And if I am only for myself, what am I?
And if not now, when?
Pirkei Avot (Talmud, Ethics of the Fathers) 1:14
Resurrection, or reincarnation? The modern world—no, just the world, even from ancient times—has a hard time believing in what we confess in the Symbol of Nicæa, προσδοκουμεν ανάστασιν νεκρων, και ζωην του μέλλοντος αιωνος, ‘we expect the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.’
The two major views of human mortality and immortality—there is a third, but it can be a variation of these two—are the concepts of resurrection, and of reincarnation. In the first, the human soul and body are halves of an indivisible whole. In the second, the soul transmigrates from one bodily form to another.
It’s difficult to say which belief has historical priority. We find prehistoric graves, often well-stocked with goods for use presumably in an afterlife. This probably is evidence for the third major view mentioned above: The human person, with accessories, continues living in another world, perhaps in the sky.
Resurrection seems to be the native belief of Semitic peoples and their proselytes, specifically, Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Reincarnation seems to be the native belief of Indo-European peoples and their proselytes, specifically, pre-Christian Europeans, Hindus, and Buddhists. There is also some cross-over.
Judaism seems to believe in transmigration of the soul, at least in its literature, yet resurrection of the dead is still a major tenet of this religion. Some Christian and Muslim mystics believe in it as individuals. There is also a growing body of post-Christians who believe in reincarnation from reading about it.
Resurrection, or reincarnation? The adherents of both views point to nature to prove their beliefs, speaking for nature, which cannot speak for itself—except to humans who can hear beyond language. That exceptional group—I hope I am one of them—appears in China in books like 道德经 Dao De Jing.
The ‘resurrectionist’ looks at nature and notices that the cycle of earthly seasons gives example of dying and resurrecting in the annual cycle of plants. The ‘death’ is not really a mortality, only a ‘sleep’ of sorts. In winter, trees lose their leaves and sleep, and spring come alive again with flowers and leaves. The tree is still the same tree year after year. Its visible and invisible parts inseparable like the human body and soul.
The ‘reincarnationist’ looks at nature and notices how living things not only cycle, as trees through the seasons, but actually die and are utterly dissolved and then reappear through reproductive cycles. They experience or only imagine personalities in living things, and make personality the surviving entity which lives on from one body to the next. The body itself only appears to be alive because inhabited by the soul.
Understanding this broad dichotomy, we can see why burial of the whole body after death is mandated in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and why cremation of bodily remains is the logical way to dispose of the body in Indo-European religions, especially Hinduism and Buddhism. In each group, the treatment of the body after death is appropriate to the belief system. Cremation in the West is more expedient than respectful.
Resurrection, or reincarnation? The age old question has no logical answer any more than the other perennial question, ‘Is there a God?’ at least not in a form that can be accepted without ‘strings attached.’ For until you make one of two encounters, you can believe whatever you like.
‘who was dead and is alive forever’? What kind of invitation is that? Whether you believe in the resurrection of the dead or in reincarnation, you must meet death: there is no choice.
Unexpectedly, the same is true of meeting Jesus Christ. I am not now speaking of religious beliefs about Him that you may have been handed by your parents or teachers. Whatever you believe about death or about life, you must meet Jesus Christ: but there is a choice. When will it be?
Now, when He says, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die’ (John 11:25), or after your body and soul have been separated, of which He says, ‘Night is coming, when no one can work’ (John 9:4)?