Human Souls Differ from Animal Souls
Man is unique from all other creatures. “And God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, after Our likeness’” (Gen 1:26). Notice that God discusses only the creation of man, not animals. Man’s formation differs from other creatures’: only man is created as an individual, personally formed from dust, and separately receives the breath of life directly from God. This unique life equips man with spiritual understanding (Job 32:8) and a conscience (Prov 20:27). Made in God’s image, man alone represents God; made after God’s likeness, man alone resembles God. Only man has a spirit, uniquely enabling him for fellowship with God. Only Adam was the “son of God” by creation (Luk 3:38), and he, with Eve, had dominion over the rest of creation.
We must recognize, however, that animals are also living souls. Genesis 1:20, 21, 24, and 30 use the expression nephesh hayyah (literally “a soul of life”) for fish and birds and land creatures, and Genesis 2:7 uses the identical expression for man. Animals have souls in the sense that their life, like ours, cannot be reduced merely to the biological functioning of their cells. They have an immaterial life force. However, the Bible nowhere suggests that the souls of animals exist unendingly. Thousands of animal souls accompanied Noah in the ark, but 1 Peter 3:20 states that only eight souls were saved. Human souls are therefore wholly different from animal souls. Only human souls are responsible to God, only human souls outlive their bodies, and only human souls inhabit heaven or hell forever.
Regarding Old Testament sacrifices, it is imperative to see the significance of animal soul-life. Leviticus 17:11 teaches that “the life [nephesh, soul] of the flesh is in the blood.” The shed blood of animals makes atonement for the human soul. Blood itself permeates the entire body, bringing a single coherent life to the organism; blood illustrates the existence of an immaterial life force within the physical body (Deut 12:23). The coursing blood signals the presence of an inner, shapeless soul-life that transcends mere biological life. The shedding of animal blood meant the expenditure of an animal soul, which provided ceremonial cleansing for human souls. God did not breathe into the animals, and they therefore do not possess spirits. Admittedly, Genesis 6:17 and 7:15, 22 do use the term ruach(“spirit” or “breath”) for animals, but these verses from the Flood narrative refer to literal breath. All air-breathing animals drowned in the flood, except for those in Noah’s ark (Psa 104:29 and Ecc 3:21 also speak of literal breathing). Animals do not have actual spirits or never-ending souls.
Soul and Spirit are Distinct
How the spirit differs from the soul is not obvious or easy. In fact, the writer to the Hebrews points out that only the Word of God can cleanly distinguish the two: “piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit…” (Heb 4:12).
In the interior body (depicted by its bones), a scalpel can dissect joints from marrow. So in the inner non-physical sector, the Word of God differentiates the human soul from the human spirit. The phrase “the dividing asunder of soul and spirit” does not mean that the Word of God actually disconnects these immaterial components from each other. Although physical death separates the spirit-and-soul from the body, nothing can dislocate the spirit from the soul. The spiritual part of man, comprised of spirit and soul together, is indivisible; yet God’s Word can figuratively separate soul and spirit by distinguishing them.
Despite this, many modern theologians teach that the terms “soul” and “spirit” are identical, claiming that human beings have only two components, not three. They base this on the fact that the Word of God often seems to use “soul” and “spirit” interchangeably. Mary’s words in Luke 1:46-47 are an example of this: “My soul doth magnify . . . and my spirit hath rejoiced” (cf Job 7:11; Isa 26:9). When the Spirit of God places parallel phrases together, however, He does not intend us to see the matching words as precisely identical. If we fail to look for fine distinctions we will let valuable truth slip through our fingers. As an example, those who understand identical meanings for the phrases “in Our image” and “after Our likeness” in Genesis 1:26 forfeit the truth that God made man in His image to representHim, but made man after His likeness to resemble Him. Similar phrases are not identical phrases.
Why do the terms “soul” and “spirit” seem to overlap in the Word of God? The Bible often uses either term to stand for both, or even for the whole person. We call this literary device “synecdoche”—a figure of speech in which a part stands for the whole (as hand for sailor in all hands on deck), or the whole stands for a part (as the law for police officer). So Luke records in Act 27:37, “And we were … two hundred threescore and sixteen souls.” In this verse, the term “soul” is a synecdoche for entire persons. Similarly, the Bible sometimes uses “spirit” or “flesh” or “heart” or “body” to mean the whole person. Therefore, some passages speak of our having “body” and “soul” (Matt 10:28), some use the terms “body” and “spirit” (Jas 2:26; 2 Cor 7:1), and some pair “flesh” and “heart” (Psa 16:9; 73:26; Ez 44:7). In each case, “spirit,” “soul,” or “heart” stands for the immaterial, spiritual component of man, in contrast to the physical.
The Spirit is Conscious of God
In order to be conscious of God, to love Him, and to commune with Him, we need to have spirits. Although plants have physical bodies, and animals have souls, only human beings possess spirits. By our spirits alone we are aware of God, the Father of spirits (Heb 12:9). “God is Spirit: and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). God’s Word assigns to the spirit abilities like reason, faith, and hope. Man’s spirit makes him conscious of God and able to relate to God (1 Cor 14:2, 14-16). Further, his spirit makes him aware of his own thoughts, and able to understand himself (1 Cor 2:11). It gives him or her imagination and creativity. A person’s spirit has the moral sense to make ethical judgments and to form convictions, and carries the ability to overrule instincts. The human spirit is capable of reverence and worship. No animal has such capacities.
Before conversion, our spirits were alienated from God (Eph 4:18). However, salvation brought spiritual life, and “he that is joined unto the Lord is one spirit,” describing the closest union possible (1Co 6:17). Just as the breath of God brought life to Adam, so the Spirit of God brings eternal life to us (John 6:63). The Spirit of God continues to work closely with our spirits: “the Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom 8:16 ESV). In fact, this contact is so close that at times we are unsure whether certain verses refer to our spirits or to God’s Spirit Who enables them (e.g. Phi 3:3). By the gracious control of the Holy Spirit, “the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets” (1 Cor 14:32). The highest service we can render to God is service arising from our spirits (Rom 1:9).
God expects us to be spiritually minded (Rom 8:6). The spiritual mind learns to yield to the Spirit and receives spiritual truth from Him (1 Cor 2:10-16). It longs for close fellowship with God.