Meeting 3.6 – Christian Perspectives on Death

On 11 November 2014, the group gathered to discuss life and death in Christianity, particularly with regard to the concept of souls.


Murphy, Nancy (2006) Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies. (Cambridge: Current Issues in Theology). pp.1-37. (Chapter 1)

What is a human/person at the most basic level?

The formal study of this question in Christian theology is called

Theological Anthropology.

Monism: Humans have only one part.

.     Physicalism (Materialism): Humans are bodies.

.     (Idealism): Humans are ideal entities, usually minds or souls.

Dualism: Humans have two components that differ in the way they exist.

.     Body-Soul Dualism

.          Plato: eternal form in changeable matter (jail)

.          Aristotle: informed matter (hylomorphism)

.          Plotinus: perfect form in corrupt matter (descent)

.          Aquinas: spiritual form of corporeal matter (dual creation)

Note that a soul is said to subsist if it can exist independent of the body. Plato thought it good for a soul to subsist. Aquinas thought it possible, but bad. Aristotle arguably thought it impossible.

.     Body-Mind Dualism

.          Descartes: as a pilot in a ship

Trichotism: Humans have three substantially different components.

Body, Soul, and Spirit following I Thessalonians 5:23.

Christians have debated over the best way to view life after death.

Immortality – the persistence of the soul

Resurrection – the re-incarnation of the soul

18th and 19th century bible scholars favored immortality as consistent with

the philosophy of the time.

Some 20th century bible scholars started arguing that dualism was not biblical

but read into the text.

The 20th century saw a shift from emphasis on soul to emphasis on resurrection.




Plato (4th-5th c. BCE):

Tripartite Soul (Timaeus, Republic)

Rational aspect (in brain) is immortal, created by God, and corresponds to a star

Spirited aspect (in heart) is mortal, created by gods, deals with non-material desires

Appetitive aspect (in spleen) is mortal, created by gods, deals with material desires

Transcendence or Reincarnation (Phaedo)

The rational soul, if perfected by philosophy, transcends the body at death.

If truly evil, it descends to Tartarus. Otherwise, it is punished until purged and returned to a body fitting its interests.

Aristotle (384-322 BCE):

Nested Soul (De Anima)

Rational soul deals with reason; differentiates humans from other animals; includes functions with no material correlate, therefore may subsist.

Sensitive soul deals with sensation and motion; differentiates animals from plants.

Nutritive soul deals with nutrition and reproduction; differentiates living from non-living.

Souls represent an eternal chain of causation, perpetuating species. Formally, they exist when efficient, formal, and final causes are one and the same.

Tertullian (160-220) Corporeal soul, passed from parents (Traducianism)

Origen (185-254) [Neo]Platonic pre-existent souls trapped in matter

Augustine (354-430) flirted with Traducianism, but also Creationism, the doctrine that souls were created individually and inserted in embryos. Soul is created, immaterial, but changeable. It rules the body. He distinguishes existence, life, and understanding. Plants have souls, but it is the understanding soul that interests him. Augustine focuses on will as necessary in salvation.

Creationism became the dominant doctrine during the Dark Ages.

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) Builds on Aristotle, but separates the spiritual and corporeal creations. Humans are a unique hybrid of corporeal animal and spiritual soul. Humans alone among animals have will.

At the Reformation, there is an argument about the status of souls between death and the Trump – the beginning of the end times. Is the soul just a pattern in the mind of God? Is it asleep or aware? Can it suffer? Martin Luther argued the soul sleeps, Budny that it ceases, Calvin and the 5th Lateran that it is awake. Calvin, in particular was adamant that the elect are immediately in the presence of God after death.

Arguments against substantial souls started becoming popular in the first decade of the 19th century. William James, for example argued for “pluralistic monism,” that is humans are fundamentally one, but it’s not clear exactly what that one is.


Hebrew: nephesh “living creature” or “with breath in”

The anthropology here appears to be inspired bodies, not incarnate souls.

Greek: psyche (perhaps nephesh, perhaps with Greek influence)

pneuma “spirit”, “breath”. Usually God’s breath, but occasionally others’.


“humans are psychophysical unities.” 22

Non-reductive physicalism

Relational account – exterior focus

Major Questions for Christians:

When does a person begin/begin to have dignity or rights?

Does a person end at bodily death? If not, how do they continue?

What differentiates humans from animals?

What impact does this have on our ethics?

In what way are humans “in the image and likeness of God”?

What impact does this have on our picture of God?

Inner v. Outer focused morality


We talked about a number of topics. Central was the question of motivation. What is at stake in the question of souls?

Reductionism was presented by one participant as strategy, rather than an ontological claim. Many things are probably deterministic physically, and yet reductionism has not proven a practical or useful tactic in understanding them. Often things need to be studied at their own level.

As a group, we noted that modern physics is not physicalist. It depends on potential and indeterminate entities as well as forces that cannot be reduced to interactions between physical substances. This makes it hard to see strict physicalism as a long term strategy. We may need new categories.

Another participant was interested in the “dependence of ideas.” Many are committed to souls because of some connection between souls and dignity or will or the image of God. On what ideas are “souls” dependent and what doctrines are dependent on souls?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s