Does Christianity believe in the “immortality of the soul”?
THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:
Not exactly. And before anyone has a heart attack reading that, The Guy hastens to explain that Christianity has always vigorously affirmed the Easter message that earthly death is followed by everlasting life. But the oft-used phrase about a mere “immortality of the soul,” which stems from ancient Greek philosophy, could suggest bodily life is problematic and mistakenly suppose that our soul exists through all eternity as only a disembodied spirit.
Instead, Christianity teaches that just as Jesus arose bodily from the grave, so the promise of everlasting life involves a person’s eventual resurrection that unites the soul with the body in a newly glorified state. As with the central belief that Jesus was God incarnate in full human and bodily reality, this Christian affirmation about the afterlife proclaims that, as in Judaism, our bodies are God’s good creation and fundamental to each person’s human identity.
This understanding of New Testament teaching was defined orthodoxy as early as A.D. 180 in Against Heresies by Bishop Irenaeus of Lyons, an authority and saint for Catholic and Orthodox Christians:
“. . . It is manifest that the souls of his disciples also, upon whose account the Lord underwent these things, shall go away into the invisible place allotted to them by God, and there remain until the resurrection, awaiting that event; then receiving their bodies, and rising in their entirety, that is bodily, just as the Lord arose” (from book 5, chapter 31).
A precise Protestant formulation appears in the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Presbyterian credo from 1647 (here “men” refers to both genders):
“The bodies of men, after death, return to dust, and see corruption; but their souls (which neither die nor sleep), having an immortal subsistence, immediately return to God,” either “waiting for the full redemption of their bodies” or cast into hell. “At the last day, such as are found alive shall not die but be changed; and all the dead shall be raised up with the selfsame bodies, and none other, although with different qualities, which shall be united again to their souls forever” (from chapter 32).
The 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church has a more succinct version:
“In death, the separation of the soul from the body, the human body decays and the soul goes to meet God, while awaiting its reunion with its glorified body. God, in his almighty power, will definitively grant incorruptible life to our bodies by reuniting them with our souls through the power of Jesus’ Resurrection” (#997).
This raises the related mystery of the “intermediate state” and what Christianity says about the human soul’s existence between earthly death and its reunion with the body in the future resurrection.
The Catholic doctrine about souls’ preparation in Purgatory to meet God was formulated by the 15th Century Council of Florence and 16th Century Council of Trent. As the modern Catechism explains it, those who die in God’s grace are “assured of their eternal salvation but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.” For Catholicism, certain offenses against God can be forgiven only in the eternal state.
(The Guy here bypasses exploration of Catholic belief in the church’s power to grant “indulgences” for the remission of punishments in the afterlife. The late medieval church linked such relief with donations of money, a corrupt practice that helped spark the Protestant Reformation and was later denounced as “evil” by Trent. For current teaching on indulgences, see Catechism #1471-1479.)
During Eastertide 2020, such matters were examined by Adam Wood of Wheaton College (Illinois) in the quarterly Christian Scholar’s Review. A medieval specialist, he finds good Protestant grounds to agree with the great Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas, as follows.
There’s ongoing debate whether any disembodied souls exist in the life to come and that “Christian hope should be in the bodily resurrection alone.” If we are identical with our bodies, that rules out disembodied human persons and “souls” do not exist until the future resurrection.
Wood, however, insists that “human souls are capable of surviving death in a disembodied state” in which they remain capable of “conscious experiences.” There’s interesting discussion about whether and in what ways those experiences may be limited, but Wood considers it “wise to refrain from saying too much about ‘what it’s like’ to be a disembodied soul.”
But bodily resurrection is so central to the faith that he also asserts “human persons cease to exist between dying and rising again.” Under this view, known as “cessationist dualism,” souls continue on but we only become complete “human persons” when the body and soul exist together once again. Until the future resurrection occurs, “there will be no ‘us.’ ” Wood’s article is posted here: https://christianscholars.com/disembodied-souls-without-dualism-thomas-aquinas-on-why-you-wont-go-to-heaven-when-you-die-but-your-soul-just-might/
A distinctive version of “soul sleep” is taught by the Seventh-day Adventist Church, as in this:
“At death, the saints go to the grave. They will live again, but they come to life and live with Jesus after they are raised from the dead. While asleep in the tomb the child of God knows nothing. . . . One who serves God closes his eyes in death, and whether one day or two thousand years elapse, the next instant in his consciousness will be when he opens his eyes and beholds his blessed Lord” (from “Questions on Doctrine” #524).
Jehovah’s Witnesses also say no conscious soul can exist between death and future resurrection, but add belief in annihilation, that God totally extinguishes the lives of masses of the unrighteous.
In all candor The Guy needs to add that the widespread hope of eternal life is challenged by modern skepticism. Just last month unilad, a newsy British site aimed at youth, reported that physicist Sean Carroll at elite Caltech insisted “quantum field theory” means we humans are “nothing but atoms” so there’s “no way for the soul to survive death” and allow “information stored in our brains to persist after we die.”
This reflects an ideology known as “scientism,” defined by a fellow physicist, Ian Hutchinson of M.I.T., as the contention that “science, modeled on the natural sciences, is the only source of real knowledge.” By definition we can know nothing for certain in the humanities, philosophy, aesthetics, moral theology, or religion. (Oddly, unilad’s promotion of Easter skepticism repeated a London tabloid’s 2020 recycling of Carroll’s assertions back in 2011 for a Scientific American blog!)
Those interested in these perennial debates will want to read “Where Science and Miracles Meet” by another M.I.T. physicist, Alan Lightman, writing for theatlantic.com. He says scientific belief that the laws of nature are never violated and miracles cannot occur “has led to theories that may be unscientific.” Such scientists, just like religious believers, swear “allegiance to concepts that cannot be proved.” See www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2021/03/miracles-and-multiverses/618349/