What is the "spirit" that returns to God at death?
The word “spirit” in the Bible, in both the Hebrew and the Greek, can also translate as “breath” or “wind”. There is a connection between spirit and air. Air is invisible, yet we need it for life. We cannot see it but when it blows we hear and feel its effects. Jesus, speaking of the Holy Spirit effects, compares it to wind.
When Adam was created, God created his body from the elements from the ground. We know today that this is indeed correct: the human body is made up of various elements, 99% of which is oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorus. But elements are not enough. You can have the exact conditions for life, the exact elements, in the right amounts, but you still won’t have life.
John 14:6 says that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. In John 11:25 Jesus says that He is the resurrection and the life. Life comes from God, not from mixing the right elements together only. When you combine the proper elements with God’s breath, His spirit, a living soul is formed.
Perhaps this illustration will be helpful. Imagine the human body created by God to be a light bulb. The bulb has all the right parts for it to work, but it doesn’t work yet. The electricity, the spirit, needs to be added. As soon as this electricity is added, the bulb glows with light. In the same way, body plus spirit = life. If you take the spirit away, what happens to the light? It is gone. It doesn’t go anywhere. The spirit is not the person, it is the life spark of God. The person exists only when the spirit and the body are combined.
Ecc. 12:7 says, “Our bodies will return to the dust of the earth, and the breath of life will go back to God, who gave it to us.” When God receives His spirit back, our bodies return to the dust of the earth. This is indeed the case, for when life is gone from the body, it decomposes back into the ground. The spirit that returns to God at death is the breath of life. Nowhere in all of God's book does the "spirit" have any life, wisdom, or feeling after a person dies. It is the "breath of life" and nothing more.
"The body without the spirit ["breath," see margin] is dead." James 2:26. "The spirit of God ["the breath which God gave him," see margin] is in my nostrils." Job 27:3.