Vol. 6, No. 5
~ Page 8 ~
Many of us have read enough to be resigned to the fact that we shall leave this life with unanswered questions about the soul and spirit. However, what God has revealed we ought to find out.
My mother taught me that my soul is my immortal nature, a part of me that survives the body. What she taught is the most important thing knowable about the soul, but there are other meanings. The elemental meaning of the word "soul" (nephesh) is that which breathes: "To all the beasts of the earth and to all the birds of the air and to all creeping things on the earth, wherein is the breath [nephesh] of life, I have given green plants for food" (Genesis 1:30).
The first time that most versions insert the word "soul" (nephesh) is 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 [nephesh]" (KJV).
I used to think that the word "soul" in Genesis 2:7 referred to man's immortal nature. Most of the Bible occurrences of the word "soul" (nephesh) do refer to man's non-material, immortal nature. I have counted 24 instances, but the context of nephesh in Genesis 2:7 (including Genesis 1:20, 21, 24, 26, 30) shows that Moses was saying that man, like the fishes, the birds, the beasts, and creeping things, is a living breather. In Job 41:21 (v. 13 in the Hebrew) nephesh is translated "breath." Since the translation "living breather" is awkward, and the translation "living soul" is misleading, the NASB has "man became a living being."
Three times in Leviticus 17:11 the Lord used the word nephesh with two different meanings; twice nephesh means "life" and once nephesh (plural) means "souls," our immortal nature. In this particular verse, where the word nephesh twice means "life," the reference is to the life of an animal being sacrificed, and the word nephesh (plural) meaning "souls," the reference is to the immortal souls of "the children of Israel" (cf. v. 12): "For the life of the flesh [of the animal] is in the blood; and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement by reason of the life."
Elementally, the word "spirit" (ruach in the Hebrew; pneuma in the Greek) also means that which breathes, and as such refers to animals and to humans alike: "Who knows that the breath [ruach] of man ascends upward and the breath [ruach] of the beast descends downward to the earth?" (Ecclesiastes 3:21).
Then the word refers to the wind (Genesis 8:1; John 3:8), to one's attitude (Proverbs 16:18; 17:22; Galatians 6:1-2) and especially to man's non-material, immortal nature (as Psalm 31:5; Luke 23:46). I have counted 14 instances.
When God spoke of creating "man in his own image" (Genesis 1:27), he was not speaking of the shape of the clay that he molded, but of that which is invisible which he put inside of man. God's nature is "spirit" (John 4:24), not "flesh and blood" (1 Corinthians 15:50). It therefore follows that the part of man created in God's image is man's spirit. One gets his body from his parents, but it is "the Father of spirits" (Hebrews 12:9) who "forms the spirit of man within him" (Zechariah 12:1). When death comes to man's physical body, then his "spirit will return to God who gave it" (Ecclesiastes 12:7).
When Jesus' body was taken down from the cross, he had already committed his spirit back to his Father (Luke 23:46). Before devout Christians had buried Stephen's bruised corpse, the Lord had already received his "spirit" (Acts 7:59).
Clearly the words "soul" and "spirit" are sometimes used interchangeably, referring to man's non-material and immortal nature. But Hebrews 4:12 shows that the words "soul" and "spirit" are not always synonyms. The word "spirit" is never used to refer to a whole person, as "in the days of Noah . . . eight souls . . . were brought safely through the water" (1 Peter 3:20). The word "soul" is often used to refer to a corpse (as in Haggai 2:13; Psalm 16:10; Acts 2:27), but never is the word "spirit" so used. A "spirit does not have flesh and bones" (Luke 24:39), but they are included in the command, "Let every soul be subject to the higher powers" (Romans 13:1).
Furthermore, 1 Thessalonians 5:23 does not teach that man is a three part being: "spirit and soul and body." The probable explanation is that the verse is another example of "soul" meaning "life" (as in Leviticus 17:11). This explanation of a difficult verse says that Paul was praying that the undying spirits and mortal bodies of the Thessalonians might be alive and blameless at the Lord's coming.
James 5:20 refers to man's soul (which is immortal, Revelation 6:9-10) as being capable of death. I believe the explanation is that the death of James 5:20 is not that of man's immortal nature, but is the "second death" (Revelation 2:11; 21:8), that is, "the hell of fire," the "lake of fire," in which all victims will be alive "forever and ever" (Matthew 5:22; Revelation 14:11; 20:10).
A great cause of rejoicing is that there is in man something, called either soul or spirit, which came from heaven in God's own image and likeness, which is undying, and which God loves and yearns for its returning to him, cleansed, washed, purified, sanctified, regenerated, justified and glorified (Genesis 1:27; 35:18; Psalm 31:5; Zechariah 12:1; Ecclesiastes 12:7; John 3:16; 15:3; Ephesians 5:26; Colossians 1:27; 3:4; Titus 3:5, 7; 1 Peter 1:22; Revelation 1:5).