The phrase the spirit of the world is a term the apostle Paul used in 1 Corinthians 2:12, where he contrasts the spirit of the world with the Spirit of God: “What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us.”
As opposed to the spirit of the world, the Holy Spirit imparts true wisdom to the believer. The Holy Spirit enables us to receive and understand “the secret and hidden wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 2:7). Only God’s Spirit can reveal spiritual truth because only His Spirit knows “the deep things of God” (verse 10).
The spirit of the world can be understood in one of three ways. In one interpretation, the spirit of the world is a demonic spirit or perhaps Satan in particular. Elsewhere in Scripture, Satan is called “the ruler of this world” (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11) and “the god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4). He is “the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient” (Ephesians 2:2).
Others suggest that Paul wasn’t referring to an evil spirit, per se, but rather a mindset that is foreign to and opposed to the Spirit of God—it’s humanity’s sinful disposition, which could be called a spirit of rebellion, covetousness, pride, and falsehood. A third view is that the spirit of the world is human wisdom in general or the basic human process of understanding, as expressed in secular philosophy and worldly wisdom.
God makes worldly wisdom, as promoted by the spirit of the world, foolish: “Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe” (1 Corinthians 1:20–21). From a worldly, human standpoint, it is foolish to believe in Jesus Christ as the way of salvation.
The spirit of the world leads to foolishness because human wisdom is independent of God’s true wisdom. Human wisdom tends to boast before God; it is proud. Human wisdom rejects the person and work of Christ, who is “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24). True wisdom from the Spirit of God whom we have received recognizes that our salvation is entirely unmerited and wholly by God’s grace: “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: ‘Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord’” (verses 27–31).
Although the Corinthian believers claimed to be spiritually mature, they were, in fact, showing their immaturity through pride and division. Paul taught them that, to be truly mature, they would have to abandon human wisdom (the spirit of the world) for the Holy Spirit’s pure wisdom of the gospel. Believers cannot perceive the wonderful, hidden treasures they have received from God by looking with their natural, human eyes.