God has constituted the human person as a unity of body and soul. The soul cannot be reduced to matter. It permeates the material body and is joined to it yet also transcends it. The soul is what makes a person a someone and not just a something. Dumitru Staniloae describes it as a “substratum endowed with consciousness and with the capacity to react consciously and freely” (The World: Creation and Deification, II:65). We cannot define the soul; we can only describe its personal manifestations. “The human face,” he writes, “reveals more than just material differences from one individual to another; it discloses also that spiritual substratum that is distinct from matter” (II:65). Through ensoulment the human person is created, “a conscious and voluntary subject, unique and irreplaceable” (II:65). Indeed, it is precisely the presence of the soul which makes body to be body and not just a lump of matter. We must think of the human being not as a substance but as a unity of two elements (II:71)—“rationality given material form” (II:66); “incarnate spirit” (II:74).
God has created the soul to the end that mankind may enter into communion with him through and with the material world:
As a unity between soul and body that has as its purpose to render the world transparent for God, human nature takes its origin within a special and creative act of God. From the very first moment of the existence of human nature, this special origin manifests itself in a wholly particular way, which is visible in the insertion of the spirit within nature as soul, that is, as the constitutive factor of human nature. The soul is brought into being by a special creative act of God so that it might make use of the world in a dialogue with God. This alone explains why the soul stirs and awakens within a world it did not itself create, but which it discovers to be fitted to itself and placed at its own disposal. The human soul has been created by God in a special fashion, inasmuch as it is endowed with characteristics akin to those of God: consciousness, cognitive reason, freedom. Through knowledge and actions, the human soul is called into a free dialogue with God, is called to use the world freely as a gift from God as to make response through it to the love God has given every human being, and through the world, to extend this dialogue of love to his fellow human beings. (II:79)
Staniloae does not engage modern philosophers and scientists who dispute the existence of the soul or its possible survival after death. For him the immortality of the soul is a given of biblical revelation and churchly teaching, underwritten by the praxis of the Church. If the soul did not survive death, the Church’s prayer for the departed and its invocation of the saints would make no sense.
At the moment of death, the body ceases to exist (consider the difference between a body and a corpse), but the soul abides: “The soul carries with it its characterization as soul of the body and has the roots of the body deepened within itself during the course of life on earth” (II:77). God desires a continuing and eternal relationship with every human person he has created. To this end he has endowed the soul “with the memory of its deeds and with self-consciousness so that it may unceasingly regret the deeds contrary to God, unceasingly know of its dependence on God, and unceasingly praise and love God” (The Fulfillment of Creation, VI:21).
Staniloae rejects the view of Martin Luther and others that at death the human person is destroyed (soul sleep), to be reconstituted at the general resurrection. If already in this life, as the Orthodox Church teaches, the human person can become “the throne and dwelling of God,” why would God “remain for so long without this throne of His, without a loving relationship with the believer; neither do we see why God would suffer the deified person to be destroyed or to be left in such a long sleep” (VI:23). The human person is created for sustained, unbroken fellowship with his Creator:
In this sense we can say that immortality is not based on the indestructibility of the soul viewed as a substance but on the indestructibility of the person. Or rather, immortality is based on the indestructibility of the soul as the basis of the human person; it is based on the indestructible relationship between God and the human being as persons, given that the person is the agent in this relationship. For the relationship between God and the human being is shown to be much more important if the human being is not destroyed for a while but is maintained uninterruptedly, if he passes through judgment immediately after death and then is rewarded or punished with a new kind of life, according to how he lived while on earth. If God made the human being as a partner in a relationship, He made him for an eternal and uninterrupted relationship. (VI:26)
In his love God wills eternal communion with each and every person. Objects can be “dissolved into nothing”; but persons are unique and irreplaceable subjects because they are constituted by their relationships with other persons and most especially by their relationship with the divine Persons of the Holy Trinity. The destruction of a human being necessarily means an irremediable loss to every other person who has known and loved him:
Only objects are dissolved into nothing. Persons remain indestructible as unique, original entities, but at the same time as sources of unceasing newness through their attitudes and the revelations of their will. We cannot forget a person, whether he has done us good or evil. In both cases we want him to last forever, either to repent for the evil done to us or to continually delight us with his love.
But what for us is only an unattainable wish, for God is a reality. For Him, in fact, any person with whom he has established a relationship will never cease to exist. When He created the human being as a person, God gave him significance as His partner forever; He has created him for an uninterrupted relationship with Him. This is also seen in the uniqueness of the person. It is not the person who suffers from his own disappearance but the others. Through a person’s death the possibility of an irreplaceable relationship is taken away from others. It is the same with God; each person who is totally lost would mean the loss of an irreplaceable relationship. Is God content with the absence of irreplaceable relationships after He willed them? Does his love suffer the disappearance of persons toward whom it was directed? If it does, then why would He bring them back to life? … To call to mind someone who was or who will be inevitably leads to the painful feeling that you miss him, and this feeling is borne out of necessity by the one who does not have the power to keep the loved one alive. But God does not lack this power. If God cannot forget the one with whom He was in a relationship, He can maintain Him in existence, so that when remembering him He will not also feel that He misses him. (VI:26-27)
Staniloae comes close to suggesting that God’s life would be diminished if he permitted or caused the destruction of any human person. We will need to return to this question in a future article.
I think we can now envision Staniloae’s decisive objection to all forms of conditional immortality or annihilationism (a position that is becoming increasingly popular in evangelical circles). If God were to annihilate even a single person, it would render “creation, the Son of God’s Incarnation as man, the Resurrection, and the entire plan of salvation devoid of any seriousness” (VI:28). It would represent an ultimate failure to love. “Existence is a gift from God,” explains Staniloae. “God manifests His love by eternally offering existence to those in hell. If He were to maintain only those in paradise, He would not be showing that He respects the human being (even when the human being opposes Him), and that He therefore respects his freedom. In their own way, those in hell are also a testimony to the value that God accords them” (VI:47). In love God maintains the impenitent and wicked in relationship with him, albeit a negative relationship. If God were to obliterate them, he would be effectively denying their intrinsic value and freedom and contradicting his own identity as triune Love.
But if the damned are constitutionally incapable of repenting, how can they still be said to be free?