Resurrection and Reincarnation
Prof. Michael F. Hull, New York
The integrity of the human person—body and soul, in this life and in the next—has been and continues to be one of the more difficult aspects of divine revelation to understand. Saint Augustine’s words remain relevant: "No doctrine of the Christian faith is so vehemently and so obstinately opposed as the doctrine of the resurrection of the flesh" (Enarrationes in Psalmos, Ps. 88, ser. 2, par. 5). This doctrine, constantly affirmed in Scripture and Tradition, finds is most sublime exposition in the fifteenth chapter of Saint Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. And it is perennially affirmed by Christians in the recitation of the Nicene Creed: "I believe in the resurrection of the body and life everlasting." It is matter of faith in the promises of God.
Unaided human reason frequently grasps the immortality of the soul, but fails to grasp the essential unity of the human person who is created in the imago Dei. Thus unaided reason and paganism have often seen "through a glass darkly" glimmers of the eternal life revealed by Christ and confirmed in his own bodily resurrection from the dead but cannot see "the plan of the mystery hidden for all ages in God who created all things" (Eph 3:9). The misconstrued notion of metempsychosis (Plato and Pythagoras) or reincarnation (Hinduism and Buddhism) asserts a natural transmigration of human souls from body to body. Still accepted as true in many Eastern religions, Theosophy, and Spiritualism, reincarnation is very different from the resurrection of the Christian faith, wherein the human person will be reintegrated—body and soul—on the last day unto salvation or damnation.
Prior to the parousia, the individual soul, at its particular judgment, enters immediately into eternal bliss in heaven (or a purgative period necessary to the delight of heaven) or into eternal torment in hell (Benedict XII, Benedictus Deus). With the parousia, the body will be reunited with its soul at the general judgment. Each resurrected body will be united with its soul, each will then know identity, entirety, and immortality. The just will continue to enjoy the beatific vision with their souls and bodies reunited and benefit from the characteristics of impassibility, glory, agility, and subtility. The unjust, without the aforementioned characteristics, will continue their everlasting punishment as integrated persons.
The resurrection of the body precludes any idea of reincarnation because Christ’s return was neither a return to earthly life nor a migration of his soul to another body. Rather, the resurrection of the body is the fulfillment God’s promises in the Old and New Testaments. The resurrection of the Lord’s body is the first fruits of the resurrection. "For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive. But each is his own order: Christ first, then at his coming those who belong to Christ" (1 Cor 15:21–23). Reincarnation leaves us encircled in an eternity of bodily homelessness, with the assurance of nothing more than a renovation of the soul. The Christian faith promises a resurrection of the human person—body and soul—through the intervention of the Father, Son, and Spirit unto a perpetuity of paradise.
In his apostolic letter Tertio millennio adveniente (November 14, 1994), John Paul II writes: "How are we to imagine life beyond death? Some have considered various forms of reincarnation: Depending on one’s previous life, one would receive a new life in either a higher or lower form until full purification is attained. This belief, deeply rooted in some Eastern religions, itself indicates that man rebels against the finality of death. He is convinced that his nature is essentially spiritual and immortal. Christian revelation excludes reincarnation and speaks of a fulfillment which man is called to achieve in the course of a single earthly existence" (no. 9).