Is there a Difference between Soul and Spirit?

Human beings are made in the image of God and are often referred to in terms of the physical (body) and the spiritual (soul and/or spirit). With regard the spiritual realm, a pertinent question is whether soul and spirit refer to the same thing. Are humans made up of three parts: body, soul, and spirit? Or are human beings made up of two parts: body and soul and/or spirit? This is a difficult question, and I know people who hold different views. To discuss this issue we must begin with surveying the biblical usage of these terms.

picture symbolizing the difference between soul and spirit

In the OT, the word for spirit (רוּחַ) can mean the following:

  • Wind or breeze (e.g., Eccl 1:17; 4:15, etc.).
  • Breath which gives life (e.g., Jer 10:14; Ps 135:17, Gen 6:17; 7:15, etc.).
  • Spirit of the Lord, the Holy Spirit (Gen 1:2; Exod 31:3; 35:31; Num 11:29; Isa 30:28; 34:16, etc.)
  • Not as common, it can refer to angelic beings (cf. 1 Kings 22:21; 2 Chron 18:20).
  • The intellectual frame of mind, or the mind itself (e.g., Gen 26:35; Prov 16:18; Ps 34:19; Ps 51:4, etc.).

In the NT, the Greek word for spirit (πνεῦμα) has virtually the same meanings:

  • Wind blowing, or breathing (James 3:8; 2 Thess 2:8; Heb 1:7).
  • Breath which gives life, one’s life-breath (Matt 27:50; Luke 23:46; Acts 7:59; James 2:26, etc.).
  • Holy Spirit (Mark 12:36; Luke 2:26; John 14:26; Acts 1:16; Eph 1:13, etc.).
  • More common than the OT, it can refer to angelic beings/demons (Mark 1:23, 26; 3:30; 5:2, 8; Acts 5:16; 8:7; 1 Pet 3:19).
  • One’s personality, their intellectual frame of mind (e.g., Phil 1:27; 1 Thess 5:23, etc.).

In comparing the OT and NT usage, the word for spirit is used similarly. It appears that when spirit denotes a human being it usually refers to the personality of the individual. We still retain that use today when we say, “He was mean-spirited.” Well, we mean that his personality was mean.

Consider also, a survey of the idea of soul.

In the OT, the word for soul (נֶפֶשׁ) has the following meanings:

  • Throat or neck (cf. Ps 63:6; 69:2, etc.)
  • Breath, that which makes up a living being (Gen 1:20; Lev 17:11; Deut 12:23)
  • Living being (animal) or a person (Gen 1:20, 24; Lev 24:17; Num 9:6, etc.)
  • Personality or life (Gen 27:19; Deut 21:14; Isa 1:14; Gen 19:17; Ezek 22:27).
  • The inner emotions or cravings of the soul (Song 1:7; 3:1-4; Hosea 4:8; Zech 11:8, etc.).

In the NT, the word for soul (ψυχή) has the following meanings:

  • Livelihood of a human or animal (Matt 2:20; Rom 11:3; John 10:11, 15, 17; Rev 8:9).
  • The center of emotions and feelings for man (Matt 26:38; Mark 14:34; Eph 6:6; 2 Pet 2:8)
  • A person/personhood (Acts 2:43; 3:23; Rom 2:9; 1 Pet 3:20, etc.).

Thus in biblical usage there seems to be overlap between the usage of soul and spirit when referring to human beings. In fact, a proper distinction between soul and spirit is not always possible. Be that as it may, I think there are three observations that we can make in looking at the evidence.

First, in general, spirit refers to the immaterial aspects of life, whereas soul refers to the whole of living itself (including the desires and emotions of life).

Second, when used together in certain passages (cf. 1 Thess 5:23; Heb 4:12), a strict distinction between soul and spirit are probably not what is being stressed. The entirety is likely what is being stressed. Have you heard the saying, “That is the heart and soul of the matter?” When we hear that saying, we do not assume that heart and soul are being used in juxtaposition to communicate a difference. Rather, we assume that heart and soul are used in unity to communicate entirety and completeness. Sometimes the Bible adds terms together for just such a purpose.

Third, biblical authors did not view human beings as divisible into soul/spirit and body. Scripture portrays the soul and spirit as an integral part of the person, and likewise, the body is intimately connected to the soul/spirit as an essential part of what it means to be human. The separation of the physical and spiritual seems to come from Platonic philosophy and not the Bible. The Bible always assumes a united personhood of immaterial characteristics (soul and spirit) along with material (body). Even in looking forward to the eternal state in the resurrection, the Bible is very holistically focused.

In conclusion then, it seems that human beings are made up of an immaterial aspect and a physical aspect. The descriptions of soul and spirit seem to be similar references to the immaterial aspect of humanity. The similar range of meanings as well as the combined usage of soul and spirit point toward viewing these two concepts similarly within the biblical portrayal of personhood.

photo credit: h.koppdelaney via photopin cc

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He loves studying the Bible and helping others understand it. He also runs The Bible Sojourner podcast and Youtube channel.

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