A friend I enjoyed for years, raised in the Presbyterian Church, strongly believed in reincarnation. Being surprised, I met him when he attended his mother’s funeral in the 1980’s which I conducted. Living in Florida and later in New York, he died two years ago. Not long before he died, knowing he was not well, he said, “I don’t worry much about dying because I’ve done it many times!” He strongly believed in the reincarnation of his soul. What about reincarnation? Is it true? Is there a purpose for it?
A Harris poll a few years ago showed that about 25% of Americans believe reincarnation is quite possible. In October of 2015, the Jesuit magazine called “The Jesuit Review,” also confirmed that 25% of Americans believe in reincarnation. Are there references to it in the Bible, which many Americans like have or even occasionally read?
Apparently, many felt Jesus was a reincarnation of an earlier prophet. In Matthew 17:1-13 Jesus asked, “Who do people say that I am?” Some said, ‘John the Baptist,’ and others say ‘Elijah,’ and still others say, ‘one of the prophets.’” Obviously, word had spread of Jesus being a reincarnation of an earlier prophet.
Another time Jesus assured his disciples John the Baptist was the reincarnation of the earlier prophet Elijah. “I tell you, Elijah has already come, (in John the Baptist) and they did not recognize him.” (Matthew 17:12)
In John 3, during a walk with Jesus, Nicodemus asked who Jesus was. Jesus answered, “Unless one be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus replied’ “How can one be born again unless he enters into his mother’s womb and be reborn?” Nicodemus apparently assumed rebirth into another life was normal, but Jesus wasn’t talking about that. He was talking about waking up to the God within us.
We also find support of the idea in the early church. Justin Martyr, living around 165 AD, taught reincarnation as true, stating Plato’s belief in the transmigration of souls into more than one body. The early church writer Origen, whom St. Jerome claimed to be the “greatest teacher of the Church after the apostles,” wrote, “The soul has neither beginning nor end. They come into this world strengthened by their victories and weakened by their defeats of previous lives.” (from De Principlis)
St. Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa in the 4thcentury wrote, “It is absolutely necessary that the soul should be healed and purified, and if this does not take place during its life on earth, it must be accomplished in future lives. The soul is immaterial and invisible in nature, and as one in time, puts off one body and exchanges it for a second.” Later, Augustine wrote, “The message of Plato now shines forth mainly in Plotinus, a Platonist so like his master that one world think Plato was born again in Plotinus.”
Why isn’t the subject discussed and accepted today in Christian Churches? Most likely because reincarnation beliefs were banned in 553 A.D. by the Emperor Justinian while Pope “Vigillus” was absent.
Belief in reincarnation is accepted in eastern religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism. The movie, “Kunlun,” outlines the amazing story of the present Buddhist leader, His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Discovering him at age two, they believed he was the reincarnation of the previous Dalai Lama. They brought him to the temple and soon he went into his old room and found his toys! His parents were moved with him to stay near the temple in Lhasa for a few years before he joined the temple group as their leader.
An America psychiatric doctor named Brian Weiss, learned to appreciate past lives in some of his clients. In his book, “Many Lives, Many Masters,” he described a woman who regularly suffered acute phobias. Under hypnosis, she spoke of former lives in 1473 and 1758, detailing graphic and terrifying experiences. According to Weiss, she soon found peace and lived a more balanced life after letting go these earlier memories. (Many Lives, Many Masters, 1988)
Another convincing book for me was written by Dr. Ian Stevenson called, Old Souls, Compelling Evidence from Children Who Remember Past Lives. Published in 2001, Dr. Stevenson worked over forty years at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. He studied over 2000 cases of children who gave credible evidence of former lives. As a scientist, he sought honesty in writing, “I don’t think there is any proof in science outside of mathematics. However, all of the cases we know now, at least for some, reincarnation is the best explanation we have been able to come up with. There is an impressive body of evidence, and I think it is getting stronger all the time. I think a rational person, if he wants, can believe in reincarnation on the basis of the evidence.”
How might this apply to our lives today? In Eastern religions, the idea connects with teachings about karma. “Karma” is a word which refers to experiences we have in life. Good deeds and being kind produce “good karma,” or a more positive and rewarding life than one with constant negativity. Some Christians strongly deny such a belief, labeling it heresy. Yet there is a growing interest in the subject. For myself, I never considered it for many years. During my visit to India, the idea arose through meeting people. I found it comforting as well as a challenge. A mean-spirited person reincarnates being treated mean and unfairly. What one sows in this life is reaped in the next. Biblical verses seem to teach likewise. Job 4:8, “As I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same.” In Proverbs we read, “Whoever diligently seeks good seeks favor, but evil comes to the one who searches for it. Those who trust in their riches will wither but the righteous will flourish like green leaves.” Psalm 7:16, “Their mischief returns upon their own heads, and on their own heads their violence descends.” 2 Corinthians 5:0-10 reads, “For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.”
The idea brings checks on our attitudes and actions. I want to sow seeds of compassion, acceptance, and love. It correlates to my belief in another life beyond the one we now live. Bodies are temporary. Only the soul or spirit is eternal. The soul is our inward observer. You may notice, we speak of ourselves in the 3rdperson. We say, “my eye, my face, body, gender, and race.” A wonderful teacher told me, “Discover who asks the questions and you will find your Self!” (Anthony de Mello, 1986)
“And I heard a voice from heaven saying, ‘Write this: Blessed are the dead who from now on die in the Lord.’ Yes, says the Spirit. ‘They will rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them.’” (Revelation 14:13 NRSV)