What will happen to us after this earthly life? That’s a question for those born in the twenty-first century, or living over five thousand years ago. This thought process also goes for those that are Christians, Buddhists, or atheists entirely. While each individual may have his own ideas of what happens after death, not every idea is equal. As our Lord Jesus tells us, he is the way, the truth, and the life.
Only one of these various ideas on the afterlife can be true. One erroneous idea in particular that is especially pernicious today, even among Christians unfortunately, is the idea that our body is merely a shell. That is, upon death, our soul leaves our body which stays behind in the grave. Our soul is free from the shackles of the physical world and free to do anything we couldn’t do with our physical bodies. As Catholic Christians, we look to the teaching of the Church, which illuminates the Scriptures on this matter. Is heaven really just a place where our consciousness goes after death? Or is there something more to our bodies?
More than a Brain
In my teens, I used to often watch a sci-fi series called Ghost in the Shell, based on the animated movie of the same name. Set in the 2030’s (and released initially in the 1990’s), the series took a look at what most people would call “cyborgs”: part man, part machine. By this point of human history, “prosthetic bodies” had been created, allowing people to transfer their consciousness into a new body, indistinguishable from a regular human being. For those that had these prosthetic bodies, the only thing that was left of their actual bodies were there brains, which were inserted in “brain cases” housed inside the prosthetic body. This meant that a male could have his body placed into a female prosthetic body, or an older person could be inserted into a prosthetic body that appeared much younger.
In one episode, an old man had his brain case inserted into a prosthetic body that looked like a footstool on wheels no more than two feet high! We can clearly see where the phrase “ghost in the shell” came from. it is based on the thought that the human being is nothing more than a kind of consciousness, a ghost, who once free from the mortal coil of a body is able to express themselves in any way. After all, if you are only a soul or a consciousness, there really is no use for the body.
But all of this is simply a neo-gnosticism, which degrades the body to the point that physical matter is irrelevant at best, and evil at worst. While the stories within Ghost in the Shell are interesting to watch, it really is a nightmare world where the body itself becomes utterly disconnected from the soul, even reducing the body to just a simple brain.
The Resurrection of the Dead
As Christians, we must realize that human beings are a unity of body and soul. This composite is what makes a person a person. One cannot be a mere soul and one cannot be a mere body. The unity of the two is integral to personhood, which is why it is accurate to say that you are a soul and you are a body. The Catechism of the Catholic Church elaborates on this important point, completely dismissing the notion that the body is simply a repository for the soul:
“The human person, created in the image of God, is a being at once corporeal and spiritual. The biblical account expresses this reality in symbolic language when it affirms that ‘then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being’ (Gen. 2:7). Man, whole and entire, is therefore willed by God.”CCC 362
Scripture shows us that God immediately created man as a body and soul unity. God didn’t just have a soul sitting around, ready to put into a body. Instead, God breathed his very life into man, which is why man is said to be made in the image of God. This is where the idea of reincarnation completely falls flat. The soul is only a component of the human person. Reincarnation is the false idea that a soul floats around in the ether until it is put into a new body. But if we are Christians professing the Nicene Creed, the Faith given to us by our forbearers, then we see such ideas contradicted by the account of our Lord’s Resurrection.
When the angel at the tomb says “He is not here”, is he only referring to Jesus’ soul? Of course not, as the tomb is empty. Jesus, being resurrected from the dead, retains both his body and soul, and gives us hope for the “resurrection of the dead” that we profess during each Sunday Mass.
Spirit and Matter
Even the apostles, particularly St. Thomas (see John 20:24-29), had their doubts about Jesus being physically there in the room with them after the Resurrection. The apostles had “supposed that they saw a spirit” (Luke 24:37). Jesus then rebukes them, saying:
“Why are you troubled, and why do questionings rise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself; handle me, and see; for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have.”Luke 24:38-39
When Jesus came back to life and ascended into heaven, it was not his mere soul or consciousness that was the subject of his resurrection. It was his entire self, body, and soul. Citing St. Ambrose of Milan, Scott Hahn, and Curtis Mitch glean an important point from this passage:
“Jesus’ risen body prefigures the resurrected bodies of the saints. By convincing us of his own Resurrection, he likewise assures us of the physical nature of our own resurrection on the Last Day. Jesus’ risen body is truly physical but no longer earthly, since his humanity is now incorruptible and endowed with spiritual qualities. He for ever reigns in a human body”.
This is what we as Christians have to look forward to as well. Not merely our soul experiencing heavenly beatitude, but our whole selves which includes our physical bodies. The Catechism also speaks to this single nature of humanity, and is yet another way we reflect Christ. He has two natures, one that is human and one that is divine. That human nature of Christ does not get further divided, and so the same goes for us as well:
“The 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
Reunited for Eternity
Our own resurrection will then mirror Christ’s, as he assumed our flesh. He becomes the template for us, the very image in which we were created. Since Jesus reigns in heaven with his body, soul, and divinity intact, we too can look forward to that happy day when we will rise just as Christ did. We should dispense with all the silly saying like “getting rid of this mortal coil” and the like. Our body is important, and Christ has redeemed it.
One last analogy that might help comes from the Angelic Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas. He poses a simple question to his readers: “Whether the soul is man?” This brings us back to square one with Ghost in the Shell. Is the soul merely housed in a body, meaning that man is only a soul? St. Thomas bluntly answers:
“a hand, or a foot, is not called … a person; nor, likewise, is the soul alone so called, since it is a part of the human species.”Summa Theologica I. Q. 75, Art. 4, ad. 2
Our soul is a part of us, not the entirety of a person, and is intimately entwined with our bodies. Those same bodies have become temples of the Holy Spirit through our baptism. Let’s act like this is the case, and “look forward to the life to come” where our souls and bodies will be reunited for eternity, in conformity to the very person of our Lord Jesus.
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Nicholas LaBanca is a cradle Catholic and hopes to give a unique perspective on living life in the Catholic Church as a millennial. His favorite saints include his patron St. Nicholas, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. John Mary Vianney, and St. Athanasius of Alexandria.