Spirit, Soul And Body – What Is Interchangeable, What Is Not


By Steve Nelson 

A long time ago people once believed… 

1) …that the Earth was in the center of the Solar System. If you still believe this you’ll never excel in astronomy. The sun is in the center! 

2) …that the Earth is flat and you can fall off it. If you still believe this you will never excel in geography. The Earth is a round sphere! 

Question: What is something most people believe today that is not true? Answer: that “soul” and “spirit” are interchangeable terms. If you still believe this, you will never excel at reading and understanding the Bible. 

These two words are very different. And together, along with the “body,” are the three components of a complete human being. A person needs to understand this basic truth. So let’s explore all three to understand them better. (1 Thessalonians 5:23 is the only Scripture in the Bible that contains all three of these awesome words, “spirit and soul and body.”) 


This part of humans is never misunderstood. We can see, hear, smell, touch and taste. The body is all physical. It’s the vehicle for us to move and take actions in this life. The body is made primarily of these elements: oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium and phosphorous. 

A body requires a soul to move and function, otherwise it is lifeless. When a person dies, it is only their soul that is missing, the body remains. In Matthew 27:58, Joseph of Arimathea “…went to Pilate, and begged the BODY of Jesus…” Joseph didn’t ask for Jesus’ soul or spirit, since they were no longer present, only the body remained and needed to be buried in the tomb. Note: the body forms the container of space the spirit also is housed in, if a person has spirit at all. (Not all people have spirit as we shall see later.) 


The soul is the part of us that is our personality, our thoughts and emotions, our experiences, our attitudes, what makes us who we are. The soul goes beyond the scope of merely the blood flowing through the physical brain. When a person is born, they always have a body and a soul. When a person dies, it is their soul that is preserved and God ensures that it rests, unconscious and unaware of the passing of time, until the future day when the soul is awakened. 

To learn more about soul, let’s first take a quick look in Genesis 2:7. God reveals more details about what he did after forming the body of man: “and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living SOUL.” This same Hebrew word translated “soul” (nepes) is first found earlier in Genesis in these four verses: 1:20, 21, 24, and 30, which all describe animals. Yes, animals have souls too! (Plants don’t have souls.) 

Thus, animals and humans are quite similar, as Ecclesiastes 3:19 reveals that men and beasts (animals) are the same, since both have breath, both die, and man is no better in this regard. Sometimes people are referred to as “souls” when they are alive. For example, 1 Peter 3:20 refers to Noah and his family, that “eight SOULS were saved by water.” (Now is the right time, however, to introduce the third part of us, spirit, which is the one thing that makes humans uniquely different from all other animals.) 


Unlike body and soul, spirit is optional. People are not born with spirit. A person receives it, if and only if they fulfill the condition required and get “born again.” This second birth is not physical but all spiritual. We were first born to our physical parent, then we can potentially be born to our spiritual parent, God. Here is the condition to get spirit: “if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you will be saved” from Romans 10:9. 

To be “saved” means you are no longer a physical only creature, but physical AND spiritual. You are a child of God. You have a supernatural gift, which is holy, thus called holy spirit. That spirit has purpose, just like your physical body. Having spirit gives you the power to do spiritual things, like those listed in 1 Corinthians 12:8-11. 

Famous characters in the Bible did supernatural things (meaning, beyond merely physical) at times, and that is because they had spirit. We are no different. In fact, a person cannot do things beyond the physical unless they have spirit. (Having evil spirits involved to give supernatural power is another story for another day. We will stick with the good stuff for now.) 

Luke 11:13 says, “how much more (than a physical parent) does your heavenly Father give the holy SPIRIT to them that ask him.” This gift of God is given to us because of grace, which is unmerited divine favor. The grace is given because of the accomplishments of Jesus Christ on our behalf. Although we didn’t earn it, we get it. And spirit alone is what guarantees us a ticket to heaven when Jesus returns for us. Animals cannot get spirit. Most humans choose not to get spirit either. Persons without spirit are called “natural men” in the Bible, meaning nothing spiritual. See 1 Corinthians 2:14 for an example. 

Please understand, this topic of spirit and soul and body cannot be fully understood in one small article. Many other things can be learned to add to this foundational understanding. One such important detail is that few people in the Old Testament had spirit. It was typically only leaders and if they walked in harmony with God could they keep it. In our day, any person can get spirit and we cannot ever lose it since it is “incorruptible seed” as 1 Peter 1:23 shows. 

Let’s grow in our understanding of these three parts and find out what makes us so special from all the rest of God’s creation. God bless you! 


Steve Nelson has been a Bible teacher for over 25 years. This article comes from “Spirit Soul Body” Segment 27 of “CORE”, a course for families on how to read and understand the Bible. See T4FAMILYCENTER.COM or reach Steve at [email protected]. 


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