cup of wrath

Spiritual Souls: Nephesh and Psuche

  • Most Christians believe that people have spiritual souls within their flesh bodies.
  • Others disagree, saying that the bible doesn't support the concept of a spiritual soul.
  • Does the bible confirm that people have spiritual souls, or do we only exist in the flesh?
  • By studying the Hebrew and Greek words for "soul" and "spirit", we find support for the concept of spiritual souls.

The Hebrew "nephesh", is an important word for understanding the nature of souls in the Old Testament.

A commonly held belief among Christians is the existence of a human soul. That dwelling within us, and forming the core of our entity, is an immaterial and invisible spirit. This spirit or ghost enters our flesh in the womb, exits our flesh at death, and acts as the hub of our consciousness and thought process. It is the fundamental constituent and essence of who we are, making us ourselves, and not someone else.

As widespread as the belief in human souls is among both Christians and non-Christians, it has not gone unchallenged on scriptural grounds. In fact, some of the truly misinformed argue that the idea of a soul is a peculiarly New Testament invention, borrowed from Greek thinking, and lacking any foundation in the Old Testament. We should not ignore these criticisms, nor should we take our own ideas for granted, but rather we should confront the challenges being posed by looking deeper into the Word, trusting that the truth will prevail.

The critics have one thing going for them, and that is that there are no Hebrew or even Greek words that perfectly equate with the traditional concept of a soul. So then where does the idea of a human soul come from? Instead there are various words that are similar to soul, and it is through the study of these words in their different contexts and usages that evidence for the existence of a human soul is brought forth.

Starting in the Old Testament, we have the Hebrew word nephesh, which is generally translated as soul or life. Although nephesh is often translated as soul, it doesn't mean soul in the way we think of it. Nephesh only means soul in the sense of self, individual, person, a life, or being. While nephesh is not spiritual soul, it is significant because it can give us insight into what according to the scriptures constitutes an individual or human being. If nephesh is used to refer exclusively to a person's flesh body, then that would imply that a human being is only flesh. However, if it is sometimes used to refer to an individual apart from their flesh, then that would imply that an individual doesn't subsist in flesh alone.

Probably the most common usage of nephesh is to refer to an individual or being in the physical sense, "save me from all them that persecute me, and deliver me: Lest he tear my soul [nephesh] like a lion, rending it in pieces, while there is none to deliver" (Psalm 7.1-2 KJV bible), "And they smote all the souls [nephesh] that were therein with the edge of the sword, utterly destroying them" (Joshua 11.11 KJV bible). Another common usage of nephesh is to refer to the internal thought process, and emotional center of an individual, "Let her alone; for her soul [nephesh] is vexed within her: and the LORD hath hid it from me" (2nd Kings 4.27 KJV bible), "Three shepherds also I cut off in one month; and my soul [nephesh] lothed them, and their soul [nephesh] also abhorred me" (Zechariah 11.8 KJV bible). So nephesh can be used to refer to an individual in either the physical or emotional sense.

We normally perceive a person's heart and mind as being internal to them, because we can't see their thoughts and feelings. However, even if thoughts and emotions are internal or private, they aren't necessarily spiritual. One could argue that they are produced in the flesh brain without any spiritual input. Therefore, we need to look deeper into the scriptures to establish that there is more to nephesh than simply a flesh body.

In several verses, nephesh is used in such a way that it is implicitly different from flesh, For example, "And shall consume the glory of his forest (the king of Assyria), and of his fruitful field, both soul [nephesh] and body: and they shall be as when a standardbearer fainteth" (Isaiah 10.18 KJV bible), "shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul [nephesh]?" (Micah 6.7 KJV bible). If we assume that the entire individual is flesh, both mind and body, then it wouldn't be consistent to speak of nephesh as being distinct or different from flesh, as these verses do.

There are also many passages that use nephesh in a fully spiritual context. Isaiah, for example, describes the truth as being necessary for the sustenance of the soul, "hearken diligently unto me, and eat ye that which is good, and let your soul [nephesh] delight itself in fatness. Incline your ear, and come unto me: hear, and your soul [nephesh] shall live; and I will make an everlasting covenant with you, even the sure mercies of David" (Isaiah 55.2-3 KJV bible). Generally speaking, a person's physical self does not derive sustenance from what they think, but Isaiah is speaking of one's spiritual self being sustained by the truth. Another spiritual usage is in the book of Jeremiah, where the prophet describes a dying woman as giving up her nephesh, "She that hath borne seven languisheth: she hath given up the ghost [nephesh]; her sun is gone down while it was yet day" (Jeremiah 15.9 KJV bible). It would be impossible for her to give up her soul or nephesh, if the word is only referring to her physical body.

Job 27.8 uses nephesh in a spiritual context, because it says that God takes away (or draws out) the souls of the wicked, "For what is the hope of the hypocrite, though he hath gained, when God taketh away [Hebrew: shalah, to remove or draw out] his soul [nephesh]?" (Job 27.8 KJV bible). Another example is in the Psalms, when David speaks of his soul being redeemed from Sheol, in an unique act of grace, "and their beauty shall consume in the grave from their dwelling. But God will redeem my soul [nephesh] from the power of the grave: for he shall receive me" (Psalm 49.14-15 KJV bible). Now if we know that David died in the flesh and was buried as everyone else (see Acts 2.29), then we can conclude that he was speaking about his spiritual soul or ghost being received by God (see also ch.4 Souls in Heaven).

Another considerable passage in the usage of nephesh is in 1st Kings. When a boy dies, Elijah prays for his soul or nephesh to return to him, "O LORD my God, I pray thee, let this child's soul [nephesh] come into him again [or return to his midst]. And the LORD heard the voice of Elijah; and the soul [nephesh] of the child came into him again [or returned to his midst], and he revived" (1st Kings 17.21-22 KJV bible). A similar verse refers to Rachel's departing, "And it came to pass, as her soul [nephesh] was in departing, (for she died) that she called his name Ben-oni" (Genesis 35.18 KJV bible). How can someone depart from and then return to themselves, unless they have both a spiritual and physical self?

The Greek "psuche", is equivalent to the Hebrew "nephesh".

The New Testament equivalent of nephesh is the Greek word psuche (pronounced psoo-khay). The linguistic connection between these two words is locked in by the New Testament. Whenever quoting passages from the Old Testament that contain the word "nephesh", the New Testament always translates it as "psuche". For example, when Genesis 2.7 is quoted in 1st Corinthians 15.45, nephesh is translated as psuche, "And so it is written, The first man Adam was made a living soul [psuche]; the last Adam was made a quickening spirit" (1st Corinthians 15.45 KJV bible), (see also Mark 12.30, Acts 2.27, and Romans 11.3). This assures us that the New Testament writers both understood and intended for psuche to have the same meaning as nephesh.

The New Testament uses psuche in a broad range of contexts and usages that perfectly parallel its Old Testament equivalent. Psuche can mean a soul, an individual, a life, or a being, in either a physical sense, emotional sense, or fully spiritual sense.

There are many instances where psuche is used in a physical context, "But he knew their thoughts, and said to the man which had the withered hand, Rise up, and stand forth in the midst. And he arose and stood forth. Then said Jesus unto them, I will ask you one thing; Is it lawful on the sabbath days to do good, or to do evil? to save life [psuche], or to destroy it? And looking round about upon them all, he said unto the man, Stretch forth thy hand. And he did so: and his hand was restored whole as the other" (Luke 6.8-10 KJV bible), (see also Mark 3.4, Matthew 6.25, Luke 12.22, Romans 16.4, and 1st Peter 3.20). By restoring the man's hand, Jesus heals his life or psuche in a physical sense.

Psuche can also be used in reference to ones mind or emotional center, "And saith unto them, My soul [psuche] is exceeding sorrowful unto death: tarry ye here, and watch. And he went forward a little, and fell on the ground, and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him" (Mark 14.34-35 KJV bible), (see also Matthew 10.18, 12.18 and Luke 12.19). This passage uses psuche as the place where one might feel sorrow, referring to a person's mind or emotional center.

Lastly, there are many instances where psuche is used in a clearly spiritual context, "and receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls [psuche]" (James 1.21 KJV bible), "Trouble not yourselves; for his life [psuche] is in him" (Acts 20.10 KJV bible), (see also Acts 2.31, James 5.20, 1st Peter 1.9, and 1st Peter 2.11). In Revelation, psuche is even used to describe the dead in heaven, "I saw under the altar the souls [psuche] of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held" (Revelation 6.9 KJV bible), "and I saw the souls [psuche] of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus" (Revelation 20.4 KJV bible). This particular usage of psuche is analogous to our modern concept of soul or ghost.

Nephesh and psuche are often translated as "life".

One of the most common ways to translate both nephesh and psuche is "life", but an important distinction needs to be made regarding this translation, to avoid confusion. Nephesh and psuche both mean "life" in the sense of an individual, or the life experiences of an individual. However, they do not refer to "life", in the sense of the vitality or life force within someone or something.

First, we need to consider that our word "life" can be used in different ways, and mean many different things. For example, life can refer to an individual, person, or being in a non-specific way, as in "save a life" or "the war cost many lives". Both nephesh and psuche can certainly mean life in this context. Life can also mean the collection or summation of ones experiences in the world, either looking backwards into the past, or forward into the future, as in "he led a wild life", or "have a nice life". Both nephesh and psuche can also mean life in this way as well. Another important meaning of the word "life" is to refer to strength, vitality, or vigor of something, in either a physical or spiritual sense. For example, you could say that something "came to life", or is "full of life", or that "Jesus is the bread of life". Nephesh and psuche are never used in this way, but rather the Hebrew chaya and the Greek zoe are generally the only words used to refer to life in this context.

So when the scripture speaks of a person giving up or releasing their nephesh or psuche, it cannot be properly understood to be saying that they gave up or released their strength, vitality, or life force, because nephesh and psuche have no such meaning. It can only be understood to mean that they gave up or released themselves, in the sense of their centers of consciousness or souls. A careful analysis of the different biblical usages of nephesh and psuche bears this out.

"Ruach" is the Hebrew word for spirit.

Another critical and interesting word is the Hebrew word ruach. Ruach literally refers to wind or a current of air, but in scripture we understand it to mean something much more. Namely, ruach refers to spirits, or things of a spiritual nature.

To recognize this connection, we must look at the basic meaning of the word, which is wind. Wind is not something that can be seen or grasped, but it can definitely be felt. When the wind blows you might feel a chill in your body or see the leaves on the trees rustle, and therefore you know that its there through its effect on you, and the world around you. The same is true of spiritual things. When a certain spirit is present a person with discernment can feel its presence and observe its affect, though it's not physically manifest. So the word "ruach" implies to us something that is ethereal and diffuse, not corporal or material. In this way, ruach is used to refer to the supernatural forces and also beings that operate in the world, both internally and externally of man.

So is there any evidence in the Old Testament of man having an invisible spirit or ruach that is fundamental to him, in other words, a spiritual soul? There are some interesting verses that at least point in that direction.

The book of Numbers refers to God as being ruler over the spirits of all flesh, "Let the LORD, the God of the spirits [ruach] of all flesh, set a man over the congregation" (Numbers 27.16 KJV bible), (see also Numbers 16.22). We learn in Ecclesiastes that these individual spirits or souls continue on after death of the flesh, implying that they are supernatural, "Who knoweth the spirit [ruach] of man that goeth upward, and the spirit [ruach] of the beast that goeth downward to the earth?" (Ecclesiastes 3.21 KJV bible). King David describes commending his spirit into God's hand, in a redemptive sense, "Into thine hand I commit my spirit [ruach]: thou hast redeemed me, O LORD God of truth" (Psalm 31.5 KJV bible). Also, Daniel curiously describes his spirit as being grieved in the midst of its sheath or body, "I Daniel was grieved in my spirit [ruach] in the midst of my body [Chaldean: nidneh - sheath], and the visions of my head troubled me" (Daniel 7.15 KJV bible). Another persuasive verse comes from the book of Zechariah, where he describes God as forming or fashioning the spirit of man, "saith the LORD, which stretcheth forth the heavens, and layeth the foundation of the earth, and formeth the spirit [ruach] of man within him" (Zechariah 12.1 KJV bible). Zechariah describes the Lord forming the spirit within man, as an act of creation.

"Pneuma" is the Greek word for spirit.

The New Testament equivalent of the Hebrew word "ruach", is the Greek word pneuma, (see Acts 2.17-18). Like ruach, the word "pneuma" literally means a wind or current of air. Also like ruach, pneuma is understood in the scripture to mean a spirit, either as a spiritual entity or a supernatural force. Several times in the New Testament, man is also described as having a fundamental and personal pneuma, or spirit.

Starting in 1st Corinthians, Paul speaks of the destruction of a certain individual's flesh, in order to bring about the future deliverance of his spirit, "To deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit [pneuma] may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus" (1st Corinthians 5.5 KJV bible). This implies that a person both has a spirit that exists apart from their flesh, and that this spirit continues on after they die, even to the Day of the Lord. Paul further identifies God as the owner and proprietor of this personal spirit, "For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit [pneuma], which are God's" (1st Corinthians 6.20 KJV bible), "Furthermore we have had fathers of our flesh which corrected us, and we gave them reverence: shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits [pneuma], and live?" (Hebrews 12.9 KJV bible). The book of Hebrews mentions the spirits of just men made perfect, who are the children of the new covenant, "To the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits [pneuma] of just men made perfect" (Hebrews 12.23 KJV bible). And lastly, John's first epistle describes false prophets as deceitful spirits, and instructs us to be weary of them, "Beloved, believe not every spirit [pneuma], but try the spirits [pneuma] whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world" (1st John 4.1 KJV bible).

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