On Science and Faith
For millennia, humanity has been attempting to find out what happens to someone after they die. Modern science tells us that death is merely the failure of the body to support and sustain conscious life, while religion might tell us that death is the entrance to Heaven or Hell. I personally believe that both of these are correct, but to understand why we’ll have to take a look at what Heaven really means.
The common idea of Heaven is a picture of a physical location somewhere in space where one might go when they die on Earth. This perspective is outdated and incorrect. While it technically cannot be ruled out by science, we have found no evidence that anything like this can occur and the Catholic Church has long since refined its views on what Heaven really is: a state of perfect union with God.
To really understand this union, we must first understand what having a soul really means: A soul is, by the definition of the Catholic Church, the quality that makes all of the matter in your body “you.” It’s the reason that you know that your hand is a part of you, but that a chair you sit on is not a part of you. By this definition, and according to the Church Fathers like St. Thomas Aquinas and even unrelated philosophers like Aristotle, everything has a soul. You can tell the difference between a rock and a tree in much the same way you can tell the difference between yourself and another person because each individual object has a quality unique to itself which we have defined as a “soul.”
However, there is a difference between the soul of an inanimate object and the souls of a plant, animal, or human. According to both Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas, the soul of a plant, also called a “vegetative soul,” is different than the soul of an inanimate object because a plant is a living being that can grow and reproduce. A “sensitive soul” is like a vegetative soul, except sensitive souls are qualities of objects that can consciously interact with the world around them. Animals typically have sensitive souls. The final variety of soul, a rational soul, is the type of soul that humans have. A rational soul has all the qualities of vegetative and sensitive souls, except that souls designated as rational are qualities of something that can reason and that has free will.
In the previous part of this series, we explored the idea of God as existence itself. It logically follows, then, that a state of perfect union with God is a state of perfect union with existence. Reframing Heaven as a state of perfect union with existence, along with the definition of a soul as a quality rather than a physical thing, leads us closer to the truth. Heaven isn’t a place one can go to, but rather the state of finality that one’s soul enters when their time on earth runs out. Heaven is the reunification of one’s soul, of everything that made a person unique, with the state of existence that it originally came from. That same uniqueness has always existed as a possibility and will always exist as a memory, whether that memory is human memory or just the impact their presence has made on the universe we live in.
What, then, is hell?
I personally believe that hell, rather than a place filled with fire and pain, is a state of imperfect reunion with existence. Hell is very similar to heaven, in reality: both are related to how one is remembered, not by other humans, but by existence itself. Heaven and Hell are, in my opinion, one and the same fundamentally, with the sole exception that Hell is the state entered when one chose of their own free will to have an inherently negative impact on the universe within which they exist.
Unfortunately, this distinction between positive and negative over the course of a lifetime is something that humanity cannot know for sure. The final result of a series of events as complex as a lifetime could never be understood within the limits of the human mind because it would require consideration of every small impact one has had on the world, as well as every future interaction that might be a result of those impacts. Therefore, the distinction between Heaven and Hell should be left up to God alone.
In the next part of the On Science and Faith series, titled “Love,” we will take a closer look at what the word “Love” means in our society, as well as what I think it should really mean.
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