So far in this series, I have said that the saints in heaven are holy, perfectly loving, omnipresent, omniscient, and eternal, and that they have superhuman powers. In short, they have merged with God and taken on divinity.
This presents an inevitable question: how do we get there? Given the fact that most people don’t reach this level of godhood before death, what happens to us after our bodies die?
The typical Protestant answer is simple: when people die, they either go directly into God’s presence for eternity (heaven), or they are eternally separated from God (hell).
In this view, the single criterion for heaven is faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior – a faith which must be formed here and now. It’s emphasized that there’s no chance for repentance after death, and since Jesus already died to take the penalty for our sins, further purification isn’t needed. In short, “the tree lies as it falls.”
(There are some Protestants who believe the wicked are annihilated, and some who believe all will be saved; but these are a fairly small minority).
The Roman Catholic view is a little more nuanced. The Catholic church teaches that some may go directly to heaven after death, and some may go directly to hell, but most people die in a middle state.
These people are safe in God’s grace, but not yet ready for the splendors of heaven. Thus, there’s a process of purification after death (commonly called purgatory), where they are made holy.
The Eastern Orthodox view is different from both the Protestants and Roman Catholics. The Orthodox say that everyone goes into God’s direct presence when they die; but not everyone experiences it the same way. Some experience this presence as a great joy, while others experience it as a torment.
What makes the difference, they say, is how we live our lives here and now. Those who make room for God in their hearts now will enjoy His presence even more after they die; but those who spend their whole lives resisting God will find this love to be more of a punishment than a reward.
I find myself most drawn to the Roman Catholic position. It seems pretty clear that most of us aren’t ready for full participation in divinity; but it would be extremely unjust for God to send us all to hell – especially if we have trusted in God as best we were able in this short life.
Thus it seems to me that some sort of post-mortem purification is necessary, if we are to experience the sort of divine life God is preparing us for. And while purgatory may not be mentioned directly in the Bible, neither is there anything in Scripture which rules it out.
If there is a purgatory, where is it? Personally, I don’t believe in disembodied spirits. It seems much more likely that those who die without reaching spiritual perfection are purified in another earthly lifetime.
While reincarnation has been considered a heresy for the overwhelming majority of Christian history, there are many who have believed it and continue to do so – including many people who identify as Christian.
The concept of reincarnation, as it’s commonly understood, has its roots in Hinduism. In Hindu theology (just as in Christianity), the goal of human life is reconciliation with God.
For Hindus, this happens through samsara, a cycle of rebirths where people learn the lessons they need in order to reach their full potential. Once all of the necessary lessons have been learned, a person merges with God and the cycle of samsara stops.
Whether the soul that merges with God takes a physical form, and whether it has any conscious awareness of self, isn’t exactly clear – and it probably varies from one Hindu sect to another.
For the most part, this theology rings true to my experience. I have had a lot of experiences that suggest I have lived other lives on this earth.
The first time I had a sexual experience with a woman, I had a strange sense of de ja vu. I remember saying to myself, “This is exactly the way it happened, isn’t it?”
While this experience evoked a sense of reincarnation, I quickly dismissed this possibility and didn’t consider it again for many years. As a Christian, I found this idea to be at odds with what I had read in the Bible – and with what Christians around me believed.
More recent experiences, however, have forced me to reconsider the possibility that the dead may be reincarnated.
The most compelling experience of this type happened in February of 2016, when Christina (my girlfriend in heaven, who passed in 2014) appeared to me in a vision. Why do you keep saying you can’t wait to see me in heaven? she asked. Don’t you know that you have already done this many times?
I have had many other dreams and visions of this type, and they all feature a scenario where I die, go into God’s direct presence, and then return to this world to live another life. It’s getting harder and harder for me to dismiss this recurring theme.
As a Christian, it’s important for me to consider the biblical witness on this topic; but it’s not quite as cut and dry as many seem to think.
Indeed, the Bible is a bit ambiguous when it comes to the subject of reincarnation.
In general, the Hebrew Scriptures are focused on this life. What happens after death is not a big concern in the Old Testament; and when it is mentioned, the voices seem to contradict each other.
Some (such as the book of Ecclesiastes) state quite clearly that there’s no life beyond death. Others (such as the 12th chapter of Daniel) speak of some sort of resurrection. And while reincarnation is never mentioned directly, there are passages that hint at it (such as the prophecy of Elijah’s return in Malachi 4:5-6).
While the New Testament writers are unified in speaking of a resurrection, the witness is once again mixed when it comes to a literal rebirth.
The book of Hebrews flatly denies the possibility of reincarnation, stating that “it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment” (Heb 9:27).
But the letter of James seems to imply something close to a cycle of rebirth when it says that the tongue “sets on fire the course of nature (literally, the “wheel of generation)” (James 3:6).
As for Jesus, His words can be read either way. His teaching that the resurrected dead do not marry (Matt 22:30, etc.) seems to indicate something very different than reincarnation.
But He also says that “Elijah is indeed coming and will restore all things; but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but they did to him whatever they pleased’…then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them about John the Baptist” (Matt 17:11-13).
This sounds very much like reincarnation to me – and I’m not the only one who has read these verses this way.
Personally, I believe the Hindu doctrine of samsara corresponds to what Catholics call purgatory. Those who aren’t perfectly purified when they die are reincarnated, as many times as necessary, until they reach the goal – at which point they enter into the state of divine life known as heaven.
Where I differ from many Hindus is my belief that those in heaven have an enduring consciousness – a continuing sense of themselves as distinct spiritual beings.
I also believe that the resurrected saints have physical bodies- though I have no idea what this might look like. (Indeed, how can a physical body be omnipresent? It’s a great mystery, for sure!)
If the dead have more than one chance to “get it together,” does this mean everyone eventually makes it? Is reconciliation with God (salvation) truly universal?
While I can’t answer this question definitively, I do have some insights that I think are worth sharing.
(Coming Next – When We All Get to Heaven, the Conclusion: The Time of Universal Restoration)