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“Soul” and “Spirit”​—What Do These Terms Really Mean?

“Soul” and “Spirit”​—What Do These Terms Really Mean?

WHEN you hear the terms “soul” and “spirit,” what comes to your mind? Many believe that these words mean something invisible and immortal that exists inside us. They think that at death this invisible part of a human leaves the body and lives on. Since this belief is so widespread, many are surprised to learn that it is not at all what the Bible teaches. What, then, is the soul, and what is the spirit, according to God’s Word?


First, consider the soul. You may remember that the Bible was originally written mainly in Hebrew and Greek. When writing about the soul, the Bible writers used the Hebrew word neʹphesh or the Greek word psy·kheʹ. These two words occur well over 800 times in the Scriptures, and the New World Translation renders them “soul,” either in the main text or in footnotes. When you examine the way “soul” or “souls” is used in the Bible, it becomes evident that this word basically refers to (1) people, (2) animals, or (3) the life that a person or an animal has. Let us consider some scriptures that present these three different senses.

People. “In Noah’s day . . . a few people, that is, eight souls, were carried safely through the water.” (1 Peter 3:20) Here the word “souls” clearly stands for people​—Noah, his wife, his three sons, and their wives. Exodus 16:16 mentions instructions given to the Israelites regarding the gathering of manna. They were told to gather it “according to the number of the people [“souls,” footnote]” that each of them had in his tent. So the amount of manna that was gathered was based on the number of people in each family. Some other Biblical examples of the application of “soul” or “souls” to a person or to people are in the footnotes found at Genesis 46:18; Joshua 11:11; Acts 27:37; and Romans 13:1.

Animals. In the Bible’s creation account, we read: “Then God said: ‘Let the waters swarm with living creatures [“souls,” footnote], and let flying creatures fly above the earth across the expanse of the heavens.’ Then God said: ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures [“souls,” footnote] according to their kinds, domestic animals and creeping animals and wild animals of the earth according to their kinds.’ And it was so.” (Genesis 1:20, 24) In this passage, fish, domestic animals, and wild animals are all referred to by the same word​—“souls.” Birds and other animals are called souls in the footnotes found at Genesis 9:10; Leviticus 11:46; and Numbers 31:28.

Life of a person. Sometimes the word “soul” means the life of a person. Jehovah told Moses: “All the men who were seeking to kill you [“seeking your soul,” footnote] are dead.” (Exodus 4:19) What were Moses’ enemies trying to do? They were seeking to take Moses’ life. Earlier, while Rachel was giving birth to her son Benjamin, “her life was slipping away [“her soul was going out,” footnote].” (Genesis 35:16-19) At that time, Rachel lost her life. Consider also Jesus’ words: “I am the fine shepherd; the fine shepherd surrenders his life [“soul,” footnote] in behalf of the sheep.” (John 10:11) Jesus gave his soul, or life, in behalf of mankind. In these Bible passages, or in the footnotes, the word “soul” clearly refers to the life of a person. You will find more examples of this sense of “soul” either in the text or in the footnotes found at 1 Kings 17:17-23; Matthew 10:39; John 15:13; and Acts 20:10.

A further study of God’s Word will show you that nowhere in the entire Bible are the terms “immortal” or “everlasting” linked with the word “soul.” Instead, the Scriptures state that a soul is mortal, meaning that it dies. (Ezekiel 18:4, 20) Therefore, the Bible calls someone who has died simply a “dead soul.”​—Leviticus 21:11, footnote.


Let us now consider the Bible’s use of the term “spirit.” Some people think that “spirit” is just another word for “soul.” However, that is not the case. The Bible makes clear that “spirit” and “soul” refer to two different things. How do they differ?

Bible writers used the Hebrew word ruʹach or the Greek word pneuʹma when writing about the “spirit.” The Scriptures themselves indicate the meaning of those words. For instance, Psalm 104:29 states: “If you [Jehovah] take away their spirit [ruʹach], they die and return to the dust.” And James 2:26 notes that “the body without spirit [pneuʹma] is dead.” In these verses, then, “spirit” refers to that which gives life to a body. Without spirit, the body is dead. Therefore, in the Bible the word ruʹach is translated not only as “spirit” but also as “force,” or life-force. For example, concerning the Flood in Noah’s day, God said: “I am going to bring floodwaters upon the earth to destroy from under the heavens all flesh that has the breath [ruʹach] of life.” (Genesis 6:17; 7:15, 22) “Spirit” thus refers to an invisible force (the spark of life) that animates all living creatures.

The soul and the spirit are not the same. The body needs the spirit in much the same way as a radio needs electricity​—in order to function. To illustrate this further, think of a portable radio. When you put batteries in a portable radio and turn it on, the electricity stored in the batteries brings the radio to life, so to speak. Without batteries, however, the radio is dead. So is another kind of radio when it is unplugged from an electric outlet. Similarly, the spirit is the force that brings our body to life. Also, like electricity, the spirit has no feeling and cannot think. It is an impersonal force. But without that spirit, or life-force, our bodies “die and return to the dust” as the psalmist stated.

Speaking about man’s death, Ecclesiastes 12:7 states: “The dust [of his body] returns to the earth, just as it was, and the spirit returns to the true God who gave it.” When the spirit, or life-force, leaves the body, the body dies and returns to where it came from​—the earth. Comparably, the life-force returns to where it came from​—God. (Job 34:14, 15; Psalm 36:9) This does not mean that the life-force actually travels to heaven. Rather, it means that for someone who dies, any hope of future life rests with Jehovah God. His life is in God’s hands, so to speak. Only by God’s power can the spirit, or life-force, be given back so that a person may live again.

How comforting it is to know that this is exactly what God will do for all of those resting in “the memorial tombs”! (John 5:28, 29) At the time of the resurrection, Jehovah will form a new body for a person sleeping in death and bring it to life by putting spirit, or life-force, in it. What a joyful day that will be!

If you would like to learn more about the terms “soul” and “spirit” as used in the Bible, you will find valuable information in the brochure What Happens to Us When We Die? and on pages 375-384 of the book Reasoning From the Scriptures, both published by Jehovah’s Witnesses.