Why is there no mention of reincarnation in Christianity?6 min read

Question

Please explain how “the soul returns to the world in a new body after death and will continue to do so until it has reached the goal of spiritual evolution called liberation (moksha).”

Why does Christ—one of the “ Incarnations of God on earth ”—preach no such doctrine ? Although a few writers have tried to interpret some of Christ’s sayings in the light of the doctrine of re-birth, surely it must be admitted that they are usually pretty strained in their attempts ?

What is the basis for belief in reincarnation, other than the fact that it is an accepted tradition in much of the East ? In his book Buddhism (Penguin Books), Christmas Humphreys says “ Almost every country of the East accepts the doctrine as too obvious to need proof.” . . He goes on to refer to incidents from the Bible, “ Rumours that Christ was Jeremiah or Elias come again ”, but cannot quote Christ (the “ Incarnation of Christ on earth ”) as giving expression to the doctrine.

If it is said that realization of the truth of re-birth comes with spiritual illumination, why do the Western mystics and saints not acknowledge it ? Surely neither the East nor the West alone has the monopoly of truth? The doctrine seems to be the logical outcome of the Yogic technique—or, perhaps, vice versa—but what else have we to support it ? Likewise, Christ’s teaching seems an equally logical fulfilment of older traditions. What makes one more worthy of acceptance than the other ? I am prepared to accept the reality of spiritual experience, but why does the reality appear (judging merely from what I have read) to be so elusive as to be unable to unite the mediators in a common belief ?

Answer

It is true that there is no explicit affirmation of the doctrine of rebirth in the New Testament, but on the other hand the doctrine is not denied. In the first place, it has to be remembered that only a fraction of Christ’s teachings were recorded in the Gospels ; a large part of his utterances must be lost irretrievably since they were never committed to writing, though perhaps a few more early records (such as the recently published ‘ Gospel of St. Thomas ’) may still come to light.

Available evidence suggests that the earliest Christian sects held the doctrine of reincarnation, the pervading belief in the Eastern Mediterranean area at the time, partly attributable perhaps to the influence of Platonic and Zoroastrian thought. This is significant as showing the ‘ climate’ in which the teachings of Christ were given. Clemens Alexandrinus (Origen’s master) claimed that St. Paul taught the doctrine of reincarnation. Origen himself, Justin Martyr and Arnobius are some of the early Church fathers who have written of their allegiance to the doctrine. Ruffinus in a letter to Anastasius says that ‘ this opinion was common among the primitive fathers ’.

Once it is established that belief in reincarnation was the prevailing doctrine in the early days of Christianity and was only later criticized by the Church, it is difficult to conclude other than that it was accepted in the time of Christ Himself. If Christ had condemned it, would the early fathers of the Church have openly adopted it ? It may also explain why Christ did not make a point of teaching it as a new doctrine.

As you say , Christ does in fact refer to reincarnation when he says to the multitudes concerning John the Baptist “ And if ye will receive it, this is Elias which was for to come ”. And He says later to His disciples “ that Elias is come already, and they knew him not. . . . Then understood the disciples that He spake unto them of John the Baptist.” (St. Matthew 17).

A belief in the ‘ second coming ’ of the Messiah also seems to imply acceptance of the principle of rebirth.

The widespread belief in reincarnation is not without significance. Not only in the East and Far East but also among the Greeks in classical times, the Ancient Egyptians and even the Druids (according to Julius Caesar !) it has been prevalent. .Some Church leaders even in modern times have subscribed to it (vide the letters of Cardinal Passacavalli in 1890). David Hume described reincarnation as “ the only system which philosophy can hearken to ” and certain modern Western philosophers, notably McTaggart, have adhered to it. On the whole, thinkers seem to have been attracted to it because it explains more satisfactorily than other theories the different conditions into which people are born and by which they are surrounded in life, and the different capacities with which they are born (infant prodigies are an extreme example of the latter).

There are, too, a number of well authenticated instances of men and women remembering their past lives, or of acting in such a way as seems only consistent with having acquired knowledge in previous lives (e.g. the case of a French serving girl in France who spoke an archaic form of Arabic under an anaesthetic). Most of the arguments and evidence for reincarnation are marshalled in the books Pre-existence and Reincarnation by the Platonic scholar Wincenty Lutoslawski, and Documents pour servir a Vetude de la Reincarnation by Gabriel Delanne.

Dr. Shastri, never laid stress on a belief in reincarnation and scarcely ever referred to it. For Adhyatma Yoga, it is not a major issue.

Reincarnation takes place in sansara (the world of phenomenal existence), and does not affect the real Atman (Self). Shri Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita says :

“Many births of Mine have passed, as well as of thine, O Arjuna,
All these I know ; thou knowest not, O harasser of foes”.

But He then says that these births are only in the world of appearance :

“Though I am unborn, of Imperishable nature, and though I am the Lord of all beings, yet ruling over My own nature, I am born by My own Maya”.

In this way we are reminded that the pure essence of both Creator and creature is ever unborn and imperishable. This was also conveyed by Christ when He said “ Before Abraham was, I am.

For the disciple, belief in reincarnation may of course have a practical value in certain circumstances. For instance, it may diminish fear of physical death, show up the uselessness of suicide as an ‘ escape ’, or engender a greater sense of responsibility through the recognition that his future personal circumstances will be influenced by his present actions.

Still, it is a subsidiary belief and it is only essential for a Yogi to believe in the central truth that the Reality which is his innermost essence is God.