Resurrection or Reincarnation?
But when a man dies, all vigor leaves; when man expires, where then is he? --Job 14:10
The death that men fear is the separation of the soul from the body; the death that men do not fear is the separation of the soul from God--Augustine
Tell me, Lord, tell me, did my infancy succeed another age of mine that died before it? Was it that which I spent within my mother's womb? And what before that life again, was I anywhere or in any body? --Augustine
For most Christians, the notion of reincarnation is unique to non-Christian ways of thinking. Christians know of the IN-carnation of Christ, "the Word became flesh," but RE-incarnation doesn't have the same ring. Among Christians, the general idea of a person's nature is that he or she is a newly created soul by God, born once, you live one life, and then you die. Your eternal destination in the afterlife, either in heaven "with Jesus" or in hell, is dependent upon the quality of life you led while on Earth. If one was a true Christian and believed in God, then this is assurance of a heavenly afterlife. The resurrection of the dead means for most Christians the revival of the physical dead body that will rise and be turned into a "glorified" body at the end of time; a ONE-TIME event that will occur at the end of time and history as we know it. Exactly how this will happen is not made clear, but some simply point to Matthew 27:52-53 which seems to contradict the contemporary Christian understanding of the resurrection as a "bodily" one-time event at the end of history. Once the resurrection of the dead occurs, then the dead will be separated according to their merits, the evil ones on one side, the righteous ones on the other; the evil are then cast into eternal hell fire and the righteous inherit eternal heavenly bliss. The one glaring question here is, If the dearly departed (the deceased) are believed to be in heaven, then why would it be necessary to reoccupy a glorified version of the entombed, dead body once you are already in heaven and, depending on the time of the end times, might be in heaven for many, many centuries? Does one not have a body once one dies and enters into the afterlife? For many Christians, the answer to this question, for now, is unanswerable, and can only be answered in the following way: "I don't know." For other Christians the answer to this question is "No, you don't have a body in the afterlife. That is what the resurrection of the body is for so that we will acquire a glorified body at the end of time." But this reasoning goes against the post-mortem appearances of Moses and Elijah in bodily form to Jesus, Peter, John, and James atop Mount Tabor and Christ's resurrection appearances in bodily form. Furthermore, if the real judgment, or decision, as to who goes to heaven or hell for eternity is made at the end of time, then how can we say that ANYBODY goes to heaven to be "with Jesus" (or hell for that matter) upon the death of the physical body in the present? Yet, at Christian funerals one commonly hears that the dearly departed "has gone to be with Jesus in heaven." If one is already in heaven or hell after physical death, then why is a future "judgment" necessary to decide who goes to heaven or hell for eternity? If you die once, and your destination after death is heaven or hell, is one not already "judged" at that point? The questions go on and on for the inquisitive Christian, but the answers are dubious, elusive or simply not there. The Christian is left in the dark with the assumption that he or she "is not supposed to know certain things" and that all we really have is faith.
Many Christians propose that reincarnation is totally irreconcilable with resurrection. They believe that reincarnation is an endless cycle of the soul's constant incarnation into different bodies with no purpose, whereas resurrection is for the purpose of passing judgment to decide as to who goes to heaven and who goes to hell for eternity. Also, the focus on reincarnation is the immortality of the spirit whereas in the resurrection the focus is on the body. Hence, some Christian theologians like to argue in terms of the difference between "the immortality of the soul," on the one hand, and the "resurrection of the body" on the other hand. This was the thinking of some leading early Church Fathers who interacted with the idea of transmigration of the soul, a doctrine that states that the soul is immortal and migrates from one body to another in order to achieve perfection. The fathers usually attribute transmigration to such philosophers as Pythagoras, Empedocles, and Plato. The fathers assert that whereas transmigration most nearly approaches the Christian doctrine of resurrection (e.g., see Tertullian, On the Resurrection of the Flesh, 1; Origen, Contra Celsus 7.32; and Gregory of Nyssa, The Soul and Resurrection), the two beliefs are not exactly the same.
The Church Fathers said that the difference between transmigration and resurrection is that in transmigration the soul enters another human body, whereas resurrection means the return of souls to their own restored human bodies that they once inhabited while on Earth. But the debate was much more nuanced than just a strict contrast between transmigration and resurrection. The origin, nature, and fate of the soul (we might say "the spirit" today) before the birth of and after the death of the physical body raised questions and issues for Church Fathers that gave way to different interpretations among them with little to no consensus on the matter. What is the origin of the soul (spirit)? What is its relationship to the physical body? Does the soul (spirit) have an existence apart from the physical body? Once a person dies, does the soul have memories of the life it had while in the physical body? What is the soul made of? Is it corporeal or incorporeal? Where does it go until the general resurrection of the dead at the end of time? Is there an interim period and place between physical death and the general resurrection of all souls at the end of time? If so, what and where is it? And what is its purpose? Is a person really a soul and the physical body a mere vehicle for the soul during its sojourns on the Earth? Essentially, three views came to be formulated by the different Christian schools: 1) the soul originates together with the body from the male seed; 2) the soul is newly created by God for each body at conception; and 3) the soul pre-existed in heaven and unites with the physical body only for a time. That a soul who originated in heaven would ever have to come into a physical body in the first place was thought to have been a consequence of something "wrong" that the soul did in heaven; in other words, the soul "fell" from heaven, and its lodging in a physical body is a consequence of that fall as its punishment that is ultimately meant to redeem it through its gradual “rise” [resurrection] through a series of rebirths.
The earliest conception for resurrection was the resurrection of the dead. The dead, biblically speaking, are not the bodies of deceased human beings buried in coffins, as is often thought to be the case today among most Christians. The dead are those who are separated or cut off from God, be they human beings on earth (see 1 Tim 5:5,6) or spirits in the beyond (see Luke 16:23,26,30,31). Paul elaborates on the resurrection of the dead by asking, "How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?" (1 Cor 15:35). The link here between "dead" and "body" gave rise to the later expression "resurrection of the body" (which does not appear in the New Testament) which further implied the resurrection of the human body which gave rise to the later expression "resurrection of the flesh" (which does not appear in the New Testament). Today, Christians think of the resurrection of the dead in terms of the resurrection of dead human bodies. This makes the contrast between resurrection and reincarnation even more obvious and pronounced: they are not the same, for reincarnation implies the inhabitation of many different bodies through time (human bodies or animal bodies, depending upon which view of reincarnation one holds) and resurrection only one body, that body with which a human being was born and with which he died.
But "resurrection of the dead" does not have anything to do with the physical body. Paul indeed asks the question, "with what kind of body" and then tells us what kind of body: a spiritual body, that is, the body of a spirit. The spirit body is resurrected, not the physical body, for Paul plainly tells us: “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor 15:50).
What does the body of a spirit look like? Look in the mirror. Or, let us recall early Jewish and Christian texts in which angels (spirits) are not recognized as such because they seem, to all outward appearances, to be perfectly human in form (see Gen 18-19; Judg 6:11-24; 13:16; Tobit 5:4-5; Hebrews 13:2; Mark 16:5; Testament of Abraham 2-6), or in which an angel (spirit) is actually handled and its identity is still not revealed (Gen 18:4; Testament of Abraham 3:7-9;Targum Neophalti 1 on Gen 18:44; Jerome Epistle 66.11), or in which angels (spirits) are seen to eat and/or drink (Gen 18:8; 19:3; Tobit 12:19; Testament of Abraham 4:9-10).
The Greek word for "incorporeal" is asomatos which literally means "without a physical body" since in Greek the word soma indicated the flesh, blood, and bone physical human body. So, in this sense, spirits were asomatos, but only in a relative sense, for even the early Church Fathers, along with early Jewish and Christian sources, believed that angels (spirits) have bodies of a sort. Recall that Moses and Elijah appeared to Jesus and Peter, John, and James in bodies, and yet Moses physical body, at least, had been buried centuries earlier. And in 1 Samuel 28 the appearance of the spirit Samuel, referred to as "a god" ('elohim), was that of an old man wrapped in a robe, the very appearance the human Samuel had before his death. So spirits have bodies especially if we recall those episodes in which a spirit appears to someone in a vision, and in this context the spirit is sometimes called an "angel" or "a man." Spirits also, apparently, have organs necessary to sustain that body (in the face of those texts that describe angels "eating" and "drinking"; note that the risen Christ ate fish). The spirit is recognized by the seer as having a body that is in the shape and form of a human body. At the end of John's experiences with the angel in Revelation 22:8, he is said to fall down in worship "at the feet of the angel." A vision recorded by the church father Tertullian describes a female Montanist Christian who witnesses the appearance of a spirit: "'Amongst other things,' says she, 'there has been shown to me a soul in bodily shape, and a spirit has been in the habit of appearing to me; not, however, a void and empty illusion, but such as would offer itself to be even grasped by the hand, soft and transparent and of an ethereal color, and in form resembling that of a human being in every respect'" (Treatise on the Soul 9; ANF 3.188). Elsewhere in this treatise, Tertullian muses that "why a phantom becomes visible, is because a body is also attached to it" (57; ANF 3.233).
The likeness that spirits had to human beings was a source of speculation for Church Fathers who mused on the resurrection, especially as to the "identity" of that which is resurrected. Is the human spirit identical to that of the human body (yet separate from it at death)? According to some, the answer was Yes. The resurrected spirit body was believed to have the same individuality as the "animal" (human) body. Origen held to this view but it was not the most popular one among the Church Fathers. Many Church Fathers took a more literal view to the resurrection of individuality wherein the body that we now possess is the body that will be changed into a resurrected body. Despite Tertullian's descriptions of spirit bodies looking like a human body in every which way, he asserts elsewhere that "the flesh shall rise again, wholly, in every man, in its identity, in its absolute integrity" (On the Resurrection of the Flesh 63). This was, in fact, the position of most Church Fathers. The phrase "resurrection of the flesh" had already been around since the early second century and first appears in the dubious 3 Corinthians, a pseudo-Pauline letter meant to establish orthodoxy against the early second-century “heresies” (see the study Vahan Hovhanessian, Third Corinthians: Reclaiming Paul for Christian Orthodoxy [Studies in Biblical Literature 18; New York: Peter Lang, 2000] 113-126). But resurrection of the flesh does not originate in Paul. In 1 Cor 15:38-49, Paul makes clear to carefully distinguish between different kinds of bodies, natural bodies, i.e., the bodies of human beings (psuchikon soma), and spiritual bodies, i.e., the bodies of spirits (pneumatikon soma), and that only the spirit body "rises." Nevertheless, Paul's statement that a body (soma) of a kind, does indeed rise, along with, possibly, Matthew 27:52-53, Luke 24:39, and the empty tomb tradition, might have paved the way for the emergence of the secondary expressions "resurrection of the body" and "resurrection of the flesh" during the second century. While the phrase "resurrection of the body" is still somewhat defensible in the light of Paul's statements in 1 Cor 15:35,44, but defensible only if one rightly understands which body Paul believes to rise, that of the pneumatikon soma, "spirit body," the phrase "resurrection of the flesh" is not defensible in the light of Paul's statements. Paul flatly and explicitly condemns the notion of what came to be known as the "resurrection of the flesh." Any such attribution of this phrase to Paul would have been considered by him a slap in the face, and he would have had to have called these persons "fools" (aphron) just as he did the Corinthians (1 Cor 15:36). Toward the end of his statements on how the dead are raised and with what kind of body they come, Paul asserts that "flesh and blood are unable to inherit the kingdom of God" (1 Cor 15:50). Our resurrection is to resemble that of Christ's resurrection, and the risen Christ is a spirit (1 Cor 15:45).
Eventually "body" and "spirit" were treated as antithetical concepts by some Christians. For instance, Augustine insists that those who will rise "will be bodies and not spirits" and that "as far as regards substance, even then it shall be flesh," and, like Tertullian before him, that there will be a distinction of sex among those who will rise (Enchiridion 91). It was believed that gender could only be possessed by those with physical bodies. But spirits, too, have gender; there are female spirits as well as male spirits, for this is the only possible deduction one can make from Paul's statements in 1 Corinthians 15: If the spirit body rises, and Christians are composed of both males and females, and Christians share in the resurrection in the same way Christ experienced it, as a spirit, then there can only be male and female spirits among the risen Christians. Recall, too, that Samuel's spirit in 1 Samuel 28 was described as that of an old man. We ought to stick to the New Testament phrase "resurrection of the dead," for "resurrection of the body" implies a premise that potentially includes the physical body of a human being, a premise that does not reflect the earliest conception of the resurrection of the dead as we have it in Paul, for it leads to the more inaccurate "resurrection of the flesh."
Apart from the contemporary understanding of the resurrection of the dead as a resurrection of the deceased lying in the cemeteries, modern Christians also reject reincarnation because it is believed that humans only get "one chance" to make things right before their final, eternal fate. And since one's fate is eternal, whether in heaven or in hell, then reincarnation is simply not compatible with that understanding of fate, for in reincarnation you do not remain in the afterlife for eternity but rather return to Earth in another body, however many times necessary. But the contemporary Christian understanding of dying once, then eternity, is not a biblical idea. For instance, Hebrews 9:27 says that man is appointed to die once, then the judgment. This seems to support the traditional Christian notion that all die once and therefore there can be no reincarnation. But, if this verse is read in that way then the following problems arise: for one thing, Elijah never died, and if we are to read Hebrews 9:27 literally, then Lazarus is still walking the earth to this day, or else Lazarus dies TWICE and NOT ONCE. “Die” here in Hebrew 9:27 must mean something other than physical death. In Job 33:28-30 we read that a person might be brought back from the realm of the dead (= "cut off from God," Sheol or the Pit) more than once: "He (Yahweh) redeemed him from the Pit; he will enjoy the light; Truly, God does all these things, two or three times to a man, To bring him back from the Pit, that he may be enlightened with the light of the living (= God's holy spirits)." This implies two or three different incarnations from up out of Sheol onto the Earth, in spite of Job 7:9 that is much more futile, "Those who go down to Sheol do not come up." Yet Jonah 2:7 claims that existence in the netherworld is not forever, but that one can be brought up from Sheol: "Down I went . . . the bars of the netherworld were closing behind me forever, But you (Yhwh) brought up my soul from the Pit." The word translated here as "forever" is 'olam but it does not mean forever without end but rather "indefinite futurity." The fact that Jonah was brought "up" from the Pit shows that his stay there for 'olam was only a certain amount of time.
The Christian doctrine of resurrection stipulates that at the end of history and time, the bodies in graves will rise again and be changed into glorified bodies, so the soul does reunite with a body, but, in this case with a renewed physical body. But one glaring problem immediately surfaces: what use is the physical body at all if "flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God" (1 Cor 15:50) and the kingdom of God is our ultimate destination? And if spirits have bodies, then aren't these the glorified bodies that modern Christians have confused with the erroneous notion of the resurrection of the flesh? Once the physical body is shed at death, what emerges "in an instant, in the blink of an eye" is the spirit body, as Paul says in 1 Cor 15:52, for it is the spirit being who is "dead" according to its relationship with God. For many, the "resurrection of the flesh" is clear enough and beyond dispute in such Old Testament texts as Isaiah 26:19, "But your dead shall live, their corpses shall rise," and Job 19:26, "and from my flesh I shall see God." The Job text faces an immediate problem in the light of the assertion that "no man [in the flesh] sees God and lives" (Exodus 33:20), and upon the reflection that since God is a "Spirit" (Isaiah 31:3; John 4:24) then only that which is the nature of spirit can exist in His presence (1 Cor 15:50; 1 John 4:2) and not, as Paul says, “flesh and blood.”
As to the Isaiah text, this is no evidence for the resurrection of the flesh of corpses buried in graves or tombs in the earth. If we keep reading through the rest of v. 19, we see that the "corpses shall rise" is actually a reference to the rising of spirit bodies, for parallel to "your dead shall live, their corpses shall rise" is the end of v. 19: "and the land of shades gives birth." "Shades" (rephaim) is a name for the spirits that inhabit Sheol, the Hebrew netherworld; the "land of shades" is Sheol itself that "gives birth" to these spirits, which is a variant way (in Hebrew parallel fashion) of saying that the "dead shall live, their corpses shall rise." Porphyry claims that Pherekydes of Syros (sixth century B.C.) writes similarly, ". . . and Pherekydes of Syros speaks of recesses and hollows and caves and doors and gates and he intimates that through these are the births and departures of the souls" (see H. S. Schibli, Pherekydes of Syros [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990], 174-175). Pherekydes' geographic description of this netherworld of "caves" and "recesses" and "hollows" matches present-day clairvoyants' experiences of this lower world of creation, and what the Hebrews called "Sheol." The "birth" of the souls from recesses and hollows and caves refers to these spirits' departure from the lower spirit dimensions of creation, commonly known as "hell."
Likewise, in Isaiah, "the dead" are the "shades" (spirits) in Sheol, and these spirits will be born, i.e, "depart," from Sheol. These spirits have bodies, but since they are cut off from God and the higher more pure spirit dimensions, these spirits are “dead” and hence their spirit bodies are likened to “corpses.” But what exactly does it mean for the corpse of a spirit to rise? Dante's visions with his guide Beatrice revealed to him spirits in the nether regions of the spirit world who were in an almost comatose state, buried neck deep in dark, cold, thick mire. Some contemporary clairvoyants report seeing similar visions and thus, such are not merely fanciful images set down in poetic meter for the sake of entertainment, either in Isaiah or Dante. These suffering spirits are never annihilated or extinguished from existence. They continue to exist, but they do so with their senses dulled or temporarily suspended as a means to ultimately redeem them. The spirits in Sheol are, indeed, buried (according to their fate, for other forms of punishment besides "burial" exist in Sheol), and once these spirits are redeemed (through Christ’s Redemption a little over 2,000 years ago), they will be lifted, literally, out of the mire and, in time, eventually their spirit bodies will be restored to their youthful vigor that they once possessed before the Fall of the spirits from heaven: "your DEAD shall LIVE, their CORPSES shall RISE."
Notice that this phrase is in the future tense, for Christ's Victory had not yet been accomplished at the time of Isaiah. Two other translations of Isaiah 26:19 need mention: "for your dew is a dew of light, and on the land of the shades you will let it fall" (RSV); and "for thy dew falls with light and life, till dead spirits arise" (Moffatt). These reflect a more literal rendering of the Hebrew. The rendering "land of shades shall give birth" is an idiomatic expression for "you will let it fall on the land of the shades." To let "fall" the "dew of light" on "the land of shades" is a reference to an activity sanctioned by God that aids in the "rising of the spirits" from out of Sheol. Dew is actually made up of individual droplets of water. This "dew of light" is, metaphorically, none other than those individual spirits who either volunteer to incarnate on the Earth from heaven (thus, "rain down from heaven" as dew was thought to originate) in order to educate the fallen spirits in the plan of salvation (as was done during the days before Christ's earthly mission and that continues to this day), or holy spirits who descend from heaven to the lower spiritual dimensions in order to act as a herald and motivator for the fallen spirits that their Salvation has been won by Christ and that they may take advantage of His Victory and leave the caves, hollows, and recesses of hell (as was done after Christ's Victory and continues to this day). Isaiah 26:19 has nothing to do, then, with the resurrection of the flesh or the reuniting of the soul with the human body. When and how long will it take for each spirit to achieve their once youthful state in heaven? The answer to that question lies in the understanding of the phrase "the resurrection of the dead" and how the phrase relates to reincarnation, a relation that we will turn to shortly.
Some modern Christians hold to the notion of an "intermediate state" between the time of physical death and right before the resurrection of the dead at the end of time or at the second coming of Christ. After death, the Christian waits in a spiritual plane until the end and at that time the spirit will reenter the entombed body on Earth but it will be a different, glorified body and not necessarily the same flesh and blood body that it once was. In the New Testament, there is nothing of this kind of theology; there is no "intermediate state" where one awaits to be reunited with their entombed corpse at some later date. Paul never describes the spirit reuniting with the once-deceased physical body, but maintains that the spirit alone continues and that it is the spirit body that continues onward.
The modern Christian's misconception of "a spirit" has generated misconceptions about the state of the afterlife and the state of the deceased. Oftentimes, persons invent ideas in order to maintain a theology that has no firm footing in the very Scriptures they claim to derive that theology. If the Scriptures are difficult to understand on the point of "a spirit" then one may turn to the reports and researches of contemporary near-death experiences wherein a person who is pronounced clinically dead experiences "leaving" and being outside of his or her body, yet realizing that they still have a body apart from their physical body; a body that looks and feels every bit as much as their physical body. Yet, some NDEers will report that when they look at their spirit bodies, they see that it emanates light or looks as if light tubes are running through their arms. They notice other spirits who likewise have bodies that are human in shape with a face, arms, shoulders, torso, legs, and feet. The spirits are as solid to one another as humans are to one another.
Now, let us go to the contemporary Christian critiques of reincarnation and we will find that they fail to adequately dismiss reincarnation as being incompatible with Christianity.
Several books in the recent past have compared reincarnation and resurrection from an Evangelical Christian perspective: Mark Albrecht, Reincarnation: A Christian Appraisal (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1982); John Snyder, Reincarnation vs. Resurrection (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1984); and Hermann Haring and Johann-Baptist Metz, eds., Reincarnation or Resurrection? (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1993). As one might guess, each author comes out against reincarnation in favor of the orthodox teaching of resurrection. But what these authors miss is the fact that there is no tension between reincarnation and resurrection; the resurrection of the dead is the rehabilitation of the "dead," i.e., the fallen spirits who were severed from God eons ago but who have been forgiven by God and are now allowed to return to heaven via Christ’s Redemptive act. This rehabilitation process takes place partly in material creation, that part of creation that came about only recently for the very purpose of incarnating the fallen spirits so that they might regain their higher consciousness and (re)learn about who they are and who God and Christ are.
So, to be sure:
The “resurrection of the dead” may require many lifetimes on earth for each individual spirit before he or she is able to claim permanent residency in the higher spirit spheres. Resurrection is the ongoing journey of a spirit’s reincarnation into different bodies on earth that will make him or her “fit for Heaven.” When that day comes, the spirit will “no longer have to go out again:” “The one who is victorious I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will they leave it” (Revelation 3:12). This verse suggests an end to a reincarnation cycle for the one who passes the earthly tests, however many lifetimes are required.
John Snyder (Reincarnation vs. Resurrection) takes several biblical texts that seem to suggest reincarnation and claims that, in fact, they really do not. But Snyder's interpretations for these texts fit more his a priori theology than they do the meaning of the text. For instance, the narrative in Matthew 17:1-13 contains one of the classic "reincarnationist" texts in the New Testament: when Jesus says that "He himself is Elijah" the disciples Peter, James, and John understood that he meant John the Baptist. Despite Snyder's objections, this text could not be any clearer as to suggest reincarnation. Snyder claims that a similar passage about John the Baptist in Luke 1:17 is also misunderstood to support reincarnation: "And he (John the Baptist) will go before him (the Messiah) in the spirit and power of Elijah." Snyder concludes that this has nothing to do with reincarnation but rather means that John the Baptist is empowered by the same energy that empowered Elijah, i.e. “in the spirit and power of Elijah” as the verse says. The role of Elijah was filled in a functional way by John the Baptist (Snyder, p. 51). In other words, John the Baptist was a "type" of Elijah. But this is not what "in the spirit and power of Elijah" means. Rather, it means that the identity of the spirit in control is in fact Elijah. This is the same usage whereby the New Testament says "in the Holy Spirit," to convey the meaning that the Holy Spirit is the identity of the spirit in charge. Malachi 4:5,6 specifically says that Elijah himself shall return, not someone like Elijah or a "type" of Elijah: "Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord." When the Old Testament wants to express a "type" it does so, such as when it refers to Moses as a "type" of Messiah to come in Deuteronomy 18:15. So we are left with an unambiguous account of reincarnation here. Furthermore, if John the Baptist was not actually Elijah reincarnated ("in a fleshly body again" as he once had been before under the name of "Elijah"), as Jesus claimed, then Jesus of Nazareth could not have been the Messiah. The prophecy in Malachi 4:5,6 prepares its readers for Elijah's return "before the coming of the day of the Lord," i.e., the coming of the Messiah. In order for Christianity to be able to assert that Jesus was the Messiah then John the Baptist HAS TO BE THE REINCARNATION OF ELIJAH. Without reincarnation, there can be no Messiah “having come in the flesh” (1 John 4:2). Without reincarnation, there can be no Christianity.