John 3:3 and Mark 8:34-38
Authored by Rev. Mike Furey, Georgetown, IN, USA
Preface: Being born again is equivalent to the Christian "hell" for a Hindu or Buddhist. The message of Jesus about finding the true self, the real "you" is what might be attractive for a Hindu or Buddhist. The purpose of this message is to help Christians understand reincarnation so that they might be equipped to communicate the message of the gospel to a person who believes in reincarnation.
Reincarnation in Hindu thought has played a radical role, especially
as a reaction against the priestly lords and their dead gods. In about
1500 B.C.E. invaders from the north, called Aryans or nobles, descended
into India bringing the Vedas, which are Hindu's oldest scriptures.
These conquerors set up a threefold pre-caste system which would later
develop into the rigid
varna. Their scriptures spoke of the gods
of Indra, Varuna, and others. An elaborate system of worship and sacrifice
was imported and forced upon the indigenous Indians. These Indians already
have native practices or beliefs: yoga and reincarnation.
The most ancient Vedas of the Aryans do not mention reincarnation.
Reincarnation as a home grown concept would later merge into the Vedic
sacrificial foreign religion. This merger occurred around 600 B.C.E. The
warrior caste rebelled against the ruling sacerdotal Brahmin caste. Basically
people were tired of putting up with an esoteric sacrificial system and
its senile gods. "The gods are dead and the priests are robbing us," perhaps
was said. Out of this politico-religious revolution the Brahmins still
seemed to retain the mastery, but religion became "real" to people again.
quid pro quo style of religion, the coldness of
ex opere operate had become unacceptable. People sought freedom
from the foolish gods of the past and found a type of eternal life in reincarnation.
New gods appeared, like Krishna; even the gods experienced a reincarnation
or avatara. In this revolutionary period (600 B.C.E.) the varna
karma, reincarnation, the Upanishads, Classical
Hinduism, and Buddhism came to the forefront.
The Upanishads popularized and revolutionized the Hindu religion. Although the Brahmins were ever so much more part of the system, the people were ever so much more involved. The Upanishads and the Bhagavadgita incorporated the indigenous idea of reincarnation into the Aryan - Vedic religion, now called Classical Hinduism. Simultaneously in another section of the Indian subcontinent, another revolution was in motion. Gautama Siddhartha, known as the Buddha, also reacted against the Brahmins. He charged them, "You are not concerned with whether men become better or not!" The Buddha popularized a new way; in particular, his teachings would be formulated into a new concept of reincarnation.
From then, three basic types of reincarnation developed in India. Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism trifurcated into different understandings of reincarnation. Many different schools of liberation from reincarnation developed. The Jain form of reincarnation will not be considered here. The major difference between Hindu and Buddhist thought lies in the issue of what is actually reincarnated. What part of the person is reborn?
In Hindu thought reincarnation is called samsara. Each person will experience an endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. How one lives in this present life and in obedience to one's varna determines the type of life to be lived next. This cycle is operated by karma, which is "the notion that whatever a person thinks and does acts upon the equilibrium of the universe to create its own reaction." In Hinduism all of reality is understood as the All, the One, the Brahman, or the cosmic principle. Everything and every person "is" part of the all inclusive Brahman. Brahman is one but no one entity contains Brahman; rather, the entities make up Brahman. These entities or "souls" are called atman. This atman is that inseparable part of Brahman, that aspect of all living creatures which is reincarnated. The atman will undergo endless reincarnations to higher or lower states, depending on good or evil deeds done in previous lives. Only until the atman is liberated from the samsara can it be fused into the Absolute Being. The key to this union is by breaking the maya (illusion). Correct knowledge is critical to halt the maya-induced reincarnation cycle. Reincarnation for Hindus is a type of transmigration of the soul.
kasmai devaaya havishaa vidhema
" What god shall we honor by means of sacrifice?"
Modern Hinduism has to deal with the "problem" of heredity and evolution. At the turn of the century the swamis adapted their message to a Western audience and ruled out the old belief that people could be reincarnated as an insect or a dog. Western adherents generally believe in an evolutionary model, where the individual improves from life to life.
On the other hand, in Buddhist thought the term reincarnation is inaccurate. Buddhism prefers the term rebirth. The Buddhist teaching does have an equivalent term for atman (Sanskrit), namely atta (Pali); but, this is not the permanent self to be reincarnated as in Hinduism. The individual is made of five parts or khandha. A constant movement of these parts causes the illusion of an existing self. The self is not identifiable but is in constant flux, even as water in a river is continually moving and never in the same place twice. One of these khandha is called vinnana or consciousness; this is the "regenerative force" in a human that is reborn. When one is reborn, it is not that a soul enters the embryo, but that the "foetus" is molded by energy from without, by a thought - force, by a craving - force, by a will. The only way to break the rebirth process is to become desireless. Nibbana is a cooled state where the person has achieved a state of absolutely no desires, passions, or greed. It is not, as in Hinduism, an absorption of atman into Brahman.
The doctrine of reincarnation can be very difficult to understand, especially in trying to understand exactly what is reborn. However, regardless of any doctrinal difficulties, the concept of living one life after another is easily grasped by many. No one may understand the details of reincarnation such as the time gaps between existences, and the possibilities of sex or species changes from birth to birth; but, what is generally understood by many is that the personality, the mind, the soul, the will, the real "you" will be reborn in another life. In addition, many understand the basic nature of karma. Not only will the real "you" be reborn, but there will be a retributive karmic accountability. Popular karmic understanding believes a person will receive punishment or reward in the rebirth assignments. This rebirthing process has become very attractive to Westerners who have long been accustomed to Christianity's one - life - only limitation. In the past 100 years reincarnation has become quite sophisticated as the East and the West have encountered each other in dialogue. Many reincarnationists consider their process of immortality to be far superior to the traditional Christian hereafter. What are the reasons reincarnationists are making such a claim? What is a Christian response?
One reason they claim for asserting the superiority of reincarnation over resurrection is scientific. Physicists are saying the universe is in continual expansion, collaspe, and re - expansion. The universe itself is following the reincarnational principle. They claim that what ancient Indian religion has long ago discovered in spiritual truth, modern science is only now finding out. Another scientific reason is the law of the conservation of energy. Since all matter continues to exist, then so do all spiritual entities continue to exist. Thirdly, the scientific awareness of the evolution of the world and its inhabitants is in keeping with the continuous evolution of the individual spiritual self. A Christian may simply counterargue by making similar claims of the compatibility of science and Christianity.
Another reason that reincarnationists see their view as more agreeable with the truth of immortality over the Christian view is theologico - philosophical. To them, reincarnation offers a more excellent understanding of the nature of evil and theodicy. If the Christian God is good and all - powerful, why does he allow evil to spoil the world? Why does such a God make one person rich, healthy, and wise, and another person poor, lame, and idiotic? Why does God permit the wicked to lead a happy life while many righteous are miserable? If Christians believe that infants go immediately to paradise at death, why don't they pray for their newborns to die? Why should one suffer for eternity for the works which he was forced or predestined to perform by the will of the Lord of the universe? "As to hell, I don't think there is any god monstrous enough to make a hell. I cannot believe in a God that mean. As somebody has said, 'With a God like this, who needs a devil?'"
The logical problem of evil produced by traditional Chritianity has been dealt with quite adequately in Encountering Evil. Instead of presenting a Christian theodicy, a few weaknesses in Reincarnationist "theodicy" will be noted. Technically it is not a theodicy because they do not blame evil on any "god" but on the individual's previous deeds in his or her past life, or karma. The problem with karma and reincarnation is that most people never remember their past lives and they do not know why they are being punished with karmic suffering in this life! Robert A. Morey has five penetrating questions: (Italics are his.)
- How is justice served if people have no knowledge of why they are being punished?
- Since people don't know why they are being punished, how can they avoid the same evil which originally caused the Karmic suffering?
- If they don't know the evil which led to their suffering, are they not bound to repeat the evil?
- Must people, therefore, keep making the same mistake life - after - life - after - life? How can they break out of this cycle if they do not know what evil to avoid?
- Without any knowledge of the past, how is progress made or measured? Does it not seem that one is like a rabbit slowly turning on the spit of reincarnation while roasting in the fires of Karma?"
In addition to theodicy, reincarnationists are proclaiming the practical aspects of their view applied to ethics. Two examples will be noted.
In counseling suicidal persons, the counselees are told how their problems will continue to follow them into the next life, and thus they emphasize the need for facing the issues now. They are given counsel on how the surviving families will suffer from the loss of the persons who killed themselves, and how the souls of the dead persons will be fully cognizant of their familial sufferings, but how that the "ghost" will be unable to help those still living. Near death experiences of suicidal persons have reported how they could walk along with their loved ones but were not able to reach their loved ones with comfort. So suicide is not an ethical alternative.
A second ethical application of reincarnationism is in the issue of peacemaking. Every one recognizes the need to transcend war. The reincarnationist teaches that when we destroy our enemies, we only perpetuate the cycle of war because they will only reincarnate and be our enemies again. More importantly, since we will all be reincarnated we ought to work harder for peace for our future lives.
Morey has some insights into the injustices of karma, samsara, and its ethics. If rebirth is true, there is no ethical pressure to live a good life now. Why should a person repent now, when he will live again and have plenty of other opportunities? Further still, there is a tremendous amount of personal suffering in this belief system because all the evil that comes to a person is considered deserved as one's own due and fault. Worse still, if one's neighbor suffers, there is no real motivation to help one's neighbor. Thus, the reincarnation ethic causes people to ignore the suffering of others and does not encourage people to alleviate human suffering. Instead of a helping hand, it produces pride among the rich and healthy, and shame among the poor and sick. Infact the karma - samsara pattern is cruel because it does not call for an ethic of grace, mercy, love, or forgiveness. In the same pages Morey points out that karma is a political tool to control, oppress, and exploit the lower classes. The karma - samsaric ethic becomes evil when one sees insects and rodents consuming precious food supplies, and people dying from starvation. The people refuse to kill the insect or the rodent because they believe it might be a reborn relative.
In closing, reincarnation is presently a fast - growing, and an adaptive teaching. "Reincarnation is Making A Comeback." Its believers have worked hard to make their teachings palatable for Westerners. They have studied the ancient documents worldwide, including the New Testament, and have found alledged references to support their dogma. Even though they have not interpreted the Christian scriptures properly, they are still trumpeting prooftexts to a convinced audience. They also like to quote from famous literaure such as the works of Milton, Poe, and Thoreau. The reincarnationists have searched the world's religions and found ancient, medieval, and modern witnesses: from "the Orient", to "Egypt", "Judaism", "Christianity", "Mohammedanism", "the Druses", "Masonry", "Theosophy", and "Primitive and Tribal Religions." They have checked Western thinkers for reincarnation tendencies and found "evidence" for it in "Greece", "Rome", "Spain", and in sources of "Italian", "British", "Irish", "German", "Dutch", " Belgian" , "French" , "Swiss", "Scandinavian", "Hungarian", "Polish", "Russian", and "American" origins. In short, the role of reincarnation is significant in the context of our world today. Billions of people adhere to it. Sixty per cent of Americans believe in it. It has developed from a pre - Aryan concept to a fully Vedic one (by way of the Upanishads). It has come from the Hindus to the Buddhist, from the Indians to the Orient of Tibet, China, Korea, Japan, and many other neighboring countries. Today it is preached in all the world. Reincarnation is a major belief that Christians simply cannot shrug off. Christians must study it in order to be able to present their own Resurrection message in a clear way. Today reincarnationism appears to be a reaction against the deadness of stillborn institutionalized Christendom. How Christians need to believe and live out their faith! For after this - the judgment!
1. John N. Jonsson, Worlds Within Religion (Louisville, KY: John N. Jonsson, 1987), pp. 116-117.
2. Edmond Robillard, Reincarnation: Illusion Or Reality? Trans. K.D. Whitehead. (New York: Alba House, 1982), pp. 15-26.
3. Ibid., p. 33.
4. Joe Fisher, The Case For Reincarnation (Toronto: Bantam Books, 1985), p. 2.
5. S. Abhedananda, Reincarnation (Calcutta: Ramakrishna Vedanta Math, 1951), p. 68
6. Francis Story, The Case For Rebirth (Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 1973), p. 9.
7. Jonsson, Worlds p. 169.
8. Story, The Case For Rebirth pp. 9-12.
9. Jonsson, Worlds p. 166.
10. James Dillet Freeman, The Case For Reincarnation (Unity Village, MO: Unity Books, 1986) p. 38.
12. Abhedananda, Reincarnation p. 91.
13. Ibid., pp. 13-14.
14. Ibid., p. 18.
15. Ibid., p. 19.
16. Freeman, The Case For Reincarnation p. 16.
17. Stephen T. Davis, ed. Encountering Evil: Live Options In Theodicy (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1981) pp. 1-182.
18. Robert A. Morey, Reincarnation And Christianity (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, Inc., 1980) pp. 28-29.
19. Joseph Head, and S.L. Cranston. Reincarnation: An East - West Anthology (New York: Julian Press, 1961) pp. 301-308.
20. Head and Cranston, Anthology p. 264.
21. Head and Cranston, Anthology p. 267.
22. Morey, Reincarnation pp. 41-42.
23. Fisher, Case p. xviii.
24. James M. Pryse, Reincarnation In The New Testament (New York: Elliot B. Page and Co., 1900) pp. 5-92.
25. Head and Cranston, Anthology p. v.
27. Morey, Reincarnation p. 9.
1. Abhedananda, S. Reincarnation. Calcutta: Ramakrishna Vedanta Math, 1951.
2. Cranston, Sylvia, and Carey Williams. Reincarnation: A New Horizon In Science, Religion, And Society New York: Julian Press, 1984.
3. Davis, Stephen T., ed. Encountering Evil: Live Options In Theodicy. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1981.
4. Fisher, Joe. The Case For Reincarnation. Toronto: Bantam Books, 1985.
5. Freeman, James Dillet. The Case For Reincarnation. Unity Village, MO: Unity Books, 1986.
6. Head, Joseph, and S.L. Cranston. Reincarnation: An East - West Anthology. New York: Julian Press, 1961.
7. Jonsson, John N. Worlds Within Religion. Louisville, KY: John N. Jonsson, 1987.
8. Morey, Robert A. Reincarnation And Christianity. Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, Inc., 1980.
9. Pryse, James M. Reincarnation In The New Testament. New York: Elliot B. Page and Co., 1900.
10. Robillard, Edmond. Reincarnation: Illusion Or Reality? Trans. K.D. Whitehead. New York: Alba House, 1982
11. Story, Francis. The Case For Rebirth. Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 1973.