The “Soul Fixed at Death” Thingie

The “Soul Fixed at Death” Thingie January 2, 2014

A reader writes:

I’m sure you get a heroic amount of email, so if you’re reading this at all: Thank You! I have a question that’s bothered me nearly every day since I came back home to Rome: Isn’t the whole “state of your soul fixed at death” thing sort of arbitrary?

I understand the illogic of there not being any cut-off date, and I get that if everyone knew exactly how much time they had left there could be some problems re: the “drink tonight for tomorrow we repent” attitude, but, seriously? One accident and then—poof—your soul is frozen in amber like so many dino-DNA containing rocks?

You can imagine the relevant hypotheticals. Sure God might (in His mercy) give everyone a last-moment chance at repentance/forgiveness, but the injustice I think I see is the injustice towards him who would have sought said last-moment chance of repentance had he liven another twenty years.

That’s it. Thank you in advance whether you can answer this or not!

I think we have to remember that we are dealing here with the mystery of revelation.  Any discussion of what happens to the soul at death is basically something where we are flying blind and can only rely on what Jesus, who oughtta know, tells us.  As such, I take it on faith, much as I take on faith the weird things Einstein tell me, cuz I know nothing, and he knows what he’s talking about.

Acting on that basis–that God knows what he’s talking about and I don’t–I then look at things and it occurs to me that I may not know what I’m talking about when I use the word “accident”.  For of course God is hard to surprise.  There are no “accidents” to him who sees the end from the beginning.

Also, I’m a bit skeptical that “fixed” is exactly the right word if it communicates the notion that those in Purgatory or Heaven are no longer free.  Those in Hell have abandoned–freely–their own freedom and imprisoned themselves in their own paralyzing pride.  But those who have chosen Life are “fixed” only in the sense that they will to continue growing in Him Who is Life forever.

Dunno if that helps, but it makes sense to me.

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  • Having studied just enough Thomas Aquinas to be dangerous – which falls far short of the amount I’d have to study to be useful – I have noodled this question a bit myself. The tentative answer that is mostly convincing to me at present is: the soul is the form of a physical body; therefore it is incomplete without a physical body, and cannot fully act on its own. Death is defined as the separation of the soul from the body, and we will be bodiless until the resurrection and final judgment. No body, no action, so no ability to repent or change the moral “status” of our lives.

    Now, as Mark points out, this causes problems with whether/how saints can intercede, and souls in purgatory do penance. All I can think is that these actions are accomplished through the grace of God rather than by “natural” powers of the soul. But I haven’t really searched for what Thomas says about that – dangerous, not useful, remember? – and it’s entirely possible I’m wading in materially heretical waters. So I’m open to correction if I’m off base.

    • johnmc

      I think the principle involved here is not that departed souls can’t act, as that their basic action is immutable.

      This side of the grave we have a changeable body and an eternal soul, and the changeable body affects the spirit and gives us the power to change our minds radically. When we leave our body we are no longer changeable-body-plus-unchanging-spirit but unchanging-spirit-only. This affects our action and renders it immutable at its most basic level; our most central actions (including the basic choice of good or evil) are assimilated closely to the unchanging spirit and cannot change, while more peripheral actions are less closely assimilated to the unchanging spirit and can change.

      So change of fundamental moral option is possible in the mortal body but not for a pure spirit.

      A corollary of this is that a being who is pure spirit from the beginning is eternally good or evil. This is reflected in the teaching of the church that angels once they have chosen good can’t become devils, and devils can’t repent.

      As far as the question of “What if the guy who had died accidentally would have repented?” I don’t think there is a “would”. He might have repented or he might not. Similarly a guy who dies by accident in a state of grace might have fallen from grace in the next twenty years or might have not. Sudden death deprives you of chances for goodness, but also of chances for further sin. I think these compensate each other somehow.


      • You raise some good points.

        After death, the soul certainly persists. I’m wary of making it too like an angel (pure spirit), though, insofar as it remains the soul of a body. The act of an angel is a perfect act, while the act of a disembodied soul is imperfect. The whole relation of the disembodied soul to time and change is complex question.

        I’m also wary of “fundamental moral option” language, which does make a certain sense for unchanging spirits like angels, but does not fit well with us mortals who have distinguishable and consecutive actions. (After all, we’re to be judged on our deeds, not on our option.) I understand that you’re distinguishing between our ability to make consecutive and different acts while in the body, and a singular unchanging act when separated; but I’m not convinced that a disembodied soul does make a singular unchanging act.

        Gosh, it’s fun to start the new year with a philosophical/theological debate! Thank you!

        • johnmc

          I agree with your second paragraph.

          As far as fundamental moral options are concerned, this side of the grave our fundamental moral option is not set in stone, until the last moment. After death however probation ceases (Ecclesiastes 11: 3). Purgatory is not a second probation but more like passing your DPhil but having to incorporate the examiners’ corrections in your thesis.

          With regard to judgement I think we are judged on our fundamental option AND our deeds.

          With regard to unchanging acts after death I think there is a central “level” or basic consciousness in the departed soul that doesn’t change, and a more peripheral level that does change. We will still make choices after death (esp. after resurrection), but the big one of good or evil will be irrevocable.

          Thanks for your polite comments.


  • LJ

    I think we should also all remember that the miraculous part of redemption is that we’re permitted to repent AT ALL, not just get one more chance at the moment of death. It’s not “arbitrary” that God does not allow evil to persist forever– which is what unrepentant sin is, even “minor” or “trivial” sins. NO sin can enter God’s presence (i.e. heaven), and so at death we will either suffer the amputation of any remaining sinful parts of our lives (Purgatory = the process of purging us of sin and its residuals) or the sins we cling to will drag us away from any possible source of redemption. Sins aren’t “accidents”– they are things we choose to do.
    I’d further add that we are all better off losing the sin at the soonest possible moment– it is, even in this world, liberation from slavery and should be sought with as much determination and eagerness. Not with the attitude, oops, I accidentally sold myself back into bondage just once, and sheesh, God’s all serious about it this time.

  • capaxdei

    As the old story has it, when the demons debated on how best to tempt mankind, “There is no heaven” came in third, “There is no hell” came in second, and “There is no hurry” came in first.

    I’ll add that, just because we can imagine someone dying in mortal sin who would have repented the next day, it doesn’t follow that such a person ever has, or ever will, exist.