"Life," "Soul," " Mind," "Heart", and "Spirit"

Submitted by garybeck on

This article covers a lot of ground, examining the differences and connections among several words whose Greek meanings overlap quite a bit, but which Jesus used very specifically.  The view here about how Jesus uses these words may be unique because it is linguistically, not philosophically, based, but this evaluation does eliminate several problems with the way these words are currently translated, which is very inconsistent. 

Jesus uses seven words in the Gospels to describe various aspects of human existence.  These words are translated in inconsistent ways in the English translation.  There seem to be three foundational elements : 1) the spirit or breath (pneuma), 2) the flesh (sarx), and 3) the mind (dianoia).  More dimensions arise as a combinations of two of these elements: 1) the heart (kardia), a combination of mind and spirit, 2) life (zoe), a combination of the flesh and spirit, 3) and the body (soma), a combination of the flesh and mind.  Finally, there is psyche, which is translated as soul and life, but it is a combination of all three base components: mind, flesh, and spirit.  We might describe this as the "self,” our existence in this body, with a specific set of feelings and memories. 

This picture above summarizes this article's explanation of Jesus' view of the components of human life.  The above diagram might be completed by associating "spirit" with a larger higher reality, the dimension of heaven or Platonic forms, "mind" with a larger social reality, the culture we live within, and "flesh" with a larger physical reality of material science.

The Problem with Psyche as "Soul/Life"

The word psyche (ψυχὴν) creates a special problem for translators because they translate this Greek word to mean two very different things: a person's "soul" and his "life.”    In the KJV NT, it is translated 58 times as "soul,” 40 times as "life,” and three times as "mind."  Sometimes, the switch between different meanings is sudden, for example, in Matthew 16:25, it says, "For whoever will save his life shall lose it," translating psyche as "life," but then in the following verse, Matthew 16:26, it says, "For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" translating psyche as "soul.” 

What is interesting is that most of these translations only seem to work as one or the other.  For example, Jesus tells us not to worry about our psyche, translated as "life," wondering about what we will eat or drink.  It is hard to imagine the word "soul" applying to eating and drinking.  However, Jesus also tells us not to worry about those who would kill the body but not the "soul" using the same word psyche.  This is a "life" that does not die when the body dies.  So we have a paradox.  A "life" that eats and drinks to survive but does not die when the body dies.

However, psyche doesn't seem to be a word (for example, like the Greek word translated as "judge") that has different meanings in different contexts.  Rather it is a concept that is not captured well by either of the English words,“life” or “self.”

There is an English meaning that does work, the term of "self,” meaning our worldly sense of self, our physical being at a certain place and time.  However, before we discuss this idea in more depth, we should look at the related Greek words.  From his use of all these words, we get a clearer idea of what Jesus means when he uses the word psyche.

Mind and Spirit

In Jesus’s words, psyche is translated like two other words that Christ commonly uses: pneuma, which is usually translated as "spirit," and zoe, which is usually translated as "life."  There is also another word, dianoiathat is translated as "mind."  And final word, kardia, that is translated as "heart" but which is described as the source of thoughts.

Both pneuma and psyche also mean "breath" as in the "breath of life."  Both are from Greek verbs that mean "to breathe" and "to blow.”    The difference is the "spirit" of pneuma is often used to describe both God and "demons,” whereas the word psyche is never used by Jesus that way.  This is because these God and demons  lack a body. 

So pneuma is more like ideas that have a life of their own.  Jesus seems to view people as having more than one spirit within them, their own, that of God, and that of "demons.”    These are the "voices" that pop into our minds as conscious thought.  It is this consciousness that motivates action, so it is an animating force, which is exactly how the Greek word was used.  Our awareness of our own thoughts is the part of divinity within us.

We could say that Jesus uses psyche to mean "the mind" in the sense of thought, but there is another word that Christ uses, dianoia,  which is translated as "mind" (usually) and means "thought,” "intention,” "process of thinking,” "thinking faculty," intelligence,” "thoughts expressed," and "meaning.”   This word provides a useful boundary for discussing what psyche isn't.  It is important to note that Jesus uses it, but rarely, basically as one of the three things we should use to love God (heart (kardia), soul/self (psyche), and mind (dianoia) (Matthew 22:37,  Mark 12:30).  Notice all three of these are elements that are part of the "mind." 

Life and Mind

Zoe is another word Christ commonly uses that is translated as "life" and unlike "psyche,” it is always and only translated as "life."  This is the only word here that has a verb form, zoa, meaning "to live" and "to be alive."  This is physical life and the substance of life.  This is the life that comes from our "substance,” by which the Greeks meant our personal property, as well as our physical existence.  The thinking was that we spend our time living generating property. When we talk about “making a living” in English, we are talking about the Greek sense of zoe.  In the verb form, it is a metaphor for "to be full of life," "to be strong," and "to be fresh.”   The basic concept is the union of flesh with spirit, sarx with pneuma, to create a breathing body.

When a person is alive without having mind (dianoia,) say when you are unconscious and not dreaming, that is the life of zoe alone.  This zoe is the word that is used when Jesus talks about "eternal life."  So this active sense of doing things extends beyond our physical life of the flesh as we currently know it.  It may be that all the elements arising from spirit—heart, self, life—exist beyond the flesh. 

My sense is that Jesus would agree that animals have minds and spirits, but different types of minds. We refer to Aristotle’s ideas of plant, animal, and human minds being different because they have different capacities. Human minds are the only ones with access to reasoning in the abstract sense. Animals and plants do not have is the organ of conscious choice, the psyche. This is our self-awareness, knowing that we have a heart, mind, body, spirit, and a temporary life of the flesh. From this awareness, we make choices.


For more detail, see this article on "heart." The word for "heart," kardia, is also a key part of a person's makeup and, unlike "mind" (dianoia), it is used frequently.  Again, this is because it is part of spirit.  Sometimes this word is used like we use the word "heart" to mean the "insides" of something ("heart" of the ocean or earth), but when it is used to refer to people, it is the seat of emotions.  However, these emotions generate thoughts (Matthew 15:19 For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts), but it is the motivation for thought, the source of thought, not the thoughts themselves.  Our consciousness, psyche, experiences the thoughts in the mind through the urging of the heart.

One interesting aspect of this word is that Jesus often uses the singular, "the heart," to describe the thoughts or feelings of a group.  For example, he uses the plural possessive "your" with the singular "heart" in Luke 24:38.  Though the phrase is translated as "in your hearts" in the KJV, the Greek  ἐν τῇ καρδίᾳ ὑμῶν; literally means "in that heart (singular) of yours (plural). Since in Matthew 15:8, we can see that he gets this usage from the Septuagint, so this may have been a general usage of the idea. So its sense would have been more of a shared "emotion" or "source of emotion" than the physical heart.

This use of the singular for the group's "heart"  indicates that Jesus recognized our feelings as arising from something greater than ourselves. Heart is connected both to mind and spirit. Mind is formed by our living within a social order, which is shared. Our feelings are, at least in part, learned from our society.  Similarly, our feelings are, at least in part, generated from divine influence, which is also shared. We are not responsible for these influences or the thoughts they generate. We are only responsible for our actions, the choices made by our individual, spirits despite the urging to our social heart. I am reminded of Huck Finn's battle with his conscience between what society taught him about slavery being good and right versus the urgings of his own spirit.

The same concept in Greek literature is more frequently called thumos, (θυμός), which literally means "chest."  The ancient Greeks divided motivational emotions into two parts, thumos the chest, and koilia, the belly.  The animal emotions were "feelings of the belly,” which included hunger, lust, fear, etc.  In Jesus's language, the higher emotions of kardia were considered positive, especially if "pure" because they connect the mind (dianoia) to the eternal spirit (pneuma).  The animal emotions were considered natural by the Greek and by Jesus, but of less importance, and less worthy.  Jesus seems to use the term soma, “body,” to reflect this idea.  The body isn't just the flesh, but the desires of the body. Logically, the breath of pneuma goes into the breast or chest when we inhale air and from there to the heart.  So, the heart is where spirit and mind are united.  The concept of thumos is close to Jesus' concept of kardia.  These feelings include the love of family and country, hatred of enemies, anger, passion for learning, etc.  Jesus seems to use kardia to describe all of this.   

The Body and Flesh

Next, we have the physical body.  There are two Greek words Jesus used to describe the physical body, sarx ("flesh") and soma ("body"). 

The Greek word, sarx (σαρκὸς) means "flesh," "the body," "the pulp of fruit," "meat," and "the physical and natural order of things."  Jesus uses this word to describe the physical tissue of the body, the body as meat.  This is the "flesh" that is weak.  Without spirit or breath (pneuma), the flesh has no life.  Without a mind (dianoia), the body exists, but it is unconscious. 

"Body" is soma, (σῶμα) in Greek means "body,” "dead body,” "the living body,” "animal body,” and several other meanings.  However, Jesus uses this word more narrowly, specifically to mean the living body, our physical bodies that we identify as people.  This body is a union of the flesh (sarx) and the mind (dianoia).  This is the body of our physical feelings.  It connects our flesh to our minds.  Jesus joins the psyche, the self, with the life of the body.  They are both part of the same life, one of the flesh with a mind and the other, the union of flesh, mind, and spirit. 

Our life depends on our bodies. We act only with our bodies. Our minds and spirit generate feelings that inspire thoughts in the mind. Our psyche makes choices, but those choices are only executed because we have bodies. It is actions that make up our lives and only the body acts or "performs" (poieo) in the Greek word Jesus uses most frequently. Of course, our bodies are limited by physical reality in the same way that our minds are influenced by society and our spirits by the higher, abstract realities.

The Psyche of Self

So where does this leave the "life" or "soul" of psyche?  It is our sense of self as the person we record in our memories in this world.  It includes everything else, our flesh, mind, and spirit.  The term "self" captures it well because it is our self-awareness but not our pure spirit, our awareness as part of the eternal.  Our "self" is how we see the role we play in life.  It is the person we are in our memories, playing a specific conscious role in human society at a specific place and time. 

This is a life that eats and drinks and remembers eating and drinking and remembers that it has all types of needs and obligations.  So, this is the life that worries, because it contains mind and heart.  It also can be the "life" that people lose when they die, not because their awareness ceased but because the life they remember ceases when that life is not worth holding onto.  This is our personal life, the life of identity, being this specific person living a span of time in a temporary world. . 

Our Identity

Can this identity of "self" be called our "soul" in the current sense of the word? The problem is that Jesus said that this psyche can be destroyed.  The "earthly" components of spirit (heart, self, and life) can survive but don't necessarily do so.  These parts of the spirit can go into the "trash heap" along with our physical flesh and body.  This happens if we do not live worthwhile lives (Matthew 10:28).

 However, the Christian concept of "soul" is as something indestructible.  It is our divine spirit.  The “self” of our conscious awareness (pneuma) is bigger than our identity. For example, in a dream, we may think we are a different person with a different body in a different space, conscious, but not aware of our normal life, forgetting it for the moment. This pneama survives, but earthly identity, our memories, and all we have done can be lost to us.

One possibility is that human existence works like this.  A human is created by a specific union of spirit/pneuma, a mind/dianoia, and the flesh/sarx.  As we grow, we develop our lives/zoe, our hearts/kardia, and our self/psyche.  These three are connected with our eternal spirit/pneuma.   When we live a worthy life, all four of these elements, life-heart-self-spirit, can potentially survive, remembering its prior physical life.  The body is transformed after death, but it is still “alive” with spirit, making it “like the angels,” that is like messengers of the Divine (as described in Matthew 22:30Mark 12:25Mark 12:26Luke 20:35 and Luke 20:36). This is our soul. This is what Jesus called "eternal life." We survive knowing our past life. 


However, if a life is unworthy, what happens?  The spirit is eternal so it survives, but the elements of this life go into the trash heap of fire.  What happens then?  The eternal torment of in the traditional hell of Christianity?   There is another possibility.  This life-heart-self are burned in the fire of the trash heap, but remember, fire does not destroy anything, it simply transforms it.  In this context, the individual soul that survives is pure spirit, without the taint of an unworthy life.  What happens to this soul? Possibly a rebirth in another life.  Jesus makes several references to John the Baptist, as the rebirth of Elijah.

This topic is continued tomorrow in a post on the Greek words involved in creating the concept of “hell.”