OK, Sue,” I said to the retired social worker with her wide, innocent blue eyes, “here’s your next Bible study guide. It’s about what happens after you die.”
She accepted the study guide but lowered her gaze. “Oh,” she said politely. “I believe in reincarnation.”
I blinked. “You do?”
“I really do. To me, reincarnation makes the most sense.”
Sue (which isn’t her real name) became a dear friend of my wife, Shelley, and mine many years ago as we led her through a series of Bible study guides. We met with her every Tuesday afternoon in her double-wide mobile home, and she told us her story. Sue had grown up as a foster child and had been bounced around among 17 separate families before she turned 19!
Later, as a single mom, she worked days while taking night classes, and after she graduated with a master’s degree in social work, she spent her entire career tenderly and fiercely advocating for foster kids just like she’d been. Along the way, she discarded Christianity and turned her mind toward Eastern religions and even the occult.
“Why,” I asked Sue, “do you believe in reincarnation?”
She smiled. “It’s very simple. I believe there is a heavenly Judge up there. I believe that He is fair. And during my career, I have seen so many children who have been treated abusively and unfairly from their birth. Therefore, the wise heavenly Judge is going to give them another chance to have a better life.”
what is reincarnation?
There’s more to Sue’s story, but first, let’s do a deep-dive into what reincarnation is and who believes in it. The dictionary defines it as “the rebirth of the soul in another human or nonhuman body.” To “incarnate” means to clothe “with bodily nature and form,” and to “reincarnate” means to do it again. And maybe again, and again, and again.
One of the most fascinating books in my personal library is How Different Religions View Death and Afterlife. It’s especially helpful for hospital chaplains as they comfort patients from many different faiths. In the main part of the book, scholars from various religious groups—Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Christian Scientists, and others—explain how they understand death and what happens afterward. For example, these experts answer questions such as, “Is there a hell, and if so, what will it be like, and who goes there?”
Two questions specifically ask, “Does your faith believe in a resurrection?” and “Does your faith believe in the concept of reincarnation?” Christians, Jews, and Muslims are in solid agreement that there is no such thing as reincarnation. God has given us one life to live on earth.
Mormons say, “No. [We] do, however, believe in a primordial existence during which we lived with our Heavenly Father. Man progresses eternally, and mortality is one phase in that progression.”
Hindus emphatically say, “Yes. Most Hindus accept the idea that each person has been and will be physically reborn many times during the course of a soul’s evolution.” Buddhists go startlingly further: “Yes. From the belief in beginningless reincarnation it follows that we have been in every possible relationship with everyone else.”
Sue may not have known about these lofty philosophies because her belief came simply from the idea that if God is fair, He owes all those defenseless kids another shot at happiness.
I’ll have more to say about Sue later, but first, let’s look at what the Bible says about life after death.
First, the Bible never mentions reincarnation. Even though Greek philosophers believed that the soul exists before birth and survives after death, the Jewish Old Testament and the Christian New Testament clearly teach the resurrection of the body, which eliminates the possibility of reincarnation. In other words, since my human body will be resurrected, that means I won’t be coming back as a moose or a cow or a bird.
Second, the Bible is crystal clear about what happens before, during, and after the resurrection. And Christ’s teachings never even hint at the idea of a “reboot”—starting over on this current earth and trying for a better life.
Furthermore, the Bible never says that the human soul is naturally immortal. Instead, the apostle Paul emphatically taught that immortality is given only at the resurrection and only to those who are saved. “Listen,” he insisted, “I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality” (1 Corinthians 15:51–53; emphasis added).
Did you see that? Paul said that before the resurrection, we are mortal. And notice that he said, “We will not all sleep.” Sleep is how both the Old and New Testaments describe death. That’s how Jesus described death. In John 11, as He prepared to travel to the home of Lazarus, who had just died, Jesus told His disciples, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up” (verse 11).
His disciples didn’t understand. They replied, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.” However, “Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep.
“So then he told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead’ ” (verses 12–14). To Jesus, death was a kind of sleep, nothing more.
Even Lazarus’s sister Martha was aware of a coming resurrection. As she sobbed out her grief before Jesus resurrected her brother, she said, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day” (verse 24).
So here’s the progression: before the resurrection, the dead are asleep; during the resurrection, the righteous will be given the gift of immortality. But what happens after the resurrection? What will this eternal, immortal body look like? Here are some Bible facts:
We’ll be with Jesus forever. “For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever” (1 Thessalonians 4:16, 17).
God will personally comfort us. “ ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.
“He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!’ ” (Revelation 21:4, 5).
Heaven will be unbelievably wonderful. “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads” (Revelation 22:1–4).
We will know each other in heaven. The thief dying on the cross beside Jesus gasped, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42), and Jesus promised that this penitent sinner would be with Him in paradise. Martha was confident that her brother Lazarus would “rise again in the resurrection at the last day” (John 11:24), and they would be reunited. After witnessing the amazing faith of a Roman centurion, Jesus said, “I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 8:11). So yes, of course, we will know each other in heaven—and we’ll get to meet all the faithful saints of human history!
back to the story of Sue
As I sat there in Sue’s living room, my head was spinning. I’d never met anyone who believed in reincarnation before. It made splendid sense to her, and I could see why. How can I help her understand? I asked myself. What will convince her?
Finally, I said, “Sue, I’ll do some study and get back to you about this. Maybe I could even write a little paper about it.”
“That would be fine,” she said, though I could tell that she was basically just being courteous.
Over the next few months, Shelley and I studied other Bible topics with her. More than once, she called Shelley, and they would drive out on adventures together.
Meanwhile, I made a few half-hearted attempts to burrow into the topic of reincarnation. I mulled over the verses I’ve listed in this article, asking myself if they would convince Sue. I knew that when our human minds grapple with really important issues such as death, we hunger for answers. Our minds weren’t designed to deal with death, even though it’s been happening for thousands of years. Yet, if we don’t have the truth about the afterlife, we’ll often desperately make something up, or we’ll accept a sensible-sounding idea somebody else has made up and believe that.
One Tuesday afternoon, as we finished another Bible topic with our friend, I apologized. “Sue,” I said sheepishly, “I’ve got a confession to make. Remember how I promised to write you up a little study on the topic of reincarnation?”
“Yes,” she said.
“I haven’t even started on it,” I told her. “But I’ll get to it sooner or later.”
Her blue eyes opened very wide. “Oh, you don’t have to do that,” she said.
I raised my eyebrows. “I don’t?”
“No,” she assured me. “I’ve been reading my Bible, and now I know that God has a better way. It’s called ‘resurrection.’ ”
Here’s what’s so interesting. As far as I can tell, Sue didn’t come to this conclusion mainly by reading the verses I’ve quoted to you. At least she never mentioned that they were the reason. No, I believe that as Sue read her Bible, her heart became so impressed with God and so in love with Him that she relaxed. Sue decided that she could trust Him with her future, even if it didn’t include a desperate cycle of trial and error —but peace.
Sue passed to her rest some time later, and Shelley and I took great comfort in knowing that she had become acquainted with her Heavenly Parent, who loved her foster children even more than she did!
Maylan Schurch is pastor of the Bellevue Seventh-day Adventist Church in Bellevue, Washington. He is a frequent contributor to Signs of the Times.®