Does the soul pertain to a person’s eternal existence (i.e., his spirit) or to his earthly existence (i.e., his physical body)? Or, could it pertain to both?
Strong’s Concordance of the Bible says that the basic meaning of the Hebrew word nephesh, which in the Old Testament is usually translated as soul, “comes from its verbal form . . ., which refers to the essence of life, the act of breathing, taking breath. . . .” Strong’s goes on to say that nephesh refers to “a breathing creature,” including an animal, and means “soul; self; life; person; heart.” As for the Greek word psuche, which in the New Testament is also generally translated as soul, Strong’s likewise states that it refers to “breath” or to “the breath of life?”
A number of scripture passages support the validity of these definitions. [Note: When we quote Scripture in this article, we use the wording in the New King James Version of the Bible, unless noted otherwise. When words in a quoted scripture passage are emphasized in bold print, the emphasis is our own.]
Genesis 34:3a: His soul [that of Shechem, the son of Hamor the Hivite] was strongly attracted to Dinah the daughter of Jacob. . . .
Shechem was an earthly human being, not a spirit, so there is no logical reason to believe that his soul’s attraction to Dinah pertained to his spirit rather than to his physical body.
Genesis 42:21a: [T]hey [Joseph’s brothers] said to one another, “We are truly guilty concerning our brother, for we saw the anguish of his soul when he pleaded with us, and we would not hear. . . .
If the term soul pertains to a person’s spirit, which usually can’t be observed by others, it is improbable that Joseph’s brothers could have seen “the anguish of his soul.” On the other hand, if the term soul pertains to a physical body, the anguish of Joseph’s soul might have been reflected by his body language, especially the expressions on his face, which could be seen by his brothers.
Leviticus 7:20: [T]he person who eats the flesh of the sacrifice of the peace offering that belongs to the Lord, while he is unclean, that person shall be cut off from his people. [Note: The original King James Version of the Bible uses the term “soul,” rather than the term “person” in both instances shown in this passage.]
It is clear that eating the sacrifice would have been done by an earthly person, as is stated in the New King James Version of the Bible.
Psalm 40:14a: Let them be ashamed and brought to mutual confusion who seek to destroy my life. . . . [Note: The original King James Version of the Bible uses the term “soul,” rather than the term “life.”]
People cannot destroy a person’s soul if the soul pertains to the person’s spirit, which is eternal, but they could destroy a person’s soul if it pertains to a person’s physical body.
Psalm 49:15: [G]od will redeem my soul from the power of the grave, for He shall receive me.
The grave (i.e., physical death) has no power over the existence of a person’s eternal spirit, but obviously death does have power over the duration of a person’s physical existence.
Isaiah 53:12: I will divide Him [the coming Messiah] a portion with the great, and He shall divide the spoil with the strong, because He poured out His soul unto death.
The phrase “He poured out His soul unto death” implies that the Messiah would die a physical death in behalf of others, whereas every person’s spirit is eternal and, therefore, it cannot die in the sense of ceasing to exist.
Jeremiah 38:17a: Then Jeremiah said to Zedekiah, “Thus says the Lord, the God of hosts, the God of Israel: ‘If you surely surrender to the king of Babylon’s princes, then your soul shall live. . . .’”
Since every person’s spirit has an eternal existence, it is clear that the term soul in this passage must be referring to Zedekiah’s finite earthly existence. If instead Zedekiah’s sins were being addressed, the verse might indicate that his spirit would be punished eternally (i.e., die spiritually) because of his sins, but the passage gives no such indication.
1 Corinthians 15:45: [I]t is written, “The first man Adam became a living being.” The last Adam [i.e., Jesus Christ] became a life-giving spirit. [Note: The original King James Version of the Bible uses the term “living soul,” rather than the term “living being.”]
God created Adam — and every other person – as a physical being with an eternal spirit. If the term soul pertains only to a person’s spirit, then it would inadequately describe the creation of Adam.
Hebrews 4:12: [T]he word of God is living and powerful and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.
This verse makes it clear that a person’s soul is distinct from his spirit. This is another indication that the soul pertains to a person’s earthly body.
Revelation 16:3: [T]he second angel poured out his bowl on the sea, and it became blood as of a dead man; and every living creature in the sea died. [Note: The original King James Version of the Bible uses the term “living soul,” rather than the term “living creature.”]
It is evident that this verse pertains to all forms of sea creatures, not to human life. Therefore, the term soul in this passage isn’t applicable to people.
In contrast with the foregoing information, it should be noted that Strong’s also indicates that the Hebrew word nephesh can sometimes refer to “[t]he soul of man, that immaterial part, which moves into the after life.” And, there are a few biblical passages, most notably those that follow, that seem to indicate that a person’s soul may pertain to his eternal existence (i.e., his spirit) rather than to his earthly existence (i.e., his physical body).
Matthew 10:28a: [D]o not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.
Since a person’s physical body can be killed by people, it seems that the term soul in this passage pertains to a person’s eternal spirit. However, in the context of this passage, the reference to the soul may pertain to a person’s inner desire to live according to God’s will. In a figurative sense, that desire is not killed when the person dies.
Matthew 16:26a: [W]hat is a man profited if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? [Note: Mark 8:36 says essentially the same thing.]
The term soul in this passage may pertain to a person’s eternal spirit. However, it could instead pertain to his earthly existence. What the verse may be questioning is the benefit to a person who is seeking to obtain all the things he desires in this world, but loses his life in the process of trying to do so.
Most of the preceding evidence indicates that the Hebrew and Greek words translated as soul by a number of translations of the Bible pertain to a person’s earthly existence (or physical body). However, there seems to be sufficient evidence to believe that, in at least some instances and perhaps in a preponderance of instances, the term soul may pertain to a person’s eternal existence (or spirit).
Just as it is necessary to consider the context in trying to determine the modern-day meaning of a number of common English words (e.g., center, guard, pitch, strike, etc.), it is likewise necessary to consider the context in attempting to ascertain the meaning of the Hebrew and Greek words that are generally translated as soul. Even so, the contexts for numerous scripture passages containing the term soul do not shed sufficient light to enable a reader to be assured of understanding the intended meaning of soul in those passages. In comparison with the importance of understanding the intended meanings of many other biblical teachings, this should not be a significant concern.