When I was growing up, my mom would say our bodies were made up of about 85 cents worth of flesh, bone and fluid, though I’m sure the price tag has increased with inflation. Her point was that the human body is worth more than its material components. On its own, an individual body part is not very useful or valuable. You wouldn’t pay anything for a toenail clipping, or a lone toe. But how much would you pay to save your gangrenous toe from being amputated? Of course, advances in transplants have made organs such as the heart, liver, and kidneys more precious, but this development only underscores the fact that the value of any body part is found in its connection to a living person.
Dead flesh isn’t worth much in itself, unless you believe it will be transformed in the resurrection.
These reflections may seem appropriate in our current COVID moment, when we all have “intimations of mortality.” Confined for months to our homes, with daily death tolls ticking away on TV, and masks covering the lips of anyone who has the temerity to smile, we have been brought face to face with the inevitability of death. One gloveless touch of a suspect surface, one breath too many near a super-spreader, one step too close to the guy pushing a cart against the arrows of a one-way aisle—in our fevered imaginations, any innocent decision to turn this way or that could bring instant death. We are all COVID-OCD, as we wipe down our groceries and anxiously sanitize our anxiety.
With mortality so much in the news and on the mind, this may be a good time to explore what is ordinarily an uncomfortable topic. What is death, and what happens afterward? Do we continue to exist in some manner? Does the soul have an eternal home? Does the body just rot? What of heaven and hell?
Religions throughout history have sought and supplied answers to these questions, and faith gives us the “assurance of things not seen.” But even Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, admitted in his book Introduction to Christianity, originally published in 1968, that there is always a hint of uncertainty in the mind of the believer that, in fact, makes the act of faith more meritorious. And, he added, there is also a shade of doubt that haunts the denial of the atheist who can never prove his case against God with the scientific accuracy he demands of the believer. Hovering over both is the question, “What if I’m wrong?”
Pascal’s wager makes a case for an ultimate utilitarianism. If there is a God, reasoned the 17th- century Frenchman, the atheist may be in big trouble after death for his denial of the divinity. But if God doesn’t exist, the eternal consequences are nil for the believer, since there is no punishment or reward after this life. It’s just lights out. So, Pascal concluded, it’s safer and more useful to believe even if you’re deceived.
We may reject the cold calculation of his wager, but Pascal’s shadow persists. Who are you? Where did you come from? Where are you headed? What does happen in death and beyond? Try as we might, we cannot avoid these questions; we know that we will face them one day, ready or not.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church sums up the Christian view that has guided our civilization for centuries: “In death, the separation of the soul from the body, the human body decays and the soul goes to meet God, while awaiting its reunion with its glorified body” (997).
There’s a whole worldview in this one dense sentence, so let’s take a moment. The traditional definition of death is “the separation of the soul from the body.” The soul (Latin, anima) is the animating principle, the life force. The immortal, immaterial soul brings life to the mortal, material body. We see this belief way back in the Book of Genesis, when God formed the body of Adam out of the dust of the earth “and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being”— or “living soul” in some translations (Gen 2:7). In either case, there is a distinction between the material body and the spiritual soul. Flesh and bone cannot move on their own; they need “the breath of life.”
But can the soul exist without the body? This is the question of our day. We can all agree that some sort of separation takes place in death. Call it the separation of soul from body or life force from flesh. Even a good atheist can admit this. But does that life force continue after death? Or does it need the body, a material host, to exist?
The Catechism says that the body decays while the soul continues to live in God’s presence, to be reunited in the resurrection. Indeed, life after death has been the faith, the great hope, of the Christian world for two millennia. It makes the slings and arrows, the betrayals and disappointments of this life more bearable. It is the strength of martyrs and the deterrent of suicides, as well as the seedbed of societal and self-improvement. When people begin to dismiss or diminish the possibility of life after death, they not only abandon hope for the eternal; their perspective on the present moment narrows. If you think this life is all there is, you’re like a pilot who loses the horizon. You’re not sure where you are or where you’re going.
When a culture sheds belief in the hereafter, it gets pretty much what we see in our COVID moment: an obsession with present needs and bodily health that distorts our assessment of other goods in life. If nothing lasts and we all become dust, why plan or build or improve? Why care about the future or respect the past? Why not wreck the economy for our children and smash statues of our ancestors?
The spread and spikes of our COVID moment will pass, and we’ll be left to choose our lesson and direction. Will fear of illness and death cause us to lose the horizon as we cling at all costs to a lockdown mentality? Or will our enhanced sense of mortality prompt us to see every day as a gift, infused with meaning and purpose, for this life and the next?