How would you react if a Hindu told you that reincarnation was true? That isn’t something that would unsettle or anger you, is it? The man is wrong, and if the situation allows you might try and convince him of his error, but his claim wouldn’t upset you.
Would you react differently if a Christian told you that the evidence for reincarnation couldn’t just be dismissed? And what if instead of one Christian telling you, it was two, and both were well-respected philosophy professors?
At this point, some of us might start getting a little perturbed. We don’t know how this could possibly fit with our Christian worldview, and we’re getting…uncomfortable. We might be annoyed, even a little angry.
The problem with this defensive reaction is that it has us acting like God and His Word can’t stand up to challenges. At some point, most of us have reacted this way, though the trigger might have been sickness, or money troubles, or maybe the challenge of evolution. Whatever it is, we get scared, and start doubting whether God can provide the answers we need.
Hunkering down behind our church pew doesn’t help, though. Even when we find ourselves having doubts, God’s people can and should proceed in trust, knowing that our doubts don’t actually impact His faithfulness. Our doubts won’t make Him disappear, so we can tackle our questions, instead of hiding from them. We can turn to Him, asking for help and the answers we need.
Now, Hindus don’t come around door-knocking like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, so the evidence for reincarnation isn’t a challenge many of are going to have to face. But it is a fun example of how proceeding in trust can help us dig out unexpected truths and better understand the world as God has really made it. So let’s take a closer look.
J.P. Moreland and Gary Habermas are two Christian philosophers. Separately they have authored or edited such orthodox titles as In Defense of Miracles, Love Your God With All Your Mind and The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ. These guys are not New Age wing nuts. They’re not crazy. Though what they’re saying seems crazy.
In their collaborative effort Beyond Death they devote a chapter to reincarnation and present some interesting evidence.
A case they call typical involved a four-year-old boy named Prakesh who suddenly started telling his parents his actual name was Nirmal and that his home was in a different village. He told them many details about his “real” family including the names of friends and relatives and what business his father was in. He repeatedly tried to run away to this “former” home. Five years later things got really interesting when:
“…Nirmal’s ‘real’ father visited Prakesh’s village and Prakesh recognized him. It was discovered that Nirmal was actually the name of the man’s son, who had died prior to Prakesh’s birth. Prakesh wanted to return ‘home,’ and subsequently was reunited more than once with those whom he claimed to have known in his previous existence. He recognized those he said were his former relatives and friends, greeted them with appropriate emotions, and provided precise details concerning the furnishings of his earlier home. Yet he was puzzled by the changes that had occurred in the intervening ten years.”
This story is pretty compelling and it is easy to see why it and others like it are viewed as good evidence of reincarnation.
But reincarnation does not fit with the Christian worldview; in the Bible we are told we live once, die, and then are raised to a new life in a different, perfect state. We die once and are raised once, not again and again and again as the reincarnation model states.
So reincarnation is not true. But the evidence for it seems to be. What is a Christian to think? Is there another explanation that will fit the evidence? A better explanation?
Yes. We need to look at the evidence a bit more deeply but by doing so we get a clearer picture of what is really going on.
In a bit of an ironic twist, Moreland and Habermas turn to a reincarnation advocate to find the information they need to undermine the reincarnation position. Ian Stevenson presents a number of cases in which a child claimed to be the reincarnation of someone who was still alive when the child was born. But how can that be possible? Reincarnation is supposed to involve the passing on of a soul from a dead body to a new one, not the passing on of a soul from a living body to another body.
So I cannot be a reincarnation of my brother Jeff since my brother is still alive and still very much in possession of his soul – he cannot pass it on to a new body until his old body is done with it. But in the cases Stevenson cites the reincarnated individual was born before the “earlier incarnation” had died. In one case in India “the deceased individual died when the second person was three and a half years old.”
The spiritual realm
Reincarnation has no explanation for such events…but the Bible does.
In Scripture we learn that evil spirits can take possession of a person and control both what they say and what they do (see, for example, Mark 5:1-15). Scripture also tells us that these evil spirits have been living on earth for millennia. In the course of their time here they have undoubtedly seen a lot and had the chance to learn many facts and details about the lives of people long dead. They would know this information because they were actually there!
So the evidence for reincarnation can be explained just as easily, and indeed better, as evidence of demonic possession. These people are not reincarnated versions of some former person – they are possessed by demons who have memories of events from long ago.
Additionally, Habermas and Moreland note that many of these “reincarnation cases” occur in cultures that have very occultic religions. They quote one former Hindu guru who described his religion this way: “My world was filled with spirits and gods and occult powers, and my obligation from childhood was to give each its due.”
Perhaps the reason “reincarnation” is more common in these cultures is that they openly worship evil spirits. It doesn’t seem too far a stretch to suppose that in a culture that prays to evil spirits, possession by these spirits might be more common.
The secular cynic dismisses anything supernatural because he can’t touch, taste, hear, or see it. But, consequently, he has no answer for the evidence we’ve just encountered.
Christians can sometimes act quite similar, dismissing evidence that doesn’t easily fit in with our worldview. But we don’t have to act so fearfully. While the secular sort can only maintain his worldview by ignoring all that conflicts with it, the Christian can be confident that nothing conflicts with it.
Hindus probably aren’t going to be knocking on your door any time soon. But you may get asked an uncomfortable question today. Whether it’s your own kids asking questions about the birds and the bees, or a coworker asking about God and your faith, we’re all going to get hit with questions we aren’t ready to answer. That might leave us tempted to shy away from the challenge, and change the conversation to something about the weather or sports. But then our fear will have muted our witness.
It’s when we understand that what God has told us – about Himself, about ourselves, and about the world – is trustworthy, that we’ll be able to seek out that truth boldly. Then what might seem like uncomfortable questions can be recognized as opportunities to find out more about God. We might not always get a full answer – humility is also important, as only God is omniscient – but there are answers. Then, when we are bold we’ll be able to share how Christianity explains not only reincarnation but everything else too!
A version of this article was originally published in October 2003 as “Coming back again and again and again.”