Soul vs Spirit

The main purpose of posting these articles is to encourage the brethren to greater knowledge of the Scriptures, through which only may we know the Lord as He reveals Himself to men. When we know the word of God, we know the Lord Himself better, we know ourselves better, and we are better equipped to endure the attacks against the Truth as well as the trials we will face in this life.

Many times, well-meaning folk come to false conclusions about spiritual matters as a consequence of failing to use the rules of language properly when reading the Bible. Another problem occurs when people don’t really know what a word means, and either accept a meaning someone has communicated to them, or assume a meaning they feel fits what they believe the Bible to be saying. Both of these principles are wrong. The writers used the words they did because those words mean what was intended to be said. It is not for us to impose a meaning based on what we think, but to conform what we think to what the text actually says.

When a meaning is unclear, the correct choice is to look a word up – find out what the original Greek or Hebrew word was, and what it was most commonly translated as in English. Look up the English word in a good dictionary. English words held over from the King James translation need to be checked in an Oxford dictionary well prior to our generation – King James English is the “king’s English”, or English from England. The Oxford Dictionary is an English dictionary rather than an American dictionary, and will render the language as it was used in the place of its origin. Since King James English is also ‘old’ English, a dictionary that includes correct meanings of words during or close to that generation is also important, as some words have changed meaning or emphasis a great deal in 400 years.

The English words ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’ are used interchangeably in present common speech, but where those English words are used in Scripture, the original Greek words from the from which they are translated have very different meanings from one another. Consequently, to read references in the Bible to ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’ as if they referred to the same thing would result in error and confusion. This problem is seen in the verse from Hebrews: “For the word of God is quick and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit …” Common understanding applied to the use of “soul” and “spirit” in this verse result in the impression that the author of Hebrews is telling his audience that the word of God “separates the spirit and the spirit”. Of course, that is nonsense, and an examination of the original language words translated into ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’ shows that the verse means something very specific and holds an important truth.

The following study will examine the use of these two words, and show the proper understanding of them based on Biblical use.

The following entries are direct quotes from the reference works indicated; I have not used quotation marks to identify them, as there is no need to set them apart from my own words – there aren’t any. Please note that, in formal writing, words in foreign languages are printed in italics to set them apart. I have tried to catch all those instances while typing this out.

I have made some minor changes as follows:

a) I have expanded abbreviations the meanings of which might not have been clear, and abbreviated most references to books of the Bible.
b) I included in square brackets [ ] the sections pertaining to the roots of the words from Strong’s. They are typed as published.
c) In a couple of places, a string of words unnecessary to this discussion was used inside the body of an explanation, which I replaced with ampersands. You have lost nothing in meaning, and it hasn’t changed anything.
d) Any emphasis is mine.
e) Highlights are intended to draw your attention to an important point or reference. Colours, or bold type, are for highlight/emphasis, or for readability.


Spirit – Strong’s 4151
Soul – Strong’s 5590

Strong’s Concordance:

4151: pneuma – from 4154 [pneo – breathe hard, ie: breeze; blow, compare 5594] a current of air, ie: breath, (blast) or a breeze; by analogy or figuratively, spirit, ie: (human) the rational soul, (superhuman) an angel, doemon, or (divine) God, Christ’s spirit, the Holy Spirit; – ghost, life, spirit, (-ual, -ually), mind. Compare 5590.

5590: psuche – from 5594 [psucho , primary verb, to breathe, (voluntarily but gently, differing …. from 4154, which denotes properly a forcible respiration, and …. from the base of 109, which refers properly to an inanimate breeze), ie: (by implication of reduction of temperature by evaporation) to chill (figurative): – wax cold.]

breath, ie: (by implication) spirit, abstract or concrete, (the animal sentient principle only; thus distinguished ….from 4151, which is the rational and immortal soul, and …. 2222, which is mere vitality, even of plants; these terms thus exactly correspond respectively to the Hebrew 5315, 7307, and 2416): – heart, (+ily), life mind, soul, +us, +you.

Lexical Aids to the New Testament, ed. Spiros Zodhiates, Th.D.; Hebrew-Greek Key Word Study Bible, King James Version, AMG Publishers, Chattanooga, TN, 1984.

Portions of the entries in the following section are taken from the following:

A Greek-English Lexicon to the New Testament, John Parkhurst, 1867; Biblical-Theological Lexicon of the New Testament, Hermann Cremer, 1895; Synonyms of the New Testament, R.C. Trench, 1876; An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, W.E. Vine, 1940.

4151: pneuma: related to pneo (4154), to breath, blow, primarily denotes the wind. Breath; the spirit which, like the wind is invisible, immaterial and powerful. The wind (Jn 3:8); breath (2Thes 2:8, Rev 11:11; 13:15); the immaterial, invisible part of man (Lk 8:55; 24:37,39; Acts 7:59, 1Cor 5:3 – 5; Heb 12:23, James 2:26; 1P 3:19); man, the resurrection body (1Cor 15:45; 1P3:18); the element in man by which he perceives, reflects, feels, desires (Matt 5:3; 26:41; Mark 2:8); purpose, aim (2Cor 12:18; Phil 1:27; Eph 4:23); the character (Lk 1:17; Rom 1:4); moral qualities and activities (Rom 8:15; 11:8; 2Tim 1:7; 2Cor 4:13); the new life (Rom 8:4-6, 10, 16; Heb 12:9); unclean spirits, demons (Matt 8:16; Lk4:33, 1P3:19);angels (Heb 1;14); divine gifts for service (1Cor 14:12, 32). Sometimes pneuma is used without the definite article, and sometimes with it. Any meaning pertaining to the presence or absence of the definite article must be sought through the context in which is it used. With the def. art. it refers to Jesus’ spirit (Jn 11:33;13:21) as contrasted with the Holy Spirit as the Third Person of the Triune Godhead. In 1Cor 5:3 Paul refers to his spirit and in v.5 to man’s spirit. If not with the art(icle), pneuma may still refer to the Holy Spirit, but it also may refer to the spirit of anyone or the spirit as contrasted with the body. When the expression is to pneuma to agion (the Spirit, the Holy One), it stresses the character of the person of the Holy Spirit (Matt 12:32: Mark 3:29; 12:36)Spirit is the element in man which gives him the ability to think of God. It is man’s vertical window, while psuche (5590) is man’s horizontal window making him conscious of his environment. The animals do not have a spirit, but they do have a soul. A soul is the element of life whereas the spirit is the element of faith. Whenever the word “spirit” is used, it refers to the immaterial part of man including his spirit and soul. When just “soul” is used in regard to man, it may also refer to his immaterial part, including his spirit. Sometimes, however, the word “soul” refers to man’s sinful propensities, as in Luke 14:26. In this verse and other similar ones, the translators have rendered psuche (5590 ) as “life”, but in reality it refers to man’s fallen nature and his sinfulness.

5590: psuche: soul, that immaterial part of man held in common with animals (Matt 10:28; Rom 2:9). Contrast soma (4983), body, and pneuma (4151) spirit (1 Thess 5:23). The psuche, no less than the sarx (4561), flesh, belongs to the lower region of man’s being. Sometimes psuche stands for the immaterial part of man made up of the soul, psuche in the restrictive sense of the animus, the life element, and the pneuma (4151 ) spirit. But animals are not said to possess a spirit, only man has a spirit, giving him the ability to communicate with God.

5591: psuchikos: from psuche (5590), soul, the part of the immaterial life held in common with the animals, as contrasted with spirit, pneuma (4151), only in man, enabling him to communicate with God. Pertaining to the natural, animal as distinguished from spiritual or glorified nature of man. 1Cor 15:44 refers to a body psuchikon, an animalistic or physical body governed by the soul or animal or fallen instinct of man, and a body pneumatikon (4152), spiritual, governed by the divine quality in man, the spirit. Rendered as “natural” in 21Cor 2:14; 15:44, 46 and “sensual” in James 3:15, Jude 1:19. The term psuchikos is not a word of honor, even as sarkikos (4559 ), carnal.

Hebrews 4:12: “For the word of God is quick and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul (5590) and spirit (4151) , and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.”

When we read the explanations of the use of each of pneuma and psuche, and their respective understandings, what we see is that the concept of “spirit”, which we recognize to be that part of us which is “in God’s image” – possessing identity, reason, emotion, will, intellect, etc. – is expressed by pneuma consistently in the NT. The context of psuche is that of having identity due to being physically alive – what keeps us going, as it were, in common with animals. It “pertain[s] to the natural, rather than the spiritual” aspect of humanity.

God has no natural aspect at all, nor has “vitality” in the sense of the physical life possessed by mortal creatures. God has no “lower region” of His being, as all members of the Godhead are completely divine, and completely spirit in Their identity. Jesus’ identity as God is not based on His physical life. He was God before He had any physical life, and continues to be God while possessing physical life. Jesus is God according to spirit, and man according to His physical body.

Understanding this difference makes sense of the Hebrews passage which says that the Word of God divide[s] asunder (takes apart) the “psuche” and the “pneuma”. That is to say, the Word of God creates the essential and material distinction and division between that which is natural and that which is spiritual. It is not speaking about the separation of who we are from some “higher self” of ours. Paul spends a lot of time discussing the contrast between the spiritual and natural in 1 Corinthians. (See chapters 1-4 and chapter 15 in particular.) There is a clear distinction between the two, and one (spirit) is presented as being of more value than and intended to replace the other (natural). To repeat one illustration used by the Paul, the body we start with is a natural body (psuchikos) but is raised a spiritual body (pneumatikos). We are called from the natural “psuchikon” to the spiritual “pneumatikon”.

Some references in English translations of either Old or New Testament refer to God’s ‘soul’. 100% of all instances of English “soul” in the New Testament are translated from psuche, while all but one instance are translated from the Hebrew nephesh in the Old Testament. The Strong’s Concordance says this about nephesh:

05315      nephesh – from 05314 [naphash – a primary root; to breathe; passive: to be breathed upon, ie. (figurative) refreshed (as if by a current of air): – (be) refresh selves (-ed))

Properly, a breathing creature, ie: animal or (abstract) vitality; used very widely in a literal, accommodated or figurative sense (bodily or mental): – any, appetite, beast, body, breath, creature, x dead (-ly), desire, x[dis-] contented, X fish, ghost, +greedy, he heart, )-y_, …lust, man, me, mind, mortally, one, own, person, pleasure … self, them, selves, … they, thing …

The Hebrew nephesh corresponds to the Greek psuche, and is properly understood and translated into the same English words and concepts as psuche. Consequently, while in both cases, ‘soul’ is the most commonly chosen English translation found in Scripture for either of these two words, it is both possible and correct to use other words including mind’, heart, life, or person/self when the context so indicates.

When speaking of God, we must consider whether it is correct to refer to God as having a ‘soul’. Because the understanding of ‘soul’ is that natural aspect of man or other creatures associated with their physical life, it is impossible for God to possess a soul. God is spirit, and entirely separate from anything physical or natural in the biblical sense. While Jesus lived in a physical body, His body may have been animated as a ‘soul’ in the same manner that Adam became a living soul when the breath or spirit of God was breathed or moved into him, but God in no aspect of person possesses any element of natural existence; God is wholly super-natural – outside of and beyond ‘nature’. He has no physical or temporal qualities or aspects whatsoever, and as a consequence cannot possess a ‘soul’.

When we read the passages in context in which the English ‘soul’ has been used in reference to God, we see that a better choice of English word would apply in every case. Hebrews 10:38, for example, declares that God will have no pleasure in anyone who turns back from faith in Him “Now the just shall live by faith: but if he draw back, my soul shall have no pleasure in him.” While the verse does read: psuche moi with God speaking, it would be more correct and consistent with the context of the passage to translate psuche here as ‘heart’, or simply “self”. Likewise in Leviticus 26:11, we read, “And I will set my tabernacle among you: and my soul shall not abhor you.” Nephesh translated as ‘soul’ in this passage would be better rendered “heart” or “self” than ‘soul’. By choosing the English word “soul”, the translators have implied a concept of God that is inconsistent with His revealed nature, and caused unnecessary confusion to those who do not understand the differences between soul and spirit.

God has no aspect which is less than perfect. There is no part of His being which needs to be renewed, replaced, or otherwise “corrected” in any way. God is spirit, as Jesus stated. God is not man. He does not possess some lower element to make Him similar to us, and His life is not based on some aspect separate from His spirit. He does not possess a “psuche” because He is not ‘natural’ but ‘super-natural; He cannot possess any aspect that is less than perfect and holy.