Reincarnation, liberation, and the value of the body

Luke Wayne

Doctrines of reincarnation or a perpetual cycle of rebirth are common in religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and many sects of Spiritism and the New Age movement. While there are plenty of variations on the details, the overarching idea is that you lived innumerable lives in other bodies (human, animal, perhaps even plant, god, or ghost) before the life you are living now. One day this body will die, and you will be reborn again in another body as someone or something else. This cycle is considered a prison of suffering that we must escape if we are to exist as we ought, in unembodied union with all things. Bodily life, therefore, is not real, true, or ultimately desirable life.

For example, Hinduism teaches that your body is, at best, an old garment to be cast off at the end of life.1 One either takes up a different body for a while through reincarnation, only to cast it off as well, or one finally breaks free and never has a body again.2 The real self is always carefully distinguished from the body. Your body is no part of you, and indeed, your truest existence is beyond the body. The goal is to cease being born and finally be rid of bodily life.

The concept of rebirth in Buddhism is in many respects quite different than in Hindu thought, but in this particular matter, the result is the same. The idea of individual human existence is considered a prison of suffering from which one must be liberated. The cycle of rebirth must be broken. Ongoing personal bodily existence is wholly undesirable.

In Jainism, a smaller Eastern sect that broke off from Hinduism in about the same period as Buddhism, the body is actually blamed for committing karmic actions that keep the true, spiritual self (or "Atma") bound in the cycle of rebirth. The "real you," the Atma, is only an "innocent bystander."3 They further explain that:

"The cycle of birth and death repeats itself over and over again, until the Atma gets rid of all its deeds and is liberated."4

No individual body is of any special importance. You will just cast it off and be reborn into another entirely different body. Likewise, all bodily existence taken together is not a precious thing. Indeed, in each of these cases, we see a very negative view of physical existence. In fact, it is such individual, embodied existence that these religions seek to help one escape. They are not primarily concerned with forgiveness of sins or salvation from a just and righteous divine judgment. The actions of one's body and thoughts of one's mind come into play only as they serve to bind one in the cycle of rebirth. Liberation, the "salvation" of the religions of reincarnation, is the goal of escaping the prison of physical, embodied life. Even an act of kindness toward another physical being is, at its heart, only an effort to ultimately escape ever having to be such a being again. These "paths to enlightenment" offer little by way of escaping our real and objective guilt for wrong things we have done. They largely sidestep the reality of our shame and deny a holy God who will judge mankind for the evil we have done. Instead, the entire system rests on a foundational rejection of the value of physical life.

Christianity, however, believes that the physical universe and everything in it were purposely brought into existence by God and declared good. Human life is both physical and spiritual, and we no more desire to separate the two than we would separate our flesh from our blood. For a man to be alive, he must be both soul and body. We don't long to be one cut off from the other.

Further, the problem in the world and the source of all it's suffering is not that we have physical bodies or individual identities. The problem is sin. Evil thoughts, desires, and actions have brought suffering, corruption, and death into the world. Our deep need is not liberation from embodied life. Our deep need is the redemption of our lives from sin and the restoration of this world which our sin corrupted.

The Bible has a very high view of our life in the body. Indeed, our bodies are not even things we can simply exchange over the course of various lives. Our hope after death is for God to bring us back to life in the same body in which we lived before. We seek the resurrection of our bodies, made perfect and granted eternal life. The prophet Daniel said:

"Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt," (Daniel 12:2).

And Job expressed:

"Even after my skin is destroyed, yet from my flesh I shall see God," (Job 19:26).

Jesus Himself promised:

"Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice, and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment," (John 5:28-29).

And further emphasized this in words like:

"I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?" (John 11:25-26).

Jesus repeatedly said of the one who believes in Him that Jesus will "Raise him up on the last day," (John 6:39,40,44). The Apostle Paul also echoed:

"But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you," (Romans 8:11).

We have no desire to leave our bodies behind. That would not be life, but death. We want eternal life, which must mean the continuation of our individual identities and the raising up of our physical bodies. The freedom God offers us is not liberation from physical life or personal existence as a human being. That would be a punishment, not a blessing. Instead, God offers salvation from our sin.

We are guilty and deserving of divine judgment and eternal punishment for the evil that each of us has done. Jesus Christ suffered the agony and death of the cross to take on Himself that penalty for all those who repent and believe. If we turn in faith to God through Jesus Christ, our sins are forgiven and our guilt and shame removed. Jesus death and resurrection also secure the promise that one day the consequences of sin will be abolished from the world, namely pain, death, and loss. Those who do not repent and believe on Christ will be justly consigned to the fires of eternal judgment for their sin. For those who are in Christ, however, they will enjoy eternal life with their Lord in a world free from the destructive stain of sin.

This is the only true liberation. This is life. Not destruction of the body and union with the universe, but rather the perfection of the body and the restoration of the world. This freedom can only come by repenting of our sins and turning in faith to Jesus Christ to forgive and deliver us through His sacrificial death and triumphant resurrection.

  • 1. See, for example, Bhagavad Gita 2:22
  • 2. See, for example, Bhagavad Gita 2:51
  • 3. Bharat S. Shah, An Introduction to Jainism (Setubandh Publications, 1992) 26
  • 4. ibid, 21