Reincarnation: past and present
by Sherri Langton
A well-known entertainer is lying on a table undergoing five hours of acupuncture. Gold needles have been inserted under her chin, just above her throat. Having been guided by her “higher self” to this procedure, the woman recalls her experience as Asana, princess of the elephants in India, thousands of years prior. 
This story is related in Shirley MacLaine’s 1985 bestseller Dancing in the Light. The procedure she describes is past-life recall through which participants can achieve an “altered state of consciousness” and experience one of thousands of previous lives. 
Nowadays reincarnation is not a belief held just by eccentrics and Eastern religions; it has become vogue in American society. An estimated 30 million Americans (25%) believe in cyclical rebirths. As the traditional God-centered world view continues to crumble, the belief in salvation through Jesus Christ is trashed for a man-made salvation.
How can this be happening in a society founded on Christian principles? Why the fascination with past lives and ignorance of biblical truth? To answer these questions, let’s take a close look at reincarnation and its roots.
What is reincarnation?
Reincarnation is the “recycling” of souls in other bodies after death. The Handbook of Today’s Religions defines the term as “the successive rebirths of a soul into this life, as the soul progresses toward perfection or salvation.” Reincarnation is sometimes used interchangeably with transmigration, the rebirth of souls into other non-human forms of life. 
According to Dr. Maurice S. Rawlings, Associate Clinical Professor of Medicine at the University of Tennessee, modern researchers have traced belief in reincarnation to some 1500 years before Christ. In that period Egyptian kings apparently thought they could reincarnate, thereby proving their divinity. Over time, however, belief in reincarnation was adapted by ordinary folk as well and eventually became the common denominator among most Eastern religions. 
East vs. West
Eastern and Western reincarnation differ. Basic to the Easterner is karma, the rigid Hindu law of cause and effect.  Karma consists of the good and bad deeds one accumulates in a lifetime — a karmic debt that must be “burned off” through cyclical rebirths. When one has paid his karmic debt, he at last reaches nirvana, the highest spiritual plane attainable. Dr. Rawlings explains:
According to reincarnation, you must undo all wrongdoing incurred in any of your lives — you cannot be forgiven. You therefore undergo cyclic rebirth into new bodily existences and suffer now because of the past. . . .That is to say, what you do is what you get — in the next life. No one else can pay your karmic debt for you; you are personally responsible; there is no escape from your karma. 
When reincarnation came west, Americans modified it. Many saw the cycle of rebirths as a way to atone for one’s sins, rather than as a way to burn off karmic debt. As a person’s soul body-hops, he collects primarily good deeds and eventually becomes a good person.  Even some Christians see cyclical rebirths as a “time payment plan” where they can delay leading a holier life till another time in another body. 
Besides salvation, Western reincarnation offers explanations of desires, motivations, likes, and dislikes in this life based on past lives. For example, Shirley MacLaine believes that her recall of the elephants explains her current fascination with the creatures. 
One writer calls reincarnation “the journey of the soul.”
As we travel through the school of life, we become the seasoned soul, learning from many failures, until finally the lessons become easy, and we gain our mastership. This is the true alchemy of change. 
In his book, Dr. Rawlings tells of speaking with an American newspaper editor who believed that of all beliefs about the afterlife, reincarnation is the “most comforting.”  When Dr. Rawlings brought up the subject of eternity, the editor refused to discuss it because “it was far beyond his conception — too frightening to think about. . . . `I want to come back to this world. I love life, and I don’t want to lose it. That’s why reincarnation appeals to me.'” 
Reincarnation, then, is a spiritual comfort zone. This world offers answers to questions and explanations to mysteries. There is no accountability outside what we know here. If you blow it now, take heart: You’ll get it right next time, or the time after that, or the time after that.
Despite some people’s teaching that certain biblical passages imply reincarnation , the Bible speaks against it. Today, more than ever, we need to know the truth about man, salvation, death, and resurrection.
Christ alone. First, the Bible teaches that salvation is through Jesus Christ alone. It does not offer one shred of evidence that man can save himself. The Bible teaches that man, by nature, is a sinner in need of a Savior outside himself, and that the Savior is Jesus (Acts 4:12; 1 Timothy 1:15). Also, man cannot accumulate enough good deeds to atone for his sins. His righteousness is as clean as a pile of filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6).
Thus, neither by his nature nor his deeds can man effect his own salvation. The biblical writer Paul states, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God — not because of works, lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:8, 9, RSV).
Since salvation is by grace, it cannot be amended. No matter what world view prevails, nothing can change Christ’s death for humanity’s sins. “But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God. . . . For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified” (Hebrews 10:12, 14, RSV).
Verse 18 concludes, “Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.“
One-time death. Second, the Bible says that Christ died once. Because of His example, there is no cyclical rebirth, no second chance, no future opportunity for improvement. “Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once, to take away the sins of many people” (Hebrews 9:27, 28a).
Proof of resurrection. Third, the Bible is full of proof that Jesus was resurrected from the dead. The story appears in all four Gospels. Although the Gospel writers differ on minor details, they clearly agree on a key fact: The tomb where Jesus had been laid was empty. When a group of women visited the tomb and didn’t see Jesus’ body, two men by the tomb asked them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen!” (Luke 24:5, 6).
The story doesn’t end there. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John also record accounts of Jesus’ followers seeing Him after His resurrection. And when they saw Jesus, they recognized Him; He was not recycled as someone or something else.
Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord (John 20:19, 20).
The Bible tells us that because Christ was the first to be resurrected, the dead in Christ will be resurrected when He returns to earth. In 1 Corinthians 15:20 Paul says, “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (RSV).
Interestingly, the phrase has been raised in the original language is in the perfect tense, meaning a past event with continuing consequences.  In other words, though Christ’s death and resurrection are past events, their consequences for humanity have continued for 2,000 years since. Those who have accepted Christ’s death on the cross for their sins are assured of resurrection when Christ appears. Paul describes it as a “mystery”:
We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable nature must put on the imperishable, and this mortal nature must put on immortality (1 Corinthians 15:51-53, RSV).
Another term we should look at in 1 Corinthians 15:20 is firstfruits. In Bible times the first sheaf of the spring harvest was offered on the day following the sabbath after the Passover. This offering both foreshadowed and consecrated the full harvest that would shortly follow.
Likewise, Christ’s resurrection foreshadowed and consecrated “the ultimate home-gathering of all God’s people.”  He was the first to rise from the dead; therefore, His resurrection has guaranteed ours.
As we’ve seen, the Bible does not support reincarnation, but teaches a one-time death and one-time bodily resurrection, exemplified by Christ.
Back to the Bible
The problem is, many Americans don’t believe some of the Bible’s basic teachings. Though 80 percent believe the Bible is the most influential book in human history, 39 percent say that Jesus did not physically rise from the dead.  It has become easier for such people to adapt a comfortable belief in an afterlife that relies solely on the self and the familiar. Even some Christians have defected to reincarnation teaching because of the New Age’s influence.
The decline in traditional Christian beliefs today has plunged us into a post-Christian culture. This is largely because the Bible is regarded as nice but not necessary, a book of myths that entertain, but not truth to be believed.
The danger in this, of course, is that what we reject hurts us. If so many Americans revere the Bible but don’t take it seriously, how can they know the truth of resurrection and the lie of reincarnation?
It’s time we go back to the Bible and believe what it says about resurrection. It’s time we hold to that belief and live in anticipation of final victory.
“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you (1 Corinthians 15:55-58a).
A version of this article appeared in a past issue of the Bible Advocate print magazine. For a free subscription by regular mail, contact us at BibleAdvocate@cog7.org.
Scripture quotations were taken from the New International Version, unless otherwise noted.
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