Question: When does the soul leave the body at death? Paul in his writings says that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord but when are we absent form the body?
Some background. My wife has struggled with this trying to put her Christian faith together with her position as a medical professional. In her role, she is at times required to discuss with families organ procurement for transplant. There are state laws that require this. If the heart and lungs are to be harvested for transplant, the patient is placed on machines to keep the lungs working and heart pumping until the transplant team arrives to remove them. Is the person still alive? The same question applies to a person on full life support. When is it OK to remove them from life support?
Scriptural basis for the answers is greatly appreciated. Thank you for your help!
Answer: Thank you for your question(s) concerning the departure of the soul from the body. Medically speaking death is said to occur when there is no longer any brain activity. Doctors believe this is due to the brain’s neurons discharging their electrical charges due to a loss of oxygen related to blood pressure loss.
In the October 2009 issue of Journal of Palliative Medicine, doctors at George Washington University Medical Faculty Associates released the results of a study of seven terminally ill patients. In each patient’s death a measurable rise in their brain activity preceded a total loss of brain activity and certified death. Although the article does not ascribe any relationship to this rise in brain activity just prior to death, it does raise the possibility in the Christian’s mind that perhaps what is being witnessed is the time when the soul leaves the body.
The 2 Corinthians 5:6 passage where we find the absent from the body, present with the Lord statement is not an attempt by Paul to be medically precise. The Apostle is merely stating that when death occurs, the soul is released from its earthly tent. For Paul death would have meant the cessation of breathing and subsequent response to stimuli in an attempt to reverse that state. He obviously knew nothing of brain activity as a means to discern certifiable death.
Medical life support procedures being utilized to keep blood flowing to organs donated to transplant services does not change the fact that once brain activity has ceased, death has been medically certified. Given the scenario presented above, it is reasonable to conclude that the soul has gone on to be with the Lord.
If I understand your second question correctly, the person is still living, i.e., shows brain activity but whose body is not able to perform life functions such as breathing on its own. While it appears that employing life support technology that keeps a person alive is the compassionate thing to do, consider that the opposite might be the better option. Christians can conclude that utilizing technology that prevents the human body from taking a natural course that might include death is actually the wrong thing to do. The Bible gives no instructions that Christians are to do everything possible to extend life. Instead Christians are to accept that life contains adversity (Job 2:10). Christians should certainly insist that people be made as comfortable as medically possible while simultaneously not attempting through technology the prevention of the natural course of life. Trying to prolong life artificially or end life prematurely are both tantamount to usurping the authority of God.
Article from George Washington University Medical Staff