Bible Question:

What is the difference between the “soul” and “spirit”? Since body, soul, and spirit are not the same, we know that our earthly body dies, and our spirit ascends into heaven. What happens to the soul?

Bible Answer:

This is a difficult topic. It appears from some scriptural passages that the words “soul” and “spirit” are the same. For example, compare the following passages.

Now My soul has become troubled; and what shall I say, “Father, save Me from this hour”? But for this purpose I came to this hour. (NASB) John 12:27

When Jesus had said this, He became troubled in spirit, and testified and said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, that one of you will betray Me.” (NASB) John 13:21

It appears that the terms “soul” and “spirit” are used interchangeably in these two verses. The same also seems to be true in the following passages.

. . . to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect . . . (NASB) Hebrews 12:23

. . . obtaining as the outcome of your faith the salvation of your souls. (NASB) 1 Peter 1:9

For you were continually straying like sheep, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls. (NASB) 1 Peter 2:25

In these passages it appears that “spirit” and “soul” are the same. Yet, the following passages seem to imply that they are different,

Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete . . . (NASB) 1 Thessalonians 5:23

For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, . . . (NASB) Heb. 4:12

So in some passages the two words are used interchangeably and in others they appear to be different. But is it possible that Hebrews 4:12 is simply trying to say that only the Word of God can determine the difference and divide them? Is it possible that 1 Thess. 5:23 is saying that God will save you completely and includes every aspect of man even though the body is not preserved after death? In fact, we receive new bodies at the resurrection. The confusion would disappear if we knew the exact meaning of “soul” and “spirit.” But all that we know for sure is that God knows the difference, and so did the ancients who used the terms.

Conclusion:

There is a fundamental principle in interpreting the Bible that says, “If we are not sure, we are best to be quiet.” Therefore, I will be quiet on this one. I do not believe that anyone can, with confidence, know the difference between the terms “soul” and “spirit” as used in the Bible. This is an obscure topic in scripture. Apparently God did not think it was very important to explain the difference, or He would have provided us with more information. Each time God uses these terms in scripture, He is trying to communicate a much greater truth. That is what I look for. May the Lord bless you.