14 August 2009

What happens after we die?

Heather Barrett, OP attended the Lay Dominican retreat last Saturday. She writes to ask: "One question has occurred to me. One thing mentioned at the retreat is that human persons are body and soul, integrated. Which I understand. But it makes me wonder what happens to us when we die and the body and soul separate. Who are we when in that state of separation? Are we still 'ourselves'?"

My attempt at an answer. . .

Human persons are body/soul. The best way to understand "person" is "substantial relationship," that is, a relationship that defines a substance (what a thing is). Without This Body, I am not Philip. Without This Soul, I am not Philip. And unless This Body and This Soul are in a substantial relationship, I am not a person.

We define death as the separation of the soul from the body. The soul is immortal. The body is not. At death, I will cease to be a person. I will cease being Philip. According to Catholic teaching, Benedictus Deus, my soul will be immediately judged and accordingly disposed--heaven, hell, purgatory.

Now things get murky. What about the body that was once in substantial relationship with my soul, making me Philip? Well, that body undergoes the natural process of decomposition. And awaits its resurrection.

If we understand the resurrection of the body as a future historical event, something will happen that will transform that body into a suitable element for a renewal of the substantial relationship with my soul, and I will once again be a person. If we understand the resurrection of the body to be an event that is always, already occurring from all-eternity, then something else happens to the body, and I am me wherever I find myself "after" death.

Here's the problem: we tend to think of the resurrection of the body in terms of future conditionals b/c we are embodied souls while still living, meaning as physical beings we experience the world as a continuous sequence of events located in space and measured in duration by time. However, at death, we are no longer embodied souls, so we do not experience space-time at all. This could mean that what we call the resurrection of body is an immediate consequence of death.

But my body is still physically present in the grave. So, what does it mean to say that my body is resurrected at the moment of death? I have no idea. The Church points to Christ's transfiguration as his promise of what happens to us at death. It is entirely unclear to me what transfiguration means for us.

We talk about a future resurrection of the body b/c it makes the most sense to us as embodied souls, i.e. as rational animals that live in space-time. What immortal life after death and the resurrection looks like is a Mystery.

Hope that helps a little. . .


  1. Anonymous9:55 AM

    It helps a little, but confuses a bunch... Then again, we're talking about a mystery.

    But one thing that baffled me was that upon separation of the soul from the body we're not persons anymore. What exactly does it mean, that I'm not an unique individual retaining my individuality, merged into a Hindu amalgam that is the divine? I sure hope not...


  2. What theological evidence (Scripture/Tradition) is there for the eternal/timeless understanding of the resurrection of the body? I understood it only in terms of future historical event -- after the general judgment. Moreover, I understood that only Jesus and Mary, in virtue of her assumption, presently enjoy glorified bodies (whatever those are).

  3. Joe, just my speculation...but it does make some kind of sense given what we know about the human person.

  4. Augustine,

    No, your soul is yours but you are not only your soul...I wish I had better answers, but I don't.

  5. Thank you, Father! Even though not a definite answer, this helps me think a bit more clearly and completely about the question.

    God be with you.

  6. Fr. Philip,

    I don’t comment much, but I really enjoy your blog!

    I actually wrote a paper about this exact topic when I was an undergraduate. I think I got a decent grade, but I’m not sure how successful the paper really was because I also couldn’t get past the idea of possibly ceasing to be a person upon death.

    In his book “The One and the Many,” the late Fr. Norris Clarke, SJ actually comes up with a very similar answer to the one you describe here, though he doesn’t describe it in as much detail. His also proposes that the nature of time and eternity may be such that you’re reunited with your body as soon as you reach heaven. (In any event, I’m sure that Fr. Clarke knows the correct answer now!)

    One question I still have, though, is how does this relate to the Incarnation? Specifically, how are we supposed to understand the three days Christ spent in the tomb?

  7. Anonymous4:52 PM

    I understand that a human being is not complete when the soul is separated from the body, but what's confusing me was your statement that the soul by itself is not a person anymore. So, what do you mean by "person"?


  8. Anonymous5:25 PM

    We are not just body and soul we are spirit as well although I would be hard put to define the difference.I honestly do not know how you can answer this since there are two judgments. The one after death and the final judgment.

    This final judgment obviously takes into account the fires of purgatory. I suppose someone will mention Limbo. Limbo is not a catholic place it is for the Hebrews only. Those who trul believe in their religion and follow the natural law as driven by conscience. I find ir almost horrificaly humorous when we seek some way out, a form of minimalism, as we try to make god follow our opinions on salvation and have some whacko idea that those who sinful by the definitions and teachings of the Church could go to limbo. It is like the little prayer after each decade of the Rosary. O my Jesus pardon our sins save us from the fires of hell and lead all souls to heaven, especially those in most need of your mercy. Supposed to be a prayer revealed to the children at Fatima. It was not. It was not lead but draw and especially thos most in need of You. To lead all souls would suppose He came and died again and opens Limbo for catholics. Not so He will never come twice. He has to die to open heaven. It is already opened for us and so many of us commit a spiritual suicide and still expect salvation without penance. How He will handle those hebrews in Limbo is His problem and I have no doubt He has an answer. Do not ever forget that even the tepid are in a state of grace, "A church teaching" this tepid lack of perfection will find you a ticket to purgatory, as will the private revelations of our own opinion

  9. in the words of one of the MDs at work when asked unanswerable questions (like how long Grandma's got left to live).....


    God Only Knows.


  10. Augustine, as I understand it, we are persons in so far as we are a body and soul--an embodied soul. There's a tendency--a Platonic tendency--among Christians to think that only the soul matters...the body is irrelevant except as a source of temptation.

    As a person, I am this body AND this soul. Not this soul shoved into a body...just any ole body that happened to be floating around. Remember that the early Church father used "person" to talk about how the 3 persons of the Trinity are related. Personhood is relational...essentially relational not just accidentally relational.

  11. Anon.,

    Yes, we are Body/Soul and the Spirit unites us to one another and to God...

    To be honest, I'm not following the rest of your comment...Limbo was never official Church teaching. It was speculated as an option for unbaptized babies.

  12. Anonymous12:34 PM

    Fr. P,

    I understand that we are spiritual and bodily creatures, the theological definition of man. From what you said, it seems that you understand a person as this man, but also that a person is relational.

    However, it seems to me that man is capable of having both spiritual and bodily relationships, such as our relationship with God in prayer and with neighbor.

    Evidently, after death, man can still have relationships with God, His angels and His saints, as Scripture tells us of Lazarus. So, if I understood you that only a person has relationships, then as incomplete disembodies souls, man still remains a person after death.

    Please, don't get me wrong, I don't think that we are only souls and that the body is an accident. The Lord, once He became a human being, took His body up to Heaven, that same body that's Mary's flesh and blood.

    Sorry for pestering you about this, when I lack the instruments to understand your terminology, and cthanks for your patience.

  13. John Kasaian9:37 AM

    Please set me straight on this---if Phillip is not Phillip if he is lacking either a body or a soul, then a saint (say Saint Phillip) must have both a body and soul in order to be...Saint Phillip?
    How else could saints do what saints do? Or is there some other kind of mojo at work?
    I'm attempting to read the Summa and Aquinas dosen't give a very clear, must less compelling picture of the state of a soul withou it's body. Would this then, be Purgatory?
    If everyone in Heaven is a saint, because they've become "perfected" since Heaven is a place of perfection and according to Aquinas imperfection would have no place there, it would seem to be the case.
    Right? Wrong? I'm connfused!

  14. John, you make a compelling case for why we can understand the resurrection of the body as an event that is simultaneous with death. Of course, we're still not sure what to make of the actual physical body left in the grave. Maybe that body rejoins the soul when we have "a new heaven and a new earth."