What Happens to the Soul When the Mind Leaves?
The picture shows an Alzheimer's patient holding a young dachshund in a "pet animal boost" visit at a nursing home. The contentment of the scene is for many families of Alzheimer's patients the antithesis of what really has happened in their world as their loved one has lost the ability to care for themselves and ultimately lost the ability to even know who they are. I am writing this article in March 2002 in a chair beside the bed of my 90-year-old mother who has suffered a stroke and floats from a coma-like condition to periods of reasonable lucidness, with journeys into fantasy and hallucinations in between. Why do such things happen, and what is the spiritual state of people who no longer recognize reality or even sons and daughters?
The symbol is a universal symbol that means "does not equal." The most common mistake people make in dealing with man's soul is to confuse spiritual things with mental things. This is easy to do because there is considerable overlap, just like mental and physical things overlap. Sexuality, artistic beauty, musical beauty, etc., will have physical connections. We see because light is there as a physical quantity but our mental appreciation of art or music are mental manipulations of the physical things we have been exposed to. So, too, are spiritual things connected to mental and physical processes. Creativity, worship, guilt, and sympathy are all qualities unique to man, but obviously physical and mental things are involved.
The major point we are after in this discussion is that the brain is not the soul and is only indirectly connected to the soul. Retarded human beings do all the spiritual things we have been discussing, but highly intelligent animals do not. Raising animals in human homes does not change them into human beings. All animals have brains, and the functioning of the brain has been an increasing subject of study by scientists. Since the brain is a part of the physical body, it is subject to physical laws. Eyes develop cataracts, joints wear out, skin wrinkles, and the brain ages. Man-made pollution can injure the brain just as it can the eyes. We still do not know what causes Alzheimer's, but we are sure there is a physical cause and several suspects are being studied.
I have friends who have had polio and other friends who have had injuries that have left them totally or partially disabled. These things are tragedies, but they do not directly affect the souls of those battling them. Mental problems also do not directly affect the souls of those afflicted with them even though huge hardship and pain may be involved. The problem is that, in the case of the brain, we do not always know as humans what we are dealing with. Thinking my mother was totally out of it, I asked her several times in a row if she knew who I was. She finally turned to me and gave me one of those "put-out" looks that I remember so well as a child and said, "You are John Noyes Clayton. Now get that dog out of here." (There was no dog in the Bloomington Hospital at that time, much less in her room.) We have no trouble detecting blindness or deafness, but brain disorders are much more difficult for us to comprehend.
As an atheist, I had no notion of what Christians were talking about when they talked about the indwelling of the Holy Spirit or being spiritual. The Bible even tells us that this concept is one that believers and nonbelievers will not be able to communicate on (see
1 Corinthians 2:14). Pentecostalism has perhaps tainted us with a view that suggests that being spirit-filled is just the opposite of the demon possession of Matthew 8:28-34 where the demons had to control either the man or the herd of pigs.
Being spiritual, or having the spirit of God dwelling in us, does not mean that our free will has been taken away and that we are no longer responsible for what we do. We are not puppets as Christians, and we are no less prone to misunderstandings or weaknesses than we were before we became Christians.
What is different about us as Christians compared to before God's Spirit came into us is that we have a resource or power to draw upon that enables us to do things we could not do before. Like any guide, the Spirit leads the way, but does not force it. If you are being guided through a place you have never been, the guide will show you how to go. The right doors will be opened, and the best path to your destination will be given. You do not have to follow the guide. You can strike out on your own and try to do it without help. If you do so, you will miss the doors the guide opens, and you will suffer the consequences of the bad choices you make. This analogy is very close to how the soul is guided by the Holy Spirit and how the soul works. We have the guide available to guide us in life and in things we could not do or understand without that guidance. We can also do things because of the guide's activity that we could not do if we were functioning totally on our own.
If we carry our guide analogy one step further, we can see the connection to the Alzheimer's question. One option always available to all of us is to do nothing. If you were being guided through a new place as we just described, one thing you could do is to stay right where you are and refuse to follow the guide or move yourself. You could simply sit down in the lobby of the hotel you were staying in and refuse to move. Many people who claim to be Christians have done just exactly that--they have opposed the Spirit of God by refusing to do anything. This lukewarmness is condemned in no uncertain terms by Jesus when He tells those who are in that position that "you make me sick" (Revelation 3:16). Just as the traveler who sits in the hotel lobby never gets to his destination, so does the lukewarm Christian never get to his. I was on a trip on the Columbia River in November 2001 when a man on the trip injured himself, and it appeared that he would not be able to continue. The guide picked up the man and wheeled him on to the destination so the trip was completed. So, too, does the Alzheimer's patient find himself or herself unable to complete the journey of life to its destination on their own. The mind may even die, but Jesus carries the soul on to its final destination. In reality, this happens to all of us, but with people whose minds have become inoperative, it occurs before the body has returned to dust.
When the Lord takes the soul on to its ultimate reunion with God does not have any relationship to its ultimate reward. A baby who dies at birth is no less human or less valuable than a 100-year-old preacher of the Gospel. The tragedy of the baby is that it has not had an opportunity to reach for the goals intended for it and the glory that reach would bring to God, but its reunion with the Creator will be joyous none-the-less. So, too, is the 50-year-old "baby" whose mind does not allow it to do all it would like to do to make its existence sing praises to the Creator. The Lord reaches out to all of us and does what we are unable to do for ourselves (Romans 8:26-27).
The parable of the talents lays down a basic principle of how God handles the vicissitudes and oddities of life. In addition to teaching us that we cannot "sit down in the hotel lobby and refuse to move," we are also shown that whether we have been given five talents or ten, our reward is based on what we did with what we had opportunities to do--not some quota given to us regardless of our abilities or lack of abilities.
So what happens to the soul when the mind leaves? It is no different than if the mind was clear and functional. The soul leaves the body at God's decree, and that may be years after the person no longer has control over what they do. A body with a soul and no mind is like a parked car with the engine running and no driver. It has to be contained and cared for, but it is not at risk itself.
--John N. Clayton
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