Author: ks. Mieczysław Piotrowski TChr,
The doctrinaire atheists of the old Soviet Union used to mock those who believed in an immortal soul. It could not exist, they claimed, since it could not be seen on an X-ray. Others were convinced that the human soul constituted a material energy that could be quantified and studied. Still others considered the soul as the mere product of the human cerebral cortex, or else–sheer fantasy.
Those who do not believe in God or the immortal soul should simply realize that spiritual reality is not accessible to sensory perception and that it cannot be discovered otherwise than through an honest and methodical search after Truth Itself–something that infinitely transcends the reality of our physical senses. Thus, for example, it would make no sense at all to seek wisdom and knowledge by studying an MRI scan of the human brain. The spiritual dimension of our humanity, that is, our immortal soul, is only discoverable through its active manifestations such as thought, love, goodness, moral sense, conscience, self-awareness, etc. We need to listen with an attitude of humility to those men of science who seek the truth sincerely and without ideological bias. Nobel laureate Sir John C. Eccles (see previous article) was one such scientist. Based on his study of the human brain, he asserted that only an immaterial subject was capable of creating thoughts and mental phenomena. Consciousness could not be a product of matter. This line of reasoning led him to conclude that a spiritual human soul exists–an immaterial mind that makes use of the material brain and acts through it.
Manifestations of the spiritual soul
It is a basic truth of the Christian faith that at the moment of human fertilization, i.e. the union of the male and female gametes, God creates and infuses into the resulting zygote an individual immortal soul that does not perish upon its separation from the body at death. It is thanks to this soul that we bear the image and likeness of God, a seed of eternity, which “cannot be reduced to mere matter” (Gaudium et spes, 18; cf. 14).
When we speak of the immortal human soul, we are touching the mystery of the human “I” along with its consciousness, inner freedom, thought, love, imagination, and creativity. Of all creatures only man has reason, free will, consciousness, and the ability to reflect on himself. By means of thought, he can enter spiritually into the macro- and micro-cosmos, come to know it, create knowledge, reason, make judgments and evaluations, and form abstract notions. Man’s ability to communicate through language, grammar, and logic (abilities not shared by animals) are other clear manifestations of the spiritual element within him. Moreover, man is constantly making progress in knowledge and civilization (from the abacus to the computer, from the bow-and-arrow to space rockets, etc.), whereas animals always do the same things in the same way.
By virtue of his spiritual soul man is a rational and free being, has self-awareness, is open to the truth of love, goodness, and beauty, and has a conscience and a moral sense–thanks to which he can tell right from wrong and believe or disbelieve in God. None of these manifestations of spiritual life are present in animals, and this for the simple reason that they do not have a spiritual soul. Only people of extraordinary naiveté and no common sense can believe in reincarnation. From the moment of conception, man’s harmonious development is programmed by the “information” (genetic code) contained in every cell of the human organism. This ingenious encoded information organizes the development of the body, governs it, and gives it direction. In combining, giving life to, and shaping matter in such a way as to make it become the body of a unique person, our genetic code is a sign of the existence and activity of the individual human soul. The soul manifests itself in the human body and is present in every cell of the human organism as the spiritual reality of the “self.”
The fact of bilocation
The existence of the spiritual soul is attested by the many documented cases of bilocation in the lives of the saints. Thanks to a special gift from God, holy men and women are able to come to the assistance of the needy by translating themselves in spirit to places often thousands of miles away. The body remains where it is, but the soul is simultaneously present in another place in order to provide a work of mercy. Even though it is a spiritual presence, other people are able to see and converse with the soul.
Visitations by souls from purgatory
The existence of the human soul and its continued life upon the death of the body are also attested by the fact of suffering souls visiting people on earth from purgatory in order to secure their prayers. We have numerous documented cases of holy people to whom God has imparted the special charism of meeting suffering souls who seek prayers and expiation for their sins. It should be stressed that this is a gift specially granted by God. Any attempt on our own to summon up and communicate with the souls of the dead at a spiritist séance is to open ourselves up to the action of evil spirits. Demons are perfectly capable of disguising themselves and impersonating a dead person; for this reason, such practices are always a serious sin.
Near death experiences
Near death experiences also testify to the human soul’s existence and endurance after death. In their book Immortality: The Other Side Of Death, Gary R. Habermas and J.P. Moreland have documented numerous instances of people, including sightless people, who suffered clinical death. One blind man experienced clinical death as a result of a tragic accident. After regaining consciousness, he was able to describe in the minutest detail the manner in which the medical staff resuscitated him. All this, he had observed through the “eyes” of his soul. Other people, blind from birth, have also described the process of their resuscitation. These descriptions include details such as the color of the clothing and jewelry worn by members of the medical personnel.
The disappearance of brain waves for a given period is currently the most important indicator of natural death. But there have been cases of people whose encephalogram (EEG) indicated a total cessation of brain waves, i.e. their brain had stopped functioning; and yet documented evidence shows that during this period of clinical death when the patient’s brain had stopped working, the mind had registered and later, after resuscitation, was able to recall the smallest details of the events taking place precisely during this period of “brain death.” Here is clear evidence that human consciousness does not depend on the brain and continues to exist after the death of the body.
Habermas and Moreland describe the case of a woman whose EEG indicated brain death and who consequently had been pronounced dead. Yet three and a half hours later, when her body was being removed to the morgue, the woman suddenly regained consciousness and lifted the sheet covering her face. Later, she recounted that she had been floating over her body throughout the resuscitation attempts and seen and heard everything. She remembered every detail from the time her brain had been in a state of clinical death. The astounded doctors were forced to declare that the patient’s account of the event was in total accord with the truth.
The unity of soul and body
Man is a physical-spiritual unity. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “[T]he unity of soul and body is so profound that one has to consider the soul to be the ‘form’ of the body; i.e., it is because of its spiritual soul that the body made of matter becomes a living human body; spirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature” (CCC, 365).
Pope John Paul II recalled the Church’s teaching regarding the unity of the human being in his encyclical Splendor veritatis: “The spiritual and immortal soul is the principle of unity of the human being, whereby it exists as a whole–corpore et anima unus–as a person. These definitions not only point out that the body, which has been promised the resurrection, will also share in glory. They also remind us that reason and free will are linked with all the bodily and sense faculties. The person, including the body, is completely entrusted to himself, and it is in the unity of body and soul that the person is the subject of his own moral acts” (SV, 48).
Science tells us that the matter constituting the human body, including the brain, undergoes a complete change at the atomic level every seven to nine years. Despite this, we do not become new persons every seven to nine years. What causes the human being to remain one and the same person despite the passage of time is the spiritual soul, which is the basis of unity. Man is a union of body and soul. He is unable to think of himself apart from his body. He cannot treat it as useless ballast. Modern theology tells us that the body is the soul’s material representation–its self-realization. The human soul always bears reference to a material body, even after death, when, living in Christ, it “awaits” its bodily resurrection. Seen in this light, reincarnation is a total negation of the truth of the human person as revealed by Christ. Holy Scripture clearly states that, “it is appointed that human beings die once, and after this the judgment” (Heb 9:27); “Recall him not, for there is no hope of his return” (Sir 38:21). Reincarnation endorses the racist caste ideology underlying Hinduism and denies the unrepeatability of our life on earth when we decide our eternal future–salvation or damnation. Those who espouse reincarnation reject Christ and open themselves up to the power of evil spirits.
Since the soul is a spiritual reality, it transcends the world of matter and is by its nature immortal, for God always keeps it in existence. God invites every man and woman to love, that is, to be an unselfish gift of themselves to Another. He invites everyone into a community with Himself through Christ in the Holy Spirit. The possession of a soul, observed Cardinal Ratzinger (now Benedict XVI), means that the human being is wanted, known, and loved by God. It means that we are creatures called by God into an eternal dialog of love with Him. If we chose to reject this invitation, to remain stubbornly in a state of sin, and to refuse to allow Him in His Boundless Love to work the miracle of our forgiveness, then we are on our way to that supreme tragedy which is the eternal hell of selfishness. By consciously choosing evil, we can totally destroy our capacity to love and break the ties of love that bind us to God and others–that is, we can chose hell. But what we cannot do is destroy ourselves, for the personal “I,” which God keeps in existence, is indestructible. We can destroy our bodies, but we do not have the power to destroy our souls.
Fr. M. Piotrowski SChr
The above article was published with permission from "Love One Another!" in June 2016.