The question “Do you believe in spirits” is normally a thing you ask kids, and we laugh when they say yes. When someone says “I believe in spirits,” normally, we’d think they are absolutely crazy, believe in the power of crystals, read palms, and use essential oils instead of vaccines.
But I’m here to tell YOU, reader, that you almost certainly believe in “spirits” whether you knew it or not. And I’m not just talking to Christians who believe in the “Holy Spirit” and all that.
I’m here to tell you that YOU, reader, probably do believe in “spirits” whether or not you know it, whether or not you are Christian, and whether or not you believe in the supernatural.
That’s because the word “spirit” isn’t just the limited idea you have of it. It’s a word with a history, and a meaning far bigger than people (and most Christians, for that matter) think it has.
This post is to tell you what it means.
The Hebrew Word for “Spirit”
As I covered in a previous series, the word “Spirit” appears very early on in the Bible. It is he Hebrew word ruach. It is introduced in the opening verses of Genesis:
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit (ruach) of God was hovering over the face of the waters.
We translate this as the English word “spirit,” but that word doesn’t have a very good equivalence to the underlying Hebrew word. Take a look: here is the link to the definition of “spirit.” The definitions include:
- the incorporeal parts of a human
- conscious incorporeal being, as opposed to matter
- a supernatural, incorporeal being, especially one inhabiting a place, object, etc., or having a particular character
- an angel or demon
- Etc. Etc.
Sounds like a bunch of kooky or religious stuff, right? But in contrast, here is a small sample of the places the Hebrew word ruach appears in the Bible. The word translated as ruach is in bold:
- For behold, I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life under heaven. Everything that is on the earth shall die. (Genesis 6:7, ESV)
- And Esau was forty years old when he took to wife Judith the daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and Bashemath the daughter of Elon the Hittite: Which were a grief of mind unto Isaac and to Rebekah. (Genesis 26:35, KJV)
- So Moses stretched out his staff over the land of Egypt, and the Lord brought an east wind upon the land all that day and all that night. When it was morning, the east wind had brought the locusts. (Exodus 10:13, ESV)
- You shall speak to all the skillful, whom I have filled with a spirit of skill, that they make Aaron’s garments to consecrate him for my priesthood. (Exodus 28:3)
- And when the queen of Sheba had seen the wisdom of Solomon, the house that he had built, the food of his table, the seating of his officials, and the attendance of his servants, and their clothing, his cupbearers, and their clothing, and his burnt offerings that he offered at the house of the Lord, there was no more breath in her. (2 Chronicles 9:3-4, ESV)
- All a person’s ways seem pure to them,
but motives are weighed by the Lord.
(Proverbs 16:2, NIV)
Notice the difference between the context of ruach and the word itself. The word is used to describe living things, thoughts of people, a strong breeze, skill in a craft, being shocked, and someone’s internal motives. These are rather ORDINARY things. Ruach is an ordinary thing!
In contrast, it is the CONTEXT of ruach that creates the “religious” connotation. The actual word RUACH is not. To be as simple as possible, the word ruach means “wind.” However, that word is just as bad as “spirit” in the way it fails to communicate everything that ruach means.
The real idea that the word ruach communicates is an invisible thing that has an effect on the visible world. This is why the Old Testament can say this:
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. (Genesis 1:1-2)
While the New Testament, commenting on the Old Testament, says this:
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. . . .By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible. (Hebrews 11:1,3)
Why did the author of Hebrews say that the world was “not made out of things that are visible,” when Genesis talks about “the Spirit of God”? Because ruach is NOT VISIBLE. It is an invisible thing that has an effect on the visible world.
Look at that same list of the word ruach through this understanding:
- (Genesis 6:7, ESV) Breath (or “life”) is not visible. A body with breath is a body. A body without breath is a corpse. Though the body is visible, the life that makes the heart pump, the brain function, and the muscles move is not visible. Life is ruach.
- (Genesis 26:35, KJV) Thoughts and feelings in the mind are not visible. Their effect on the body, face, and actions of the person are visible, but the thoughts and feelings themselves are not. The thoughts and feelings are ruach.
- (Exodus 10:13, ESV) The wind that blows insects is not visible. The insects that are moving in the wind are visible, but we only see the insects, not the wind. The wind is ruach.
- (Exodus 28:3) The skill that a person has in their hands is not visible. The hands, fingers, muscles, and movement is visible, but one person’s hands look like another person’s hands. The skill within them is not visible. The skill is ruach.
- (2 Chronicles 9:3-4, ESV) The internal confidence or pride a person has in the face of a person can be perceived in the tone of their words or in their actions. But it is only the words that are heard and the actions that are seen. The confidence and pride itself is not seen. That confidence is ruach.
- (Proverbs 16:2, NIV) A person’s actions, good or bad, are seen. But the reason for these actions — the motivations of the heart, whether they condemn or justify — are not seen, at least not by us. The motivations of the heart are ruach.
The Greek Word for “Spirit”
The Greek word that is translated as “spirit” follows the same pattern. That word is πνεῦμα (pneuma). It’s the root of things like “pneumatic tube” which uses air to push that deposit slip to the bank teller in the drive-through window. It also means WIND, just like ruach. It’s an invisible thing that has an effect on the visible world.
Adjectives Attached to “Spirit” in the New Testament
However, in the New Testament, we start to see adjectives attached to this word that start to sound “spooky.” For example:
When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, but finds none. Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So also will it be with this evil generation.” (Matthew 12:43-45, ESV)
That sort of sounds like the Exorcist or something. But this is definitely a metaphor with lots of personification, because the “person” (the VISIBLE person) is called a “house” that is “empty, swept, and put in order.” This can be easily understood by understanding pneuma as “an invisible thing that has an effect on the visible world.”
And this is how we can understand the adjectives like “evil” or “unclean” that get attached to this word. Remember the ruach that brought in the locusts in Exodus 10? Was that a “clean” ruach or was it an “impure” ruach? It was obviously impure, because it carried a swarm of hungry locusts with it. What was the VISIBLE effect of this ruach on the nation of Egypt? It was bad. That’s why it was called the “plague” of locusts.
Think of Jesus’s statement in this way: a person has thoughts and feelings of the mind (Genesis 26) or talents and skills (Exodus 28) or pride and confidence (2 Chronicles 9) or motivations of the heart (Proverbs 16) that are “impure.” The meaning is that this “spirit” has a bad effect on the visible world. So this person gets rid that that thing. Good.
Except, habits return, and they come back with a vengeance. The person may discard an “unclean spirit” of sadness (thoughts and feeling of the mind), but be filled with an even MORE EVIL “spirit” of rage, pride, malice, envy, greed, dishonesty, or unkindness.
That’s not kooky religious talk. That’s something that I bet almost everyone on earth has seen with their own eyes.
….that is, they’ve seen THE VISIBLE EFFECTS of it.
A Counter-Example That Proves the Point
We should also notice that the English word “spirit” also involves things that Greek and Hebrew would NOT call ruach or pneuma. The example is in the following passage, when the disciples saw Jesus walking on the Sea of Galilee:
But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, “It is a ghost!” and they cried out in fear. (Matthew 14:26)
That Greek word for “ghost” is φάντασμα (phantasma). Obviously, it is closely related to “phantom.” The reason this is different from a ruach or a pneuma is that YOU CAN SEE IT. For this reason, it is NOT a “spirit.” This is the only place where the word “phantom” or “ghost” appears in modern translations of the Bible. In other words, the pattern holds that “spirits” in the Bible are things that CAN’T BE SEEN.
- Note 1: The only exception to this rule about not seeing spirits is in Luke, where the disciples are afraid because they think that see a spirit (pneuma). Even though the disciples believed in spirits (they talked about them often with Jesus), the prospect of SEEING one was strange enough that they would scream in fear. I take this as an exception that proves the rule, rather than one that destroys it. A phantasma is a spirit that you can see, which does not follow the normal order of things. In other words, it is a “ghost.”
- Note 2: We should also make some clear points about English translations. The King James Version of 1611 — perhaps the most influential book in all of the English language — actually reversed the translation. It translates both ruach and pneuma as “ghost” or “spirit” depending on the context. The word “ghost” is used 108 times in the KJV. Under this pattern, when the disciples see Jesus walking on water, they think they see a “spirit.” Starting with the ASV in 1905, that frequency of the English word “ghost” was reduced to 19 times. Now, most translations only include the English word ghost 3 times, twice in the New Testament, once in Isaiah 29:4 which uses it in the simile “like a ghost.” This is a change in the English language over 400 years that may have confused our understanding of the word “spirit.”
How to Make Sense of the New Testament’s Use of the Word “Spirit”
Using this understanding of “an invisible thing that is the source of an effect on the visible world,” we can see positive effect that this has on understanding previously STRANGE passages of scripture that seem otherworldly. Let’s go down a list of important places where the word pneuma is used in the New Testament.
Example 1: “Test the Spirits”
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. (1 John 4:1-3)
Yes, that’s right. The word pneuma is used six times in these three verses. Here, we can understand something important. There are MULTIPLE spirits out there. Some are good and are equated with the “Spirit of God.” Others are not equated with the Spirit of God, but are still good. Even more spirits exist which are not good. Apparently, every “spirit” (remember: thought, feeling, skill, confidence, etc.) that confesses “that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” is from God. Every one that doesn’t is not from God. How do we understand this. Well, we can understand it using the same analogy the scripture uses: WIND.
Imagine there are ships scattered all over the ocean. These ships are sailing vessels and will either go to safe harbor or they will go to their death. Just as a practical matter, there is no in-between of “safe harbor” and “death,” though the varieties of these options are open. Here’s a picture of what I’m saying:
I know the beauty of this image may overwhelm the senses and the emotion it conveys may require a minute to recover. But look at what I’m saying. Every little arrow represents a “spirit” or a “wind” that is unseen to the sailors. Some of these winds bring them towards safe harbor. Others do not.
It’s the same thing that John is saying in the passage above. If you’re in your ship, TEST the spirits (meaning “winds”) to see if they are FROM GOD (meaning TO SAFE HARBOR). In life, the “spirits” that we encounter like “happy” or “sad” or “more decisive” or “more confident” or “more skillful” or “absolutely bewildered” cannot be a RELIABLE way to describe what brings us TO GOD or away from him. In the same way, we cannot use words like “north” or “south” or “east” or “west” to describe which wind will take you to safe harbor. The only thing that we have is the light of the gospel: “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh.”
Example 2: “The Division of Soul and Spirit”
We read the following in the book of Hebrews:
For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, 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, ESV)
Here, it is important to know the metaphor of the word “soul,” too. In Greek it is ψυχή (psuché) and in Hebrew it is nephesh. It means “breath.” Notice that both are composed of invisible air. The “breath” aspect can come from an individual person. But a “wind” is much more powerful and is outside of a person. I hope you can see the continuity of this metaphorical understanding of “the breath of life” (Genesis 2:7) and God’s “Spirit” that does not “abide in man forever” (Genesis 6:3) and “the spirit” to which a fool gives “full vent” (Proverbs 29:23). These words are related, and man’s “spirit” is the unseen thing having an effect on the body. In this way, spirit and soul can overlap.
The Word of God, however, cuts the division of the outside spirit and the inward soul. It guides in ways that we cannot. Think about the tangible world: What difference do you know of healthy breath of yours that doesn’t have COVID in it and unhealthy winds outside that do have COVID? Now think about your eternal soul: How do you know the difference between a thought or feeling that is profitable to you and one that will drive you to pride or despair or delusion or enlightenment?
You don’t! That’s the point! But the word of God is “living and active.” It can distinguish what you cannot. It can cut out what should not be there and leave what should.
Example 3: “Poor in Spirit.”
And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Part 1 of the Beatitudes
Here, Jesus uses the word “spirit,” and also gives some descriptions of it in a human person by the way he structures this passage.
- First, we get those who are “poor in spirit.” When we understand that “spirit” means “an invisible thing that is the source of an effect on the visible world,” we realize that Jesus is talking about those who POSSESS a certain spirit in this passage.
- Next, he describes those who “mourn,” which is a way to describe someone “poor in spirit.” He says they will be comforted.
- Third, he describes those who are “meek,” which does not mean “weak, but means someone “under control,” much like the opposite of the fool in Proverbs 29:23. This is like someone who is deliberately “poor” in “their effect on the visible world.”
- Fourth, he describes those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness,” who are also “poor in spirit.” These are those whose heart wants something — righteousness — that they have not tasted. Jesus says they will be satisfied. By what? By himself.
- Fifth, he describes those who are “merciful,” and these are “poor in spirit,” because they refuse to take actions that they otherwise could. He says that they will likewise receive mercy. From whom? From his Father in heaven.
Part 2 of the Beatitudes
Jesus then moves on to a new section. He says that blessed are the pure “in heart.” This is important and it gets complicated, because the “soul” (psuché), was said to connect to a human being through three primary places (as far back as Galen and Plato and Aristotle).
- Man’s intellectual nature that thinks, affirms, and reasons connects to the brain.
- Man’s spirited nature (the origin of this blog’s title) that believes, wants, rejoices, and yearns connects to the heart.
- Man’s appetitive nature, which hungers, thirsts, and desires sleep and sex connects to the stomach, the liver, or belly.
Jesus is here talking about the those whose beliefs, wants, joy, and yearnings are “pure.” He is not speaking of those who are intelligent, just as he is not speaking of those who are stupid. He is not speaking of those who are well-fed, just as he is not speaking of those who are hungry. He is not speaking of those who are rich, just as he is not speaking of those who poor. Those details do not matter.
Jesus speaks of those who are pure in heart. What will they do? They will “see God.”
Small Tangent to the Beatitudes
Wait a minute! This brings up a complicated point! We read the following in John’s gospel:
No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” (John 1:18)
And later, we see the disciples ask to see God:
Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? (John 14:8-9)
Can those who are “pure in heart” go on an “see God”? Well, in one sense, they can see Jesus for who he is if they are pure in heart:
Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. (John 8:42-43)
That idea of “cannot bear” is that the “do not have the power” to hear him. It has nothing to do with being deaf or unintelligent. It is about the heart. They have no POWER to to believe him. They do not have a pure heart.
In another sense, this phrase isn’t even about Jesus. It is a pithy way to speak about God the Father who John also says “cannot be seen”:
But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth (John 4:23-24)
God is SPIRIT, meaning he is “an invisible thing has an effect on the visible world.” If we are to see him, we must see him through the invisible part of our own selves.
Part 3 of the Beatitudes
Next, Jesus describes the “pure in heart” as “peacemakers.” This corresponds to those who do not get their way, but those who are meek, merciful, and hunger for righteousness, which brings peace.
Jesus also describes those who are “persecuted for righteousness’s sake.” Those who are persecuted in this way will not receive a kingdom on earth, but instead, they will receive “the kingdom of heaven.” What is this thing that they will receive? We get a hint of it in Luke’s gospel, where he uses the phrase “kingdom of God” for the same idea:
Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.”
How can an entire KINGDOM be in the midst of us, but we cannot observe it or say “Look, here it is”? It’s the same thing as the wind. The wind, the air, and all the atmosphere is all around you, but you can’t say “HERE IT IS” or “THERE IT IS!” Why not? Because it is in the midst of you, including inside your very lungs.
Example 4: The Prince of the Power of the Air
The next one is a little weird, until you understand that a “spirit” is “an invisible thing has an effect on the visible world.” The passages are in Ephesians:
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— (Ephesians 2:1-2)
This sounds a little kooky again, right? Well, take a look at it again. Notice that we have a pairing of the word “spirit” (pneuma) with the word “air” (aér). What does that Greek word aér mean? Is it special? Is it symbolic? Does it have a bigger meaning? No. It means ordinary air in the atmosphere.
What is this “prince of the power of the air”? We read it is a “spirit,” but what does that mean? Well, it is not a “breeze,” but it is — as we have repeatedly stated — an invisible thing that has an effect on the visible world. The reason this is paired with the ordinary “air” is to make the point clear. This “thing” is REAL. It’s not MERELY a metaphor.
This same “thing” is described again at the end of the book:
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. 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 6:10-12)
Yep. It’s “the devil.” But here it seems we’ve gone full-scale “kooky.” We’re talking about “cosmic powers” and “spiritual forces” and “rulers” and “authorities.” What is going on here?
Well, this is why it is important that you probably believe in “Spirits.” We’ve covered the ground of how rich the word is. Now, let’s make it clear.
Why You Believe in “Spirits”
As we explained before, there are English words that we’re using to describe Greek and Hebrew words which are the original. The meanings are close, but they do NOT always overlap.
There is a complicated Venn Diagram below. Each circle is a concept that is described by certain words. Some of them are English words. Some of them are Greek or Hebrew words. Some of them are just concepts that modern people think of. It explains how all of these different concepts add together to prove that you believe in “spirits.” I also notice that “The ‘real’ world” doesn’t really fit in the right spot, because it really means things you can SEE (and everybody thinks air is real, but you get the picture).
The meanings of the Greek and Hebrew words often overlap. The English words of “Spirit” and “Ghost” and “air” have some similarities to their Bible-word counterparts, but they FAIL to relate in the same way.
No English speaker who hasn’t read this blog post would say that “spirit” and “air” are related. “Air” is real. “Spirits” aren’t. But the ancients didn’t think that way. The Greek aér and the Greek pneuma DO overlap in meaning in a way that “spirit” and “air” do not.
The key to this diagram is the purple region. These are things that normal English speakers would not normally categorize as “spirits.” However, they unquestionably exist, and they definitely are “invisible things that have an effect on the visible world.”
If you believe that “beliefs” or “ideologies” or “convictions” or “theories” have an effect on the visible world, then you believe in “spirits” as the Bible describes them. The only alternative is to make the ridiculous assertion that “beliefs” or “ideologies” or “feelings” or whatever else does not exist.
These things that you can’t actually SEE fit squarely within the category of what is described in the Bible as “Spirits.” Though you may think it strange that someone in the Bible has an “evil spirit,” is there really a better phrase to describe something like “drug addiction”? Can you SEE the pull of the drug? Does this unseen thing have a real and “evil” effect on the visible world? See where this is going?
This is why we must “test” the Spirits. It is difficult to make a list of which ideologies, beliefs, confidences, assumptions, or theories will bring someone God or “safe harbor” and which ones will lead to perdition or “the Kracken.” Confidence is “East” only works if “East” is the direction you need to go. That is why we must “test the spirits.” If a spirit leads to Jesus, then it will bring you home.
In the book of James, it says the following:
Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? (James 4:4-5)
There is a “prince of the air,” who is opposed to God. He is happy to push you anywhere other than home to safe harbor. He has many “spirits” or “winds” at his disposal to make this happen. Collectively, they are “the course of this world,” as Ephesians says.
However, God is an enemy of this “prince,” because he desires us to come to safe harbor. And for that reason, God yearns jealously over the thoughts, feelings, intentions, doctrines, convictions, confidences, trust, skill, and joy that is within us. This isn’t a small thing. It is your life. It is your soul. It is “the spirit that he has made to dwell in you.”