American Orthodox Catholic Christianity

Faith Of Our Fathers Series

On Reincarnation

Among the occult ideas which are now being widely discussed and sometimes accepted by those who have "out-of-body" and "after-death'' experiences, and even by some scientists, is the idea of reincarnation: the1 the soul after death does not undergo the Particular Judgment and then dwell in heaven or hell awaiting the resurrection of the body and the Last Judgment, but (evidently after a longer or shorter stay on the "astral' plane") comes back to earth and occupies a new body, whether of a beast or of another man.

This idea was widespread in pagan antiquity in the West, before it was replaced by Christian ideas; but its spread today is largely owing to the influence of Hinduism and Buddhism, where it is commonly accepted. Today the idea is usually "humanized", in that people assume their "previous lives" were as men, whereas the more common idea both among Hindus and Buddhists and among ancient Greeks and Romans is that it is rather rare to achieve "incarnation" as a man, and that most of today's 'incarnations', are as beasts, insects, and even plants.

Those who believe in this idea say that it accounts for all of the many "injustices" of earthly life, as well as for seemingly unexplainable phobias: if one is born blind, or in conditions of poverty, it is as a just reward for one's actions in a "previous life" (or, as Hindus and Buddhists say, because of one's "bad karma"); if one is afraid of water, iris because one drowned in a !'previous existence.''

Believers in reincarnation do not have any very thorough philosophy of the origin and destination of the soul, nor any convincing proofs to support their theory; its main at. tractions are the superficial ones of seeming to provide "justice" on earth, of explaining some p s y c h i c mysteries, and of providing some semblance of "immortality" for those who do not accept this on Christian grounds.

On deeper reflection, however, the theory of reincarnation offers no real explanation of in justices at all: if one suffers in this life for sins and mistakes in another lifetime which one cannot remember, and for which (if one was "previously" a beast) one cannot even he held responsible, and if (according to Buddhist teaching) there is even no "self" that survives from one "incarnation" to the next, and ones past mistakes were literally someone else's--then there is no recognizable justice at all, but only a blind suffering of evils whose origin is not to be traced out. The Christian teaching of the fall of Adam, which is the origin of all the world's evils, offers a much better explanation of injustices in the world; and the Christian revelation of God's perfect justice in His judgment of men for eternal life in heaven or hell renders unnecessary and trivial the idea of attaining "justice" through successive "incarnations" in this world.

In recent decades the idea of reincarnation has achieved a remarkable popularity in the Western world, and there have been numerous cases suggesting the "remembrance" of "past lives"; many people also return from "out-of-body', experiences be1ieving that these experiences suggest or instill the idea · of reincarnation. What are we to think of these cases?

Very few of these cases, it should be  noted, offer “proof” that is any more than vaguely circumstantial, and could easily be the product of simple imagination: a child is born with a mark on his neck, and subsequently "remembers" that he was hanged as a horse thief in a "previous life"; a person fears heights, and then "remembers" that he died by falling in his "past" life ; and the like. The natural human tendency of fantasy renders such cases useless as "proof" of reincarnation.

In many cases, however, such "previous lives" have been discovered by a hypnotic technique known as "regressive hypnosis," which has in many cases given striking results in the recall of events long forgotten by the conscious mind, even as far back as infancy. The hypnotist brings a person "back" to infancy, and then asks: "What about before that?" Often, in such cases, a person will "remember" his "death" or even a whole different lifetime; what are we to think of such memories?

Well-trained hypnotists themselves will admit the pitfalls of "regressive hypnosis.,, Dr. Arthur C.: Hastings, a California specialist in the psychology of communication, notes that "the most obvious thing that happens under hypnosis is that the person is extremely compliant. if you ask them to go to a past life, and they don't have a past life, they will invent one for you!"*

But what of those cases, publicized widely of late, when there is "objective proof" of one's "previous life"--when a person "remembers" details of time and places he could not possibly have known by himself, and which can be checked by historical documents?

Such eases seem very convincing to those already inclined to believe in reincarnation; but this kind of "proof" is not different from the standard information provided by the "spirits" at séances (which can also be of a very striking kind), and there is no reason to suppose that the source is different. If the "spirits" at séances are quite clearly demons, then the information on one's "previous lives" can also be supplied by demons. The aim in both cases is the same: to confuse men with a dazzling display of seemingly "supernatural" knowledge, and thus to deceive them concerning the true nature of life after death and leave them spiritually unprepared for it.

The early Christian Church fought the idea of reincarnation, which entered the Christian world through Eastern teachings such as those of the Manicheans. Origen's false teaching of the "pre-existence of souls" was closely related to these teachings, and at the Fifth Ecumenical Council in Constantinople in 553 it was strongly condemned and its followers anathematized. Many individual Fathers of the Church wrote against it, notably St. Ambrose of Milan in the West (On Belief in the Resurrection, Book II), St. Gregory of Nyssa in .the East (On the Soul and the ,Resurrection), and others.

 For the present-day Orthodox Christian who is tempted by this idea, or who wonders about the supposed "proof" of it, it is perhaps sufficient to reflect on three basic Christian dogmas which conclusively refute the very possibility of reincarnation.

  1. The resurrection of the body. Christ rose from the dead in the very body which had died the death of all men, and became the first-fruits of all men, whose bodies will also be resurrected on the last day and rejoined to their souls in order to live eternally in heaven or hell, according to God's just judgment of their life on earth. This resurrected body, like that of Christ Himself, will be different from our earthly bodies in that it will be more refined and more like the angelic nature without which it could not dwell in the Heavenly Kingdom, where there is no death or corruption; but it will still be the same body, miraculously restored and made fit by God for eternal life, as Ezekiel saw in his vision of the "dry bones" (Ezek. 37:1-14). In heaven the redeemed will recognize each '. other. The body is thus an inalienable part of the whole person who will live forever, and the idea of many bodies belonging to the same person denies the very nature of the Heavenly Kingdom which God has prepared for those who love Him.

 2. Our redemption by Jesus Christ. God took flesh and through His life, suffering and death on the Cross redeemed us from the dominion of sin and death. Through His Church, we are saved and made fit for the Heavenly Kingdom, with no "penalty" to pay for our past transgressions. But according to the idea of reincarnation, if one is "saved" at all it is only after many lifetimes of working out the consequences of one's sins. This is the cold and dreary 1egalism of the pagan religions which was totally abolished by Christ's sacrifice on the Cross; the thief on His right hand received salvation in an instant through his faith in the Son of God, the "bad karma" of his evil deeds being obliterated by the grace of God.

3. The Judgment. It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment (Heb. 9:27). Human life is a single definite period of trial, after which there is no "second chance," but only God's judgment (which is both just and merciful) of a man according to the state of his soul when this life is finished.

In these three doctrines the Christian revelation is quite precise and definite, in contrast to the pagan religions which do not believe either in the resurrection or in redemption, and are vague about judgment and the future life. The one answer to all supposed experiences or remembrances of "previous lives" is precisely the clear-cut teaching of Christianity about the nature of human life and God's dealings with men. 

(From The Soul After Death, St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, Platina, CA, 1980)

Back To: Orthodox Catholic Communications Center