The Mystery of Reincarnation
By Don O'Connor
There are two primary issues that question the validity of reincarnation:
- If we do not have recall of past lifetimes, how can we be aware of, much less correct, errors that were committed during those lifetimes?
- If reincarnation is true, why hasn't God revealed this most important fact?
The first question above is presented in the Dialogue With Trypho, written by Saint Justin Martyr (c. 100-165), a Platonist who also adopted Christianity. The New Catholic Encyclopedia characterizes his efforts as an attempt to combine the Old Testament with the teachings of Plato, thereby forming what might be termed a religious-rational pathway to Christ.
Justin answered the first question above by reasoning that if we were aware of being punished in our present lifetime for sins committed in a previous lifetime we "would be afraid to commit even the most trivial sins afterward." Not only is Justin's reasoning logically convincing, but we have readily-available proof of its validity, even if reincarnation is false.
One of humanity's greatest blessings is a built-in defense mechanism of the mind that serves to block out many memories that would otherwise adversely affect our ability to function.
Consider how unbearable life would be if we retained every thought we ever had and the details of every event to which we were ever exposed, not only from our present lifetime but possibly also from numerous other lifetimes.
In addition to the overwhelming burden that total recall would represent, there is the additional – and perhaps even more significant – threat that Justin emphasized: such memories would seriously compromise our free will.
However, the two together – the burden of total recall and the subsequent restriction on free will – would have presented humanity with virtually an impossible existence. Fortunately for us, God's design for humanity is both just and merciful.
The second question above is also very critical, since if reincarnation is true it would represent perhaps the most important aspect of our physical existence.
Unfortunately, in attempting to answer this question we must deal with a negative – why didn't God do something – and, further, any attempt to answer for God is not only ridiculously presumptuous, it is virtually impossible for anyone to think as God does.
However, we can approach the problem from a different direction: by assuming that God had revealed that reincarnation is true and then examining the likely results of such a disclosure.
As Adam and Eve were being expelled from Eden, suppose that God had counseled them somewhat as follows:
As you would do to others, so have you altered your own soul for better or for worse, and you must either live with any resulting spiritual impediments or employ equivalent corrective measures to restore your sanctity. Also, you must now also face physical death, but you may live as many such lives as you desire.
What effect would such a pronouncement have had on humanity? Obviously, all reasonable people would avoid harming others, knowing that such acts would result in a deterioration of their own souls, and further that they themselves may be subjected to similar harm in order to restore their souls.
Conversely, most people would attempt to be kind and helpful to everyone, knowing that they would immediately be enhancing their own spiritually and would possibly also be avoiding retribution resulting from previously-committed harmful acts.
We must begin to suspect that God may have missed a good bet by not having made such a revelation, since such a simple disclosure may have substantially improved the human race.
Or would it have? Do not the above-described motivations consider primarily our own spiritual welfare, with the benefits that would accrue to others representing only a secondary consideration? Doesn't such motivation in effect describe selfishness?
If so, can we possibly advance spiritually on the basis of selfish motivations? Do not selfishness and spirituality represent an ultimate conflict in terms?
The unavoidable conclusion we must arrive at is that if God had overtly revealed the truth of reincarnation, such a disclosure would have effectively hindered spiritual growth for most believers.
Incredibly, unbelievers would have had the best chance of advancing spiritually, since some of them would be functioning solely from a basis of altruism, having no expectation of reward.
If Justin is correct – that God has shielded us from a recollection of past lives in order to preserve our free will – God also could not have revealed the fact of reincarnation for the same reason.
We can extend such reasoning one step further: wouldn't any substantial revelation by God have produced essentially the same compromising effect on our free will? Surely, however, many will protest that the entire Judeo-Christian belief structure is built on God's revelations.
However, if God truly had made revelations, and we are considering here the clear, concise, and complete type of revelation that God must make – anything less than total revelation would represent a form of deception – there would be no hyphen between Judeo and Christian when we are discussing religious belief.
By having the advantage of God's unequivocal and unambiguous revelations, a single, absolute structure of belief would thereby have been established.
However, quite the opposite has occurred. A major separation exists between Judaism and Christianity – indeed, between all major religions – with further significant divisions having occurred within the separate religions, and with disputes promising to continue as long as individual believers are confused and in doubt regarding their beliefs.
The history of religion seems to suggest that revelation, while representing what may appear to be an obvious concept, may itself be no more than a hopeful illusion that has in fact produced a significant fragmentation of belief.
Christians who doubt this conclusion need only to review the life of Jesus. His messages were frequently – and perhaps deliberately – confusing, and when he was questioned for the sake of clarification his responses many times tended further to complicate matters.
He frequently used obscure parables and often did not explain their meanings. When confronted with this strange method by which Jesus outlined the basis on which he intended to bring the Old Testament to fulfillment, the best that Christian apologists can do is to defend his methods as being characteristic of a good teacher: one who entices – and even forces – his students to think for themselves.
We would agree that, while this may be an ideal method of teaching, it surely cannot be construed as representing the most explicit type of revelation.
Curiously, however, there was at least one occasion on which Jesus was not only very specific but, rather, he went out of his way to emphasize the disclosure he had made. In referring to John the Baptist, Jesus said that John "is Elijah," the Old Testament prophet, and he then added, "He who has ears, let him hear," (Mat. 11:13-14).
Needless to say, there are many who will refuse to hear what he said in this instance, and there are many who would deny that this event even represents a case of reincarnation, since Elijah never died; rather, we are told, "he went up by a whirlwind into heaven," (2Kings 2:11).
Regardless of how Elijah departed the Earth, this much is certain, according to Jesus: a given soul was born twice, once as Elijah and again as John. Such a sequence of incarnations has a name: it is called reincarnation.
Further, the manner in which Jesus emphasized the matter makes it appear as if he was taunting in advance those who likely would not accept what he had said in the most simple of terms – John is Elijah.
Further, he must have considered the matter to be of utmost importance because the manner in which he presented it comes perilously close to constituting a bona fide, over-the-top revelation. It falls short of that, however, since it discloses only one instance of rebirth, rather than a spiritual principle that applies to all of mankind.
God's options seem to be apparent: he could have given us either revelations or free will, but not both, since they represent incompatible concepts. Christianity struggles in its effort to establish that he has given us both; however, revelation would necessarily compromise free will, as Justin realized regarding the recall of memories.
Alternatively, unfettered free will, combined with sufficient opportunity, may permit us to achieve even divinity (Mat. 5:48), and such a possibility certainly makes free will a most prized human privilege, one that God obviously would take extraordinary measures to preserve.
Had we been able to vote on the matter there can be no doubt we would have eschewed revelation and overwhelmingly have chosen free will, which may represent the only means by which we can earn divine status. Of course, there are many who anticipate a spiritual free ride, with virtually no expenditure of effort on their own behalf, other than to keep convincing themselves that a free ride is theirs for the taking.
However, they might take time to observe the world around them and see that free rides seem to be rather rare, and in most cases those who get them apparently do not deserve them (at least when judged from a single-life perspective). On the other hand, most people in the world struggle through life, seeming to be getting an equally-undeserved rough ride, and reasonable people should wonder why such disparities should prevail.
No one would dare attempt to get an education, to raise a family, coach an athletic team, or run a business on the assumption that everything will be fine, regardless of conduct or effort. Similarly, to gamble one's soul on an anticipated free ride is a risk that no rational human should even consider. To count on something for nothing is a delusion that they may live (again) to regret.
Those faithful Christians who still have doubts about revelation should also consider a few essentials regarding their faith. They might consider, for example, the Doctrine of Grace, which is considered to be critical in Christian theology for achieving salvation, but an examination of the Bible indicates that Jesus never once used the word grace.
Further, the concept is otherwise so inadequately developed in Scripture that, as an example, the Catholic Church still has not clarified its own doctrine of grace – allowing its members to choose between either of two competing theological opinions. That comes closer to coin-flipping than revelation.
They might also consider the Doctrine of the Trinity. While we Christians may feel certain that God is the Father and Jesus the Son, we know very little about the mysterious third entity, commonly referred to as the Spirit. It would seem that either the Father or the Son could readily have performed all the functions that Scripture attributes to the Spirit.
Fundamentally, however, it would seem that a revelation of Christian principles should start with a complete disclosure of what constitutes our spiritual Godhead. We should at least have been made aware of the reason why we are not – or cannot be – informed in this respect, but we are simply left wondering about this most important aspect of our belief. It seems that the Spirit deserves something better than almost total obscurity.
We are forced to conclude that if we, as human souls, are to accomplish anything of spiritual significance, the following conditions are essential:
- The exercise of our will must be total and inviolable.
- We must accept total responsibility for our thoughts and acts.
- Subject to our current exercise of free will, we must accept everything that happens to us as being deserved, as having been elected by us to be endured, and as representing the ideal means of our achieving salvation.
- We must be given all necessary spiritual and material support, and be allowed as much time (eternity can surely accomplish that) and opportunity (God is not selfish) as we desire in order to accomplish our mission – whatever we choose to make it.
Reincarnation offers all of the above, as did early Christianity – to the extent that Christians such as St. Justin Martyr were freely able to embrace concepts such as Platonism, as in fact the early Christian leaders also did in formulating our theology, which is founded on Plato's philosophy. In addition, there is virtually no downside for reincarnation.
One can live according to all the precepts of any religion and still live by the Golden Rule – which almost all religions, including Christianity, espouse in one form or another (as Jesus did) – and that rule represents the essence of reincarnation.
If it turns out that we do not live more than one life, what has been lost? Our single life surely would be more pleasant and satisfying when lived on that basis, and other people are going to be helped along the way. As Pascal asked when pleading for people to accept Christianity, "What do you have to lose?" He also had an answer, "You give up little and gain much."
The same goes for reincarnation, except that it provides the means for us to achieve divinity, which Christianity makes virtually impossible because of its one-life restriction – which amounts to no life at all for many humans. As Pascal might have asked, had he been promoting reincarnation, "What do you have to gain?" Here's our question, "What more can there possibly be?"
However, traditional Christianity, having effectively rejected reincarnation, first by ignoring it, then by denouncing and imposing barriers against it – but never having formally condemned it – can offer none of the above conditions, nor can it answer the questions that reincarnation is able to do with relative ease. Perhaps, as Soren Kierkegaard once suggested, "Christianity should be reintroduced to Christians." Something vital seems to have been lost along the way.
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