Several verses in the Bible talk about a spirit of man that is described much differently from what many religions envision as an immortal soul. What is this spirit in man?
What is the difference between an animal brain and a human brain of similar size? Science hasn't been able to explain the vast difference in thinking ability between the animal brain and the human mind. But the Bible talks about a spiritual component God gives to every person (Zechariah 12:1). The Bible teaches that this spirit in man imparts aspects of the human mind, including self-awareness, intellect, creativity, personality and temperament—everything that enables human accomplishment and knowledge short of true spiritual understanding (1 Corinthians 2:11).
Ecclesiastes 12:7 mentions this spirit, saying that the spirit of man returns to God upon death. Some erroneously interpret this as a reference to righteous souls going to heaven. However, the context shows this interpretation is wrong. For one thing, it says that the spirit of everyone who dies, not just the righteous, goes back to God who gave it. The preceding verses speak of aging and death taking their natural course in every person.
As our booklet What Happens After Death? explains, Paul wrote that the righteous dead wait in their graves until the resurrection (1 Thessalonians 4:14-18). And since Christ comes to the earth to reign, the resurrected saints will also be on the earth. Heaven isn't the reward of Christians. (See also our booklet Heaven and Hell: What Does the Bible Really Teach ? )
This verse of Ecclesiastes 12 is part of the chapter's conclusion. In its entirety, the verse reads, "Then the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it." Upon death, the human body decomposes into the dust from which it was created and the spirit in man goes back to God.
What is the spirit in man? Is it the man himself? If that were the case, Ecclesiastes 12:7 would not make sense. It plainly says that the body decomposes. Is the spirit in man an immortal soul? Much of mainstream Christianity has adopted the idea of an immortal soul from ancient pagan religion; it is not taught in the Scriptures.
Why would the spirit of man return to God upon death? Consider how God will resurrect the dead. He will not simply put life back into dead bodies. For even if the body remains intact upon death, it will eventually decompose, just as Ecclesiastes 12:7 stated. That is, the bodies of most people will no longer exist by the time of the resurrections.
It is likely, therefore, that the spirit in man serves as the permanent record of every human being, by which God will resurrect him or her at the appointed time (1 Corinthians 15:23). By way of analogy, it's possible to recreate a destroyed building if one has the blueprints of the original. Similarly, God is able to recreate a person by the record preserved in the spirit in man.