Questions Answered

  • What is the teaching of the Church on the resurrection of the dead, and on reincarnation?
  • Some theologians maintain that Jesus went to Hell after his death as a sinner. Is that possible?

Question: What is the teaching of the Church on the resurrection of the dead? Can one reasonably believe in something like reincarnation?

Answer: The doctrine of the resurrection of the dead is the central mystery of the Christian religion. As St. Paul says: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” (1 Cor 15:17) The necessity of the resurrection is a truth taught by both reason and faith. The fact of its occurrence is, of course, a truth which can only be arrived at through faith.

The nature of the necessity of the resurrection, which can be known by reason alone, is a primary argument against any possibility of the truth of reincarnation. The problem of the mortality of the body was first broached by Plato. Plato discovered the fact that the soul has a spiritual act, intelligence. Once he discovered the spirit, the question was what to do with the body. For Plato, there was a spiritual part to the soul where the soul experienced knowledge of the spiritual forms.  The method by which this was accomplished was by denying the experience of the senses because matter was opaque. The body was thus treated as a prison, and he was of the opinion that the spiritual part of the soul existed in an ideal world before it fell into matter. It was in this ideal world that the soul knew the forms and, then, forgot them in matter. Knowledge was remembering, and the best way to do this was to deny the body, which was a prison, completely.  Resurrection of spirit was the only thing important to him.

Aristotle, however, corrected Plato, and said that the soul was a blank slate at birth; knowledge was not remembering, but abstraction through the senses. Though the soul can act in a way which transcends matter in this abstraction, Aristotle equivocates about the immortality of the soul. In one place, he says it is immortal, based on the act of the soul which is spiritual; but in another, he suggests that the soul could die with the body. The reason for this is that the soul is the form of the body, and each must go together. The soul perfectly expresses the material individual which is found in the body, and so the soul and the body are two essential principles which go to make up each human being. The soul is the “form” of the body.

The Church has accepted this explanation of the relationship of the soul to the body. “The unity of the soul and body is so profound that one has to consider the soul to be the ‘form’ of the body {Council of Vienne (1312) DS 902; Lateran V (1513): DS 1440}” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 365). Reincarnation could not be true, then, because the individual body is not interchangeable with the soul. Each body perfectly expresses each soul.

This creates a conundrum for reason. If the soul is immortal, and the soul and the body exist in complete unity of a single nature, then the body should not die. But it does. This leads to the box canyon of the problem of human destiny based on reason alone.

When Christ rises from the dead, he solves this dilemma. The soul is the form of the body, and God is the life of the soul. But the body can only live without the possibility of dying again by the grace and power of God. As was the case with the arguments from reason, the body which rises must have some part of the matter of the original body, even if it is only DNA which originally was in union with the soul. Christ demonstrated it was his body, and not that of another, by both eating a piece of fish, and inviting the Apostles to physically touch the marks of the wounds. Of course, it is in a different relationship to the soul than the body had in this world, but it is nonetheless the same body. So, reincarnation cannot be maintained from faith, any more than it can be maintained by reason.

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Question: I have heard recently that some theologians maintain that Jesus went to Hell after his death as a sinner. Is that possible?

Answer: This opinion is untenable for several reasons: first, because of the nature of the punishments Christ suffered for the atonement; and second, because of the nature of the harrowing of Hell in Catholic theology.

Traditional Catholic theologians have generally maintained that Christ fittingly assumed only those punishments in his atonement for sin which were non-moral. To assume other punishments would have compromised his perfect obedience on the cross, which was necessary to reverse the unloving disobedience of Adam. Moreover, these would only be those general sufferings which the whole human race experience. They would involve physical suffering and death. These would not be punishments for personal sin. Hell and Purgatory are connected to the punishments for individual personal sins. It is true that the gates of Heaven were closed with the act of original sin, but this was a loss of nature, not a personal loss. People who live now are not punished for the personal sin of Adam, whatever that may have been. The suffering and death they experience are punishments of nature, not of morals. Further, punishments like the loss of Heaven or the vision of God are reserved for their own personal sins.

In the harrowing of Hell, Christ goes to evangelize the whole of humanity, which has gone before him in his soul during the three days his soul was separated from his body in the tomb on earth.  This Hell is actually Sheol in Hebrew, or Hades in Greek, and simply refers to the abode of the dead, or those deprived of the vision of God. The Catechism explains it well: “Such is the case for all the dead, whether evil or righteous, while they await the redeemer: which does not mean that their lot is identical, as Jesus shows through the parable of the poor man Lazarus, who was received into Abraham’s bosom” (633).  Christ descends to the realm of the dead to preach there, and show those who have believed in him, whether Jew or pagan, that original sin has finally been resolved by him on the cross. The saints of the Old Testament are counted among these holy souls. He goes to take them with him to Heaven when he rises. It is not necessary in any sense for him to share the punishment of their nature by which they are deprived of the vision of God until the Messiah comes. This was the very difficulty Christ came to earth to cure. It is: “the spread of Christ’s redemptive work to all men of all times and all places, for all who are saved have been made sharers in the redemption” (CCC 634).  To suggest something else is to hold in question the fact that the death of Christ was the full completion of his redemption, in some sense. When Jesus entered this realm, it was so that he might be worshipped as God made man by these holy souls, and to fulfill what St. Paul maintains in the great hymn in Philippians: “at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow, in Heaven and on earth, and under the earth” (2:10).

There is a marvelous picture, attributed to Fra Angelico, of the harrowing of Hell, in which Christ, holding the banner of the resurrection, knocks down the stone, and all those who have believed in him are running over to greet him. Meanwhile, in a further dark room, Satan laments this coming. As the ancient homily from the Office of Readings on Holy Saturday says: “The earth trembled, and is still, because God has fallen asleep in the flesh, and has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh, and Hell trembles with fear. He has gone to search for our first parents, as for lost sheep.”

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avatar About Fr. Brian Mullady, OP

Fr. Brian T. Mullady, OP, entered the Dominican Order in 1966 and was ordained in 1972. He has been a parish priest, high school teacher, retreat master, mission preacher, and university professor. He has had seven series on EWTN and is the author of two books and numerous articles, including his regular column in HPR, "Questions Answered".

Please send your questions to:
Fr. Brian T. Mullady, O.P.
375 NE Clackamas St.
Portland, OR 97232

Comments

  1. avatar Ron Erken says:

    When it is usually said that Christ, in dying on the cross, took on to Himself all the sins of mankind, that apparently is very incorrect, per your article. As you state, Christ died obediently to reverse the disobedience of Adam, and not for moral transgressions of mankind. So, when it is said that Christ opened the gates to Heaven, that specifically refers to the sin of Adam. Right? Thank you.

  2. avatar Martin B. Drew says:

    Yes reincarnation is impossible and does not exist as Aristotle and the doctrine of the Church shows us. One body with one soul as regards the principles of individuation and contradiction expressed by St. Thomas Aquinas. Resurrection of Jesus is true and exists since man is created with the image and likeness of God and so man is infused with the life of God at Baptism. Reincarnation is a void of no being.

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