In the Bible, many terms are used to refer to humans and the components they are made of. Flesh and blood are obvious, but other words are used such as “soul” and “spirit”.
In many modern schools of Christian thought, there is the doctrine of “the immortal soul” which is some form of ghostly component within us which survives and remains conscious after death. In this article I’m not going to heavily go into what happens after we die, I’ll leave most of that for another post, but I’m going to be exploring the meanings of these specific terms and what they may entail.
The separation of “body and soul” comes from two major sources in the Bible, one from the writings of King Solomon and the other from the gospel of Matthew.
- Ecclesiastes 3:20-21: “All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. Who knows if the human spirit rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?”
- Matthew 10:28: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna”.
From this base, the teaching of the immortal soul is taught. However, it is worth noting that this is purely based upon a surface reading of the modern English translations and isn’t going into the deeper detail of the original languages.
I’m going to start with the word “soul” as it appears in the Old Testament. An interesting verse we can look to where the word “soul” is used in the Torah is in Ezekiel.
Ezekiel 18:20: “The soul who sins shall die….”
This is not a verse many are familiar with, for in most modern translations, rather than the word “soul”, it is often rendered “person”. The reason being is that most people would end up being confused, with the modern term “soul” being taught as being the immortal component of humans, so how can a “soul die”? However, the word “soul” originates from the original Hebrew word; “nephesh”.
Phonetic Spelling: (neh’-fesh)
Definition: a soul, living being, life, self, person, desire, passion, appetite, emotion – Strong’s Concordance
This is the word being used at Ezekiel. The term “soul” means “body and mind”. Thus everything we are in our living form, our flesh and our conscious minds, is altogether “the soul”, we ‘are’ “souls”.
But.. if we are souls, then what is Matthew talking about? You may ask.
Upon investigating Matthew 10:28 closer, you will notice that there is a slight translation issue in our modern Bibles. The word written as “soul”, is actually translated from the Greek word “psuché” which actually means “spirit”, or “breath”, not “soul”. So what the verse should actually say is; “Do not be afraid of those who kill the soul (body/mind) but cannot kill the spirit”. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both spirit and soul (body/mind) in Gehenna”.
Now at this point, you might be wondering “if the soul is both the body and the conscious mind and inner person, then what on Earth is the spirit?”. A deeper look into the word will begin to lead us to a possible answer.
The word “soul” which in fact should be translated as “spirit” in Matthew 10:28 comes from the word “psuché”, which means “breath” or “life force”, which results in the maintenance of the “living soul” (the person’s body and mind).
5590 psyxḗ (from psyxō, “to breathe, blow” which is the root of the English words “psyche,” “psychology”) – soul (psyche); a person’s distinct identity (unique personhood), i.e. individual personality. 5590 (psyxē) corresponds exactly to the OT 5315 /phágō (“soul”). The soul is the direct aftermath of God breathing (blowing) His gift of life into a person, making them an ensouled being. – HELPS Word-Studies
Usage: (a) the vital breath, breath of life, (b) the human soul, (c) the soul as the seat of affections and will, (d) the self, (e) a human person, an individual. – Strong’s Concordance
Thus we can begin to see why the word for “body and mind” (soul) has been confused with “breath and lifeforce” (spirit).
The word “psuché” (spirit/breath/lifeforce) is actually a direct parallel to its Hebrew equivalent, which is “ruach”. The word ruach likewise has the same meanings, spirit, breath and lifeforce, but it also can refer to God’s Holy Spirit, it can also refer to “spirits” (such as angels or demons), as well as just simply “wind” (the literal wind which blows trees). The interpretation of the word is dependant on context and grammar, so it’s easy to see why there was a huge mix up in translations.
This is where we come to the really interesting part. The word “ruach” was the word used at Ecclesiastes 3:21. So we can see here that Solomon is telling us, once a person (a “soul” consisting of body and mind) dies, his “spirit” (which can mean wind, breath, lifeforce or something angelic) departs from him. But what does this actually mean? I highly doubt it refers to the passing of gas when we die… Neither do I believe it refers to the mere simple loss of breath based upon Solomon’s deep musings… So is this referring to the concept of an immortal soul or conscious angelic like creature that comes out of us?
Well, to make things easy, Solomon actually tells us (bet you didn’t expect that).
- Ecclesiastes 9:5-6: “For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even their name is forgotten. Their love, their hate and their jealousy have long since vanished; never again will they have a part in anything that happens under the sun.”
So clearly, those who are dead “know nothing”, this sentiment is echoed throughout the Bible, where the dead are compared to those sleeping (Job 14:12, Ephesians 5:14, Luke 8:52, John 11:11-14). Thus, this reveals to us that this “spirit” is not a conscious part of us which is departing from the body at death, but that still doesn’t answer what it actually “is”, and this is what I find to be the fascinating part, because Solomon himself didn’t seem to fully know either, and this is where I begin to really delve into my personal theories…
Being confident that it is not referring to something that is “alive”, “conscious” or “awake”, I theorise that this “spirit”, this “life force” may be a component of our inner beings, a form of “energy” if you will, which may be a unique “aura” or collective of ourselves. The physical electricity that runs through us, which also may contain everything about us, our being, our memories, the things science cannot yet seem to explain.
…those phenomena that involve the unique characteristics of the reflective mind — such as introspection and conscious will — are the ones that are taken to present a real obstacle for science. And those that contribute to making us exceptional — more than a “mere” animal among many — seem to place us further beyond what science can explain. – Tania Lombrozo
The mind-body problem cannot be confined to the relation between animal minds and animal bodies. If materialism cannot accommodate consciousness and other mind-related aspects of reality, then we must abandon a purely materialist understanding of nature in general, extending to biology, evolutionary theory, and cosmology. Since minds are features of biological systems that have developed through evolution, the standard materialist version of evolutionary biology is fundamentally incomplete. – Thomas Nagel
Matthew made a point to say “do not fear those who can destroy the soul” meaning our bodies and our minds, but to “fear the one who can destroy the spirit”. Thus, what this may be is something “akin” to what people think of when they consider “the immortal soul”, but this spirit may be the “unconscious” essence of us, our signature as it were. What Solomon and Matthew may have referred to is possibly what science now calls the “law of conservation”, that is, the law that energy cannot be destroyed, only changed in form. To destroy energy, it would require someone, or something which could defy the laws of our universe… and that thing is our Almighty God.
I believe it’s possible that whilst this “energy”, this “life force” of ours is not conscious, it may be the component of which God will restore to us, ‘with’ our consciousness at the resurrection when we are all given new bodies (whether these be Heavenly or Earthly, Isaiah 65:17-25, Revelation 21:1-4).
So to answer the title, “what is the difference between the body, mind, breath, soul and spirit?”. Well I think it’s quite simple (yet also profound).
The soul ‘is’ the body (including the ‘physical breath’) and conscious mind, whereas the spirit I believe is possibly the “unique energy of life” that is within all of us, the spark that is beyond scientific means, which ’causes’ us to breath and think, the missing component in their experiments, the answer to the “why” when they charge up dead bodies in laboratories and get all the organs working, there is still “nobody home”, the piece which is not consciousness in itself, but ‘enables’ consciousness when it is combined with our body and brain, and perhaps it is what God holds in safe keeping of all the dead, as we await the days of the Resurrections, the essence of us, which he will restore into new bodies, which will ensure that these raised people are not “clones”, but truly are the same individual inside and out.
Whilst it ‘could’ also just refer to “literal breath”, I do not think this explanation harmonises with the words at Matthew in regard to the importance of the Soul and Spirit (especially) both being in God’s hands, and therefore I do not think the simplistic understanding of it being merely “breath” holds much water, but neither do I believe the belief in the immortal soul being conscious after death harmonises with scripture (and even more reason I feel to distrust this interpretation is seeing that it first was introduced to Christianity way after the 3rd Century by Greek religious philosophers), which as such, is what brings me to these personal end conclusions.