The Journey of a Soul

Question from Heather:
I really appreciate this website, it is quite useful. Early thank you for answering my question.

Most theists often worry about where our ‘soul’ goes when we die. I am more interested about where our ‘soul’ was before we were born. I often ask my theist friends this and most of them are perplexed by the question. Where were we before our existence? Shouldn’t we go back to the same place after our death?

When I asked myself this question I came up with no answer because I don’t know. Why don’t people draw the same conclusions about death?

Answer by SmartLX:
Most people can fairly easily understand and accept the idea of previously not having existed. After all, they normally don’t remember anything before at least a year after their own birth. It’s much more difficult to wrap one’s head around not existing at some future date, because it means directly confronting one’s own mortality. That’s why the fate of souls after death commands so much more of people’s attention than the path of souls before birth. Having an immortal soul gets around the whole mortality thing.

Atheists tend not to place so much importance on the possible types of afterlife, for obvious reasons. Considering the before-and-after question regardless can lead to a level of acceptance, as Mark Twain reached long ago: “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”

This famous quote echoes one of the popular theological options, which is that each soul has existed for as long as the universe. Many theists believe in at least some period of pre-existence. Jews and Christians can even back it up with Biblical passages, such as Jeremiah 1:5 – “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee…” The ensoulment of a human body is usually believed by the religious to happen at conception, or at least before birth, so it’s implied that before that point we exist as thoughts or ideas in the mind of God. Given that we’re supposed to be here to carry out God’s plan, whatever that is, it stands to reason that we ourselves were also planned.

Moving beyond the Abrahamic religions, the concept of reincarnation suggests that your soul was in another body before yours, and many more going back through time. A soul has to have its first vessel at some point, though; the world’s population has doubled in about the last 40 years, so anyone under the age of 40 only had a 50% chance of inheriting a soul from another human (assuming that’s the default option). Therefore there’s a good chance that either your body is your soul’s first outing, or you were once an animal. Maybe at one stage you were a single-celled organism.

I think those theists who have given this particular question some thought are the ones who are genuinely interested in theology beyond its implications for their own welfare. Everyone wants to know what will happen when they die and how they can make it easier on themselves, but it takes real curiosity to want to trace one’s personal origins. Whether the pursuit ends up making the concept of souls look a bit silly is probably up to the theists involved.

One thought on “The Journey of a Soul”

  1. I think the main reason why people don’t draw an “I don’t know” about whether they survive their deaths as souls has to do with a psychological need for retributive justice of some sort.

    If during my lifetime, I perceive that I have been wronged against, or that I have done great deeds that have gone unacknowledged, then there is some solace for me in believing that after my death I will be rewarded for what I did in the “after-life”. And similarly, those who wronged me or those who were crazy enough to not believe the same things that I did would be punished.
    That’s probably why people care more about the whereabouts of their souls after death than before their births.

    Of-course a lot of people also care about the whereabouts of their souls before their birth. The Hindu theory of karma for e.g. is a rationalization of the perceived “undeserved” problems and successes faced by one – you suffer for the sins that your soul committed in its past life and reap the rewards of its good deeds.

    Of-course the truth probably is that we are responsible to a greater or lesser extent for things that happen to us in our lives There is no retributive justice for perceived wrongs (and sometimes even for real wrongs). And some things are just random and happen (you could probably trace the causes, but the causes are too remote and subtle compared to the gross occurrence that they cause).
    But most of this is too hard for most to swallow – so we have airy-fairy stories about souls and their journeys.

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