What Happens to Your Soul When You Die? A Response to Kimberley Fosu
Ms. Fosu recently published an article entitled ‘What Happens to Your Soul When You Die?’ (According to the Bible). At the end she says that she wants to know our thoughts, so these are mine. (Before I begin I should say that, although I am going to be critical here, I usually enjoy her work on Medium, and agree with much of what she says.)
She begins by assuming that there are certain things that we want to hear, but that “truths are better”. The principal thing that we want to hear is that “the soul lives after death… we don’t disappear into nothing when we die”. Her uncomfortable truth is that the soul dies with the body. However the spirit apparently lives on, which might suggest that we don’t disappear into nothing after all. Does it really make that much difference what we call the surviving part? The problem here is that at no point does she offer a definition of the term soul, so we have no idea what she intends us to understand by it. All we know is that the soul is something which is apparently born with the body, dies along with it, but which can mysteriously be brought back into existence later. What exactly might that be in biological, psychological or spiritual language?
We don’t even know what we are meant to understand by ‘spirit’, which has more than one meaning in English. She seems to want to associate it with a high level of being, something that belongs to God. As we all know, however, it can also mean an apparition or ghost, alternatively passion or enthusiasm (he or she played with spirit). And what about this? The Oxford English Dictionary gives as its first definition of spirit “the non-physical part of a person which is the seat of emotions and character; the soul!” So for this authoritative source, there is no difference between spirit and soul. We therefore need some clarification from her.
My next criticism is that she doesn’t take into account the fact that our English versions of the Bible have been translated from ancient Greek and Hebrew. Is it possible that some parts of the texts might have lost something in translation? That’s even before we pose the question, did writers hundreds and thousands of years ago have the same understanding as us of words like spirit and soul?
Then we have to consider which translation to use. Ms. Fosu quotes Genesis (2.7): “God formed man out of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul”, and then comments: “He didn’t put a soul into the body. He put his Spirit into the body. The union between the body and the spirit produced a soul. When the body and spirit are separated, the soul ceases to exist until the spirit and body are brought back together again”.
Here she has reinterpreted the words “the breath of life” to mean God’s Spirit, which isn’t what the text says. It doesn’t even say his breath. This line says that man became a living soul because of the breath of life. Now, if the breath of life caused man to become a living soul, then we could easily equate the two, the breath of life being some kind of animating principle or soul, not the spirit of God (whatever that means). As I said above, Ms. Fosu at no point offers a definition of the two terms.
All of that is before we take into account which translation to use. She doesn’t say which version she is using, but her quote is very similar to the King James text, which includes ‘soul’. I believe that the King James translation is now considered to be not authoritative, and much revising scholarship has taken place since its publication. The more modern NRSV, which on the whole I find the most trustworthy translation, has at the same place “the man became a living being”, with no mention of ‘soul’.
She further quotes the Book of Ecclesiastes (12:7) in relation to death: “The dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it”, Here the NRSV has ‘breath’ (although it gives ‘spirit’ as an alternative). She then says “and the soul ceases to exist”, which the text doesn’t actually say; she has merely added her belief. She then continues: “The soul ceases to exist until the resurrection when the spiritual body is reunited with the natural body and the person wakes up from the dead to get ready for judgment. Bodies and souls aren’t immortal. It’s the Spirit that is immortal and eternal”. The first part of this is one of the weirder items of Christian theology. An interesting question for Ms. Fosu would be, which I invite her to answer, what happens to the soul during this period of non-existence? If it can be reborn, how is its nature retained if it no longer exists? A memory of it must be stored somewhere, in which case, has it truly ceased to exist?
One of the stranger things she says is that “a soul that lives after death and keeps on coming back to the earth would be an immortal entity, something like a god, but are humans immortal? We aren’t. Right?” She is therefore arguing that because the human body is not immortal, this somehow proves that the soul is not immortal. I don’t quite see the logic there. She is saying that the soul is inextricably linked with the body, which would be a very strange understanding from a spiritual perspective.
My next criticism is that her understanding is heavily dependent on Christian theology, including the bizarre belief in the resurrection of the body, and various quotes from the Bible. She makes no attempt to justify this, seemingly accepting all this uncritically. Apparently if Christianity or the Bible says something, that qualifies as truth for her.
I am not someone who rejects Christianity out of hand, and think that it contains much of interest. However, I don’t think that we should accept it uncritically, and believe that it is in need of some serious revisions.
Christianity as we know it, despite the various splits which have happened since, is essentially the creation of the Roman Catholic Church well over a thousand years ago. The first highly significant moment was the Council of Nicea in 325 CE, when Christian orthodoxy was settled by vote at a time when there were fierce debates raging. The motivation for it was that Emperor Constantine wanted a single religion to unify his empire, and the Church duly obliged. This was nearly 300 years after the events which gave rise to Christianity, and what resulted may not have been what the earlier believers intended.
Another significant moment occurred in 553 CE, when the soul’s pre-existence, therefore by implication reincarnation, was dropped from Christianity by an edict known as the Anathema against Origen, which was pushed through by the Emperor Justinian while the Pope was in jail. (Origen was one of the early Church fathers, who believed in reincarnation.) So here we have an example of an Emperor meddling in Church affairs and deciding its theology. I suggest therefore that we cannot take such a decision seriously, yet it has remained part of Christian theology. Ms. Fosu says that she “doesn’t discredit the concept of reincarnation”, so presumably would have some disagreement with this edict of the Church (whether or not she believes in pre-existence).
Also highly relevant is the Council of 869 which abolished the notion of spirit, in favour of a simple duality of body and soul. So the Church, which is supposed to consider the Bible as its authority, specifically dismissed what she believes in, based on her reading of the Bible. She would presumably strongly disagree with that decision, yet readily accepts others when it suits her argument.
Examples like these suggest that we cannot accept Christian theology uncritically, decided as it is on the whims of bishops and emperors.
For all these reasons I believe that Ms. Fosu, if she believes what she thinks the Bible is saying, as in her subtitle, has got this whole question of soul wrong. So in a further article I’ll offer a different version which I believe is closer to the truth, although I’ll leave it up to readers to decide.
I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics and astrology. All these articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here).