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August 29, 2017

A14“The Death of the Good Old Man” on the right, and “The Death of the Strong Wicked Man”, on the left

Etchings by Luigi (Louis) Schiavonetti (1765 – 1810), an Italian artist, after illustrations by William Blake (1757 – 1827), a British artist.[1]

Note that, in each case, the dead body is surrounded by family members: in the case of the good man, the death is peaceful; the man was reading in the New Testament at his death; and the family members are praying. On the other hand, the wicked man’s death is far from peaceful: the man dies as it seems in some anger and distress; and his family members are distraught, weeping and wailing. The soul of the good man, prays to God, as it is being escorted to heaven by two angels. The soul of the wicked man, however, appears struck with fear; and it tries to resist its departure but it is sucked up by flames of fire.


Do souls die with the death of the body? Or is the soul immortal? Some in the early Christian centuries questioned the immortality of the soul, and believed that the soul dies with the body, never to live again – man, body and soul, does not exist after death; and both elements are mortal. Some others believed that the soul dies with the body at death, but resurrection they both rise up again. In other words, the soul goes into a sate of oblivion – a state of being unaware or unconscious of what is happening around it – from the time of death here on earth until the resurrection at the end of times.

We have in our history evidence of the existence of both beliefs in some. I will leave the first belief to a later article, but I will focus today on the second belief – that is, on the concurrent death of body and soul at death, and their combined resurrection at the end of temporal times. This was considered by the Coptic Church as heresy. In a moment we will see what the right position of the Church on it. The heresy, as it appears, first arose within a certain group of Christians in Arabia, and then spread to Alexandria, as the Father of Church History, Eusebius of Caesarea (260/265 – 339/340) tells us. He says it occurred during the episcopate of Dionysius of Alexandria (247 – 264), the Patriarch of Alexandria. However, while timing it to Dionysius, he focuses on the role of Origen (184/185 – 253/254), the great scholar and theologian of Alexandria, who was a teacher of Dionysius, , on dissipating this heresy:

“They [the heretics] said that during the present time the human soul dies and perishes with the body, but that at the time of the resurrection they will be renewed together. And at that time also a synod of considerable size assembled, and Origen, being again invited there, spoke publicly on the question with such effect that the opinions of those who had formerly fallen were changed.”[2]

Eusabeus does not give us any information on the Church’s opinion on what happens to the soul at death. The History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic church of Alexandria, confirms the story of the heresy and the gathering of the council to refute it, but does not tell us either the position of the Church on the matter:

“At this time certain men in Arabia taught a heresy, according to which the soul dies with the body, and shall rise again with it on the Day of Resurrection. But the holy Church rejected this heresy, after the assembling of a council to examine into it.”[3]

Thankfully, the Coptic Synaxarium gives us more detail, dating the controversy, and explaining the position of the Church as expressed by Patriarch Dionysius. It comes under 3 Tout of the Synaxarium, and says it is the day on which a council was held in the city of Alexandria to discuss the new heresy. In the text, it mentions that the council occurred in the second year of the episcopacy of Dionysius. It is most probably then that the council was held on 31 August 249.[4] The text is as follows:

On this day, a holy council was convened in the city of Alexandria in the second year of the episcopacy of Saint Dionysius, the Patriarch. This council was convened because of certain people who appeared in Arabia and believed that the soul dies with the body; and that on the day of the resurrection, it shall be raised up with it. They wrote a tract on what they believed, and sent it to some people in Alexandria.

When this reached our father Dionysius, he was very upset, and endeavoured to bring back [these men] from their error, but they would not listen to him. Therefore, he assembled this council to confront them, and to make manifest their falsification. When he saw that they neither repented nor turned away from their false belief, he excommunicated them.

He wrote a tract on them, saying in it, “The love of God for mankind is exceedingly great;” and he proved in it that the soul neither dies nor perishes, but abides as the angels and the devil for it is spiritual, immutable[5] and incorruptible. When the soul goes forth from the body it will be taken to a place according to what it deserves. And on the day of the resurrection, when the trumpet sounds, and the bodies of all men rise together by the command of their creator, each soul shall unite with its body; and, together, they shall obtain either delight or torment that belongs to the souls. And they, both, shall remain in what they got, not getting away from it, unto the eternity of eternity and the time of times.”[6]

Here, then, we have it: the official position of the Coptic Church (Church of Alexandria) from the third century. Souls don’t die: they are, unlike the body, spiritual, immutable and incorruptible. From death to resurrection, they stay in a certain place, which other Coptic documents call Amente; and, there, each soul gets what it deserves. There is no talk here about purification by fire of some souls and their progress to a stage in which they are ready for promotion to a place of rest or entering the Paradise of Delight at resurrection. But, I guess, this is not intended. Saint Dionysius’ tract was focused on the issue at hand.


[1] These etchings are to be found in a book titled The Grave, a poem by the British church minister, Robert Blair. The book was published in 1808.

[2] See: Louth, A., and G. A. Williamson. Eusebius: The History of the Church from Christ to Constantine (London: Penguin, 1989); Book VI; Chapter 37: The Dissension of the Arabians.

[3] See: Severus of Al’Ashmunein (Hermopolis), History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church of Alexandria. Part 1: St. Mark – Theonas (300 AD). (Paris, Patrologia Orientalis, 1904); Chapter 6; p. 178.

[4] If we take the episcopacy of Dionysius to have started in early 247 AD.

[5] Unchanging overtime, or unable to change.

[6] See: Réne Basset. Synaxaire Arabe-Jacobite. Tome I: Mois de Tout et de Babeh (Paris, Patrologia Orientalis, 1907); pp. 228-9. Basset published the Arabic text of the synaxarium accompanied with French translation by him. There is no available English translation. The translation into English is mine, from the Arabic text in Basset’s publication.

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