Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Some thoughts on reincarnation

Books on reincarnation cite a significant pedigree. And the idea has pervaded history, becoming increasingly prominent during the last few decades in the west. Hearing this and reading accounts of individuals who have remembered past lives can easily leave the Christian wondering whether there is truth here after all.

The following has been written for a church member I am seeing who has admitted she holds to reincarnation. A number of things can be said in response.

Problems with reincarnation
It does not resonate with what it means to be human.
Reincarnation affirms an impersonal end that neither corresponds with human nature or instinct. Although it is said that the individual’s soul-life reincarnates, they are not the same individual in the sense that we understand identity, not least, because they may have previously been an animal. Moreover, their destiny on reaching perfection is to be absorbed into an impersonal reality. This is a far cry from the Christian hope of resurrection in which the individual becomes more fully themselves, and lives in community in a perfected world. Whereas this resonates with who we are now and what our humanity cries out for in this life, reincarnation essentially denies this.

It does not resonate with our sense of justice and compassion.
Reincarnation can lead to a callousness over suffering, stating that its cause is the impersonal justice of karma and therefore it is deserved for one’s acts in a past life. Moreover, it implies differing degrees of humanity. Some who believe in reincarnation may act inconsistently here, and care for the suffering. Nevertheless, the caste system in India shows only too well where the logic of karma leads. By contrast, Jesus affirmed the dignity and equality of all human beings as made in God’s image, and the injustice of much suffering as we are sinned against.

It logically leads to despair.
Reincarnation offers little hope of deliverance from suffering as it anticipates a huge if not unending period of reincarnation before attaining perfection. One can only hope in the face of death, to be reincarnated in a better context. But there can be no guarantee of that, and one can be led to great fear over what one’s sins in this life might lead to in the next, and to deep despair in trying to do enough to ensure the much needed progression. Indeed, in not knowing what happened in one’s previous life, one cannot never know if they are doing better or worse. Essentially reincarnation is therefore a system where salvation is granted according to human works that our consciences tell us we will never manage to do. By contrast, Jesus spoke of salvation by grace, where simple but sincere belief and trust in his identity and work grants free forgiveness of sins and, with it, the certainty of eternal life with no return to this harsh world.

It potentially encourages evil.
Reincarnation encourages evil by removing any idea of personally giving account for one’s actions. The individual will rarely be aware in the next life of the previous one. And so they can be tempted to act as they wish, knowing that although karma may dispense some justice, they will never be conscious of it as the person they are now. This cannot be said of Christians who really believe there will be a judgment day in which all we have done will be revealed and called to account by a personal God.

Evidence against reincarnation
In some senses, all the above points stand against reincarnation in showing that it just doesn’t resonate with our instincts. However, our instincts are always an ambiguous and more debatable test of truth. More firm are the following two points.

It does not deliver what it promises.
Reincarnation assumes moral progress within humanity, yet this just isn’t seen. The idea of karma is that the experiences of the present life help us learn from the previous one and ‘work off’ the bad so that we progress towards perfection. Logically this should mean humanity gets better and better, and strikingly so, considering the billions of years life has existed. However one only needs consider the horror of the two world wars or the depravity found in any city to recognize that the evidence is strongly against such a claim. Indeed, the pockets of civilization that do seem more morally advanced are those with a Judao-Christian heritage. And where that is being eroded, a moral regression is being witnessed.

It contradicts God’s own teaching.
This must be the decider for the Christian. We have significant evidence that Jesus was God made man: The coherence of the Bible in predicting and pointing forward to him, Jesus’ wisdom, his character, his miracles and resurrection all combine to prove his claim. And as the Son of God who returned from death he is the only one fully qualified to teach on life, death and what lies beyond.

Those who propound reincarnation try to read it into the pages of the Bible and place it on the lips of Jesus. But any straightforward reading of the gospels recognizes that on almost every other page Jesus says something about a judgment day to come, followed by either hell or the kingdom of God in a perfect world. Moreover, he affirms not our need to better ourselves to attain salvation, but our need to come to him for forgiveness. Moral change is then to be motivated out of love for him, not a desire to receive a better incarnation.

By authorizing the Old Testament and the apostolic writings we have in the New Testament, Jesus also points us to the many ways they contradict and challenge the idea of reincarnation. As already mentioned, we might consider in particular the fact that as those in God’s image, human beings are created as set-apart from other animals. To suggest that the same soul might incarnate an animal in one life and a human being in the next is therefore to deny the distinctions of creation.

There is just no way then that someone who believes in reincarnation can affirm Jesus’ authority to teach us, nor say the Apostles’ Creed recited every week in church: “I believe…he will come to judge the living and the dead…I believe…in the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” To read reincarnation into these statements is to do some significant linguist gymnastics that does no justice to their original intent. The question arises therefore: Will we accept Jesus’ authority to teach us, or deny it for the sake of our own uncertain feelings or the teachings of mere humans?

The danger of reincarnation
This is now apparent. It keeps people from receiving God’s salvation. Jesus was adamant that this can only be received if we (1) recognize that we can never be good enough to deserve or earn it, (2) believe that God raised Jesus from the dead, proving him to be his Son and King who will one day judge us, (3) come to him for mercy and with a willingness to change our lives out of love for him.

By contrast, reincarnation requires us to deny a judgment day and with it the need of God’s forgiveness. It therefore requires us to look to what we can do to be saved, rather than to what Jesus has done. In short, it keeps us from God’s salvation.

But what of the experiences people have of past lives?
It is striking in reading accounts, how many have given them under the fairly strong leading of others who have ‘drawn out’ or even suggested the stories, whether in formal sessions of past life regression or informal comment on the experiences the individual is having. We should be very cautious indeed of this. Our dreams alone show how powerfully the mind can recall or even create ideas and situations on the basis of things we may not even remember seeing or hearing. Moreover, those who already have a leaning towards reincarnation can only too easily interpret a powerful sense or experience in those terms, when it could well be explained by other means.

As Christians, however, we must also acknowledge that although many stories of past lives may be explained purely at this level, demonic powers can also suggest all manner of ideas, particularly when an individual opens themselves to contact with spiritual beings as many within the New Age movement do. There is, in fact, a striking similarity between the accounts of physical manifestations that have taken place as people have recounted past lives, and the manifestations I have personally seen in the context of demon possession.

The way ahead
I hope it is clear that there can be no possibility of truly following Jesus and holding to reincarnation. In the end, the question comes down to one of trustworthiness. Will we accept that he is the Son of God and so the ultimate authority on issues of life, death and beyond? Or will we give our own experiences or the ideas of others this status? There is great temptation to choose the latter. But I hope the points above, and our own awareness of how uncertain our experiences and the ideas of others are, will keep us from it. As mentioned, the stakes are very high in this.