Dialogue Ireland Logo Resources Services Information about Dialogue Ireland
A to Z index

Reincarnation or Resurrection? - Johannes Aagaard

The teaching of reincarnation is gaining support all over the Western world today. Could this teaching become a decisive factor in the commonly accepted religious view of life, even to the point of eventually conquering the Church from within?

There are Christian people today who state that Christianity and the belief in reincarnation definitely belong together. There still seems to be little or no theological reflection going on as to the differences between the belief in resurrection and the teaching of reincarnation. This article is meant only as a beginning to such discussion and the taking of a theological standpoint within the Church. These are serious questions which must be answered.


The teaching of reincarnation, or the "transmigration (wandering) of the soul", as it is also called, was a powerful factor in European thinking for over a thousand years, from about 500 BC until about 500 AD. During this time, the concept was an important part of the Greek and Hellenistic philosophy of life which then prevailed throughout the whole civilized world. The theory seems to have had its starting point in the strange and mystic religious group called the Orphics, and became accepted by philosophers such as Pythagoras, Plato, and Plotinus, who all incorporated reincarnation into their philosophical systems.

The Christian church thus grew within a culture where this belief was known and accepted. Some Christians were also influenced by it, just as much of the religious thinking of the time came to influence the early Church in certain areas. The letters of St. Paul bear witness to this as he takes a clear stand against the new religious movements of his day, namely Gnosticism and the Mystery Religions. Not only were ordinary lay people in the early Church influenced by the reincarnation theory , but leaders such as Origen, the church father from Alexandria, incorporated similar ideas into their teachings.

It is not the Hellenistic theory of reincarnation, however, which is a problem for Christians today. That ceased to exist as a result of the strong stand the church fathers took against it. It is the Asiatic version that is presently spreading around the world. This teaching has roots going back much further than those of the Greek tradition. As far as we can decipher from the oldest Indian texts, the idea of reincarnation seems to appear as early as about 800 BC. In other words, in the Orient the idea has existed for about three thousand years. Most of that time it has been dominant, and it has penetrated the philosophical and religious thought and teachings of the people of Asia.

The characteristic feature of the Asian form of reincarnation doctrine is that, from its very early development about six hundred years before Christ, it became linked with the teaching of karma. These two dogmas, Reincarnation and Karma, are now tied together to such an extent that very few realize that they are not necessarily one and the same. The teaching of karma is a rather all-embracing, all-inclusive logic of cause-and-effect an everlasting chain of retribution that inflexibly governs and conditions human existence both in life and death. When in this way it enters into the doctrine of reincarnation, then reincarnation becomes a way to explain the dissimilarities and disparities among human beings.

At the same time, reincarnation also becomes an explanation of our relationship to the divine. Here, the teaching of reincarnation takes on the character of theodicy, an explanation of the relationship between justice and the divine. Thus reincarnation clearly becomes a form of purification: a trial, an examination, a kind of "doomsday", that is stretched out over many generations, which people must go through whether they wish to or not.


All human beings are therefore in a situation that is subject to reincarnation and is totally determined and conditioned by karma. This context is necessarily experienced as negative -as suffering and a state of dependency. In it, we are in the process of becoming lost in a reality which is changeable and evolving, without any connection with true reality, the absolute and eternal form of existence which in the Indian holy scriptures is called Brahman.

The same scriptures maintain, however, that in our innermost selves, in our most fundamental substance, all of us are also eternal, unchangeable, and absolute. This innermost part of our being is called atman.

It is precisely reincarnation and karma, however, which obscure the realization that the innermost being, atman, is in everything identical with the primeval cause and origin, Brahman. It is karma' s eternal chain of cause and effect which provides a "motor" for reincarnation, the driving force which impels us onward from birth to death to new birth.

Karma makes the great wheel of destiny tom around and around. The fuel for this "karmic motor" is our attachments, pleasures and wishes, and our desires in relation to external reality -above all, to bodily existence. For a religious master of the East, a true yogi or guru, the goal, therefore, is to avoid living with attachment. At the same time, it follows that the goal is not to obtain "good karma", but to obtain freedom from karma, to cease to cause any form of karma whatsoever .


It is here that yoga comes in. Yoga always has the goal of breaking karma's chain of cause and effect. If it can be broken even in one place, the whole chain will be tom apart, so that a person obtains total freedom and will not again be reborn.

When the yogi frees himself from attachment and karma, he attains complete identification with atman, the primeval cause of his own being. Atman is a totally passive and observing "Self", quite a different state of being from the individual "self" which of necessity is a personal and active reality. Atman is the very innermost part of a person, which does not itself participate in life, but is sort a of withdrawn spectator observing from the balcony w hat the illusory self goes through on the theater stage of life.


But even this reduction of the individual to essential being, the self alone, is not adequate as seen from the Buddhist point of view. In contrast to the Hindu religions, according to Buddhist teaching there is no soul and no self -and consequently, nothing which can be reincarnated. For Buddhism, reincarnation is a thorough illusion and, one should note, an illusion which is self-generating. A person is simply a wave of karmic energy that rolls on from incarnation to incarnation. At the moment of liberation, the wave ceases to exist. It disappears completely. There is not even a blissful state of consciousness left: only nirvana, the great absence.

Fundamental to the teaching of reincarnation then, both in its Hindu and Buddhist forms, is the concept that it is negative and that salvation consists in liberation from it.

Many believers in reincarnation in our time will find it hard to recognize their own ideas about the transmigration of souls in all this, however. "This definitely does not correspond with w hat I have read", they will think -and in this they will be quite right. The fact is that in this century the teaching of reincarnation has been linked with a chain of reasoning which Hindu swamis and Buddhist monks from former days would have found highly questionable if they had confronted it. They would have had absolutely no opportunity to learn of this entirely new version of the teaching, however, because it only developed as a result of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution! In fact, the doctrine has in many ways become a religious version of Darwin' s theories, though it is no longer focused merely on development from humanity with God.

This form of belief in reincarnation, which appears in modem religious periodicals and books, is far from identical with "the ancient wisdom of the Far East", as the writers often would like readers to believe. Actually, these thoughts were first put forward in the West in the last part of the nineteenth century by the Theosophical Society. Thus, the new evolutionary-optimism of the Western world entered into a close alliance with the old Eastern doctrine of reincarnation and changed it into something entirely different.

Furthermore, religious Darwinism has, to a much greater degree than most people realize, caught on in the homeland of Hinduism and has left its mark there upon attitudes towards reincarnation. Many of the Hindu "gurus" who operate among Westerners advocate this teaching, and their students naively take it as genuine, original Hindu wisdom. Few realize that the goal in such teaching is to use reincarnation as a ladder. Perhaps we can also say that the goal is no longer to conquer life but to survive it.

It is important to understand that such confusions make it extremely difficult to communicate correct information of religious ideas, which are undefined in themselves and which most likely will never be clarified.


The historical fact is that belief in resurrection can be traced much further back in time than belief in transmigration. Relief in resurrection appears in one form or another in the history of all cultures, including that of India. It is obvious that people all over the world have observed the cycle of nature - death in the autumn and resurrection in the spring - and from this have concluded that something similar must be true for humankind as well. A person must also go through death in order to arrive at resurrection.

In itself, belief in resurrection is unproblematic since to a great extent it coincides with our common and immediate experience. Therefore it is, as has been said, found in all regions and at all times. But this, of course, is not why the belief in resurrection is part of the Christian faith. That is simply because Jesus Christ proclaimed that he was the Resurrection and the Life.

Obviously he could not have said this if his life and teaching had included a belief in reincarnation. Then he would have had to say something like, "I am the eternal Self and the ultimate Deliverance". The resurrection, according to Jesus, is totally decisive, and something Christians cannot ignore. Our faith is dependent on our trust and hope in it. Consequently belief in the Resurrection is an inseparable part of the life of the Church.

Christian worship services in every aspect show the Resurrection' s influence, because they are a celebration of it. The Communion service is an actual participation in its reality -a reality that is among us precisely here and now, at the same time as it opens the future for us. The Resurrection is actually both past, present, and future inasmuch as in Holy Communion we are united with the already resurrected Christ. In this, eternal life becomes a reality here on earth maintained and realized in love.

There are many ways to proceed if we want to compare this understanding of Christianity with the teaching of reincarnation. One of the most important ways is to form an overall view: determining the consequences for our understanding of life implied by each of these religious attitudes. To do this, our point of departure will be two of the greatest realities in life: the experiences of gratitude (thankfulness) and of despair .

When we are filled with wonder over the goodness of life and seek an explanation for why we have all these blessings, then our gratitude seeks an object. Normally we seek for someone to thank, and this results in a belief in God as the source of all the goodness of life.

The teaching of reincarnation, however, returns all thankfulness to oneself. One who believes in reincarnation attributes all the blessing of life to his or her own person; for, as it is said, do we not reap what we sow? In this view, when I have all these benefits, all these good things, it is obviously because I myself am good; therefore it is not due to the goodness of God. If my own goodness is the reason, then I fully deserve my fortunate existence and all good things, and owe nothing to anyone.

Of course quite instinctively, as a part of my inborn feeling of gratitude, I know that I really do owe something to others. In this way the teaching of reincarnation contradicts the fundamental experience of gratitude. Because of this, the teaching of reincarnation is, in reality, highly unethical and destructive. It makes those who are fortunate and well-off overconfident and self-satisfied; and it drives the unhappy and unfortunate out in even greater despair and passive acceptance of their misfortune. For in the same way that experiencing goodness leads to gratitude, so experiencing evil naturally leads to fear and sorrow.

Furthermore, unlike gratitude, which seeks an object, despair seeks a subject. It can get us to seek someone who can comfort us and give meaning to the meaningless. God can do this, for this is just the way Jesus Christ has revealed God to be. According to the Christian belief, we should not blame God for misfortune or evil: we can still be quite sure that we are not forsaken by God even if everything looks hopeless. God is present in each thing that concerns us.

There is an evil outside of God, an evil which is behind sin and death and the destruction of life -but God is not for this reason absent when misfortune strikes. God is with us in our battle against evil in all its many forms. Therefore, Christians can say both "Deliver us from evil" and "Your will be done" when they pray.

According to the teaching of reincarnation, on the other hand, we must take responsibility for personal misfortune. Being ourselves the cause, we must carry the burden alone. According to this teaching, God himself is outside the cycle of reincarnation and knows nothing of suffering. If this were not the case, God would not be divine. Neither can others take part in my private pain and suffering: they themselves are safe from it because they reap only w hat they have sowed in the past. In the same way, the sick and unhappy must themselves bear the consequence of their weakness and failure in earlier incarnations.

Thus, sorrow becomes without comfort. If we were to express ourselves quite accurately, this conclusion is not directly the result of the teaching of reincarnation, but of the teaching of karma. But since the belief in reincarnation in our day is closely tied to the concept of karma both in the East and the West, it really makes no difference.


There is good reason to believe that when it first appeared a few hundred years before Christ, the concept of karma functioned as a form of "demythologization". Some felt the need to remove the concept of gods and heavenly powers, so that humanity might control its own destiny. The idea of karma releases humanity from relating to a god, because it makes the human situation a result of our own efforts or lack of them.

All this has great relevance to concepts such as responsibility and conscience, which are in fact biblical concepts. They have evolved through the work of Christian theology in its attempt to comprehend reality, and are therefore part of the work of the Church. They are, so to speak, inventions of theology. When a Christian stand before "fate", she or he does not stand before something final and unchangeable. There is always the possibility of something new, something that can change the circumstances and create a new future. This is w bat the Christian faith in God means in this context: a protest against evil is possible and a change for the better is realistic, because God makes all things new.

Where the doctrine of karma rules, on the other band, passivity is present where responsibility should have been, and awareness takes the place of conscience. Awareness and insight into the relationship of things to one another and the human place in the cosmos become most important, and our purpose is not to change or alter anything whatsoever.


The conclusion to all this is that we stand before a choice between the teaching of reincarnation, and belief in the resurrection. It is an either/or choice - one or the other. Even though the teaching of reincarnation has penetrated into the contemporary Church to a much greater extent than many wish to believe, just as it did the Early Church, it can never become a true part of Christian faith and life.

It is true that there are New Age fairy-tales about the existence of the teaching of reincarnation by the early Church - for example, that this teaching was suppressed through the deplorable circumstances of a Church council in the year 553 AD. But this is indeed a fairy-tale, nothing more, and it lives on because New Age authors copy texts from one another's books.

What in reality can be concluded from the historical sources is that certain teachings, worked out by a few of the followers of Origen, were rejected by the Church as heretical and false. These teachings advocated among other beliefs, that of reincarnation, although this did not necessarily derive from Origen' s thought. Reincarnation was rejected by the council as something that had never had a rightful place in the church and had only existed on the periphery. Nevertheless, these teachings have always followed the Church like a shadow. The great church fathers often had to argue against the teaching of reincarnation, and had;o prove that it is entirely alien to the Christian view of life.

Of course one might wish that these two interpretations of human existence could be united, so that the future would be a lot more simple. The situation is that if our understanding of self and its religious consciousness becomes divided on such an important and fundamental point, so that some choose reincarnation' s Wheel of Fate while other seek the "new creation" of the faith of resurrection - then we are actually faced with a very difficult choice.

But shall we let a choice pass us by and ignore it merely because it is difficult? Is it not better to face the challenge, work the problem out, and find out what is at stake?