The concept of a human soul is difficult to grasp. The soul is not a material object. It is the God-given principle of life, united to the material body at the moment of conception. It is not something we can apprehend with our senses.
Therefore, we need another means of knowing its existence. Scripture and the constant teaching of the Catholic Church confirm its existence, but they typically convey this fact under the scope of revelation (e.g. Matthew 10:28; CCC, 362-368). However, we can take another approach to determine the soul’s existence and perpetuity, namely, that of reason.
The following synopsis will guide you through the rest of this column: 1) God exists and is perfect. 2) Consequently, we do not exist by accident. 3) We exist with a human nature designed to make choices that are for or against God. 4) These choices would be pointless outside of the realm of perfect justice, but perfect justice does not exist in our earthy journey. 5) Thus, perfect justice from the perfect God must be administered in the next life. 6) If we are purely material beings, we would cease to exist at physical death and would never receive perfect justice. 7) Therefore, we must have something spiritual that survives physical death and allows for the reception of God’s perfect justice in the life to come.
God’s Existence and Perfection
St. Thomas Aquinas, building on Aristotle’s writings, demonstrated God’s existence by using reason. The Catechism states, “Man’s [intellectual] faculties make him capable of coming to a knowledge of the existence of a personal God” (CCC, 35). St. Paul echoes this in Romans 1:19-20. Aquinas’ Five Proofs and other arguments provide solid explanations for God’s existence.
Additionally, God is all-powerful and all-knowing, and He is eternal by way of His essential perfection – perfect knowledge, perfect power, and perfection of all His other attributes (inherent qualities). The Summa Theologiae, Questions 1-21, provides a more detailed explanation of God’s attributes.
Humans Are Designed for Truth
Taking God’s certain existence and His attributes into account, we can conclude that God knows us eternally and that we cannot exist (with all our attributes) without His eternal knowledge and power. Therefore, humans did not begin to exist by chance, and our ability to think rationally (i.e. conceptually as to purpose) is not random. Rather, God created us with a nature designed to learn truth, love truth, and share truth. By observing our human nature, we can conclude that we are made for these things.
For instance, imagine the opposite. If we were designed to learn, love, and share lies, you would not be reading this article, and I would not have written it because it is meant to share truth and would therefore have no purpose. A type of nature oriented to lies would impede everything we do. Although human beings sometimes lie, it is usually in an attempt to prevent someone else from knowing the truth. Thus, truth precedes lies, and we continue to be designed for truth even if/when we attempt to rebel against it by lying.
Souls and Intellects
Building on the knowledge that God exists, that He is perfect, that our existence is not an accident, and that we are designed for truth, let us look at how we can know that God has created us with immortal, spiritual souls.
First, let us momentarily set aside the fact that we have a soul and, instead, consider our rational intellects. After all, we could have been created without rational intellects like all other creatures (the powerful angelic intellects are more properly described as intuitive rather that rational).
The ultimate reason we have rational intellects is to know God, who is Truth, and to know He loves us. If we were made for any other purpose, our ability to reason would be unnecessary and our relationship with God would be something other than a Father/child relationship.
For instance, we would not need reason to be in a master/slave relationship or a dictator/subject relationship. We would simply do as commanded, without questioning and without conceptualizing the purpose of those commands. The ability to conceptualize purpose (i.e. understanding the “why” of something) includes the ability to question and the intellectual freedom to reject commands, something a dictator or slave master would never tolerate.
But this is contrary to the nature of God. If He had created rational beings for the purpose of controlling them, God would not have created from abundant generosity and love. Rather, He would have created from the need to control. The need to control implies an absence of perfect happiness. Absence of perfect happiness implies a lack of general perfection.
Additionally, we would not need reason to be in a programmer/android relationship. We would simply function as programmed. Finally, we would not need reason to be in a Creator/animal relationship. We would do as instinct dictates and without pondering purpose. Ultimately, we could easily fulfill the requirements of all these relationships without a rational intellect.
The Purpose of Reason
Having a rational intellect within the framework of these relationships would serve no purpose when we could provide for ourselves and others by instinct alone, just as animals do. Thus, the rational intellect points to something beyond self-preservation and temporal existence. It points toward a loving relationship with God through our natural capacities for knowing truth, doing right, and avoiding wrong.
In order to know Truth, to do right and avoid wrong, two additional resources are necessary. First, we would need intrinsic moral laws that tell us what right and wrong are. Second, we would need the power of practical reason to be capable of knowing, understanding, and applying these laws to the myriad situations with which we are confronted throughout our lifetimes.
Now, if the Creator of the law is perfect and moral laws exist, we should expect perfect justice (expressed as a balance of mercy and punishment) in response to our obedience or disobedience. However, perfect justice is rarely, if ever, administered during our earthy existence. Our good actions are never perfectly, consistently rewarded, and our bad actions are never perfectly, consistently punished during this life. Therefore, some part of us must continue to exist after physical death that connects us to this life and allows us to be perfectly punished and/or rewarded in the next life.
The Need for an Immortal Soul
If we do not have immortal souls, we would cease to exist at death without ever receiving perfect justice. Even if God resurrected our bodies and somehow animated them without an immortal soul, they would not have a connection to our earthly lives. He would be creating materially-identical persons who look and perhaps act exactly like us but without having a connection to this life.
This is because memories are not material. When I remember a thing, that thing is not physically present in my mind. So, if I were a purely physical being, my physical death would mean the end of all my memories.
Therefore, having an immortal soul that survives physical death is the only way we can receive perfect justice. One’s soul would maintain the connection to this life while allowing for the proper dispensing and receiving of justice after bodily death. Creating us without a soul, allowing us to die, and then administering justice on a newly created person who has no connection to the right and wrong performed in this life would be perfectly unjust; and injustice is incompatible with a God who is perfect in every way.
God designed our human nature to share in His eternal nature. He wants to share Himself with us and to help us become perfect (Matthew 5:48). Our perfection does not consist in our bodies dying, decaying, and ceasing to exist. Rather, it consists in allowing God’s grace and life to permeate our souls so that, after physical death, our resurrected bodies can be joined to our perfected souls and live with God for eternity.
Furthermore, we are designed to know and love God, and the only path to knowing and loving Him is that of unadulterated truth. Alternative paths such as relativism, atheism, pantheism, paganism, agnosticism, transcendentalism, materialism, nihilism, etc., will not move us closer to God. In fact, these ideologies, which are saturated with lies, will move us farther from Him.
The only sure way to walk the path of truth is with Jesus Christ, in the Church He founded – His One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. In this Church alone, we are guaranteed unadulterated spiritual and moral truths. These truths properly form our consciences and prepare our immortal souls for eternal life with our Creator.