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The Immortality of the Soul

Fr Peter Bristow

In the famous passage from As You Like It, Shakespeare seems to be harping on the meaninglessness and futility of human existence if it is limited to the seven ages of man. His references to the "mewling and puking" infant, the whining schoolboy "creeping like snail unwillingly to school," and the soldier "full of strange oaths," are not very complimentary to this present life. And the last age seems to confirm this view:

Last scene of all, That ends this strange eventful history, Is second childishness and mere oblivion, Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

Is he not suggesting we have to look beyond this present existence to the meaning of it?

The Whole Man

The trouble with materialism is that it tends to lead people to see man only in material terms, thus neglecting his transcendence over the world and his immortality. There is a good deal of agnosticism about eternal life in the contemporary world. One hears people comment, for example, that, at best, they are prepared to be surprised by a future life. It is based on a misunderstanding of what man is, a radical impoverishment of his true nature.

Christians, however, hope for much greater things and have no such doubts. As St Paul writes to the Thessalonians: "Make no mistake, brethren, about those who have gone to their rest; you are not to lament over them as the rest of the world does, with no hope to live by. We believe, after all, that Jesus underwent death and rose again; just so when Jesus comes back God will bring back those who have found rest through him."
[1] Or, as the Book of Wisdom reminds us: "The souls of the virtuous are in the hands of God, no torment shall ever touch them. In the eyes of the unwise, they did appear to die, their going looked like a disaster, their leaving us, like annihilation; but they are in peace."[2] Jesus tells Nicodemus: "God loved the world so much that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but may have eternal life."[3] And, finally, speaking to the Corinthians, St Paul is quite explicit: "Our present perishable nature must put on imperishability and this mortal nature must put on immortality."[4]

The Biblical Tradition

Central to the question is the nature of the soul. It may be defined as the life principle of a creature, that which gives it self-movement and growth, but while an animal has a corporeal soul, man's is spiritual. The Book of Genesis makes this clear in its description of man's creation: "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." [5] In the first account of creation in the previous chapter we read: "Then God said, 'Let us make man in our image, after our likeness'.'[6] Man is thus a spiritual and material being at the same time, different from the animals and other material objects, as the continuation of the account makes clear, since man alone is capable of knowing, then naming them and recognizing that he was different from them.[7]

The human person is a unity, but containing the duality of body and soul. It is often said that the Bible refers to man using the term "body" to designate the whole man and stress his personal unity.
[8] This is true, but the duality of man is equally emphasized in biblical tradition, as, for example: "Do not fear those who deprive the body of life but cannot destroy the soul."[9]

Some stress the bodily unity of man so much that they leave no room for an individual, immortal soul, taking refuge in a sort of collective immortality. This bears some resemblance to the medieval doctrine of the Islamic philosopher, Averroes, according to which there is one soul for the human race in which all individuals participate. As against this, at the Fifth Lateran Council, the Church stated:

The soul is not only truly, of its own nature and essentially, the form of the human body ... but also it is immortal and, corresponding to the number of bodies in which it is infused, is capable of being multiplied in individuals, is actually multiplied, and must be multiplied.'

The doctrine of the individuality of the soul is underlined by the teaching on evolution in
Humani Generis which states that the moment the human person comes into existence a soul is created and infused by God into the matter. [11]


Using terminology derived from Aristotle and elaborated by St Thomas Aquinas, the Council of Vienne in 1312 had already called the soul "the substantial form of the body." [12] The "form" here does not refer to the shape, precisely because it is spiritual, but rather refers to that which gives identity to the person as well as life and movement. This principle cannot be material since the matter of the body changes completely every few years and hence the person would have no continuing identity, so it must be immaterial. In the case of the person, the soul is intrinsically independent of matter (in animals it is not) and hence what we call spiritual. In other words, it is capable of actions, such as self-reflexion, which would not be possible to a material organ. Being spiritual the soul is not made of parts and therefore cannot corrupt. This bears out the statement of the Bible that "man was made for incorruptibility." [13]

In the Constitution on the Church in the World, Vatican II put it this way:

"Man is not deceived when he recognizes himself to be superior to bodily things to be no mere speck in nature or anonymous element in the body politic. There are interior resources in him which can transcend the world of experience. ... When he recognizes his own soul as spiritual and immortal he is not the victim of some vain fancy coming from his physical or social condition, but is penetrating to the heart of the matter."[14]

How We Know

It is worthy of note here how we have derived information about such an unobservable principle as the soul, namely by its actions. This is an application of the old philosophical adage: agere sequitur esse ("action follows being") and therefore by observing the actions we can deduce back to the being of things. Some of man's actions can only flow from a spiritual principle, as, for example, his use of language and his power of self-consciousness. Man's linguistic ability indicates the degree of his knowledge. He is able not only to know individual things by sensation as do animals, but he knows what kind of things they are (essences) and is able to give them common names (universals). Furthermore, he is able to know other "universals" such as good and evil, and to make choices. As the Book of Sirach tells us: "He made for them tongue and eyes; he gave them ears and a mind for thinking. He filled them with knowledge and understanding and showed them good and evil."[15]

We can now understand better "the interior resources in man" which can transcend the world of experience. It is of the utmost importance to defend the human being against those who want to make him either into an advanced animal or a complicated machine. This is what I mean by an impoverished concept of man. The difference is in his spiritual nature and the proof of it is in his actions. "Tireless ingenuity over centuries has brought him remarkable advances in the empirical sciences, in the liberal arts and in technology. Especially in our own time he has been successful in subduing the material world to his purposes."
[16] Animals have neither advanced nor subdued the world, and machines have done nothing except as instruments of man.

Drawbacks of Dualism

Man is thus "an individual substance of rational nature" characterized by the two principal faculties of the soul, namely intellect and will, which nevertheless work through the material organs of the senses. This carefully balanced unity of man has always been threatened by the dualism of the Platonic and Cartesian schools. The drawbacks of this position are considerable and dangerous. To say, as Descartes does, that man is two substances of body and soul, is to make a satisfactory connection between them impossible.

Such a position has been held up to ridicule, notably by Gilbert Ryle, who describes the dualistic concept of man as "the ghost in the machine." To characterize the soul as a ghost is to play into the hands of materialists who can properly say: if we cannot know the soul, then what use have we for it?

Hence the need to give an orthodox view of man as an incarnate spirit or, if you like, a body informed by an immortal spirit. The two realities of body and soul are separable, but not separate in this life, and form one substance. The separation of the two is precisely what constitutes death and the soul has the capacity to be a substance in itself, existing as a disembodied soul. Nevertheless, even after death, the soul does not cease to "aspire" to be reunited to the body, in view of the previous substantial unity between the two.

The glorified body will be so dominated by the soul after the final resurrection, that it too by that time will be immune from corruption. The mortality of man's body, "sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything," will be clothed in immortality. The "mere oblivion" to which he is apparently consigned finds its explanation in eternal life.


1. 1 Thess. 4,12-13;

2. Wisdom 3,1-2;

3. John 3,16;

4. 1 Cor. 15,53;

5. Gen. 2,7;

6. Gen.1,26;

7. Gen. 2, 18-20;

8. e.g. Ps. 144,21 and Is. 66,23;

9. Matt. 10,28;

10. Fifth Lateran Council, 1518, Dz. 1440 or 738;

11. Pius XII, Humani Generis, 1950, Dz. 3896;

12. Council of Vienne, 1312, Dz. 902;

13. Wisdom 2,23;

14. Gaudium et Spes no. 14

15. Sirach 17,5-6;

16. Gaudium et Spes no. 15.

Copyright ©; Fr Peter Bristow 2000

This version: 26th December 2004

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