What are spirits?

And of course some of the mythology about ’em.

SPIRIT 'spɪ.rɪt noun. A non-physical being; a supernatural being.
2. A person’s non-physical parts (such as emotions or character), which are considered a person’s true self, survives physical death, and possibly manifests as a ghost.
3. [capitalized] The Holy Spirit.
4. Qualities, characteristics, or emotions of a person or thing, which are considered their defining attributes: the spirit of the plan.
5. Emotion or mood, usually positive: I hope this lifts your spirits.
6. True intentions or attitude: It’s the spirit of the rule, not the letter.
7. Liquor or another volatile liquid.
8. [verb] Taken quickly and secretly.

The bible regularly refers to non-physical beings. We call ’em spirits. Our English word comes from the Latin spirare/“breathe,” and the Hebrew and Greek words for spirit ( ‏רוּחַ/ruákh, πνεῦμα/pnéfma) likewise literally mean “breath” or “wind.” The bible’s authors didn’t call it that because they literally believed spirit is the same thing as air molecules pushed by an outside force: Their thinking was spirit is invisible, yet we can see how things are affected by it—exactly like wind.

Of course if we wanna get scientific, the simile falls apart. Wind is made of air, which is made of atoms, and therefore material. Spirit is not material. Not that we know what spirit’s made of; we just know it’s not matter. Nor energy. Because we can’t measure spirit with machinery, no matter what certain paranormalists might claim. If there’s any truth to their claims at all (and I have my doubts), all they can measure are, again, the effects of spirits. Not the spirits themselves.

If you want answers to that question from the bible, you won’t find any. The bible’s about God’s relationship with us, not biology.

Thing is, we live in a scientific age. (Or we’d like to imagine we do.) If we can’t study it with science, we often figure it doesn’t exist. So if spirits can’t be measured, quantified, examined, dissected… well, they’re out.

A lot of Christians think this way too: They don’t believe in spirits. Well, except for God. And maybe the human spirit, ’cause they’re hoping to survive death. And maybe angels and devils. But they won’t go any further than that—and often won’t even go that far. They figure spirits are superstition, or the fakery of false religions.

But the bible refers to all sorts of spirits. Some appear to be good. Some benign, or they have duties which have nothing to do with us. Some are unclean, the sort Jesus threw out of people. Some are evil, like the devil.

So if spirits exist in the bible, stands to reason they still exist. We may not be aware of them, nor be able to detect them scientifically. We may find it irritating when other religions emphasize them so much: We’re pretty sure those religions are wrong. But we need to understand what Christianity teaches about spirits, and get it right.

Spirits in a material world.

We humans—and everything we detect in the universe—are material: We’re made of matter and energy. Matter’s made of atoms, and energy consists of universal forces working on or within these atoms. Matter can be converted into energy and vice-versa, because both atoms and energy are made of the same thing—which theorists call “strings.” But TXAB isn’t a science blog, so I won’t go into this further.

The bible’s authors gave us no clear definition of what a spirit is. All we can deduce is it’s not material. A bird is made of atoms and energy; a spirit is made of neither. What’s it made of? We can’t say: Science deals with matter. It can’t tell us anything about non-matter. It can’t detect it.

But apparently we theologians have had a whole lot of time on our hands, so we took a shot at defining spirit. According to Jesus, God himself is spirit, Jn 4.24 so St. Thomas Aquinas tried to logically deduce what our Lord meant by that. Thomas concluded God “is not a body… therefore he is not composed of matter and form.” Summa Theologica 1.3.2 Are spirits like God made up of component parts?—y’know, like how matter is composed of molecules, atoms, quarks, and quantum strings? Thomas figured no: God’s “altogether simple,” 1.3.7 and can’t come apart—quoting St. Augustine of Hippo, who came to the same conclusion centuries before. On the Trinity 6.6-7

Most theologians figure Thomas’s idea sounds reasonable enough… considering we have no idea. But not every Christian agrees. (Nor do we have to!) Some of us are materialists, who believe nothing in the universe exists unless it’s made of matter and energy. Therefore spirit has to be made of matter and energy. Otherwise it’s not real.

Take C.S. Lewis. In his Space Trilogy novels, he described an angel (which the novels called an “eldil”) as a multidimensional energy being, vibrating at a frequency beyond our senses. Now, I’ve no idea whether Lewis really believed this theory, or whether he was just trying to describe angels in a science-fictiony way. But I’ve heard plenty of other Christians try to make the same claim about angels (probably because they read Lewis): They figure spirits are made of matter, but we know not how to measure such matter. Perhaps spirit’s a state of matter beyond solid, liquid, gas, or plasma.

On the opposite extreme, there are Christian materialists who refuse to believe in spirits whatsoever. They accept there’s a God, but every other spirit the bible mentions—angels, devils, good spirits, evil spirits—aren’t real; they’re metaphors. Satan isn’t a literal being, but a personification of evil. Devils are a personification of illness, and when Jesus drove ’em out of people, it simply meant he cured their illnesses. Angels are a personification of God’s messages; after all, since the Holy Spirit is everywhere, and indwells his prophets, why on earth does he need angels to pass along his messages? He’s almighty; he can do it himself.

Problem is, the idea of God doesn’t work within a purely materialist universe. He doesn’t fit. First of all, matter is limited to space and time. God’s not. Secondly, matter—even “spiritual matter,” even energy—is composed of other things, and if God’s made of other things, he was made. Which is fine if you’re a Mormon, but the rest of us monotheists figure the Creator is the only true God, and if he created you, you ain’t God. That’s why Thomas insisted God isn’t made of anything.

There are more than two problems, but those two are biggies. Some materialists come to realize them, and either try to juggle the paradoxes, or quit being materialists, or quit believing in God. Probably the most popular materialist view is deism: They figure God exists outside our universe, doesn’t interact with it, and doesn’t get involved in it. He made it… and left it for another universe, where he can be as almighty as he likes. When we die we can go visit him there. Till then, our universe is functionally godless. It’s a really depressing idea, but they like it.

Anyway, whenever you come across Christians who try to limit what God or spirits can do, materialism is usually the culprit.

Nope, they’re immaterial beings.

As I (and St. Thomas) said, spirits are immaterial. Not matter, not energy.

As to whether they’re made of anything else: I don’t know whether Thomas or Augustine were right in saying they’re not made of anything, and that they’re entire in and of themselves. To be blunt, I’m really skeptical of their pre-scientific logic. Both these saints were really big on stretching the meanings of things (and the scriptures!) to reach their conclusions. I don’t think there’s any way to know what spirit’s made of. Claiming it’s one way or another, strikes me as presumptuous.

Even my statement that spirits aren’t made of energy: That’s presumptuous too. ’Cause I don’t know! Neither the bible nor my experience informs me. But since the writers of the bible were using “wind” to describe spirit, I can at least say immaterial is on the right track.

As for the idea spirits are living beings, rather than impersonal forces, or personifications of ideas: The scriptures describe ’em as beings.

1 Kings 22.19-23 KWL
19 Mikáyhu said, “So hear the LORD’s word. I see the LORD sitting down on his seat.
Heaven’s entire army stands round him, at his right and left hand.
20 The LORD says, ‘Who’s confounding Israel’s king Akháv, so he attacks and fails at Ramót-Gilád?’
One says, ‘I’ll do it like this,’ and another says, ‘I’ll do it like this.’
21 A spirit comes, stands before the LORD’s face, and says, ‘I can confound him.’
22 The LORD says to it, ‘How?’
It says, ‘I go out and become like an untrue spirit in the mouths of all the prophets.’
The LORD says, ‘Go confound him. You’ll also be successful. Go and do so.’
23 Now look: The LORD puts an untrue spirit in the mouths of all these prophets of yours.
The LORD speaks evil upon you.”

The prophet Mikáyhu described this one confounding spirit as self-aware—it called itself “I”—and with the ability to act upon its own will, offering to do something for God. Wind can’t do either of those things. Breath depends on a breather. Clearly ruákh in this story means “spirit.”

Yeah, a materialist will insist Mikáyhu was just giving human qualities to an inanimate object. Or he was only telling a made-up story. But Mikáyhu isn’t the only one to describe spirits this way. Jesus did as well. He described self-willed evil spirits which possess, then re-possess, a person. Mt 12.43-45 He ordered spirits to obey him, and not tell on him. Mk 3.12 He spoke extensively what the Holy Spirit—sent by his Father—would do among his followers.

True, Jesus used a lot of analogies and hyperbole to teach his ideas. But what he taught on spirits, and his acts of driving them out of people, do not fit that genre. He clearly believed in spirits—and expected us followers to take authority over them, same as he did. Mk 6.7