Orthodox Christianity proclaims loudly that it believes in resurrection as opposed to reincarnation. It says that the Bible teaches resurrection, not reincarnation. (I believe I have at least cast ‘reasonable doubt’ on this claim in previous articles on reincarnation in the Bible). Now there certainly is no doubt that ‘the resurrection’ is a prominent Biblical teaching (especially in the New Testament), but the question is: is ‘resurrection’ actually opposed to reincarnation? What do the Bible writers have to say about ‘the resurrection of the dead’? More specifically for Christians; and Jews such as those quoted in my last article who, while not actually ‘Christians’, have a high regard for Jesus as a true prophet of God (even perhaps the greatest of God’s prophets): what did Jesus teach about the resurrection?
The fact is, the Biblical statements about this subject can be quite confusing, and may seem – at least “at first blush” – to be contradictory. I have made it clear that I make no claim of infallibility or inerrancy for the Bible, so it would not surprise me if the Biblical writers did have somewhat conflicting ideas concerning the resurrection. Whether or not they do actually contradict each other on this subject each reader will have to decide for himself. My own estimation is that while there may be actual conflicts in the literal understanding of what they say, there is an underlying ‘spirit’ that unites them. Hopefully I can make this clear, and show at the same time how the concept of reincarnation can actually fit in quite well with an understanding of resurrection.
The ‘orthodox’ teaching about the resurrection is of course a very literal resuscitation of dead bodies. They are the very same bodies that are buried after we die, yet they are ‘changed’ in some ways. The ‘saved’ dead are said to have ‘glorified’ bodies which shine like lights, can move about from place to place instantaneously, and for which physical obstacles are no hindrance (they can pass right through closed doors and walls, etc.). One assumes that the ‘unsaved’ dead do not have such ‘glorified bodies’; yet they also are ‘changed’ enough to be able to suffer the ‘eternal fire of hell’, experiencing the awful agony of such burning, but without ever being consumed by the fire. [I have shown previously that the teaching of ‘eternal punishment’ is not Biblical.] And it is taught that ‘the resurrection’ is a general ‘once for all’ event, in which all the dead of all ages are to be raised at the same time. I think it’s rather obvious that such a view of the resurrection would be opposed to reincarnation. Did Jesus and the Bible writers have this concept of the resurrection?
I believe that they did not hold to such an idea – that is, a general ‘once for all’ resuscitation of dead physical bodies – though the characteristics of the resurrection body may well be what the ‘orthodox’ believe (ability to move through closed doors, etc). To show this, let’s look first at the story of Jesus’ answer to the Sadducees’ question about the resurrection (Matt. 22:23-33; Mark 12:18-27; Luke 20:27-40). The Sadducees did not believe in spirits, angels, or the resurrection of the dead; so they decided to ‘make a fool of Jesus’ by telling a story of 7 brothers who all were married to the same woman, one after the other – in keeping with the Old Testament regulation that if a married man died before he had a son, his wife was to marry his brother and the firstborn son of that marriage would carry on the name and lineage of the brother who had died. The Sadducees supposed a case in which 7 brothers all were married to the same woman, without ever producing a son. Whose wife would she be in the resurrection?
The answer of Jesus turned the table on the Sadducees, and ‘made fools of’ them! The answer as recorded by Luke is a bit different than Matthew and Mark, and I’ll probably return to this passage later to compare and contrast the answers. For right now, I’ll stick with Matthew (and Mark). “Jesus answered them, ‘You are wrong, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”? He is God not of the dead, but of the living’” (Matt. 22:29-32). First of all, according to this answer of Jesus the bodies of those who are resurrected are “like the angels in heaven”, for whom human sexual differentiation is meaningless – there is no marriage in the resurrection. More than this, though, was the fact that though Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were physically dead, yet Jesus said that the scriptural quotation he gave indicated that they were nevertheless alive, resurrected from the dead. Their bodies were in the graves, but they were resurrected! To be alive in spirit was to be resurrected, and did not involve a resuscitation of their bodies. And note also that they were obviously not awaiting a future resurrection; it was a state to which they had already attained. If it can be shown that other passages of ‘scripture’ teach a future and general resurrection, for which all the dead of all ages await, then that would definitely be a contradiction of what Jesus taught in this answer to the Sadducees.
Another important passage on the resurrection, which emphatically states that it is not the physical body which is raised is 1 Corinthians 15, the famous ‘resurrection chapter’. “But someone will ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?’ Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain…So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable… It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is a spiritual body” (verses 35-37, 42, 44). When you plant a seed, it ‘dies’ (dissolves, or rots away) in order for the life within the seed to manifest itself in a form (body) completely different from the seed which contained the life. The human body which is ‘sown’ (buried) is physical and perishes, but the body which is raised is spiritual and can’t perish. So it is not the physical body (which was buried and perishes) which is raised from the dead, but the spiritual life which was developing within the body and ‘sprouts’ forth in its new form while the physical body rots away. In verse 50, Paul made it as plain as it probably can be stated: “What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable”. This distinction between the physical body and the inner life is also made in 2 Corinthians 4:16 – “Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day” (NKJV). [The italics in the quote was not for emphasis, but indicates an English word added for clarification which was not present in the Greek text. The first “man” is present in Greek, but not the second].
This understanding of ‘the body which is raised’ should be kept in mind when reading other passages about the resurrection which do not specifically talk about what the resurrected body is. For instance, in John 5:28 and 29 we read: “…for the hour is coming when all who are in the graves will hear his voice and will come out…” Remember that the body that is planted is not the body that comes out. Jesus’ statement here simply distinguishes between the spiritual awakening within a man who is still physically alive (which is frequently referred to as being ‘made alive’, ‘walking in newness of life’, and as ‘resurrection’, as well as ‘waking up’), and the ‘rising’ of one who has physically died. It is another case where we must be careful not to insist too much on ‘the letter’, or literal meaning of the words. And to refer back to the answer of Jesus to the Sadducees’ question, the resurrection does not await a future second coming of Christ, nor did it happen for the first time when Jesus ‘came in his kingdom’ in 70 A.D.; rather it occurs for each individual when he dies (it doesn’t even wait literally for burial).
I have been accused of being ‘long winded’ in my blog entries, so I’ll stop here for now. I’ll continue this investigation into ‘resurrection’ and ‘reincarnation’ at a later time.