QUESTION: Is there a difference between the soul and spirit and, if not, why does the Bible appear to distinguish them?
ANSWER: You’re right. The Bible does make a clear distinction between the soul and spirit of an individual. 1 Thess 5:23 states, “…and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Hebrews 4:12 sheds some light on the subject. It says that the Word of God is alive and powerful, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the “dividing asunder of soul and spirit.” What we find is that there is a difference, and that the distinction is so difficult to discern it requires supernatural power to do so. Consequently it would seem that any human attempt to dogmatically define the difference would fall short.
The 432 times the word soul is found in the Bible it appears to include the mind, will, and emotions. Jesus, in His humanity, said that His soul was “exceeding sorrowful, even unto death…” (Matt 26:38; cf. Job 10:1; Psa 119:28; Zec 11:18). The word spirit is found 456 times in Scripture, and we should point out that Jesus was also troubled in His spirit, “When Jesus had thus said, he was troubled in spirit, and testified, and said, Verily, verily, I say unto you, that one of you shall betray me.” (John 13:21)
On the cross Jesus commended His spirit into His Father’s hands (Luke 23:46). When the human spirit dies it returns to God (Eccl 12:7; 2 Cor 5:8; Phil 1:23). However, Scripture tells us it is the soul that stands before God following death and prior to the resurrection of our bodies (Rev 20:4). And so we conclude that there is a difference but that the minutia of it is only known to God.