Philosophy for Beginners: The Theology of Death

By: Fr. Brian Mullady, OP

 Father Brian Mullady, O.P., Philosphy, culture of life, Catholics for the Common Good

The most vital question in any study of the nature of death is this: in what sense can death be said to be the destiny of Man? This will help us to answer further questions about the natural character of death, and help us to understand Christ's death and our own. 

St. Thomas Aquinas is very clear about the nature of death.  He says: "The necessity of dying for Man is partly from nature and partly from sin.  Death due to nature is caused by the contrary elements of the body.  Every material element in the body is composed of both active and passive elements held together in a tenuous connection.  From the point of view of these elements, death is natural.  Nor is there any power in the material elements themselves or in the soul to keep my body or any body from death. From the point of view of the body, then Man is mortal and doomed to die. 

Yet, Man is not only a body, but also a soul.  The soul is the spiritual element in Man's composition.  Philosophy and the Catechism call it the form of the body, that element in Man that organizes matter into being, and into the being which is Man.  The body and the soul are not two separate principals but complimentary ones, which must exist in union with each other for Man to exist perfectly.  Soul, or form exists within matter and organizes it because Man is not an angel.  Body could not exist as human without soul.  Thus, the destiny of Man could in no sense be determined by only one of these elements.  Both are necessary. 

 Saint Thomas Aquinas
Saint Thomas Aquinas

Though the body tends to death because of its contrary elements, it tends to life because of the presence of the soul.  In fact, from the point of view of the soul, death is not natural to Man.  St. Thomas says: "A thing is said to be natural if it proceeds from the principals of nature. Now the essential principles of nature are form and matter.  The form of Man is his reasoning soul, which is immortal, wherefore death is not natural to Man from the point of view of this form or this soul." 

Though it is true that, naturally speaking death is the destiny of Man if one considers one part of him: the body, nothing could be further from the Truth if one considers him from the point of view of the spiritual soul.  Reason considered the destiny of the soul and realized that there is active in Man intelligence, which goes beyond our body and is not open  to death.  Some ancient philosophers knew this.  According to St. Thomas, Aristotle knew this, and he knew this from reason alone.  St. Thomas says: "This conclusion also comes to light thru the authority of Aristotle, for he says in his treatise on the soul, ‘the intellect is evidently a substance and is incapable of being destroyed'" (i.e. immortal).

The first implication of this idea in the discussion of death should be that it is absolutely impossible even from the standpoint of reason to maintain that death is the final destiny of Man, or for that matter that life is absurd.  Death is a fact, but it cannot be the destiny of Man for this reduces Man to only the material order. In fact, there is no solution to the problem of death until it is considered from the point of view of the soul. 

St. Thomas makes the point many times that the soul, in its act can only be fulfilled in intelligence and understanding.  Once the intellect knows one relationship of cause and effect, then the power of the mind cannot be stilled until the first cause, the primary cause, the ultimate Cause (in this case, God) is directly experienced. 


Aristotle speaks of this intellectual power or dynamism in his first book of metaphysics.  He says this: "For it is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to think philosophically.  They wondered originally about obvious difficulties, then advanced little by little and stated difficulties about greater matters.  For we know each thing only when we know its ultimate cause."  St. Thomas makes much of this text when he discusses the problem of human destiny.  He also exactly reproduces it when he considers that, even reason must reach the necessary conclusion that Man must see God to be fulfilled.

This is because of the natural desire of the intellect.  If this is true, our intelligence must see God to be fulfilled; this is our final purpose, and Man must be able to live forever.

If the vision of God is the fulfillment of the soul, and the soul the life of the body, then by implication death cannot be Man's end.  Moreover, the body really ought not to die.  A philosopher would have to conclude that, though the body does die, the soul lives forever and that this is not a natural condition, because the perpetual division of the dead body and the immortally living soul would be like a violent condition.  In us, the body and the soul go together.  According to Aristotle, anti-natural or violent conditions cannot exist forever.  Therefore, the ancient philosophers were brought by these considerations to a box canyon. 

Now, Man considered in this way was truly an absurdity.  How to explain the fact that the soul has this dynamism to go to God; the soul itself must live forever yet the body, which is inexorably joined to the soul (absolutely necessary for the existence of the human being) dies forever?  There is neither power in my soul nor in my body to make it live forever.      

The solution to this problem can only be: the resurrection of the dead.  But there is no power on earth that can bring about resurrection.  The absurdity then would be that the body lies dead forever, while the soul lives forever.  Yet, this was the absurdity that the ancient philosophers were led to when they tried to resolve this contradiction only by reason.

In fact, the resolution is not possible by reason. One has to experience the Bible, revelation and especially the fact of resurrection to resolve it.  Ancient philosophers could not solve this problem because they did not know that Man had been and could be called to intimacy with God.  They did not know about grace.  Seneca, an ancient Roman philosopher who taught that death was natural to Man taught this because he did not know about the Scriptures and he did not know about the condition of Man before the Fall.  (Adam and Eve did not have the necessity of dying before the Fall.)  St. Thomas says about them, "Seneca and the other philosophers considered human nature according to those principles that belong to it (human nature) only from the principles of nature.  They did not know about the state of the first condition of original innocence, which is held only by faith.  Therefore, they only spoke about death as a natural defect, although this natural defect for us is a punishment in some way.

Man, in fact was originally created correctly.  He had communion and intimacy with God.  He had no sin, and therefore he did not suffer from the necessity of dying.  In other words, a condition of unity and integrity in the human character was only as permanent as the state of grace.  God subjected Man to a beautiful union of love in which God's grace and life permeated all of the powers of Man and gave Man the gift of being able to control his own body.  This power was lost when sin entered the world.  Sin, which is death of the soul leads to the necessity of the death of the body.  There are then two deaths of Man who is in the state of original sin: the death of the soul is the cause of the necessary death of the body.  Of course, we know that the soul does not die in its being, and yet it is like something dead, because as the soul gives life to the body, so God gives life to the soul.  A soul that cannot experience communion with God is as though dead.  And that is why we call the sin by which we lose grace "mortal sin".  It renders the soul like a dead thing. 

By way of conclusion, it is obvious that the death of Man is a tragedy that is caused by a much deeper tragedy: the death brought about by sin.  The experience of death without knowing about grace causes an extreme tension within each human person because death seems so unnatural and absurd.  This is not because life after death is just some sort of wishful thinking.  The necessity of the afterlife is perfectly reasonable because of our understanding of intelligence.  Man in the state of sin is left in a box canyon without an exit.  This is because Man can know that the soul lives forever. However, for the body to not share in this life is a violence that cannot be explained.  The source of the tragedy is sin, of course.  The philosopher, who relies solely on reason, can recognize this as an intolerable condition.  He cannot possibly know why it exists.

Therefore, the problem is not that Man is hopeless and finds life completely absurd, something of which he can make no sense.  Rather, the source of the absurdity is that Man knows that life is eternal.  But in the first place, because of the death of the soul he has no power to arrive at any object that is eternal.  Secondly, even if he could, his body could not follow where his soul would lead.  If one were a Platonist (Plato believed that the body was a prison that the soul was in unnaturally) this would be fine.  But, for one who understands both the eternity of the soul and the unity between the body and the soul, the death of the body is an absurdity precisely because of the immortality of the soul.

But nihilism, and existential anguish have no place here.  If death were Man's destiny, sin would not be madness.  However, the madness of sin comes in the fact that men will exist, but in a completely unfulfilled state.  Man without grace can have no natural completion.  And there can be no completion for the eternally-existing soul, because union with God is impossible. 

Grace changes all this.  The man who understands grace understands that there is a twofold resurrection that corresponds to this twofold death.  To the death of the soul, we have the resurrection of the soul and sanctifying grace.  And to the death of the body we have the resurrection of the dead, which is the perfect completion of the resurrection of the soul. 

The true existential anguish of Man, then can only be over the existence of sin.  The uneasiness experienced on the part of Man is found in pagans who do not know that their nature is not as it ought to be.  The death of the body is problematic, and the very difficulty is caused because Man can know that he can live forever, and that his actions have to influence his destiny.

Pope John Paul II, evangelization of culture, culture of life, civilization of love, Catholics for the Common Good
Pope John Paul II

What sense does this make for the death of Christ? The death of Christ, although extremely painful is not a death experienced in any kind of existential darkness as far as his intelligence is concerned.  Catholic doctrine has taught for many centuries that Christ enjoyed the beatific vision from the moment of his conception...Christ not only saw God from the moment of his conception, but he also sees all of us.  All of us are taken into every action of his.  That includes his death.

John Paul II has said this: "Jesus had the clear vision of God, and the certainty of his union with the Father dominated his mind [on the cross].  But in the sphere bordering on the senses...Jesus' human soul was reduced to a wasteland."  In other words, from the point of view of Jesus' feelings and imagination [at the time of death] it was black and dark.   But not from the point of view of his intelligence, or of his will.  This was always and completely united to the Father.  It is very important to see that the death of Christ is not existential angst (fear).  Christ did not throw himself into the face of an unknown, with no idea of what resolution God could possibly make of the situation. 

What should our attitude be towards death?  It should be the same as the Lord's.  For the Christian, death is not a darkness, an absurdity, or a plunge into a nonsensical unknown.  The Christian knows that death is painful and sorrowful.  It is not a pleasant experience.  It is a punishment for the original sin.  Still, the Christian should not worry about physical death. What gives death its sting is not that the body dies and corrupts in the grave.  One who has lived a life of union with God on earth knows with the firmest conviction of faith and of reason that the soul lives forever.  One also knows, following the resurrection of Christ, with the firmest conviction of faith that he or she will have a part in that resurrection.  The real problem with death is that it is painful.  But for one who has faith, there should be no uncertainty about what lies beyond death, nor does one have to resolve the seeming contradiction of the spirit's dying by merely projecting something nice and wonderful and possible afterwards.

The real absurdity of death consists in someone knowing what lies beyond the grave, and yet going to it unprepared.  The sting of death is sin.

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