How Many Chances?
“If life had a second edition, how I would correct the proofs.”
These are the words of John Clare, a poet who lived and wrote in the first half of the 19th century. It’s an interesting question, and one that bears consideration, especially because of the many ways different religions look at life and death.
Between 2600 BCE and 1530 CE Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism developed in the Indian subcontinent. There are many beliefs that are individual to each religion, but they have at least one in common: they all believe in reincarnation. Although each one has a different take on the process, the basic idea is the same: how you live this life determines your next life. If you have lived a good life, you will return at a higher level of existence. If you’ve been a bad person, you will not fare well when you begin your next life. How many chances do you get to reach perfection? As many as you need. Each religion posits a different “final destination,” but the common belief is that everyone will reach that destination, no matter how long it takes. If you remember the movie, “Groundhog Day,” with Bill Murray, you’ll have a pretty good secular idea of how this works.
Those of us who have been brought up in the Judeo/Christian/Islamic tradition have been taught a very different theology. Every person gets one chance to live a good life. Those who do will have a reward in the age to come. Those who choose the path of evil will have quite a different afterlife. This is what the writer of Hebrews puts forward in today’s reading: “And just as it is appointed for [a person] to die once, and after that the judgment…”
The author is making a statement about the death, resurrection and return of Jesus Christ. Just as humans die once, so Jesus offered himself as the perfect sacrifice once, ending the need for animal sacrifices, which must be repeated year after year. The line about humans dying once and then facing judgment sets up the comparison with Jesus’ sacrifice. Still, it makes the point that we have one chance to get things right, one attempt at leading a life good enough to earn an eternal reward.
Which view is correct? We are tempted to say, “The one with which we have been raised.” But if we’re completely honest, we don’t know for sure. No one has come back from the other side to reveal what will happen to us. Christians live in the sure and certain hope that if we are reconciled to God through the saving act of Jesus Christ we will live eternally with God. I would have a difficult time arguing against that hope. I’m comfortable believing that I will earn my reward at the end of this life if I have led the life God has called me to. Still, it’s tempting to leave the door open to different ways of looking at life.
And what if they’re both true? I know, that’s an even more difficult position than believing solely in reincarnation. But what if God has created many paths to glory? I’m not completely comfortable with that concept, but I’m also not comfortable with setting limits on God. Whatever God wants to do, God has the power to do, and we know that God’s ways and thoughts are so far above ours that we can never fully understand them.
Having said all that, I’m staying where I am, comfortable and confident in my belief, but not willing to limit God by saying that any other belief is impossible.
But John Clare raises an interesting question. What if we had a second chance—even just one instead of the unlimited number offered by the Indian religions? What changes would we make? How would we “correct the proofs,” or edit the copy? Perhaps we’d better make those changes now—just in case.