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Lee Strobel recently asked if he could interview me for a new book he is writing on heaven and hell. He wanted to talk about reincarnation, a subject I had written much about years ago in my treatment of the New Age movement. After revisiting this issue for the interview, I realized that reincarnation is back — in fact, it never went away. Since the idea of reincarnation contradicts the gospel of grace and the biblical view of the afterlife, I offer a short essay to equip Christians to wisely read the signs of the times and give a defense of the gospel.
For some, the idea of reincarnation offers comfort and guidance. A few years ago, an acquaintance of mine I’ll call Eve earnestly told me that my wife had chosen in a previous lifetime to suffer dementia in order to learn something. I explained to Eve that Becky and I did not believe in reincarnation, but in resurrection. I directed her to read Revelation chapters 21–22 for what we looked forward to as Christians. I read these passages on the New Heavens and New Earth to Becky many times as we faced her fatal illness and the divine wonder and love that lay beyond it — a world without the curse or tears.
A 2009 Pew study found that 22 percent of those identifying as Christians believed in reincarnation. 1 Eve was raised a Catholic, but her views are unorthodox. And her view on reincarnation, while popular in American circles, did not fit the Hindu and Buddhist religions where the doctrine originated. According to these religions, you do not choose your next lifetime. Karma determines it. That is, the combination of your good and bad actions produces good or bad results (or karma) in this and every lifetime — until you escape the cycle and dissolve into nirvana.
After eating in a restaurant in Boulder, Colorado, I found that they did not take credit cards. I had no cash. I was handed a “karma envelope” in which to pay my bill with a check when I got home. If you pay, it’s good karma. If you don’t, it’s bad karma. My first response was “I don’t believe in karma, but I fear God, so I will pay for my meal when I get home.” When I got home, I wrote a check for the bill and also included a short essay I wrote on why I believe in Jesus and not in karma. In Boulder — and elsewhere — you are also likely to see the bumper sticker, “My karma ran over your dogma.”
Is it mere dogma to oppose karma? Is reincarnation compatible with Christian teaching? The answers are no and no. Let’s see why.
Any religious belief may be held on the basis of blind faith, irrespective of any evidence or reasons for that belief. Such beliefs are often called dogmas (although that is not what the word originally meant). So, a Christian (or Muslim) may just deny the existence of karma and reincarnation because of their instinctive religious convictions. But more can be said, especially by the Christian, whose spiritual beliefs are rooted in the historical verity of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.
First, the very ideas of reincarnation and karma are logically troubling. In most eastern religions that teach these doctrines, the system of reward and punishment is evaluated and administered without a supernatural evaluator and administrator. Karma just happens. Put differently, karma is godless. But moral judgment and moral recompense on a universal scale can be carried out by only a personal agent of great knowledge and power. This concept is lacking in the earliest forms of both Hinduism and Buddhism, the very religions that many Americans appeal to for their beliefs in karma and reincarnation.
Second, many Americans come to their beliefs in karma and reincarnation through an appreciation of Buddhism. Buddhism teaches that humans do not have souls or enduring selves. We are collections of states that come apart at death and never reconfigure in the same way again. Given that view, there is no soul in existence from one lifetime to another. But just such an entity is required to accrue good and bad karma. If the “I” does not exist, then “I” cannot receive good or bad karma. Just as I cannot put on a coat if I don’t have a body, I cannot experience good or bad karma if I don’t exist at all.2
Third, given the problem just stated, karma and reincarnation do not provide a system of justice. As Mark Albrecht writes, “Each individual personality is supposedly responsible for his or her actions, but neither pays the penalty nor gets the reward, since the personality is extinguished. A totally different person is reborn, burdened with someone else’s karma. The questions remain. Does this make sense?”3 No, it does not make sense.
Fourth, the supposed positive evidence for reincarnation is lacking. Reports of memories of previous lifetimes gained from hypnotherapy are better explained by less speculative factors, such as suggestion and jumbled memories from the subject’s life. Even if John seems to have first-person knowledge of someone who existed before John was born, and that knowledge is accurate and has not been gained through natural means, that would not imply that reincarnation explains John’s knowledge of this fact. Other causes are more likely, especially given the philosophical problems with reincarnation that make it problematic before any supposed evidence is advanced.
Jesus Christ, however, is the simplest and most decisive refutation of karma and reincarnation. He did not teach these ideas, and He did not live out these ideas. Jesus, like the Hebrew prophets and teachers before Him, affirmed that people died once and were then judged by God. There would be a final reckoning made by God at the end of history regarding the eternal destiny of all people. As Jesus proclaimed:
Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life. Very truly I tell you, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. And he has given him authority to judge because he is the Son of Man.
Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out — those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned. By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but him who sent me. (John 5:24–30 NIV; see also Matt. 25:31–46; Dan. 12:2)
Against all evidence, some claim that Jesus did believe in reincarnation. The most common argument for this concerns Jesus’ healing of the man born blind (John 9). Jesus was asked why the man was blind. Was it because of his sin or the sin of his parents? Since the blind man was born with no sight, this means that he may have sinned in a previous lifetime; and it was this bad karma that made him blind.
To call this a stretch is like calling the mighty Golden Gate Bridge a short crossing over a tiny creek. This interpretation is an egregious error worthy of only the most inattentive (if not stupefied) reader. First, query about the cause of the man’s blindness comes from those who came to Jesus. It had nothing to do with Jesus’ own beliefs on the matter. Second, Jews in that day did not believe in reincarnation. The two dominant theological schools were those of the Pharisees (who believed in a general resurrection) and the Sadducees (who did not believe in an afterlife at all). Moreover, the Jews believed that someone could sin in his or her mother’s womb (see Ps. 51:5). Thus, the reference to the man’s sin has nothing to do with a previous lifetime and bad karma but with his own moral actions even as an unborn child. To put the reincarnation interpretation out of its noisy misery once and for all, all we need to do is listen to Jesus’ response.
Jesus’ questioners committed the “fallacy of the complex question.” They assumed something false and then asked a question based on this false assumption. Jesus, of course, was not fazed. He healed the man to demonstrate that he came to bring life, not be bothered by stupid questions.
The gospel refutes reincarnation, which is based on salvation by merit. Karma knows nothing of loving grace. Some teach that holy men can take on some of your bad karma, but this is a desperate and ad hoc adjustment to a heartless worldview. Jesus, the sacrificial Lamb of God, took away the sin of the world through His vicarious death on the cross in space–time history. We receive the benefits of His work for us by faith in Him — plus nothing. We must be born again — not born again and again. Take it from the Source of eternal life:
Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again….Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. (John 3:3, 14–18)
Reincarnation may be making a comeback, but we will not come back after our deaths for one more try at nirvana. Rather, today is the day to consider Christ, the only hope for reconciliation with God and eternal life in a purged and restored universe. And if you know Christ, today is the day to make Him known to others. As Hebrews warns:
So, as the Holy Spirit says:
“Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts
as you did in the rebellion,
during the time of testing in the wilderness.” (Heb. 3:7–8 NIV; see also Luke 12:16–20)
Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D., is Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary and the author of twelve books, including Unmasking the New Age (IVP, 1986), Confronting the New Age (IVP, 1988), Jesus in an Age of Controversy (Harvest House, 1996), and Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (InterVarsity Press, 2011).
“Too often in our contemporary culture, theologically informed beliefs are not considered a legitimate claim to knowledge.” — Frank Beckwith