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I’m probably not the right person to talk to about death, especially when I’ve written a book about the philosophy of the afterlife that comes down to “nothing happens, but life is beautiful still.” However, I’ve had two near-death moments, studied theology, wrote my thesis on the afterlife, which then became my book, and I’m a humanist chaplain. I just hope I don’t make the idea too depressing for you.
When I shook the remnants of my beliefs at 23, one of the hardest parts was accepting that I’d never see my deceased loved ones again. That, when we die, the lights go out, and nothing more. My loss of faith is inevitably what drove me into my academic field, and only helped to solidify my position; my personal philosophy.
But since this time, the more I’ve come to learn about the world around me, the more I see an odd connection between faith and fact. From a naturalist perspective, there is no soul. Yet there is still reason to believe our loved ones are with us, and act within us.
Let’s start with the journey to help us understand the language around the soul, or spirit, in the Bible. In order to get there, we have to start with pre-socratic circles of philosophy. Specifically Anaximenes.
Anaximenes was a student of Anaximander, born in the mid 6th century BCE in Miletus, located in Ionia which is present day Greece. Anaximenes believed that everything in the world was a level of different densities of air. Putting forward concepts of what was called “rarefication” and “condensation,” Anaximenes thought air was responsible for everything around us, believing rarefied air to be lighter, quicker, and hotter. Whereas condensed air was slower, heavier, and cooler.
When he spoke of air, literally in the Greek aer, it was with the understanding that it acted with the soul (psyche) and breath (pneuma). As Silvia Benso writes in her article, “The Breathing of the Air: Presocratic Echoes in Levinas,” “just as our soul (psyche), being air (aer), holds us together, so do breath (pneuma) and air (aer) encompass the whole world.”  It is understood, however, that aer and pneuma are used interchangeably. In other words, “air” and “breath” were synonymous with one another in Pre-Socratic Greek.
“Anaximenes seems to have held that at one time everything was air,” writes Daniel W. Graham of BYU. “
Air can be thought of as a kind of neutral stuff that is found everywhere, and is available to participate in physical processes. Natural forces constantly act on the air and transform it into other materials, which came together to form the organized world. In early Greek literature, air is associated with the soul (the breath of life) and Anaximenes may have thought of air as capable of directing its own development, as the soul controls the body…Accordingly, he ascribed to air divine attributes.
Air was life giving. It caused all of creation, according to Anaximenes. He viewed air as from the divine, and our souls are a fragment of this thing. For how could we sustain our lives on such a thing if we were not consuming it so much, and so consistently? So aer was one with the pneuma.
As ancient Greek medicine evolved, and our understanding of the human body changed, pneuma was associated with, not just life, but the functioning of the human biology. Dioclese and Praxagoras, a mathematician and physician respectively, upheld ideas that the heart, believed to be where thought occured, and the brain energized each other through blood and pneuma. It sustained consciousness. 
Aristotle talks about the pneuma too. He adds to the discussion that we should accept, as much as our pneuma is part of the aer around us, the pneuma of our children as a piece of our own. And that was what energized sperm to fertilize the egg. So, sperm is a part of our soul that sometimes comes to life as one of our children.
The trend, as one might be able to detect, is that there was an undeniable link between the air we breathe and our soul. Stoicism believed as much.  But before we get into how the Greek authors of the New Testament used the word pneuma (and they did, a lot), we have to explore the Hebrew Bible.
Why the Hebrew Bible is necessary for the conversation is because, first, Hellenization was basically the coronavirus of antiquity. As I detail in my book, What Happens After Life?, a lot of the beliefs Judaism holds stems from ideas heavily influenced by the Greeks. Things like Sheol, a communal afterlife parallel to the Greek Hades. In fact, the name “Jesus” is actually a hellenized translation of his real name, Yeshua, or Joshua. For this reason, and because the authors of the New Testament have objectively used the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, in their writings.
In Hebrew, the word that means “breath of life” is ruach. In the Old Testament it is described as the life force, giving agency to man (Genesis 6:17, Ezekiel 37:10), to animals (Genesis 7:22, Psalm 103, 104), and used interchangeably with nešāmā (meaning breath of life, Genesis 2:7) and nepeš (meaning throat open to breathe, Judges 15:19).
Further, absence of ruach equates to an absence of the life force, as is dictated in Jeremiah 10:14 and 51:17. We are told we live so long as God’s breath is within us in Job 27:3, Isaiah 42:5, and Zechariah 12:1. God’s breath is what gives our flesh (bāśār) consistency (Genesis 6:3). He controls man’s life, and destiny, through his breath (Job 10:12, Isaiah 42:5). And if God takes back his breath, we return to the ground (Psalm 145, 146, Job 34:14, Ecclesiastes 12:7).
When we get to the New Testament, we find that the authors were perhaps a little too excited to start using pneuma. There are 385 uses of the word, in 11 variations, throughout the canon of the New Testament.
Pneuma is used to refer to God in places like John 6:63, 3:5–8, and 4:24. It’s used in reference to Jesus, as Christ, in 2 Corinthians 3:17, 1 Corinthians 6:17, and 15:45. It’s associated with angels or spirit beings (Acts 8:29, Hebrews 1:7, 14, 1 Peter 3:19, Revelation 1:4), as well as evil spirits (Mark 7:25, Luke 10:20).
From the Pre-Socratics, to Greek Medicine, the Hebrew Bible, to the New Testament, the pneuma is the breath of life. The breath of God, and what gives us life. It is the spirit, as St. Paul describes in his letters. It is the soul.
While science doesn’t typically tackle the realm of belief, we are able to infer a great deal about our world through modern science. Because we know of quarks, we know how matter interacts on a sub-atomic level. Because of evolutionary biology, we have a solid understanding for why humans have things like wisdom teeth and an appendix. And because of chemistry, we can see how we are, not only connected with everyone on the planet, but those we admire and love who have passed on.
In Sam Kean’s phenomenal book, Caesar’s Last Breath, he details the molecular flood our lungs endure with every breath. With each typical inhale, we take in over 25 sextillion (that’s 25 followed by 21 zeros) particles. The air we breathe in consists of nitrogen (78%), oxygen (21%), argon (0.965%), carbon dioxide (0.04%), and a small smattering of other chemicals. What we take in for oxygen, though, we only retain very little. Exhaling, we let out a breath that is 78% nitrogen, 15–18% oxygen, 4–5% CO2, and 0.96% argon.
While we only keep a small amount of the oxygen we breathe in, we exhale 100–125% more CO2 than we inhale. This is because carbon dioxide is a byproduct of cell respiration, with the inclusion of water and glucose to our cells. In the powerhouse of the cell, the mitochondria, glucose is burnt, or oxidized. With the inclusion of water, this process gives us our “life energy” and is excreted as carbon dioxide through the lungs.
Nitrogen, the richest element in our atmosphere, was created as our planet formed. Structured in our planet in its earliest form, today it leaks out through cracks in the earth’s crust. It’s in the air we breathe, the soil beneath our feet, and in the water we drink. It’s a key element in DNA and RNA, plants need it to produce amino acids which, in turn, creates proteins the plants need to grow.
Now we are able to track oxygen, and experiments were done with plants and plankton. Scripps Institution of Oceanography scientist, Ralph Keeling,
…showed that oxygen gas emitted by plants and plankton mixes throughout each respective hemisphere within two months and spreads worldwide in a little more than a year. The sensitivity of the oxygen and carbon dioxide balance of the atmosphere to the activities of living things shows that recycling is not just a passing fad but a tradition that has always been practiced on the atomic level by all life on Earth. To live, rather than to merely exist like inanimate rock, is to borrow and repurpose the elements of the world around you, and then release them again.
That last sentence brings us to our focal point, and gives us the name of Sam Kean’s book. With each breath you take in, with 25 sextillion molecules, there is at least one particle that came from the final breath of Julius Caesar, Jesus of Nazareth, your childhood pet, or from a deceased loved one.
There are particles floating in our atmosphere, cycled through billions of years of our planet’s existence, recycled through the soil, water, plants, food, ingested by us, and exhaled after burning in our cells’ mitochondria. We inhale specks of the chemistry that interacted with our deceased loved ones, our ancestors, the giants whose shoulders our society stands upon, only to breathe out and have someone on the other side of the world breathing in a few fragments from our lungs a year later. Not to mention the nitrogen we breathe in that dates back to our planet’s beginning.
We literally breathe in creation.
While we may not feel it, breathing is something incredibly powerful. During a time where there are protests by unmasked people demanding a removal of lockdown measures. Even willing to kill people in order to do it. Breathing isn’t just a means of existence, it’s a connection with humanity, with history, and with the cosmos. It is an opportunity to be intimately connected with those around us, simply by being in each others’ presence.
Perhaps the writings of ancient Greeks, the Hebrews/Israelites, and first Christians had the general attitude of life correct. The breath we take in with every inhale has part of creation, our planet’s origins, imbedded within. It is the nitrogen, oxygen, and CO2 that our parents, our parents’ parents, and their parents all breathed, as well as 200,000 years of humanity before us. Our children will breathe in parts of breaths we exhaled at various points in our lives, long after we are gone. As will their children, and their children’s children, and on, and on.
And ultimately, as long as our planet remains alive, then a part of us remains everlasting in our absence.
- Silvia Benso, “The Breathing of the Air: Pre-Socratic Echoes in Levinas,” Atmospheres of Breathing, Ed. Lenart Škof and Petri Berndtson, SUNY Press, Albany, NY, 2018, pg. 83–98.
- Philip J. van der Eijk, “The Heart, the Brain, the Blood and the pneuma: Hippocrates, Diocles and Aristotle on the Location of Cognitive Processes,” in Medicine and Philosophy in Classical Antiquity: Doctors and Philosophers on Nature, Soul, Health and Disease, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England, 2005, pg. 131–132
- David Sedley, “Stoicism,” Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor & Francis, New York, NY, 1998, pg. 145.