Q: When does the soul leave the body?
A: This question is becoming more and more important today, as it is often possible to extend physical life beyond the point at which it would have been irretrievable previously. Thus the cessation of one’s heartbeat is often not looked upon as the point of death, since this is reversible, but the cessation of brain activity, which is normally irreversible given modern technology.
The question of when the soul leaves the body is thus important because there are certain things one would do to a dead body (for example, bury it) which one would not do to a live person. The same would be true of a living body which is no longer a person (if there is such a thing). While one would still treat it with respect on account of the person of whom it had been a part (much as we treasure locks of hair from loved ones who have died), it would not be treated as if it were that person.
Thus, for example, some people might suggest performing euthanasia on (deliberately killing) a living body that was no longer viewed as a person. If the soul has departed from the body, then this would not be murder; but if it is still there then the act is murder, for an innocent human being is deliberately and intentionally killed.
I decided to write about this because recently my mother passed away, at a very young age, due to a totally unexpected and unpredictable brain aneurysm, which she had been born with, unbeknownst to anyone. One day, about 3:00pm, she passed out while talking to her doctor’s office, complaining of having had double-vision for the past half hour, and just after 5:00pm the next day she died. Fortunately, I was able to fly back to my home town of Fayetteville, Arkansas in time and was able to spend several hours sitting and talking with her. I also have great confidence of her salvation.
Although there was no suggestion at all in her case of euthanasia, during the time when she was still alive, someone suggested to me, as a way of providing comfort, that her soul had departed the previous day at 3:00pm when she first lost consciousness.
Under the circumstances, I was not about to start a debate, but in actuality, this was incorrect. Loss of consciousness does not mean loss of soul, or else one would lose one’s soul every time one falls asleep (or at least every time one is put under general anesthetic, when one can’t dream).
The Bible implicitly informs us of the time the soul leaves the body when it informs us, “As the body apart from the spirit is dead; so faith apart from works is dead” (James 2:26). When is the body dead? When it is apart from the soul. When does the soul leave? At the point of death.
This reflects a basic fact of Christian theological anthropology. The soul is not just a thing which inhabit the body; it is the life principle of the body, the substantial form of the body, which is why when the soul leaves the body, the body dies and disintegrates, having lost the integral form which held it together. The same is true of parts of the body; when the soul withdraws from a body part (or is forced out of it due to an injury), that part dies and disintegrates (as with frost bite, gangrene, or an amputation).
The point at which the soul leaves the body is thus what medical science refers to as somatic death or “bodily” death (soma is the Greek word for “body”). When the body as an entity dies – not just when some cells of it die or when some organs of it die (even the brain or heart, though the death of these normally leads inescapably to the death of the body as a whole) – that is when the soul leaves. Some cells of the body (such as hair follicles and fingernail beds) may continue to live for some time (just as a cell sample taken from the body when it is alive), but the body itself, as a whole, as a system, is dead, and that is when we know the soul leaves. Until that point, the living body must be treated with all the respects one would accord an unconscious but living person, for that is what he or she is. Thus he or she cannot be murdered by euthanasia.