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On the Constitution of Man

What is the difference between the soul, spirit, heart, and mind?

Perhaps one of the most enigmatic questions of Christian history: What is the difference between the soul, spirit, heart, and mind? Together it strikes right at the core of the gospel message and great commission, the Shema Yisrael (Deuteronomy 6:4-9) and the greatest commandments given by Christ (Mark 12:29-34; Matthew 22:34-40; Luke 10:25-28), and much theology espoused throughout Scripture. Granted, for our modern ears, these categories may seem strange and ethereal. The soul, for instance, is spoken of as a real substance of some sort, yet the heart seems to be metaphorical. The heart, also, is technically not the seat of emotions – the brain is – yet the mind is a distinct category from heart. Not only that, but the Bible was not written from our cultural framework, so the meanings of words can have radically different implications in ancient contexts, which can skew our modern perspective. Take, for instance, the Hebrew word meod in the Shema that we often translate into “strength” or “might”. Meod does not indicate inner physical strength per se (there are other words that do), it indicates external power. That is why it is translated “wealth” in ancient Aramaic, so not just physical power but all resources (power) you possess[1]. How do we make heads or tails of all this? Even still, while these categories are difficult and cumbersome to delineate in exhaustive detail given the immaterial aspects of each, it is still relatively intuitive to understand because of the way each overarches and underpins our life. For example, you can faithfully re-articulate the Shema as ‘you shall love God with all that you are (soul), and all that you have (strength), and all that you can (heart)’. So, where do we start?

Quick History of the Problem

There are many ways to go about defining these categories and I think it wise not to over-philosophize the text here. We are free to speculate, but not impose a scheme onto the text as a method of interpretation that can sway interpretation. That’s not to harp on anyone, either, because when pressure is applied to the text it seems to all but blur the lines of self-evidence.

In academia, this ongoing discourse is called the constitution of man, and breaks down the human form into two overarching parts – material and immaterial – rendering the closest Biblical equivalency is flesh and spirit. Perplexed theologians have spent a long while trying to untie all the cultural, hermeneutical, and theological knots to better understand how this immaterial stuff works –– is the soul different from spirit, or is it the same thing? Is the heart the seat of emotions, or is it the soul? Is the Bible referring to these immaterial things in the sense of function or substance? –– Needless to say, it’s not easy. It is also not quite clear if these are cultural or ontological (reality) distinctions, especially regarding the semantic juggling between soul and spirit; since both words mean “breath” and seem interchangeable (Genesis 41:8; Job 27:3; Ecclesiastes 3:21; Daniel 7:15; Luke 1:46-47; John 12:27, 13:21), it really tightens the knots. This eventually led to three different views on the unity of the human composition, that is the immaterial nature or parts that make us human:

(a) Monism (one part: body-soul-spirit),
(b) Dichotomy (two parts: body + soul-spirit), and
(c) Trichotomy (three parts: body + soul + spirit).

Based on the Biblical data alone, and my understanding of the text so far, a variation of either the dichotomy or trichotomy view are sound, given the distinctions made in the New Testament.

1 Thessalonians 5:23 and Hebrews 4:11-13 both plainly state that there is a difference between soul and spirit (as well as the body) with particular importance to God’s final judgment. In 1 Thessalonians 5, the apostle Paul plainly says he desires for God to “sanctify you completely” (that is all of you) at the coming of our Lord, and explicitly states we ought to have our “whole” three parts blameless: “body, soul, and spirit”. If body, soul, and spirit are not distinct in some way, as proponents of monism espouse, then specific passages in Greek that thoroughly present a distinction come across as meaningless monologuing, nothing more than emotionally charged fluff. Consider when it says, “the word of God is living and active…. piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12) What does this even mean, exactly? What is the point in feigning a distinction if, well, there’s no division – at all! Either we forgo this integrity of this verse, or we allow emotivism to rule it in its place.

“Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

1 Thessalonians 5:23

It seems clear to me that a variation of the trichotomy view is the most viable lens to look through. That said, the dichotomy view can also work, from what I can tell, if and only if the soul and spirit have differing functions since each is of the same substance. So, let me highlight key aspects of each category that seem unique to itself.

What is Spirit?

The words ruach and neshamah (Hebrew) and pneuma (Greek) all mean “breath, wind, or spirit”. From what I understand thus far, the word spirit can be viewed and used as a blanket term for immaterial, incorporeal, or spiritual stuff in general, from deep mental, emotional, and moral attributes like the “spirit of jealousy” or a “broken spirit” of the “fruit of the Spirit” (Numbers 5:14,30; Exodus 6:9, 31:3; Galatians 5:22-23, 6:1; 2 Timothy 1:7; 1 Peter 3:4) to its own kind of incorporeal substance (Luke 24:39), from an individual person to a non-physical being. More specifically, the Spirit of God (Exodus 31:3; Genesis 1:2), or the Holy Spirit as it is referred to in the NT, is regarded as a person (John 4:24, 14:26, 15:26, 16:13-14; Acts 13:12, 15:28). The Spirit of God seems to magnify attributes and abilities related to personhood, such as the spirit of “skill” (Exodus 28:3, 31:3). An example for how broad a spiritual term can be used is the Hebrew word elohim, which translates to “god” in English, and refers to spiritual beings in general from God, angels, and demons to the disembodied dead (1 Samuel 28:13). God Himself is referred to as the Elohim of elohims (Psalm 82:1). Due note that the spirit as a person is further distinguished by the definite article: the Spirit. But spirit is also used to described otherworldly stuff independent of personhood like “spiritual truths” (1 Corinthians 2:13) and “spiritual gifts” (1 Corinthians 12:1), the likes of which we would not intuitively apply regarding the soul (i.e., ‘soul gifts’ or ‘soul truths’). In other words, it is a very broad and overarching term that can be applied in a number of ways.

Spirit v. Flesh

With such an open landscape, the simplest way to identify the spirit, in my view, would be to find its counterpart, whether that is complementary or a contrast in nature. This tells us what it is not. Providentially, Jesus Christ, Peter, and Paul routinely contrast the spirit against the flesh (Mark 14:38; Luke 24:39; John 3:6-8, 6:63; Matthew 16:17; Romans 8:3-6, 13; 1 Corinthians 15:50; Galatians 5:17; 1 Peter 3:18, 4:6). I think it is relatively obvious that this is more than suggestive or playful language, they intend to emphasize that spirit is by nature a different substance, for lack of a better word, than flesh. We ought to be of the spirit, not of the flesh. The meaning of the flesh can range from anything-of-this-world and our bestial human nature to just the physical body in general. This is further revealed in 1 Corinthians 15:40-44 when Paul delineates between spiritual and physical substances: “There are also heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies; but the splendor of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendor of the earthly bodies is another…. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.” Paul reiterates this same contrast regarding spiritual warfare as well: “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:12)

What is Soul?

In Hebrew, the word nephesh (or sometimes neshamah) means “soul” or “(breath of) life”, which symbolizes the invisible force within living creatures (nephesh chayyah) that animates the body. In Greek, the word psychḗ (literally soul, presumably derived from the verb psycho, “to blow”) is used in the Hebrew Scriptural sense, not in the Greek philosophical sense. While soul is strikingly similar to the definition of spirit, context helps dissociate the two. The soul is referenced mostly in relation to life itself, humans and animals alike (“nephesh behemah”), or even a dead body that once housed life (Leviticus 21:11; Numbers 6:6; Haggai 2:13). It is the lifeforce of a person/creature, which includes the body, “For the life [nephesh] of the flesh is in the blood” (Leviticus 17:11; 3 John 2). It is not limited to a biological body though, and can extend from physical to spiritual, from this world to the next (Genesis 35:18; Matthew 10:28; Acts 3:23; Hebrews 6:19-20). This is made clearer in Acts when roughly three thousand “souls” were baptized and added to God’s Kingdom (Acts 2:41-43) or when Peter says in the days of Noah, “eight persons [souls, psychḗ], were brought safely through water.” (1 Peter 3:20). Since life or lifeforce are broad sweeping terms, the words nephesh and psychḗ can also refer to a “person” or “living being/creature” (Genesis 2:7; Leviticus 5:2; Ezekiel 18:4; 1 Peter 3:20; Revelation 18:13, 20:4), as well as in the sense of a self-reflecting agent such as “myself”, “himself” or “themselves” (Psalm 16:9-10; Jeremiah 13:7; 1 Samuel 22:2), but this does not seem to include personality traits from what I can tell so far (perhaps it does). While it does include emotional qualities, it is more so deep-seated bedrock feelings that intensely affect our sense of life or self, such as sorrow (Psalm 42:6; Matthew 26:38; Mark 14:34; Job 30:24-31), anguish or despair (Deuteronomy 28:65; Judges 16:16; Psalm 43:5), resentment, hatred, or evil (1 Samuel 30:6; Proverbs 21:10, 23:2), deep affection, intimacy, or brotherly love (1 Samuel 18:1-3, 20:17; Song of Solomon 1:7, 3:1-4; Jeremiah 12:7), feelings of overwhelming joy in God (Luke 1:46-47), deep desire for salvation and God (Genesis 23:8; Psalm 63:1, 5, 8-9; 119:81), sexual desire or spiritual lust (Genesis 34:3; Exodus 15:9; Jeremiah 2:24), courage in the face of death (Judges 16:30), and so forth. With all this in view, the soul seems to be the bedrock of the living self, the deepest sense of life and “I am”.

Soul v. Spirit

A crucial passage to delineate between soul and spirit is in none other than the greatest commandments demarcated by Jesus: “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Mark 12:30-31) We are called to love God with all our soul, but there is no command to love God with all our spirit nor is there a command to love God with all our flesh or body. Why so? If the words meant the same thing culturally and religiously, you would expect to see some overlapping prooftext at some point ­– but there isn’t. This is especially pertinent when contrasted with the fact that people can be filled with the Holy Spirit as opposed to, say, the Holy Soul; the same Spirit who created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:2,26-27) is who progressively conforms believers to the image of Christ and, thus, God (Romans 8:29, 12:2). The soul does not necessarily entail or convey otherworldliness in an ancient Judaic context because it includes physicalness (i.e., blood). This command to love God, then, is not limited to spiritual things alone, it is a full expression of being, extending from body to spirit, physical to spiritual. The soul, then, is among the list of things that love can or may supersede, whereas the spirit and body are not listed; the body and spirit are things the soul operates in. In short, body and spirit are the bookends of two different substances (cf. 2 Corinthians 7:1; Ecclesiastes 12:7). From what I have gathered so far, there does not appear to be any Scriptural warrant or indication that the soul can supersede the spirit, like the spirit which supersedes body (cf. James 2:26). The soul somehow connects the spiritual to physical; that is, the spirit to flesh. This could be why the author of Hebrews parallels the spirit to marrow and soul to “joints” (4:11), using two similar biological things to show how similar the two spiritual things are, and yet the word of God can still split the difference come judgment day (v.13). The spirit, then, may be the permanent house of the soul; for upon death the soul returns to solely spiritual substance but will be resurrected with the flesh on that day. Jesus also pairs the soul and body/flesh together on several occasions as part of judgment and condemnation (Matthew 10:28; Matthew 16:26; Mark 8:36-37).

Furthermore, the concept of saving one’s soul is often said (James 1:21, James 5:20; 1 Peter 1:9; Matthew 10:28; Mark 8:36-37), but saving one’s spirit is only mentioned once in reference to a Christian sinning profusely (1 Corinthians 5:5), and might be where the most fundamental self is housed (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:10-15). So, soul and spirit can be used synonymously, but that does not mean they are the same thing. For instance, like the Hebrew word elohim mentioned earlier, the word angel (angelos) means “messenger”, but is sometimes used in the NT as a blanket term for heavenly bodies in general (1 Corinthians 4:9, 6:3, 11:10, 13:1; 2 Thessalonians 1:7-8; 2 Peter 2:11; Revelation 12:9), even though all the apostles know that not all heavenly bodies are messengers (i.e., cherubim, seraphim) and angelos can apply to people, also (Luke 7:24; 9:52; Mark 1:2-3; James 2:25). I suspect the word spirit likewise applies as a blanket term for immaterial aspects, which can include the soul (even heart and mind to some extent).

The spirit can also directly affect the soul in, say, deep emotional, psychological, or moral feelings such as love (1 John 4:7-21; Galatians 5:22-24; Colossians 1:7-8). Living in the Spirit produces the fruits of the Spirit in your life, such as truth and love, since God is both by definition. The soul is not marked among these qualities, or at least, it is not identified as the source of these qualities.

To sum up this section up, the fact that Jesus, Peter, Paul, and every other apostle contrast flesh against spirit yet never contrast flesh and soul is significant, as if the soul is subjugated to the flesh in some respect. They do though indicate a conflicting relationship of sinning in the flesh, one that condemns and wages “war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11), but they do not make an explicit ontological juxtaposition, as if the soul is independent of the flesh like the spirit is; they are different substances from different places: one earthly, the other heavenly (1 Corinthians 15:50-53). This understanding also becomes clearer when we realize that Judgment Day is a material resurrection. Jesus even warns of the soul and body entering Hell (Matthew 10:28). In other words, God’s judgment is of the body, soul, and spirit. As mentioned before, Paul clearly delineates between the three, which leads me to believe the soul is somehow the joint in between, if you will. Perhaps a faint analogy, but sort of like white light shining through a prism. If white light is spirit and the prism is body, then colour is soul[2].

“Saint Paul delivering the Areopagus Sermon in Athens” by Raphael (c. 1515).

What is Heart?

The word heart is levav in Hebrew and kardia in Greek. Biblical writers reference the heart in figurative ways that pertain to matters of belief, behaviour, conscience, moral character, courage, will, understanding, passions, intention, desire and so on. It overlaps with the function of soul and mind in a lot of ways, especially in the Old Testament, where the heart and soul together implied mind. At any rate, there still seems to be a central role of the heart itself.

According to Jesus, the apostles and prophets, the human heart is evil (Jeremiah 17:9; Mark 7:21-23; Matthew 15:18-19). Because the heart is a soft fleshly substance in physical terms, it is metaphorically “hardened” and likened to a stone, where only God can give you a new heart of “flesh” (Psalm 51:10; Ezekiel 36:26; Mark 16:14; 2 Corinthians 3:2-3; Ephesians 4:18; Hebrews 3:8, 3:15, 4:7). And unlike the contrast made between spirit and flesh, the flesh is a very good thing, here. This transformative expression of stone to flesh is eschatologically suggestive regarding new creation (baptism and resurrection); even the flesh is redeemable in Christ; hence, Paul’s use of sanctifying the whole person, body included (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:23, 3:13), and Christ’s warning of the soul and body entering Hell (Matthew 10:28).

We are held accountable for the intent, thoughts, and desires of our heart. Belief is usually credited with the heart, too (Hebrews 3:12; Mark 11:23; Luke 8:12, 24:25; John 14:1), and true belief leads to action, “For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved” (Romans 10:9-10; Ephesians 6:6; Acts 4:32). Actions lead to behaviour, and behaviour leads to character. We also see this belief-to-behaviour parallel when God says He will “circumcise your heart” (Deuteronomy 30:6) and the apostle James’ famous passage of faith without works is dead testifies that true belief produces action (James 2:18-26). The heart often indicates the filter and flow of action – what you can do – from internal to external and vice versa (Matthew 15:18-19). The central role of the heart, then, is belief and behaviour. It is our moral constitution, from which intention springs and character is sown. As the Proverbs say: “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it,” or “for from it flow the springs of life.” (Proverbs 4:23; cf. John 7:38)

What is Mind?

In English, the mind is, perhaps, the easiest notion to grasp, which is a bit ironic considering the Hebrew does not have a direct parallel word for mind and in ancient Judaism it was seen as distinct from the brain. The mind-brain relationship is a novel concept from our scientific culture. There is no word that explicitly means “mind”, instead it is always implied from the context of other words and the culture itself. So, translators often repackage existing words such as the heart (levav), soul (nephesh), spirit (ruach), guts or kidneys (kilyah), mouth or speech (peh), and imagination (yester). The most common word of these words that translates into mind, however, is heart (lev), and that’s because the heart implies intentionality and understanding (1 Kings 3:12, 4:29, 10:24). This is even implicitly understood by the apostles (Matthew 13:15). Therefore, while the mind is not a distinct category in the Hebrew Shema Yisrael, it is immediately implied by the word heart, which is why later Jesus can integrate ‘loving God with all your mind’ among the other three as the most important commandment and critics of His ministry don’t bat an eye (Mark 12:29-32).

In Greek, the most common words for mind are nous and dianoia. Nous is the most used term; it is the pattern of “knowing or reasoning” (Romans 12:2; 14:5). Dianoia, which is used by Christ in the greatest commandment (Matthew 22:37; Mark 12:30; Luke 10:27), implies the process of reflection or thinking. Based on these two Greek words alone, it is not a stretch nor an imposition to say the mind is what we all intuitively understand it to be: our faculty of cognition, our sense of reason, rationality and logic (2 Peter 2:12; Jude 1:10); higher abstract thought processing as in knowledge (eido), wisdom/insight, logic, future planning, and imagination; intentionality (ennoia; 1 Peter 4:1); perception and identifying spiritual/symbolic patterns (noema; 2 Corinthians 3:14, 4:4, 11:3); awareness, attention, focus, and purposefulness (phronema); a sense of mutual purpose, ambition, or goal, being of “one mind” (gnome; Revelation 17:13); and so on.

Heart v. Mind

The difference between the two is in faculty: Mind is reason; heart is moral. Since there are no ontological distinctions nor is there a change in substance between the two, there is only a figurative distinction drawn in order to express a functional difference. In sum, the heart is the figurative moral centre that predicates and dictates our cognitive faculties. Like the soul, these two have a physical relationship, as well. The mind just so happens to include a broader range of physical correspondences such as the mouth or kidneys (think, gut feeling). To carry the analogy of the light shining through a prism further; if soul is colour, then the mind and heart are different hues.

Final Remark

When we take all this into consideration, reconsider Luke 10:25-28 what the teacher of the law asked Jesus, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus, then, points to the greatest commandments:

You shall love the Lord your God with all that you are [soul], all that you have [strength], all that you can [heart], and all that you could [mind]. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. (cf. Mark 12:30-31)

Matlock Bobechko is the Chief Operating/Creative Officer of Bible Discovery. He is an eclectic Christian thinker and writer, award-winning screenwriter and short filmmaker. He writes a weekly blog on theology, apologetics, and philosophy called Meet Me at the Oak. He is also an Elder at his local church.

[1] That said, there is no theological reason why loving God shouldn’t include your inner strength, as well; and it logically entails that the power you possess must require some utility of inner physical strength. Granted, this notion of inner strength is included in the notion of “soul”.

[2] This analogy even works in an ancient context where higher complex materials that are more dense, opaque, heavy, et cetera. represent the earthly domain and lower complex materials that are pure substances and more transparent (invisible; water, air), reflective, radiant/luminous (light; gold), et cetera, represent the spiritual world. The soul is complexity (colour), the spirit is simplicity (white light).
Matthieu Pageau, The Language of Creation: Cosmic Symbolism in Genesis: A Commentary, 39-40.

• Grudem, Wayne, “Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine” (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1994), 472-486.

• Warren Baker, Tim Rake, David Kemp, “The Complete Word Study Old Testament: King James Version” (Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 1994).

• Spiros Zodhiates, Warren Baker, Rev. George Hadjiantoniou, Mark Oshman, Symeon Ioannidis, “The Complete Word Study New Testament with Parallel Greek: King James Version” (Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 1992).