Dumitru Staniloae: Personhood and the Immortality of the Soul


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?

(Go to “What is Freedom Good For?”)

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10 Responses to Dumitru Staniloae: Personhood and the Immortality of the Soul

  1. AR says:

    To me this has been the only possible answer to the problem of evil. God refuses to act against, to undo, to oppose his own act of creation. This is the expression not only of his simplicity, but more importantly of his unending uninterrupted unphased goodness.

    The only way to stop evil people from being evil would be to destroy them – that is, to oppose, to retract his own act of creating and constituting them.

    So Faith consists in part of realizing that God’s act of creating and constituting us as we are is a good act, and of assenting to and trusting his difficult and dangerous refusal to back down on what he has done in making us.


    This reasoning on the immortality of the soul is excellent and answers a difficulty I have had. If the soul is created from nothing, its essence cannot be indestructable. Thus I have heard Orthodox teachers assert that the soul is not by nature immortal. Others casually use the conventional assertion that the soul IS immortal and point to the fact that we Christians believe the soul will never die, which is certainly a pertinent observation!

    The idea that the soul’s invulnerability to death is not rooted in an immortal nature but rather in the person’s relationship to Someone with an “eternal memory” is really important, I think. It also seems to align itself with the fact that the Persons of the Trinity are distinguished by their relation to one another, rather than by a difference in substance.

    However, this argument depends on the connection he makes between the soul and the person. What do you think of his success in demonstrating that connection?


    I will be watching to see what else comes of this reading in regard to “eternal destiny.” My primary philosophical problem with that teaching on Hell which has been most common in Christian history is that this Hell seems to be constituted in such a manner as to sustain evil – to make it continue and increase, albeit in an enclosed separated space.

    Taken by themselves, certain passages of the New Testament scriptures can seem to support that idea, but when traced through the Bible beginning in the Old Testament, the idea of God’s wrath seems to oppose this teaching.

    We are taught, primarily, that God will destroy evil. This is supposed to be an occasion of hope for us, and the expression of God’s justice. God’s justice, of course, is his salvation: his insistence on bringing about goodness and righteousness and saving it from evil. (Death must die; a paradox is involved.) He must do this; he is God. The Psalms are full of such reflections, and many of them take a similar form: the insistence that God is like fire or that he emits a fire which destroys evil and evildoers.

    The beginning of the doctrine of Gehenna in Isaiah is in a poetic-prophetic passage that simply indicates that evil souls and demon-gods are like the corpses of criminals, good for nothing to society except to be thrown in a pit (dishonored by a criminal’s burial) and burned with the trash and eaten by worms. Jesus repeats Isaiah’s poetic-prophetic formula “where the fire is not quenched and the worm dies not.” Some people inexplicably think the worm refers to the damned soul. ???

    The first two people to be biblically consigned to Gehenna (referred to in the first instance as the valley of Hinnom) are 1.) the god Molech to whom infants were burned in the original earthly valley of Hinnom and 2.) The Assyrian king. Really, really, wicked people. (Somehow we’ve gotten from there to “most of humanity.”)

    Again, the focus is the desire of good people to be protected from evil, to see God end it and separate it from our society. The evils of Molech and Assyria are so enormous that God’s people need to be promised that they will be destroyed with poetic justice.

    But we know from experience that when the punishment exceeds the crime, it begets hatred toward the punisher. So we must imagine the people in the usual Christian Hell as everlastingly growing in hatred toward God and therefore in evil – not just because they are evil and hate God anyway, but because they have already suffered more than they ever caused anyone else to suffer, but no end is in sight. So God has caused their hatred to grow and has thus sustained evil. Certainly the usual damned soul in the usual Christian Hell has already suffered more than he ever caused anyone else to suffer in the first moment of being there.

    Obviously I cannot recieve that view.

    If we were told that the Assyrian King will suffer for a thousand years we might conjecture that this is the proper punishment for all the thing that he has done. But if we are told that his punishment will be endless, and we have rejected the view that God is sustaining his evil through unjust punishment, then we can only assume that somehow the Assyrian King is forever in the process of committing an endless offence, which in turn needs to be punished endlessly, and this consideration extends the suffering indefinitely. If this is the solution we propose, I can see where a careful consideration of the nature of the human soul and its freedom is necessary to confirm the solution. If it is not the punishment that sustains the evil, but the evil that sustains the punishment, then (assuming that the punishment is everlasting) we would have to explain the human person in such a way that someone who makes it to Gehenna is now incapable, in some sense, of ending his offence.

    But to return to the first point, does “punishment” answer the reason for which the doctrine of Gehenna was developed: the desire to see God end evil? Does punishment end evil or continue it? Does it perhaps supress evil’s outward activity and restrict it to an inward-directed destruction?

    Christ’s teaching on Gehenna is almost all contained within the Sermon on the Mount. Here, he reveals that what used to be considered the big sins are actually present in all of us to some extent. We may not be Molech-worshippers but most of us have felt a feeling of hatred – which partakes of the sin of murder. Thus we are all “in danger of the fires of Gehenna.” Christ makes reference to one who “has the power to cast both body and soul into Gehenna” and whom we ought to “fear” but does not identify whether this is God or the Adversary. People seem to assume it is God.

    I think this teaching is clarified to some extent by the Lord’s kinsman James, who says that the tongue is a world of evil that is set on fire by Gehenna. This statement is a reversal of the idea that sin leads to hell. He says, contrarily, that Gehenna brings about sin. Knowing this, the sermon on the mount can be read the same way. The fires of Gehenna are not the fire that God breathes out to destroy evil. They are the flames that destroy people by setting their members on fire with a movement toward evil. Somehow, then, this flame begins before death and continues after death.

    All this leads me to question seriously how far God can be involved in the creation and maintenance of Gehenna, if at all, especially since we find, in Revelation, Gehenna (without its inhabitants, who have been yeilded up to God along with the inhabitants of Hades) being cast into “the lake of fire,” a place which is only mentioned in that book and is not remotely explained. It doesn’t come into play until after the final judgment at the end of all things. It is described (in a book that is mythopoeic in nature) as a lake of fire burning with sulfur, and “the second death.” In that lake of fire, the devil, the false prophet, and the beast are tormented “from age to age” (whatever that means) but we are not told whether that is also the fate of everyone who is cast into the lake of fire – those whose names are not found in the book of life. I can’t help wondering whether this lake of fire is God’s action, as opposed to Gehenna which seems to me to be the action of sin. If so, how different must it be from Gehenna, even to the most wicked?

    Sorry for the lenght of this comment, even though I’m going ahead and posting it. It reflects the level to which I am interacting, in my thoughts, with these posts, and (in this instance) with the ongoing subject of universalism which is so important in this blog.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Alana, it may be that the next post will shed a bit of light on how Staniloae might respond to your questions. He does believe that hell is freely chosen by the damned rather than imposed upon them against their will: they have made themselves incapable of accepting the mercy of God. But God still wills their continued existence, as an expression of his love and respect for them. As far as I can tell, Staniloae does not entertain the question of what God would do if the damned were to petition him for annihilation and a return to nothingness.


      • AR says:

        I understand; you are not Staniloae and more is coming. 🙂

        Still, when you put together the statements that “hell is freely chosen by the damned” and “they have made themselves incapable of accepting the mercy of God” it seems that you are saying that hell is precisely the inability to accept the mercy of God, rather than an objective punishment levied by God. Do you think Staniloae believes that?


        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Yes, exactly. Staniloae advocates what philosophers today would describe as a free-will defense of hell.


          • AR says:

            I see. Well, that article treats statements of future events as absolute from a human body of reference. While those events which are future to us may have a whole and decisive reality from the divine reference point, that doesn’t mean that they “really” exist, though unknown, to us.

            As one Orthodoxy elder whose name I can’t remember said, prophecies of disasters are given so that they won’t happen.

            We still need to determine the nature of the disaster that has been prophecied. However, the representation of a static future that we see in this treatment kind of infuriates me. Where is the spirit of the King and Prophet David as he lays on the floor in sackloth and ashes praying for his dying child, because God is merciful? Where is the spirit of King Josiah as he turns his face to the wall, away from the Lord’s prophet, and groans to the God of all for a stay of sentence? Failing that, where is the boldness of the murderer Cain who whines, “My punishment is too great for me to bear,” and God hears him?


  2. AR says:

    Although “the second death” hardly seems like an action of God… which leads me to the original problem: can God end evil?


    • brian says:

      Honestly, I think your basic intuition is right, here. Anything less than a universal salvation (Berdyaev goes so far as to include “every blade of grass”) is a defeat for God, imo. I am on the side of the bold ones who want everything renewed and made part of the joy of paradise. Anything less is infinitely too little.


      • AR says:

        I remember being around 10 years old and standing in front of a bonfire where everyeone else was joking and laughing and roasting things and having the time of their lives, while I was overcome with silent horror at the heat of the flame I’d been told was nothing compared to Hell. I didn’t fear for my own soul – I’d been told I was saved – but I was transfixed with horror for the numberless souls who were writhing in unbearable torment beneath our feet, so to speak, while we lived it up. So I’ve had that “basic intuition” for as long as I can remember, but nearly the whole religious world stands in the way.

        I remember one woman, a pious Christian I grew up knowing, used to use the Hitler argument. “Do you want Hitler to be in Heaven?” she would ask people, in debates on this question. “No!” they would answer in shock. “So you think it is fair for God to send some people to Hell for their sins, but your own sins just aren’t bad enough,” she would say flatly. Of course she never mentioned her belief that all the Jews Hitler had killed were also in Hell – didn’t get their theology right so, you know. Died in one incinerator, woke up in another one. God is good. Allahu Akbar.

        And silently I would think about Hitler killing himself in that bunker, the extremity of his grotesque face-saving incapacity to even begin facing up to what he had done, the private death-dealing world of false virtue he had created around everyone he knew… and in my heart I would cry, God yes, I want Hitler in Heaven! Let him be Hitler no more; let him be sorry. Let him make restitution; let the innocent Jews, too, find their way into the compensatory comfort of Christ’s consolation; let there be weeping a thousand years if need be, but let them all come home. Because that ending is too sad; because there is no Christ in that story.

        But you can’t say that sort of thing to people. They’ve made too great a virtue of hatred.

        Of course, back then I believed that I was the only one who felt that way. I believed that the God of the Caananite genocides and the rod-weilding proverbial father was ranged against my tenderest feelings along with everyone I knew. I didn’t want to exist a lot of the time.

        Only since I got married and grew up a little and tasted my own hatred for the first time was I able to understand why people wanted punishment to happen. I would like to punish all sorts of people, now. I think sometimes about the ways I would punish them if I could – although I still can’t bear the thought of anyone suffering for more than a minute or two at worst. And ironically, I feel again that God is not with me in this new desire for punishment. I would willingly dimiss ten thousand scriptures and prophets, however exalted their vision, in order to feel sure that God is not what I am – in order to believe whatever is most loving of him. Let all the words of the righteous be forgotten, let all the Bibles be burned, if one damned soul can come home that way. Either that, or let the day I was conceived be torn out of God’s book and fall into oblivion.


  3. ddpbf says:

    Verry interesting topic. I think Chrestos Giannaras makes same point in his book “Alphabet of faith”.


  4. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Jeff just sent me the link to this article by Nicholas Loudovikos: “Heaven and Hell, Nature and Person. Loudovikos offers some brief comments about Fr Dumitru Staniloae and his notion of the soul.


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