Is Reincarnation Real?


Of course, it is! Re-incarnation strictly means that the human soul-spirit is reconnected to the body after being separated from it. We have enormous evidence of this happening in near death experiences (NDEs). During an NDE, a person experiences separation from the body and its associated processes (especially pain, but also all sensory links to the body), and usually initially finds himself floating above his body. At the conclusion of the NDE, the person is drawn back to his body and finds himself reconnected as usual. Thus, separation from and reinsertion back into one’s own body occurs.


We call this grand event “the resurrection of the dead” where in the last day the soul-spirit will—with complete continuity of identity, character and memory—be placed into a renewed and immortal version of its original body.

Let’s ask the next question: does reincarnation happen into another body? Again, the answer is clearly, yes! We call this grand event “the resurrection of the dead” where in the last day the soul-spirit will—with complete continuity of identity, character and memory—be placed into a renewed and immortal version of its original body. For people whose original bodies remain in some state of decomposition, those decomposing elements will be drawn out from the ground and incorporated into this resurrected body. For people whose original bodies are entirely obliterated, their resurrected bodies will still keep to the pattern and identity of who they were. They won’t feel out of place in their resurrected bodies. They won’t feel like Frankenstein’s monster where the brain of a distinct person was fictionally inserted into a different body, leaving the monstrous result in a perpetual state of disconsolation. Their resurrected bodies will be “theirs”—only much better. The new body will not only suffer no corruption, but will be wholly immortal. Jesus’ resurrected body was capable of some extraordinary feats, such as instantaneous relocation, but we aren’t sure whether he was using his divinity to achieve such things or whether this is a general feature of all resurrected bodies. We also know that resurrected people can eat and drink, as Jesus ate and drank with his disciples after his resurrection to prove that he was not a ghost. Thus, the resurrected body completes the person according to who God originally and fully created him to be. It does not establish a new and different person, but the best version of the original person.


So, thus far, it is clear that re-entering one’s body after death does happen, and thus, re-incarnation occurs. However, when most people speak of “reincarnation” they haven’t thought about these obvious cases, but instead have a very specific and particular, non-Christian version of reincarnation in mind, namely a case where reincarnation happens more than one time into different bodies, so that the person’s spirit lives multiple life-times, undergoing multiple reincarnations. The bodies in these cases are in no sense “their” bodies, because on these broadly Gnostic accounts, no body actually belongs to a person, since the person is being redefined only as his spirit, rather than as the soul-spirit/body composite that we Christians maintain. On most of these Gnostic theories, the ultimate goal of these multiple reincarnations is to leave the body permanently one day and “ascend” as a pure spirit. The body is discarded like an old snake skin, never to be seen again.


The Gnostics make the mistake of thinking that human beings are really just angels trapped in bodies, and so those religions go to great lengths to devise various physical, psychological, and ritualistic therapies to “liberate” the spirit from the body.

We Christians completely reject this Gnostic characterization of what human beings are, for we insist that to be human is precisely to be a natural soul-spirit/body composite, not a possession. When a demon enters a human body and shoves its owner aside, the demon takes possession of that body. It’s not his, except that he happens to be controlling it now. On the Gnostic theory of reincarnation, all human experience in the body is simply possession. On our Christian account, however, our body belongs to us according to nature, and our spirit is specially fitted for our body as its guiding principle, what we call the “form” in philosophy. Thus, we technically say that the human spirit is the soul of the body, its form, its guiding principle, as a natural created unity. That’s why I’ve been calling our human spirits “soul-spirits” to emphasize their humanity. By contrast, angels and demons do not have souls, because their spirits are not designed for bodies at all. They just are immaterial beings, what in theology we call “spirits.” The Gnostics make the mistake of thinking that human beings are really just angels trapped in bodies, and so those religions go to great lengths to devise various physical, psychological, and ritualistic therapies to “liberate” the spirit from the body. Christianity by contrast sees the human body as the natural home for the human soul-spirit; the only liberation we require is that from sin and death. For Christianity, God’s gracious act of redemption fulfills our natural state rather than demeans it by turning us into mere spirits. When God makes the saint, he does not unmake the man. Thus, at the resurrection of the dead, a Christian will be restored fully as an immortal human being, a natural soul-spirit/body composite.


The Gnostic theory of reincarnation carries with it some worrying ethical implications that we see played out in Gnostic religions and cults in the world today. Consider that if what “you” really are is just your spirit, then your body and its associations are not essential to who you are. Your family is just an accident of incarnation and not that important. Your behavior in your body is likewise insignificant, or, significant only insofar as you fulfill the particular cult’s strange requirements for eventual ascension and immortality as a simply spiritual being. We can see in Scientology the damage that occurs ethically when we reduce our humanity solely to spirit and ignore the full spiritual/physical composite nature that God actually provided to us. In the now infamous “sea org” clergy of Scientology, for example, families are routinely separated from one another. Children are often divided from their parents because their parentage has nothing to do with who they really are as purely spiritual beings. L. Ron Hubbard went so far as to suggest—consistently with his Gnostic reincarnation theory—that children were nothing more than adults in small bodies, and, as such, children should be expected to work as adults, should be expected to perform as adults, and should be sanctioned for failure as adults! These startling situations can be the result of denying the importance of the body: parents can be persuaded to abandon their children and instead pursue the Scientological “bridge to total freedom” which is, of course, total freedom from their human bodies, their families, and ultimately, their humanity.


The Gnostic theory of reincarnation also has some serious metaphysical deficiencies. For example, continuity of identity and memory are denied in nearly all of the cults and religions that teach it. Since you probably have no memory of a past life, you would find it difficult to believe that you have had one or more such lives and just switched bodies after death. Why wouldn’t you recall those many lives just as you recall your current life? Clever tricks are offered by these groups to explain away this major problem with the theory, of course, such as claiming that the person about to be inserted into a new body goes through a river of memory loss. But why would that be necessary for reinsertion? It shouldn’t be. It’s suggested only because the vast majority of people deny any prior life memories. So, these preposterous accounts of memory loss are offered up to explain away the theory’s deficiency.


It’d be better to say that on the Gnostic reincarnation theory, a wholly new “you” is being created during each reincarnation, recycling old spiritual substances after their previous persons were erased. But that would mean that Gnostic reincarnation destroys you after death, the exact opposite of what its adherents are promised.

But memory loss implies another significant problem: loss of identity. If your memory were entirely wiped, then how would you be who you are? In what sense would it be significant to say that you were an 8th century English monk killed by the Vikings during a raid if you had no memory of the event? At best, the Gnostic reincarnation advocate would have to insist that who “you” are is simply your spirit, that immaterial substance that goes from body to body over the centuries. But how is that really you? “You” don’t remember anything of your alleged past. “You” don’t carry the habits of your past lives either. “You” don’t carry the same imaginations or aspirations either. In fact, it’d be better to say that on the Gnostic reincarnation theory, a wholly new “you” is being created during each reincarnation, recycling old spiritual substances after their previous persons were erased. But that would mean that Gnostic reincarnation destroys you after death, the exact opposite of what its adherents are promised.


Of course, there are occasionally cases of what appear to be some memory of past lives. But what is puzzling about these cases is how different they are from the consistent identity memory with which we are familiar. In some of the well-documented cases of children presenting alleged past-life memories, the child still has two distinct identities, his own and the alleged previous life. Furthermore, the alleged memories, while sometimes spectacularly specific, are nevertheless not linked to one another in a continuous narrative stream the way our memories are. It’s more like someone told them certain details of another person’s life rather than that they lived that former life. These children do sometimes carry deep and even adult emotional connections to some of these alleged memories, but these connections do not make them theirs any more than someone else’s life becomes ours because we empathize with them in a film or book. Nor is any plausible explanation ever offered for why the memories lack continuity of singular identity. Some post-death consciousness authors admit that another possibility (other than past-life reincarnation) to explain such phenomena in children is psychic connection to a deceased person. In fact, that explanation would much better explain the deficiencies in continuity and identity. But if such psychic explanations are plausible, then so are the darker ones, namely the possibility that the demonic are taking advantage of people in providing the memories of deceased people that they were themselves involved with in the past. In no case do the rare cases of children possessing some apparent memories of the life of a past person imply the Gnostic doctrine of universal reincarnation.


Since personal identity is lost through the Gnostic reincarnation process, any kind of moral judgment or moral processing from life to life unjustly imposes moral penalties on the new and innocent person whose qualities inhabit the old spiritual substance. There cannot, accordingly, be any argument favoring gnostic reincarnation on the basis of some supposed eternal moral development of the spiritual substance.

Another major metaphysical problem concerns the lack of any known mechanism to account for multiple reincarnations over multiple lifetimes. When I ask my students about this problem, they usually trot out “karma” to resolve it. But how does “karma” explain anything? The term is just a place-holder for their belief that these gnostic reincarnations happen over and over again. Contrast that with the Christian appeal to God as the explanation for eventual human resurrection. Since God is a person with intentions and capacity to carry out those intentions, we can understand both the reason for and cause of human resurrection. But Karma provides no such explanatory power. Furthermore, given that Karma is supposedly linked to a universal moral balancing principle (so that if you were bad in this life, your next life will be terrible), we are faced with even more problems. For how is Karma to “know” how you behaved? How is Karma to judge your conduct and assess your penalties? How is Karma making moral judgments at all? God could do and does do all of these things, but that’s because he is a person who knows and acts. But Karma is denied personal agency precisely to avoid bringing God into the picture. Notice, too, that since personal identity is lost through the Gnostic reincarnation process, any kind of moral judgment or moral processing from life to life unjustly imposes moral penalties on the new and innocent person whose qualities inhabit the old spiritual substance. There cannot, accordingly, be any argument favoring gnostic reincarnation on the basis of some supposed eternal moral development of the spiritual substance.


We are not angels, never were, and never will be. God created us as a different kind of being entirely. Angels cannot become human, and human beings cannot become angels, because there is no mechanism for nature-shifting.

Theologically, Gnostic reincarnation is a denial of the importance of human nature. It further rejects what the Church teaches as dogma, namely that at human conception, a new soul-spirit is created by God for that new human person. There is no recycling of spiritual substances by God. Furthermore, the Church also teaches that after we die (for good, that is, not the sort of death of the NDE where one returns to one’s mortal body), we face judgment. If we had unresolved difficulties, we do not get reinserted into the world as a new baby, but instead figure things out in Purgatory. And at the end of all mortal time, God will raise the dead, reuniting soul-spirits with resurrected bodies to fully redeem the whole of human beings. Why? Because of what it means to be human. We are not angels, never were, and never will be. God created us as a different kind of being entirely. Angels cannot become human, and human beings cannot become angels, because there is no mechanism for nature-shifting. Thus, pursuing a religion of spiritual ascension is a dead end according to nature. It cannot happen.


Now, you might wonder what happens to us when we die if we exist without a body until the resurrection of the dead. Aren’t we then functioning as ascended beings, as angels? First, a human being disconnected from his body isn’t called an angel. We call him a ghost. They aren’t the same thing at all. If human beings do exist as ghosts in the next realm until the resurrection of the dead, their soul-spirits are still the form of their now-absent bodies. This would imply that they long for wholeness, yearn for reunification with what will complete them according to nature. But second, it’s not entirely clear that the people who have gone before us into death are ghosts, at least not the saints. The reason I say this is that we have some evidence of the form of people post-death. Jesus, Mary, and Elijah have all been seen after their deaths as physically embodied people. In other words, they already have their resurrected bodies. Furthermore, it follows that heaven includes accommodation not just for angels but for fully embodied human persons. Jesus said as much to his disciples in the upper room discourses when he explained that he had to leave them in order to go prepare places for them in heaven. Lest you think that Jesus, Mary, and Elijah are the exception to the rule because all three were taken into heaven bodily, notice that during the Transfiguration, Moses too was seen by the disciples as a physically whole person. But Moses was not taken up into heaven at or near his death, but instead was buried in the Sinai. Thus, Moses is currently in heaven with a resurrected body. So, if this is true of Moses, Mary, and Elijah, and if Jesus went back to heaven with the specific purpose of creating physical places for his saints, why wouldn’t it be plausible for us to think that all saints are embodied in heaven? Lastly, consider that if seeing God is the ultimate beatitude for a human being, then wouldn’t it make sense that God would enable that seeing while we were in our complete human state, namely in our bodies? Yes, it would. Thus, while the Church has not provided a dogmatic statement about our status after death, there is solid evidence for thinking that the saints are already existing in their resurrected bodies in heaven. And what follows from this is that they are not ascended beings as the Gnostics would have us believe. But, even if I’m wrong and if the saints are mostly ghosts (but happy ghosts), they’d still not be angels, because their spirits are human soul-spirits designed for and ultimately destined to be reunited with their own bodies.

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