Aquinas Eschatology

Christian Eschatology and the Thomistic Person

6:00:00 AMJosh Merlo

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  When discussing a philosophy of the person, it helps to define what is meant by “person”. Within circles that consider the person as an enduring entity through time, it is common to find the following posited: the person (at least the human person) is the composite of a material body and an immaterial (rational) soul. As Aquinas says, “Man is said to be composed of soul and body as some third thing constituted of two other things, and which is neither of them. For man is neither soul nor body.” (1) At first glance, this definition seems quite serviceable. It both identifies the person as something beyond mere matter and mind and avoids the problems of identifying the person with only one of the soul or body. However, this serviceability of the Thomistic definition of the person fails when confronted with a singular issue: Christian eschatology, specifically in relation to what happens to the person.

As a basic part of the Christian creed, it is believed that, following death and judgment, there will be a resurrection of the body. (2) (3) While the implied facts of this belief are rather unclear, this much can be said: there is a period following death when there is only the soul. This period is succeeded by a period when the soul is reunited with the body. As was said above, such a theological belief is philosophically problematic for those who support Aquinas’s position.
For starters, there is no immortality of the person. When the body perishes, when all organic processes cease, the body-soul composite perishes. As the composite is identified with the person, it can rightly be said that “I” perish at the moment of bodily death. What is left? My soul. However, how can this soul be “mine”? After all, the “I” related to that soul is gone as soon as the body dies. If this is so, there can no longer be any ownership of what is left, including the soul. It makes little sense, then, to claim that prayers can be made to the saints in heaven. For the technically-rigorous Thomist, there are no saints in heaven, only the souls of saints. How can these souls be identified with the saints, though, when the persons the saints were before death perished at death? What remains following the ceasing-to-be of the body-soul composite that can claim ownership of this soul or that soul?

Following from this, it can be asked whom the person is to be that comes into being when the soul is reunited with the body. This question, of course, is ambiguous. How can there be a “reunification” when the soul is no longer identifiable, having lost the entity that claimed it as its own? This being said, the question is still one that deserves analysis. Could it be said that “I” return to being when my soul is reunited with my resurrected body? The same problems of identity reappear here - how is the soul “mine” absent me, and how can a new body be “mine” absent me? Even if this question were not confronted with these issues, a larger one looms. It would indeed not be me that came back into being upon the resurrection of the body. If the person is the composite of a soul and body, changing one of the components would theoretically change the person. If the resurrected body is different from “my” body, then the resulting person would be different from me. Even if the resurrected body is miraculously identical with the one I currently have (as the Church holds it will be) (4), the resulting person would not be numerically identical with me, and so would be different from me in the sense of being “that” person rather than “this” person. This difference calls into question whether or not there would be continuity between the self I am before death and the resultant self that follows the resurrection of the body.
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Finally, consider this: if God is truly just, how can He punish someone for a crime he did not commit? In other words, how can the souls in hell be responsible for the sins of persons? We have already established that the person, as defined by Aquinas, ceased to be at bodily death. If this is so, why then is it just for certain souls to suffer damnation when others are glorified? After all, if persons are responsible for their actions, then it is persons who should be punished for their actions. A soul is not a person, according to Aquinas; if this is so, it seems rather unjust of God to punish certain souls for offenses they did not commit. In the same way, it seems unjust of God to reward other souls for virtues they did not possess. Indeed, any reward or punishment prior to the resurrection of the bodies could not be condoned. Even afterwards, as the persons formed by the addition of resurrected bodies to souls would be different persons (in some sense) from those who lived on earth, any sort of moral responsibility would seem to be lacking. Supposing that this were not the case, and that the resurrection of the body did allow for accountability to be reintroduced; what then are the souls to do while waiting, so to speak, to be given bodies again? Absent said bodies, these poor souls have not even the luxury of twiddling their thumbs to pass the time away.
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  1. Aquinas, On Being and Essence, sect. 37.
  2. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 988-991.
  3. Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, 488.
  4. Ibid., 490.
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