If my hand is an occasion of sin, is it the body or the soul that is guilty?

by Father Dale Kinzler

Father Dale Kinzler

A question came across our “Ask a Priest” desk recently: “If the body, or parts of the body, would commit a sin, so after the death of the body and the burial, as I understand it, there is no suffering to the body or it will remain there and eventually turn to ashes. But on the other hand, the soul does not commit the sin, but suffers for whatever the sin of the body will be judged according to Christ himself. I would like you to explain my concern in regards to this question.”

In Mt. 5:30 Jesus tells us, “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into Gehenna (hell).” Of course, Jesus would not mean for us to literally cut off our hands or pluck out our eyes when they become occasions of sin. Otherwise, we would have nothing left to live on. Jesus is telling us that we need not fear physical loss so much as the loss of our immortal soul.

Again Jesus says: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Mt. 10:28).

The old Baltimore Catechism posed and answered the question: “Who is man?” “Man is a creature composed of body and soul, made in the image and likeness of God.” Our likeness to God is found in our immortal soul, with its capacities of intellect and free will. Through these faculties, we choose bodily actions that unite us with God in grace or separate ourselves from him in sin (see Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC] 1701-7).

Earthly suffering is finished when we die and go to the grave, and our body-separated soul will begin its destiny of eternal happiness or suffering at the moment of death.

“The New Testament... repeatedly affirms that each will be rewarded immediately after death in accordance with his works and faith... Each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death, in a particular judgment that refers to his life in Christ: either entrance into the blessedness of heaven – through a purification (purgatory) or immediately, – or immediate and everlasting damnation” (CCC 1021-22).

The human person is a “body-soul unity” whose physical actions are an expression of the immortal soul. Our grace-filled loving actions affirm the divine image within, and our sinful actions contradict that divine image. In other words, our sins are sins not only of the body, but also of the soul of the human person.

Our creed professes “resurrection of the body to life everlasting.” The everlasting happiness or suffering of each person will be that of a “glorified body” which no longer undergoes the changes we experience here on earth.

Our Catechism’s presentation on the creed, article 12, “I Believe in Life Everlasting,” states, “The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs” (CCC 1035).

The condemned person will suffer in body and soul in a way far beyond any earthly suffering we may have yet encountered. Jesus says, “It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mk. 9:47-48).

“Unquenchable fire” of the spiritual kind may be harder to comprehend than the fiery heat of a blast furnace at 2,000 degrees. The condemned soul’s longing for God, from whom we have separated ourselves, goes on forever. That is a pain more intense than any physical heat could cause.

St. Thomas Aquinas wrote: “After the day of judgment... the worm ascribed to the damned must be understood to be not of a corporeal but of a spiritual nature: and this is the remorse of conscience, which is called a worm because it torments the soul, as a corporeal worm born of corruption torments by gnawing” (Summa Theologica, Q. 97).

Let us make every effort to use our faculties of body and mind such that God will judge us deserving of everlasting happiness with the saints in heaven. Let us use every means of grace and avoid the sins that lead to everlasting, unquenchable suffering in hell-fire.

God sent his son into the world, “not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (Jn 3:16-17).

With hearts set on our eternal destiny, let us “set our minds on the things that are above... and do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:1-17).

Father Kinzler serves as the pastor of St. George’s Church in Cooperstown as well as pastor of Sacred Heart Church, Aneta; St. Olaf’s Church, Finley; and St. Lawrence’s Church, Jessie.

Editor’s Note: If you have a question about the Catholic faith and would like to submit a question for consideration in a future column, please send to news@fargodiocese.org with “Ask a Priest” in the subject line or mail to New Earth, 5201 Bishops Blvd. S, Suite. A, Fargo, ND 58104, Attn: Ask a Priest.