The Immortality Of the Soul – Truth Or Myth (Part 3) : The Spirit Of Man

In the first two parts of this study, we examined both the Hebrew Bible (HB) and the NT to discover the biblical concept of the soul. We concluded that the soul of man is not a distinct component of his nature which lives on in sentient consciousness after death. We saw that both the Hebrew word nephesh and the Greek word psuche have a varied semantic range which does not include the idea of an immaterial immortal part of man as distinct from the body, which survives the death of the body. We saw that this concept of the soul is of pagan origin and found it’s way into the thinking of Christendom through the influence of Greek education upon the early Gentile church fathers.

But scripture also speaks of spirit in relation to man. Is spirit another component of man’s nature? Are human beings made up of three constituent parts – a spirit, a soul and a body? Based on some passages of scripture {1 Thess. 5:23; Heb. 4:12} this might appear to be the case. Is there a distinction between soul and spirit, and if so what is it? These are the questions we will seek to answer in this study.

Let’s first take a look at how the concept of man’s spirit is understood in differing Christian circles.

GotQuestions.Com defines the human spirit as “the incorporeal part of man.” But this is basically how they also define the human soul. In their answer to the question, “What is the difference between the soul and spirit of man” they further define the spirit as “the immaterial part of humanity that connects with God.” In their answer they do maintain a distinction and separability of the soul from the spirit.

One popular belief is that the spirit is the part of man that experiences the ‘new birth’ when one receives Christ. The spirit in man is said to be dead, separated from God, until it is born again, receiving new life. It is believed then that it is the spirit of man that possesses eternal life. Some Christian teachers regard the spirit of a man as the real person, i.e. man is basically a spirit being who has a soul (which enables him to engage the world on an emotional and psychological level) and lives in a body (by which he engages the world on a physical level). These views are expressing a belief that man has a tripartite nature – a spirit, soul and body.

Others see man as consisting of only two constituent parts – soul and body. In this view there is no real distinction between spirit and soul; they are just different ways of saying the same thing. This dichotomist view typically sees the spirit/soul as the immaterial part of man that consciously survives the death of the body. This view is expressly espoused in the Westminster Confession of Faith:

“The bodies of men, after death, return to dust and see corruption: but their souls, which neither die nor sleep, having an immortal subsistence, immediately return to God who gave them; the souls of the righteous are received into the highest heaven and the souls of the wicked are cast into hell. Besides these two places, for souls separated from their bodies, the Scripture acknowledges none.”

XXXII/i

Most of these popular views see the spirit of man as a independent, self-conscious entity in it’s own right; the soul and body, in a trichotomy, or just the body, in a dichotomy, being only necessary for proper intercourse in the natural or material world. It must be noted that the idea that the human spirit is the true self which has a kind of immortal existence has also been a prominent belief in most religious systems, such as Hinduism, Islam, various forms of Gnosticism, Bahaism, Zoroastrianism, Reincarnation, Wicca, Hermeticism, ancient Egyptian religion, New Age/esotericism, Vodou, and many others.

The Spirit Of Man In The Hebrew Bible

In the Hebrew scriptures there are two words which are translated as ‘spirit‘ in connection with humans, and these two words are very closely related. The first is neshamah, whose primary meaning is a blast of air, and hence it’s most literal and predominate meaning in the HB is breath. The second word is ruach, which denotes the movement of air, and hence it’s most literal meaning in the HB is breath and wind. When these words are used to convey the idea of ‘spirit’ in the HB they are being used figuratively. These two words are used as synonyms as the following verses show:

Job 4:9 – “By the blast (neshamah) of God they perish and by the breath (ruach) of his anger they are consumed.”

Job 27:3 – “As long as my breath (neshamah) is in me, and the breath (ruach) from God in my nostrils . . .”

Job 32:8 – “Truly a spirit (ruach) it is in man, the breath (neshamah) from the Almighty enables him to understand.”

Job 33:4 – “The spirit (ruach) of God has made me, and the breath (neshamah) of the Almighty gives me life.”

Job 34:14-15 – “If he set his heart to do so, and gathered to himself his spirit (ruach) even his breath (neshamah), all flesh together would perish and man would return to the dust.”

Psalm 18:15 – “The valley of the seas were exposed and the foundations of the earth laid bare at your rebuke, O Yahweh, from the blast (neshamah) of the breath (ruach) of your nostrils.”

Is. 42:5 – “Thus says the God Yahweh, who created the heavens and . . . the earth . . . who gives breath (neshamah) to the people upon it and breath (ruach) to those who walk on it.”

The only passage where neshamah is translated as spirit in our English versions has to do with humanity specifically:

The spirit (neshamah) of man is the lamp of Yahweh, searching all the inner places of the belly.

Prov. 20:27

This passage is highly figurative and somewhat enigmatic. The words ‘lamp’, ‘searching’ and ‘belly’ are obviously being used figuratively, but what about neshamah; is it to be taken figuratively as ‘spirit’ or more literal as ‘breath’. Is this verse teaching something about a particular part of man’s nature? I propose that ‘the lamp of YHWH‘ should probably be understood as an ablative genitive i.e. ‘a lamp from (i.e. given by) YHWH‘. Hence the neshamah of man is a lamp given to man by YHWH. This coincides with the first mention of neshamah in the HB:

Yahweh God formed the man from the dust of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath (neshamah) of life, and the man became a living being.

Gen. 2:7

But how does the breath of life given to man by God act as a lamp which searches all the inward parts of the belly? Again, the whole passage must be regarded as figurative. The inner places of the belly is figurative of the motives, intentions, purposes, etc. that are hidden within a person’s heart, unseen by others and often not fully known to the person themself. But there is in man the ability to discern his own inner workings, a self-awareness by which he can know himself. This is what neshamah is figurative of in this verse. So this passage really lends no support to the idea that man has a spirit entity in his body that is the true self, which will consciously survive the death of the body.

We now move to the word ruach, which is the word that is chiefly translated as ‘spirit‘ in our English versions. We will look only at passages in which ruach relates to humans.

Ruach as Breath

Many times when ruach is used of human beings it simply refers to the breath of life which God gave to the original man and which has been transmitted to all humans through the man’s seed. This is one of it’s literal meanings. These verses are Gen. 6:17; 7:22; Num. 16:22; 27:16; Job 12:10; 27:3; 32:8; Ps. 104:29; 146:4; Eccl. 3:19-21; 12:7; Is. 38:16 (maybe figurative); 42:5; 57:16 (maybe figurative); Ezek. 37: 5,6,8,9,10. Of course, there are many verses where ruach is used also in connection with God and ‘breath‘ is the probable meaning. In all of these passages the idea of a spirit entity in man that consciously survives death is most improbable. For example, the Genesis passages speak of the “ruach of life”, which could be taken as ‘the spirit of life’, but two thing are against it. First, in 7:22 it is specifically stated that this ‘ruach of life’ is in the nostrils, hence it refers to breath. Second, in this same verse, as well as in 7:15, the phrase is applied to animals. But those who hold to the dichotomist or the trichotomist views of man would not typically say that animals have a spirit entity in them that is their real self and which survives the death of the body. But animals do share with humans the breath of life in their nostrils. This is also apparent in the Eccl. 3:19-21 passage.

Ruach as Disposition/Inclination/ State of Mind/ Temperament

Often in the HB ruach is used figuratively to denote a dominate disposition or frame of mind, or even a temporary state of mind of a person. Here are passages which reflect this meaning: Gen. 26:35; 41:8; Ex. 6:9; Num. 5:14, 30; 14:24; Deut. 2:30; Joshua 2:11; 5:1; Judg. 8:3; 9:23; 1 Kings 21:5; 1 Chron. 5:26; Job 7:11; 15:13; 21:4; 32:18; Ps. 34:18; 51:17; 77:3; 142:3; 143:4; Prov. 11:3; 14:29; 15:4, 13; 16:18, 19, 32; 17:22, 27; 18:14; 25:28; 29:23; Eccl. 7:8-9; 10:4; Is. 19:14; 28:6; 29:24; 37:7; 54:6; 57:15; 61:3; 65:14; 66:2; Jer. 51:11; Ezek. 3:14; Dan. 2:1, 3; Hosea 4:12; 5:4; Haggai 1:14; Zech. 13:2; Mal. 2:15-16.

Ruach as Mind/Will/Resolve/Motives

Another figurative use of ruach is to denote a persons thoughts, their will or an inner resolve. Here are passages with this meaning: Ex. 35:21; 1 Sam. 1:15; 1 Chron. 28:12; 2 Chron. 36:22; Ezra 1:1, 5; Job 6:4; 20:3; Ps. 32:2; 51:10, 12; 77:6; 78:8; Prov. 1:23; 16:2; 29:11; Is. 29:24; Jer. 51:1, 11; Ezek. 11:5; 19; 13:3; 18:31; 20:32; 36:26; Dan. 2:1.

Ruach as Vigor/Inner Strength/Courage

Verses which demonstrate this figurative use of ruach are: Gen. 45:27; Joshua 2:11; 5:1; Judges 15:19; 1 Sam. 30:12; Ps. 76:12; 143:7; Is. 19:3; Ezek. 21:7.

Ruach as Divine Enablement/Prophetic Inspiration/Supernatural Ability

This figurative use of ruach signifies an ability or enablement from God. Here are the verses: Gen. 41:38; Ex. 28:3; 31:3; 35:31; Num. 11:17, 25, 26, 29; 24:2; 27:18; Deut. 34:9; Judges 3:10; 6:34; 11:29; 13:25; 14:6, 19; 15:14; 1 Sam. 11:6; 19:20, 23; 2 Kings 2:9, 15; 2 Chron. 15:1; 20:14; 24:20; Neh. 9:20, 30; Job 32:18; Ps. 106:33; 143:10; Is. 11:2; 42:1; Hosea 9:7.

Ruach as Synonymous with Leb (Heart)

The following verses establish the use of ruach and leb as synonyms through the device of synonymous parallelism: Ex. 35:21; Deut. 2:30; Josh. 2;11; 5:1; Ps. 34:18; 51:10, 17; 77:6; 143:4; Is. 57:15; 65:14; Ezek. 11:19; 18:31; 21:7; Mal. 2:15, 16. This category of usage helps to further clarify the figurative use of ruach as ‘spirit‘ and shows that it does not refer to a supposed immaterial entity within human nature that is the real self and which can exist apart from the body. These passages show that ruach and leb (spirit and heart) are used interchangeably and so it is necessary to understand what is being conveyed by ‘heart’ in the HB.

When the HB speaks of a man’s heart it speaks of the inner activity of man in contrast to that which is outer; of that which is unseen in contrast to what is seen. The concept of leb can denote a person’s mind, will, motives, emotions, affections, desires, devotion, commitments, loyalties, etc., as the following verses show: Gen. 6:5; 8:21; 17:17; 27:41; 50:21; Ex. 4:14; 7:23; 25:2; 35:5, 22; Num. 16:28; Deut. 28:65; 29:19; Josh. 14:8; Judg. 5:15; 16:15; 18:20; 1 Sam. 1:13; 9:20; 10:26; 2 Sam. 6:16; 7:27; 15:6; 1 Kings 8:23; 11:3; 1 Chron. 28:9; Neh. 2:12; 6:8; Job 31:27; 36:13; Ps. 10:17; 21:2; 26:2; 37:31; 44:21; 57:7; 64:6; 78:37; 84:2; 119:11; Prov. 4:23; 6:18; 12:20; 16:1; 23:12; Eccl. 1:17; 9:1; Is. 35:4; 41:22; 65:14; Jer. 3:16; 12:3; 20:12; Lam. 1:20; 3:21; Ezek. 33:31; 40:4; Dan. 1:8; 10:12; Hosea 10:2; Mal. 2:2. There are literally hundreds more verses showing the meaning of leb in the HB.

Now for those who hold that man can be divided up into two or three constituent parts i.e. spirit, soul and body, I ask, “What is the heart of man?” If you say that the heart corresponds to the human spirit, which I agree with, we find that the popular notions of man’s spirit do not coincide well with how leb is used in the HB. One popular belief regarding the spirit of man is that it is the part of man that relates to God, while the soul is the part that relates to other humans. But we have seen that leb many times describes the inner activity of a person toward other people. Not only that but leb and nephesh (i.e. soul) are also used in synonymous parallelism in the HB: Ps. 84:2; Prov. 2:10; 23:7; 24:12. To complicate things even further nephesh and ruach are also used in synonymous parallelism in Job 7:11; 12:10; Is. 26:9. It appears that when these words are used in their figurative sense they are practically interchangeable terms. The error made by many Bible teachers is to regard these words as technical terms for distinct parts of human nature, but a careful examination of how these words are used does not bear this out.

A Closer Look At Specific Passages

We will now look at some specific passages in which ruach could be taken in the sense of ‘spirit’ i.e. that the spirit of man is an immaterial entity within a man which is a distinct and independent part of his nature, surviving the death of his body in conscious existence.

Numbers 16:22 {see also 27:16} – “But Moses and Aaron fell facedown and cried out, ‘O God, God of the spirits of all flesh . . . ‘ “

This would be an odd expression if ‘spirits’ here refers to a distinct part of man’s nature; is God the God only of the spirits of men and not of their souls and bodies also. This should be understood in the sense of the following passages:

  • Job 12:10 – “In his hand is the life (nephesh) of every living thing and the breath (ruach) of all the flesh of man.”
  • Is. 42:5 – “Thus says the God Yahweh, who created the heavens and . . . the earth . . . who gives breath (neshamah) to the people upon it and spirit (ruach) to those who walk on it.”

The statement is simply expressing the truth that God is the source of the life of all mankind. That life comes from the breath which he breathed into man at the beginning. The fact that ruach is plural i.e. ‘breaths’, rather than the typical singular ‘breath’, could be viewed as a superlative plural. In this view the ‘flesh’ that Moses speaks of is specifically that of all mankind and not of animals. Since animals also share the breath of life with man {see Gen. 1:30; 6:17; 7:15, 22} Moses uses a superlative plural to signify the breath of all mankind and not of the animals.

Psalm 31:5 “Into your hand I entrust my spirit; You have redeemed me Yahweh, God of truth.”

Is David entrusting to God the immaterial entity that dwells in his body? No, he is entrusting his breath i.e. his life to God.

Psalm 146:4“When their spirit departs, they return to the ground; on that day their plans come to nothing.”

Is this referring to the idea that when men die the spirit entity in them departs and goes to either heaven or hell where it is consciously alive? No, it is simply referring to the breath of life that departs from one at death.

Prov. 18:14 “The spirit of a man sustains him in sickness, but a broken spirit who can endure?”

Here spirit denotes an inner attitude or state of mind. If one’s state of mind is joyful or cheerful it will sustain him through sickness, yet if one’s state of mind is that of dejection how can he endure. Prov. 17:22 gives the same idea: “A cheerful heart brings about a good healing, but a broken spirit dries up the bones.”

2 Kings 2:9 & 15“. . . Elijah said to Elisha, ‘Ask what I may do for you before I am taken away from you.’ And Elisha said, ‘Please let a double portion of your spirit be to me’ . . . And when the company of prophets saw him . . . they said, ‘The spirit of Elijah is resting on Elisha.’

It should be obvious that the “spirit of Elijah” does not refer to Elijah’s ghost i.e. an immaterial entity within him, but rather to the prophetic and supernatural ability by which he carried out his ministry.

Job 32:8“Truly a spirit it is in men, a breath from the Almighty gives them understanding.”

Since ‘a spirit’ is synonymous with ‘the breath from the Almighty’ and based on the context {vv. 6-9}, ruach here probably denotes inspiration from God in the form of understanding and wisdom.

Psalm 76:12“He restrains the spirit of rulers; he inspires fear in the kings of the earth.”

Here ‘spirit of rulers’ probably denotes either the proud will or the wrath of rulers.

Psalm 88:10“Do you show your wonders to the dead? Do their spirits rise up to praise you?” (NIV)

Here it appears that the spirits of the dead may refer to what is typically called ghosts, giving the impression that man has a spirit that lives on after death. But this translation is misleading. The word translated ‘spirits‘ here is raphaim, which some understand to refer to the departed spirits of the dead. Now this may have been how the word was used among pagan peoples in the Semitic world, but in the Hebrew Bible it is simply a synonym for the dead. This can be clearly seen in it’s other seven uses: Job 26:5; Prov. 2:18; 9:18; 21:16; Isa. 14:9; 26:14, 19. In each of these passages raphaim is set in synonymous parallelism to death or the dead (Heb. muth). There is no reason to take raphaim as a reference to departed spirits. A better translation of the above phrase is simply, “Do the dead rise up to praise you?” Of course, the answer is NO!

Psalm 146:4“His spirit departs, he returns to his earth; on that very day his plans vanish.”

Some mistakenly take this to say that when a man dies his still living and conscious spirit departs and his body goes back to the earth. But all that it is actually saying is that when a person dies his breath departs from him and he returns to the earth. It is the man who returns to the earth, hence there is no spirit that is the real person distinct from the body. This same concept is seen in Eccl. 3:19- 21 which speaks of the death of both men and animals as their breath departing from them and they returning to the earth.

Conclusion

What we can conclude from this survey is that the concept of man as an immaterial entity or spirit (a.k.a. a ghost) living in a body, which is able to survive the death of the body in conscious existence, is not a necessary deduction drawn from any passage in the Hebrew Bible. This was the same conclusion we reached in the survey of the soul, in parts 1 and 2 of this study. It is equally as clear from this study that the Hebrew Bible knows no distinction between soul and spirit, i.e. as if these were two constituent parts of man. While the words nephesh (soul) and ruach (spirit) are, in there literal meanings, two distinct concepts, in their figurative meaning there is overlap between them. But again, neither of these concepts denotes an immaterial part of man which is immortal, living on consciously after death. In part 4 we will survey the New Testament for it’s concept of ‘spirit’ in relation to man.

Author: Troy Salinger

I am 60 yrs. old. I live with my wife of 37 yrs. in Picayune MS. I have been a believer in the Lord Jesus since August of 1981. I have no formal theological education, but have been an ardent student of Scripture for 41 yrs. I am a biblical Unitarian i.e. I believe the Father is the only true God (John 17:3) and Jesus is His human Son, the Messiah.

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