The Difference Between Resurrection and Reincarnation
Scriptures: Romans 6:1-11; Genesis 2:4-8
Once again our question of faith for this week is anticipated by Calvin and Hobbes. They are sledding down a hill, and Calvin turns to his pet tiger Hobbes and says, “I have a question. Do you believe in life after death? You know, reincarnation?” Hobbes says, “You just steer, okay?”
Did you notice how Calvin equated life after death with reincarnation? I once visited with a man who believed that reincarnation was simply another way of talking about resurrection. He said to me, “They are both about life after death, aren’t they? Why aren’t they compatible?”
Which is our question of faith for this week: Is reincarnation compatible with Christianity or the Bible? In a word, No. At this point we guess we could sing the final hymn and go home. But there is a little more I need to say about this. Genesis tells us that humans were created by God out of the dust of the earth. There is no indication in the Bible that humans had a prior life before they were born. The one exception to this is Jesus. The gospel of John says that the eternal word of God became flesh in Jesus, but that is never said about anyone else. None of us except Jesus existed before we were born. But God does want us to live with Jesus after we die, and that is the difference between resurrection and reincarnation.
There are two problem with reincarnation that we need to understand before we can appreciate the grace that God has shown to us in Jesus.
Problem #1: Reincarnation overestimates human beings.
One of the games I remember from my childhood and the childhood of my children is Chutes and Ladders. You spin a spinner to see how many spaces you move trying to get to the top—square 100. Sometimes if you land on the right space you get to climb a ladder that takes you on a shortcut higher up the board. Often that square has a picture on it of a boy or girl doing something nice. Do something good, and you get to climb the ladder. But if you land on the wrong space, which often has a picture of doing something bad, you slide down the chute to a lower square.
That, to me, is a picture of reincarnation, at least the traditional Hindu version of it. The idea in reincarnation is that we keep recycling through life until we get it right. Or to put it another way, we work our way up the ladder by being good and faithful creatures at whatever level we find ourselves. If you are a lower class human, struggling with oppression or poverty, but are nevertheless good, kind, and faithful, you might come back the next time as a person with a higher station in life. But if you are not good, when you die you slide down a chute. You come back as a person lower down on the scale of being where you must face the consequences of the things you’ve done and work through those issues in your life before you can climb back up again.
Inevitably, whenever I played Chutes and Ladders, just when I was getting near the top, I would hit one of those chutes and slide back down. Then I would have to work my way back up.
That, for me, is like reincarnation. Reincarnation is a program for works righteousness, a method by which we try to earn our salvation. You keep cycling through until you get it right. But the Bible tells me that we are never going to get it right, not on our own. Because sin is not just this or that misdeed we have done for which we need to atone. It is a chronic problem from which we need to be delivered. In Romans 6 the apostle Paul says that we are baptized into Jesus so that “we might no longer be enslaved to sin.” Those are Paul’s words: that “we might no longer be enslaved to sin.”
Sin is less like an action and more like an addiction. It starts out as an action, like excessive drinking or gambling, but it becomes an addiction. It becomes something that has us in its grip.
And that’s why I think reincarnation overestimates human beings. It assumes that if we have enough second chances we will finally get it right. I don’t think so. In fact the very effort to “get it right” plays into our pride, which is part of the problem. If you think you can climb your way up to salvation, you are not overcoming your pride, you are reinforcing it. And the pride of accomplishment will lead you to look down on those below you.
The only antidote for pride is grace. We will be finally liberated from pride and the arrogance that looks down on others only when we realize that eternal life is a gift of God’s grace. We cannot climb our way to the top. We must be airlifted there by Jesus.
And that brings me to the second problem with reincarnation. Not only does it overestimate human beings, reincarnation underestimates God. In Romans 6:9-10 the apostle Paul says, “We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all.”
Jesus is not an example of reincarnation. He is the forerunner of resurrection. He did not have to die and be reborn over and over to get to God. He was raised never to die again, and that is the gift we are given when joined to him in baptism. Hence Paul says in verses 3-4:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.
Jesus’ death and resurrection was a once-for-all event that opens the door once and for all to eternal life. We receive this gift only by God’s grace, not as an accomplishment of our works.
This week I had a wonderful conversation with Walt Edmiston following his colon surgery. He was physically weak, but he was in a surprisingly chatty mood. He actually told me quite a bit about himself. One story he told was about boot camp in the army. He said that during boot camp he finally understood what it was like to be a slave. All day every day someone is yelling in your face telling you what to do. It’s like being a slave.
Interestingly, boot camp is also a lot like reincarnation. If you mess up you get recycled. You have to start over.
In boot camp Walt experienced what it was like to be slave. But one day, it was announced that any recruits who wanted to could go to chapel on Sunday morning. Walt was stunned. The drill sergeants never let them do anything. Every moment of their day was prescribed. But here were the drill sergeants giving them a couple hours off to go to church. Walt said he thought, “Wow, someone around here has real pull.” Then he realized it was God. He said that when he realized God had more power than the drill sergeant, he became a lot more interested in Christianity.
That’s what Paul is telling us in the scripture. Pride, selfishness, and greed are not things you are going to overcome by yourself. We are enslaved to these things. Thinking we can overcome them on our own will only make them worse. Deliverance from these things requires someone with more pull, a once-for-all act of God’s grace, and accepting that gift will change our lives forever.