What does the Bible say about reincarnation?
The whole thrust of the Bible opposes reincarnation. It shows that man is the special creation of God, created in God’s image with both a material body and an immaterial soul and spirit. He is presented as distinct and unique from all other creatures—angels and the animal kingdom alike. The Bible teaches that at death, while man’s body is mortal, decays and returns to dust, his soul and spirit continue on either in a place of torments for those who reject Christ or in paradise (heaven) in God’s presence for those who have trusted in the Savior. Both categories of people will be resurrected, one to eternal judgment and the other to eternal life with a glorified body (John 5:25-29). The emphatic statement of the Bible, as will be pointed out below, is that “it is appointed unto men once to die and after that the judgment” (Heb. 9:27). This statement and the concept that mankind’s creation in God’s image is unique from the animals and even angels stand totally opposed to the idea of reincarnation—dying and coming back as another person or in the form of an animal or insect. The claim of some that they have information of past history is nothing more than some kind of encounter with demonic powers who have been present throughout history.
Below is information from A Handbook of Christian Apologetics by Peter Kareeft and Ronald Tacelli. (InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove).
Six Basic Theories
The human race has come up with six basic theories about what happens to us when we die.
1. Materialism: Nothing survives. Death ends all of me. Seldom held before the eighteenth century, materialism is now a strong minority view in industrialized nations. It is the natural accompaniment of atheism.
2. Paganism: A vague, shadowy semiself or ghost survives and goes to the place of the dead, the dark, gloomy Underworld. This is the standard pagan belief. Traces of it can be found even in the Old Testament Jewish notion of sheol. The “ghost” that survives is less alive, less substantial, less real than the flesh and blood organism now living. It is something like a “ghost image” on a TV set: a pale copy of the lost original.
3. Reincarnation: The individual soul survives and is reincarnated into another body. Reincarnation is usually connected with the next belief, pantheism, by the notion of karma: that after the soul has fulfilled its destiny, and learned its lessons and become sufficiently enlightened, it reverts to a divine status or is absorbed into (or realizes its timeless identity with) the divine All.
4. Pantheism: Death changes nothing, for what survives death is the same as what was real before death: only the one, changeless, eternal, perfect, spiritual, divine, all-inclusive Reality, sometimes called by a name (“Brahman”) and sometimes not (as in Buddhism). In this view—that of Eastern mysticism—all separateness, including time, is an illusion. Therefore, in this view, the very question of what happens after death is mistaken. The question is not solved but dissolved.
5. Immortality: The individual soul survives death, but not the body. This soul eventually reaches its eternal destiny of heaven or hell, perhaps through intermediate stages, perhaps through reincarnation. But what survives is an individual, bodiless spirit. This is Platonism, often confused with Christianity.
6. Resurrection: At death, the soul separates from the body and is reunited at the end of the world to its new, immortal, resurrected body by a divine miracle. This is the Christian view. This view, the supernatural resurrection of the body rather than the natural immortality of the soul alone, is the only version of life after death in Scripture. It is dimly prophesied and hoped for in the Old Testament, but clearly revealed in the New.
For both (5) and (6), the individual soul survives bodily death. That is the issue we shall argue here. We do not take the time to argue against paganism (2) or reincarnation (3) or pantheism (4) here, but only against modern materialism (1), since that is the source of most of the philosophical arguments against immortality in our culture.
Ten Refutations of Reincarnation
Christianity rejects reincarnation for ten reasons.
1. It is contradicted by Scripture (Heb 9:27).
2. It is contradicted by orthodox tradition in all churches.
3. It would reduce the Incarnation (referring to Christ’s incarnation) to a mere appearance, the crucifixion to an accident, and Christ to one among many philosophers or avatars. It would also confuse what Christ did with what creatures do: incarnation with reincarnation.
4. It implies that God made a mistake in designing our souls to live in bodies, that we are really pure spirits in prison or angels in costume.
5. It is contradicted by psychology and common sense, for its view of souls as imprisoned in alien bodies denies the natural psychosomatic unity.
6. It entails a very low view of the body, as a prison, a punishment.
7. It usually blames sin on the body and the body’s power to confuse and darken the mind. This is passing the buck from soul to body, as well as from will to mind, and a confusion of sin with ignorance.
8. The idea that we are reincarnated in order to learn lessons we failed to learn in a past earthly life is contrary to both common sense and basic educational psychology. I cannot learn something if there is no continuity of memory. I can learn from my mistakes only if I remember them. People do not usually remember these past “reincarnations.”
9. The supposed evidence for reincarnation, rememberings from past lives that come out under hypnosis or “past life regression” can be explained—if they truly occur at all—as mental telepathy from other living beings, from the souls of dead humans in purgatory or hell, or from demons. The real possibility of the latter should make us extremely skittish about opening our souls to “past life regressions.”
Please Note: While I would agree with the demonic aspect, I do not agree with the idea of purgatory nor can I agree with the idea of the souls of dead humans communicating with living people. The dead are confined, according to Scripture, and cannot reveal themselves. This is suggested in the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16 and by the extreme surprise of the witch of Endor when she saw Samuel who was dead (see 1 Sam. 28:8f). She claimed to be a medium or one who contacts the dead, but when Saul requested that she contact Samuel and when God brought him forth, it startled her and brought great fear. This appeared to be her first experience with the real thing, i.e., with seeing the dead because this is normally not possible. When people do experience such experiences or contact, what they are seeing or experiencing is better identified as demonic.
10. Reincarnation cannot account for itself. Why are our souls imprisoned in bodies? Is it the just punishment for evils we committed in past reincarnations? But why were those past reincarnations necessary? For the same reason. But the beginning of the process that justly imprisoned our souls in bodies in the first place—this must have antedated the series of bodies. How could we have committed evil in the state of perfect, pure, heavenly spirituality? Further, if we sinned in that paradise, it is not paradisical after all. Yet that is the state that reincarnation is supposed to lead us back to after all our embodied yearnings are over.
If the answer is given that our bodies are not penalties for sin but illusions of individuality, the pantheistic One becoming many in human consciousness, no reason can possibly be given for this. Indeed, Hinduism calls it simply lila, divine play. What a stupid game for God to play! If Oneness is perfection, why would perfection play the game of imperfection? All the world’s sins and sufferings are reduced to a meaningless, inexplicable game.
And if evil is itself only illusory (the answer given by many mystics) then the existence of this illusion is itself a real and not just illusory evil. Augustine makes this telling point.
Where then is evil, and what is its source, and how has it crept into the creation? What is its root, what is its seed? Can it be that it is wholly without being? But why should we fear and be on guard against what is not? Or if our fear of it is groundless, then our very fear is itself an evil thing. For by it the heart is driven and tormented for no cause; and that evil is all the worse, if there is nothing to fear yet we do fear. Thus either there is evil which we fear, or the fact that we fear is evil. (Confessions, VII, 5)
(See also Justin Martyr, Dialog with Trypho [ca. a.d. 180], and Albrecht, Reincarnation, for extended Christian critiques of this idea.)
The following information is from The Bible Has the Answer by Henry M. Morris and Martin E. Clark (Master’s Books, El Cajon).
The first, most glaring dissimilarity between reincarnation and Biblical doctrine occurs in the idea of a recurring cycle of existence. Does each person live many times in the same or different form? The Bible says, “It is appointed for men once to die, and after this comes judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). The Scripture pictures death as a separation of the soul from the world, Christ Himself describing death as God requiring man’s soul (Luke 12:20). When a saint of God dies, rather than merely being promoted to a higher status for another lifetime, he enters his eternal estate, secured for him by God’s grace. The divinely inspired apostle exclaimed, “We are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8). Christ’s record of the rich man and Lazarus shows that both the saved and the unsaved enter their respective rewards following death (Luke 16:19-31).
So then, one’s life is not followed by an indefinite number of succeeding lifetimes. This vital difference established, more tangible differences emerge.
Classical ideas of reincarnation know nothing of a personal God who enters holy relationships with His creatures. In fact, ultimate reality is usually conceived as a cognitive process within man himself, rather than as a personal God.
Further, reincarnation schemes make men’s spiritual advancement contingent upon his mortal efforts, attempting to make merit outweigh demerit. Christianity shows, however, that salvation cannot be earned by sinful man, but rather, it is merited by Jesus Christ’s substitutionary death and resurrection for all who believe. “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Also, many theories of reincarnation hold that man’s spiritual, physical, and moral conditions are determined by a former life and therefore not under his control. Physically, this has led to a passive, pessimistic acceptance of untold misery that was actually unnecessary. Spiritually, it is even more devastating. The Bible reveals that no one is bound in his sins against his will, and though born under Adam’s curse, “if we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us of our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Through God’s forgiving grace, “though your sins be as scarlet, they will be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they will be like wool” (Isaiah 1:18). Consequently, the Christian does not worry about his merit outweighing his demerit, for his sins have been forgiven, God having promised, “I will remember their sins no more” (Hebrews 8:12).
Finally, some people attempt to equate reincarnation with the Christian doctrine of resurrection, but in doing so, violate the meanings of both reincarnation and resurrection. Reincarnation advances a future life on earth, bound by similar constraints and physical laws, while the resurrection speaks of that time when earthly bodies with all their accoutrements will be transformed and fitted for their eternal estate (John 5:29). Reincarnation holds that matter is essentially evil, while resurrection demonstrates that there is no moral dualism between matter and spirit. Reincarnation posits a future life in a different body (or even a different order of physical life), while resurrection promises that one’s own body will take on a new, incorruptible, glorified form. Describing the resurrection, Paul stated, “It is sown a perishable body, it is raised an imperishable body . . . it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body” (1 Corinthians 15:42, 44).