The Biblical Understanding of "Spirit"

Thank you for your discussion on the meaning of “soul” in the Bible (Nov. 8, 2001). Please describe the biblical understanding of the “spirit.”

The amount of biblical material on your question is large enough for you to do your own study; I will simply identify some of the main elements in the biblical understanding of the human spirit. After examining the biblical references to “spirit,” I have grouped them around what I believe are their main usages.

1. Spirit as Life Force: The Hebrew term rûach and the Greek equivalent pneuma mean “wind, breath.” But the emphasis is on the dynamic nature of the wind, its movement, and power. When applied to humans, it describes individuals who function as a dynamic life force in bodily form. The spirit is the breath of life that God breathed into Adam (Gen. 2:7), the life force that characterizes a person. It is God who gave it to us (Isa. 42:5), and it is He who takes it back (Eccl. 12:7; Ps. 104:29; Acts 7:59). Sometimes the quality of that life is diminished for lack of food (1 Sam. 30:12) or fear (Eze. 21:7). Nowhere in the Scripture is the spirit defined as a self-conscious entity that preexisted the body or continues after death. The idea of ghosts was known in biblical times, and biblical writers were acquainted with it, but there is no acceptance of it or support for it.

2. Spirit as the Inner Being: The term spirit designates human beings as creatures with the ability to think, will, and experience strong emotions. It refers to the mental forces that make us humans and distinguish us from animals. The spirit is the center of rational analysis (Ps. 77:6), understanding (Job 32:8), self-awareness (1 Cor. 2:11), and the seat of the will, the capacity for self-rule (Job 32:18; Ezra 1:1, 5). Spirit is synonymous with “heart,” which is specifically used in the Bible to designate the rational and volitional aspects of human nature. But spirit also describes us as emotional beings who experience anger (Judges 8:3), rage (Eze. 3:14), grief (“bitterness of spirit” [see Gen. 26:35; Isa. 54:6]), anguish (“shortness of spirit” [see Ex. 6:9]), and depression (Prov. 15:13; Ps. 143:4). The term spirit identifies us as complex creatures whose inner being is characterized by the dynamic interaction of reason, volition, and emotions.

3. Spirit and Character: Spirit is employed to designate the disposition of the individual, what defines and characterizes him or her as an individual—what we call character. We read that “patience [literally “long spirit”] is better than pride [literally “high spirit”]” (Eccl. 7:8, NIV), and about a “haughty spirit” (Prov. 16:18, NIV), “feelings of jealousy” (Num. 5:30), (“spirit of jealousy,” [KJV]),“spirit of wisdom” (Ex. 28:3), “spirit of the world” (1 Cor. 2:12, NIV), “gentle spirit” (1 Cor. 4:21, NIV), etc. These are all character traits that express the disposition of a person, what a person has become. Because we have spirit—a dynamic nature, a life force—we are able to direct our lives, to be architects of it, to develop our own characters. When we die God preserves in His mind our character, and at the resurrection we are brought back to life with the character that we had developed before we died (Eccl. 12:7).

4. Spirit and God: Because we are dynamic rational, volitional, and emotional beings, we are able to communicate with God and He with us. Paul prays, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit” (Phil. 4:23, NIV; 2 Tim. 4:22). This dimension of our nature is sensitive and responsive to the Lord (Matt. 5:3; Luke 1:47). God can excite our center of action, the will, to accomplish a particular purpose (Jer. 51:11). The spirit of those who are united by faith to Jesus is once more alive (Rom. 8:10; 1 Cor. 6:17). The reference is not to a self-onscious entity dwelling in a body but to the totality of the person as a psycho-religious-physical individual with whom God can interact, and who can answer back to God in love and faith from his or her very inner being. The biblical view of the human spirit is incompatible with modern definitions that are based on eastern or Greek dualism.

Date: 
3/14/02