Dear Fr. Leo: What happens to our souls when our bodies die? Does it go with our spirits up to God for initial judgment? I have a good friend from a new religious movement who believes that the soul remains with the dead body until Christ returns. At the same time, I would like to know what the Bible says on the topic.
Semper fi, S.
This is a great question. To answer it, let’s look at it in terms of a much larger one. Namely, what is our eternal destiny as human beings?
To be a human being is a wonderful thing. Human nature is unique in all of creation in that we have a body AND a soul. Nothing else in the universe does. (Although a good Thomist might be able to make a pretty good case for dogs to have an emotional, if not a rational, soul. Not surprisingly, the jury is still out on cats.) Angels, for example, are purely spiritual beings. They don’t have a body.
God never does anything halfway. When Christ redeemed humanity, he redeemed the totality of our being – body and soul. In this light, the resurrection of Jesus and, eventually, the resurrection of all the dead makes sense. It is the fulfillment of God’s plan at the end of the age when Christ comes in glory. At the end of the Age of Grace, we don’t metamorphosize into something else; we become what God intended us to be perfectly human – body and soul.
So, what happens in the meantime? Are we sort of left hanging, as your friend suggests? Hardly. The loving God has a better plan. As you mentioned, much of this comes from the Sacred Tradition passed down to us from the apostles and in Sacred Scripture, which bears privileged witness to the Tradition. Here, we talk about the four last things: death, judgment, heaven or hell.
Your reference here in the Catechism is Paragraph 1020 and the following.
Death – At the moment of death, there is most definitely a separation of the soul from the body. This is the definition of death when the animating spiritual part of the human being departs from the corporeal (the body). So what happens next?
Particular Judgment – As the Catechism says, “Death puts an end to human life as the time open to either accepting or rejecting the divine grace manifested in Christ.” (CCC, 1021). While Scripture speaks primarily about the judgment at the end of the age, there is also a strong affirmation of an immediate “particular judgment” of each individual. Jesus’s parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is a good example of this. (Cf. Lk 16:22; 23:43; Mt 16:26; as well as 2 Cor 5:8; Phil 1:23; Heb 9:27; 12:23.)
Heaven or Hell – At this point, the spirit experiences the reality of the relationships which we formed in life with Christ and others. If we have died in a perfect state of grace, we immediately enter eternal communion with Christ and all the Blessed. If in a less-than-perfect state, then after a bit of purification. When we talk about this “purging” or “purgatory” state, we are making a statement about God’s mercy. Think about it. You never go straight from the field to the homecoming dance. You hit the showers and get cleaned up first so that you are presentable. Then you go to the party. It’s sort of like that.
Sadly, if we have rejected or continually neglected communion with Christ and his Church, then the outcome is more dire. “Hell,” as we call it, is the opposite of communion; it is the total separation from God and others. This eternal isolation truly is the death of the soul and a tormented existence. Furthermore, it is truly tragic when we realize that Christ does not condemn anyone. Everyone who is in hell has freely chosen to be there.
Final Judgment and the End of the Age – At a certain point, the present age will come to an end. Here, God’s plan reaches its fulfillment at the resurrection of the dead. Your Scripture verses here are: 2 Pet 3:13; Rev 21:1; Eph 1:10; Rev 21:5; Rev 21:4, among others.
This is where things get fun! This is “the hour when all who are in the tombs will hear [the Son of man’s] voice and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment.” (Jn 5:28-29) It should be quite a show. At this point, we finally become what God has created us to be, body and soul. We become perfectly human.
In this life and the next, the key is the depth of our relationships with Christ and with others. Making a relationship grow is not rocket science. It only takes two things: time and attention. The time and attention we give to Christ and others is the “treasure in heaven” that will determine our final destiny once our pilgrim journey in this life is at an end.
Got a question about the Church or the Faith? Fr. Leo Walsh, JCL, STD, is your local canon lawyer and theologian. He currently serves in the Archdiocese as Judicial Vicar and Pastor of St. Patrick’s in Anchorage. Email your question to: email@example.com.