No. 4 An Immortal Soul?
There is in all living things a life principle which is transmissible through the reproductive process. This is wonderful and awesome. That principle is loosely termed the soul.All such forms are subject to death and decay. But what about the human person? For us, is there life after death? This question has always engaged the human mind through pre-history and history, whatever the culture or level of education and knowledge.
That there is life both here and in the world to come underlies the Christian proclamation, and the teachings of Judaism and Islam. However, with the spread of unbelief, there is a growing feeling that death is the end of it all, a cry now widely articulated, echoing the words Shakespeare put on the lips of Macbeth: ‘Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.’ (Act 5, Scene 5). Yet, despite this there abides in most people, past and present, a sense that this earthly life is not the end. But who is right? If there is to be life after death, something associated with the living person would have had to survive death.
A Reasoned Approach
Let us take a strictly rational view, independent of religious faith or personal hope and which is readily understood.
As you read this page you run into words such as God, soul, immortality, unbelief, spiritual principle, concept, negative and other intangible and abstract terms and ideas. Take the word thought and think about it. In so doing you find yourself engaging in a process where an intangible subject looks back upon itself in conscious self-reflection. Thought looks back upon itself. Take again the militant atheist who denies the existence of God, or the person who denies immortality, and the mathematician who deals with the concept of the negative. These are amazing feats, impossible to a purely material brain which is informed only by its physical senses and some genetic programming.
There needs to be enshrined within each human being a principle which enables it to do this. And, this principle has necessarily to be as immaterial as the abstract thought it thinks about. Because it is not composed of parts, this principle is not subject to the bodily breakdown and disintegration that follows death. It does not die, but lives on, whether we want it to or not, a very important point indeed. Many refer to this principle as the human soul. You may well ask, “Where does the soul come from? Does it spring from the matter which it transcends?” The wise among us say that the existence of the human soul points to the existence of Some One who created it.
The Catholic Church teaches that the human person is created in the image of God, and is a being at once corporeal (ie. vested with a body) and spiritual. In Sacred Scripture the term ‘soul’ often refers to human life or the entire human person. But ‘soul’ also refers to the innermost aspect of man, that which is of greatest value in him, that by which he is most especially in God’s image. ‘Soul’ signifies the spiritual principle in man. Spirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature. (Rather heavy going. isn’t it? The next bit is easier).
The Church also teaches that every spiritual soul is created directly by God. It is not ‘produced’ by the parents; and also that it is immortal: it does not perish when it separates from the body at death, and it will be reunited with the body at the final Resurrection.
Ongoing Challenge and Calling
Today, the atheist, the agnostic and fellow travellers have to come to terms with the words of Macbeth, for if there is no after-life all else is make-believe. But if there is more to life than death and one were to deliberately ignore or remain indifferent to this reality, would that not be foolish indeed? Jesus, the Living Word of God reminds us, “What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his soul? (Mark 8:36). Sadly, there are many who do not like such a question and who refuse to face up to it. As catechisms of old used to put it, ‘God has made us to know Him, to love Him and to serve Him in this world and to be happy with Him forever in the next.’