Thomas L. McDonald has been a writer and editor for the past 25 years, covering technology, history, archaeology, games, and religion. He has degrees in English, Film, and Theology with a concentration in Church History. He’s been a certified catechist for twelve years, and taught Church History for eight. His other writing can be found at Weird Catholic.
If I asked you to describe what happens to the soul after death, how would you do it? How would you explain it to someone who asked?
We know what we believe. At the point of death, the soul is subject to the particular judgment, and either is ushered into the divine presence or damned for all eternity. Those who die in their sins, but not in mortal sin, undergo a purgation: a cleansing to make the soul worthy to enter the courts of the Lord. Since Augustine, we’ve understood this as a process with a temporal element, despite our understanding of a God who transcends time. It allows us to grasp the ungraspable and imagine the soul after death as embarking upon a journey, helped along by our prayers, alms, and devotions.
But what is it like, practically? Anything we use--vision, light, pleasure, notions of place, etc--rely on material to make them function, which why we understand them metaphorically. That wasn't the case among many early Christians. In giving alms, many believed they were literally transferring treasure to heaven. In book four of his endlessly fascinating Dialogues, St. Gregory the Great describes a vision of the afterlife in which a mansion made of gold bricks awaits a rich man who gave away his money.
The problem of the fate of the soul and nature of the afterlife exercised the mind of Augustine, but he was content to draw a veil over much of it and acknowledge that we simply cannot know all the details of how a soul leaves the body at the point of death and enters into eternity. But these issues were of immense and pressing interest to his flock and his correspondents. He was besieged with questions about it from people who wanted to know if their actions, customs, and rituals were effective in protecting the soul after death and seeing it safely to heaven.
The fate of the soul was a subject of intense debate and speculation in early Christianity. The Fathers early on rejected notions of the transmigration of souls, but still retained elements of pagan imagery and custom in grappling with the idea.
Two examples will suffice to show the contrasts of early views. St. Cyprian (3rd century), in his “Exhortation to Martyrdom,” imagines the death of the Christian thus:
How great a dignity and, how great a security it is to go forth hence happy, to go forth glorious in the midst of difficulties and affliction, in a moment to shut the eyes with which men and the world were seen, to open them immediately that God and Christ may be seen.
No delay: the martyr shuts his eyes at death and opens them upon the beatific vision.
Contrast this with Tertullian (2nd/3rd century), who imagines death as almost insignificant compared to the glory of the Resurrection. The idea of a disembodied soul having some interim period between death and the second coming was a trivial issue. He did not quite suggest, as others did, that the body goes into the ground and the soul sleeps until the Second Coming, but he did believe that interval between death and resurrection was fleeting and unimportant compared to the grandeur to come. The soul just waited until it was reunited with the body. The martyrs may well have entered the presence of God, but for most of the dead it was just a matter of marking time. (Tertullian, but the way, thought even God and the soul had material form.)
And here we come to the problem that vexed many, but to which Augustine gave voice. We have a good idea of what happened to the good and the bad. Heaven or hell awaited them in an instant. The bigger question was what became of the non valdes boni/mali: the not wholly good or bad. This vexed Christians deeply, for paganism had given them clear practices, images, and notions about what to expected of the dead and what to do for them. Alms, ritual meals, offerings, and remembrances all contributed to the safe passage from life to death.
By the time we get to Gregory the Great in the 6th century, we’re already looking forward to a medieval understanding of purgatory, and the idea that the living might be able to see the afterlife and its inhabitants through dreams and visions. Gregory is keen to relate ghost stories and visions in his Dialogs not as problems but as proofs.
In between, we find Augustine grappling with notions of purgation and reconciling platonic and neoplatonic images of the soul with Christianity. One of the most fascinating of all his exchanges on the subject comes in letters exchanged with his friend and fellow bishop, St. Evodius of Uzalis (Letter 158 from Evodius and Letter 159 from Augustine).
St. Augustine was the first Church Father to consider at length stories of ghostly apparitions that appeared in various strands of hagiography, legend, scripture, and eyewitness testimony. He rejected any notion of the dead returning from the afterlife, but Evodius provides a challenge for Augustine scholars: whose beliefs were more “orthodox” for the time?
In Letter 158, Evodius tells a complicated story of multiple waking and sleeping apparitions of known dead people who come to either predict a death, or reveal the fate of someone already dead. Evodius appears to accept these as legitimate experiences of the departed, although it is notable that he was eyewitness to none of them.
The most famous ghost story is a tender account of a scribe beloved by Evodius. The boy would read to him in the evening, and they would discuss theology and philosophy. “I began to regard him not as a boy and a scribe, but as a close and dear friend,” wrote Evodius. After the boy’s death, a widow and a monk both report visions of him in the afterlife. In one, the widow sees his palace in heaven and an old man who orders his body to be lifted up. In the other, the monk sees the boy, who says he has been received by God.
In the pagan culture of the day, these ghost stories (either while awake or asleep) would have been regarded as authentic visions of the afterlife without question. Evodius is inclined to do so, but he desires to know what Augustine thinks.
More to the point, Evodius uses the ghost story to ask whether the soul, upon leaving the body after death, takes with it some other kind of body which enables it to move and appear to the living.
His question is direct, profound, and as yet unanswered: “Going out of the body and escaping from every burden and every actual sin, *what are we*?”
Furthermore, is there a material body which the soul takes into heaven? If not, how, in Luke 16, is the rich man clothed in purple and Lazarus covered in sores? How does the rich man feel the pains of flame or Lazarus lay in the bosom of Abraham?
The question may seem strange to us now, since we don’t assume a parable requires that kind of literal interpretation. It is, in fact, a fairly logical question. “If there are places, there are bodies,” Evodius writes, “and the incorporeal souls are in bodies.”
A firm no was Augustine’s reply. “I emphatically do not think that the soul leaves the body with a material body.”
Augustine is unfair to Evodius in his reply, complaining that he asked a “most obscure question about the soul.” In fact, it’s a pretty darn important question, and Augustine’s irritation is likely due to his inability to answer it. He frankly acknowledges that he has no explanation for verifiable visions of the dead, but dismisses them as mere spiritual, inner visions. It’s an appealingly modern (albeit typically Augustinian) response, harkening more to psychology than theology. We find it satisfying now, but that’s partly because of the influence of Augustine on how we approach these thorny questions. He’s at his most endearing when he admits that “words fail me to explain how those seemingly material bodies, without a real body, are produced.” He’s always willing to say “I just don’t know.” But he’s certain of one thing: “they are not produced by the body.” The soul has no material element, although angels may be capable of manipulating matter to provide an appearance of materiality. Non-bodily being was central to Augustine’s concept of the soul, and his encounter with the idea in the Enneads of Plotinus marked a key moment in his turning away from the Manichees.
Augustine expert Peter Brown, in his book Ransom of the Soul, discusses the development of early views on the afterlife. When I’ve written about this subject in the past, I was inclined to dismiss Evodius and side with the impatient Augustine. Brown, on the other hand, has a different reading:
Evodius had touched on a very real metaphysical issue. How could a totally spiritual view of the soul (such as Augustine had embraced with such enthusiasm from his readings of the Neoplatonist Plotinus, who died in 270 AD) be reconciled with current images of the life of the soul after death? How could the soul in its pure state, once detached from the body, retain any recognizable features or pursue any recognizable trajectory?
Even the most familiar and religiously acceptable representations (such as the “reception” of the soul into the presence of God) might turn out to be no more than representations—pictures formed in the human mind that bore little or no relation to reality. They would slide off the surface of another world that was so distant from human thought—so abstract, so placeless, and so faceless—as to offer the living no imaginative handhold upon it….
Evodius showed that he himself favored a more moderate form of Platonism. He suggested that, even when out of the body, the soul must be thought of as being accompanied by some material “vehicle” in the form of an envelope of infinitely fine matter.
In adopting the immaterialism of Plotinus, Augustine had brought with it certain challenges, and Evodius had identified one of them: how could an immaterial body have any relationship at all to a material world? How does someone feel pain in an immaterial hell, or pleasure in a matterless heaven? The solution would be a mediating structure, what Brown calls “spirit at its lowest and matter at its height of subtlety.” By the middle ages, we find minds bending in this direction, and someone like Gregory of Tours would incline more to the beliefs of Evodius than Augustine.
It’s one of the more fascinating incidents in the Augustinian corpus, not merely because the frisson of the ghost story has its own visceral appeal, but because it points to real problem, and one which, Augustine plainly knew, cannot be answered this side of the veil.