Earlier this year, the NBC evening news presented a story about a boy from the Midwest who claims he is the reincarnation of a man who died more than 50 years ago. The presentation included an interview with Dr. Jim Tucker, associate professor of psychiatry and neurobehavioral sciences at the University of Virginia, who has studied the cases of children, usually between the ages of 2 and 6 years old, who say they remember a past life.
Two days later, I participated in an afternoon of dialogue sponsored by a group in Fairfax county, Virginia, called Interfaith Communities for Dialogue. The theme of the session was “What Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs Believe.” It included presentations by speakers from all three religions, followed by breakout discussion groups involving Jewish, Christian and Muslim participants as well. In my particular group, I could not but note how the topic of reincarnation dominated the conversation, serving as a microcosm of the larger picture in America today.
According to data released by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life (2009 survey), not only do a quarter of Americans believe in reincarnation, but 24 percent of American Christians expressed a belief in reincarnation. This represents a significant deviation from the traditional Judaeo-Christian narrative with which most Americans in the baby-boomer generation grew up. You were born. You lived. You died. And after a judgment you went to heaven or hell forever.
The word “reincarnation” derives from Latin and literally means “entering the flesh again.” The conviction is that an imperishable principle (soul) exists in every human being and comes back on this earth after death in a new form. The fate of every person in this life and in future lives is determined by the consequences of good or bad actions in the past or present (karma).
To be sure, we’re not dealing with a “nonsense” notion here. Nearly a billion Hindus have for thousands of years held a cyclical view of life. You are born. You live. You die. And because nobody’s perfect, your soul is born again and will continue to be born again until the negative karmic imprints on your soul from bad thoughts, words or deeds have been expunged. Behind the doctrine of reincarnation lies the search for a meaningful moral, just world order.
Since Buddhism does not posit an imperishable soul, it does not espouse reincarnation as such, but rather the transfer at death of karmic energy from one form to another. While Christianity’s understanding differs in a number of significant ways from that of Hinduism and Buddhism, what is common to all three is a recognition that liberation (salvation) is preceded by purification of some kind. Christians in the Catholic tradition have called it purgatory.
The Bible and Reincarnation
The Bible makes no mention of reincarnation, but there are several biblical passages that set forth how a necessary purification occurs and whether we are granted more than one lifetime. The Letter to the Colossians states the Christian understanding: “When you were dead in your trespasses . . . God made you alive together with him (Christ) when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross” (2:13, 14). And the Letter to the Hebrews responds to the question of “more than one lifetime?” in saying that it is “appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment” (9: 27).
If the record of all our trespasses has been erased, there is no need to come back again and again trying to expunge, by dint of our own striving, the negative imprints on that record. The central message of the gospel is that our fulfillment is not our doing or the result of our own efforts, but rather a gift of God’s grace. So neither one nor many lives can be adequate for reaching perfection. At the heart of Christian faith stands a Savior. “This saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance,” wrote the apostle Paul: “that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1: 15).
When Jesus is asked about the Galileans whose blood Pontius Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices, his response focuses squarely on the apparently popular belief that tragedy befell certain people as a deserved punishment for earlier misdeeds. He counsels them not to attribute their death to such, but to take these events as a sober warning to those alive to repent. Just as the presence of tragedy should not be read as guilt, neither should the absence of tragedy be read as a sign of innocence and approval, but as a gift of God’s mercy that allows more time to repent (Lk 13:1-5).
And in his lesson relative to the fig tree to which the owner had come looking for fruit and found none—“If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down”—the message is that we are all given a unique period of time and must maximize the use of that time for bearing fruit (Lk 13:6-9).
The writings of St. Paul make the frequent and insistent affirmation that we are justified not by our works and deeds, but through faith in Jesus (Rom. 3:20-28; Gal. 2:16). “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works….” (Eph. 2:8).
Not only are there some significant differences between Christian, Hindu and Buddhist perspectives regarding reincarnation and rebirth, there is also a notable difference between, say, the Hindu perspective of reincarnation and the one espoused by many contemporary Westerners in general. In Hinduism, for example, the cycle of rebirth is generally a fearful thing referred to as the “wheel of karma.” The wheel is tied to notions of guilt and punishment and evokes fright; it’s something people want to be liberated from as soon as possible.
But among North Americans and western Europeans, reincarnation is often given a very different spin: it represents new and positive opportunity. It’s not a burden but a comfort positively associated with new possibilities for self-fulfillment. Not surprisingly, perhaps, it is a reflection of our modern “buffet” approach to life—the more variety and diversity I can have, the tastier and more interesting this "meal" will be! So the prospect of being able to come back to the table of life without limit is a positive one.
Where Christians are concerned, what needs to be more clearly recognized is that there are several points where Christian faith clearly diverges from the theories of reincarnation.
Time and history. Some religions see time and history as ongoing cyclical return. The Bible’s approach to history is not cyclical, but linear; it has a distinct beginning and end, a consummation leading to something radically new, and God is the Creator and sovereign over time. Genesis tells of the beginning of time—the creation—and the book of Revelation tells of the end of time—the second coming of Christ and the last judgment. After that, what we have known as time yields to eternity.
The unity of body and soul. Christian hope in the after-life is not limited to the soul’s immortality but involves the entire person who is called to be with God as an embodied spirit. In other words, Christian faith sees the body as inseparable from the soul, whereas in reincarnation, it is the soul that repeatedly advances to a new body, offering no salvation to the old body and simply leaving it behind at each new reincarnation. Christian faith, however, speaks of “the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:23)—their liberation from their bondage to decay—and speaks of a “spirit-body” that is no longer restricted to an earthly mode of existence.
Grace vs. human effort. In their 1999 international Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, Catholics and Lutherans buried the hatchet on the controversy at the heart of the Reformation: How are we saved? By faith or by works? They agreed that our salvation is not our doing or the result of our own efforts, but is a gift of God’s grace. Life and communion with God is not to be seen as our achievement but as a free gift of God. Given that, neither one nor many lives can be adequate for final fulfillment. The bottom line is that all is grace.
The meaning of suffering. The Christian view of suffering is not to see it as a punishment for past failures or sins but as a test case for basic trust in God, who challenges us to make decisions based on hope and trust. This trust in a personal God of compassion and concern who is in solidarity with us is based on the experience of Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension to eternal life. Thus, our response to the experience of suffering is not marked by resignation or passivity (“Let it go; they’re just getting what they deserve”), but by engagement against the forces of poverty, violence and injustice. Mother Teresa’s response to the homeless sick and dying in India was markedly different than that of the general society.
The Resurrection of Jesus. In the ancient religions, there are many legends of gods and goddesses who die and rise. At the center of Christian faith, however, is an actual historical person who dies and rises in a glorified body, and who has the power to share this new risen life with others. In his resurrection, Christians see their own future foreshadowed.
What should be also observed about both reincarnation and bodily resurrection is that neither have scientifically undisputed, generally recognized data to back them up. Both are rooted in faith, “the acceptance of things unseen.”
When we interpret events that touch upon the afterlife, we do so with reference to a philosophical or religious understanding of human nature and of our origin and destiny. As the apostle John wrote, “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him” (1 Jn 3:2).
Many people in the Christian tradition who more or less accept reincarnation may never have really thought through its implications for other aspects of their faith. What should be recognized, however, is that one cannot claim to believe in reincarnation without compromising key tenets of Christian faith, most notably the atoning role of Jesus’ life and death, the critical role of grace and forgiveness, and the prospect of eternity with our present embodied spirits resurrected, transformed and glorified.