When the Bible mentions a spirit in or of man, what is it referring to? What does it do and what happens to the spirit in man when we die?
The Bible talks in several places about a spirit in or of man. Job 32:8 says, “But there is a spirit in man, and the breath of the Almighty gives him understanding.” Zechariah 12:1 says that God “forms the spirit of man within him.” The apostle Paul explains that our human mental abilities come through this spirit: “For what man knows the things of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him?” (1 Corinthians 2:11). Paul contrasts this with the Spirit of God that gives understanding of the things of God.
What happens after death?
Ecclesiastes 12:7 mentions the spirit in man in speaking of what happens to a person upon death: “Then the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it.” Some jump to the wrong conclusion that this is a reference to righteous souls going to heaven. The context shows this interpretation is wrong. It says that the spirit of everyone who dies goes back to God who gave it. The preceding verses speak of aging and death taking their natural course in every person. Clearly then, these verses are not speaking only of a spirit within the righteous dead, but rather of the spirit of every person going back to God upon death.
Is it an immortal soul?
Is the spirit in man an immortal soul? It may surprise you to learn that the Bible nowhere teaches the doctrine of an immortal soul. This belief was adopted from ancient pagan religion. The Bible speaks of a mortal soul, not an immortal one. Paul wrote that only God has immortality and that “this mortal must put on immortality” through the gift of eternal life (1 Corinthians 15:53; 1 Timothy 6:16). Without that gift, we would perish (John 3:16). The Bible even says “the soul who sins shall die” (Ezekiel 18:4). (For more about this, read our article “What Is the Punishment of the Wicked?”)
Scripture uses the word “soul” to mean the life of a person. Notice Genesis 2:7 in the King James Version: “And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (emphasis added). He did not have a soul; he was a living soul. The phrase in the Hebrew means a living, breathing being.
By analogy, many digital devices cannot function apart from a power source, as well as some method of recording data. The human brain apart from the spirit in man is like a computerized device without power or the ability to record information. Similarly, a brain without the spirit God gives is like a digital camera without a battery or without a way to record images.
While both analogies fall far short of illustrating the incredible mental capacity that the spirit in man adds to the human brain, they can help us understand this profound biblical teaching.
The spirit in man enables what we call “the mind,” including self-awareness, intellect, creativity and the ability to appreciate beauty, along with a unique personality and temperament. The spirit in man gives us the abilities that make us human, in the image of God. But it is incomplete. God’s plan is to make His Holy Spirit available so that we can know the things of God and have the mind of God (1 Corinthians 2:11).
So, the reason the spirit of man returns to God upon death seems to be this: God preserves the spirit of every person as the permanent record of everything about him or her and will use that record to resurrect him or her at the appointed time (1 Corinthians 15:22-23). Consider how an architect is able to recreate a building long destroyed, as long as he has the original blueprints. By the same token, God will be able to reconstruct a person by the information preserved through the spirit in man.
Learn more about what happens when you die in our articles on: “Is There Life After Death?”