This article originally appeared in HIS Magazine [March, 1975],
The idea of reincarnation is ancient. About the time of Abraham the invading Aryan tribes learned it from the Indus-Valley civilization that preceded them in India. That goes back at least four thousand years.
Apart from one or two materialist sects, reincarnation has been standard doctrine among all schools of Hinduism and Buddhism since the sixth century B.C. And today, if you scratch beneath the surface of any guru, Krishna Consciousness devotee, Baba lover, Theosophist, Divine Light Premi, or Tibetan ritualist, you will find it is an essential part of their way of thinking.
As served up for use in our secular schools, TM or Transcendental Meditation may look religionless but its typical Hindu doctrines are rooted in a view of the soul taking up temporary habitation in a body.
The idea solves some very basic problems of existence. It gives you a hope after death. Since your soul is indestructible you have a further chance to salvage the mess you have made of your life.
In its original Hindu form the theory was connected with the concept of Karma (the good or evil of the soul remains attached to it). Your present joys and troubles are therefore due to your previous existence. That takes a lot of injustice out of life. There is a certain smugness for the prosperous, and no bitterness for those at the bottom of the pecking order. Deformity, sickness, and hunger are all your own fault. You cannot blame God or the system for your misery - you are inexorably what you deserve to be. And if you want to do better next time, just try a little harder. You could make it to the top of the caste system, and become a Brahmin, in the next life or two.
As preached by our present invasion of gurus and swamis, that harsh, logical Karma has been downpedaled. Western civilization still knows that although there is no God, he must at least be loving. Reincarnation into body after body is viewed as a means of perfecting the soul. You grow into Love, or the Absolute, or whatever you think God ought to be. Based on a sloppy view of love, it is also assumed that everyone will make it in the end. "Your insight, or meditation, or love, or cosmic compassion, may get you there this time around. I may need several more tries, so don't expect too much of me now."
There is not much point in attacking such a view of life after death directly. It meets too many basic religious needs. Nor do isolated Scripture texts "prove" the case. The key is to look at the Christian, or rather the total Judeo-Christian, alternative.
In the Bible an individual is not described as a body occupied by a detachable soul, like a jewel in a jewel case. God does not keep transferring the jewel to new boxes. A person is an organic unity, a flesh and blood human body. The whole body-brain-emotional system is designed in the image of God. Having been corrupted, it can still be restored by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (read David's prayer in Psalm 51:10-12). A person's destiny beyond death is pictured as the resurrection of the body, the whole body.
Now admittedly the body is changed. Jesus' resurrection body was no longer ordinary meat and bones, but it was still him, still his body. His talk was audible, recognizable, totally human - not some whispering ghost. But how can a body be changed and still be the same person? That is an important philosophical question.
Take a telephone conversation of the future. My sister calls long distance from Bermuda. As we talk we can see each other on a video screen, and all our other senses can also communicate. We say good-bye with a hug and a kiss, and I can recognize the perfume she is wearing. Evidently her body is made alive, resurrected without difficulty in another place.
Now whatever bodily senses the telephone company manages to duplicate, the total result will still be somewhat less than face to face communication. The communion in heaven through our resurrection bodies will however be much more than we can ever manage now. Not only will we hear and see and feel and smell and taste, but we will know as we are known. Our present bodies are a hindrance to total oneness. Many emotions are stifled, deep experiences cannot be shared, spiritual fellowship is limited. Our resurrection bodies will be no hindrance to perfect love.
The point is that if the telephone company can resurrect our voices and faces hundreds of miles away without using meat and bones, surely the Creator of everything won't have any problem resurrecting our bodies on his side of reality.
As soon as we begin to think deep about love every one of us needs the freeing made possible by God's kind of resurrection. I may be inhibited in expressing warm emotions. You may be unnatural with the opposite sex. She may be blind, he is retarded, and that little baby never got to live more than a few minutes. No present limitation of our bodies is a problem to God. When the telephone company resurrects a body across space some freedom is lost. When God resurrects a human body it will be totally freed to love.
I have to add "or to hate." The Bible teaches the resurrection of everyone, the just and the unjust. God's problem isn't how to resurrect bodies - that's easy. His problem is that some of us, after every loving attempt he can make, will still prefer hate to love, darkness to light, savage envy to joy. And because God insists on love and freedom at any price to himself, he will never force us into a heavenly resurrection if we choose a hellish one. That's our decision.
Consider then what is involved if reincarnation took the place of resurrection. Let's say I go through a thousand bodies. Which of those thousand bodies will express my emotions, my character, my deepest aspirations? Which of them is me? There is no me apart from my body. And how could I be a thousand bodies at once?
Try to picture your soul without any of your body. What would remain? Now take whatever something or nothing you can imagine as soul, attach it to the body of each of the thousand people you know. Imagine the continuity of your soul passing through each of their thousand lives. What sense could it make?
Nor does the argument from the recollection of previous existences affect the issue. As a missionary in India I heard stories, and read several impressive accounts of individuals who were able to describe in detail a village hundreds of miles away, which they had never visited in this life, but which they claimed was the scene of a previous incarnation. Assuming that rigorous scientific investigation established the genuineness of such a case, what would it prove? Only that the individual had the ability to know at a distance, which we call ESP.
An English girl in India told me about seeing a murder of 100 years before vividly enacted before her eyes in an old colonial bungalow. She claimed that every detail was later verified by a police officer from the old files, and that the wrong man had been hung for that murder. She did not claim reincarnation, but she explained that she was psychic and had had other experiences of this kind. The point is that the seeing of events at a distance or after many years could prove that there are means of knowing other than our usual five senses. It could never establish the previous existence and reincarnation of the knower.
The Hindu doctrines of transmigration (moving of souls from body to body), Karma (merit and guilt remaining attached to the soul), and reincarnation (souls taking up residence in new bodies) do not require God. And I suggest they are totally incompatible with a loving God. The system is eternal, and it works mechanically. No love is required. The future of every soul is exactly the result of its performance in previous bodies.
Actually all the great schools of Hinduism view the endless round of transmigration as the ultimate evil. Their one hope is to escape their Karma and avoid reincarnation. The means of escape vary. Through Yoga you can attain oneness with the Absolute (which is outside our world system). By the help of Krishna you can be lifted out of our system into eternal bliss. By losing all desire, you can find Nirvana with Buddha. Well, obviously, if 3000 years of Hindu holy men have concluded that reincarnation is the ultimate evil, the idea is not going to be very attractive to anyone who knows a loving God.
Begin with God, the Creator of our world. Discover his love by reading the Bible, especially looking at Jesus Christ. Understand that he chooses to adopt you into his loving family. You are of immeasurable importance to him. And because he loves you so much he wants you forever, a perfected, loving, totally freed child of God. Get that clear and reincarnation won't fit.
Incidentally you won't win a reincarnationist by attacking his or her views. He needs the system to hold on to till he knows he is loved and accepted as he is with his present body. Introduce her to Jesus, and if she goes along with him, you will find that her reincarnation ideas have gone within a month.