The Difference Between Soul and Spirit

Today’s western civilization is still deeply entangled in the thinking brought to us by the Enlightenment, that fun system of thought that says first, that human reason is the only way to achieve either knowledge or happiness, and second, that if a phenomenon is unavailable to that holiest of modern holies, the scientific method, it is unworthy of being thought about.

The scientific method has brought us to a pinnacle of technology — so that most of us, at least in the developed world, live with luxury that Solomon in all his glory could never have dreamed of. We get out of bed in homes that are warm in winter and cool in summer, and with the push of a button, we are entertained by invisible musicians. We breakfast on fruits from hundreds of miles away, drink coffee made of beans from thousands of miles away. In comfortable minutes we travel distances that would have taken Jesus days, weeks, or months of walking. What do we care for Solomon’s gold when we have credit cards, or exotic spices when we have microwaves, or hundreds of slaves when we have the Internet — or hundreds of concubines when we have the Playboy Channel? Who cares for the legendary travels of the Queen of Sheba when we’ve been to the Moon?

We’re wealthy beyond Solomon’s wildest dreams (box springs! kitchen matches!), and we’re self-satisfied. Our Enlightened society tells us that a technology light-years more advanced than that of biblical times must mean a culture and ethos correspondingly more advanced. It never occurs to us that our ancestors, if we could magically arrange for them to be dazzled by our technological glory, might instead scorn our unrighteousness, disdain our immorality, rage at our despoilation of the planet — or (horrors!) pity our “rugged individualism,” which is to say our alienation from family and community, our ultimate loneliness.

The Enlightenment system of thought that we still labor under today also means that many of us feel uncomfortable in thinking and talking about the mere possibility that a world exists that lies beyond our own; the best we can do, and the closest we can come, is to talk about "alternate realities," as in the TV show Sliders or the "mirror" Universe in Star Trek. The scientific method has never isolated a substance or state of being identifiable as a soul, a spirit, an angel, a demon, capable of being experimented upon, with results that can be replicated under laboratory conditions — ergo, scientists say, there can be no profit to thinking about such things. Ergo, we might as well turn on the television and watch news reports of evils and atrocities committed far, far away from us: the Third World, a city hundreds of miles away, a neighborhood dozens of blocks away, a house dozens of feet away, far away, far, far, away.

What if Enlightenment thinking isn’t the be-all and end-all of human existence? What if there is a world that transcends the one that's readily available to the five senses? What if there is a God, what if we do have souls, what if there is life after death?

The scientific method teaches us that we are nothing but meat, animated for a time in some mysterious, entropy-defying way, and that our sole reason for being is to reproduce ourselves and thus perpetuate the species; why the species should be perpetuated is not explained. There is no way of proving the existence of a transcendent world, says Science; therefore there is no good reason to think about it. But I know that I am me, that there is a being inhabiting my body that is something more than the sum of my component parts, the meat of my brain, the stew of hormones that governs my emotions, the experiences I have lived through and what they have taught me. If you take away a big chunk of my brain, the way I think will be different, but my me-ness will remain.

Making a distinction between soul and spirit can be difficult. Most people use the words pretty much interchangeably, and don't have a clue about the convolutions in the history of Christianity that led to the distinction to begin with. But if we're going to talk about God's nature, the first thing we need to do is clear up the confusion about the distinction between the Holy Spirit and the Holy Ghost.

Spirit: The ancient Hebrews noticed that the big difference between a being that was alive and one that was dead was that one breathed and the other didn’t. They came up with the analogy of spirit and respiration (notice that the two words come from the same root). When God created the first human being (in Hebrew ha'adam, the person), God gave the human life by breathing into its nostrils (Gen. 2:4). Even earlier in the book of Genesis, we hear (in the Hebrew) that the Spirit of God breathed over the chaos that existed before humans were created (Gen. 1:2). The spirit, in other words, is that little spark of God within us that keeps us alive: Namasté.

Soul: The ancient Hebrews had no conception of the soul; that is an idea the ancient Greeks came up with. For millennia it was thought that when one died, one’s spirit (breath) went to an underground place called Sheol, or in Greek Hades, where it had a sort of shadowy half-existence devoid of thought, sensation, or anything much at all. In a late addition to the Nicene Creed, we are told that Jesus descended not into Hell — an invention of the Middle Ages — but into Hades. When in the myth Orpheus went down to Hades to bring his beloved Eurydice back from death, she didn’t want to leave the blessed freedom from fear, insecurity, and worry. When Saul had a medium conjure up the spirit of Samuel to get his advice, the spirit of Samuel was irritated as hell (so to speak) at having his rest interrupted (1 Samuel 28:7-20).

But yet, we each know we have a soul, even if we can’t explain how or why we know, even if it can’t be identified in a laboratory, dissected, created by human means.

Here is an analogy that may help you understand the various distinctions: the human mind comprises the brain and all its workings — memory, perception, reason, the stew of hormones that results in our emotions. It is, in other words, the “hardware” of human existence. The human soul is what governs the human hardware — the “software” of human existence, our very own “operating system,” unique to each of us. The human spirit is the “electricity” that animates us.

According to the Bible, there is a whole world of spiritual beings that is usually unavailable to human perception — angels, daemons, devils, ghosts, and other spirits. Today, rational, intelligent, Enlightenment-reared adults tend to shrug off the possibility that a whole world of spiritual beings might lie just beyond our everyday experience.

But because we avoid thinking about it, does that mean it’s not there? Here is an true story: late in 1982, my younger sister Katy, then 23 years old, died of brain cancer. The cancer caused no change in Katy’s personality or intelligence, but it destroyed her short-term memory: you could tell her the same joke 50 times in a row and she’d laugh just as hard each time she heard the joke, never having heard it before. A few days before Katy died, I was sitting talking to her when she suddenly stopped talking to me and started talking to someone invisible who was standing behind me and to my right. She answered questions: “Yes . . . no . . . blue,” and so forth. Then she turned to me and said, “Someone came in.” Cautiously I replied, “I noticed that.” “They told me I’m going home soon.” Faintly, I asked, “Do you want to?” “Not yet,” she said. “Then don’t, until you’re ready.” And then Katy forgot the conversation and started talking about someone else.

A determined debunker will say that Katy experienced a hallucination caused by her cancer. Until the day I die, I will believe that she saw an angel — and, furthermore, that the angel was sent as much for my benefit as for hers, since she almost instantly forgot the whole thing.

The ancient Hebrews had no conception of a soul, but believed that one’s spirit does survive individual death. The ancient Greeks believed that it is one’s soul that survives one’s death. Both Judaism and Christianity teach, in the words of the Nicene Creed, that we are to “look for the resurrection of the dead.” . . . Personally, the resurrection of the dead is the part that I have trouble with; it doesn’t make sense to me.

But thanks to the personal experience I described a moment ago, I believe that there is some other plane or dimension (or planes or dimensions) of existence not usually available to human senses. It is from this other plane-or-dimension that we encounter ghosts, daemons, poltergeists, and strange appearances and disappearances (some famous examples are Caspar Hauser, the farmer who disappeared from his field as his son watched, and the man who vanished while walking around his horse).

Every weird experience on record can be explained away by a determined skeptic. But eventually one has to ask the skeptic: How many thousands of unexplained phenomena, witnessed by people who are not easily proven foolish, mad, deluded, or hallucinating, will it take before you admit that Occam’s Razor might apply to you too?