The other day I went on the Web and learned something about myself that I’d never known before: I was Aristotle in a previous life. At least that’s what the game I encountered told me. Of course, being Aristotle is a lot better than the fate of Dr. Paul DeBell, who claims that, as a caveman in an earlier incarnation, he was “going along, going along, going along, and I got eaten.”
Reincarnation is a very old belief. It’s an idea with roots in ancient Asian religions, especially Hinduism and Buddhism. Its current adherents in Europe and the Americas include not only Dr. DeBell but some celebrities as well, such as actress Julia Roberts. Her niece, actress Emma Roberts, claims to be the reincarnation of actress Carole Lombard. The entertainment industry seems enamored with this idea. More than 50 celebrities, including such notables as Richard Gere, Jennifer Aniston, and basketball coach Phil Jackson consider themselves to be Buddhists. A Thai film titled Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives won the Palme d’Or at the famous 2010 Cannes Film Festival.
And it’s not just the entertainment industry or a few members of the cultural elite that are enamored with the idea of reincarnation. A recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life indicates that, far from being rare, nearly one in four Americans believes in reincarnation. This partly reflects the growing dissatisfaction in the West with traditional Christianity and Judaism, as reflected in the rise of the “Nones”—those who claim no religious affiliation.
Whatever the reason, it’s clear that more and more Westerners are finding the idea of reincarnation—of coming back from a previous life—attractive. It appeals to our desire to get another chance, to the idea that this life is not all there is, that no bad thing is final, and that we can start all over again with a clean slate. As Stephen Prothero, an author and Boston University professor of religion, has quipped, “Reincarnation means never having to say you’re dead.”
The popular idea of reincarnation consists of a sort of romantic notion of living out multiple roles in previous lives. For example, Dr. DeBell “believes he is an eternal soul who also inhabited the body of a Tibetan monk,” and in another life he was “a conscientious German who refused to betray his Jewish neighbors in the Holocaust.”
Or take Peter Bostock, of Winnipeg, Canada, who believes that in a previous life he managed a large estate in England and “thinks he was in love with the soul of his current wife, Jo-Anne, . . . [who at the time was] embodied as a cook in the estate’s kitchen. [But] married to someone else, Mr. Bostock could not act on his feelings.”
Where it began
But when we study the origins of reincarnation in Eastern religions, notably Hinduism and Buddhism, we find something very different. One of the fundamental teachings of reincarnation is karma, a word that means action, work, or deed. That is, what you did or failed to do in this life determines the conditions of your next life. Bad karma in this life means that, while you do get another start, you do not get that start with a clean slate. You must pay in the next life for every wrong thing you did in this life.
Just think for a moment of every cruel, unkind, thoughtless, selfish act you have committed in this life, from your earliest moments until now. Every one of those would be totaled up in the balance sheet called karma, and when you are reborn, you will bear all the baggage—good or bad—from your most recent past life. That’s the very opposite of a “clean slate.”
It should not surprise us, then, to realize that for those who believe in reincarnation, life is equated with pain. This perspective turns life into a punishment, not a reward, something to be escaped, not embraced. Buddha himself said, “To live in the consciousness of the inevitability of suffering, of becoming enfeebled, of old age and of death, is impossible—we must free ourselves from life, from all possible life.”
So, contrary to the romantic notions we Westerners may have about reincarnation, in practice it isn’t so attractive. For those who have believed it the longest, it presents a grim picture indeed. It is this religious background that produced the saying, “The wheel of justice grinds slow, but it grinds exceeding fine.” In other words, “It may take a while, even into the next life, but you will pay for every tiny wrong you’ve committed.” I don’t know about you, but that seems pretty grim to me.
The more I examine the idea of reincarnation, the more I cherish Christianity. Why?
Karma or the Cross?
Whereas karma and making my own atonement for every mistake I ever made is a central feature of reincarnation, the Cross occupies center stage in Christianity. Jesus, God incarnate, no less, takes all our wrong deeds upon Himself. We are saved, not by paying in the next life for each sin committed in this life, but rather by accepting Christ’s suffering and death on our behalf. We can enjoy our next life free of condemnation for all the sins committed in this life. We are saved by grace, by having Christ’s perfect life attributed to us, rather than having to endlessly fail in our own efforts at perfection. Instead of being reborn as someone—or something—else, as in reincarnation, we are “born again” (John 3:3) to “a new life” now (Romans 6:4). The gift of God is eternal life (verse 23), not eternal suffering.
As these contrasts pile up, we become aware that reincarnation requires a total inversion of our ideas of life and death. Either life is a marvelous and delightful gift of God, or it’s retribution for all our past wrongdoings. Death is either the wages of sin (Romans 6:23), the last enemy (1 Corinthians 15:26), the destroyer, or it an escape from the pain of living. And if death is the wages of sin, Jesus already paid up, and therefore He has conquered death for all those who believe in Him.
Reincarnation vs. Resurrection
Thus, it becomes clear that reincarnation is a poor counterfeit of the resurrection that will take place at Jesus’ second coming. He will return to put an end to sin and death.
The Bible tells us that in the resurrection the righteous will rise, not as someone else, but as our true selves, for we shall know even as we are known (1 Corinthians 13:12). We shall rise, not to face death yet again, but to a perfect eternal life. And that life won’t be filled with pain, for God “will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4).
Exactly what resurrection life will be like, the Bible doesn’t say. Perhaps we will be able to walk on water, as Jesus did. “What we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).
Reincarnation and resurrection confront us with two paradoxes and one dramatic choice. Reincarnation centers on continual rebirth, with the goal of reaching a state in which your soul is merged into the supreme spirit. Resurrection, being based on Christianity, centers on the once-for-all death and resurrection of Jesus, and its goal is to end death altogether. Buddha came to show the way of enlightenment so that we might free ourselves from life. Jesus came so that we “may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10).
According to Gautama Buddha, reincarnation means that there is now no more coming to be. By contrast, Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25, 26).
The choice is either to seek resurrection and live life to the full or to believe that you will be reincarnated and eventually escape life altogether. That choice occurs in a myriad of ways throughout the ages. As Moses said to the children of Israel, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live” (Deuteronomy 30:19).