In A Nutshell
Spirit and soul are often used to refer to that non-tangible part of our consciousness that makes us who we are. In pop culture, the terms mean practically the same thing, but on the religious side, there’s a difference. There’s some overlap throughout the texts of the Bible, but in most cases the soul is with us while we’re alive, and the spirit is with us in life and in death—as long as we believe.
The Whole Bushel
They’re often used interchangeably to refer to the part of the human being that’s above medical explanation, the part of us that’s greater than the physical and the part that will continue on after the flesh and blood portion of us is gone.
There might be more to it than that, though, and the difference is defined one way in the Bible.
In the original Hebrew versions of the Old Testament, there are a couple different words that are used to talk about the soul—the most commonly used one (more than 750 times) is nephesh. In the New Testament, the same idea is portrayed by the words psuche and psyche. They mean about the same thing, and when the texts are translated to English, they’re both replaced with the word “soul.”
A soul is usually used in reference to what a person becomes when they’re given the breath of God. The soul is seen as fleeting—it disappears when a person dies—and is used as a noun that’s synonymous with a living being. That’s an important difference, as the idea of being a soul or having a soul isn’t just applied to people, but to animals as well.
The soul is also what makes us, us. It’s the part of us that feels things like happiness and grief, love and hate—ideas which can also be extended to animals. It’s what makes us uniquely us; it’s what makes us alive.
One of the most important distinctions about the soul is that the Old Testament never refers to the soul as being immortal. Nothing happens to the soul when we die, it just simply ceases to be. The soul doesn’t exist outside of us as a living, breathing creature. (Later, in the New Testament, there are references to the soul as something that can both continue on after the death of the physical body or die before that body does.)
The Hebrew word that becomes “spirit” in translations is ruach, and it can also mean “breath” or “wind.” In earliest texts, the spirit is the essence that passes from God to mankind, and it’s later defined as what makes each of us the unique individuals that we are.
It’s the spirit that gives us our soul.
The spirit is where our emotions are born, and spirits can guide a person’s emotions and actions. It’s our consciousness, and it can be good or evil. In the Old Testament, when we lose our physical life, our spirit returns to the earth.
In the New Testament, the word replaced by “spirit” is pneuma. Here, it’s the spirit of a person that turns either to or from God, and it’s ultimately freed by the death of the flesh—the flesh and the spirit are likened to being opposites. The spirit is the thing which will be united with God, and it’s only in this spirit that any mortal can truly be one with God or Christ.
While the soul is present in anyone who is physically alive, the spirit of a person can be dead or alive. In those who believe, their spirit is alive and eternal; in those who don’t believe, though, the spirit is dead.