Is the Soul Immortal?
QUIETLY, friends and family file by the open casket. They gaze at the body, that of a 17-year-old boy. His friends from school hardly recognize him. Chemotherapy has thinned his hair; cancer has caused him to lose a lot of weight. Can this really be their friend? Just weeks before, he was so full of ideas, of questions, of energy—of life! The boy’s mother tearfully repeats over and over: “Tommy’s happier now. God wanted Tommy in heaven with him.”
This heartbroken mother finds some measure of hope and solace in the idea that somehow her son still lives. In church she has been taught that the soul is immortal, that it is the seat of personality, thoughts, memories—the “self.” Her son’s soul, she believes, has not died at all; a living spirit being, it left his body at death and went to heaven to be with God and the angels.
In a time of tragedy, the human heart clings desperately to any ray of hope, so it is not hard to see why this belief holds much appeal. Consider, for instance, the way theologian J. Paterson-Smyth expresses himself in The Gospel of the Hereafter: “Death is a very small thing in comparison with what comes after it—that wonderful, wonderful, wonderful world into which Death ushers us.”
Around the world and in many religions and cultures, people believe that man has an undying soul within him, a conscious spirit that continues to live after the body dies. The belief is all but universal in Christendom’s thousands of religions and sects. It is an official doctrine in Judaism too. Hindus believe that the atman, or soul, was created at the beginning of time, is imprisoned in the body at birth, and moves on at death to another body in a continuous cycle of reincarnations. Muslims believe that the soul comes into being with the body and lives on after the body dies. Other faiths—the African animist, the Shinto, even the Buddhist in a way—teach variations on this same theme.
Some Troubling Questions
While the notion of an immortal soul has undeniable and nearly universal appeal, it nonetheless raises some disturbing questions. For example, people wonder where the soul of a loved one goes if that one has led a less than exemplary life. Will he be reincarnated as some lower form of life? Or is he sent to purgatory, where he will be cleansed by some fiery process until deemed worthy to go to heaven? Worse yet, is he to be tortured forever in a burning hell? Or is he, as many animist religions teach, a spirit who must be appeased?
Such concepts create burdensome prospects for the living. Are we to appease the spirits of our dead loved ones lest they wreak vengeance on us? Are we supposed to help them get out of some terrible purgatory? Or are we simply to shudder in helpless horror at the thought of their suffering in hell? Or are we to treat some living animals as though they carried the souls of deceased humans?
The questions that arise concerning God himself are scarcely more comforting. For instance, many parents, like the mother mentioned at the outset, are at first comforted by the notion that God “took” their child’s immortal soul to heaven to be with him. For many, though, it is only a matter of time before they begin wondering what kind of God would inflict some hideous illness on an innocent child, ripping that precious one away from heartbroken parents simply to move the child to heaven ahead of schedule. Where is the justice, the love, the mercy, in such a God? Some even question the wisdom of such a God. Why, they ask, would a wise God put all these souls on the earth to begin with if all of them are supposed to end up in heaven anyway? Would that not mean that the creation of the earth was really an enormous waste?—Compare Deuteronomy 32:4; Psalm 103:8; Isaiah 45:18; 1 John 4:8.
Clearly, then, the doctrine of the immortality of the human soul, in whatever form the doctrine is taught, brings up puzzling questions, even inconsistencies. Why? Much of the trouble has to do with the origins of this teaching. You may find it enlightening to explore these roots briefly; and you may be surprised to learn what the Bible itself says about the soul. It offers a far better hope for life after death than the world’s religions commonly teach.