“Christians believe in reincarnation… they confess it whenever they say their creeds.” As my World Religions professor spoke these words to our university class almost 20 years ago, I was a bit dumbfounded. My first reaction was to think, “No, we don’t! That’s crazy.”
But in a way, he was right. In the Apostles’ Creed we say we believe “in the resurrection of the dead.” In the Nicene Creed we confess, “We look for the resurrection of the dead.” The Athanasian Creed expands on this even more! Even though I’d said these words many times, I never realized what I was saying.
Now, I don’t think it’s best to use the term reincarnation to describe this, as that professor did. But as I continue to study God’s Word, I am surprised how little I’ve recognized and appreciated this important truth in my life.
I presently teach New Testament at Lutheran Brethren Seminary, and I encourage my students to pay attention to how the New Testament authors speak about our future hope. This semester I have a student who’s writing a paper on this topic. As he works through each New Testament book, he’s consistently finding that we are not really told that our Christian hope is to die and go to heaven. Have you noticed this? Although we often speak in those terms, the Word actually tells us to look forward to the resurrection from the dead. Our hope isn’t an escape into death; our hope is bodily life! Unfortunately, I think there are many Christians like me, who have (unintentionally) shrunk the gospel by missing out on the importance of our hope of resurrection.
This truth gives much more depth to our understanding of life now, and our future hope. At creation, God called it all good. Yet in Romans 8:18–23, Paul tells us that all creation is actually waiting for our physical redemption as well! Our hope isn’t just an escape from this creation, it’s tied to the hope of God’s entire creation—his “good” creation that’s been “subjected to futility” because of our sin. Too often I’ve been able to separate my spiritual life from the way I live in this creation, because I was planning on escaping it. But biblically, I see that my spiritual life is intertwined with my physical body as well as the rest of God’s physical creation. All of my life, in all its aspects, should reflect God’s care for all creation. There’s a comprehensiveness to our life of faith that I had missed before when I had separated “spirituality” too far from “physicality.”
Likewise, I find that I now have greater hope for the future than I had realized before—although it often comes through pain. As I’ve seen the physical bodies of loved ones wither from their prime—even failing to the point of death—I have a hope for physical restoration to life that’s based on the sure Word of God! Honestly, this gives me the freedom to mourn a bit more deeply at death. I don’t need to quickly flee to the “he’s in a better place” platitude, as if I should deny the sting of death. Rather, my Christian faith confirms my mourning heart—death is an enemy, not an escape.
That deep mourning is not the end, though. It’s the point from which my hope expands! Jesus is no longer on the cross. His grave is no longer sealed. He has conquered death! Therefore, the mourning of death is overcome by Christ’s victory over death! We really do have a message that’s relevant to every single part of this creation. Our Lord is the Lord of Life—the giver of life. He’s also the one who will restore his creation to the eternal, abundant life we deeply long for.
This is the business of our God, to bring the hope of life into the broken creation that longs for it. And he works through us. He works through the church planter who goes to bring God’s life to hurting people in new places. He works through those who have grieved, yet found hope in Christ. As they share their stories, we are pointed to our true hope. And God works in and through you. You live in a world that’s “subjected to futility.” You live in a world that groans to be set free from its bondage to corruption. You live among people who face death, and many don’t have true hope in the face of that death.
So live your life accordingly. Celebrate life where it’s found. Marvel at God’s creation. Care for his creation. And especially, as you live with the people of his creation, care for them. Spiritually, yes. Physically, of course! And as you find them struggling with the pain of death, the pain of deterioration, the pain of corruption—remember you’ve got the hope of life to share with them! Tell them about the apostles who no longer feared death because they had seen the crucified Jesus risen from the grave! Tell them that the fear of death within them is well-founded, but has an answer in Christ. There is hope in the risen Lord who’s coming again. Tell them—in the words of the Nicene Creed—that you “look forward to the resurrection from the dead,” and they can share in that hope too.
“Christians believe in reincarnation?” I wouldn’t say it that way, but I should thank that professor for pointing me to something I had missed in my faith. We don’t believe in reincarnation in a cyclical way, as if we return again and again to cycles of life and death. Instead, our hope is linear, it’s going somewhere. We look forward to the return of our Lord in glory, where he will restore all creation, and resurrect our corruptible earthly bodies to glorious bodies for eternal life. As Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 4:18, “…encourage one another with these words.”
Come, Lord Jesus, come.
Dr. Daniel Berge Ph.D. serves Lutheran Brethren Seminary as its professor of New Testament.