Eastern Doctrine of Reincarnation
Many cultures throughout the world have long held to the concept of reincarnation. A recent Gallup Poll revealed that one in four Americans believed in reincarnation. Reincarnation literally means, “to come again in the flesh.” World religions author Geoffrey Parrinder defines reincarnation as, “the belief that the soul or some power passes after death into another body.”1
Reincarnation is a major facet of the eastern religions of Hinduism and Buddhism. Many sects have variant views of reincarnation. Here is a general summary of the basic principles. Most hold to a pantheistic view of God. Pantheism comes from the Greek pan meaning “all” and concept of theism meaning “God.” In Pantheism, God is an impersonal force made up of all things; the universe is God and God is the universe. All created beings are an extension of or an emanation from God.
Living things possess a physical body and an immaterial entity called the soul, life force, or Jiva. At death, the life force separates from the body and takes a new physical form. The law of karma determines what form the individual will take. This law teaches that one’s thoughts, words, and deeds have an ethical consequence fixing one’s lot in future existences.2 Our present state is the result of actions and intentions performed in a previous life. The amount of good or bad karma attained in our present life will determine if one returns in a higher or a lower form of existence.
One will endure hundreds, even millions of reincarnations, either evolving into a higher or lower form of life to work off the debt of karma. This cycle of reincarnation is called the law of samsara. Eventually one hopes to work off all bad karma and free oneself from the reincarnation cycle and attain unity with the divine. This freeing from the cycle of reincarnation is called moksha. The soul is viewed as imprisoned in a body and must be freed to attain unity with the divine.
Each school of thought varies in their teaching regarding how one attains ultimate deliverance from the reincarnation cycle. Most agree that it is only from the human form one can attain unity with the divine.
Deliverance from the bondage of the body can be attained through various means. Some schools teach that through enlightenment that comes from knowledge, meditation, and channeling, one can break the cycle. Other schools teach that deliverance comes through faith and service to a particular deity or manifestation of the divine. In return, the deity will aid you in your quest for moksha. Other schools teach that one can attain deliverance through discipline and good works. Much of the reincarnation teaching in the West is adapted from the teachings in the eastern religions. Is there evidence that proves reincarnation to be true? We will examine these next.
Evidences for Reincarnation
Leading reincarnation researcher Dr. Ian Stephenson, head of the department of Neurology and Psychiatry at the University of Virginia, believes there is compelling evidence for reincarnation. Proponents give five proofs: hypnotic regression, déjà vu, Xenoglossy, birthmarks, and the Bible. The first proof is hypnotic regression. Reincarnation proponents cite examples of individuals giving vivid and accurate descriptions of people, places, and events the individual could not have previously known.
Today there is a small branch of psychology that practices past life therapy, the belief that one’s present problems are the result of problems from a previous life.
However the accuracy of facts attained from hypnosis remains highly questionable. First, some people are known to have lied under hypnosis. Second, human memory is subject to distortions of all sorts. Third, under hypnosis a patient’s awareness of fantasy and reality is blurred. Dr. Kenneth Bowers, a psychologist at the University of Waterloo and Dr. Jan Dywane at McMaster University states: “…although hypnosis increases recall, it also increases errors. In their study, hypnotized subjects correctly recalled twice as many items as did unhypnotized members of a control group but also made three times as many mistakes. During hypnosis, you are creating memories.”3
Fourth, studies have shown that under hypnosis, patients are easily influenced by leading questions. In the process of hypnosis, the patient is asked to release control of their consciousness and body. Hans Holzer states, “Generally women are easier to hypnotize than men. But there are exceptions even among women, who may have difficulty letting go control over their bodies and personalities, something essential if genuine hypnosis is to take place.”4 In this state, memories can be altered by the cues from the hypnotist.
For these reasons, many law courts do not consider testimony under hypnosis reliable evidence. Past life recall can also be attributed to the influence of culture. Cultures heavily steeped in the doctrine of reincarnation create an environment conducive to past life recall. The countries of India, Sri Lanka, Burma, and Tibet have a very high number of cases. Many who make claims of past life recall win the respect of their society. In areas like these the culture can have a strong influence on one’s subconscious mind. If reincarnation is true, it should be prevalent in all cultures, not primarily in one area.
Finally, the majority of the incidents occur among children. Dr. Stephenson states, “Many of those claiming to have lived before are children. Often they are very emotional when they talk of the person they used to be, and they give minute details of the life they lived.”5 Children are the most susceptible to suggestion and their testimony should be looked at with caution.
At best, the evidence from hypnotic regression can only suggest a possibility of reincarnation, but it does not conclusively prove it.
Déjà vu refers to a distinct feeling that you have been to a place or performed an event before that is presently taking place. Reincarnation proponents attribute this to a previous life. However, researchers give alternate explanations. In our subconscious, we often relate a present event with a past one that the conscious mind does not remember. Since the two events are similar we often fuse the events together in our minds thus creating an impression that we have experienced this before. Other researchers have shown that the data that enters the eye is sometimes delayed for a microsecond on its way to the brain. This leads one to think that they have seen the data before.
Xenoglossy is the sudden ability to speak a language one has never learned. Reincarnation advocates attribute this as the language one spoke in a previous life. However, cryptoamnesia can account for this phenomenon. In cryptoamnesia, an individual forgets information that was learned earlier and recalls it at a later time, not knowing its source. It is possible that one can hear foreign terms through the media or as a child and recall these when prompted.
The third proof is the appearance of unique birthmarks that are similar to those possessed by a deceased individual. However, it is difficult to show any connection to reincarnation. Similarity does not prove sameness.
These alternative explanations can account for most of the so-called evidences for reincarnation. However where they fall short, we must entertain the possibility of demonic possession where a foreign spirit takes control of the person as demonstrated throughout the New Testament. Demonic spirits have existed for thousands of years and are not limited by time and space. The information they possess can be injected into a person’s mind during possession. Eastern meditation techniques allow for this possibility. Dr. Bro writes of Edgar Cayce, the father of the New Age movement, “Cayce’s power came without equipment, in quiet. He appeared to empty himself, to hollow out his consciousness as a receptacle, a conduit.”6
Even reincarnation advocates believe that many cases of past life recall can be attributed to demonic possession. They confess that it is difficult to determine whether a past life recall is the result of reincarnation or possession. William de Arteaga states, “In reference to the demonic counterfeit hypothesis, we can safely say that for many past life visions it is the most solidly verified hypothesis of all.”7
Edgar Cayce stated, “That’s what I always thought, and against this I put the idea that the Devil might be tempting me to do his work by operating through me when I was conceited enough to think God had given me special power. . . .”8
Although the evidence can be interpreted to support reincarnation, it cannot conclusively prove it. Biblical Evidence for Reincarnation Although reincarnation proponents cite the Bible as proof of their claim, the Bible refutes the idea. It teaches that we live once, die once, and then enter our eternal state. Hebrews 9:26b-27 states, “But now he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself. Just as man is destined to die once and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people. . . .” The focus here is on the sacrificial work of Christ. Instead of the continual animal sacrifices needed to atone for sins under the old covenant, under the new covenant Christ paid for sins once and for all.
In the same way as Christ, who appeared only once, man is destined to die once. Just as there is finality in Christ’s sacrifice, there is finality in man’s physical death. After that, the soul faces the judgment before God to determine one’s eternal destiny. Once judgment is delivered, Scripture gives no evidence that sins can be atoned for in another time of living on earth (Rev. 20:11-15; Luke 16:19-31; Matt. 25:31-46).
The passage often appealed to by those who support reincarnation is John 9:1-3, which states, “As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’” Reincarnation proponents claim that in this passage the disciples are attributing the man’s blindness as the result of bad karma from a previous existence.
However, Jewish theology attributed birth defects to two factors. Prenatal sin committed by the baby after conception, but before birth, or sin committed by the parents. Genesis 25:22, the struggle of Jacob and Esau in Rachel’s womb, was interpreted as a conflict that resulted from prenatal sin. Exodus 20:5 states that the parents’ sin often had repercussions on their offspring. However, in the passage in John 9:1-3, Jesus refutes any connection between the man’s defects and any previous sins thus putting an end to any concept of karma.
Another passage is Matthew 11 where Jesus states that John the Baptist is Elijah. Reincarnation proponents interpret John as being the reincarnated Elijah from the Old Testament. This cannot be true for the following reasons. First, in 2 Kings 2, Elijah never died, but was taken to heaven. In the reincarnation model one must die before one can take on a new form. Second, in Matthew 17 Elijah appears with Moses on the Mount of Transfiguration. John the Baptist had lived and died by this time. If he had been the reincarnation of Elijah, John would have appeared instead. John came not as the reincarnation of Elijah, but in a metaphorical sense as Elijah in that he was filled with the same spirit and power as Elijah. So the Bible does not affirm reincarnation.
Reincarnation and Resurrection
The Bible teaches that what happens after death is a resurrection not reincarnation. First Corinthians 15 is one of the clearest passages on what happens to the human soul after death. Like the reincarnation proponents, we agree that the immaterial component of man separates from the body at death and survives eternally. We both agree that the soul inhabits another bodily form. The major difference is this: reincarnation proponents believe that the soul inhabits many bodily forms in an evolutionary progress toward union with the divine. This can happen over millions of years or in a shorter period. The Bible teaches in Hebrews 9:26b-27, as previously discussed, that we live once, die once and then enter into an eternal state.
Our eternal state is described in 1 Corinthians 15. Verse 20 states, “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.” By “first fruits” Paul was drawing on the imagery found in the Old Testament. The first fruits were prior to the main harvest and served as an example and an assurance of the harvest that was coming. So Christ’s resurrection is a precursor and a guarantee of the believer’s resurrection. His resurrection greatly differs from the reincarnation model.
First, Christ’s resurrected body physically resembled His earthly body. It had physical properties displayed by the fact that He could be touched, He communicated, and He ate. His glorified body also possessed supernatural attributes. He was able to walk through walls, appear and disappear, and ascend to heaven.
Paul describes the glorified body as having a different kind of flesh from the earthly body. He states, “All flesh is not the same: Men have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another, fish another. There are also heavenly bodies and earthly bodies. . . .” The new body will be imperishable and immortal. It will be a spiritual body that is designed for life in heaven. The glorified body will not suffer the effects of sin or the effects of time, sickness, or pain.
The unrighteous, however, enter a state of eternal torment immediately after death. Luke 16:19-31demonstrates this point. In this example the unrighteous wealthy man enters hell immediately at death. In Matthew 25 the goats enter a state of eternal punishment with no hope of escape. In summary, these are the differences. First reincarnation teaches that the migration of the soul occurs over many lifetimes while resurrection occurs once. Second, reincarnation teaches we inhabit many different bodies while resurrection teaches we inhabit only one body on earth and a glorified immortal body in heaven that resembles our earthly one. Third, reincarnation teaches we are in an evolutionary progress to union with God while resurrection teaches we arrive at our ultimate state immediately at death. The Bible does not support reincarnation and it must not be confused with the doctrine of the resurrection, which is very different.
- Geoffrey Parrinder, Dictionary of Non-Christian Religions (Philadelphia; Westminister Press, 1971), 286.
- John Noss, Man’s Religions, New York: MacMillan Press, 1980, 90.
- Elizabeth Stark, “Hypnosis on Trial,” Psychology Today, February 1984, p. 35, as cited by Geisler and Amano, The Reincarnation Sensation, 67.
- Hans Holzer, Life Beyond, Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1994, 176.
- Dr. Ian Stephenson, quoted in Life Beyond by Hans Holzer, Chicago: Contemporary Press, 1994, 167.
- Harmon Bro, A Seer Out of Season: the Life of Edgar Cayce, (New York: New American Library, 1989), 13.
- William de Arteaga, Past Life Visions: A Christian Exploration (New York: Seabury, 1983), p. 174, as cited by Geisler and Amano in, The Reincarnation Sensation, 80.
- Thomas Sugue, The Story of Edgar Cayce: There is a River, (Virginia Beach: Association for Research and Enlightenment, 1973), 219, as cited by Geisler and Amano in The Reincarnation Sensation, 79.© 2000 Probe Ministries International.