What is meant by “the Spirit World” and why is it Possible to Translate To Pneuma as “the Spirit World” in the New Testament?


The spirit world is usually not considered a central feature of the Christian faith.  The spirit world is usually depicted as a source for fanciful interests in spirit tricks during a parlor séance.  Others might be a bit more serious and say that it gives us evidence for the reality of spirits and a spirit world into which we all pass over when we die; it gives us evidence for the afterlife.  But any interest in the spirit world should be based on one thing and one thing only: to communicate with the spirits of God that Christ promised to send us (John 16:12).  This is the only viable reason that anyone should interest themselves in communicating with the spirit world.  The spirit world without God, Christ, and the holy spirits opens the door to spirits of a lower order who can be harmful and deceptive.  Any concern for the spirit world should be approached with an interest in being EDUCATED by God's holy spirits about the nature of the heavens, the hells, our lives on Earth, and the meaning and origins of our problems here on Earth.  Problems in the Scriptures can only be solved by God's spirits.  The spirit world of God is a Christian's true church. 



In the New Testament whenever the phrase to pneuma occurs in the context of divinity, it is almost always rendered as "the Holy Spirit."  While this translation is reflective of fourth-century homoousion pneumatology, such a pneumatology did not exist among the earliest Christians and the authors of the New Testament documents.  Pneuma often refers to "spirits" in the New Testament, and so to pneuma might reflect the source from which they come: the spirit world.  This article shows just where to pneuma might be rendered as "the spirit world" in the New Testament by translating those verses with to pneuma as "the spirit world."  This translation accords better with the spirit beliefs of the earliest Christians.


I. Introduction


Scholars who work with the biblical text as a historical record recognize that orthodox Christian pneumatology, as it came into maturation during the late fourth century as “the Holy Spirit,” is not clearly found among pre-Patristic, pre-Roman Catholic Christians.[1]    There has been an interpretation for to pneuma that might fit the earliest Christian conception of spirits and their place of origin: to pneuma means “the spirit world.”[2]


Some occurrences of to pneuma cannot be translated as “the spirit world.”  The Greek article, to, often functions in one of two ways in the NT: 1) “particular” whereby the article particularizes a noun (sometimes anaphorically); and 2) “categorical” whereby the article makes a noun representative of a category of items.[3]  At times to pneuma refers back to a previously mentioned spirit, "a spirit" (known as the anaphoric use of the article).  To pneuma is, anaphorically, an angel (Acts 8.26, 29), a holy spirit (1 Cor 14.12, 15), a divinatory spirit (Acts 16.16, 18), an evil spirit (Acts 19.13, 16), or a human spirit (1 Cor 5.5).  In 1 John 4.2,3, to pneuma is categorical for “every spirit that is from God.”


Other times, the meaning of to pneuma is unclear.  For instance, in Matt 28.19 tou hagiou pneumatos seems to refer to a particular thing, as clearly do tou patros, “the Father,” and tou huiou, “the Son.”  Both the Father and the Son are “spirit” (John 4.24; 1 Cor 15.48).  So what did “the holy spirit” mean?  Does the article here reference a particular being, “the Holy Spirit,” or a particular category of reality to which both the Father and Son belong, “the holy spirit world”?  By the time of the councils and afterwards, Matt 28.19 mentions the deity of the Spirit.  And for many, that’s just what to pneuma meant in the first century.  But did it?[4]  One author has suggested that to pneuma and its equivalent, to pneuma to hagion, might be rendered as “the spirit world” or “the holy spirit world” in the NT.[5]


A. John C. Poirier: Defending the Status Quo


John C. Poirier composed a review of the monograph Religious Experience of the Pneuma (WUNT 2/230; Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2007) in which is argued that to pneuma means “the spirit world.”[6]  In this review, Poirier agrees with the author by bracketing the fourth-century ontological language for the Father, the Son, and the Spirit as “foreign to the first and second centuries.”  Therefore, he sees no good reason why there should be a contrast between fourth-century ontology with first-century pneumatology.  He asks, “Can there not be an understanding of the ‘holy spirit’ (as a sort of supreme or uniquely involved spirit) that does not anticipate the ontological language of the councils?” (emphasis his).  The answer is “certainly,” but in 20/20 hindsight what would be the point?


In reference to Luke-Acts, Poirier stresses that “the ‘holy spirit’ was thought of in terms of a single spirit, ascendant above all others, and that this spirit had direct dealings with believers through supernatural manifestations” (emphasis his).  Poirier sounds more fourth century than first: no other spirit is quite like this spirit; it is a single, unique Spirit, above all others (because it is homoousios to the Father and the Son).  Poirier’s language seems to favor the very century that he brackets when he states, “Thus a view tending toward at least some of the marks of the fourth-century formulation can be found already in the early second century (or earlier), making it much more likely that Paul himself thought in those terms” (emphasis his, underlining mine).  Whereas Scripture is the basis for the ontological distinction of the Holy Spirit[7], it is more precise to say that Scripture was used to justify fourth-century formulations for the Holy Spirit.  Hence, we may still wonder whether “Paul himself thought in those terms."[8]


Poirier’s insights about the first-century holy spirit as “a semi-developed doctrine of the holy spirit” (emphasis his) that already bears “some of the marks of the fourth-century formulation” is an overture to the fourth century that attempts to preserve the conciliar definitions, i.e., to defend the status quo.  Once to pneuma is rendered as “the spirit world” in those places that read “the Holy Spirit” it becomes more difficult (if not impossible) to link the NT to pneuma with the Spirit of fourth-century conciliar definitions of the Great Church.  It is this difficulty that, in Poirier’s estimation, “goes too far” because it distances NT pneumatology from the Great Church in ways that it cannot accommodate.  But should we be more considerate of the way in which the Great Church has come to understand pneuma language in the NT or more sensitive to the NT’s first-century cultural, religious, and linguistic matrix?[9]


B. Guy Williams: Challenging the Status Quo


What is often absent from a treatment of the NT is an area that Guy Williams has recently called “a neglected topic” in biblical studies: the spirit world.[10]  Why the neglect?  Williams offers his opinion: 1) scholars have believed that spirits are a minor issue that has no real significance in delineating the message of the NT documents; and 2) it is not always clear just what is meant by “spirits” and “a spirit world,” especially in our scientifically gifted age that stresses material reality as the only observable and relevant one.  For these reasons, “NT scholarship has sometimes regarded the spirit beliefs of early Christianity as odd and a little naïve, it has tended to separate them from Paul’s other concerns.”[11]


Williams argues that spiritual beings were a fact of life in Paul’s religious and cultural situation.  When talking about spirits in the NT, Williams resorts to what he calls a “new definition” that is often cryptic and unclear to modernity: the spirit world.  He notes that “spirit world” is “a form of jargon entirely unknown to Paul himself” because it is


language that in modern times seems to imply  some firm distinction or dualism between a spiritual world on the one hand, and a ‘real’ or ‘material’ world on the other.  This may reflect current ways of thinking about spirits, but it is artificially restrictive when applied to early Christians like Paul.  He may not have thought of angels, or spirits, or Satan as detached and otherworldly forces, but rather as beings present and effective within life here and now.  In Paul’s context, the spirit world would not have been separate from this world.[12]



Nevertheless, Williams is aware that we must necessarily make a distinction between spiritual powers that derive from elsewhere and mundane realities.  Hence, “we probably require a label like ‘the spirit world’” for these spiritual powers, good and evil, in the NT.[13]  As for a Holy Spirit separate from all other spirits, Williams notes that Paul “made no attempt linguistically to separate the divine Holy Spirit from the lesser ‘supernatural’ world of spirits. . . . the presumption in favour of a separate ‘Holy Spirit’ may be an imposition upon the text.  At least on a linguistic level, the distinction between the divine Spirit and the general spirit world seems artificial.”[14]



II. What is meant by “the Spirit World”?


We find evidence for a spirit world in early Jewish and Christian texts that refer to heavens and hells and their place names.  The modern sounding word “dimension,” in the way that Physicists might use it, is a way to talk about these ancient terms for the location of spirit beings.[15]  The phrase “spirit world” might refer to both the “higher” dimensions, known as the heavens, and the “lower” dimensions, known as the hells.


The dimensions “higher” and “lower” are so-called in relation to that dimension in which the Earth inhabits (according to Hebrew and Greek cosmology).  Apparently, the Earth inhabits one of the hellish dimensions (see Luke 22.31 and 1 Pet 5.8), although much more bearable than the even “lower” ones (Matt 8.11-12; Luke 16.23).  The lower dimensions are named Hades (Sheol), Tartarus, Gehenna, or labeled “the dead,” i.e., “cut off from God” (see Luke 16.23, 31).  The higher dimensions are named heaven, the kingdom of heaven, and the kingdom of God.  In 2 Cor 12.2 Paul writes of a “third heaven.”  John 14.2 records that “in my Father’s house there are many mansions.”[16]


The residents of these higher and lower dimensions are known as spirits.  Spirits residing in the lower dimensions are “spirits in prison” (1 Pet 3.19), and Luke 16.23 records a spirit “in Hades.”  Spirits residing in the higher dimensions are angels (who are spirits) that, after visiting Earth, go into heaven (Luke 2.15), and 1 Pet 1.12 records “a holy spirit” who is “sent from heaven.”  Even more persuasive is the occurrence of a phrase for the spirit world of God in the Dead Sea Scrolls that uses “kingdom” language: 4Q403 1 ii.3-4,“kingdom of the spirit[s of] his glory."[17]


Can we know anything about the spirit world beyond references to it in early Jewish and Christian texts?  Ever since the Enlightenment, positions have varied among Westerners about belief in the spirit world (and related beliefs such as spirit possession, demons, magic, occult properties, inspiration, clairvoyance), a belief often regarded as superstitious.[18]   But during the twentieth century, an inquisitive yet cautious attitude began to emerge.[19]   Folkloric and philosophical studies contributed in the direction of understanding.[20]   Men and women from a variety of other fields lent their expertise to a study of spirits and their point of origin.  The British Society for Psychical Research, whose committees were made up of bona fide scientists of their day, made routine studies of séance rooms and spiritist mediums who were believed to act as “channels” for spirits who communicated messages from beyond.[21]  Sometimes the investigators uncovered frauds and fakes, but sometimes they did not.[22]


The American magazine, Skeptical Inquirer, which began publication under the name The Zetetic (from Greek zēteō, “to seek”) in 1976, is published by an organization known as the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP).  In its pages scientific investigations explore claims of spirit possession, exorcism, spirit communication with a variety of media, as well as other phenomena ranging from out-of-body experiences to near-death experiences.  A similar, but less scientific, magazine that chronicles and studies paranormal phenomena is named Fate which began publication in 1948 and continues in print to this day.  Even though this material is significant and relevant for our enlightenment about the spirit world, it is usually ignored or else unknown to biblical scholars.  The paranormal material studied in the Skeptical Inquirer, Fate magazine, and by societies of psychical research is the same material that the biblical text records.  For instance, an out-of-body experience is recorded in 2 Cor 12.1-4 where “in the body/out of the body” language is used.  Almost every kind of phenomena studied today under the rubrics “paranormal” or “psychic” can be found described in biblical texts (as well as ancient non-biblical texts).[23]   In our “post-modern” era, scientific evidence for the afterlife, spirits, and a spirit world is gradually amassing.[24]   Biblical scholars should utilize this research as they do other modern-day investigations such as archaeology, sociology, and neurobiology.[25]   It is quite possible that afterlife and psychical research will inform our understanding of pneuma language (among many other things) in the NT.[26]


III. What is “a Spirit”?


The semantic range of the word pneuma is far and wide.  Originally, pneuma meant “air,” “wind,” or “breath” with the underlying meaning of “power.”  By the time of the Septuagint (LXX) pneuma was used to translate Hebrew ruach which also meant “air,” “wind,” “breath.”  Hebrew ruach possessed a semantic range that Greek pneuma did not, that of an objective spirit being.[27]


Once the translators of the LXX used pneuma for ruach in these contexts, e.g., 1 Sam 16.14, 23, the semantic range of pneuma was modified, and from that point on Greek pneuma was used by both Jewish and Christian authors to mean “a spirit."[28]


The word ruach as a term for “a spirit” seems to have been utilized as a metaphor for invisible agencies that affect human lives in perceptible ways.  Like the wind, spirits were often invisible, yet their presence was known by physical effects.  Humans exhibited these effects as symptoms of the presence of invisible beings that operated independently of the human conscience and body, affecting both with great ease.  1 Samuel 10-19 record the coming and going of a good spirit and a bad spirit upon King Saul; their presence manifests in the way that Saul acts or feels.[29] 


A spirit is an invisible, sentient, thinking being.  The word "spirit" does not identify the character, size, gender, or species of the sentient being, or even necessarily what the being looks like.  But spirits do not always remain invisible, for many persons report seeing what they call "ghosts" that are in reality "spirits."[30]   God is a spirit (John 4.24),[31] Christ is a spirit (1 Cor 15.48), an angel is a spirit (Heb 1.14), a demon is a spirit (Mark 5.2), a spirit of God is a spirit (1 Cor 12.3), a holy spirit is a spirit (Luke 11.13), a human being is a spirit (Acts 7.29), and even animals are spirits (Eccl 3.19-21?).  1 Kings 22.21 and Acts 19.15 show that a spirit is a thinking, communicating being with all of the signs of “personality.”


None of these spirits fit the popular myth that a spirit is a shapeless, formless, intelligence having no body.  The phrase "disembodied soul" conveys the false impression that invisible sentient beings lack form and a body. The Greek term translated as "incorporeal" and "disembodied" is asomatos, literally, "without a physical body" (alpha privative + soma).  The term does not occur in the NT, but it is used to describe spirits as not having "physical bodies" in the Testament of Solomon 2.5, pneumata asomatoi, "bodiless spirits," or better, "spirits without physical bodies.”[32]  Spirits, although invisible, have bodies "of a kind" as Paul indicates in 1 Cor 15:35: "what sort of body do they (the dead) come with?"  The church father Irenaeus (120-202 A.D.) claimed that "The Lord has taught with great clarity, that souls not only continue to exist, but that they preserve the same form as the body had to which they were adapted, and that they remember the deeds which they did in this state of existence, from which they have now ceased" (Against Heresies 2.34.1).[33]


Spirit bodies are necessarily composed of a different condition of substance than fleshly bodies, since they are invisible to us in their usual condition.[34]   Their reported appearances in Scripture show that spirits walk, talk, eat, wear clothes, and generally resemble people in every way so that they are simply referred to as "men."[35]   These materialized spirits are sometimes among us, but that we mistake them for ordinary people (Heb13.1).


IV. The Term “Angel” a Stumbling Block


The term "angel" is often defined as meaning "messenger," but far better, "agent."  The term describes the function of the creature, not the creature itself.  In the same way, the words "soldier," "mother," and "friend" do not tell us the appearance of these people, nor even that they are people, but describe their function or their relationship to others.  An angel is a creature who is functioning as an agent of God (or the devil).  But what is this creature?  The angel is a spirit.  "Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?" (Heb 1.14).


Sometimes the holy spirit is seen as something other than an angel in the NT.  Gonzalo Haya-Prats believes that a distinction between the holy spirit and angels is characterized in the NT by the way the holy spirit is depicted as a power of God: “the Spirit represents the intervention of God in the area of the intellect, and the power in the area of the senses.”[36]   Angels are not presented as a kind of dunamis, “power,” in the same way as the holy spirit.


Haya-Prats believes that as Luke was writing his second volume, he sometimes edited his Jewish sources by dispensing with mention of angelic interventions in favor of the power of God imparted and manifested as the holy spirit, e.g. during Pentecost in Acts 2.[37]   But whether this power is a manifestation of the holy spirit or an angel is largely dependent on the individual style of the writer of Scripture than it is on a true ontological distinction between the spirit and angels.[38]  Both aggelos and to pneuma are qualified in the same way as “holy,” “of God,” and “of the Lord,” and both are qualified as a dunamis.[39]


V. Why is it Possible to Translate To Pneuma as “the Spirit World” in the NT?


The term to pneuma was used by NT authors for “holy spirit” and “spirit of God,” terms that are derived from the Hebrew Scriptures.[40]   The spirit of God (ruach elohim) appears in the beginning of Genesis, but this term often remains imprecise as to its meaning throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.[41]  Pre-Christian Judaism used the term “holy spirit” much more often than the canonical books, but usually conceived it as “the spirit of prophecy.”[42] 


The use of the definite article varies in the NT.  We find pneuma without an article, with a single article, and with a double article.  Whether the use or non-use of the article is ideological or simply grammatical and stylistic, the particular use of the article becomes significant whenever “the Holy Spirit” was the suspected meaning for to pneuma or to pneuma to hagion.[43]   The particular use of the article, however, is not unique to “holy spirit.”  In Acts 19.15 we see to pneuma to ponēron, “the evil spirit.”  The particular use can be expressed by the anaphoric article whereby the spirit refers to a spirit, holy, evil, or human.  And if we consider that the pneumatology of the Gospel of John has antecedents in the Dead Sea Scrolls, then kol ruachy amt, “all the spirits of truth,” in 1QM 13.10 may have been expressed in the singular by the article, to pneuma tēs aletheias, “the spirit of truth,” in John 14.17, 15.26, and 16.13.[44]


In the July 2011 issue of The Bible Translator, Clint Tibbs proposed specific verses in the NT wherein one might conceivably translate pneuma language as “the spirit world” (see n. 5).  This is how they might run.


Matt 4.1, “Thereafter Jesus was led by the spirit-world into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.”

Matt 12.18, “I will place my spirit-world at his disposal, and he will proclaim justice to the nations.”

Matt 12.31, “Men will be pardoned for every sin and blasphemy, but for blaspheming God’s spirit-world there will be no pardon.”

Matt. 12.32, “but whoever speaks against the holy spirit-world cannot expect pardon in this age or the next.”

Matt. 28.19, “baptizing them in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the holy spirit-world.”

Mark 1.12, “The spirit-world of God aroused in him the desire to go into the wilderness.”

Mark 3.29, “Whoever utters a blasphemy against the holy spirit-world receives no pardon for it.”

Mark 13.11, “for it will not be you who speak then, but the holy spirit-world that will speak through you.”

Luke 1.80, “As the child grew, the spirit-world became daily more manifest in him.”

Luke 4.14, “Under the influence of God’s spirit-world, Jesus went back to Galilee.”

Luke 12.10, “but he who utters blasphemy against the holy spirit-world can expect no pardon.”

Luke 12.12, “for the holy spirit-world will inspire you at the right moment with the words that you are to speak.”

John 3.8, “the spirit-world of God blows where it will,” i.e., “moves where it will?”

John 3.34, “God gives His spirit-world in great measure.”

John 7.39, “He was alluding to the spirit-world of God which those who believed in him were to receive.”

John 14.17, “I will ask the Father, and He will give you another helper, the spirit-world of truth.”

John 14.26, “After me will come the helper, the holy spirit-world which the Father will send in my name.”

John 15.26, “But when the helper comes whom I shall send to you from the Father, the spirit-world of truth which comes from the Father, this will testify to me.”

John 16.13, “But when the spirit-world of truth comes, it will guide you into all of the truth.”

Acts 1.8, “But you will receive power when the holy spirit-world comes upon you.”

Acts 2.33, “Exalted at the right hand of God, he received the promise of the holy spirit-world from his Father, and poured it forth, (i.e., he has sent these spirits to Earth in great numbers).”

Acts 2.38, “Then you will receive the gift of the holy spirit-world.”

Acts 5.3, “But Peter said, ‘Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie against the holy spirit-world?’”

Acts 5.32, “We are witnesses of these things, as is the holy spirit-world that God has given to those who obey him.”

Acts 7.51, “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always oppose the holy spirit-world.”

Acts 13.4, “So they, sent forth by the holy spirit-world, went down to Seleucia,”

Acts 15.8, “And God, who knows the heart, bore witness by granting them the holy spirit-world just as he did us.”

 Acts 15.28, “It is the decision of the holy spirit-world and of us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities.”

Acts 20.23, “the holy spirit-world testifies to me in every city the imprisonment and persecutions that are awaiting me.”

Acts 20.28, “Keep watch over yourselves and over the whole flock of which the holy spirit-world has appointed you overseers.”

Acts 21.4, “The spirit-world, through the disciples, kept telling Paul not to go to Jerusalem.”

Rom 8.2, “for the law of the spirit-world that lives in communion with Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death.”

Rom 8.5, “those who are guided by a spirit set their minds on that which the spirit-world directs them.”

Rom 8.6, “but to set the mind on the spirit-world of God brings life and peace.”

Rom 8.11, “If the spirit-world of Him Who raised  Jesus from the dead has taken up abode among you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies through His spirit-world that has come to dwell among you.”

Rom 8.16, “It is the spirit-world itself that bears witness with our own spirit that we are children of God.”

Rom 8.23, “and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who already possess the first-fruits of the spirit-world.

Rom 8.26, “Likewise, the spirit-world helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the spirit-world itself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.”

Rom 8.27, “And He who searches the hearts knows the mind [wishes?] of the spirit-world, because the spirit-world intercedes for seekers after God according to the will of God.”

Rom 15.30, “I appeal to you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love that God’s spirit-world has for you.”

1 Cor 2.4, “and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but it was God’s spirit-world and power that spoke through me.”

1 Cor 2.10, “But to us God has revealed them through the spirit-world; for the spirit-world of God fathoms everything, even the depths of God.”

1 Cor 2.11, “So, too, no one knows the thoughts of God except the spirit-world of God.”

1 Cor 2.14, “A worldly-minded person does not receive the gifts of the spirit-world of God.”

1 Cor 3.16, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that the spirit-world of God dwells among you?”

1 Cor 6.11, “But you were washed, you became faithful, you found favor in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the spirit-world of our God.”

1 Cor 6.19, “Do you not know that your body is a temple for the holy spirit-world which dwells among you, which you have from God?”

1 Cor 12.4, “Spiritual gifts vary widely, but the same spirit-world bestows them all.”

1 Cor 12.7, “To each is given the manifestation of the spirit-world for the common good.”

1 Cor 12.8, “To one is given through the spirit-world the utterance of wisdom.”

1 Cor 12.9, “To another faith by the same spirit-world, to another gifts of healing by this one spirit-world.”

1 Cor 12.11, “All of these are inspired by one and same spirit-world.”

1 Cor 12.13, “Through baptism we were all immersed in the one spirit-world as one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—all were poured out upon by the one spirit-world.”

2 Cor 13.13, “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and fellowship with the holy spirit-world be with you all.”

Gal 3.2, “Did you receive [access to] the spirit-world by works of the law, or by hearing the faith?”

Gal 3.5, “Does He who supplies the spirit-world to you and [through it] works wondrous powers within you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?”

Gal 3.14, “that we might receive the promise of God’s spirit-world through faith.”

Gal 5.17, “For the desires of the flesh are against the spirit-world of God, and the desires of the spirit-world of God are against the flesh.”

Gal 5.22, “But the fruit of the spirit-world is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness.”

Gal 6.8, “He who sows on the field prepared by God’s spirit-world will reap from the spirit-world eternal life.”

Eph 1.13, “you were sealed with the promised holy spirit-world.”

Eph 2.18, “for through him we both have access to the Father by one spirit-world.”

Eph 3.5, I originally had this verse in my previous article for The Bible Translator, but note pneuma here is indefinite and not to pneuma, so it might run as “it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by a spirit.”

Eph 4.30, “Do not grieve the holy spirit-world of God.”

1 Thess 4.8, “not man but God, Who gives His holy spirit-world to you.”

1 Thess 5.19, “Do not quench the spirit-world,” i.e., “do not make it impossible for the spirit-world of God to communicate with you.”

1 Tim 4.1, “Now the spirit-world of God expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith.”

Heb 9.8, “By this, the holy spirit-world indicates that the way into the sanctuary is not yet opened.”

Heb 10.29, “and who has ridiculed the spirit-world that God’s grace sent to him?”

James 4.5, “‘He yearns jealously over the spirit-world which He has made to dwell among us?”

1 John 3.24, “And by this we know that He abides among us, via the spirit-world which He has given us.”


VI. Conclusion


The scholarly commentaries on the above verses may or may not be useful ways for elaborating their meaning at this point.  Many commentaries treat to pneuma as a divine person of the Trinity.  If we drop the Trinitarian overtones in the commentaries, we may still find the commentaries useful by simply replacing what they say about “the Spirit” with “the spirit world.”

Whenever we read that the spirit world “knows” or “is given” or is the subject of some other verb, the meaning imparted here is that the spirits who populate the spirit world “know” or “are given” or are the subject of a verb.  For instance, if we read “the spirit world is poured out” then this means that many spirits from the spirit world of God (i.e., “heaven,” “the kingdom of God,” “the kingdom of heaven”) have been sent forth to visit humankind on Earth.  Their purpose during such visitations is indicated in John 15.26 and 16.12-13.


[1] For example: “The belief in spirits was at that time much more living than the belief in the Spirit” (Jules Lebreton, History of the Dogma of the Trinity: From Its Origins to the Council of Nicaea [trans. Algar Thorold from the 8th ed.; New York: Benziger, 1939], 118); “It is not clear how to Pneuma could denote the Person of the Holy Spirit” in Paul (Fernand Prat, The Theology of Saint Paul [2 vols; trans. John L. Stoddard; Westminster, MD: Newman, 1958], 2.438); “St. Paul would probably have found it hard to understand the later problem of the ‘deity’ of the Holy Spirit” (E. H. Whiteley, The Theology of St. Paul [Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1974], 127); “On the basic point of the Spirit, for instance, Christians are now shaped by a trinitarian theology worked out in the 4th century; there is no evidence that Paul had such clarity about the personhood of the Spirit” (Raymond E. Brown, Introduction to the New Testament [New York: Doubleday, 1997], 532).

[2] See Clint Tibbs, “The Spirit (World) and the (Holy) Spirits among the Earliest Christians: 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 as a Test Case,” CBQ 70.2 (2008): 313-30; idem, “The Holy Spirit and A Holy Spirit: Some Observations and a Proposal,” The Bible Translator 61.3 (2010): 152-63; and idem, “Pneuma as ‘Spirit World’ in Translation in the New Testament,” The Bible Translator 62.3 (2011): 172-84.

[3] See Stanley E. Porter, Idioms of the Greek New Testament (2nd ed.; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1994), 104-05.  For example, ho anthropos may mean a particular person (John 4.50) or representative of the human race (Matt 5.13).  In Rom 15.22 ta polla is either “the many” (categorical) or “the large number referred to” (particular).

[4] Garrett C. Kenney (Translating H/holy S/spirit [Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2007]) remarks: “One searches the NT in vain for any polemic regarding the deity of the Spirit.  It simply does not appear as a matter of debate in the pages of the NT or among the writings of the earliest Church Fathers. . . . the deity of the Spirit was a matter only called into focus after debates regarding the relation of the Father to the Son were ‘settled’ at Nicaea in 325 CE” (p. 29).

[5] See Tibbs, “Pneuma,” 183-84.

[6] See RBL (Review of Biblical Literature), https://www.bookreviews.org/bookdetail.asp?TitleId=7972&CodePage= 7972.  The book is reprinted with a substantial new preface as Religious Experience of the Pneuma: Communicating with the Spirit World in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2012).

[7] The Spirit’s divinity is thought to be expressed by the different qualifications for the Spirit in the NT: the spirit of God, the spirit of the Lord, the holy spirit.

[8] Frances M. Young (Biblical Exegesis and the Formation of Christian Culture [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997; repr. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2002], 36) notes that theological exegetes like Athanasius often exploited bona fide scriptural images and texts to deduce the answer to theological problems that were not conceived at the time of the writing of Scripture.

[9] Consider nn. 1 and 4 above.

[10] Guy Williams, The Spirit World in the Letters of Paul the Apostle: A Critical Examination of the Role of Spiritual Beings in the Authentic Pauline Epistles (FRLANT 231; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecth, 2009), 13.

[11] Ibid., 14.  This might be why so little effort has been invested in questioning whether the homoousion Spirit is the real meaning of pneuma language in the NT.

[12] Ibid., 14.

[13] Ibid., 15.

[14] Ibid., 26.

[15] See Michio Kaku, Hyperspace: A Scientific Odyssey through Parallel Universes, Time Warps, and the 10th Dimension (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 20-23.

[16] In an allusion to John 14.2, Origen (De. Princip. 2.11.6) notes that the Greeks call spirit dimensions “spheres.”

[17]  Cited from F. G. Martinez and E. Tigchelaar, The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition (2 vols.; Leiden: Brill, 1999), 2.500.

[18] See Brian Easlea, Witch Hunting, Magic, and the New Philosophy: An Introduction to the Debates of the Scientific Revolution 1450-1750 (Sussex: Harvester Press, 1980); Michael Heyd, The Critique of Enthusiasm in the Seventeenth and Early Eighteenth Centuries (Leiden: Brill, 1995); David Ray Griffin, Religion and Scientific Naturalism: Overcoming the Conflicts (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2000), 179-240; Shane McCorristine, Spectres of the Self: Thinking About Ghosts and Ghost-Seeing in England, 1750-1920 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 66-100; and Wouter H. Hanegraaff, Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

[19] For example, see the Introduction in Thelma Moss, The Probability of the Impossible: Scientific Discoveries and Explorations in the Psychic World (Los Angeles, CA: Tarcher, 1974), 1-7

[20] See Patrick J. Sherry, “Are Spirits Bodiless Persons?” Neue Zeitschrift für systematische Theologie und Religionsphilosophie 24 (1982) 37-52; David J. Hufford, “Beings without Bodies: An Experience-Centered Theory of the Belief in Spirits,” in Barbara G. Walker, Out of the Ordinary: Folklore and the Supernatural (Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 1995) 11-45; and Phillip H. Wiebe, God and Other Spirits: Intimations of Transcendence in Christian Experience (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 111-52.

[21] See Renee Haynes, The Society for Psychical Research, 1882-1982: A History (London: MacDonald, 1982); Seymour H. Mauskopf and Michael R. McVaugh, The Elusive Science: Origins of Experimental Psychical Research (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980); and John Beloff, Parapsychology: A Concise History (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993).

[22] For instance, see Albert von Schrenk-Notzing, Phenomena of Materialisation: A Contribution to the Investigation of Mediumistic Teleplastics (New York, NY: Dutton, 1920); and F. W. Pawlowski, “The Mediumship of Franek Kluski of Warsaw,” Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research 19 (1925): 482-504.

[23] The classicist Eric R. Dodds made use of investigations into séances, spirit mediumship, spiritistic phenomena, and psychical research in order to explain ancient Greek theurgy, oracles, prophets, and the Pythia of Delphi.  See his The Greeks and the Irrational (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1962); and “Supernormal Phenomena in Classical Antiquity,” in idem, The Ancient Concept of Progress and Other Essays on Greek Literature and Belief (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), 156-210.

[24] One of the pioneers in afterlife research is Raymond Moody, M.D.  See his autobiography, Paranormal: My Life in Pursuit of the Afterlife (New York, NY: Harper One, 2012).  See also Gary E. Schwartz, The Afterlife Experiments: Breakthrough Scientific Evidence of Life After Death (New York, NY: Atria Books, 2002).  This kind of interest among scientists and those holding higher degrees of education is nothing new.  See Alfred Russel Wallace, Miracles and Modern Spiritualism (orig. pub. 1875; New York, NY: Arno Press, 1975); Carl Murchison, ed., The Case For and Against Psychical Belief (Worchester, MA: Clark University, 1927); Karl von Reichenbach, The Odic Force: Letters on Od and Magnetism (trans. F. D. O’Byrne; London: Hutchinson & Co., 1926; repr. New York, NY: University Books, 1968); Trevor H. Hall, The Medium and the Scientist: The Story of Florence Cook and William Crookes (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 1985); Deborah Blum, Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death (New York, NY: Penguin, 2006).

[25] For instance, see Colleen Shantz, Paul in Ecstasy: The Neurobiology of the Apostle’s Life and Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

[26] For example: Jacob Bazak, Judaism and Psychical Phenomena: A Study of Extrasensory Perception in Biblical, Talmudic, and Rabbinical Literature in the Light of Contemporary Parapsychological Research (trans. from Hebrew by S. M. Lehrman; New York: Garrett, 1974); Evelyn Moore Garth, Try the Spirits: Christianity and Psychical Research (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977); and John J. Heaney, The Sacred and the Psychic: Parapsychology and Christian Theology (Ramsey, NJ: Paulist Press, 1984).  Dale C. Allison, Jr., a reputable NT scholar, has made liberal use of afterlife and near-death experience research in his Resurrecting Jesus: The Earliest Christian Tradition and Its Interpreters (New York, NY: T&T Clark, 2005), 244 n. 157; 268 n. 288; 269 n. 289; 270 n. 292; 271 n. 295; 274 n. 308; 275 nn. 311-312; 278 nn. 317, 319; 281 n. 327; and 283 nn. 332, 333. 

[27] Although dated, one of best surveys of Greek pneuma in both secular and religious texts is Ernest de Witt Burton, Spirit, Soul, and Flesh: The Usage of pneuma, psuche, and sarx in Greek Writings and Translated Works from the Earliest Period to 180 A.D.; and of their Equivalents ruach, nephesh, and basar in the Hebrew Old Testament (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1918).

[28] See ibid., “the Hebrews were far in advance of the Greeks in developing the idea of the divine spirit,” and “Only in the Greek translated from the Hebrew . . . do we find the expression spirit of God, pneuma theou, or holy spirit, pneuma hagion” (pp. 73, 170); David T. Hill, Greek Words and Hebrew Meanings: Studies in the Semantics of Soteriological Terms (SNTSMS 5; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967), “The Septuagint translators reveal a strong tendency to render the Hebrew word ruach by pneuma, and this in spite of the fact that the Hebrew had a wider range of meanings than the Greek” (217); and Marie E. Isaacs, The Concept of Spirit: A Study of Pneuma in Hellenistic Judaism and Its Bearing on the New Testament (HM 1; London: Heythrop College, 1976), “In faithfully translating the Hebrew term ruach as pneuma when it applied not only to wind, breath and life, but also to God, the LXX  played a significant part in the development of its meaning in subsequent Greek literature” (17).  Greek daimon was the preferred term for “a spirit” among ancient Greeks.

[29] On these passages, see John R. Levison, The Spirit in First Century Judaism (Leiden: Brill, 1997), 36-40.

[30] Note that the NIV, NAB, and NRS translate pneuma in Luke 24.37 as “a ghost” while KJV, Rheims NT, NAS, and Amplified translate it as “a spirit.”

[31] The controversy surrounding the translation of John 4.24 pneuma ho theos is evident in English versions that translate it four different ways: “God is spirit” (NAS, NIV, NRS), “God is Spirit” (NAB), “God is a spirit” (Rheims NT), and “God is a Spirit” (KJV, Amplified Bible).

[32] For asomatos spirits, see also 1 Enoch 15.4, 6-7.

[33] This concept is often reported today by those who have died, left their bodies, and upon resuscitation, returned to their bodies and live to tell the experience of having “passed over.”

[34] This is confirmed for us by both Paul (1 Cor 15.44) and Luke (Luke 24.39).  Paul distinguishes the sōma psuchikon, “natural body,” or “soul infused body,” from the sōma pneumatikon, “spiritual body,” of spirits, i.e., the “resurrection body.”  Luke 24.39 also makes this distinction: pneuma sarka kai ostea ouk ekei, “a spirit does not have flesh and bones.”  Compare 1 Cor 15.50, “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” where spirits reside.

[35] See Genesis 18.1-15, 19.10-12, 32.24-30; Daniel 9.21; Luke 24.4; Acts 1.10.

[36] Gonzalo Haya-Prats, Empowered Believers: The Holy Spirit in the Book of Acts (trans. Scott A. Ellington; ed. Paul Elbert; Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2011), 34.

[37] Ibid., 40.  Charles A. Gieschen (Angelomorphic Christology: Antecedents and Early Evidence [Leiden: Brill, 1998]) shows that early Jewish literature used dunamis “as a designation or title for angels and for God” (119).

[38] See Haya-Prats, Empowered Believers, 41; and Gieschen, Angelomorphic, 114-21.

[39] Hence, the recent trend to study “angel” and “spirit” as “angelomorphic pneumatology” shows that there is no strict ontological or linguistic distinction between “angel” and “spirit” as would later emerge during the fourth century where “spirit” becomes a category for deity and “angel” a category for creature, a distinction not clear in the NT.  For example, Crispin H. T. Fletcher-Louis (Luke-Acts: Angels, Christology and Soteriology [WUNT 2/94; Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1997]) reminds us that “in respect of his [Christ’s] divinity or the transcendence of mortal nature, angelic categories do provide a primary conceptual resource” in Luke-Acts (p. 252).

[40] See the much-neglected Lloyd Neve, The Spirit of God in the Old Testament (Tokyo, Japan: Seibunsha, 1972; repr. Cleveland, TN: CPT Press, 2011).  The term ruach ha-qodesh, “the holy spirit,” is rare in the OT, occurring only three times: Ps 51.11, Isa 63.10, 11.

[41] It is conceivable to translate ruach elohim in Gen 1.2 as “a mighty wind” (and not the usual “the Spirit of God”) where elohim is the most intense superlative for ruach as a fierce wind blowing over the water.  The same problem occurs in John 3.8 where to pneuma is rendered as “the wind” in most versions but in the Rheims NT as “the Spirit.”

[42] See Robert P. Menzies, The Development of Early Christian Pneumatology With Special Reference to Luke-Acts (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1991), 55.

[43] The earliest of which seems to be Athanasius, Ep. Serap. 1.4: “unless the article (arthrous) is present . . . it cannot refer to the Holy Spirit.”

[44] See John Breck, Spirit of Truth: The Holy Spirit in Johannine Tradition: The Origins of Johannine Pneumatology (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1990).