Belief in Reincarnation

Belief in Reincarnation and Some Unresolved Questions in Catholic Eschatology

By Bradley Malkovsky - 29.7 2022

Department of Theology, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN 46556, USA


Mainstream Christianity has always rejected reincarnation teaching in all its varieties, e.g., Greco-Roman, Albigensian, Hindu, Buddhist, New Age, etc. as being incompatible with the biblical understanding of the uniqueness, dignity, and value of the human person, a teaching that is ultimately rooted in the radical understanding of divine mercy and love toward every human being proclaimed by Jesus himself. Nevertheless, there are two strong arguments advanced by reincarnationists against the teaching of one earthly life. The first argument regards reincarnation as a more reasonable expression of divine mercy and love than the disproportionate and unfair infliction of eternal punishment by God upon a human being for a single morally corrupt lifetime. The second argument finds reincarnation to be necessary for the continued exercise of creaturely freedom required for true moral and spiritual maturation. Catholic teaching, by contrast, asserts that a single earthly life followed by purgatory is sufficient for the perfection and completion of the human person. However, in both the satisfaction and sanctification models of purgatory the human person is entirely passive, not actively contributing to its own completion. Such an approach would seem to devalue free human participation in the process of perfection.

reincarnation; purgatory; resurrection; Christian anthropology; punishment; free will; divine love; dualism

The compatibility of reincarnation belief with Christian teaching has been the subject of repeated theological discussion and often heated debate since almost the beginning of Christianity’s history. Though regularly dismissed by Christian theologians as an incoherent and unpersuasive doctrine, reincarnation teaching has persistently reappeared throughout the centuries in both European and Asian cultures and now also in the Americas, equipped with formidable arguments both in its defense as well as in its challenge to the coherency of Christian teaching about a single earthly life.
We presently find ourselves in the third great period of Christianity’s engagement with reincarnation teaching. The first period took place during the second to sixth centuries, when Christian theologians found themselves confronted by Gnostic, Manichaean, and Neoplatonist versions of reincarnation.1 The second great encounter, not nearly as extensive as the first, took place from the twelfth to fourteenth centuries and involved the Cathars and Albigenses, heterodox Christian groups in France and Italy. This second confrontation was not treated primarily on the theological level, however. Rather, the Cathar attempt to harmonize reincarnation teaching and its attendant anthropological dualism with Christian faith was answered in large part with the violent Catholic persecution of reincarnation’s adherents.2 The third and present broad encounter, beginning in the second half of the twentieth century, involves a wide range of reincarnation beliefs,3 but as a whole the seeds for such beliefs seem to have been planted by exposure to traditional Hindu and Buddhist teaching on reincarnation in the late eighteenth and entire nineteenth century as more and more reliable information on the religious heritage of India began filtering its way down from the university lecture halls of European Indologists and philosophers to become more widely available to the non-specialist.
One of the striking characteristics of this present third great encounter, especially in recent decades, and what distinguishes it from the previous two eras, is that today there is less heated polemic taking place between advocates and opponents of reincarnation and more attentive listening going on, a greater readiness to acknowledge the merits of the other’s argument while recognizing simultaneously the continued value but also the possible limitations of one’s inherited teaching or at least the way that teaching has been articulated. We are no longer always talking past each other, as we have so often done during the past 2000 years. We often find ourselves today, representatives of different ancient faiths, grappling with the interlocking mysteries of life, death, human identity, and hope. Can we continue to learn from each other without compromising or abandoning the most precious insights of our wisdom traditions? How far can our doctrines bend and adjust themselves to the insights of the other without breaking? Or must we finally conclude that our respective positions on the human person and post-mortem existence are finally incompatible?
Traditionally, the main Christian response to reincarnation teaching has been flat-out rejection. The critiques of reincarnation presented by Christian apologetes have been expressed in various ways: sometimes the approach was more philosophical in nature; at other times it was more theological and Bible-based. What has been the general underlying conviction of all the different critiques is the incompatibility of reincarnation with the dignity, unity, and irreplaceable uniqueness of the human person. This understanding of the person is ultimately grounded in God’s love for each and every human being. The Christian argument against reincarnation is, then, finally an argument based on divine love and mercy for the human person.
From the Christian theological point of view, then, it is not that reincarnation teaching is unreasonable—in fact, in some respects, and with certain presuppositions, it is a very reasonable position to take with regard to the afterlife—it is just that in the Christian understanding reincarnation is unnecessary in view of God’s merciful preserving and transforming of the human person in its entirety after death. The Christian position, and not just the specifically Catholic position, is that God’s love for each human being is so great that every person is called into permanent union with God as this particular human individual. I will come back to that point in a bit with some of the questions and objections that go with it.
It was while studying Catholic theology in Germany more than 30 years ago that I started thinking about reincarnation. I was involved in conversations with a number of people who believed in reincarnation, some of whom were Christian and some of whom were not. Why, they asked, did Christianity not teach reincarnation, when it was such an obviously reasonable and compelling doctrine that solves so many of life’s questions, especially questions having to do with the inequality of human suffering and fate? The fact is, I did not know at the time whether the Christian theological and magisterial traditions had ever addressed the question of reincarnation. So I took up the topic for my master’s thesis in theology. What I learned surprised me. It turned out that Christian theology, not just that of the magisterium but also of a good number of Christianity’s most famous and influential theologians over the centuries, had a long history of responding to reincarnation teaching, going back all the way to the second century. Throughout history, as indicated earlier in this essay, Christian theologians were responding in most instances to people who were not Christian or whom they did not regard as Christian: Gnostics, Manichaeans, and Neoplatonists in the early centuries; Cathars and Albigensians in the Middle Ages;4 Hindus, Buddhists, and New Age adherents in modern times. It is clear that these reincarnation teachings are all very different, and so are their anthropologies. They do not all agree on what exactly it is that reincarnates5 and into what forms of life. Most reincarnation models around the world teach the existence of a soul, but some do not. Some teach reincarnation in animal and plant life forms, while others teach reincarnation only in human bodies. Some even teach that the soul reincarnates in two human bodies at the same time. Yet the problem with all of these versions of reincarnation teaching, from the Christian point of view, even if reincarnation is limited to human life forms, is that they fall short of affirming the final value of the human person as a unique composite of body and soul. In the words of Paul Williams, the famous scholar of Mahayana Buddhism and a fairly recent convert from Buddhism to Catholicism, who converted in part because of his rejection of reincarnation: “Christianity is the religion of the infinite value of the person.”6 By person he meant the human being in her unique totality of body and soul.7
Of course, to say that Christianity is the religion that values the human person so highly is problematic, given what we know about the violence, exploitation, and other abuses that have been inflicted upon human beings in Christian history. However, theologically speaking, assertions about the extraordinary value given to the human person in Christian teaching should take as their starting point and justification neither the actual Christian historical record in its more dismal dimension nor its opposite, i.e., the positive achievements of Christianity with regard to the championing of human rights and social justice. The starting point, against which all subsequent Christian teaching and praxis about the human person must be measured, should be Christianity’s foundation, which is biblical revelation, the unveiling of God’s love for humanity, of how God interacts with people and for what purpose, a revelation history that begins with the Jewish people and culminates in Christ. According to biblical revelation, the human person is the focal point of divine mercy. The human person is so valued by God that he or she is called into a permanent union with the divine as this very same person who exists now on earth. All versions of reincarnation teaching are thus seen to fall short of this understanding of the uniqueness, dignity, and value of the human person before an infinitely merciful God who calls each person into a permanent union of love. The human person, then, in standard Christian teaching, is neither the soul alone nor pure changeless consciousness, despite the possibility of remarkable spiritual experiences that give great emphasis to awareness and little emphasis to the body. Even when a human being is able, in some rare instances, to attain a superior state of ego-annihilation, self-realization, or loving union with the divine on earth, as, for example, seen in such Hindu sages as Ramana Maharshi and Sri Ramakrishna, from the Christian point of view, such spiritual attainment still does not go so far as to affirm the lasting value and completion of the human person in her unique totality, in union with God, in the face of death.
The transformation of the human person, whereby human identity and awareness are retained and elevated by God in the final state of perfection,8 after one’s time on earth has ended, is what is meant in Christian teaching by resurrection existence. Resurrection is the final perfected state of the human person, and it is caused entirely by God, given as a gift, just as our lives here on earth are a gift of God. Resurrection entails the completion of the human person in a new liberated mode of existence and awareness, a total integration and full participation of the human person in the life of the divine, whereby each person perfectly reveals the glory and beauty of the creator in a unique and singular way.9 Resurrection is therefore not the transcending of the human as such, though it does involve the transcending of a previous limited way of being human in favor of a new mode of human existence, in what in Eastern Orthodox Christianity is called theosis or deification. Resurrection means the transformation of the human person in all her dimensions, including the bodily.10 However, it is important to also note here the perfected awareness, the higher consciousness, as a component of this new state and not to focus exclusively on the new mode of bodily existence. Resurrection involves a full blissful awakening to the divine mystery, but it is also an awakening to one’s particular human mystery, identity, and ultimate value in loving union with the divine.11
The Christian theological traditions have always been aware of the limitations of speaking about this new state of transformed existence.12 It is a condition that transcends our present ontological categories and experience, though not entirely. Even the New Testament accounts of Christ’s resurrection appearances, which provide the most important evidence of the nature of the final state that awaits all people, display a noticeable tension. Some passages witness to a degree of bodily continuity between the pre-Easter Jesus and the resurrected Jesus, while others emphasize the newness and discontinuity of the old body with the new mode of spiritual–physical existence. However, in each case Jesus has not appeared as a mere spirit or ghost. In at least one resurrection appearance he reveals the wounds of his crucifixion.13 The two kinds of resurrection appearance passages found in the Gospels, i.e., both those emphasizing bodily continuity as well as those giving greater emphasis to discontinuity, must be read together as pointing beyond themselves to a new state of transformed creaturehood. The New Testament writings emphasize that it is the same Jesus in his entirety as a human being who God has made appear to his disciples. Yet this new mode of existence is, quite plainly, very mysterious. The various New Testament accounts should be read together as a kind of informed stammering about the mystery of resurrection existence, all based on the encounter of the disciples with their Lord in his new glorified mode of being. It is clear that there is much about resurrection existence that we are unable to grasp this side of death. Nevertheless, if resurrection stands for anything, it stands for God’s infinite love and care for every human being. Resurrection, in Christian teaching, is the intended divine final goal for all of humanity. Jesus is therefore called “the first-born of the dead.”14
Having said this, theological honesty means acknowledging that there are problems with the Christian teaching15 of one earthly life. The problems are essentially two, and sometimes they are formulated by followers of other religions and philosophies against Christian teaching, and sometimes they are formulated by Christian theologians themselves.
The first objection against only one earthly life has to do with God’s alleged punitive activity toward people after they die. This objection involves questions about the existence of hell and God’s relation to it. If hell exists and is a place of physical torment, would a God of love really create such a place and send a person there for all eternity—let alone for even one moment—as punishment for the sins of a single lifetime on earth? This would seem to be unreasonable and unbecoming of a God who is supposed to be supremely loving and merciful. Reincarnation would thus seem to be a more reasonable expression of divine mercy and love than the disproportionate and unfair infliction of eternal punishment by God upon a human being for a single morally corrupt lifetime. However, with reincarnation, unlike standard Christian teaching, a person—or perhaps more accurately, a soul—would always get another chance to make amends for past moral transgressions and be able to start anew on the path toward spiritual perfection and liberation.
However, it is not at all clear that contemporary Catholicism actually teaches an understanding of hell as a place or a state of punishment actively inflicted by God, despite long-standing doctrine. There are today two Catholic theological positions in tension with each other, perhaps even in opposition to each other, with regard to God and hell. Ambiguity on this topic can be found even in official Church documents and pronouncements. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), for example,16 appears to advocate teachings that speak both for and against the idea of God inflicting punishment. In support of the notion that God actively administers torment, the CCC cites certain New Testament passages. One of these is the Gospel of Matthew 13:41–42, where Jesus speaks of God’s angels who will “gather…all evil doers, and throw them into the furnace of fire.”17 In addition, phrases like “everlasting damnation” are used in the Catholic Catechism.18 Here God actively inflicts punishment on sinners. Yet, perhaps surprisingly, a second position on hell can be found in the very same section of the CCC. Hell is understood now as “a state of definitive self-exclusion19 from communion with God and the blessed.” It is a “state” of being separated forever from God’s mercy through one’s own choice,20 of freely and willfully refusing the offer of God’s love, a love that is intended to complete a person and bring them into full participation in the divine life.21 Here the suffering experienced by the human person after death is not a physical torment willfully imposed by God, such as being plunged into a lake of fire. The pain is rather an interior and spiritual one, an inner darkness that is the result of the absence of love. It is the state of a self-destructive and self-enclosed ego that refuses all transcendence, all love, all wholesome inter-personal relations. The point is that in this particular Catholic understanding, hell is a state of willful separation from divine love.
Yet immediately after the pronouncement that hell is a freely chosen state of exile from God, we read that those who die in a state of mortal sin “descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell.”22 This clearly sounds like a place of punishment and torment prepared by God. In the same discussion about hell in the Catechism there are also passages that quote Jesus—again, from the Gospel of Matthew—who speaks of God actively banishing sinners into hell, for example in 25:41: “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire.”23
The ambiguity of hell as presented in the Catholic Catechism is ultimately rooted in uncertainty about Jesus’ own teachings with regard to the relation of divine mercy and hell. It is clear from the Gospels that the center of Jesus’ proclamation is a God of unconditional love and mercy. Jesus calls his listeners to emulate God’s unending mercy, to be perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48). This means an infinite readiness to forgive, even forgiving “seventy times seven times” (Matthew 18:22), which is Jesus’ way of saying that we must forgive without end. We thus see here a tension with regard to God’s activity in the Gospel of Matthew, but it is found in the other Gospels, as well.24 This is not to deny that Jesus did, indeed, speak of hell and punishment; it is more a matter of how exactly he understood it.
Among contemporary Catholic theologians, despite the ambiguous teachings of the Catholic Catechism, the idea of God actively sending evil people to a place called hell has practically disappeared. The emphasis is now more on God’s infinite mercy and how this mercy is greater than a judgment based on justice alone. Thus the argument that the God of reincarnation is more merciful than the God proclaimed by Catholicism is now more difficult to sustain than in the past, in view of contemporary Catholic thought.
Remaining a bit longer with the Catholic Catechism in its section on the resurrection, we find that reincarnation is briefly mentioned, but it is immediately rejected: “When ‘the single course of our earthly life is completed, we shall not return to other earthly lives. ‘It is appointed for men to die once’ (Hebrews 9:27). There is no ‘reincarnation’ after death.”25 This is a succinct and unequivocal statement, but no explicit explanation is given here as to the possible problems associated with reincarnation teaching from the Christian standpoint, nor is there any discussion of the merits of reincarnation belief. The Catechism’s rejection of reincarnation is explicitly based on scripture, in particular on Hebrews 9:27.26 However, the next several verses provide an indirect explanation of why reincarnation is rejected, and this aligns with what has already been discussed in this essay. Reincarnation is rejected, because resurrection of the whole person is affirmed. “We believe in the true resurrection of this flesh that we now possess.”27 In other words, human beings are called into permanent union with God precisely as human beings.28
This raises the question of whether any process is described in the New Testament by which God completes and perfects the human person after death. The answer is no. The question of “how” has not been crucial in Christian understanding to believing that this transformation occurs. It is simply the power of God at work. The conviction that this transformation does occur at all is based, as noted earlier, primarily and originally on Jesus’ unexpected resurrection appearances to his disciples, as provided by the New Testament.29 In the Christian understanding God made Jesus appear after death to his disciples in a new glorified state, but no theological explanation is provided in the key scriptural passages with regard to the exact nature of his resurrection body or the process by which God caused his resurrection.
The second objection to belief in only one earthly life is the possibility of integrating reincarnation into Christian teaching. It is based on the dignity of human free will and the idea that it might contribute to one’s spiritual development and final liberation. In contemporary Christian theology reincarnation has sometimes been posited as a possible solution to a particular Christian dilemma involving human free will, a solution articulated most notably by one of Catholicism’s most famous 20th-century theologians, Karl Rahner (1904–1984).30 Rahner presented what to date is perhaps the strongest argument in favor of at least considering reincarnation on the basis of Christian theological principles. The dilemma he addressed concerned the extent and role of human freedom in the process leading to salvation. The problem may be summarized as follows.