Reincarnation as an Explanation of Evil

The word reincarnation literally means to “come again in the flesh.” It involves the belief that the soul passes after death into another body. A person is believed to be born again and again and again, life after life after life.

The process of reincarnation (continual rebirths) is believed to continue until the soul has reached a state of perfection and merges back with its source, believed to be God or the Universal Soul. Reincarnation is based on the law of karma.

The word karma comes from a root meaning “to do or act”; it involves the idea that every action yields a consequence. If one accumulates good karma, he or she will allegedly be reincarnated in a desirable state in the next life. If one accumulates bad karma, he or she will be reincarnated in a less desirable state in the next life. Eventually, over many lifetimes, karma can allegedly rid a person of all selfish desires.

Reincarnation is rooted in Hinduism. In Hinduism, the continual cycle of death and rebirth is known as samsara (transmigration).[1] Samsara literally means “to wander across.” Scholar Lewis M. Hopfe tells us that “Indian religions believe that the life force of an individual does not die with the death of the body. Instead, it ‘wanders across.’ The life force moves on to another time and body where it continues to live.”[2] Scholar John H. Hick explains that “at death, this physical body dies and the soul survives as a mental entity called the ‘subtle body’ (lingua sharira)… This subtle body is the continuous element throughout the reincarnation process until salvation occurs. The soul, as the subtle body, bears the karma of its past lives.”[3] The idea is that one’s thoughts, words, and deeds have definite ethical consequences and determine one’s lot in the next life. As noted previously, one’s state in the present life hinges entirely on the karma built up in a previous life.

How does it work? When a person dies, his so-called “subtle body” makes “karmic calculations” and then attaches itself to a developing embryo. If the person was virtuous, the subtle body enters a “pleasant womb” and is born in a better socio-religious class. If the person lived a corrupt life, the subtle body enters a “foul and stinking womb” and is born in a lower class.

“Salvation” will eventually be brought about. Every person is viewed as being on the wheel of life, and salvation essentially involves breaking away from this wheel of life via reincarnation. The goal is to break the cycle of karma and be free from the burden of life. This salvation comes when one realizes that his individual soul (atman) is identical to the Universal soul (Brahman). Through seemingly endless deaths and rebirths, one finally comes to understand that atman is Brahman.

Reincarnation and the Problem of Evil

Reincarnationists believe their view is especially plausible because they think it effectively deals with the problem of evil. One advocate put it this way: “The strongest support of reincarnation is its happy solution of the problem of moral inequality and injustice and evil which otherwise overwhelms us as we survey the world.”[4] Reincarnation is believed to present a more rational and satisfying answer to the problem of evil than Christianity’s view that we all get just one life, followed by either heaven or hell. The law of karma guarantees that eventually—given enough time (it could take billions of years)—all inequities will be rectified, and everybody will get what is coming to them. For the reincarnationist, “the law of karma entirely absolves God of the responsibility for human suffering, and man takes total responsibility for his life.”[5]

So, for example, if a young child suffers and then dies from Leukemia, he or she is apparently suffering the consequences of bad karma accumulated in a previous life. Hence, the child’s suffering is perfectly fair and deserved, and will contribute to the long-range good of the child (over many lives).

Popular New Age writer Gary Zukav says we must not presume to judge when people suffer cruelly, for “we do not know what is being healed [via karma] in these sufferings.”[6] We are assured that what may appear to be horrible suffering in a person is good because it is bringing healing in some way to this suffering soul.[7]

Is Reincarnation in the Bible?

Many have claimed that the early Christian church—and even the Christian Bible—taught reincarnation and the law of karma.[8] In John 3:3, for example, Jesus said: “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” Proponents of reincarnation say “born again” means born in another body. In Matthew 11:14, we are told that “John himself is Elijah who was to come”—that is, John was a reincarnation of Elijah.

Problems with Reincarnation

There are many problems with belief in reincarnation. Following are some notable examples:

Reincarnation Is Not Fair. We begin with the question: Why is one punished, via karma, for something he or she cannot remember having done in a previous life? And how does it make a person better to be punished for a sin he or she does not remember? More pointedly, if a young child develops cancer and dies, what possible healing can be brought to that baby’s soul? The child has no recollection of sins committed in a previous life, and even if the child did have some such memory, he or she would not have the mental acumen to make sense of the hardship before he or she died. Where is the divine justice in this?

Reincarnation Does Not Work. If the purpose of karma is to rid humanity of its selfish desires, then why has there not been a noticeable improvement in human nature after all the millennia of reincarnations? Further, if reincarnation and the law of karma are so beneficial on a practical level, as Hindus claim, then how do they explain the immense and ever-worsening social and economic problems—including widespread poverty, starvation, disease, and horrible suffering—in India, where reincarnation has been systematically taught throughout its history?

Reincarnation Promotes Passivity. The theory of reincarnation tends to make people passive towards social or personal evil and various injustices.[9] In other words, it serves as a strong motivation not to be a “good neighbor” and lend a helping hand. After all, if one encounters a suffering person, it must be assumed that this person is suffering precisely because he or she has not yet paid off the prescribed karmic debt for the sins committed in a previous life. If one should help such a suffering person, it will only serve to guarantee that the person will be born in a worse state in the next life to pay off the karmic debt that was supposed to be paid off through the sufferings in the present life.

 Reincarnation Is Morally Repulsive. Zukav’s view that we must not presume to judge when people suffer cruelly because “we do not know what is being healed [via karma] in these sufferings” is a morally repulsive view. Would he really have us believe that when soldiers in Ceylon shot a nursing mother and then shot off the toes of her baby for target practice, this was somehow bringing “healing” to her and her child’s souls? When Shiites in the Soviet Union ripped open the womb of a pregnant Armenian woman and tore the limbs from the fetus (actual events reported by American news networks), does Zukav really expect us to place our faith in “nonjudgmental justice” instead of being morally outraged? Where is the divine and the sacred in this?

Reincarnation Is Fatalistic. The law of karma guarantees that whatever we sow in the present life, we will invariably reap in the next life. If we sow good seeds in the present life, we will reap a nice harvest (have a better situation) in the next life. Guaranteed! But if we sow bad seeds in the present life, we will reap a bad harvest (have a worse situation) in the next life. Guaranteed! There is nothing we can do to alter this chain of events. It works infallibly and inexorably. This is fertile soil for the growth of despair.

Reincarnation Involves an Inconsistent Worldview. Reincarnation is inconsistent with the monistic (“all is one”) worldview to which both Hindus and New Agers subscribe. After all, if all in the universe is “one,” then how can there be individual souls that go through the process of reincarnation, with each different soul going into a different body? The ideas of “oneness” and “individual souls” cannot both be true at the same time. It is one or the other. This worldview lacks coherence.[10]

Reincarnation Offers Nothing to Look Forward To. In terms of eternal destiny, one cannot help but observe that an ultimate goal of absorption into Brahman (the Universal Soul), thereby losing one’s personal identity, has little appeal when compared to the possibility of living eternally, side-by-side, with the living, personal God of the universe (Revelation 22:1-5). Instead of being absorbed into a “Universal Soul,” Scripture affirms that each believer will be given a resurrection body that will never again get sick, age, suffer pain, or die (1 Corinthians 15:35-58). Is this not an infinitely better and more appealing prospect?

The Christian Bible Does Not Support Reincarnation. Contrary to the claim of some Hindus and New Agers, the Bible does not support a belief in reincarnation. John 3:3, where Jesus informed Nicodemus that he needed to be “born again,” refers not to reincarnation but to a spiritual birth. The term literally means born from above. Just as a person enters the world through a physical birth, so a person enters Christ’s spiritual kingdom through a spiritual birth.

Contrary to the claims of some Hindus and New Agers, Matthew 11:14 does not teach that John the Baptist was a reincarnation of Elijah. When asked if he was Elijah, John the Baptist flatly answered, “No!” (John 1:21). Further, Luke 1:17 affirms simply that the ministry of John the Baptist was carried out “in the spirit and power of Elijah,” even though he was distinct from Elijah. One must keep in mind that Elijah did not die, but rather was taken directly to heaven like Enoch, who did not see death (2 Kings 2:11; see also Hebrews 11:5).

Reincarnation Is Flatly Unbiblical. Scripture affirms that each human being lives once as a mortal on earth, dies once, and then faces judgment (see Hebrews 9:27). He does not have a second chance by reincarnating into another body. Scripture indicates that at death, believers in the Lord Jesus go to heaven (2 Corinthians 5:8) while unbelievers go to a place of punishment (2 Peter 2:9; Luke 16:19-31). Moreover, Jesus taught that people decide their eternal destiny in a single lifetime (Matthew 25:46). This is precisely why the apostle Paul emphasized that “now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2).

For these and other reasons, reincarnation fails as a solution to the problem of evil. A much more coherent position is found in the pages of the Bible, which emphasizes that we live once, die once, and then face the judgment (Hebrews 9:27).

 

Some of the content of this article is derived from five of Ron Rhodes’ books, each of which may be consulted for further study:

Why Do Bad Things Happen If God Is Good (Harvest House Publishers, 2004).

The Challenge of the Cults and New Religions (Zondervan Publishers, 2009).

Find It Quick Handbook on Cults and New Religions: Where Did They Come From? What Do They Believe? (Harvest House Publishers, 2005).

The New Age Movement (Zondervan Publishers, 2016).

World Religions: What You Need to Know (Harvest House Publishers, 2007).

 

[1] John B. Noss, Man’s Religions (New York: Macmillan, 1974), p. 101.

[2] Lewis M. Hopfe, Religions of the World (New York: Macmillan, 1991), p. 100.

[3] John H. Hick, Death and Eternal Life (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), p. 315.

[4] E. D. Walker; cited in Norman Geisler and Yutaka Amano, Reincarnation Sensation (Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1986), p. 92.

[5] Geisler and Amano p. 93.

[6] Gary Zukav, The Seat of Soul (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989), p. 45.

[7] Zukav, The Seat of Soul, pp. 45ff.

[8] Paramahansa Yogananda, Autobiography of a Yogi (Los Angeles: Self-Realization Fellowship, 1972), p. 199.

[9] William L. de Arteaga, Past Life Visions: A Christian Exploration (New York: Seabury Press, 1983), p. 81.

[10] Douglas Groothuis, “Evangelizing New Agers,” Christian Research Journal, Winter/Spring 1987, p. 7.

Some of the content of this article is derived from two of Ron Rhodes’ books, both of which may be consulted for further study:

Why Do Bad Things Happen If God Is Good (Harvest House Publishers, 2004).

Five Minute Apologetics for Today (Harvest House Publishers, 2010).

The New Age Movement (Zondervan Publishers, 2016).


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