What are spirits?

Spiritual warfare

This is a draft chapter in my forthcoming book on spiritual house cleansing. It’s a draft, the sourcing needs cleaned up as well as other edits, and it’s rather long, but if you scroll to the bottom, you can click the PDF button for a printable format.

What are Spirits?

While keeping in mind that words are symbols used to convey ideas and thoughts, and these ideas and thoughts are filtered through a culture, let’s look at what the word “spirits” has meant in English over the ages.

The first recorded use of the word “spirit”came in 1250 AD, in an English translation of the Bible. It was used for the Greek word “pneuma” and the Hebrew word, “ruah”, which both convey the idea of “breath of life.”

Thus, scholars suggest the word “spirit” was used to convey the “animating or vital principle in man and animals; that which gives life to the physical organism, in contrast to its purely material elements; the breath of life.”

Life in contrast to its purely material elements. There it is. The idea that it’s somehow a breath of life in a living, physical being that is somehow greater than the sum of its parts.

In 1330 AD, this word was also use to mean “a supernatural, incorporeal, rational being or personality, usually regarded as imperceptible at ordinary times to the human senses, but capable of becoming visible at pleasure, and frequently as troublesome, terrifying or hostile to mankind.” This seems to me a great definition for a “disembodied spirit”, or the kinds of spirits you’ll be ridding your home of.

In 1385, the word began to be used, in certain contexts “relating to temporary separation of the immaterial from the material part of man’s being, or to the perception of a purely intellectual character.”

Spirit and Soul

In 1375, the “spirit” was conflated with the word “soul.” For many centuries, these two words essential shared the same meaning. This is consistent with the Hebrew view, which held the “soul” and “spirit” were the same. The Bible, thus, speaks of animals having a spirit and a soul. The Biblical writers simply meant the animal had the animating or vital principle, that which gives life to living organisms, even as humans do.

But this begs the question, is it possible for the spirit of an animal to become disembodied? Are any of the supernatural, incorporeal, rational beings or personalities afflicting you from animals? Well, I don’t know. I suspect not for the simple reason that the nature of humans and angels are different from the spirits of animals.

The word “soul” is even older one than the word “spirit”, dating to a copy of Beowulf in 825 AD, to mean the “principle of life in man or animals; animate existence.” Again, this is essentially the same definition as “spirit.”

In 888 AD, “soul” denoted “the principle of thought and action in man, commonly regarded as an entity instance from the body; the spiritual part of man in contrast to the purely physical. Frequently in connexion (sic) with, or in contrast to, body”, and also “intellectual or spiritual power”, and “the spiritual part of man regarded as surviving after death and susceptible of happiness or misery”, and “disembodied spirits.” So we can see, for most of the existence of English as a language, “soul” is the same as “spirit.”

Similarly, from the 9th to 19th Centuries, “soul” could mean “the seat of emotions, feelings, or sentiments; the emotional part of man’s nature.” We certainly continue with this definition today in certain contexts, although we also use “heart”, “mind” and “will”, and less often, “spirit” to mean the same thing.

Thus, today the definition of “soul” has shifted somewhat to mean something closer to the “mind, will, and emotions” rather than “spirit.” But this is different than the biblical view of spirit and soul. The biblical worldview holds these are the same, even as the English language held they were the same thing until recently. Readers who know their Bibles might point to the New Testament writer that makes reference to the body, soul, and spirit. Doesn’t this suggest that we are triune beings?

Not at all. To think so is to portray a modern idea onto the ancient text. The author is trying to convey something else in that text. Go read it again, but from ancient eyes, not modern eyes.

As we have just seen, the idea that the “soul” is different from the “spirit” is a modern idea, not a biblical one. The concept that humans are “body, soul, and spirit” is a modern one. To the biblical mind, that’s like saying, “body and spirit, and just to be clear, every aspect of body and spirit.”Although many Christian teachers write as if the bible presents “body, mind/will, and spirit”, it’s unhelpful to think of humans in terms of body, soul and spirit.

It is more helpful, instead, to view people biblically, as body and spirit, i.e., natural/supernatural.

Spirits of Animals, Humans and Angels

Now, back to the spirits of animals. Can their spirits become disembodied? I suspect not, but this position is not a hill I’d die on. I could be wrong, and there’s some biblical reason to suspect I’m wrong.

Once, Jesus was about to cast some demons out of a man. The demons asked to be cast into a herd of pigs, and Jesus agreed. It’s interesting that, in some respect, this man acted like a wild pig before being delivered. The biblical writer described the man as being possessed by “unclean spirits.” Other times, the biblical writers described demons as “wicked spirits.” Why the use of the word “unclean?”

For Jewish religious purposes, pigs and certain other animals were also called “unclean”, so is the author hinting that the demons in this man were the spirits of wild pigs? I suspect not. Many of the spirits Jesus cast out of people were called “unclean” rather than “wicked.” It’s likely there’s no significant reason for the distinction.

Simply put, animals differ from human (mortal) beings and divine (immortal) beings in a significant way: God made both angels and men in the Image of God.

We have inestimable value, unlike animals. Humans are meant to care for and not exploit the earth so that it can become a cosmic temple for God, but we should never elevate the existence of animals to the level of humans. Of living earth-bound creatures, only humans are in the Image of God. This means, only humans are to be the image of God on the earth and only humans can be the Temple of God through faith in Jesus.  This suggests a difference in the “spirit of life” that humans have compared to animals. But like I said, the topic is open for discussion as far as I’m concerned.

Spirit as Some Kind of Power

Another aspect of the word “spirit” includes “the active or essential principle or power of some emotion, frame of mind, etc, as operating on or in persons” (emphasis added). Historical non-biblical examples of this usage include

  • “A gentle spirit” in 1591
  • “The Spirit of Grace” in 1675
  • A “spirit of lying” in 1705
  • “The spirit of fanaticism” in 1779
  • “Spirit of Independence” in 1855
  • “Spirit of party” in 1886

I hope you get the spirit of the idea. This usage indicates a non-corporeal essence of some power that operates on or in someone’s mind or, dare I say, spirit.

In conclusion, when we speak of spirits, I generally will mean

  • The “incorporeal or immaterial being, as opposed to body or matter; being or intelligence conceived as distinct from or independent of anything physical or material”;
  • In certain uses, “the disembodied soul of a deceased person”;
  • “A supernatural, incorporeal, rational being or personality, usually regarded as imperceptible at ordinary times to the human senses, but capable of becoming visible at pleasure and frequently conceived as troublesome, terrifying or hostile to mankind”, and
  • In certain contexts, “the active or essential principle or power of some emotion, frame of mind, etc, as operating on or in persons.”

Spirits in the Bible

Some incredible work has been done by scholars on spirits in the Bible. To delve deeply in this area here would be fun, but perhaps not particularly effective in getting you armed and ready for spiritual house cleansing.

So, I’ll limit this discussion as a brief highlight of different kinds of spirits.

1. The Holy Spirit

This is the Spirit of God. We meet the Holy Spirit in the second verse of the Bible: The Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.

God was hovering, waiting for the activating Word of God to release the Holy Spirit’s power to do the Father’s will in creation.

Similarly, throughout the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit rushed onto certain people to achieve certain goals of the Father by providing supernatural intelligence or ability.

In the New Testament, the Jesus worked his miracles through the ever-present dwelling of the Holy Spirit, sent to him on the day of his baptism.

Similarly, in Acts 2, the Holy Spirit was poured out on all flesh, and is hovering, waiting for the released word of faith to activate the Father’s will.

Among believers, the Holy Spirit actually dwells inside them and provides the power they need to do the Father’s will, including casting out demons and house cleansing!

2. Human spirits

We first read about the human spirit when God breaths into Adam the breath of life. The Hebrew word translated into “breath” is the same often translated as “spirit.”

The Hebrew nation of Israel was to be set apart from the other nations to reflect God to those nations. Part of being setting apart involved living by certain community standards that differed from the activity the surrounding nations engaged in. Some of these community standards which set Israel apart from the neighboring nations included avoiding incest, not sacrificing their children to the god Moloch, and not consulting mediums and necromancers.[1] A medium was used to consult a demonic spirit or demonic god, and a necromancer was used to consult a disembodied dead human spirit.

In the Old Testament, King Saul went to a witch and asked her to conjure the spirit of Samuel, a dead prophet. He wanted Samuel’s advice, although the penalty for the witch to conjure the spirit -any spirit- under Saul’s own decree was death. Even if it wasn’t against Saul’s decree, it was also against God’s Law, so I know what you’re thinking. And you’re correct. Consulting demonic or disembodied human spirits is a bad call, Saul. Bad, bad call.

Check it out:

“So Saul disguised himself and put on other garments and went, he and two men with him. And they came to the woman by night.

And he said, “Divine for me by a spirit and bring up for me whomever I shall name to you.”

The woman said to him, “Surely you know what Saul has done, how he has cut off the mediums and the necromancers from the land. Why then are you laying a trap for my life to bring about my death?”

But Saul swore to her by the Lord, “As the Lord lives, no punishment shall come upon you for this thing.”

Then the woman said, “Whom shall I bring up for you?”

He said, “Bring up Samuel for me.”

When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out with a loud voice. And the woman said to Saul, “Why have you deceived me? You are Saul.”

The king said to her, “Do not be afraid. What do you see?”

And the woman said to Saul, “I see a god coming up out of the earth.”

He said to her, “What is his appearance?”

And she said, “An old man is coming up, and he is wrapped in a robe.” And Saul knew that it was Samuel, and he bowed with his face to the ground and paid homage.

Then Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?”[2]

Samuel did not have a good word for Saul, but my point is we can see here and in God’s law that it’s entirely possible for the disembodied spirits of humans (ghosts) to speak and interact with living humans.

A quick note about the word translate as “god”, which is what the witch says she saw coming up from the dead. The Hebrew word translated there was “god” is elohim. This word is best understood as a “place of residence”, in that many entities that dwell “on the other side” or in the spirit realm are called elohim, including the Most High God, the lesser gods, demons, and human ghosts.

A New Testament usage of “spirit” for the spirit of life in a human is when Jesus died on the cross and Jesus “yielded up his spirit.”[3]

This language certainly suggests that the human spirit and human body have many connections, that the body has “hooks” or “tethers” which keep the spirit connected to the body through the very state of living. Once life ends, the body’s hooks let go of the spirit.

3. Spirits that make up God’s heavenly council.

The Bible describes God’s “heavenly host”, through which he issues orders and decrees, and to whom God delegates certain activities. The entities that sit in this divine council are also spirits. An example is when God determined that it was time for King Ahab to die in a battle at Ramoth-Gilead, and God wanted suggestions in how to lure Ahab to the battle. A seer revealed what he saw about this decision-making process:

I saw the Lord sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing on his right hand and on his left. And the Lord said, ‘Who will entice Ahab the king of Israel, that he may go up and fall at Ramoth- gilead? ’

And one said one thing, and another said another.

Then a spirit came forward and stood before the Lord, saying, ‘I will entice him. ’

And the Lord said to him, ‘By what means? ’

And he said, ‘I will go out, and will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets. ’

And he said, ‘You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do so.”[4]

So a particular spirit had a suggestion that God liked, and God decreed this spirit enact the plan.

4. Spirits over territories

These spirits are closely related to those that sit in God’s council, but I’m drawing a distinction. Paul referred to these as rulers, authorities, cosmic powers over this present darkness, and spiritual forces in the heavenly places.[5] These descriptors designate these spirits in hierarchical and territorial terms.

When Jesus was interacting with a bunch of demons who had possessed a man, just before he cast them out, they implored that he not send them out of the country, again indicating the territorial nature of certain spirits. In this specific case, it seems these demons were under the authority of spiritual princes and powers over that region, but Jesus had an even higher authority and power to which they had to obey. Thus, Jesus demonstrated his supremacy over all territorial spirits of any kind.

Much later, Paul agrees, when he wrote, “(Jesus) disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them(.)”[6]

Moses describes these entities in Deuteronomy 4 and 32, where he calls them “gods” and “demons” that govern the other nations. Moses indicates that the other nations were delegated to “sons of God”, an ancient phrase that means powerful spiritual entities that first were in the heavenly host, and some of whom were placed over specific nations.

We see the idea of territorial spirits in many places of the bible, but most clearly in Daniel. The prophet had a vision and requested the interpretation. Having received no answer, he continued praying for 21 days. He didn’t realize that God had released an angel from heaven with the interpretation in response to the first prayer, but something delayed the angel from reaching him. When the angel finally did, the angel explained:

“Fear not, Daniel, for from the first day that you set your heart to understand and humbled yourself before your God, your words have been heard, and I have come because of your words.

The prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me twenty- one days, but Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, for I was left there with the kings of Persia, and came to make you understand what is to happen to your people in the latter days. For the vision is for days yet to come.”

So here, a spiritual power called the “prince of the kingdom of Persia” actually prevented the angel from getting through until the angel received reinforcements, Michael.

5. Angelic spirits

In the Old Testament, the word translated into “angel” simply means “messenger.” It’s more of a job description than a particular kind of entity. Basically any of the spirits that were in the heavenly spirit realm and crossed over to the physical realm with a particular message was called an “angel”, even if the spirit doing so was God. In the New Testament, the word “angel” still means “messenger,” but when referring to spirits, seems to collectively apply to any spirit entities that were designed by God to live in the cosmic spiritual realm.

The phrase “fallen angels” is never used in scripture, but is used to refer to Satan’s angels thrown out of Heaven by Michael, as recorded in Revelation. Although lots of theories abound, it’s unclear when this happened. The theory I like the best relies on when Jesus links the Kingdom’s invasion into Israel to when he saw Satan fall from heaven like a lightning bolt.

6. Demonic spirits

Demonic spirits will be discussed more in depth below.

An example of demonic spirit coming onto someone includes 1 Samuel 18:10, when “a harmful spirit from God rushed up on him and he raved within his house while David was playing the lyre as he did day by day.”

Another example involves a visitation in the dead of night, recorded in Job chapter 4:

“Now a word was brought to me stealthily;
my ear received the whisper of it.
Amid thoughts from visions of the night,
when deep sleep falls on men,
dread came upon me, and trembling,
which made all my bones shake.
A spirit glided past my face;
the hair of my flesh stood up.
It stood still,
but I could not discern its appearance.
A form was before my eyes;
there was silence, then I heard a voice:
‘Can mortal man be in the right before God?
Can a man be pure before his Maker?
Even in his servants he puts no trust,
and his angels he charges with error;
how much more those who dwell in houses of clay,
whose foundation is in the dust,
who are crushed like the moth.
Between morning and evening they are beaten to pieces;
they perish forever without anyone regarding it.
Is not their tent- cord plucked up within them,
do they not die, and that without wisdom”

Here, a demonic spirit came onto the sleeping man and impacted his dreams.

7. Spirits as a Force.

As noted above, the word “spirit” is also used to convey the idea of an immaterial force or principle, as in “I have a spirit of depression”, or “a spirit of anger” or “a seductive spirit” or “a Jezebel spirit.” In these cases, the idea is probably not a specific entity, but more like a spell or will that has been woven on someone. Think of a “spell” like an immaterial force or principle that is on or in someone, and shapes his or her thoughts and actions.

Thoughts, curses, spoken words, and certain actions weave this spell to a certain will of the spiritual force. It’s like a negative feedback loop. Negative kinds of spiritual forces serve as a magnet to demons and other oppressive spirits to come and feed on them; conversely godly kinds of thoughts and actions form a spiritual force which serves as a repellant to demonic entities.

For example, people who routinely watch pornography are weaving a spiritual force in their minds and their immediate atmosphere that will attract demons that feed on sexual perversion, which will create something of a feedback loop, whispering thoughts and ideas to them, while feeding on the fantasy sin. This particular spiritual principle and force will attract, eventually, incest demons that will afflict the most vulnerable in the home.

This spiritual principle applies to other negative behaviors and thought patterns: persistently watching negative violence, anger, and orgiastic bloodshed on television, pumping death or sex glorifying music into the home all weave a spiritual force in the minds and atmosphere. Certain artwork on walls or shelves, certain books on the library, and even certain toys can do the same, albeit indirectly.These spiritual forces can start off weak and oblique and maybe may remain rather harmless spiritually. Or these things can cascade, intensify, ultimately attract demon spirits.

Sometimes a “spirit of discord” or a “spirit of anger” will be on a house where the couple is not unified in thought or deed, and the anger seems to feed on itself. Eventually, it can become demonic, leading to violence and assault. Fortunately, there is hope for this situation.

Specific examples in the Bible of these impersonal but spiritual forces at work can be broken into positive and negative, and include:


  • Spirit of skill – Ex 28:3
  • Spirit of justice – Is 28:6
  • Spirit of deep sleep – Is 29:10
  • Spirit of Elijah – Matthew 1:7
  • Spirit of Truth –  John 14:17, 15:26, 16:13 (particularly referring to the Holy Spirit)
  • Spirit of gentleness –  1 Cor 5:21
  • Spirit of faith – 2 Cor 4:13
  • Spirit of power, love, and self-control – 2 Tim 1:7


  • Spirit of jealously –  Numbers 5:14,30
  • Spirit of anger –  Eccl 7:9-10.
  • Spirit of the Egyptians – Is 19:30
  • Spirit of whoredom – Hosea 5:4
  • Spirit of slavery – Romans 8:15
  • Spirit of stupor – Rom 11:8
  • Spirit of the world – 1 Cor 2:12
  • Spirit of fear – 2 Tim, 1:7


While keeping in mind that words are just symbols to convey ideas, and hopefully those ideas are rooted in truth, we have seen there are many kinds of entities and principles represented by the word “spirit”.

[1] See Leviticus 19-20.

[2] 1 Samuel 18:8-15, ESV.

[3] Matthew 27:50.

[4] 2 Chronicles 18b – 21.

[5] Ephesians 6:12.

[6] Col 2:21



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