The Bible is clear that there are three different ‘parts’ that somehow make up who we are as humans: the body, the spirit, and the soul (Gen. 2:7, 1 Thess. 5:23, Heb. 4:12). But most Christians are less clear on the issue of how these three parts relate to each other, and especially on the difference between the soul and the spirit. In this post, we’ll take a look at the body, spirit, and soul and examine the biblical definitions of each, as well as how they interact before and after death.
The definition of a “body” should be fairly obvious: it is our physical, material structure which corporeally interacts with the world around us. However, the biblical definition is a bit more nuanced. Many Christians are wont to think of the body as a temporary vehicle in which our “immortal soul” lives for a brief period of time, before moving on to live eternally in either heaven or hell. One common quote (misattributed to C.S. Lewis) reflects the sentiment of most Christians well: “You do not have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.”
Unfortunately, this belief is entirely unbiblical and goes directly against what scripture has to say about our bodies. One need look no further than Genesis 2 to discover that, yes, in fact, you are a body:
And Yahweh God formed the human from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the human became a living soul. (Gen. 2:7)
According to this passage, God did not merely form the body of the human from the dust of the ground, but He actually created the human. The human (ha-adam) existed before he became a soul, even before he came to life. Adam, and by extension all humanity, is a body. This is confirmed in the very next chapter, when God declares to Adam,
“By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken, for you are dust, and you shall return to dust.” (Gen. 3:19)
God does not say that Adam’s body was taken out of the ground, but that Adam himself was taken out of the ground and made from dust. Now we know, of course, that it was Adam’s body that was made from the dust of the ground, not his spirit (which was given from God) and not his soul (which was a composite of his body and spirit, according to Gen. 2:7). Thus, the fact that Adam himself was made from the dust of the ground allows us to make the equation “Adam = Adam’s body,” and by extension, all humans are our bodies.
But if we are our bodies, a more pressing question is, what happens to us when our bodies die? After all, our bodies and spirits separate at death (Ecc. 12:7), and according to James (2:26), the body apart from the spirit is dead. Do we remain bodies at death, or do we become incorporeal “souls” in some spiritual realm, as most Christians believe? Unfortunately, the fact is that we remain bodies after death just as we are before death. If in life you are a living body, in death you are a corpse.
This can be seen in the passage quoted above, Genesis 3:19, where Adam is told that he would one day return to the ground, not merely his body. Of course, it is the body which is made from the ground and returns to the ground in death, but because Adam - the human - is a body, it can also be said that he himself returns to the ground in death (cf. Job 10:9; Ps. 90:3). This is confirmed again and again throughout the Bible, as every time that a person’s body is buried, the person themself is said to have been buried; that is, the person’s remains are fully constituted by their body. Consider the following passages:
Then Abraham breathed his last and died in a good old age, an old man and full of years, and was gathered to his people . And his sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah, which is before Mamre, in the field of Ephron the son of Zohar the Hittite, the field which Abraham purchased from the sons of Heth. There Abraham was buried, and Sarah his wife. (Gen. 25:8-10)
Then he [Israel] charged them and said to them: “I am to be gathered to my people; bury me with my fathers in the cave that is in the field of Ephron the Hittite... There they buried Abraham and Sarah his wife, there they buried Isaac and Rebekah his wife, and there I buried Leah.” (Gen. 49:29, 31)
So Moses the servant of Yahweh died there in the land of Moab, in accordance with the word of Yahweh. And he was buried in the valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor; but no one knows his burial place to this day. (Deut. 34:5-6)
So when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. (Jn. 11:17)
When they had carried out everything that was written concerning him [Jesus], they took him down from the cross and laid him in a tomb. (Acts 13:29 cf. Matt. 12:40, 28:6, 1 Cor. 15:4)
I could continue with many more examples, like David and Solomon (1 Kings 2:10, 2 Chron. 9:31 cf. Acts 2:29) and many people who are said by Daniel (12:2) to “sleep in the dust of the earth.” Burial is said to be the way that “all the earth” goes at death (Josh. 23:14 cf. 24:29-30). Even when the soul and/or spirit are mentioned alongside the body, a person’s remains are said to be constituted by their body and not their soul or spirit:
And it came about, as her soul was departing (for she died), that she named him Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin. So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath. (Gen. 35:18-19)
You hide Your face, they are troubled; You take away their spirit, they die, and to dust they return. You send forth Your spirit, they are created, and You renew the face of the earth. (Ps. 104:29-30)
Do not put your trust in princes, nor in a son of man, in whom there is no help. His spirit departs, he returns to the earth; in that very day his thoughts perish. (Ps. 146:3-4)
And [as] they had stoned Stephen, he was calling and saying, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” Now having fallen on [his] knees, he cried out in a great voice, “Lord, may you not place to them this sin.” And having said this, he fell asleep... Now devout men buried Stephen, and made great mourning over him. (Acts 7:59-60; 8:2)
So then, we can clearly see that after death, a person’s remains are fully constituted by their dead body, which returns to the dust of the earth, rather than an incorporeal “soul” or “spirit.” Even our Lord Jesus was considered to be equivalent to His corpse, buried in the heart of the earth, during the three days for which He was dead (Matt. 12:40; 28:6; Acts 13:29). Indeed, in order to be saved according to Paul’s gospel, one must believe that Jesus Himself both died and was buried (1 Cor. 15:3-4).
Therefore, the biblical definition of the “body” is our physical, material structure which interacts with the world around us, and which constitutes our entire personhood both before and after death. Rather than being merely a transient structure which houses our “immortal soul,” our bodies are completely necessary for our existence, and when our bodies die apart from the spirit (Jas. 2:26), so do we. But if our entire personhood comprises our bodies, what are the spirit and soul? We now turn to the biblical definition of the spirit to determine exactly what this enigmatic entity is.
The word “spirit” (ruach in Hebrew and pneuma in Greek) literally means “wind” or “breath.” The spirit is the animating force which gives life to a body (Ps. 104:30; Ecc. 11:5; Lk. 8:55; Jas. 2:26), and which departs at death and returns to God (Job 34:14-15; Ps. 78:39; 104:29; 146:4; Ecc. 8:8; 12:7). The “spirit” or “spirit of life” is interchangeable with “breath” or “breath of life” (Gen. 6:17 cf. 7:22; Job 4:9; 32:8; 33:4; Isa. 42:5; 57:16). By extension, one’s spirit is actually considered to be the same as the breath within one’s nostrils (Gen. 2:7; 7:22; Job 27:3-4).
Using this particular definition of “spirit,” the spirit is not in itself a living being, but (along with a body) is a necessary component of a conscious being. This animating force comes from God (Gen. 2:7, Ps. 104:29-30, Ecc. 12:7, Zech. 12:1) and is even called the “spirit of God”  (Job 27:4, 33:4, 34:14); every organism’s spirit, whether human or animal, is merely a small part of this single spirit (Ecc. 3:19-21 cf. Acts 17:25, 28). Thus, contrary to some Christians’ beliefs, it is not true that our spirit which returns to God is conscious in “heaven.”
However, there is another biblical definition of “spirit” which is related to our consciousness. When scripture speaks of the “spirit” in this way, it is referring to one’s mental disposition. Here are a list of verses which use the word “spirit” (ruach or pneuma) in this way: Gen. 41:8; Ex. 28:3; 35:21; Num 5:14, 30; Deut. 2:30; 34:9; Josh. 2:11; 1 Sam 1:15; 1 Kings 21:5; Ezra 1:1, 5; Job 7:11; Psalm 51:17; Prov. 15:13; 16:2; 18-19; 29:11; Eccl. 7:8-9; Isa 11:2; 19:14; 26:9; 54:6; 57:15; 61:3; 66:2; Ezek. 11:19; 18:31; 36:26; Dan. 2:3; 7:15; Hos. 5:4; Hag. 1:14; Mal. 2:16; Matt. 5:3; 26:41; Mark 2:8; Luke 1:47; John 11:33; 13:21; Acts 17:16; Rom 11:8; 1 Cor. 4:21; 5:5; 2 Cor. 7:1; Gal. 6:1; Eph. 4:23; Phil. 1:27; 4:23; Col. 2:5; 2 Tim 1:7; 1 Pet 3:4. 
Now that we have seen what the biblical definitions of “spirit” are - both the animating force common to all living beings which comes from God, and one’s mental disposition - let’s examine what the “soul” is according to the Bible.
The word “soul” (nephesh in Hebrew and ψυχη/psuche in Greek) has a wide and nuanced range of meaning in the Bible. I already dealt with the many different meanings of this word in another post, so I’ll reproduce much of what I wrote here. “Soul” can simply mean any living being, whether animal or human (Gen. 1:20-24; 46:26; Lev. 11:46; Josh. 10:37; 1 Kings 19:4; Prov. 12:40; Acts 2:41; Rom. 13:1; 1 Pet. 3:20; Rev. 8:9; 16:3; 18:13; etc.). It can mean someone’s life; for example, when someone is killed, it is often said that their soul has been taken (Gen. 19:20; Exod. 4:19; Deut. 19:21; Judg. 18:25; 2 Sam. 4:8; 1 Kings 19:10; Prov. 7:23; Matt. 2:20; 20:28; Mk. 10:45; Jn. 10:11; 15:13; Acts 15:26; Jas. 5:20; 1 Jn. 3:16; etc.) However, “life” is not the inherent meaning of either nephesh or psuche, otherwise the phrase nephesh chayyah would mean “a living life” (clearly redundant), and Job 10:1 would say “my life loathes my life” (another meaningless statement).
Another clue to the true meaning of “soul” is the fact that it is often used to describe one’s desires and wishes. For example, Abraham says, “If it is your soul that I bury my dead from before me, hear me and meet for me with Ephron son of Zoar” (Gen. 23:8). Further examples of this meaning of “soul” as the seat of emotions and desires can be found in Exod. 15:9; 23:9; Lev. 26:16; Deut. 12:15; 20; Judg. 10:16; 1 Sam. 23:20; Job 23:13; Prov. 31:6; Lk. 2:35; Jn. 10:24; 12:24; Php. 1:27; Acts 15:24; 2 Pet. 2:8; etc.Finally, the last meaning of the word “soul” (and more rarely used, although it still appears throughout scripture) is referring to desirable or pleasurable experiences, for example, in Matt. 6:25 where “soul” is glossed by “what you may eat and what you may drink”. Further examples from the New Testament are Matt. 10:28 (where it is used to describe the blissful experience of the Messianic kingdom); 11:29; 16:25; Lk. 12:19; Acts 20:24; Php. 2:30; Heb. 12:3; 3 Jn. 2; and Rev. 12:11. Interestingly, the adjective form of “soul” in Greek (psuchikos) describes those who are swayed by physical sensation (Jas. 3:19; Jude 19).
Although this list of definitions is hardly comprehensive (indeed, there are nearly a thousand instances of “soul” in the combined Old and New Testaments), these four definitions cover virtually every instance of nephesh or psuche in scripture. From these examples, it can be seen that the word “soul” (nephesh and psuche) is simply used in scripture as a figure of speech for the idea of “consciousness” (both sensation and sentience), especially when connected to life itself. In one sense, you are a body, but in another sense, you are a soul — everything that makes you you is contained in your consciousness, your “soul.”
The wicked will return [rashaim] to Sheol, all the nations that forget God.
Just as the body returns to the ground and the spirit returns to God at death (Ecc. 12:7), death is also a return for the soul. But the soul, unlike the body and spirit, did not come from anywhere; rather, it was created from the combination of the body and spirit (Gen. 2:7). So when the souls of the wicked (and the righteous as well; Ecc. 3:20) “return” to the Unseen, they are simply returning to the state of nonexistence from which they originally came.
The fact that “going to the Unseen” is simply a figurative way of describing something that ceases to exist is confirmed by Matt. 11:21-23 and Lk. 10:13-15. Here, Jesus declares that the cities of Capernaum, Chorazin, and Bethsaida will be brought down to the Unseen because the people within did not believe the miracles that He had done. These cities did not descend to the underworld, whatever that would mean, but they were completely abandoned and largely ruined; that is, they ceased to exist as cities. Thus, the fact that souls are said to go down to the Unseen in the Old and New Testaments simply means that they cease to exist at death.
In this post, we took a look at the biblical definitions of the body, the spirit, and the soul. According to scripture, the body is our physical, material structure, and our entire personhood is contained within our bodies both before and after death. The spirit is that which animates the body and gives it life, which is itself given by God and returns again to Him at death. The soul is an emergent property, consciousness, which appears when the body and spirit are combined, and ceases to exist at death.
According to the Bible, death is a separation (of body and spirit) and a return, in which the body returns to the dust of the ground, the spirit returns to God who gave it, and the soul returns to nonexistence. This is extremely different from what most Christians believe, which is that death is merely a transition in which the “immortal soul” either goes to heaven or hell. The lie that death does not really exist has existed since the beginning, when the serpent told Eve, “you shall not surely die” (Gen. 3:4). But in reality, death is the greatest enemy (1 Cor. 15:26), not merely a transition to a better place. Fortunately, we have the hope of the resurrection, in which this mortal will finally be swallowed up in life and immortality! (1 Cor. 15:51-54; 2 Cor. 5:4)
 To be “gathered to one’s people” or “go to one’s fathers” simply means to be buried with one’s ancestors (see Gen. 15:15 and 49:29).
 This animating spirit of God is to be distinguished from His holy spirit, which is the means by which He interacts with the world.
 This list of verses is from Aaron Welch’s article, “The spirit that returns to God.”