Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.
Q. In a recent column, you referred to "the soul of a person." I've always believed that the soul IS the person, that the body is matter only, and that dying is when we quit this machine that we've animated for a lifetime. If the body is the person, what exactly is the soul? -- J., Gainesville, Fla.
A. I get asked soul questions more than any others, and yours is among the best. I think the frequency of these types of questions relates directly to their importance for every religion on earth (except Buddhism, which in most of its versions holds to a doctrine of "an-atta," the belief that we don't have souls).
Every other faith believes that we have both bodies and souls. Our bodies are material and obviously die. Our souls are immaterial and live on after the death of the body. For materialist atheists, this is obviously not obvious. For them, people have an embodied consciousness that constitutes their personhood, and that ceases to exist when their brains and bodies die.
Among religious folk, there are two basic but quite different theories of what happens to the soul after our bodies die. In one theory, held by many mystical traditions, our souls merge with God after death and are utterly absorbed by God, like a glass of water being poured into the ocean. Even though this is a religious belief, it's close to the atheist belief that our personhood ends when our bodies die.
In the other theory, which is the dominant theology of the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, our souls retain their unique personal identities after death and (in the belief of Hinduism and some forms of Jewish mysticism) are even reincarnated by being placed into newborn babies after their memories of past lives are blocked or erased.
In the theologies that don't believe in reincarnation, this life is all we get and, after death, our souls spend eternity in the presence of God and all the souls that have gone before us. Preceding that eternal life, some religions teach that each soul is judged for its moral choices during its embodied life and that the souls of the truly wicked are either destroyed or cast into hell and eternal damnation, while the souls of the righteous ride the fast track into heaven.
Catholicism once held, but has since backed off its view, that some souls who lived only moderately bad lives are punished for a time in purgatory, then released into heaven after they've been punished and cleansed of their sins. Also, some religions believe that the life of our souls after death is not eternal but rather finite, after which they are put back into our dead bodies and we are then resurrected to life to enjoy the bliss of the Messianic Age.
For what it's worth, here's my take on soul stuff: I believe all souls except the very worst go to heaven. I believe that the righteous of every faith and of no faith all go to heaven. I believe that wrong actions can keep you out of heaven, but wrong beliefs cannot keep you out.
I believe that although animals supposedly have no soul, whoever came up with that idea never had a pet. I believe animals make it to heaven somehow -- particularly dogs. I remain open to the possibility of cats in heaven, though I'm not a big believer in lizards going to heaven; I believe animals need fur to get into heaven. I also believe that when we die, our souls go to a kind of soul-school, where we learn why we were afraid of things that frightened us for no reason. There we're taught why we chose badly, while also being praised for the times we thought of others before ourselves.
I believe in reincarnation, but I could definitely be wrong about that. It just seems to me some people are too wise to have lived here on earth only once. I believe that the first question we'll be asked in heaven is, "Were you honest in your daily life?" And I believe that the joy our souls will feel in heaven is the direct and overflowing spiritual consequence of knowing fully and absolutely that we were loved and that we were never alone.