Orthodox America

Cults and Sects - Reincarnation

Fr. Alexey Young

...according to the idea of reincarnation, if one is "saved" at all it is only after many lifetimes of working out the consequences of one's sins. This is the cold and dreary legalism of the pagan religions which was totally abolished by Christ's sacrifice on the Cross. Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose): The Soul After Death

Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming in which all that are in the graves shall hear His voice and shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation. (John 5:28-29)

Technically speaking, reincarnation is not a cult or a sect. It is, rather, a non-Christian "doctrine" that is now surprisingly widespread in the West-and not just in transplanted Eastern religions or New Age sects. It is even espoused by some who otherwise consider themselves "Christian"; this writer has even known a few Orthodox Christians who professed belief in this heresy.

In Reincarnation: Illusion or Reality?, Edmond Robillard tells us that "reincarnation is in no way a scientific truth; it is a religious belief. In its essentials, this belief can be stated as follows: after death, the human soul leaves the body and passes into another body which can be either 1) a plant body (such as a grain of wheat); or 2) an animal body (such as that of a monkey or a pig); or 3) another human body (either of a rich man or a poor man); or even an extra-terrestrial body."

Reincarnation was well-known in the ancient world-in Classical Greece, among the Celts and Druids, in various "mystery religions" of the Near East, and especially in India.* Before the time of Christ, some Hebrews had begun to entertain ideas about reincarnation, too, and this has survived among various Hasidic groups in the world today.

Because most ancient peoples had little or no concept of a "personal God" Who is Judge of the living and the dead, reincarnation took hold as a way of explaining many of the manifest injustices and mysteries of this life; a person who had done evil might "come back" as an animal or as one who would have to suffer much in order to "expiate' the sins of a previous incarnation. Reincarnation is thus a primitive form of retribution. This is called the "law of karma"-or, in modern parlance, "what goes around, comes around." **

The Christian view, however-which comes to us through the Son of God, Jesus Christ Himself, and from Scripture and His Church-is quite different. However much one might want to be a Christian and still believe in reincarnation-for perhaps personal and psychological reasons-there is absolutely no way to reconcile this false teaching with authentic and historic Christianity. It is either intellectual dishonesty and pride or a mental aberration to try to subscribe to both Christian Revelation and reincarnation. One can believe in one or the other, but not both.

This is why the early Fathers were so anxious to distinguish the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob-who is "God-Made-Man" in Jesus Christ-from the pagan gods, who were merely manifestations of impersonal "cosmic energies" and "universal forces." Thus, St. Justin Martyr flatly contradicted pagan teachings about reincarnation-current at his time-when he wrote:

"We [Christians] believe that, in the beginning, He [God] made them-they who did not exist before-but who today, in choosing to please Him, will merit immortality" ("First Apology").

Over and over the New Testament reminds us that God is a personal judge and rewarder of every man at the end of his one life on earth. The most dramatic example of this is at the crucifixion, when Christ tells the thief: Today you will be with me in paradise-not after several lifetimes and reincarnations, but "TODAY" (Luke 23:43)-for He, the Savior, does not impose an impersonal and cruel karma on this criminal, but grants immediate forgiveness and release from all sin and its consequences. This is why St. Paul so urgently tells us that NOW is the favorable time; THIS is the day of salvation (II Cor. 6:20).

Here, then, is no mechanistic "wheel of re-birth" (as taught by Hindus, Buddhists, and their Western equivalents) but perfect love and eternal life. As Robillard writes: "We see here clearly how the law of karma is incompatible with the law of love instituted by Christ from the height of the Cross. The law of karma demands rigorous, inexorable justice; the law of the Cross is all pardon and gratuitous gift."

Furthermore, reincarnation and karma imply that mankind has the power to achieve some kind of blissful perfection through his own merits, by means of an endless succession of lifetimes. In other words, in each incarnation "I learn how to 'do' life better." This is not Christianity. Rather, this is precisely the kind of enslaving superstition that Christ came to set us forever free from!

If karma were part of God's plan for us, why did His Son die on the Cross and rise from the dead? What, then, was accomplished? From the reincarnationist standpoint, NOTHING: we are NOT set free from death and sin and our faith in the Lord is in vain. This is the logical and inevitable consequence of belief in reincarnation.

Yet this is precisely what many Western people-some consciously, others frivolously-believe today. Of course many adherents of this false doctrine do not fully understand the implications of their error. They are attracted by superficial and grandiose nonsense about hallucinatory "memories" of previous lifetimes-often gained through "regressive hypnosis." The mass media gives this a good deal of attention. But such people also existed at the time of St. Justin, who wisely observed (in his "Dialogue with Trypho") that since the vast majority of people do NOT recall anything about a previous incarnation and the "lessons" to be learned from that life, then belief in reincarnation is of absolutely no value to anyone!

It is sometimes said that if the Scriptures do not explicitly teach reincarnation, they at least do not condemn it, either. False. In the Gospel of St. John, the Lord is asked about a blind man: Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, for him to have been born blind? In other words, he must have done something wrong in a previous life, or he wouldn't have been born with blindness. To which the Savior replied: Neither he nor his parents sinned...but that the works of God might be manifest in him (John 9:2-3). The Lord has here clearly refuted the idea that the existence of evil can be explained by reincarnation.

Finally we must add that, if reincarnation is true, why do we pray for the dead? If there were such a thing as re-birth, then our prayers are wasted. Furthermore, why do we, in requiem services, implore the Mother of God, the angels and the saints, to receive and have mercy on the soul of the one who has died-rather than asking them to grant a "good re-birth" to the deceased? On the contrary, we believe that following death there is judgment and accountability, after which the soul is led into a realm of unutterable goodness and light-or darkness and torment-there to await the resurrection of the body at the Second Coming of Christ. This is based upon Scripture.

Let us therefore not thirst after "strange teachings"; let us, rather, reaffirm our belief in Christ's free and so-merciful gift of salvation, remembering (in the words of St. Cyril of Jerusalem), that "In baptism"-and NOT through reincarnation-"God washes away the marks of past sins on both the body and the soul" ("Catechesis").

As the Council of Constantinople declared in 543 A.D.: "If anyone shall say or think that the souls of men pre-exist...and were sent to inhabit bodies...let him be anathema."

Fr. Alexey Young