By Evan Kardaras, Sub-Deacon at St. Mary & St. Mina Coptic Orthodox Church, Bexley, Australia.
This article is a response to an incorrect teaching that has been circulating within the Coptic Orthodox Church. This teaching states that the human soul is the natural result of the union of the spirit and body. When a human person dies, the spirit separates from the body and the soul dies/ceases to exist. This teaching suggests that the spirit of man is the eternal element that awaits the resurrection after a person has experienced death.
When trying to understand the Scriptures it is vital that we study the writings of the Early Church Fathers. Through their writings we obtain a vision of how the early Church interpreted and understood the Scriptures. This allows us as Orthodox Christians to remain faithful to the tradition we have received and gives us the ability to pass on this Apostolic deposit without blemish ‘from generation to generation’.
When studying the writings of the Early Church Fathers we cannot find any references stating the soul dies and ceases to exist at death of a human person. We also cannot find references stating the spirit and soul separate at the death of the human person. These teachings are foreign to the mindset of the Early Church. On the contrary we see quite clearly that that the human soul is immortal and that the spirit is the highest faculty of the human soul.
Rather than demonstrate this truth using my own knowledge or understanding I will simply direct the reader to many passages from the writings of the Early Church Fathers demonstrating correct Orthodox anthropology:
“The soul immortal. Proved by (1) its being distinct from the body, (2) its being the source of motion, (3) its power to go beyond the body in imagination and thought. But that the soul is made immortal is a further point in the Church’s teaching which you must know.” – St Athanasius, Against the Heathen, Paragraph 33, (296-373 AD).
“But because the soul from its very nature, being created immortal, cannot be without some kind of life, its utmost death is alienation from the life of God in an eternity of punishment. So, then, He only who gives true happiness gives eternal life, that is, an endlessly happy life.” – St Augustine, City of God, 6:12, (427 AD).
“Did you not then understand that there are two somethings, soul and spirit, according as it is said in Scripture, “You will separate my soul from my spirit”? And that both of them pertain to man’s nature, so that the whole man consists of spirit, and soul, and body? Sometimes, however, these two are combined together under the designation of soul; for instance, in the passage, “And man became a living soul.” Genesis 2:7 Now, in this place the spirit is implied. Similarly in sundry passages the two are described under the name of spirit, as when it is written, “And He bowed His head and gave up the spirit;” John 19:30 in which passage it is the soul that must also be understood. And that the two are of one and the same substance? I suppose that you already knew all this. But if you did not, then you may as well know that you have not acquired any great knowledge, the ignorance of which would be attended with much danger. And if there must be any more subtle discussion on such points it would be better to carry on the controversy with himself, whose wordy qualities we have already discovered. The questions we might consider are: whether, when mention is made of the soul, the spirit is also implied in the term in such a way that the two comprise the soul, the spirit being, as it were, some part of it—whether, in fact (as this person seemed to think), under the designation soul, the whole is so designated from only a part; or else, whether the two together make up the spirit, that which is properly called soul being a part thereof; whether again, in fact, the whole is not called from only a part, when the term spirit is used in such a wide sense as to comprehend the soul also, as this man supposes. These, however, are but subtle distinctions, and ignorance about them certainly is not attended with any great danger.” – St Augustine, The Soul and its Origin, Book 2, Chapter 2, (427 AD).
“Weep over your sin: it is a spiritual ailment; it is death to your immortal soul; it deserves ceaseless, unending weeping and crying; let all tears flow for it, and sighing come forth without ceasing from the depths of your heart.” – St Basil the Great, A Lament for Sin, (379 AD).
“Next to the knowledge of this venerable and glorious and all-holy Faith, learn further what thou thyself art: that as man thou art of a two-fold nature, consisting of soul and body; and that, as was said a short time ago, the same God is the Creator both of soul and body. Know also that thou hast a soul self-governed, the noblest work of God, made after the image of its Creator: immortal because of God that gives it immortality; a living being, rational, imperishable, because of Him that bestowed these gifts: having free power to do what it willeth.” – St Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, 4:18, (350AD).
“Who has instructed barbarians and peasants, yea, feeble women, slaves, and children, in short, unnumbered multitudes of all nations, to live in the contempt of death; persuaded of the immortality of their souls.” – Eusebius of Caesarea, Oration in Praise of Constantine, (340 AD).
“All these indeed are perishable, and consumed by the lapse of time, being representations of the corruptible body, and not expressing the image of the immortal soul.” – Eusebius of Caesarea, Life of Constantine, Book 1, Chapter 3, (340 AD).
“And thou shalt possess an immortal body, even one placed beyond the possibility of corruption, just like the soul.” – St Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies, Book 10, Chapter 30, (236 AD).
“And again to the Romans he says, ‘But if the Spirit of Him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, He that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies.’ What, then, are mortal bodies? Can they be souls? Nay, for souls are incorporeal when put in comparison with mortal bodies; for God ‘breathed into the face of man the breath of life, and man became a living soul.” Now the breath of life is an incorporeal thing. And certainly they cannot maintain that the very breath of life is mortal. Therefore David says, “My soul also shall live to Him,’ just as if its substance were immortal.” – St Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Chapter 5, 7:1, (180 AD).
“The immortality of the soul and its continuance after the dissolution of the body–truths of which Pythagoras dreamed…” – St Jerome, To Heliodorus, Epistle 60:4, (397 AD).
“Such a kind of sovereignty God bestowed upon us from the beginning, and set us over all things. And not only in this respect did He confer honour upon our nature, but also, by the very eminence of the spot in which we were placed, fixing upon Paradise as our choice dwelling, and bestowing the gift of reason, and an immortal soul.” – St John Chrysostom, Concerning Statues, 7:3, (387 AD).
“Things irrational only are useful for the present life; but we have an immortal soul, that we may use every means to prepare ourselves for that other life.” – St John Chrysostom, Homily 31 on John’s Gospel, (407 AD).
“But it is the flesh which dies; the soul is immortal.” – Methodius, Discourse on the Resurrection, Paragraph 12, (300 AD).
“Therefore, whatever amount of punishment or refreshment the soul tastes in Hades, in its prison or lodging, in the fire or in Abraham’s bosom, it gives proof thereby of its own corporeality.” – Tertullian, Treatise on the Soul, Chapter 7, (220 AD).
“How much firmer ground have you for believing that the soul and the spirit are but one, since you assign to them no difference; so that the soul is itself the spirit, respiration being the function of that of which life also is! But what if you insist on supposing that the day is one thing, and the light, which is incidental to the day, is another thing, whereas day is only the light itself? … Whenever, indeed, the question is about soul and spirit, the soul will be (understood to be) itself the spirit, just as the day is the light itself. For a thing is itself identical with that by means of which itself exists.” – Tertullian, Treatise on the Soul, Chapter 10, (220 AD).
“The soul, then, we define to be sprung from the breath of God, immortal, possessing body, having form, simple in its substance, intelligent in its own nature, developing its power in various ways, free in its determinations, subject to be changes of accident, in its faculties mutable, rational, supreme, endued with an instinct of presentiment, evolved out of one (archetypal soul). It remains for us now to consider how it is developed out of this one original source; in other words, whence, and when, and how it is produced.” – Tertullian, Treatise on the Soul, Chapter 22, (220 AD).
“We, however, who allow no appendage to God (in the sense of equality), by this very fact reckon the soul as very far below God: for we suppose it to be born, and hereby to possess something of a diluted divinity and an attenuated felicity, as the breath (of God), though not His spirit; and although immortal, as this is an attribute of divinity, yet for all that passible, since this is an incident of a born condition, and consequently from the first capable of deviation from perfection and right, and by consequence susceptible of a failure in memory.” – Tertullian, Treatise on the Soul, Chapter 24, (220 AD).
“As death is defined to be nothing else than the separation of body and soul, life, which is the opposite of death, is susceptible of no other definition than the conjunction of body and soul.” – Tertullian, Treatise on the Soul, Chapter 27, (220 AD).
“For the soul, as being always in motion, and always active, never succumbs to rest—a condition which is alien to immortality: for nothing immortal admits any end to its operation; but sleep is an end of operation. It is indeed on the body, which is subject to mortality, and on the body alone, that sleep graciously bestows a cessation from work.” – Tertullian, Treatise on the Soul, Chapter 43, (220 AD).
“But the operation of death is plain and obvious: it is the separation of body and soul.” – Tertullian, Treatise on the Soul, Chapter 51, (220 AD).
“But if this be the case, they must needs be also mortal, according to the condition of animated nature; for although the soul is evidently immortal, this attribute is limited to it alone: it is not extended to that with which it is associated, that is, the body.” – Tertullian, Ad Nationes, Book 2, Chapter 3, (220 AD).
From what is stated above and what is seen consistently in the writings of the Early Church Fathers, we come to the following conclusions:
- We cannot say the soul dies at the death of the human body, without introducing something extremely foreign to the mind, language and terminology of the Early Church.
- All Early Church Fathers agree unanimously that the soul is immortal.
- The soul and spirit are united. They cannot be separated as they are one and the same essence.
Thus we learn that to interpret Scriptures correctly we must go back to the writings of the Early Church Fathers. If our Theology is not consistent with the Early Church we cannot claim to be the Early Church. Only if we present and believe the teaching of the Early Church can we claim to be the One Holy, Catholic (Universal) and Apostolic Church of our Lord and saviour Jesus Christ.