Soul Searching: When out Earthly Lives End, Where Do We Go from Here?

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WHERE DO ALL THE LOST SOULS GO? FOR THAT matter, where do any souls go, including those that depart this world with a precise roadmap of the hereafter tucked into their ethereal pockets?

Scripture has many wonderful words about the life of the world to come, but few give much satisfaction as to the details. Among my favorites are these lines from the Second Letter to Timothy: "If we have died with him, we shall also live with him" (2:11). This seems to be part of a Christian hymn familiar to the early communities. A strong endorsement precedes it: "This saying is trustworthy." It had better be. Timothy and others are betting their lives on it.

Balanced between two worldviews, Jewish and Greek, those first Christians must have round the prospect of banking on life-after-death to be a confusing affair. Judaism taught one thing about the nature of the soul, the Greeks another. If eternal life was the best thing Christianity had going for it, a clearer picture of that existence might have enhanced its marketability.

The cloud of unknowing that surrounds our central Christian hope remains problematic in the modern assembly. At a recent diocesan religious education forum, Catholic lay leaders were asked how many believed in "the resurrection of the body" as part and parcel of "life everlasting." The response was incredibly low. Perhaps we've all seen too many zombie movies to imagine that our bodies, once dead and gone, can possibly be alive and well again at some future date. Even those who profess faith in a posthumous body-soul reunion every Sunday may be secretly investing hopes in the side of that duality that is presently undetectable.

Since the hinge moment of the Christian story is the resurrection of one particular body, it's odd that some of us are willing to believe in his and not in ours. But what's equally strange is that we seem more willing to believe in the soul, a thing we can't see with our hands and touch, over and against bodily resurrection--body, at least, being a concept with which we have some acquaintance. The question insinuates itself again: What exactly is the soul, this invisible golden parachute which so many of us intend to ride into eternity?

THE HEBREW CONCEPT OF SOUL IS GROUNDED IN THE NEFESH, the breath of life. This breath originated with God and was communicated to the first person quite literally. Yet life-breath was never regarded as a disembodied reality. Because human life originated with the union of divine breath and earthly substance, human life could not be defined without both. The nefesh resided in human blood, and so the saying later made popular by Dracula was noted in the law: The blood is the life (Lev. 17:11; Deut. 12:23). Jewishly speaking, one does not have a body and a soul; one is a soul-body by definition.

Early Hebrew ideas about afterlife were similar to their neighbors: In short, there was no such thing. Once the breath-blood bond was severed, human life ended. Some vestigial consciousness went down into the underworld (Sheol), but it was a shadow incapable of energy or action. In a thinly disguised bribe, prophets and psalmists would remind God: The netherworld is no place from which to expect thanks and praise (Isa. 38:18; Ps. 6:6).

It would take a mindset that could separate body and soul into neat and discrete parts to define soul proactively. Ancient philosophers viewed the soul as an ultimate internal principle by which we think, feel, and will. Pythagoreans talked about soul as a harmony like mathematics: something true and balanced that shared the essence of the universe and therefore could not cease to exist. This "world-soul" existed in a conglomerate before and after individual human death.

Platonic language was less tranquil. Pitting soul against body, Platonists saw physical life as a violence the soul had to temporarily endure, a prison we should long to escape. …