For over a year now, we have been working through a list of seven doctrines central to the Christian faith. This list was derived from the fifth and sixth chapters of the book of Hebrews. So far we have examined the following topics:
We will now discuss the Resurrection of the Dead, starting by contrasting the Christian teaching on resurrection with Buddhist reincarnation. When the Bible speaks of the resurrection of the dead, it is not speaking of reincarnation. There are important differences between the two concepts:
|After death, the soul is separated from the body until the Resurrection of the Dead, when the body and soul are reunited and the body raised to life.
||After death, the soul is placed into a new body.
|The soul has one life to be reconciled to God.
||The soul has many lives to be reconciled to God.
|The soul is reunited with its original body, although the original body is renewed.
||The new body (human or non-human) is different from the previous one and is based upon one’s karma in the previous life.
|When the body and soul are reunited, the soul retains its memory and personhood.
||When a soul is reincarnated, there is no conscious memory of the previous life.
It is necessary to understand the differences between resurrection and reincarnation, because there are those, who starting with the pre-supposition of reincarnation, read the Bible and claim that it teaches reincarnation. Consider for example John 9:
As He passed by, He saw a man blind from birth. And His disciples asked Him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he would be born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (John 9: 1 – 3)
Now how could a man be born blind for his own sins? That would imply his soul sinned prior to birth, and he was born blind as a punishment for those sins. This apparent account of reincarnation is easily explained – there were false beliefs that existed in the days of Jesus, and this was one of them. Indeed, the rabbis may have very well taught reincarnation or the pre-existence of the soul, but that does not mean their teaching was true. Jesus set their error straight – the man was not born blind for his own sins, but rather that the power of God might be displayed in him. This power of God was displayed when Jesus healed the man’s blindness, giving him sight.
Another supposed instance of reincarnation is in the account of John the Baptist. Malachi said that God was going to send Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the LORD (Malachi 4: 5). Jesus said that John the Baptist was the promised Elijah.
And if you are willing to accept it, John himself is Elijah who was to come. (Matthew 11: 14)
Did Jesus teach John was the reincarnation of Elijah? No. Rather, Jesus taught that John was the typological fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy. John functioned in the same manner as the prophet Elijah, but he was not literally the prophet Elijah. Let us remember that in the transfiguration of Christ, the prophet Elijah appeared with Moses before Jesus and the disciples who were with Him. If Elijah appeared before Jesus, how then could John be the reincarnation of Elijah?
It is crucial to understand the distinctions between reincarnation and resurrection. Reincarnation is fundamentally based upon a judgment of works. The resurrection of the dead is based upon faith in Jesus Christ, Who has made atonement not only for our lack of good works, but for the “good” works we do in an attempt to please God and save ourselves. The gospel of Jesus Christ is fundamentally based upon the fact that humans cannot save themselves – it is the work of Christ that saves us. If someone understands their own heart and their own moral failings, reincarnation is a terrifying prospect. Could you imagine being a weak and terrible sinner, believing that karma is the mechanism by which you will be judged? You would have no hope. But because of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the weak and terrible sinner is full of hope. For the gospel declares that people are made righteous through Christ, not through their own power or piety.
It should be easy to see, then, that reincarnation is completely incompatible with Biblical doctrine. If righteousness does not come through the Law, but through faith in Jesus, and if faith in Jesus is a gift of the Holy Spirit, why would the soul be reincarnated over and over and over? The Holy Spirit knows those He has predestined to eternal life, and He gives them faith in the first, and only, life on earth.