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What Is the Soul? Is It Different from the Spirit?

Categories Theology Systematic Theology Online Courses

Religious or not, most people believe they have some form of a soul. Whether they loosely believe in a concept like “the human spirit,” or they believe part of them will live on when their body expires, these beliefs about body, spirit, and soul all come from somewhere. You might be surprised to learn that much of what people believe about the soul or spirit doesn’t come from the Bible.

The Bible doesn’t neatly define the concepts of spirit and soul for us, so in order to know what it’s saying, we need to piece together all the clues it gives us. In his online systematic theology course, Dr. Wayne Grudem has done just that to reveal how the Bible answers, “What is the soul?” and “What is the spirit?”

The following post is adapted from Grudem’s course.

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Three main Christian views on the soul and spirit:

When scholars assemble everything the Bible says about the soul and spirit, there’s still some room for interpretation. The three main schools of thought come down to how many “parts” humans are made of:

Three parts: Body, soul, and spirit

Some people believe that in addition to “body” and “soul” we have a third part, a “spirit” that most directly relates to God. This view is called trichotomy. While this has been a common view in popular evangelical Bible teaching, there are few scholarly defenses of it today.

According to many trichotomists, man’s soul includes his intellect, his emotions, and his will. They maintain that all people have such a soul, and that the different elements of the soul can either serve God or give in to sin. A person’s spirit, however, is a higher faculty that only comes alive when a person becomes a Christian (see Romans 8:10: “If Christ is in you, although your bodies are dead because of sin, your spirits are alive because of righteousness”). The spirit is the part of us that most directly worships and prays to God (see John 4:24 and Philippians 3:3).

We’ll explore the main arguments for and against this view later.

Two parts: Body and soul

Others argue that “spirit” is not a separate part of man, but simply another term for “soul,” and that both terms are used interchangeably in Scripture to talk about the immaterial part of man that lives on after our bodies die. The view that man is made up of two parts (body and soul/spirit) is called dichotomy. Those who hold this view often agree that Scripture uses the word spirit (Hebrew “rûach”, and Greek “pneuma”) more frequently when referring to our relationship to God, but such usage (they say) is not uniform, and the word soul is also used in all the ways that spirit can be used.

This is the most-widely held scholarly view on the soul and spirit. Later, we’ll look in more detail at the reasons why many scholars believe spirit and soul are synonymous.

One part: the body

Outside the realm of evangelical thought we find yet another view, the idea that man cannot exist at all apart from a physical body, and therefore the “soul” can’t exist separately after the body dies (although this view can allow for the resurrection of the whole person at some future time).

This view is called monism. According to monism, the scriptural terms soul and spirit are just other expressions for the “person” himself, or for the person’s “life.” Most evangelical theologians don’t hold this view because so many scriptural texts seem to affirm that our souls or spirits live on after our bodies die:

  • “Into your hands I commit my spirit; deliver me, LORD, my faithful God.” —Psalm 31:5
  • “Jesus answered him, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.’” —Luke 23:43
  • “Jesus called out with a loud voice, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’ When he had said this, he breathed his last.” —Luke 23:46
  • “While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’” —Acts 7:59
  • “But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better; yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake.” —Philippians 1:23–24
  • “We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” —2 Corinthians 5:8
  • “. . . to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect . . .” —Hebrews 12:23
  • “When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained.” —Revelation 6:9
  • “I saw thrones on which were seated those who had been given authority to judge. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony about Jesus and because of the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years.” —Revelation 20:4

Since dichotomy and trichotomy are more common views in the evangelical church today, let’s look at each one in detail.

Learn more in Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology online course.

First: Can we be sure that humans have souls?

Many non-Christian philosophers challenge the idea of a soul or spirit, arguing that humans have no immaterial existence. Perhaps partially in response to this, some evangelical theologians hesitate to affirm dichotomy in human existence, instead arguing for monism, affirming that the Bible views man as a single unified part.

When philosophers assume there’s no spiritual realm beyond the reach of our senses, they naturally go on to argue that there is no God, heaven, angels, or demons. Similarly they deny the existence of a distinct soul within human beings. A spirit or soul cannot be observed by the physical realm. It’s a spiritual concept. Our knowledge of the existence of the human soul must be based on Scripture, in which God clearly testifies to the existence of this immaterial aspect of our beings. The fact that this truth about our existence cannot be clearly known apart from the testimony of Scripture shouldn’t cause us to shrink from affirming it.

As we mentioned in our discussion of monism, Scripture is very clear that we do have a soul that is distinct from our physical bodies, which not only can function somewhat independently of our ordinary thought processes (1 Corinthians 14:14 and Romans 8:16), but also, when we die, is able to go on consciously acting and relating to God apart from our physical bodies.

Jesus told the dying thief, “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43), even though, for both of them, their physical bodies were soon to die.

When Stephen was dying, he knew he would immediately pass into the presence of the Lord, for he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59).

Paul does not fear death, for he says, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Philippians 1:23). He contrasts that with remaining in this life, which he calls “to remain in the flesh” (Philippians 1:24). In fact, he says, “We would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8), indicating a confidence that if he were to die physically his spirit would go into the Lord’s presence and there enjoy fellowship with the Lord at once.

The book of Revelation reminds us that “the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne” (Revelation 6:9) are in heaven and are able to cry out to God to bring justice on the earth (Revelation 6:10, see also 20:4).

Clearly, the Bible makes a distinction between our physical bodies and a soul or spirit. Now let’s look at why dichotomists believe the Bible considers the soul and spirit to be the same thing.

5 reasons the soul and spirit are synonymous

The reasons why many scholars believe humans are made up of two parts, not three, can all be traced back to one essential argument: the Bible uses “soul” and “spirit” interchangeably.

1. Scripture uses “soul” and “spirit” interchangeably.

When we look at the usage of the biblical words translated “soul” (Hebrew “nephesh” and Greek “psychē”) and “spirit” (Hebrew “rûach” and Greek “pneuma”), it appears that they are sometimes used interchangeably.

In John 12:27, Jesus says, “Now is my soul troubled,” whereas in a very similar context in the next chapter John says that Jesus was “troubled in spirit” (John 13:21). Similarly, we read Mary’s words in Luke 1:46–47: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” This seems to be an example of Hebrew parallelism—a poetic device that repeats the same idea using synonymous words.

Additionally, people who have died and gone to heaven or hell are referred to as either “spirits” (such as in Hebrews 12:23 and 1 Peter 3:19) or “souls” (such as in Revelation 6:9 and Revelation 20:4).

2. When people die, Scripture says either that the “soul” departs or the “spirit” departs.

When Rachel died, the Bible says, “Her soul was departing (for she died)” (Genesis 35:18). Elijah prays that the dead child’s “soul” would come into him again (1 Kings 17:21), and Isaiah predicts that the Servant of the Lord would “pour out his soul [Hebrew “nephesh”] to death” (Isaiah 53:12). In the New Testament God tells the rich fool, “This night your soul [Greek “psychē”] is required of you” (Luke 12:20).

Other times death is viewed as the spirit returning to God. So David can pray, in words later quoted by Jesus on the cross, “Into your hand I commit my spirit” (Psalm 31:5, see also Luke 23:46). At death, “the spirit returns to God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:7). When Jesus was dying, “he bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (John 19:30), and likewise Stephen prayed before he died, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59).

A trichotomist might argue that these passages are still treating the soul and spirit as different things, for when a person dies both soul and spirit go to heaven. But Scripture never says that a person’s “soul and spirit” departed or went to heaven or were yielded to God. If soul and spirit were separate things, we would expect that would be affirmed somewhere, if only to assure the reader that no essential part of the person is left behind. But the biblical authors do not seem to care whether they say that the soul departs or the spirit departs at death, for both seem to mean the same thing.

3. Man is said to be either “body and soul” or “body and spirit.”

Jesus tells us not to fear those who “kill the body but cannot kill the soul,” but that we should rather “fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).

Here the word “soul” clearly refers to the part of a person that exists after death. It cannot mean “person” or “life,” for it would not make sense to speak of those who “kill the body but cannot kill the person,” or who “kill the body but cannot kill the life,” unless there is some aspect of the person that lives on after the body is dead. Furthermore, when Jesus talks about “soul and body” he seems to be clearly talking about the entire person even though he does not mention “spirit” as a separate component. The word “soul” seems to stand for the entire nonphysical part of man.

However, man is also sometimes said to be “body and spirit.” Paul wants the Corinthian church to deliver a sinful brother to Satan “for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Corinthians 5:5). Paul hasn’t forgotten that the man’s soul would be saved, too; he simply uses the word “spirit” to refer to the man’s entire immaterial existence.

Similarly, James says that “the body apart from the spirit is dead” (James 2:26), but mentions nothing about a separate soul. And when Paul speaks of growth in personal holiness, he approves the woman who is concerned with “how to be holy in body and spirit” (1 Corinthians 7:34), and he suggests that this covers the whole of the person’s life. He’s even more explicit in 2 Corinthians 7:1: “let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, and make holiness perfect in the fear of God.” Cleansing ourselves from defilement of the “soul” or of the “spirit” covers the whole immaterial side of our existence (see also Romans 8:10, 1 Corinthians 5:3, and Colossians 2:5).

4. The “soul” can sin or the “spirit” can sin.

Verses such as 1 Peter 1:22 and Revelation 18:14 seem to imply that our souls can sin. Those who hold to trichotomy will usually agree that the “soul” can sin since they think that the soul includes the intellect, the emotions, and the will.

The trichotomist, however, generally thinks of the “spirit” as purer than the soul, and, when renewed, as free from sin and responsive to the prompting of the Holy Spirit. This understanding (which sometimes finds its way into popular Christian preaching and writing) is not really supported by the biblical text:

  • When Paul encourages the Corinthians to cleanse themselves “from every defilement of body and spirit” (2 Corinthians 7:1), he clearly implies that there can be defilement (or sin) in our spirits.
  • Similarly, he speaks of the unmarried woman who is concerned with how to be holy “in body and spirit” (1 Corinthians 7:34).
  • The Lord hardened the “spirit” of Sihon the king of Heshbon (Deuteronomy 2:30).
  • Psalm 78 speaks of the rebellious people of Israel “whose spirit was not faithful to God” (Psalm 78:8).
  • A “haughty spirit” goes before a fall (Proverbs 16:18), and it is possible for sinful people to be “proud in spirit” (Ecclesiastes 7:8).
  • Isaiah speaks of those “who err in spirit” (Isaiah 29:24).
  • Nebuchadnezzar’s “spirit was hardened so that he dealt proudly” (Daniel 5:20). T
  • he fact that “All the ways of a man are pure in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the spirit” (Proverbs 16:2) implies that it is possible for our spirits to be wrong in God’s sight.
  • Other verses imply a possibility of sin in our spirits (see Psalm 32:2 and 51:10).
  • Finally, the fact that Scripture approves of one “who rules his spirit” (Proverbs 16:32) implies that our spirits are not simply the spiritually pure parts of our lives that are to be followed in all cases, but that they can have sinful desires or directions as well.

The Bible seems to suggest that both the soul and the spirit can sin, which could be because they are the same thing.

5. The soul can do everything the spirit can, and the spirit can do everything the soul can.

Those who advocate trichotomy face a difficult problem defining exactly what the difference is between the soul and the spirit. If Scripture clearly supported the idea that our spirit is the part of us that directly relates to God in worship and prayer, while our soul includes our intellect (thinking), our emotions (feeling), and our will (deciding), then trichotomists would have a strong case. But Scripture doesn’t appear to allow such a distinction.

The activities of thinking, feeling, and deciding things aren’t only said to be done by our souls. Our spirits can also experience emotions. Paul’s “spirit was provoked within him” (Acts 17:16), and Jesus was “troubled in spirit” (John 13:21). It’s also possible to have a “downcast spirit,” which is the opposite of a “cheerful heart” (Proverbs 17:22).

The functions of knowing, perceiving, and thinking are also said to be done by our spirits. For instance, Mark speaks of Jesus “perceiving [Greek “epiginōskō”, ‘knowing’] in his spirit” (Mark 2:8). When the Holy Spirit “bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Romans 8:16), our spirits receive and understand that witness, which is certainly a function of knowing something. In fact, our spirits seem to know our thoughts quite deeply, for Paul asks, “What person knows a man’s thoughts except the spirit of the man which is in him?” (1 Corinthians 2:11). (See also Isaiah 29:24, which speaks of those who now “err in spirit” but “will come to understanding.”)

“Soul” and “spirit” are both general terms to describe the immaterial side of people, and it’s difficult to see any real distinction between their use in Scripture.

Learn more in Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology online course.

Trichotomy: Body, soul, and spirit?

Finally, let’s look at the reasons some scholars believe people have the soul and spirit are distinct. While many of these reasons start with Scripture, most scholars challenge them. We’ll look at the counter-arguments as well.

Paul lists body, soul, and spirit together

1 Thessalonians 5:23 appears to suggest there are three parts to every person: “May the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Why this doesn’t support trichotomy:

By itself, the phrase “your spirit and soul and body” is inconclusive. Other passages of Scripture pile up synonyms for emphasis, and that could be what Paul is doing here. For example, Jesus says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). Is Jesus indicating that the soul is different from the mind or the heart? This problem is even greater in Mark 12:30: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.”

If we believe that lists of terms tell us about the distinct parts to a person, then when we add spirit to this list (and perhaps body as well), we have five or six separate parts! It’s far better to understand Jesus as simply piling up roughly synonymous terms for emphasis to demonstrate that we must love God with all of our being. Likewise, in 1 Thessalonians 5:23 Paul is not saying that soul and spirit are distinct entities, but simply that, whatever our immaterial part is called, he wants God to continue to sanctify us wholly to the day of Christ.

The Word of God divides soul and spirit

Hebrews 4:12 says, “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” If the sword of Scripture divides soul and spirit, doesn’t that make them two separate things?

Why this doesn’t support trichotomy:

Similar to the argument about 1 Thessalonians 5:23, the author isn’t saying that the Word of God can divide “soul from spirit,” but he is using a number of terms (soul, spirit, joints, marrow, thoughts and intentions of the heart) that speak of the deep inward parts of our being that are not hidden from the penetrating power of the Word of God. If we call this our “soul,” then Scripture pierces into it, divides it, and discovers our inmost intentions and thoughts. If we call this our “spirit,” then Scripture penetrates into it, divides it, and discovers our inmost intentions and thoughts.

Or if we wish to think metaphorically of our inmost being as hidden in our joints and marrow, then we can think of Scripture being like a sword that divides our joints or that pierces deeply into our bones and even divides the marrow in the midst of the bones. In all of these cases the Word of God is so powerful that it searches out and exposes all disobedience to God. In any case, soul and spirit are not treated as separate parts here, they are simply additional terms for our inmost being.

Paul suggests that there are “unspiritual” and “spiritual” people

1 Corinthians 2:14–3:4 speaks of three different kinds of people:

  1. Those who are “of the flesh” (Greek “sarkinos,” 1 Cor. 3:1).
  2. Those who are “unspiritual” (Greek “psychikos,” literally “soul-ish,” 1 Cor. 2:14).
  3. Those who are “spiritual” (Greek “pneumatikos,” 1 Cor. 2:15).

These categories seem to suggest that there are non-Christians who are “of the flesh,” “unspiritual” Christians who follow the desires of their souls, and more mature Christians who follow the desires of their spirits. Doesn’t this suggest that soul and spirit are different?

Why this doesn’t support trichotomy:

Paul certainly distinguishes a person who is “natural” (psychikos, “soul-ish”) from one that is “spiritual” (pneumatikos, “spiritual”) in 1 Corinthians 2:14–3:4. But in this context “spiritual” seems to mean “influenced by the Holy Spirit,” since the entire passage is talking about the work of the Holy Spirit in revealing truth to believers. But the passage doesn’t imply that Christians have a spirit and non-Christians don’t, or that the spirit of a Christian is alive and the spirit of a non-Christian isn’t. Paul isn’t talking about different parts of man at all, but about being influenced by the Holy Spirit.

Paul appears to make a distinction between his spirit and his mind

When Paul says, “If I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful” (1 Corinthians 14:14), isn’t he implying that his mind does something different from his spirit? And doesn’t this support the trichotomist’s argument that our mind and our thinking are part of our souls, not our spirit?

Why this doesn’t support trichotomy:

When Paul says, “My spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful,” he means he does not understand the what he is praying. He implies that there is a nonphysical component to his being, a “spirit” within him that can pray to God. But nothing in this verse suggests that he regards his spirit as different from his soul. This misunderstanding only makes sense if we assume that “mind” is part of the soul—a trichotomist claim that, as we noted above, is very difficult to substantiate from Scripture. Paul probably could have just as easily said, “My soul prays but my mind is unfruitful.” There’s a nonphysical element to our existence that can function apart from our conscious awareness of it, but that doesn’t mean we can distinguish between soul and spirit.

We can feel things that aren’t emotions or thoughts

Many trichotomists say that they have a spiritual perception or awareness of God’s presence that affects them differently than their ordinary thinking processes and emotional experiences.

They ask, “If I do not have a spirit that is distinct from my thoughts and my emotions, then what is it that I feel that is different from my thoughts and my emotions, something that I can only describe as worshiping God in my spirit and sensing his presence in my spirit? Isn’t there something in me that is more than just my intellect and my emotions and my will, and shouldn’t this be called my spirit?”

Why this doesn’t support trichotomy:

Christians have a “spiritual perception” or inner awareness of the presence of God experienced in worship and in prayer. At this deep inward level we can also at times feel spiritually troubled, or depressed, or perhaps have a sense of the presence of hostile demonic forces. Often this perception is distinct from our conscious, rational thought processes. As we discussed above, Paul realizes that at times his spirit prays but his mind does not understand (1 Corinthians 14:14).

But does inward spiritual perception occur in something other than what the Bible calls our “soul”? If we were using the vocabulary of Mary, we would be happy to say, “My soul magnifies the Lord” (Luke 1:46). David would say, “Bless the Lord, O my soul” (Psalm 103:1). Jesus would tell us to love God with all our soul (Mark 12:30). The apostle Paul uses the word spirit, but it is simply a difference in terminology and doesn’t point to a different part of man. There’s a “spirit” within us that can perceive things in the spiritual realm (see Romans 8:16 and Acts 17:16), but we could just as well speak of it as our “soul” and mean the same thing, for Scripture uses both terms interchangeably.

Animals have souls, too, but only humans have spirits

Some trichotomists argue that both humans and animals have souls, and that the presence of a spirit is what makes us different from animals.

Why this doesn’t support trichotomy:

We certainly have spiritual abilities that make us different from animals: we are able to relate to God in worship and prayer, and we enjoy spiritual life in fellowship with God who is spirit. But we shouldn’t assume that we have a distinct element called “spirit” that allows us to do this. We can use our minds we can love God, read and understand his words, and believe his Word to be true. Our souls can worship God and rejoice in him. Our bodies will also be resurrected and live with God forever.

We don’t have to label a part distinct from our souls and bodies in order to be different from animals. Our souls and bodies (including our minds) relate to God in ways animals never can. What makes us different from animals is the spiritual abilities that God has given to both our bodies and souls (or spirits).

The question of whether an animal has a “soul” simply depends on how we define soul. If we define “soul” to mean “the intellect, emotions, and will,” then we will have to conclude that at least the higher animals have a soul. But if we define our “soul” as the immaterial element of our nature that relates to God (Psalm 103:1, Luke 1:46, and so on) and lives forever (Revelation 6:9), then animals don’t have a soul. The fact that the Hebrew word nephesh, “soul,” is sometimes used of animals (Genesis 1:21 and 9:4) shows that the word can sometimes simply mean “life.” That doesn’t mean that animals have the same kind of soul as man.

The Bible says our spirits are alive in Christ

Trichotomists also argue that when we become Christians our spirits come alive: “But if Christ is in you, although your bodies are dead because of sin, your spirits are alive because of righteousness” (Romans 8:10). If all people have souls, but only Christians have spirits that are “alive,” doesn’t this imply a distinction between soul and spirit?

Why this doesn’t support trichotomy:

The Bible talks about unbelievers having a spirit that is obviously alive but is in rebellion against God—whether Sihon, King of Heshbon (Deuteronomy 2:30: the Lord “hardened his spirit”), or Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 5:20: “his spirit was hardened so that he dealt proudly”), or the unfaithful people of Israel (Psalm 78:8: their “spirit was not faithful to God”). Clearly, Christians aren’t the only ones who have spirits.

When Paul says, “Your spirits are alive because of righteousness” (Romans 8:10), he apparently means “alive to God,” but he doesn’t imply that our spirits were completely “dead” before, only that they were living out of fellowship with God and were dead in that sense. In the same way, we as whole persons were “dead” in “trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1), but we were made alive to God, and we now must consider ourselves “dead to sin and alive to God” (Romans 6:11).

It’s not just one part of us (the spirit) that has been made alive in Christ. We are a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

We should think of the soul and spirit as the same thing

If we hold to a view of dichotomy that upholds the overall unity of man, it will be much easier to avoid the error of depreciating the value of our intellects, emotions, or physical bodies. We don’t have to think of our bodies as inherently evil or unimportant. There is a continual interaction between our body and our spirit, and they affect each other: “A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries up the bones” (Proverbs 17:22).

Seeing the soul and spirit as synonymous terms for our complete immaterial being reminds us that Christian growth includes all aspects of our lives. We are continually to “cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, and make holiness perfect in the fear of God” (2 Corinthians 7:1). We are to be “increasing in the knowledge of God” (Colossians 1:10), and our emotions and desires are to conform increasingly to the “desires of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:17), including an increase in godly emotions such as peace, joy, love, and so forth (Galatians 5:22).

Learn more in Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology online course.

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