By Eric Stetson — April 16, 2020
There is a seeming paradox in the Christian Gospel as taught by the Apostle Paul, whose writings constitute the largest portion of the New Testament. On the one hand, Paul assured his readers that we will all be saved and become like Christ — this is our destiny, despite our sinful nature. On the other hand, Paul expressed concern that it is extremely difficult to attain salvation, wondering whether even he himself, despite his tremendous ministry work, would qualify for the resurrection to eternal life with Christ.
Either Paul’s faith was schizophrenic — which seems unlikely, given his success in evangelism and church planting — or else there must be a deeper meaning to the seemingly self-contradictory views that he expressed in his letters to the churches he founded.
Salvation: Universal or Exclusive?
Paul wrote that all humans, like our ancestor Adam, are fallen from perfection, but that all who look to Christ will be restored to glory, because the man Jesus has overcome sin and death for all of us through the crucifixion and resurrection. As Paul explains, “just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people.” (Rom. 5:18). “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. … And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man.” (1 Cor. 15:22,49). These verses are suggestive of universal salvation — or at least the legitimate hope thereof — and have often been used by Christians who take a liberal and expansive view of God’s grace toward imperfect human beings.
However, in other verses of his epistles, Paul seems wracked with doubt about whether anyone but the most incredibly saintly souls can be saved. Using the metaphor of Olympic athletes, he observes, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” (1 Cor. 9:24-27).
Paul worries about disqualification from salvation despite tremendous spiritual attainments: “Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” (vs. 1). Nevertheless, he says, “I cannot boast … Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! … Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many [souls] as possible.” (vss. 16,19). The Apostle Paul seems to be working very hard to try to win “the prize” of salvation, which he sees as the eternal life of the resurrection. If even a man of his caliber in the faith thinks he might not be saved, what hope is there for the average person?
On this theme of the incredible difficulty of attaining the fruits of redemption, Paul elaborates in another epistle, saying, “I want to know Christ — yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. … Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you.” (Phil. 3:10-15).
So, we are taught by Paul that we should be skeptical of whether we qualify for the resurrection into Christlike glory, and that God will make things clear to us if we find it hard to accept and understand. In light of the many other statements in Paul’s epistles and in other books of the New Testament that seem to teach the ultimate redemption of all people, there is certainly a need for clarification. How can it be true that we must struggle very hard for a “prize” of salvation that is very difficult to win — and also that “If you declare with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9), and that in the end, “every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Phil. 2:11), strongly implying that every human being will ultimately be saved? The two teachings seem to contradict each other.
When and How Salvation Happens
Christians have argued back and forth throughout history between a narrow and an expansive view of salvation. Some say that only a few people are saved, and some say that most people, or even everyone, will be saved. In fact, these ideas are not contradictory at all. There is a simple explanation that enables both of these teachings to be true. It is even found in the Bible.
A beginning of understanding can be found in the idea that the resurrection into Christlike glory comes at different times for different people. Although Paul says that “as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive,” he continues, saying, “But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes [again], those who belong to him. Then the end will come, …” and God will be “all in all.” (1 Cor. 15:22-24,28). In other words, Divinity will be fully manifested in everyone, but the restoration from the fallen Adam to the perfected humanity in the pattern of Christ does not happen all at once.
Whether there are three specific times when this deification of human beings occurs, or whether that is simply a metaphor for the idea that it happens in phases or ages of time, may be irrelevant to the point. What matters is that it happens for everyone, but for some people sooner than others. How soon it happens for any specific individual is based on their spiritual discipline and growth, much like athletes striving to win the prize.
This raises an important question: How can somebody pursue this spiritual athletic-type training after they are dead? If we know that God will ultimately be “all in all,” but that most people do not attain the fullness of redemption during their present life in the body, then in what gymnasium shall they continue to train until they finally hoist the cup of glory with the saints and with Christ?
It is possible that God may have many gymnasiums for our training, in various other worlds of the spirit. But it is also possible — perhaps even likely — that we must continue to train in the gymnasium in which we already find ourselves sweating and pressing towards the goal: that is, the gymnasium of planet Earth. In the same way as our spirits have found ourselves existing in particular bodies in this lifetime, we may find ourselves existing in other bodies — training on other pieces of exercise equipment, one might say — after the current life of an individual is over. If we do not attain perfection in Christ in this life, as Paul feared that not even he would be able to do, God may give us as many chances as we need in other lives to continue to build our muscles and endurance in a world of temptation and struggle, so that we may continue pressing onward toward the ultimate achievement of Divinity that Jesus Christ has already exemplified.
This idea would certainly clear up a lot of confusion about how “salvation” actually happens. It is both the faith in what Christ has done, and the work we do ourselves. We must continue the work until we are finished, even as Christ said on the cross, “It is accomplished.” (John 19:30). He had shown us the supreme example, proved to us that it is possible for a person to overcome sin completely, to surrender one’s ego unequivocally to the will of God, and thus to attain to the resurrection to divine immortality. But we are called not merely to believe it has happened, but to do the same. Few of us can reach that sublime state in one human lifetime, so we must try and try again, each time possessing greater spiritual strength from the lessons we have learned and the growth we have achieved previously.
This theory, which harmonizes the importance of faith and works, and the present reality of salvation of only a few and the ultimate salvation of the many, may seem alien to Christianity as most people have understood it. Reincarnation tends to be associated more with Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism. Could it really be compatible with the Christian Gospel?
In fact, there is evidence for the validity of this idea both in the Bible as well as in the teachings of some ancient church leaders, most notably the prominent third-century scholar and theologian Origen of Alexandria. Although reincarnation cannot be proved to be correct from these sources, its legitimacy as a Christian idea is implied as a plausible possibility — specifically, the idea that human spirits may return to this world in new human bodies, not as non-human animals.
Reincarnation in the Bible
In the time of Jesus, many Jews believed in some form of reincarnation. Since Judaism did not have a single uniform doctrine about the nature of the afterlife, and the Old Testament was vague on the subject, various ideas were proposed and considered. Some people thought that Jesus might be the return of Elijah, Jeremiah, or some other historical prophet (Mat. 16:14). Jesus’s own followers apparently believed that humans could live multiple lives. When they encountered a man who had been blind from birth, “[Jesus’s] disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’” (John 9:1-2). In this case, Jesus denied both explanations — but it is significant that the possibility of reincarnation was raised so casually. After all, the only way “this man” could have sinned before he was born is if he had lived a prior life, and this idea didn’t seem to strike anyone involved in the conversation as odd or incompatible with the Jewish religion.
Jesus’s flesh-and-blood brother James the Just, who became the leader of the Christian church of Jerusalem and one of the four greatest apostles after Jesus left this world, was evidently a believer in reincarnation, writing that the “course of nature” — literally the “wheel of birth” in the original Greek — is set spinning in a hellish direction by even relatively minor sins such as wrongful speech (Jas. 3:6). The Greek word he used for “wheel” also means a cycle of cause and effect; in other words, James is speaking of sin resulting in the consequence of being reborn again and again in human flesh. This verse in the Bible is strikingly similar to the karmic teachings of Eastern religious traditions.
Although Jesus taught that this was not the explanation for the man who was born blind, Jesus did seemingly affirm that a human spirit can return in the life of a new person. The Jewish prophet Malachi had written that God “will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.” (Mal. 4:5). Elijah was a prophet who had lived centuries earlier. When Jesus is asked about John the Baptist, a new prophet of his own generation, Jesus said that “if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who was to come. Whoever has ears, let them hear.” (Mat. 11:14-15).
Jesus identified John the Baptist as the return of Elijah, despite the fact that John the Baptist himself, when asked if he was Elijah, said “I am not.” (John 1:21). If John the Baptist were merely the symbolic return of Elijah, as most Christians today believe, then he would have had no reason to deny it, since his ministry did in fact fit the pattern and purpose of the prophesied return of Elijah. He must have understood the question in a more literal way, i.e. as reincarnation, and apparently he had no memories of a past life as Elijah, so he denied that he was him. This would be consistent with the fact that most people have no conscious memories of past lives.
The simplest and most logical way that Jesus’s affirmation and John the Baptist’s denial of his identity as the return of Elijah can be reconciled with each other is if Jesus, being the Christ, knew something about John the Baptist’s eternal spiritual identity that the man himself, in his physical mind, did not know — namely, that the same spirit which had once incarnated into the body of Elijah had returned in the body of John the Baptist. In this case, it seems that the return may not have been a consequence for sin, because Elijah was reportedly so holy that he was transfigured into spiritual form and taken up directly into heaven (2 Kings 2:11). John the Baptist’s appearance would therefore be similar to the Buddhist concept of a bodhisattva, an ascended master who comes down to Earth as an act of mercy and grace, to teach and inspire human beings who are still struggling to win the prize of salvation.
Similarly, Jesus himself came from heaven to earth, his spirit being born in a physical body, so that he could show his fellow human beings that the Adamic cycle of sin and the wheel of birth can be overcome, and that a glorious new destiny awaits us — as he demonstrated by heroically sacrificing his life on the cross and rising from the dead into a glorious and transcendent spiritual condition. It may be that Christ was the return of Adam — this is the implication of many passages of scripture. Adam was called the “son of God” (Luke 3:38), just as Jesus Christ claimed to be. The “first man, Adam,” fell into sin; the “last Adam,” Christ (1 Cor. 15:45), overcame it, defeated death, and ascended in glory. Both of them represent, and perhaps in some sense embody, all humanity. Christ says, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.” (Rev. 22:13). Adam was the Alpha; Jesus was the Omega.
The Human Spiritual Journey
In our own journey from Adam to Christ, we may have many stops along the way. It depends on our own actions. If we train vigorously in the gymnasium of the spirit we find here on Earth, taking up our cross daily with diligence and a spirit of self-sacrifice, then we can shorten the distance, as measured in time and human lives, between our own Adamic “first” state of sinfulness and immaturity and our Christed “last” state of Oneness with God. Attaining to the resurrection is stepping off the wheel of birth and stepping into our eternal identity as the mature children and heirs of God with Christ. As Paul wrote, “Now if we are children, then we are heirs — heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.” (Rom. 8:17).
How many of us share sufficiently in the sufferings of Christ in one human lifetime, so as to be worthy of attaining the glory of the resurrection? Perhaps, as Paul suspected, not many of us. But we must not despair, for God’s plan does not end with eternal loss for most human beings. Most people live lives in which they make at least some attempt to progress toward a spiritual goal — loving other people, seeking and serving God at least some of the time — and such exercise is rewarded. Our spiritual selves grow greater and more powerful with each trip to the metaphorical gymnasium. The muscles we build become stronger; our endurance becomes tougher and longer. But as any good personal trainer would tell us, hitting the gym for a short time at low intensity does not qualify anyone for the Olympics.
Paul taught that “the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved — even though only as one escaping through the flames.” (1 Cor. 3:13-15). Our physical bodies may die and we suffer loss, but our spiritual selves go on and continue to build and rebuild until finally the fire cannot touch us. Like Christ, in the end we defeat death and become fully divine.
When that day comes for each of us, our God in Heaven will say, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!” (Mat. 25:21). Then we shall be as “kings and priests” with Christ (Rev. 1:6) — for although we have descended into this death-filled world of Earth, we are called to ascend as eternal beings in Christ and “fill the whole universe” (Eph. 4:10).
Restoring the Fullness of the Gospel
The closing of the Christian mind to the idea of reincarnation has caused the Gospel to be warped in various ways throughout history. In the year 543, some three hundred years after Origen taught a version of the Gospel quite similar to that presented in this article, the Roman Emperor Justinian declared him to be a heretic and ordered his books to be burned. It was easier to control people if they believed they were saved or damned forever based on a single life — and since people knew that hardly anyone could become fully Christlike in just one lifetime, the church reduced the meaning of salvation to a lesser condition of simply avoiding hell and getting into heaven. Theology shifted away from the idea of human beings as the children of God who should grow to “become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the full stature of Christ” (Eph. 4:13), and instead the church began teaching that we are mere creatures who can never become divine.
The Catholic teaching of purgatory is a partial solution to the problem that so many verses in the New Testament imply that so few people are saved in the present life. Although a temporary hell might succeed in producing repentance in a sinner, only if that hell has earthlike characteristics could it offer the testing and experiential opportunities needed to become like Christ. Therefore, “purgatory” for human beings may simply be Earth itself, and we live as long as we need here — perhaps hundreds or even thousands of years, in a series of lives containing different tests and trials — until we are truly ready to graduate to eternal life in heaven. We cannot know for sure if this is true, but the idea does have a strong Christian pedigree in ancient times, and is not only compatible with the Bible, but can elegantly explain or harmonize otherwise conflicting or confusing Biblical verses and concepts.
Attempting to restore the Biblical Christian teaching that humans are children of God who can become fully divine like Christ, but without embracing the idea that we can have multiple lives in which to do so, has led to some bizarre consequences. Most notably, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches that the way to attain the Christlike state of exaltation is not by taking up our cross in the fullness of sainthood and proving that our spirits have actually reached this lofty level of development — a proof that hardly anyone could yet demonstrate — but rather by participating in a ceremony of eternal marriage to one’s spouse in an LDS temple.
As the process of the restoration of the original Christian Gospel continues in modern times, we should understand that there is a set of interlocking teachings that make sense in combination with each other, but which tend to reduce the Gospel to absurdity if even one of these teachings is removed. Reincarnation is a significant piece of the puzzle that should be rediscovered and considered with an open mind for the benefits it brings to the big picture of Christian theology and soteriology. Despite the qualms that some Christians have about this idea, I am confident that growing numbers will come to see it as an integral part of the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ.
- The Stages of Spiritual Growth: An Integral Christian View
- Divine Justice and Reform of Sinners: The Biblical and Philosophical Arguments for Restorationist Universalism
- The True Gospel Restored: Divine Humanity and God’s Plan of Universal Salvation
- The Body of Christ: A Universalist Perspective on Divine Manifestation and Human Destiny