Sunday, August 14, 2011

Resurrection: Better Than Recycling

Of the many beliefs about the afterlife that exist in the public square, I think reincarnation is becoming a popular alternative to Resurrection. Both talk about the separation of the body from the soul, and provide common hope that a person can be united to the Ultimate Reality (or God) -- but the commonality stops there. I am not a certified expert on either beliefs, but I will do my best to explain them and then give my opinion.

Christ emerging from the tomb
after His resurrection.
As Christianity professes, Resurrection will be a cosmic event. Until the last day of a Christian's natural life, he is expected to live by "faith, hope and charity" (1 Cor 13:13); all supernatural good that he accomplishes in Christ will earn him a degree of merit in Heaven. If, at the end of life, he dies in God’s friendship -- precipitated by holding steadfast to those three virtues through death -- his spirit is judged mercifully and he is received into Heaven as an eternal son of God. When human history concludes, this righteous man will be resurrected in a new and glorified body, and he will continue living in Heaven as body and soul. Conversely, if he poised himself against God and died in enmity to his Divine Savior, his evil spirit immediately descends into hell for eternal punishment, whereupon his resurrected body will add to his sufferings with physical pain. "Blessed and holy is he who shares in the first resurrection!" (Rev 20:6)

Reincarnation is usually associated with a "wheel of karma." Karma are actions either good or bad. Good actions release a man's ties to the imprisonment of this world and cause him to progress spirituality; if he does not release all his karma in this life, he will come back until he is free and thus able to unite to the Ultimate Reality. Bad actions cause suffering. Horrid deeds could send him reincarnated into a lower life form -- a monkey, a cow, and some sects believe reincarnation into plants and bacteria.

Reincarnation has three main tenets of Gnostic thought: the spiritual is good, the physical is bad but tolerable, and humans can save themselves. In contrast, Christianity believes God made the physical world good and only Christ can save. Christians may not despise the human body; bodily pleasures (eating, drinking, sex, etc.) are seen as morally good objects that can only be perverted by intention and circumstance. The Gnostic sees the physical world as creation turned evil and abandoned -- specifically as emitted spiritual waste -- and he could not enjoy it without performing evil since nature is intrinsically evil. If a Gnostic eats, drinks, or has sex, they are regrettable but necessary actions.

Resurrection and reincarnation are opposites: the former esteems creation and the latter tolerates it as necessary evil. Naturally, man’s disposition towards creation culminates in his view of the afterlife. The Christian must regrettably die as temporal punishment for sin, but he hopes to return in a resurrected body: "For freedom Christ has set us free" (Gal 5:1). The Gnostic feels his "inner man" (Eph 3:16) is trapped within the physical world, and hopes to escape it through obtaining secret knowledge or enlightenment. Hindu reincarnation patently carries Gnostic roots: it is centered upon releasing karma through enlightenment which liberates the person into the divine mind. Greek wisdom, Hindu poems, Chinese prose, and other eastern cultures, all have been catalysts for this salvation theory.

Which do I believe? I choose Resurrection. Here are some reasons why...

#1: The Argument from Ultimate Justice

Reincarnation does not have any concept of ultimate justice. There is no eternal hell for those who enjoy misery of self and make misery for others -- but what is the purpose of hell? Human nature contains a moral instinct to demand justice, but justice is not often served in the short run. If it is to be served at all, it must exist in the long run, but, here too, it seems lacking. Now either ultimate justice exists (such as hell), which satisfies our moral instinct, or justice does not exist.

Applying this reasoning to the character of the Ultimate Reality, He is either indifferent to injustice or too lazy to demand justice. One way some religions have evaded solving this cosmic problem is by making the problem "go away" -- writing off good and bad as mere human illusions. To quote the great apologist, C. S. Lewis: "We call a cancer bad, they would say, because it kills a man; but you might just as well call a successful surgeon bad because he kills a cancer. It all depends on your point of view." Some say if we all could escape into the divine mind, all distinctions would disappear -- but I think that’s pure nonsense! Having a person kick me in the head hurts just as much if I conceive the pain to be real or illusory.

If ultimate justice is to be served, it cannot be through reincarnation to the same species since it gives the soul another chance -- this is called mercy. Being reincarnated into a lower life would be a form of justice -- similar to a prison sentence to make reparations for past offenses -- but it would not be ultimate justice. The most reasonable conclusion is that our desire for justice exists because it can be fulfilled, and if it is not fulfilled in this life, it will be in the next. As noted by C.S. Lewis:
"The Christian says, 'Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfactions for those desires exist. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well there is such a thing as sex. If I find myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.'"

#2: The Argument from the Morality of Human Actions

Not every action is moral action. A moral action is a choice prompted by the intellect and consented by the will. The human subject is so distinguished from all other creatures because he can know truth and will to love what is good. A man has freedom to deliberately choose actions according to his conscience with knowledge of the consequences. A subject that is neither aware of truth, nor free to choose according to truth, cannot perform moral acts -- and hereby lies the problem of reincarnation to lower life forms.

Betsy the cow or
Betsy the former woman?
If a man was reincarnated into a cow, to what degree could he, as a cow, do a moral deed? Suppose a cow saved its newborn from drowning in a ditch, it merely did so because of instinct; it has been programmed that way and could not act otherwise. The action may seem heroic in a personified sense, and the consequences may be profitable (financially good) for the owner, but the cow did not perform a moral good. The cow has no more choice to rescue its calf than it does to go on a hunger strike because it wants more luxurious commendations. Should we discipline a cow for not giving milk, or for not participating in the rescue of a fellow calf? Such ideas are patent nonsense. Even when a pet owner says, "Spot, you have been a bad dog for staying out all night," he certainly does not mean (unless he is an idiot) that the dog was immoral. Surely an animal does not always follow his master’s commands, but the dog’s so-called "disobedience" is nothing more than personified language projected unto the dog to express the human sentiment that the dog’s actions were "undesired" to his owner’s will.

This all points to the fundamental problem with this form of reincarnation: if lower life forms cannot act rationally, to what end can a transplanted human soul ever perform moral good to regain a human body? Reincarnation cannot answer why a rational soul, placed in an animal body, is incapable of using its intellect and will. In a poetic sense, this truly is a hell! These human souls are eternally halted in the "wheel of karma," incapable of exercising freedom prompted by the intellect to achieve union with the Ultimate Reality. Worst of all, they are not even aware of it.


Once upon a time, I knew a family who were devout Buddhists (with a mini-temple in their living room). One of their children was a special-needs child with severe disabilities; he required a lot of physical and cognitive therapy to make progress against a rare condition. It was a difficult situation for them but they had lots of good help. Sooner or later, his dad began explaining their family's beliefs; he claimed that his handicapped son "chose to come back this way." Wow. Seriously? To this day, I am still floored by that statement. There's nothing more for me to say about that wheel of karma.