Compare and contrast reincarnation and resurrection

2003 (a) Compare and contrast reincarnation and resurrection. [10]

The doctrines of reincarnation and resurrection seem similar in that in both the immortality of the soul is essential.

Belief in dualism – the dual nature of the human body into physical body and spiritual soul – goes back at least to the Greeks. Plato believed that the two were distinct and that the soul becomes trapped in the body at birth and is only released upon death. Although not religious he did believe that there was a plane of existence where everything is perfect and that the soul derived from there. Rene Descartes took his idea and said that the thinking thing ‘res cogitans’ and the extended thing or body ‘res extensa’ are separate and that the latter is disposable.

There definitely seems to be a clear difference between Eastern and Western philosophy.

Hinduism specifies exactly what the soul is – they call it atman and it is part of the divine spirit Brahman and lives in human and animal bodies and eventually it will be reunited with Brahman when perfection of the soul is attained. Only in the human body can the soul be perfected and the conduct of the human will be weighed upon death and the karma judged and that will determine the next body for that soul to inhabit. The soul is then reborn into either a human or animal form.

Resurrection is different in that as a mostly Western idea borrowed from the Greeks by Aquinas and incorporated into Roman Catholic theology – certainly prior to the period of the exile the Jews had no concept of a life after death of any sort. It is believed that we only have one human life and that upon death that life is judged and depending upon what kind of life has been lived, or if Christian, depending on whether one has had faith in Jesus Christ we will be resurrected and either go to heaven or to hell. Here though, despite Jesus’ own example of physical resurrection, it would appear that for the rest of, us as St Paul said, it is the soul which ‘is raised in incorruption.’ Some doctrines do teach that there is a bodily resurrection but it is mostly unclear whether that body is spiritual or physical, but whichever we will not be resurrected to live a life like that which is lived on earth.

However the modern philosopher John Hick believes that resurrection is the divine recreation of an exact replica of each person in the next life though that life will be in heaven.

Apart from Jesus the only other example we have in the New Testament is that of Lazarus who although raised from the dead was clearly brought back to life and that is not what the doctrine of resurrection claims.

Islam also teaches about resurrection but they specifically believe in the resurrection of the body as well as the soul for they will not tolerate cremation for then there would be no body for the soul to be raised into and that it takes place on the last day when the angels blow the last trump and again all souls will be judged worthy of paradise or hell.

In Hinduism and Buddhism, reincarnation, the literal rebirth of the soul into a new body, takes place after every death, but in Christianity and Islam the resurrection, or raising of the soul from the dead, occurs either upon death or after a period of time ending in the Last Judgment when all souls will be judged and history will come to an end.

Another major difference between the two doctrines of resurrection and reincarnation is in terms of memory. The soul that is reborn in a new body in Hinduism has usually no memories of any previous lives whereas in Christianity it is argued that memory is essential to identity and therefore remembrance of our life is essential to the resurrected soul.


(b) Consider critically arguments for and against life after death [10]

There are many problems with believing in life after death – not least the fact that there is no proof. Even with the multitude of near death experiences, or so-called regression experiences the over riding problem is that of verification. As Hume might have said ‘there just aren’t enough witnesses’ and ‘testimony isn’t proof.

In Christianity, Islam and even Judaism it is a future hope. The doctrine came about originally during the exilic period in Jewish history and was refined over the next few centuries. But even in Jesus’ time one of the ruling groups of the Jewish priesthood, the Sadducees, did not believe in resurrection. However the only actual example of resurrection is Jesus’ own and faith in it is at the core of the Christian faith.

One general problem with belief in life after death is that some philosophers like Bertrand Russell would argue that the hope of a better life in heaven relieves humans of responsibility for what happens here on earth and encourages a fatalist mentality.

In general though most religions would argue that to only have one life is unfair in so many ways. Eastern religions get around this by believing that we have many lives and therefore opportunities to grow and become more spiritual; become better souls. Irenaeus believed that it was this world that was a ‘vale of soul making’ and that the purpose of suffering in this life was to grow better souls.

This of course assumes that belief in the existence of a soul is correct. David Hume the famous atheist thought otherwise; he said we are ‘nought but a bundle of changing perceptions‘ and Gilbert Ryle thought the soul was the ‘ghost in the machine.’ Richard Dawkins, the modern atheist, rejects its existence outright; since we are merely the product of endless aeons of random changes and mutations through survival of the fittest we are no different from the animals he suggests; cannot be a soul for that would imply a creator and souls have no place in the Darwinian scheme of things. In more recent biology there is even a suggestion that our so-called experiences are no more than excitation of c-fibres in the brain, merely a neurological response to external stimuli.

An additional problem is exactly what is meant by the soul and what does or even could live on after death? Since it is scientifically proven that the brain dies, what could live on? Is identity bound up with the brain? Memory would seem to be since it is damaged if the brain is? This is where religious language could help inform the debate if we accept that in religion many terms are unclear and may be ambiguous (because we are discussing things which few of us have experienced and the rest of us have to take on faith) and that we need to play this game by rules other than those of the concrete ones of science. Certainly Wittgenstein‘s Realists would argue that if there is an external reality of a life after death then it needs describing.

Certainly the difficulty of defining the idea of soul along with the impossibility of proving the concrete existence of it does seem to lend weight to the atheistic camp.

Another argument against the existence of life after death is the very fact that a person’s own cultural background makes them more likely to believe one view than another i.e. someone brought up in the West is generally much more likely to believe in resurrection than in reincarnation so these concepts would seem to live up the cultural ‘meme‘ idea.

On the other hand so many find it hard to believe as Russell said, that ‘this is all there is’ so that if there is a god it would seem completely illogical that death is the end; what would be the purpose of creation if it were?


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