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Resurrection or Re-incarnation?

The actress Shirley MacClaine moonlights as a New Age self-help teacher. She believes she is the channel for supernatural beings. She writes books of spirituality, which seek to guide people into higher truths. She also believes in reincarnation and has said that ‘Reincarnation is like show business. You just keep on going until you get it right.’

What Shirley MacClaine means is that the belief in reincarnation takes you into to a never-ending cycle of life. According to the doctrine of reincarnation, when you die you will be re-born in another body. To reach spiritual perfection you have to go through many lives and suffer much until you finally break out of the cycle. Reincarnation is a classic part of the Eastern religions. Both Hindus and Buddhists have a complex theory of reincarnation. Reincarnation was also part of the ancient Egyptian religion.

Reincarnation is an attractive belief because it combines the idea that we will not die with the need for justice. Eastern religions teach that you can accumulate either good or bad karma. That means what you do during your life weighs against you or for you. If you have been good you come back in a higher and more lucky status. If you have been evil you return in a lower, more unfortunate stage. This cycle of life continues until you reach the most exalted spiritual condition. Some religions teach that the levels of luck or misfortune extend into the animal kingdom so that if you’ve been evil you could come back as a millipede and not a man.

A recent survey in America revealed that one in four Americans believe in reincarnation. Surveys amongst young people in Britain have revealed the same trend. Why is it that so many Westerners now believe in reincarnation? The belief in reincarnation made its way westward at the beginning of the twentieth century as various occult groups like Theosophy, Anthroposophy and Spiritualism began to grow. In the sixties gurus from the Eastern religions began to adapt Hinduism and Buddhism to make it more attractive to Westerners. These religious trends influenced the growth of the New Age movement. Now reincarnation ideas spread not only through established religious channels, but also through newly invented religions, self-help groups, positive thinking courses and books on pagan spirituality.

Some people even think Jesus taught reincarnation. When he told Nicodemus (John 3) that he had to be born again they think Jesus was referring to reincarnation. But Jesus was a first century Jew. He wouldn’t have believed in reincarnation. In fact he said to Martha of Bethany, ‘I am the Resurrection and the Life.’ (John 11:25) Jesus raised Martha’s brother Lazarus from the dead. He didn’t tell him to come back as somebody else. The Christian faith has never had room for reincarnation. Instead we believe in the resurrection. This is a very different belief. Resurrection does not mean we come back to this life again in a different form. Resurrection means we continue to live as ourselves in the world beyond this one.

Resurrection is important for two reasons. First of all, resurrection is important because each one of us is important. If reincarnation is true, then my body and my unique personality disappears when I die. I become someone or something else next time around. Eventually I break free from the cycle of this life and I am absorbed into God. However, resurrection means that my own unique and special personality will never die. Resurrection means who I am remains part of God’s creation forever. Resurrection means I remain in a father-child relationship with God, I don’t just become absorbed into him and disappear.

Resurrection is also important because our bodies are important. Eastern religions are very spiritual. They teach that the physical world is full of suffering, and that physical things are evil. The goal of reincarnation is to escape from this physical world into a purely spiritual realm. Christians have never believed this. We believe that the physical world is created by God. The physical world is therefore good. When God created the world he actually said ‘That’s good.’ When Jesus rose from the dead physically he was saying that the physical world is not something to escape from. The physical world is worth bringing back to life again.

It is easier to believe in a purely spiritual religion. It is difficult to believe that our bodies will rise again. How can our bodies turn to dust and yet they will be brought back to life in some way? This is hard to understand, but it is part of Christian belief. In his great little book The Great Divorce C.S.Lewis explained that the world beyond death might actually be more solid and real than this one. Saint Paul said a similar thing. He said in this world we only see images as in a mirror, but in the next world we will see things as they really are. If this is true, then the bodies we think are so real and solid may actually be the temporary unreal ones. The New Testament says we have a resurrection body. Maybe that is the one that is real, solid and permanent. When we cross over the river of death maybe we will enter a world which will make this world seem like a black and white photo of the real thing. If so, then our resurrection bodies will be far more real and perfect than the ones we have here.

Whatever glories lie in store for us on the other side of death we hope to share in the resurrection life. We have this hope because of our faith in Jesus Christ who is himself the resurrection and the life. During the Easter season we re-affirm the faith given to us at baptism. As Spring begins to burst all around us we also affirm the hope that in Christ we shall not just be born again and again and again, but that we shall one day rise up to live with him in a glorious dimension of life that is more real than we can imagine.