Discover more from Rediscovering Jesus's Words
I had planned to discuss “demons” as non-material beings in this week’s article, but I realized that it might be better to talk about what Jesus says about “spirits” in general, both “evil” and “holy.” In this earlier article, we examined Jesus's use of the terms "spirit", "soul", "heart", and "mind," as parts of a human being. In that article, we say, 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.” This is not the same Greek word that is usually translated as “soul,” discussed in the article linked to above.
The word usually translated as “spirit” is pneuma (πνεῦμα). Jesus uses this word only in forty verses. The Greek word means literally "breeze" or "breath." Though it can mean "the breath of life," it didn't primarily mean "spirit" in Greek. However, it was used that way in the Septuagint (the Greek version of the OT from Jesus’s era) because the Hebrew word for "spirit" also means "breath."
Old Testament Usage
In the OT, pneuma is equated with the Hebrew ruah (ruwach), which also means "breeze" or "breath" used first to mean the breath of God (Genesis 1:2), "...the breath of God moved upon the face of the waters." Clearly, in Jesus's usage, it means both "breath" and his idea of "spirit," as an invisible force, a power we cannot see, like the force of the wind.
When Jesus announces his mission in Luke 4:18, he quotes Isaiah 61:1 saying "the breath of the Lord God is on me," the word in Hebrew is ruah, translated into Greek as pnuema. In Hebrew, ruah identifies the spiritual as separate from the physical. The Old Testament says God is ruah, that is, spirit, not a physical being. Jesus repeats this idea in John 4:24 “God is a Spirit.”
Jesus uses this same term to describe the human spirit, the spirit of God, and the evil spirits or unclean spirits that he casts out. What do they have in common? Jesus used the word translated as “spirit” or “ghost” (pneuma) in a number of ways:
It is something people are lucky to have (Matthew 5:3),
It is the voice of the Father that speaks within us (Matthew 10:20),
It is the aspect of God from which Jesus gets his power (Matthew 12:28),
It can multiply worthlessness within us (Matthew 12:45),
It is also the good desires within us (Matthew 26:41),
It does not have meat or bones (Luke 24:39),
It is what gives us birth into the kingdom of God (John 3:5),
It reproduces itself as living beings do (John 3:6),
it is the proper way in which to worship God (John 4:23),
It is the source of life (John 6:63),
"Spirit" is an aspect of our life force. This spirit is in all life, but it is different from life itself. It is separate from our physical being. This force contains information because it contains the truth. It can take the form of spoken words, but it can also be a source of abilities. Some of Jesus’s earliest words in the Gospels (Matthew 4:4) is that “man does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” The Greek translated as “word” is logos, (see this article), which is an “idea” or “concept,” that is, information. This information coming from the mouth of God is the breath of life. This information isn’t just an inanimate fact. It is any instruction set by which our bodies and our minds run.
DNA is a type of a word of life. DNA itself is not alive, but it enables life. DNA is a string of molecules, but it is more than those molecules. It is a message, a message the works in the physical world on the molecular level. DNA doesn’t work by itself. A dead body has all its DNA, but it is no longer alive. In the time of Jesus, people would have said that the pneuma had left it. So pneuma is not just information, it is the information working to keep itself alive.
Perhaps other analogies can broaden our understanding.
Is a virus alive? It is another material form of information. That information lacks the knowledge necessary to duplicate itself outside of a living cell. However, as long as it has a host, it can duplicate itself. Does this mean that it is another type of physical spirit? In a similar way, worthless spirits, daimonions, need a host in order to duplicate themselves.
Another analogy might be a computer program. This type of spirit works only within a computer, but it exists on a level beyond the computer itself, dictating what the computer does. The set of instructions or ideas of information can contain both useful applications and destructive ones, viruses. The applications do valuable work. The viruses destroy things in order to duplicate themselves. Are these applications and viruses alive? Not in the normal sense, but, in another sense, they give life to the computer.
In Luke 24:39, Jesus may seem to suggest that spirits can be seen and heard without having flesh and bones. Actually, however, he is addressing an idea about spirits that his apostles have. We see similar assumptions in Matthew 8:32, when Jesus tells the daimonions to “go,” and the pigs nearby jump into the water and drown. The apostles assumed that Jesus answered the spirts’ request to be sent into the pigs, but Jesus may have done something else, their drowning symbolic of what the wrong ideas do to their hosts. After all, the daimonions did not ask to be transferred into the pigs so they could commit suicide.
The Nature of Physical Being
The issue here is what we mean by "spiritual." Generally, the term is used to mean "unseen forces" in the sense of outside the realm of the physical laws of the universe as we know them. The problem with this is that we know so little about the laws of the universe. As of this writing, it is estimated that only 4% of the matter and energy in the universe is explained by known laws. The rest is simply called "dark matter" and “dark energy." The description "dark" is a simple admission of complete ignorance about how this matter and energy work. We only know that they do not interact with ordinary things in ordinary ways. Doesn’t this also describe the nature of non-physical “spirits?”
If some information made of dark matter or dark energy can give an idea a life of its own, it would be a “spirit.” So is 96% of the universe described as "spiritual?" Most scientists would reject this terminology because they do not believe in the spiritual, going as far in some cases as denying human consciousness itself. However, this is just a matter of bias against certain terminology. Perhaps we use “spiritual” simply to describe science that we haven't discovered yet, but as long as we are honest about how vast our areas of ignorance are, we can talk about spirits. We can describe them simply as “self-duplicating concepts based on matter and energy about whose nature we are currently ignorant.” This definition includes all concepts based on human consciousness. However, it also describes other entities outside the human mind as well such as the Divine.
There is power in the right information. Information that has a life of its own is what Jesus described as “spirit.” The instruction sets of spirit work as “entities” because the universe was designed to interact with that information in a certain way.