible has helped me a lot in keeping the two terms straight (and as separate as possible) in my own mind.
In I Thessalonians, Chapter 5 the apostle Paul in his first letter to the church at Thessalonica in Greece, closes the letter with these words … (NIV) “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord, Jesus Christ.” Again, we see the terms “soul” and “spirit” as-well-as “body” used separately.
We know that the New Testament was originally written in the Greek language then later the early Greek manuscripts were translated into many modern languages including English.
So let’s look more closely at the Greek origins of the words “soul” and “spirit” as we have just read in Hebrews 4 and I Thessalonians 5.
In the earliest New Testament manuscripts of Hebrews and I Thessalonians, written in Greek, the word that the translators later translated as our English word “soul” was the Greek word “psuche” meaning the human mind, feelings, emotions, desires, affections, intellect, personality, etc. “Psuche” later became a root word for our modern English words psychology, psychiatrist and psyche. “Psuche” (soul) is found 103 times in the Greek New Testament.
Those same early Greek New Testament manuscripts for both the Hebrews and I
Thessalonians passages cited used the Greek word “pneuma,” for (spirit). “Pneuma” is found 379 times in the Greek New Testament. “Pneuma” essentially means “breath” or “air ’and is a root word for our English words pneumonia and pneumatic. The Bible teaches that the human spirit is the very breath of God. This is affirmed in Genesis 1:7 where it is recorded that (NIV) God “breathed into Adam’s nostrils the breath of life and man became a living being.”
Every single human being on earth has both a “soul” and a “spirit.” Humans are alone among all of God’s creatures in this respect. But the human “spirit” is truely unique in that it is termed “incorporeal” … that means that the human “spirit” is without material form. Simply put, the “spirit,” although real, is not tangible to any of the five human senses. Lastly, the human” spirit” is the deepest, innermost part of a man or woman and was given to us by God so that men and women could communicate with and have a relationship with God who is himself a spirit. “Spirit” communicating with “spirit” as it were. Wow!
Finally, the Bible teaches that the human “soul” and the human “spirit” are NOT limited by the life span of the human body. Both continue to live eternally AFTER the physical body inevitably dies. The only question is where the “soul” and the “spirit” will live eternally … either with God, or with God’s arch enemy Satan.
But that question is easily resolved because God, in his great love, has given each of us the ability to decide this vital eternal question for ourselves by deciding before our death to receive his free gift of eternal life for our “souls” and “spirits” offered through faith in his son, Jesus.
Do you have a 1uestion? Send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will try to answer your question in the paper.
Father Paul Massey is Pastor Emeritus of Church of the Holy Cross in Fayetteville, Georgia. Information is found in the nearby Citizen “Worship With Us” feature.