Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

The Immortality of the Soul and the Resurrection of the Dead

by Unknown


An article on eschatology which offers a clear overview of the problem and the Christian answer to it.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review



Publisher & Date

Catholic Polls, Inc., July 1993

• Is man mortal or immortal? With his physical death does man fall into nothingness or does he survive death, passing into a different way of living, into a different stage of life? This is a problem that has agitated western thought from Plato until today, and different answers have been given to it. Since it is a problem that cuts close to home for every man and woman and since no one can say that he is indifferent to it, we will try here to examine the question carefully. This essay will continue the reflections we have made in the past few years on man, his nature, and his destiny.

Thus, by studying man in relationship to other living beings, we have concluded that he is "a being set apart," that he differentiates himself from other animals not only "by degree," but "by nature"; then, by reflecting on man's being, we have concluded that he is not a purely material being, but that he is a composite of spirit and matter; that he is therefore a spiritual being incarnated in matter; that he is a "unique" being; that his spirit (or soul) subsists per se and therefore is able to exist without the body.

Now we have to ask ourselves if this power to exist without the body is something real; that is, whether man's spirit is really immortal. But a further question presents itself here: given that man is a "unique" being, composed of spirit and matter, does the question of immortality concern only his spirit or does it also concern the body, in the sense that not only the spirit or soul is immortal, but "man" as such, in the totality of his spirit and matter?

As we have indicated, different and contradictory answers have been given to the question of man's immortality. They can be reduced to four basic types. The first affirms that man, inasmuch as his body is an organized aggregate of purely material elements, disappears completely when the elements that compose him are dissolved. This is the answer of all those who say that man is a purely material being — namely, all materialists who reduce thought, will, and self-consciousness to organic functions of matter or to epiphenomena of matter. It is also the answer of those who deny that the soul is a substance—phenomenalists for whom ideas are merely phenomena, that is, they are states and modifications of consciousness, which come and go without having a substratum or substance on which they are based. The materialists deny the existence of a spiritual soul and therefore exclude any idea of immortality; the second group denies the substantiality of the soul and therefore undermines the foundation of the concept of immortality by eliminating what is supposed to be immortal. Therefore for materialists and phenomenalists there is simply no problem about the immortality of the soul: they consider it a non-problem.

And yet there is still a problem: if there is nothing after physical death, if with his death man is dissolved and disappears into nothingness, what is the meaning and value of human life? If man is condemned to total death, that is, to absolute nothingness, then what possible meaning is there in his life, his grand projects, his ideals, since everything about him is destined to disappear into nothingness? What is the point of living, of worrying, of working for anything beautiful and magnificent, if everything (including magnificent and beautiful accomplishments) is destined to sink into the abyss of nothingness? If, as M. Heidegger affirms, man is "existence towards death" (Dasein zum Tode), and if death is the annihilation of the "I," human life is a fleeting and senseless reality.[1] In addition, if human life is completely over at death, then life itself becomes—as A. Camus saw very well—an absurdity and there remain for man only two possible ways to go: either accept absurdity or commit suicide.[2]

Certainly there are other ways to avoid the problem of the total death of man. One is just not to think about it, to get so involved in work, in play and other activities that one does not have time to think about it. But in the life of every person there are circumstances and moments—a sickness, a close call with death, the death of a loved one — in which he cannot avoid the problem of his own future death: whether he wishes it or not, whether he wishes or does not wish to admit it to himself, in the death of a loved one each person, in secret but profound anguish, perceives his own death. Another way is simply to exorcise the anguish of death by trying to look upon it as a natural event, normal, certainly unpleasant but inevitable. But S. de Beauvoir writes, "death is not natural. . . . All men are mortal, and yet for each one death is an accident, and even if he acknowledges it in advance and accepts it, it remains an unjust violence."[3] A second answer to the problem of immortality is that of those for whom true immortality consists in living on in the memory of posterity because of the great accomplishments of one's life—beautiful works of art left behind, discoveries of science, in short, everything which makes a mark in human history. In fact, one who has accomplished great things in his life does not die completely. Thus the Roman poet Horace affirms that he will not die completely— Non omnis moriar (Odes III, 30,6)—because with his poetry he has built for himself a monument more lasting than bronze: Exegi monumentum aere perennius (Odes, III, 30, 1).

But one may rightly ask whether living in the memory of posterity is true immortality. First of all, the person does not survive; his works or the memory of his accomplishments live on: therefore immortality does not concern the person who is consigned to nothingness at death. To say that a person "lives" in his accomplishments is only a deceptive and illusory way of speaking. Secondly, even the most extraordinary feats soon fall into oblivion; even great works of art and amazing scientific discoveries are soon forgotten. Only very few things — a few magnificent works of art, some astonishing feats-survive, but only for a certain time, the universal shipwreck of death in which both men and civilizations perish.

Another answer to the problem of immortality is given by monistic or pantheistic systems of philosophy. According to them the human soul does not have its own substantial or personal existence, but is an uncreated emanation from the One as a particular expression of the cosmic Soul (Plato), or it is a particle of the World Soul or of the Agent Intellect (Averroes), or it is a "mode" of the existence of the unique Substance and "a part of the infinite mind of God" (Spinoza, Ethica II, Prop. XI, coroll.), or it is a moment of the absolute Spirit on its way towards complete self-consciousness (Hegel). These doctrines admit the immortality of the soul; but this immortality is not personal: after death the soul is absorbed into the All and disappears in it, losing all personal characteristics. In these theories, however, it is clear that the problem of the immortality of the soul is resolved negatively: the soul is not immortal, it is only the All that is immortal, whether it is the One, the World Soul, the Substance, or the absolute Spirit. With regard to the individual and personal soul, it "dies," if not in every way, still it disappears into the All.

Finally, there is a fourth answer which affirms the personal immortality of the human soul: it has run through the whole history of western thought and has its own outstanding exponents — for the ancient world in Plato, for the ancient Christian world in St. Augustine, for the middle ages in St. Thomas, and for the modern world in Descartes, Leibniz, and Kant. However, these thinkers demonstrate the personal immortality of the human soul in ways and with arguments that are profoundly diverse.

For Plato the soul is a substance in and for itself which exists prior to being joined to the body which it moves; it dwells in the body for a certain time but departs at death to take up residence in other bodies until, thoroughly purified, it is able to return to the world of the Ideas where it can contemplate the "pure intelligibles"; in this way it attains definitive immortality. Those who believe in reincarnation appeal to this type of immortality. According to them, in order to arrive at perfection the soul must live many lives, not being able to become perfect in just one life: therefore, after death, the soul moves into another body and then another until, fully purified and perfected, it can be eternally happy.

St. Augustine demonstrates the immortality of the soul by showing that it possesses truth; truth is immortal, because it can never be untrue; therefore the soul in which truth dwells cannot die: "Therefore the soul is immortal; believe in the truth; it cries out with a loud voice that it abides in you, that it is immortal, and that, whatever the death of the body might mean, her dwelling (the soul's) cannot be separated from you."[4]

Immanuel Kant thinks that the immortality of the soul cannot be demonstrated theoretically with rational arguments; however, he maintains it as a postulate of practical reason, that is, on the possibility itself of a moral life in the sense that, if one does not admit the postulate of a future life and of a God in it who is the vindicator of good, the whole structure of morality would collapse. The immortality of the soul, therefore, is not a conclusion of reason, but it belongs to moral sentiment or to "moral faith."[5]

St. Thomas Aquinas approaches the problem of the immortality of the human soul with great breadth of vision. For him the immortality of the soul is "personal," "natural," and "rationally demonstrable." It is "personal" in the sense that it concerns every human being; after the dissolution of the body, for him the soul of each person continues to subsist in its own personal individuality without being absorbed into the All. Thus St. Thomas is opposed to every form of monism and pantheism. It is "natural" in the sense that the immortality of the soul depends on its own nature and not on a free gift from God. In this way St. Thomas is opposed to those who maintain that the human soul is mortal by its very nature, but that God in his great goodness confers on it the gift of immortality: thus, for the Protestant theologian O. Cullmann, who is followed in this by some Catholic theologians, physical death is also the death of the soul and therefore, in order that the soul might be able to return to life, "a new creative act of God is necessary which recalls into life not only a part of man, but the whole man which God created and death destroyed."[6] It is "rationally demonstrable" in the sense that there are rationally convincing arguments with which it is possible to prove the soul's immortality. In this way St. Thomas is opposed to those who admit the immortality of the soul not for rational motives, but through faith, such as Duns Scotus, G. Occam, P. Pomponazzi, or because of moral exigency, such as I. Kant.

The first argument to demonstrate the immortality of the soul is of a metaphysical nature and is derived from the nature of the human soul. As was explained in a preceding article,[7] the human soul is a substance, that is, it subsists by itself (per se) and not in virtue of some other reality such as the body. Therefore, it not only has its own reality, but also its own independence of the body, to which it is substantially united so that it forms along with the body one being—man, but it does not depend on the body for its existence. This is to be contrasted with the souls of animals which disappear with the dissolution of the elements which form their bodies. Since the human soul is subsistent, it is simply permanent; that is, just as it stays the same while the body constantly changes and renews itself completely every few years — the body I now have is not the same one I had twenty years ago, but I am the same person I was twenty years ago—so also the soul perdures even after the dissolution of the body. Why does it perdure?

Since it is not a material substance (not composed of material parts), but a spiritual one, that is, superior to the material order, the soul is simple and therefore incorruptible. In fact, one can corrupt and disintegrate whatever is composed of material parts; for when they are separated the organic composite ceases to exist. Therefore, if the soul is not composed of parts which can be separated, but is a simple substance, then it is not able to be corrupted and so to disappear, but remains incorruptible even after the disintegration of the body. In conclusion, because it is independent of matter in its being, the soul is able to survive and live after the destruction of the body; because it is a spiritual substance and therefore simple, it is not subject to corruption. Corruption is proper to material organisms composed of different elements which eventually are separated and this leads to the disintegration of the organism. Therefore the soul is immortal and cannot be corrupted. In other words, because the human soul is a subsistent substance, by its very nature it has the capacity to be immortal; because it is spiritual and therefore simple, by its own nature it cannot be corrupted and therefore its capacity for immortality becomes a reality: the human soul not only can be immortal, but it is so really.

Without doubt this proof of the immortality of the soul turns out to be more obvious in the platonic vision in which the soul dwells in the body for a time and does not unite with it to form one substantial being: in this view the soul preexists the body, is united to it for a certain time and then abandons it to pass into another body or to return to the world of ideas from which it came. On the other hand, it is more difficult to understand the aristotelian-thomistic view which considers the soul as the form of the body and sees in man a substantial unity (not just an accidental one) of the soul and the body or, more exactly, of the spiritual principle and the material principle as two incomplete principles which are united as "form" and "matter" in order to form one complete being, man. Of course, it is true that Aristotle did not admit immortality. But St. Thomas corrected him on this point, seeing in the soul the "form" of the body, but regarding it as a "substantial form" and therefore subsistent per se, and therefore independent of the body in its existence: it is therefore of such a nature that it can subsist even after the dissolution of the body of which it is the "form."

Nevertheless, the human soul, inasmuch as it is a form, that is, the principle of organization and of life of the body, even when the body after death has been dissolved into its elements, preserves with it a transcendental relation: in fact, the union of soul and body is natural, while their separation is "contrary to nature": "It is clear that the soul is united to the body by nature: because by its essence it is the form of the body. Therefore it is contrary to the nature of the soul to be deprived of the body."[8] Accordingly, the soul separated from the body is in a "violent" state and the desire of the immortal soul is to be joined again with its own body. There is in this "desire" a quasi presentiment of the gift which God gives to man in Jesus Christ when he promises him the "resurrection of the body" at the end of time. This is not required by human nature as such, since by his nature man is mortal (with his death "he dies," there is an end to his being a "man," even if his soul does not die), and therefore the resurrection of the body always remains a gratuitous gift of God; still it realizes a desire of man which is extremely profound.

A second argument in favor of the immortality of the soul can be found in the structure itself of the human soul. In fact, the soul is constituted in a very particular and original way in its two essential faculties: intellect and will. The intellect is never satisfied with what it knows and never rests in its knowledge, but always wants to know more and can be content only in the knowledge of infinite and absolute Truth which is God. The human will is never satisfied with what it possesses, but desires goods that are always greater and can be content only in the possession of the infinite and absolute Good which is God. Therefore we find in the human soul a capacity for the infinite which no partial truth and no limited good can satisfy. A being, however, is happy only when its desires are satisfied. Since the soul can be satisfied only by infinite Truth and absolute Good, one must conclude that there is in the soul a desire for perfect and absolute happiness, that is, for that happiness which only perfect Truth and absolute Good can give it.

The soul desires immortality

Such a desire necessarily implies the desire for immortality, because the perfect happiness which the human soul desires would not be total and complete if it had to come to an end because of the mortality of the human soul. The soul, therefore, by desiring perfect happiness at the same time desires immortality. Such a desire is not just any kind of desire, but it is a "natural" desire, that is, it belongs to the structure itself of the human soul, to its very essence, to such an extent that, if it were absent, the same soul would not exist as a "human soul."

Now—and this is the crux of the matter—a "natural" desire, which is constitutive of a being, cannot be "in vain," cannot not have its fulfillment and satisfaction because, otherwise, that being would be contradictory in its own nature. For, it would desire something that is essential to its own nature, but it would never be able to attain it: in other words, it would be an absurd being, one without any meaning. Therefore, the human soul avoids contradiction and absurdity and has a meaning only if its desire for infinite happiness and immortality can be fulfilled. In short, immortality belongs to the human soul not only inasmuch as it is a spiritual substance but, much more profoundly, inasmuch as it is "naturally" open to the Infinite and the Immortal, inasmuch as it is made for God who is perfect Truth and absolute Good.

Certainly, in man there are many desires: for example, the desire to get rich, to be successful, to enjoy good health; but those desires are not "natural," in the sense that if they are not realized, human existence would not make any sense. For even a life without great wealth, without great success, even a life in which sickness is present has a meaning. Certainly man desires immortality not only for his spirit, but also for his body: he desires to live forever in the totality of his being. He knows nevertheless that his body, because it is material, is naturally destined for death and corruption. Therefore the desire for bodily immortality cannot be "natural," for it is not required by the nature of a body. Nevertheless, even the human desire for bodily immortality will be realized, but only by a gift of God who will clothe "this corruptible body with incorruptibility and this mortal body with immortality," in virtue of the victory of Christ over death (see I Cor. 15:53-57).

Death is not the destiny of man

By reflecting, therefore, on the destiny of man we can demonstrate with solid rational arguments that he is immortal in his spirit, since his soul is immortal by nature; but we cannot demonstrate by reason alone that he is immortal as "man," that is, in the totality of his being which is composed of soul and body. For human reason man is mortal, even if his soul (which is not the whole man) is immortal. Thus, for human reason death remains an impassible barrier: man cannot conquer death even if he is able to escape it through his soul. But is death really the final destiny of man? Christian revelation responds to this question with the dogma of the "resurrection of the dead." It teaches two things. It affirms above all that death is not the destiny of man: he who believes in Christ and lives in him, by exercising charity towards his brothers, already has eternal life right now, that is, he participates in the very life of God: "In very truth I tell you, whoever heeds what I say and puts his trust in him who sent me has eternal life; he does not come to judgment, but has already passed from death to life" (John 5:24). "Whoever puts his faith in the Son has eternal life" (John 3: 36). Of course, even the one who believes in Christ must pass through temporal death; but for him death is only a "passage" to eternal life: "I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever has faith in me shall live, even though he dies; and no one who lives and has faith in me shall ever die" (John 11:25-26). After death, therefore, the one who believes in Christ "will live." This is what Jesus told the sister of Lazarus before he brought back to life her brother who had been dead for four days.

In what does this "life after death" consist? St. Paul replies: in "being with Christ." In fact, he is seized with a strong "desire to be freed from the body and to be with Christ" (Phil. 1:23). The Book of Revelation adds that the "martyrs," the Christians killed for the sake of Christ, "stand before the throne of God and worship him day and night in his temple" (Rev. 7:15). "Life after death, "therefore, is life with God and with Christ: with God who "is not God of the dead but of the living, because in his sight all are alive" (Luke 20:38), participating in his life and in his infinite happiness; with Christ who, risen from the dead, is now the "Living One" (Rev. 1:18) and makes those who have died in him participators in his own risen life.

The Magisterium of the Church has expressed this "life with God" by making use of the philosophical concept of the immortality of the soul as a conceptual instrument in order to understand the data of revelation on "life after death." In fact. Pope Benedict XII on January 23,1336 solemnly defined in the constitution Benedictus Deus that the souls of the faithful departed, if they do not need purification, "soon after their death and, in case of those needing it, after the purification We have mentioned, have been, are, and will be in heaven, in the kingdom of heaven and the celestial paradise with Christ, joined to the company of the holy angels. This holds true, after the Ascension of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ into heaven, even before these souls take up their bodies again and before the general judgment. . . . [T]hey have seen and do see the divine essence with an intuitive and even face to face vision, without the interposition of any creature in the function of object seen; rather the divine essence immediately manifests itself to them plainly, clearly, openly. . . . [T]hose who see the divine essence in this way take great joy from it, and because of this vision and enjoyment the souls of those who have already died are truly blessed and possess life and eternal rest . . . [T]he same vision and enjoyment remains continuously without any interruption or abolition of the vision and enjoyment and will remain up till the final judgment and from then on forever."[9]

Therefore, "life with God after death" begins immediately after physical death or after purification, if necessary, and consists in the face to face vision of the divine Essence and in the enjoyment which that vision provides. This vision takes the place of faith and hope so that only charity remains. Thus life after death is a life of love in which one experiences the infinite love of God and loves him in return with one's whole being: perfect happiness is found in this love. This happiness is infinitely beyond anything man can imagine or desire, when he talks about happiness, because it is the happiness of God himself in which man participates.

This is the "first" victory over death, but it is not a "definitive" victory because "life with God after death" touches the spiritual element in man (the soul) but not the material (the body), which is also constitutive of the essence of man: one can speak about man's total victory over death only if his body also escapes it. This point is the second teaching of Christian revelation about the resurrection of the dead.

The Church teaches the "resurrection of the flesh" or "the resurrection of the dead" -at the end of time. When will that be? For mankind it remains a mystery — only the Father knows when the end of the world will take place and when Jesus Christ will appear again, the glorified Lord, to judge all men and to inaugurate definitively the Kingdom of God, which is now growing slowly and hidden from view in human history. At the moment of the Parousia (= manifestation) of the risen Lord the "resurrection of the dead" will take place. Jesus teaches: "The time is coming when all who are in the grave shall hear his voice and come out: those who have done right will rise to life (= eternal life); those who have done wrong will rise to judgment (= eternal death)" (John 5:28-29). Therefore all the dead — good and wicked — will be recalled to life to be judged by Christ: a judgment which will mean salvation in the Kingdom of God for those who have lived justly— have done works of charity (see Matt. 25: 34-40), and condemnation to "eternal punishment" for those who have lived wickedly—have not done works of charity (see Matt. 25:41-45): "And they (= the wicked) will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous will enter eternal life" (Matt. 25:46).

Victory is for the whole man

Yet even if the resurrection will be for all men, good and evil, it will be especially so for those who have adhered to Christ with faith and have shown him their love and fidelity by practicing the works of charity. In fact, the resurrection of the dead will be essentially a salvation event: the Lord Jesus, as the Lord of history, will return gloriously on the last day to save forever those who belong to him, by making them participate in his resurrection and glory. For this reason Christians are joyously awaiting the Second Coming of the Lord as the moment of total salvation of one's whole being-soul and body-and as the full and definitive fulfillment of their hope. This sense of joy and hope is expressed by the words of St. Paul to the Christians of Thessalonica: "And so we will be with the Lord forever" (I Thess. 4:17).

Thus the victory over death announced by the Christian faith is for the whole man: for his soul and for his body. It would be pointless, however, to ask: "With what kind of body will we rise again?" Or: "What will the eternal life of the saved be like after the final resurrection in soul and body?" These are questions which, for us who are only able to think about the life of the body in terms of time and space and, above all, in terms of organization and organic functions, remain wrapped up in a profound mystery: a mystery which we must respect as God's mystery, because revelation does not tell us anything on this point. There is a hint in St. Paul, when he speaks about the transformation which takes place in a seed which, when it is planted, grows into a tree: between the seed and the tree there is certainly an identity, but there is also an essential difference. Something similar happens, he says, to man's body in "the resurrection of the dead": "What is sown as a perishable thing is raised imperishable. Sown in humiliation, it is raised in glory; sown in weakness, it is raised in power; sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body" (I Cor. 15: 42-44).

A "spiritual" body means a body completely transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit; but for us the meaning of this remains mysterious and obscure. What we can say is that man's life after the final resurrection should not be understood in a materialistic or physicalistic sense: man's body will be real, but the organic and bodily functions proper to the body in its present state will not be the same. Jesus said as much when he rejected the materialism of the Sadduccees and rebuked them for not knowing "either the Scriptures or the power of God": "The children of this world marry; but those who have been judged worthy of a place in the other world, and of the resurrection from the dead, do not marry, for they are no longer subject to death. They are like angels; they are children of God, because they share in the resurrection" (Luke 20:34-36).

It is necessary, therefore, to reject as vain and illusory all the representations of the next life which are handed on in the popular imagination or by writings and paintings, even the greatest and most "spiritual": for example, the "Paradise" of Fra Angelico. Even more to be rejected are the sensual visions of certain renaissance artists and, above all, those from the romantic period, including those of visionaries such as E. Swedenborg and W. Blake.[10]

It is clear that such visions, pretending to reveal the mystery which surrounds man's life after death, make eternal life look ridiculous and just increase the doubts, already widespread, about the very existence of life after death.

Certainly between man's body on earth and the resurrected body there will be identity, because the constant teaching of the Church is that men will rise with their own bodies; but, according to many theologians, it will not be a question of material identity but of personal identity: the risen body will not be constituted by the same matter that the earthly body had, but it will have a personal identity with it, based on the transcendental relation which binds the soul to the body but whose nature escapes human comprehension. Really, if man is a profound mystery even in his earthly life, he is even more so in his eternal life. In any case, in the midst of so much obscurity and uncertainty we still have the absolute certainty that, in virtue of Christ's resurrection, man is destined to conquer death—and to live eternally with God, participating in his infinite happiness. Strengthened by this faith and this hope the Christian, even in the face of death which seems to be the victor in human history and to subject all mankind to its power, can throw down this challenge: "Death is swallowed up; victory is won! O Death, where is your victory? O Death where is your sting? . . . But thanks be to God! He gives us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ" (I Cor. 15:54-55. 57). •


1 Sein und Zeit, Neomarius, Tubingen 1949, 6th edition, 234.

2 Le Mythe de Sisphye, Gallimard, Paris 1943, 28-29.

3 Une Mort si douce, Gallimard, Paris 1964, 164.

4 Soliloquy II, XIX, 33.

5 Kritik der reinen Vernunft, A 828-831, B 856-859.

6 Immortalita dell'anima o risurrezione del morti?, Paideia, Brescia 1967, 25.

7 Cf. La Civilta Cattolica, 1990 IV, 432.

8 Thomas Aquinas, Summa contra Gentiles IV, 79.

9 Denz.-Schoenm. 1000-1001.

10 See C. Mac Dannel-B. Lang, Storia del Paradiso. Nella religione, nella letteratura, nell'arte, Garzanti Milano 1991.

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