This past weekend Christians celebrated “Resurrection Sunday,” also known as Easter. It is the day we rejoice in knowing that Jesus resurrected, the central point of Christianity. Christians believe that it is only by the resurrection of Jesus that the punishment owed for our sins has been paid and that redemption for humankind is available. Without His death and resurrection, we are still guilty before a holy and just God.
The resurrection of Jesus is so crucial that Paul stated if Christ had not resurrected then “we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Corinthians 15:19). Therefore, it is of utmost importance that we understand what is meant by resurrection.
Did Jesus physically resurrected?
The question of the resurrection is to be expected among those not claiming to be followers of Jesus. That has been the case since the first century. Tacitus, a Roman historian writing in the late first and early second century AD, describes the resurrection accounts as a “pernicious superstition,” clearly indicating how absurd he found the claim that someone physically rose from the dead.
However, lately, this question is presenting itself inside churches among those claiming to be followers of Jesus. Some churches teach that Jesus only spiritually resurrected. This makes it sound somewhat like the Eastern religious thought of reincarnation. Is that what happened? Was the resurrection of Jesus nothing more than a reincarnation based on Jesus’ impeccable karma?
Reincarnation, as viewed in the Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism, is a rebirth. These worldviews claim that when a person dies, the spirit leaves its current physical body to be “reborn” into a new physical existence that is entirely different from its previous one. The new physical birth is based on the accumulated karmic footprint of the previous life’s actions. If the good karma outweighs the bad karma, then the rebirth will be to a better or “higher” level existence. If the good karma does not outweigh the bad, then the rebirth will be to a lower state of existence.
In each case of reincarnation, though, the next life is in a different creature than the first life. The reincarnation could be to a human or animal or even some other kind of spirit-being. In other words, even if your karma meant you reincarnated as another human, it would be as a different human than you were before. The previous physical body and its existence would be dead, but the spiritual existence would move on to a new and different physical body and existence, whether that is as an animal or a human.
Is reincarnation taught in the Bible?
Reincarnation is not a biblical concept. And the resurrection of Jesus was completely different from reincarnation. However, some of the terminology found in the Bible may sound similar to terms used in the concept of reincarnation. Jesus told Nicodemus that in order to enter the kingdom of God, he must be “born again.” He must have both a physical birth and a spiritual birth, a concept even Nicodemus found confusing. As followers of Jesus we are described as being a “new creature” and a “new creation.” We are told in Scripture that one day we will have resurrected bodies (like the body Jesus received when He resurrected), indicating those bodies are different from the ones we have now.
Though some of these terms may sound a lot like Hindu reincarnation, something very different is meant by them. Instead of saying one spirit would be “reborn” into multiple new existences and new creatures as found in reincarnation, Jesus meant the spiritually dead must be made spiritually alive. According to Scripture, our sin has spiritually separated from the presence of God. To be brought into His presence, the spiritually dead must be made alive through the work Jesus did on the cross.
That is the spiritual birth that Jesus tells Nicodemus about. It is a spiritual transformation within the same physical body. As Jesus said, you are born physically and then you must be born spiritually. It is one physical body with one spiritual existence, either one living through Jesus or dead in sin. These are not multiple physical existences with the same spirit.
In that way we can better understand Paul’s words about being a “new creature” in 2 Corinthians 5:17. We are not given a new physical existence, but we are now a creature with a spirit that is alive to the presence of God as opposed to a creature with a spirit that is dead to sin. This is not taking one spirit and moving it into a new physical creature, as Eastern religions teach.
We must also understand these terms in light of other scripture. We are told in Hebrews 9:27 that we die once and then face judgment. James 4:14 says our lives are a “mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” He does not say that our life is here and then reappears in another form on this earth after death.
In Luke 23:43, Jesus tells the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in paradise,” indicating the man would die and leave this earth. The thief would not physically die and his spirit reincarnate into a new existence here on earth. Instead, the thief would physically die and spiritually leave this existence to be in the presence of God. In Matthew 25:46 Jesus that believers die here and move on to eternal life while unbelievers die here and move onto eternal punishment.
The Bible never states that people have a second chance at life, nor that people would come back as other forms of creation. Rather the Bible says that “now is the time for salvation” because it is clear this one life is your opportunity for salvation, not to work it out in the next life on earth.
We will, however, one day receive a new body, just like Jesus received at the resurrection. But this is not simply moving from one temporal creature to another type of temporal creature. There is a direct connection between the body that dies and the body that will be resurrected. This new body will be one of a different nature than what is currently on this earth. It will be a body that does not suffer from disease and death, yet it will some way be recognizable as our own individual bodies. It will be the perfection of our current existence as God intended it before the fall.
What was Jesus’ resurrection like?
This is what we see in the resurrection of Jesus. The resurrection of Jesus was not a spiritual reincarnation; it was a physical resurrection. The tomb was empty because His physical body had come back to life and walked out of the tomb. The disciples were emboldened because they recognized the man before them as Jesus whom they had seen crucified, not a spirit inhabiting a different physical body. Jesus was able to let the disciples touch His hands and feet and could eat fish and bread with the disciples because He resurrected to a perfected, eternal physical body from His former temporal body.
The resurrection of Jesus was the first-fruits of the resurrection. He died physically and resurrected to the same body physically in its immortal form. Jesus came back to life in the body that had been perfected, no longer subject to disease or death. This is yet another distinction between the resurrection and reincarnation. The reincarnated body will one day die as well, leaving the spirit to move on to yet another body that will one day die. Jesus resurrected to a body that would never again see death.
Paul describes this in 1 Corinthians 15:42-44: “So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown a perishable body, it is raised an imperishable body; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.”
Praise the Lord that Jesus has physically resurrected, proving He has conquered over death and defeated sin. Because of that, we are able to have salvation and be raised into the newness of life, of life everlasting.