Every time Christians recite the Apostles’ Creed, they affirm their belief in what will happen to them after death: “’I believe in the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.”
The belief in the resurrection of one’s physical body at the end of time is central to Christian theology, and finds its basis in the resurrection of Christ, who rose in body and soul three days after his passion and death.
But according to a 2018 Pew survey, 29 percent of Christians in the US hold the New Age belief of reincarnation – the belief that when one’s body dies, one’s soul lives on in a new and different body, unrelated to the first.
The percentage of Catholics in the U.S. who said they believe in reincarnation was even higher – 36 percent; just shy of the 38 percent of religiously unaffiliated people who said they believe the same.
However, according to Catholic teaching, belief in anything other than the resurrection of the body is completely incompatible with a Christian theology and anthropology of the human person.
Where did the belief in resurrection come from?
Even before Christ, the belief that the body would rise at the end of time was becoming a more common, though not universally held, belief among certain groups of Jews, such as the Pharisees.
The Sadducees, for example, “were dubious about the authority to be given to the Prophets and other writings…(which included) skepticism about spiritual realities like the soul or even angels,” said Joel Barstad, who serves as Academic Dean and associate professor of theology at Saint John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, Colorado.
“From New Testament evidence it would seem they were particularly hostile to the idea of a future resurrection of the dead,” he told CNA.
“The Pharisees on the other hand believed in angels and spiritual souls and the general resurrection of the dead,” he said.
As they became more convinced of the “radical faithfulness of God,” he noted, belief in bodily resurrection took root, paving the way for the acceptance of the resurrection of Christ.
“The resurrection of Jesus from the dead confirmed that belief, but it also gave it a deep and solid foundation,” he said.
What does belief in resurrection mean for Christians?
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “The ‘resurrection of the flesh’ (the literal formulation of the Apostles’ Creed) means not only that the immortal soul will live on after death, but that even our ‘mortal body’ will come to life again. Belief in the resurrection of the dead has been an essential element of the Christian faith from its beginnings. ‘The confidence of Christians is the resurrection of the dead; believing this we live.’ How can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain…. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.”
The Christian confidence in bodily resurrection comes from Christ himself, and the New Testament promise that salvation comes through follow Christ in everything, including his death and resurrection, Michael Root, a professor of Systematic Theology at The Catholic University of America, told CNA.
“Salvation is unity with Christ, Christ brings the kingdom of God, and that kingdom is realized in the resurrection,” Root said.
There is a great deal of “fuzziness of thinking” regarding death that many Christians hold besides reincarnation, Barstad added, such as believing that after death one dies and goes to heaven and stays there forever, rather than joining with their resurrected body at the end of time.
“The vague notion that something called a soul or a spirit or a shade lingers after death in some kind of place or condition where it can be more or less happy is not Christian,” Barstad said. “A human soul without a body is a tragedy. Think about what a body is to the soul. It is the instrument, the nexus, the node, the vessel through which, by which, in which a soul establishes and sustains contact with reality,” he added.
A body, he said, has concretely experienced everything that a soul has gone through in its lifetime. It is the actual mode through which the soul has related to others. It makes that person who they are – the father of a particular son, or the daughter of a particular mother, the wife of a particular husband, or the friend of a particular person.
“A soul stripped completely of its body is literally nobody. Who cares whether such a nobody lives forever! A Christian is someone who wants to be this somebody…now and after death and unto the ages of ages. But for that to be possible, I’ll need my body resurrected along with the bodies of everyone and everything I have a relationship with,” he said.
“I have to die completely and be dissolved back into the dust from which I came; and then I have to be put back together again in a new kind of life,” he said. “The trouble is I would cease to exist at the midpoint of this process. Someone else has to hold me in being as I pass over from death to new life. Only because Christ loves me am I held in being, not just my soul, the nobody, but the somebody I am because I have this body.”
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