In his book The Dust of Death, Christian thinker Os Guinness writes, “The East is still the East, but the West is no longer the West. Western answers no longer seem to fit the questions. With Christian culture disintegrating and humanism failing to provide an alternative, many are searching the ancient East.”1 Nearly forty years later, the penetration of Western culture with Eastern ideas has grown to the point where what was once considered foreign, strange, or—at the very least—at odds with established Western ideas and ideals is now largely mainstream.
Such is the case with reincarnation. Popularized in the 1980s by, among others, Shirley MacLaine and her best-selling books such as Out on a Limb, reincarnation is now a seemingly acceptable part of Western beliefs. Surveys indicate that about twenty-four percent of the U.S. population believes in reincarnation, with twenty-two percent of professing Christians stating that they, too, believe in the Eastern doctrine.2 What, exactly, is reincarnation? Is it at odds with Christianity? And how can we effectively dialogue with those who hold to it?
See You in Another Life. Reincarnation is the belief that the soul survives death and is reborn in another body, destined to repeat this cycle of death and rebirth until enlightenment is achieved. In the East, the doctrine is sometimes referred to as transmigration of the soul, wherein a soul may return to earth as any number of creatures such as an insect, mammal, person, and so on. The tendency in the West is to view reincarnation as dying and returning as another person. The belief itself is foundational to both Hinduism and Buddhism.
The system of reincarnation depends on belief in karma. Based on moral cause and effect, karma is essentially responsible for human fate. In relation to reincarnation, if in a past life one developed bad karma by committing, for instance, murder, then this bad karma must be balanced with good karma in a future life in order to make progress on the path to enlightenment or spiritual liberation. Within certain Hindu traditions that adhere to monistic pantheism (“all is one, all is divine”), such as Advaita Vedanta, enlightenment is attained when, following a series of reincarnations, a soul is ready to be released from the cycle of death and reincarnation (samsara) and be absorbed into the impersonal Brahman.
You Must Be Born Again? Is reincarnation at odds with Christianity? The answer is a resounding, “Yes!” Unfortunately, two key factors have contributed to misunderstandings when comparing Christianity and Eastern beliefs. First, a general societal and cultural upheaval has resulted in the decline of truth. Instead, relativism, often confused with tolerance, has given rise to the misguided position that incompatible beliefs are not really incompatible, but merely different facets of truth. Second, the disintegration of intellectualism within broad factions of Western Christianity has resulted in many Christians who do not know what they believe or why they believe it.
The answer to why Christianity and reincarnation are contradictory positions is bound up in a response that encompasses both facets of confusion. Antithesis or noncontradiction in logic informs us that A is not non-A. What this means is that when two beliefs hold opposing viewpoints, these viewpoints are not the same. Reincarnation is a system that offers self-centered (or samsara-centered) enlightenment, whereas Christianity offers Savior-centered salvation. Furthermore, within certain forms of reincarnation systems prominent in the West, individual souls work out their own spiritual liberation over the course of many lifetimes, finally being absorbed, impersonally, into a larger force. Christianity, however, is very much about the need for human redemption that is offered to us as a gift of God’s grace and is received only by faith in Christ, apart from any good works that we may do.
But doesn’t the Bible teach reincarnation? Not at all, though some have attempted to make it appear as though it does.
What, then, did Jesus mean when He said, “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3 ESV)? Taken within its proper immediate context, as well as within the broader context of Christian teachings, Jesus is speaking of a spiritual rebirth involving a personal transformation that is profound and all encompassing. Shifting our worldview focus from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light is a deep and, for many, challenging experience. Thus, Jesus likens it to being “born again.” Jesus, however, was a first-century Jewish teacher who held to essential Hebrew beliefs such as the reality of a single, personal creator God active in the world (theism). He also believed in the need for human repentance, not multiple lifetimes of self-advancement and ultimate absorption into an impersonal force. Reincarnation, as we have seen, is clearly at odds with Christ’s theistically grounded beliefs, entailing a broader system of belief that is, in short, completely foreign to Christianity.
Dialoguing with Reincarnationists. How can we effectively dialogue with reincarnationists? I’ll begin with a few general observations applicable not only to engaging those who hold to reincarnation, but also relevant to evangelism in general. Then I’ll offer specific suggestions. A word of caution is in order at this point: there is no single system or method of evangelism, or even a cluster of tips, that will suit every possible situation we may find ourselves in as Christians. This is why it is important to know what we believe, why we believe it, and to seek to develop the ability to think on our feet, so to speak, while also relying on the Holy Spirit’s guidance rather than our own abilities.
Don’t make assumptions. Often we will study a topic, gather information, memorize a few key aspects of a belief, then assume that someone we are interacting with who claims to hold to the belief must believe everything we have read or studied about the topic. Such is not often the case. Instead of making assumptions, ask the person what they believe, then adapt your dialogue to what you hear. Remember, they are the experts on what they believe, not you or even a book or article you have read on the topic. Sincerely seek to understand the viewpoint of the person you are interacting with. The goal is to arrive at truth, not to defeat them in personal verbal combat.
Offer positive reasons for your faith. Too often the Christian believes that simply offering arguments against an opposing position somehow automatically means that the Christian position is true. But it is far better to provide reasons for faith, including a personal testimony of faith, so long as it is integrated into a case for Christianity that offers more than personal experience as its foundation.
Always ask, “Why?” Once you have sought to understand what the reincarnationist holds to, always ask them why they hold to their position. The goal here is to find out why they believe what they believe. Once a better understanding is gained regarding the reasons underlying their belief in reincarnation, one can begin to probe and evaluate the specific reasons for belief that are offered. Be prepared to address anecdotal evidence and past-life recall claims, for instance.
Graciously point out inconsistencies in reincarnation. Note the word “graciously.” Our effectiveness in sharing the faith must also rely on our tone, not just our facts. An abrasive but true witness may yield some success, but graciousness combined with truth is always better to pursue. With that noted, there are several possible venues of interaction when it comes to pointing out inconsistencies with reincarnation. How is it that an impersonal system, in the case of Advaita Vedanta, has resulted in governing personal moral interactions? In other words, if reincarnation, in the end, leads to an absorption into something impersonal, how did such a personal system ever get started? Moreover, if after countless reincarnations we finally reach enlightenment, what is the lasting purpose of this spiritual liberation if we are then absorbed into an impersonal force? How did the system of reincarnation get started? If we presumably had a first life, was it tainted already? How so? If we don’t recall our past lives in our current life, what’s the point? Doesn’t all the spiritual progress we may have made in past lives seem empty if we can’t even remember what we did or did not do?
What about evil? Reincarnation does not offer satisfying explanations of the problem of evil and suffering. While reincarnationists are to be applauded for admitting the reality of evil and suffering, despite the fact that many Eastern beliefs often consider evil illusory, the reincarnationist view of evil and suffering lacks explanatory scope. Does it really make sense for a newborn baby, for instance, born with a severe sickness, to suffer at birth due to bad karma in a previous life that the infant cannot even recall?
Furthermore, the system of reincarnation makes it wrong to express compassion by helping others. If we help the suffering, we are working against their karmic progress. If we interfere and alleviate their suffering, we are hindering their progress on the path of enlightenment. If this morally twisted reasoning seems strange, it is only so because we view it with Western eyes. In the East, for instance, much human squalor and misery is the result of just such thinking, which is why it is often Christian missionaries who make tangible humanitarian contributions to alleviate suffering in such areas. It is Christian compassion, taught by Christ, that makes a real difference.
Hebrews 9:27 reads, “It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (ESV). One lifetime is more than enough to realize our own depravity and need for redemption that is not in us, but beyond us in the person of Christ.3
Robert Velarde is author of The Wisdom of Pixar (InterVarsity Press), Conversations with C. S. Lewis (InterVarsity Press), The Heart of Narnia (NavPress), and Examining Alternative Medicine (InterVarsity Press). He received his M.A. from Southern Evangelical Seminary.
“Too often in our contemporary culture, theologically informed beliefs are not considered a legitimate claim to knowledge.” — Frank Beckwith