Where can one begin in considering how Christianity might be reconciled with a belief in reincarnation? Perhaps a starting point for moving in this direction would be an acceptance that the human spirit is eternal. That the spirit of the human being does not come into existence only at the start of life but that it exists firstly in the world of spirit and from there enters the earthly world.
The human spirit is eternal: “Into whatever human sheath I have been born, my real being is both unborn and deathless”. The Christmas Festival in the Changing Course of Time, Rudolf Steiner, Berlin, December 22, 1910.
With this understanding we see the human soul as crossing the threshold from the spirit world into the physical world at birth and again crossing this threshold at the moment of death as it returns to the world of spirit.
Many Christians believe in miracles like those where bodily afflictions are healed, where people are brought back to life, where the five thousand are fed from five loaves and two fishes and where Jesus walks on water. They are also likely to believe in Angelic beings and that a God entered into a physical body and went through death and resurrection. They can believe in God as a being who is omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent, and yet, for many, it is not possible to extend their beliefs to include the possibility that God might send our human souls back into another human body for another life on earth.
The idea of re-incarnation disturbs, or even appalls many believing Christians, who have no difficulties in accepting the other manifestations of the working of the Godhead. Is it because the Bible is not explicit in its teachings on the reality of reincarnation? Is it because it is easier to accept the culturally, historical teachings given to our forebears, who were presented with naive, childlike pictures of heaven and earth, good and evil and life or death.
Some argue that the Bible does, in fact, make references that suggest a belief and acceptance of reincarnation. There are many possible examples pointing to this in both the Old and New Testaments. Perhaps one of the best examples is found in a passage connected to the Transfiguration.
“The disciples asked him, ‘Why, then, do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?’ Jesus replied, ‘To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things. But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.’ Then the disciples understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist.” Matthew 17:10-13 New International Version
There is an earlier reference in Matthew’s gospel where Christ reveals that John the Baptist is the reappearance of Elijah.
“For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come.” Matthew 11:13-14 NIV
These references to Elijah form a link to the last book of the Old Testament. In the book of Malachi we read:
“See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.” Malachi 4:5 NIV
Some Jewish traditions and the history of early Christianity, indicate an acceptance of reincarnation among some of the Jewish people and also early Christians. Origen (185-254 AD), an early church leader, clearly held and communicated a belief in reincarnation. The early church accepted his teaching which also reflected the position of many Jewish beliefs, particularly those of the Pharisees.
The acceptance of Origen’s teachings on re-incarnation continued until 553 AD, when the Roman Emperor Justinian called the 5th Ecumenical Council in Constantinople. It is then that the teachings of Origin were overturned, and it became a heresy to believe in reincarnation, punishable by excommunication.
“If anyone asserts the fabulous pre-existence of souls and shall assert the monstrous restoration which follows from it, let him be anathema [excommunicated].” http://www.near-death.com/quotes.html
Is part of the reluctance to even contemplate reincarnation tied to a desire to distinguish Christianity from other religions or ancient pagan beliefs? One of the reasons for dispensing with reincarnation could have come out of a concern that such a belief would let people off the hook, so to speak, for their behaviors. Having more lives to get it right would allow people to postpone making the right and difficult choices, choosing instead to leave the hard stuff for another lifetime; thus, enabling people to avoid taking responsibility for what they did in their current lives.
A discussion of reincarnation makes more sense if it is extended to include the law of karma. Karma is the law that holds us personally accountable for our deeds in the world and responsible for balancing them out and, thus, also responsible for our own redemption.
The idea of “confession” being sufficient to remove our sins may be a comfort to some, but while being sorry may be a good thing, it would seem to overlook the consequences of the act. It does not right the wrong. It would seem far more beneficial for our human development if we were to not simply voice genuine remorse but rather performed an actual deed of making amends. The opportunity to right a wrong may not always present itself in a person’s lifetime, which is where having multiple human lives can provide the necessary future possibilities to do so. Further incarnations would give human beings the opportunity to work on themselves, balance the harms they have perpetrated, and to gradually evolve into increasing perfection to their ultimate goal of becoming beings created in the image of God – becoming more and more Christ-like.
How many of us can become saints in one life-time? Clearly such an elevated level of development is pretty hard to achieve for the majority of humanity in one lifetime, but if more lives were part of God’s plan, then this possibility grows for everyone. We can continue to develop and become more evolved human beings and also progress towards a relationship with Christ more in keeping with a mature responsible adult, as opposed to that of a child who is satisfied with merely the forgiveness of sins. An expanded vision of our journey as going beyond one lifetime can be supported by our trust in the enduring love of Christ; knowing we can get it wrong, ask for forgiveness, make amends and try again. Our comfort is not based on forgiveness of our sins but from knowing we have the time and opportunity to grow beyond sinning – to work out our own salvation, our own resurrection.
It is clearly not essential to hold a belief in reincarnation to be a Christian, but perhaps such a belief is not only compatible with being a Christian but one that can lead and support us in a deeper understanding of our evolutionary task to become ever more Christ like.