Why would we concern ourselves with which comes first, the death of the body or the departure of the soul?
This question becomes important when we desire vital organs for transplantation. Vital organs must come from bodies that are alive. See blog posting Vital Organ Donation – The Most Important Question. So far, our society generally agrees that a person must be dead for vital organs to be removed. For vital organ donation to be right there needs to be a way for a person to be dead, while their body is still alive. For this to be the case many would agree that the soul needs to depart before the body dies. Thus the question, which comes first, death of the body of departure of the soul?
Biblically, a person is a united body and soul. With death comes the separation of body and soul. The soul goes to God1 and the body goes to the dust. Once the body goes to the dust, meaning that the body is fully dead and ready for burial into the ground, we can accept that the soul has departed. But what about before this?
This question is really a worldview question, one whose answer is founded in what one believes.
Some believe that mankind are basically the result of chemicals and natural forces working together that have evolved over millions of years to the current level of sophistication, the same way that they think animals came to be. They do not believe that the soul became part of man in a non-physical way. When thinking about the soul, people who believe this way, may tend to see the soul as the part of us that thinks, which, according to their belief, can be no more then the result of a series of chemical reactions. Their idea of soul puts the soul primarily in the brain. If the brain has irreversibly lost the ability to think, then that man no longer has a soul and must only be a body. For those who believe this way, once the brain is dead, the body, although living, is no longer attached to the soul and there is theoretically no restriction against killing the body by removing vital organs. The main question is how do we know that the brain is dead and how much of the brain needs to be dead to accept that the soul is gone. This belief about life, that mankind is basically chemical and natural forces working together, raises lot of unanswered questions, but that is for another blog posting.
The similarities of our societies’ and many church groups’ general acceptance of the view that if a person’s brain has lost its function then the person is dead, raises an interesting question. How many in society and churches accept a similar view of the nature of mankind as those who hold a “chemical / natural forces” view of mankind? Before trying to answer this question, read the next paragraphs that consider the material body / immaterial soul view of mankind.
Many do accept that the soul, in some way, is not just a physical combination of chemical and natural forces. Even questions such as, “Do I completely cease to exist when death on this earth comes?,” lead many to conclude that there must be something, like a soul, that is “other” than the body. For it is not possible for many to accept that they could cease to exist after the death of their body. A view such as this can not be proven by experiments and observations of chemical and natural forces, that many call science. Like the first position on the make up of mankind that I mentioned, it can only be believed. Like the chemical/natural forces view, it is a faith position. (Faith is basically believing something that we can not proved by physical science)
If the nature of the soul is different than the nature of the physical body, can we conclude that when the brain’s ability to demonstrate thinking is gone that the soul is gone? This depends on what thinking is and how thinking is connected to the physical brain. These two are certainly connected. But can we say with any certainty that once brain function is absent that thinking is absent? We can say that thought can not be expressed by a body while brain function is absent, but can we say, with certainty, that there is no thinking going on? There are reports of so called “near death experiences” where the person appears to have a period of absent brain function that they recover from. Once their brain function improves enough for us to know that they are back in the land of the living, they tell us something about what happened in their thoughts while their brain function was absent. I am directly connecting the soul and thinking. The Bible talks about the thoughts of God and records many of them. Yet, God does not have a body like men. Jesus did take on a human body, but the physical body of Jesus with its brain is not necessary for God to have thought. From a biblical point of view, thinking does not necessarily require a functioning brain, although the expression of thought by our physical bodies requires functioning brains. This raises interesting questions with respect to dementia. Is it possible that a person with dementia can still think reasonably well at the level of the soul, but has lost the ability to express these thoughts physically?
I hope that you can see that the conclusion one comes to with respect to the question, “Which comes first, the death of the body or the departure of the soul?,” depends on what one believes about the nature of body and soul. I believe what is recorded in the holy bible, that God with His divine power has given us all that we need for life and godliness through knowledge of Him. (2 Peter 1:3) What we need to rightly sort out these difficult questions, I believe, is provided in the Bible. For those interested in more about my beliefs you can read my blog posting My Beliefs, and other postings under the heading “I believe.”
So, what does the bible teach us about the timing of the separation of body and soul?
In 1999 I wrote essay about body and soul that can be found on the web site https://www.spindleworks.com. It was not written specifically to answer the question of this blog posting but I do make some related comments. It can be viewed on spindleworks using the following link, https://www.spindleworks.com/library/kenyon/Bodsoul.htm,
or on my blog site at https://greg.kenyonspage.ca/topical-essays/comments-on-the-doctrine-of-body-and-soul/
In my posting titled, Organ Donation – A Dead Man With The Blood of a Live Man, if the answer to my question, “Can a dead man have the blood of a live man flowing though him?” is “no,” then this would support a view that in all mankind who still have living bodies the soul has not yet departed. How can this be if the brain is clearly not functioning? If, as suggested above, the thoughts of the soul are not dependent on a functioning brain, but only physical expression of these thoughts is dependent on a functioning brain, then there is nothing inconsistent with the conclusion that all mankind with living bodies still have souls.
I think there is enough of interest in this blog posting to release it but acknowledge that more time needs to be spend considering how this question is addressed in the Bible. Given time, the Lord willing, I plan to continue to add to this blog posting
1. With death the soul goes to God. Some may say that only the saved souls go to be with God. This is true in the sense that immediately after death the saved soul goes to wait in the presence of God until the judgement. The soul of the unbeliever does not go immediately into the presence of the Lord but the next real interaction will be the judgement and so this soul too goes to God after death.