Question: What is the difference between reincarnation and the resurrection of the body?
— James Crowley, Metuchen, N.J.
Answer: The belief in reincarnation, which has only been held at various times by marginal Christian groups, is a major tenet of Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism. The variety of reincarnation theories is so great that one can only generalize about the matter in broad terms. Essentially, reincarnation is the belief that after death, a person may return in a new form of life, which may be plant, animal or human. This life cycle may occur numerous times until some sort of perfection is achieved.
This differs radically from the Christian belief in the resurrection of the body and that every person is unique and comes into existence at the moment of conception. We’re given only one life, and after we die we go to heaven, purgatory or hell. At death, there is separation of body and soul; the body decays but the soul lives on. At the great resurrection at the end of time, body and soul are reunited. In Christianity, there is no notion of returning to Earth in new forms of existence or of going through various cycles of life before achieving perfection.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states the Christian belief as follows: “Death is the end of man’s earthly pilgrimage, of the time of grace and mercy which God offers him so as to work out his earthly life in keeping with the divine plan, and to decide his ultimate destiny. When ‘the single course of our earthly life’ is completed, we shall not return to other earthly lives: ‘It is appointed for men to die once’ [Heb 9:27]. There is no ‘reincarnation’ after death” (No. 1013).
Surveys show that a significant percentage of American and Western European Christians believe in some form of reincarnation, but it’s difficult to see the theory’s attraction. The orthodox belief in life, death and resurrection underscores the uniqueness of each person, the crucial importance of the way we live our one life and the promise of eternal blessedness after death if we have lived faithfully. Coming back numerous times as a cat or a plant does not sound very attractive to me.
Catholicism and idolatry
Question: I was brought up in an evangelical Protestant church, and for most of my life I was taught that Catholics were guilty of praying to idols when they knelt before a statue of Jesus, Mary or the saints. As a Catholic, I know better, but I am still a little confused about the issue. Could you offer some clarification?
— Ken K., Buffalo, N.Y.
Answer: Idolatry is the worship of false gods. I don’t see how kneeling before statues of Jesus, Mary and the saints represents idolatry. Christians believe in them as authentic figures of faith; they are not false gods. Although a squeamishness about portraying Christ and the great figures of faith always has been a feature of some Christian groups, the majority of Christians see such portrayal as helpful to faith.
In kneeling before a statue of Jesus in adoration or before a statue of Mary or a saint in veneration, Christians know that Christ and the saints aren’t present in these figures; rather, the statues call to mind Christ and the saints, who are in heaven yet part of the living Church on earth. Catholics do not worship and venerate plaster and paint, but what they represent.
Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is a priest and theologian of the Diocese of Salt Lake City. Send your questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to firstname.lastname@example.org. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.