This article looks at the differences between several words whose Greek meanings overlap quite a bit, but which Christ seems to used very differently. The view here about how Christ uses these words may be unique, but this evaluation does eliminate several problems with the way we currently translated these words inconsistently.
The Problem with Psyche as "Soul/Life"
The word psyche (ψυχὴν) creates a special problem for translators when they translate Christ's words because they translate it to mean two very different things: a person's "soul" and his "life." In the NT, it is translated 58 times as "soul" and 40 times as "life" (and three times as "mind" but never when Christ uses it that way, using a completely different word for "mind"). Sometimes, the switch between the two is sudden, for example, in Mat 16:25, it says, "For whoever will save his life shall lose it," translating psyche as "life," but then in the following verse, Mat 16:26, it says, "For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" translating psyche as "soul."
What is interesting is that most of these translations only seem to work as one or the other. For example, Christ tells us not to worry about our "life," wondering about what we will eat or drink. It is hard to imagine the word "soul" applying to eating and drinking. However, Christ also tells us not to worry about those who would kill the body but not the "soul" using the same word translated as "life" above. This is a "life" that does not die when the body dies. So we have a paradox. A "life" that eats and drinks to survive but does not die when the body dies.
However, psyche doesn't seem to be a word (for example, like the Greek word translated as "judge") that has different meanings in different contexts. Rather it is a concept that is captured well by neither of these words.
There is an English meaning that does work, however, but, before we discuss it, we should look at some related Greek words. From his use of all three of these words (plus his use of the word for "body", which is much more straight forward), we get a clearer idea of what Christ means when he uses the word psyche..
Other Words for "Spirit"
In Christ's words, psyche is translated like two other words that Christ commonly uses: pneuma, which is usually translated as "spirit," and zoe, which it usually translated as "life". There us also another word, dianoia, that is translated as "mind". And another word, kardia, that is translated as "heart" but which is described as the source of thoughts.
Both pnuema and psyche also mean "breath" as in the "breath of life". Both are from Greek verbs that mean "to breath" and "to blow." The difference is the "spirit" of pnuema is often used to describe both God and "demons", whereas the word psyche is never used by Christ that way. In another article, the word "spirit" is examined in conjunction with "holy" so no need to write about it extensively here. So pneuma is more like thoughts or ideas that have a life of their own. Christ seems to view people as having more than one spirit within them, their own, that of God, and that of "demons." These are the "voices" of conscious thought. It is this consciousness that motivates action, so anima is an animating force. Our awareness of our own thoughts is the piece of divinity within us.
We could say that Christ uses psyche to mean "the mind" in the sense of thought, but there is another rare word Christ that uses dianoia, which is translated as "mind" (usually) and means "thought", "intention", "purpose", "notion", "process of thinking", "thinking faculty," intelligence", "understanding", "thoughts expressed," and "meaning." This word doesn't really overlap with these other words, but it provides a useful boundary. It is important to note that Christ uses it, but rarely, basically as one of the three things we should use to love God (heart, soul, and mind). Since it is contrasted with "heart", which also generates thoughts, this might be thought of as the logical part of the mind as opposed to the emotional. This is the faculty to calculate and compare, that is, brain power. The ability to reason, which is separate from the thoughts that motivate us.
Zoe is another word Christ commonly uses that is translated as "life" and unlike "pysche", it is always and only translated as "life". This is the only word here that has a verb form, zoa, meaning "to live" and "to be alive". This is physical life and the substance of life. This is the life that comes from our "substance", "property," as well as our "existence." When we talk about making a living, we are talking about zoe. In the verb form, it is a metaphor for "to be full of life", "to be strong," and "to be fresh."When a person is alive without having pnuema, say when you are unconscious and not dreaming, that is the life of zoe alone. We would say that this is the life of the body, soma (σῶμα) in the Greek (discussed below), but this is the word that is used when Christ talks about "eternal life". So this active sense of doing things extends beyond our physical life of the body as we currently know it.
We might mention the word for "heart." kardia, here as well. It is also a key part of a person's makeup and unlike "mind" (dianoia), it is used frequently. Sometimes this word is used like we use the word "heart" to mean the "insides" of something ("heart" of the ocean or earth), but when it is used to refer to people, it is the seat of emotions. However, these emotions do clearly generate thoughts (Mat 15:19 For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts), but it is the motivation for thought, the source of thought, not the thoughts themselves.
At this point, we should mention an important Greek word that Christ does not use. This is the Greek word, thumos, (θυμός), which means "soul", "spirit" (as the principle of life", "feeling and thought", and especially. "of strong feeling and passion". The concept is perhaps closer to Christ's concept of kardia than any of the other concepts here. The ancient Greeks divided motivational emotions into two parts. The human emotions arose this concept or thumos or "feelings of the chest" or, as we might say, of the heart. These included love of family and country, hatred of enemies, anger, passion for learning, etc. The animal emotions were "feelings of the belly", which included hunger, lust, fear, etc. The human emotions were considered positive, even though we today would not consider many of them, such as hatred of enemies, a positive. The animal emotions were considered natural, but of less importance, more lowly. Christ does not use this concept at all, but his use of kardia may reflect it.
So we have a process described here with a beginning and end. The "heart" (kardia) is the motivation that generates thinking (anima). These thoughts are compared with our ability to reason (dianola). However, behind these thoughts are concepts (logos) and their logic (see this separate article on the meaning of logos), which are also used by the mind. This process results in action, what we do.
Finally, we should mention the body. There are two Greek words used to describe the physical body. "Body" is soma, (σῶμα) which means "body", "dead body", "the living body", "animal body", and several other meanings. Like our word "body" it has special meanings such as "body" of proof and the "body" of a document. This is the Greek word that is connected with the psyche. They are both part of the same life, one the material and the other, the immaterial.
Another Greek word, sarx (σαρκὸς) means "flesh", "the body", "the pulp of fruit", "meat," and "the physical and natural order of things". Christ uses this word to describe physical tissue of the body, almost in the sense of its DNA, but apart from people's role in the world, the body as meat.
The Life of Psyche
So where does this leave the "life" or "soul" of psyche? It is our sense of self as the person we record in our memories. It is the role we play in life. It is the person we are in our memories, our sense of who we are as a specific point of awareness in the universe, playing a specific role in human society.
This is a life that eats and drinks and remembers eating and drinking and remembers that it has all types of needs and obligations. So, this is the life that worries. It is also the "life" that people lose when they die, not because their awareness ceased but because the life they remember ceases. This is their personal life, the life of identity, being this specific person at this point time. The soul continues, with its memories of this life, but the actual life it remembers passes away. The body dies, but not the soul.
This "life" and "soul" is the immaterial part of who we are. It is our identity, our personality, our character. It is what we build up or tear down through a lifetime, for better of worse. This is the person that is judged by God.
Can we call this identity be caller our "soul" in the current sense of the word? The problem is that Christ said that this identity can be destroyed. This is the "soul" that goes onto the "trash heap" along with our bodies if we do not live worthwhile lives (Matthew 10:28). This is the destruction of our self. However, the Christian concept of "soul" is indestructible. It is our divine spirit. The self of our conscious awareness (pnuema) that is bigger than our identity survives, but earthly identity, our relationships, and all we have done is lost to us.
The self-awareness we get from pneuma is not destroyed. This is the breath of God that gives us life, but it our breath of life, our personal awareness that is at risk. That spirit, the pure self-awareness that experiences the thought generated by the heart and processed by the mind is still there but the memories that populate the heart with specific feeling for specific people is gone.
However, this raises an interesting issue, because "eternal life" is not this form of life. When Christ uses this term, is the life of zoe, physical life that is used. The promise of eternal life is not simply that our awareness will continue, but the our physical existence and substance will be reborn in some form.