How the Major Religions View Reincarnation


Although many of the great minds who have shaped the intellectual and religious climate of the West held firm beliefs in reincarnation, historically, at least since the fourth century, Christian theologians have spoken out against the doctrine of rebirth. Reincarnation is not taught in any of the mainstream Christian churches, and most denominations condemn the concept.

Origen (185–254 C.E.) devoted his life to the preservation of the original gospels and is considered by many scholars to have been the most prominent of all the church fathers, with the possible exception of Augustine (354–430

Six-year-old Gyaltsen Norbu is installed as the eleventh Panchen Lama in Bejing, China. (AP/WIDE WORLD PHOTOS)
Six-year-old Gyaltsen Norbu is installed as the eleventh Panchen Lama in Bejing, China. (
C.E.). A prolific Christian writer and leader, Origen preached a relationship between faith and knowledge and explained the sinfulness of all men and women by the doctrine of the preexistence of all souls. In Contra Celsum he asked, "Is it not rational that souls should be introduced into bodies in accordance with their merits and previous deeds, and that those who have used their bodies in doing the utmost possible good should have a right to bodies endowed with qualities superior to the bodies of others?" In response to the query, Origen continues: "The soul, which is immaterial and invisible in its nature, exists in no material place without having a body suited to the nature of that place; accordingly, it at one time puts off one body, which is necessary before, but which is no longer adequate in its changed state, and it exchanges it for a second."

In the Des Principiis, Origen states that every soul comes into this world strengthened by the victories or weakened by the defeats of its previous life. The soul's place in this world in terms of dwelling within a physical body of honor or dishonor is determined by its previous merits or demerits. Its work in this world determines its place in the world to follow.

At the Council of Nicaea in 325, Origenism was excluded from the doctrines of the Christian Church and 15 anathemas were proposed against Origen himself. The Origenists, those who favored including the ethics of karma and the doctrine of preexistence in the official Church teachings, had lost by only one vote. But, as stated by Head and Cranston in Reincarnation: An East-West Anthology (1968), "Catholic scholars are beginning to claim that the Roman church never took any part in the anathemas against Origen.…However, one disastrous result of the mistake still persists, namely, the exclusion from the Christian creed of the teaching of the preexistence of the soul, and, by implication, reincarnation."

While the official position of the Christian churches still holds with those anathemas against reincarnation, a more liberal attitude exists among many Christian laypeople, who, in modern times, need not fear being branded as heretics and threatened with burning at the stake. A 2001 Gallup poll of public opinion indicate that nearly 25 percent of the people in the United States, including Christians, believe that they may have past-life memories of their own. Those Christians who accept at least the possibility of reincarnation insist that there are many passages in the New Testament that imply a belief on the part of Jesus (c. 6 B.C.E.–30 C.E.) and his disciples in the reality of past lives.

In his Lux Orientalis (c. 1670), Joseph Glanvil states that the preexistence of humankind was a philosophy commonly held by the Jews; and he maintains that such a theological position is illustrated by the disciples' ready questioning of Jesus when they asked (John 9:1–4): "Master, was it for this man's sin or his father's that he was born blind?" If the disciples had not believed that the blind man had lived another life in which he might have sinned, Glanvil argues, the question would have been senseless and impertinent.

When Jesus asked his disciples who the crowds said he was, they answered that some said John the Baptist, others Elijah, others Jeremiah or one of the prophets (Matthew 16:13–14). Again, Glanvil reasons that such a response on the part of the disciples demonstrates their belief in preexistence.

At another time, Jesus' disciples asked him why the scribes had said that Elijah must come first before the Messiah, to which Jesus answered (Matthew 17:10–13), "Elijah truly shall first come and restore all things. But I say unto you that Elijah has already come, and they knew him not!" The disciples then understood that Jesus was referring to John the Baptist.

Information gained from the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were discovered near Qumran in 1947 and are slowly being translated and released to the public, may have a great effect on both the Jewish and Christian religions. These scrolls refer often to a great Teacher of Righteousness and a great warfare between the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness. The Qumran sect, known as the Essenes, forms a definite link between Judaism and Christianity, and many scholars have suggested that Jesus was a member of the group. The Nag-Hammadi scrolls, discovered in Egypt in 1945, also give a strong indication that Jesus may have been an Essene, a student of the Essenes, or at least closely associated with this apocalyptic sect during the so-called "silent years of Jesus," ages 12 to 30. It is generally believed that the Essenes incorporated certain aspects of reincarnation in their teachings. Certain scholars have also speculated that Jesus may have studied various mystical traditions in Egypt, India, and Tibet, all of which would have introduced him to the teachings of reincarnation.

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