“Do you believe in reincarnation?”
I’ve been asked this question many times over the years.
Sometimes it’s a litmus test question. The people asking already either believe in reincarnation or they don’t. If my answer agrees with their view, they’ll see me as enlightened. If not, they’ll see me as unenlightened. So it’s always tempting to answer with a light-hearted, paradoxical non-answer of the type a certain uncle of mine loves: “Not this time around!”
But the question keeps coming. People also want to know what the Bible says about reincarnation. And they want to know whether my favorite theologian, Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772), says anything about reincarnation. Some are sincerely looking for understanding on this often confusing subject.
For example, here is part of a comment that a reader named Mark left on the article, “If there’s One God, Why All the Different Religions?”
Specifically however, please enlighten those of us who remain confused by reincarnation. As an example, Krishna conciousness teaches an absolutely beautiful and devoted life to God (whom appears in any way he chooses but still only ONE god). The bible seems to teach that we come through this human “life” but once. I understand that this could be once per each human life and I have considered that each human life, even reincarnated, is once. Please provide your take on this. Unless I have misunderstood, according to Krishna teachings, heaven is not the “final” or utmost attainment.
We’ll dig into all of this in a few minutes. But first, for those of you who just want the quick answers so that you can move on:
- I do not believe in reincarnation (though I do think it points to a deeper truth).
- The Bible does not support reincarnation (and it never did).
- Emanuel Swedenborg also does not support reincarnation (but he explains why people think it happens).
There! I’ve said it!
If you still want to learn more, settle in. This is going to take some time. But it will be worth your time if you want a thoughtful, spiritual, non-dogmatic Christian response to the currently popular belief in reincarnation.
There’s more to reincarnation than meets the eye
Before we dig into the specifics, let’s get the general idea in mind.
If understood from a spiritual rather than a materialistic viewpoint, neither the Bible nor the Eastern scriptures teach reincarnation. Instead, they teach spiritual rebirth. And they teach a continual “re-incarnation” of God in an infinite variety of finite (non-God) human beings. Each creation of a new human soul, and the resulting birth of a new human being, is a brand new expression of a unique, never before expressed facet of the infinite reality of God.
In other words, God’s infinite creativity is continually creating brand new expressions in the form of new, eternal human souls that briefly inhabit a material body on earth on their way to an eternal (and very solid and real) life in the spiritual world. Our lifetime here on earth is like our development in the womb before we are born into our true, spiritual and eternal life. Along the way we experience many spiritual rebirths, both during our lifetime here on earth and during our eternal life in the spiritual world.
Reincarnation as popularly believed—souls passing through multiple bodies and lifetimes in the material world—does not actually take place. However, there is a reason under God’s providence that people are allowed to think that it does.
Many people see all the injustice in the world, and they cannot accept that a loving God would allow so much evil and injustice. For people who have difficulty thinking beyond this material world, with its physical and financial rewards and punishments, reincarnation provides a way to think that life is just. And it is better for people to believe in God and spirit, even if their belief is not entirely accurate, than to reject God and spirit altogether because they believe God has created an unjust world.
In other words, a belief in literal, physical reincarnation is an accommodation God makes for people who are focused more on material justice in the physical world than they are on spiritual and eternal justice.
It is similar to some Christian fundamentalists believing that in a future apocalyptic Last Judgment, the world as we know it will be destroyed, God will create a new one, and we will all be reunited with our physical bodies and live in an eternal paradise right here in the physical world.
That’s not going to happen. Those prophecies are about spiritual events. (See “Is the World Coming to an End? What about the Second Coming?”) However, for people who can’t conceive of any solid reality other than material, physical reality, the belief in a literal resurrection of the body allows them to think that there will be a real future life, not just some disembodied, ghostly “spiritual” life.
As a matter of fact, life in the spiritual world is much more solid and real than life here on earth. But that idea is difficult, if not impossible, for many people to grasp.
In the same way, reincarnation does not take place as is popularly believed. But it allows many people who are stuck on physical, material reality to believe that life continues after death, and that there is meaning, purpose, and justice in the way the universe is constructed.
Beyond that, the materialistic idea of physical reincarnation provides an image of a deeper, spiritual truth.
You see, even beliefs and ideas that are fallacious in themselves can serve as stepping stones to a deeper understanding of spiritual reality. When we move beyond the external appearance, we can discover the deeper truth. Eastern scriptures that speak of reincarnation are using material images of life and death to speak about deeper realities of our spiritual rebirth.
That’s also what the Bible means when it speaks about being born again.
Did the Bible ever teach reincarnation?
Let’s dispose of one common rumor right away: the idea that the Bible used to teach reincarnation, but those evil Christian councils changed the text hundreds or thousands of years ago, so that it no longer does.
There is absolutely no evidence for this.
Now, I have no great love for the so-called Christian councils. Most of them just mucked up Christian doctrine and said nasty things about everyone who disagreed with their particular heresies. But one thing they didn’t do was change the text of the Bible. It wasn’t really possible for them to do that. There were too many manuscripts of the various books of the Bible, going too far back. Any changes they made would have been so obvious that they would have been rejected.
The only thing the councils could do was decide which books would be in the Bible. However, for the books they did include, the text we have is as good as or better than any other text we have from that far back in history. Though a few minor scribal errors made it through, and there were a few sections added to the originals (such as all but the first few words of 1 John 5:7), for the most part we have a fairly reliable text of the entire Bible. And none of the changes that did take place had any effect on what the Bible says about reincarnation.
What does the Bible say about reincarnation?
The word “reincarnation” does not appear in the Bible. However, there are several places in the Bible where the idea of reincarnation comes up.
Let’s be clear about this.
There are many spiritual leaders who claim that the Bible teaches reincarnation. However, the fact that the idea of reincarnation shows up in the Bible does not mean it is true according to the Bible. It only means that in Biblical times there were people who believed in reincarnation. In the few places where it does come up, reincarnation is not affirmed in the Bible. And there are many passages that state clearly that once we die, we go to an eternal afterlife, from which we do not come back.
As we will see, the Bible, especially the Gospels, offers a teaching in place of reincarnation that is much deeper, more spiritual, and in the end, more just and human than reincarnation.
Let’s look at some of the places where the idea of reincarnation is present in the Bible.
Was a man born blind because he sinned in a previous life?
John 9 tells the story of Jesus healing a man born blind, and its aftermath. When Jesus first encountered the man, his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). Of course, for the man to have sinned resulting in his being born blind, he would have had to sin in a previous life.
However, Jesus rejected both of the possible explanations that his disciples suggested: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him” (John 9:3). That is a fascinating reply, with a lot of meaning, as explored in the rest of the chapter. But for our purposes at the moment, the point is that Jesus rejected the idea that sins in a supposed previous life were the reason for this man’s blindness from birth. And since the doctrine of reincarnation generally holds that sins in past lives are the reason we suffer in our present life, by extension Jesus rejected the whole idea of reincarnation.
Was Jesus a reincarnation of John the Baptist or one of the prophets?
In Matthew 16:13–20, Jesus asked his disciples who people were saying that he is. They responded, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” Jesus was not satisfied with this answer. He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Then Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” This answer Jesus heartily approved of. Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” He goes on to say that he will build his church on the “rock” of this truth (not on Peter himself, as the Catholic Church teaches).
Once again, when his disciples present Jesus with popular speculations that he was a reincarnation of John the Baptist (impossible, since John the Baptist and Jesus lived at the same time) or one of the ancient prophets, Jesus did not accept that idea. Instead, he accepted the idea that he is the Christ (the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word “Messiah,” meaning “the anointed one”), and the Son of God.
Incidentally, the Bible also does not say that Jesus was a reincarnation of King David. Like Elijah as a prophet (see below), in the Hebrew scriptures David became a figure representing greatness as a king. In associating Jesus with David, the Bible does not mean that Jesus was a reincarnation of David. It means that he took over from David in spirit as the greatest King of all time.
Was John the Baptist a reincarnation of the prophet Elijah?
There was also a lot of speculation that John the Baptist was a reincarnation of the ancient prophet Elijah. This came about because of a prophecy in the Old Testament:
Behold, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse. (Malachi 4:5–6)
And in fact, in the Gospels, Jesus does identify John the Baptist as Elijah who was to come (see Matthew 11:13–14, 17:10–13). This has been seized upon by those who believe in reincarnation to say that Jesus did, indeed, teach reincarnation. But this idea cannot withstand scrutiny. Neither the prophecy in Malachi nor Jesus’ words identifying John the Baptist with Elijah were meant to be taken literally.
What does this prophecy mean, then? And how was it fulfilled by John?
Essentially, it means that John was to be a great prophet like Elijah, preparing the way for the coming of the Lord. In the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament), Elijah had come to be a representative figure of prophets, and of prophecy in general. This is why in the Gospel of Luke, an angel of the Lord told John’s father Zechariah that his yet unborn son would go before the Lord “with the spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:17, emphasis added). John was not to literally be Elijah, but to “wear the mantle of Elijah” (in Biblical terms) as a great and powerful prophet—the last of the Biblical prophets, leading up to Jesus himself.
We can be assured that John was not literally a reincarnation of Elijah by a later incident recorded in the Gospels. After John’s death, at the time of Jesus’ transfiguration, Jesus’ closest disciples, Peter, James, and John, saw Moses and Elijah with Jesus (Matthew 17:1–13; Mark 9:2–13; Luke 9:28–36). Now, if Elijah had been reincarnated as John the Baptist, he would no longer be Elijah, but John. Yet after John’s death, both Elijah and Moses were still living in the spiritual world as themselves. Many centuries after they had lived and breathed on earth, they had not been reincarnated and become someone else.
In short, according to the Bible story, Elijah could not possibly have been reincarnated as John the Baptist. Elijah was still living in the spiritual world, very much himself, after John the Baptist had already lived and died.
For some other Bible stories in which well-known figures are seen or mentioned as alive and themselves (not some other, reincarnated being) in the spiritual world years or even centuries after their deaths, see 1 Samuel 28:3–25; Matthew 22:31–32; Luke 16:19–31.
The Bible denies reincarnation, and affirms an eternal afterlife
The stories about the man born blind, the question of who Jesus was, and John the Baptist fulfilling the prophecy of Elijah’s return are sometimes pointed to by reincarnation supporters to argue that the Bible teaches reincarnation. But in fact they show just the opposite. Wherever the idea of reincarnation is brought up in the Bible, it is either directly denied or the story itself makes that interpretation impossible.
Meanwhile, there are many passages in the Bible stating either directly or through imagery that once we die, we move on to an eternal state from which we do not return. Here are just a few of them:
As the cloud fades and vanishes, so those who go down to Sheol [the grave or the underworld] do not come up; they return no more to their houses, nor do their places know them anymore. (Job 7:9–10)
“But now he is dead; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.” (2 Samuel 12:23)
“And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:46)
And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched. (Mark 9:47–48)
And just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment . . . (Hebrews 9:27)
Yes, there are shadows of reincarnation in the Bible. But the whole story of the Bible is based on the idea that we humans have but one life on earth, and we then we move on to our eternal reward or punishment, never to return.
There is another story in the Bible that relates to reincarnation: Jesus’ nighttime conversation with Nicodemus in John 3:1–21. That story offers the key to understanding the real, deeper meaning behind the popular misconception of individual reincarnation. But before we get to it, let’s look at how people came to believe in reincarnation.
What does Emanuel Swedenborg say about reincarnation?
Long before there was widespread knowledge of near-death experiences, and all of the information and experience about the afterlife from them, there was Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772).
As far as I know, no one else in human history has ever even claimed to have the length, depth, and clarity of experience in the spiritual world that Swedenborg did. By his account, for the last twenty-seven years of his life he was able to be fully conscious in the spiritual world while still living in the material world. He didn’t just hear voices like a spirit medium. He lived and moved among angels and spirits as if he were one of them from his mid 50s until the time of his death at age 84.
During those years, he traveled extensively throughout heaven, hell, and the intermediate “world of spirits” (as he called it), fully acclimating himself to the realm that we all pass into after we die. His most popular book, Heaven and Hell offers a verbal map and guided tour of the spiritual world.
While thousands of people have had a brief glimpse of the spiritual world during near-death experiences, and have come back to tell us about it, Swedenborg had several decades to fully experience the other world, and unlock its secrets. From that extensive experience, he made his few brief but illuminating statements about reincarnation.
In most of those statements, he quickly dismisses reincarnation as a mere fantasy. However, in Heaven and Hell #256 he offers more substance about how people came to believe in reincarnation:
No angel or spirit is allowed to talk with one of us from the angel’s or spirit’s own memory, only from that of the individual in question. Angels and spirits actually have memory just as we do. If a spirit were to talk with us from his or her own memory, then it would seem to us entirely as though the thoughts were our own, when they would really belong to the spirit. It is like remembering something that we have never seen or heard. I have been granted knowledge of the truth of this by experience.
This is why some of the ancients were of the opinion that after some thousands of years they would return to their former life and all its deeds, and that they had in fact returned. They gathered this from the fact that sometimes a kind of memory would come up of things that they had never seen or heard. This happened because spirits had flowed from their own memory into the images of these people’s thoughts.
What is Swedenborg saying here?
Short version: when people “experience past lives,” they are indeed experiencing a past life. But it’s not their own. It is the life of someone else who had previously lived and died here on earth, and is now living in the spiritual world.
You see, in the spiritual world, what we call “information technology” (IT) is far more advanced than it is here on earth. Here, we require complex electronics to store and transfer data. Large memory banks are required to store databases full of information. Transferring all that information over land lines or via satellite can take a considerable amount of time.
In the spiritual world, information storage is built right into the “operating system.” And transmission, even of massive amounts of data, is almost instantaneous.
For example, even after we die, the memory of every experience we have ever had from pre-birth to death is stored away forever. This is not just a general memory of the high points. It includes every single experience in full detail: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch, together with all of the thoughts, feelings, impressions, desires, and reactions associated with it. The record of our life is so detailed that it is possible for us to re-experience any event or time period in our life so fully that it feels as if we were actually there.
That’s a vast amount of information! Yet it is all stored effortlessly and without error in the spiritual “data banks” of our minds, and in the general “data centers” of the spiritual world.
Not only that, but it is possible for that vast amount of information to be transferred almost instantly from mind to mind. In the spiritual world, it is not only possible for us to re-experience events in our own lives from the records of it in our spiritual memory, but for the angels and spirits around us to share in that experience.
For example, Swedenborg describes how angels are able to draw out of the memories of criminals who have died the exact circumstances of their crimes, and display every single detail of each crime, one after another from beginning to end, until they cannot possibly deny what they have done. See Heaven and Hell #462b (scroll down to 462b).
“Experiencing past lives”
Of course, people in the spiritual world don’t walk around all day dumping the contents of their earthly memories into other people’s minds. Usually, once we move on to heaven (or hell), the memory of our earthly life fades away as we build new and much more vivid memories of our new life in the spiritual world.
However, those memories do still exist. And under the right circumstances, it is a simple matter to transfer the entire memory of one person’s life into another person’s mind.
This is the most basic explanation of what is actually happening when people experience “past life regression,” and “remember past lives.”
We have spirits around us all the time, even while we are still living in the material world. They are so tied in with our thinking and feeling that if we were cut off from the spiritual “atmosphere” created by the spirits who surround us in the spiritual world, we would not be able to think or feel anything at all.
The spirits who are with us normally have access only to our minds and memories, not theirs, while they are with us. This is to prevent them from confusing us by transferring into our minds their own memories or the memories of other spirits that they have access to. Instead, they draw out things from our own thoughts and feelings, resulting in our recollecting things we’ve experienced, coming up with new ideas and theories, and evaluating our ideas and beliefs, our loves and feelings, and the meaning of our lives.
Sometimes, though—especially when it is desired by those on both sides of the sensory “veil” that separates the material and spiritual worlds—memories of a departed spirit’s life are transferred into the minds of people who are still living on earth. This can cause feelings of déjà vu. Or, when a more complete set of memories is transferred, it can cause us to “remember” whole life experiences of someone who lived in the past.
This is not necessarily the past life of the actual spirits who are around us. Once a spirit gets access to another spirit’s memories, those, too, can easily be transferred to the mind of someone still living on earth.
It is quite common for people who believe they’ve experienced past lives to think that in a past life they were someone famous from history. In the spiritual world, famous people are the subject of just as much fascination and investigation as they are here on earth. But in the spiritual world, it is possible to get access to “inside information” from memory records that are not available here on earth. Those memories can then be transferred to someone who is still alive on earth, causing the phenomenon of famous people being more likely to have been “reincarnated” than unknown ones. Wouldn’t you rather have been one of the elite few such as Plato or Hypatia, and not just one of the anonymous masses of slaves, serfs, and poor laborers who toiled away for decades and then died in obscurity? Yet statistically, the chances that you were someone famous in a past life are almost nil.
Such memory transfers are not the only mechanism by which people have experiences that convince them that they’ve been reincarnated from previous lives on earth. But they are the explanation for most of the “experiences of past lives” that believers in reincarnation report.
This doesn’t necessarily mean those experiences are evil or demonic, as claimed by many conservative religious opponents of reincarnation. Everything happens under God’s providence. For some people, the belief that they have been here before, and will be here again, gives great meaning to their lives. And the angels and spirits who are with us lead and inspire us according to our own beliefs, whether or not those beliefs are actually true.
This is all part of God’s protection of our freedom to believe and live as we choose. However, this is also one of the reasons why contact with angels and spirits is not a good source of genuine spiritual truth. (See the article, “What about Spiritualism? Is it a Good Idea to Contact Spirits?”)
What’s wrong with reincarnation?
So why shouldn’t people believe in reincarnation?
Practically speaking, it may not matter all that much whether people do or don’t believe in reincarnation. It either happens or it doesn’t, regardless of what we happen to believe. And as long as we love and serve God by loving and serving our fellow human beings (see Matthew 25:31–46 and Romans 2:5–16), it’s not so critical that we have correct beliefs rather than faulty ones.
The fact is, people can believe all sorts of things, including reincarnation, and still be good and loving people who are heading to heaven, not hell. For example, I have no trouble accepting the description of Krishna consciousness as teaching “an absolutely beautiful and devoted life to God.” God has spoken divine truth to people of all races and cultures. Each one hears it in its own unique way. (See “If there’s One God, Why All the Different Religions?”)
If you, dear reader, still want to believe in reincarnation after reading this, I have no problem with that. I won’t argue with you or try to convince you that you are wrong.
But since I’ve been asked the question so many times, I’ll tell you why for me, reincarnation is not an acceptable belief.
Reincarnation robs us of our humanity
It all has to do with our humanity.
And that has to do with our freedom to choose our own life and our own destiny.
What I personally find so troubling about the systems of belief that include reincarnation is precisely what those who do believe in them find so attractive and comforting.
In every form of reincarnation that I’ve encountered so far, there is no eternal hell.
Sooner or later, every soul ends out either re-merged with the Divine or in a state of blissful nirvana that is the Eastern equivalent of the Western heaven.
What’s so bad about that? Isn’t it good that everyone would end out in the highest attainable state?
In a word: No.
Theoretically, God could have created the universe so that it contained no eternal evil, or even so that it contained no evil at all. But the cost of doing so would have been the absence of any created beings who were truly human. If real, eternal evil did not exist in the universe, there could be no beings in the universe (other than God) capable of real, human relationships of love and mutual understanding with God and with one another.
You see, for love to be real human love, it must be freely chosen. God could have created us pre-programmed to love God and love our fellow human beings. But it would have had exactly as much meaning as programming a computer to print “I love you” on the screen. The computer doesn’t actually love you. It’s just mindlessly displaying what it is programmed to display.
What makes us human is the freedom to choose who and what we will love, and the rationality to think for ourselves and make our own decisions about what to believe. Without these capabilities at the core of our being, we would be no more human than a rock or a tree.
Further, if we are to be truly free, we must be able to choose what we will believe, what we will love, and how we will live permanently, not just temporarily.
That’s the problem with the doctrine of reincarnation. Eventually, no matter what choices we make, we will all end out in the same place: either as part of the Divine or in the blissful state of nirvana. In fact, under the doctrine of reincarnation, we will be forced to undergo endless lifetimes until we make the choices, and reach the enlightenment, that we are supposed to make. Choosing anything other than pure love and enlightenment will only send us back for another lifetime . . . and another . . . and another, until we get it “right.” Only one choice is acceptable: the choice for divinity and enlightenment.
What this really means is that under the doctrine of reincarnation, we are not human at all. We are like rats in a maze, forced to keep running the circles of continual reincarnations until our behavior, our thoughts, and our loves conform to the way the designer of the maze wants us to think, feel, and act. Only then are we released from the wheel of reincarnation.
“Karma” as taught in the doctrine of reincarnation is not only cause and effect—which in itself is a perfectly true and reasonable idea. It is also a deterministic and behavioristic training mechanism that gradually and inexorably forces all souls to make the same “choice” (which is really a non-choice), and end out in the same place.
Eternal heaven + eternal hell = true humanity
People who believe in reincarnation often say that it’s not fair to have just one lifetime to make an eternal choice between good and evil.
However, if we look at it objectively, it really doesn’t matter whether our choice is made in seventy seconds, seventy years, or seventy centuries. There is no ratio between eternity and any finite time period. Once a period of seventy billion years is over, it will still be like nothing compared to eternity. And if every choice we make except the choice to re-merge with the Divine or enter a blissful nirvana is only temporary, then those “choices” are not real, no matter how long they take to make. They are only a temporary illusion.
Only what is eternal is truly real.
This means that for our humanity to be real, we must be able to make choices that last forever.
And for our freedom of choice to be real, we must be free to choose not to do what God designed us to do. So we must be free to choose not to love God and not to love our fellow human beings. We must be free to reject the light of truth that God offers us, and cling to our own particular darkness and falsity.
This is why God allows (not creates) evil and falsity, and allows (not creates) an eternal hell. Without it, none of our choices are real. Without it, we are not humans, but rats in a maze or pre-programmed robots who merely do what we are trained or programmed to do.
The fact that we can choose not to go to heaven, but choose instead to go to hell forever, means that our choices are real, what we choose really matters, and we are truly human. As free and rational human beings, we can choose our own life and determine our own eternal fate.
Hell is a choice
Yes, the existence of an eternal hell is a choice. And it is our choice.
Why would anyone ever choose to live in the eternal punishment and torture of hell?
It helps to understand that although there certainly are painful and devastating punishments in hell, that’s not the primary purpose of hell. In fact, the primary purpose of hell is to provide a place where people who choose hatred over love, greed over generosity, domination over cooperation, and falsity over truth can experience as much of their particular pleasure as possible given the self-limiting and self-punishing character of evil and falsity.
Hell has many other purposes as well, such as protecting angels and good spirits from the destructive influence of evil spirits and providing a balance between good and evil so that people on earth can remain in spiritual freedom. (For more on why there is a hell and what it is really like, see the article, “Is There Really a Hell? What is it Like?”)
In short, the only way we can be truly human is if we have a choice between good and evil . . . and that choice is permanent. Our life on earth is our opportunity to make that choice. God could have made our life last a single day, which is the life span of some insects, or it could have lasted fourteen billion years, which is the estimated age of the universe so far. It really doesn’t matter. Seventy to one hundred years is as good a number as any.
What does matter is that God doesn’t force us to do it God’s way. As human beings, God offers us the choice between good and evil, lets us make that choice for ourselves, and then respects the choice we have made.
A conversation with some inhabitants of hell
Believe it or not, the people who go to hell choose to be there. As terrible and disgusting as their life may seem to us, they wouldn’t have it any other way. Swedenborg was once present for a conversation in the spiritual world in which a spirit newly arrived from earth, together with some angel guides, encountered some evil spirits from hell. Here’s what happened:
The ground suddenly yawned wide at some distance from them. Up through the chasm came three devils, who were visibly lit up by the delight that comes from what they love. The angels who were accompanying the newly arrived spirit perceived that it was not by coincidence that the three devils had come up just then. The angels called out to the devils, “Don’t come any closer, but from where you are, tell us something about what delights you.”
“It is important to know,” they replied, “that all people, whether labeled good or evil, have their own delight. The so-called good people have theirs and the so-called evil people have theirs.”
“What do you take delight in?” the angels asked.
“What is delightful to us,” they replied, “is whoring, taking revenge, cheating, and speaking blasphemy.”
“What are those delights like for you, exactly?” the angels asked.
The devils replied that their delights were sensed by others as resembling the stench of excrement, the reek of dead bodies, and the smell of stagnant urine.
“Are those things actually delightful to you?” the angels asked.
“Very much so,” the devils replied.
“Then you are like the filthy little creatures that live in those substances,” said the angels.
“If we are, we are,” the devils said, “but those things give our noses intense pleasure.”
“Do you have anything further to add?” the angels asked.
“Yes,” they replied. “Everyone is allowed to have her or his delight, even if it is of the ‘most unclean’ kind, as others call it, provided she or he does not attack good spirits and angels; but because our delight makes it absolutely impossible to resist attacking them, we are thrown into workhouses where we suffer many hard things. Being restrained and withdrawn from our delights causes the so-called torment of hell, which is profound inner pain.”
“Why do you attack people who are good?” the angels asked.
“We can’t help it,” the devils said. “A kind of rage comes over us every time we see any angel and sense the Lord’s divine sphere around that angel.”
“Then you are also like animals,” we said.
Soon afterward, when they noticed the newly arrived spirit with the angels, a diabolical rage came over them, which looked like a burning fire of hate. Therefore to prevent their doing any harm, they were thrown back into hell. (True Christianity #570:7)
During this brief time of withdrawal from their usual life in hell, these evil spirits were quite rational. They had a clear understanding of their own life and pleasures. And they assured their listeners that although others may find their pleasures revolting, to them they are intensely pleasurable.
Outside of hell, they could not indulge those pleasures. So although their pleasures are inextricably linked with pain, they choose to be in hell, where at least some of the time they can enjoy the types of pleasures they have chosen, and no one can force them to be someone they do not want to be. In other places, Swedenborg describes evil spirits jeering at those who feel love and kindness for others, and rejecting such feelings as idiotic and unreal.
As inhuman as this may seem, having the choice to live this way is part of what it means to be human. It means having the freedom to choose what sort of person we want to be, even if that involves rejecting the life for which God designed us.
In the doctrine of reincarnation, we are not given that freedom—which means that ultimately, we are not really human.
Why does reincarnation appear in so many ancient writings?
Why, then, do so many scriptures—especially Eastern scriptures—talk about reincarnation?
That’s a very good question, and it deserves an answer.
First, the idea of reincarnation has been ingrained in many cultures for thousands of years. As we’ve already seen, it shows up in the Bible. It also shows up in the writings of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato. And of course, it shows up in many ancient Eastern scriptures. It is present in the ancient writings of many cultures.
However, the purpose of scriptures is not really to set us right intellectually. It is to lead us toward a life of loving God and our fellow human beings (see Matthew 22:34–40). In order to accomplish this, the various scriptures of humankind commonly accept beliefs and practices already ingrained in the cultures in which the scriptures are written, and use them to lead the people of those cultures toward more kind and loving ways of life.
The simplest answer to the question of why reincarnation appears in many ancient writings is that the people of those cultures already believed in reincarnation. Those sacred writings simply used that belief to inculcate in them a life of caring and concern for their fellow human beings.
In the case of reincarnation, the basic message conveyed by the ancient Eastern scriptures is this:
If you engage in evil practices such as lying, stealing, adultery, fraud, and so on, you will be punished for it in a future life. For example, if you are wealthy but corrupt and oppressive in this life, in your next life you will experience the same poverty and oppression that you now inflict on others. On the other hand, if you are poor and lowborn, but you live a kind and virtuous life, in your next life you will be rewarded by being born into a privileged, well-to-do family, and enjoying the finer pleasures of life.
This is just an example of how the already existing belief in reincarnation is used in ancient Eastern scriptures to encourage people to choose love and kindness over greed and selfishness. It doesn’t matter very much whether the belief in reincarnation is true or false. What matters is that the people who believe in it see reincarnation as a reason to live good lives rather than evil ones.
What is the deeper meaning of reincarnation?
But there is a more profound reason reincarnation appears in many of the great scriptures of humankind.
Reincarnation in itself is a rather materialistic and physical-minded belief. Like the doctrine of bodily resurrection held to by many conservative Christians, the doctrine of reincarnation is well-adapted to the minds of people who are focused on material rewards and punishments.
However, it also plants the seeds of a deeper understanding of the meaning of life, death, and rebirth. That’s because if we look deeper, the real meaning of reincarnation is not physical rebirth, but spiritual rebirth. It points to the same spiritual reality that the Christian Gospels express through their teachings about being “born again.”
Let’s go back to the Bible, and read part of Jesus’ nighttime conversation with Nicodemus:
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”
Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.”
Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the spirit.” (John 3:1–8)
Here Jesus makes it clear that the rebirth he is talking about is not re-entering the womb and being born again physically, as in the doctrine of reincarnation. Instead, the rebirth he is talking about is being “born of the spirit.”
In plain words, what Jesus is talking about is becoming new people in our minds and hearts. In 2 Corinthians 5:17, the apostle Paul is referring to the same thing when he speaks of our becoming “new creations” in Christ. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna means the same thing when he tells his student, “Arjuna, both you and I were born many times in the past. You do not remember those births, but I remember them all.”
In each case, the scriptures are not talking about physical rebirth, but spiritual rebirth.
In accordance with Krishna’s words, this takes place many times in the course of our lives. Each time we turn over a new leaf in any of our habitual thoughts, feelings, or actions, we are being born again. We can easily forget about these spiritual rebirths, just as Arjuna did. But if we look back on our lives and reflect on the changes we have been through, we can identify many of the inner rebirths we have experienced from our earliest childhood right up to the present.
For more on this deeper meaning of being born again, see:
- What does Jesus Mean when He Says we Must be Born Again?
- Heaven, Regeneration, and the Meaning of Life on Earth
This is not to deny that many Eastern scriptures and mystical writings do teach a literal, bodily reincarnation. However, that belief is present in those scriptures because it was already a part of the popularly accepted belief system of the people to whom they were addressed.
Even though physical reincarnation does not actually happen, and is in itself a false belief, under God’s providence it was allowed to appear in various ancient scriptures and philosophies because it points toward the deeper truth of spiritual rebirth.
For those whose minds are focused on physical punishments and rewards, reincarnation provides something to hold onto as a reason to live a good and virtuous life. But for those whose minds are able to move beyond material things to spiritual realities, behind the appearance of bodily reincarnation is the deeper reality of the ongoing cycle of rebirth and renewal of our heart, mind, and life. The longer we continue on this cycle of spiritual rebirths, the higher we go on our journey toward God and heaven.
Rebirth does not stop at death
One of the attractive features of reincarnation is that it provides a way for us to continue growing and developing spiritually even after we die. If we don’t get it right in this life, or we don’t attain the level of personal and spiritual growth we are capable of, we will be given another lifetime in which to continue our spiritual journey.
To many people, this looks like a major advantage over beliefs such as those in Christianity, in which we have only one life on earth, and then we go on to our final home in heaven. If we see heaven as “the final or utmost attainment,” then the afterlife looks static, and even stagnant. Who wants to sit on clouds to eternity, playing harps and praising God all day? We humans want to live and learn and grow and experience new things!
So let me ask you a question: When, after many months in your mother’s womb, you were born into the world, did your physical growth stop there? Certainly you went through many amazing transformations while you were in the womb. But after you were born, you continued right on growing to adulthood. And even once you reached adulthood, you did not stop growing intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. Each new day brings new things to learn, new things to do, new ways to grow. Even here on earth, the day we stop learning and growing is the day we start dying.
Don’t you think this would be even truer when we are “born” from this material world into the spiritual world through the process known as death? Does our intellectual, emotional, and spiritual growth stop just because we have moved from one world to another?
According to Swedenborg, it does not. In fact, he describes a heaven in which the angels are continually learning and growing to eternity! For example, in Secrets of Heaven #4803, he writes:
It is worth mentioning something completely unknown in the world: Good spirits and angels are continually changing and developing as human beings. As this happens, they move into more and more central locations in the areas where they live, and they move up to higher and more responsible jobs. You see, heaven is a place of constant purification—and as the saying goes, of “new creation” [see 2 Corinthians 5:17]. Here’s how it is there: No angel can ever achieve absolute perfection—not to all eternity. Only the Lord is perfect, and all perfection is in and from the Lord.
Just because we die and go to heaven, that doesn’t mean we stop learning and growing. In fact, because we are then in a spiritual world, without the physical limitations of the material world, we have far greater opportunities for growth than we do here on earth!
Consider Nicodemus’s question to Jesus: Now that you’ve grown up, would you even want to go back into the womb? As beautiful and comfortable a place as it is, when we are in utero we are confined to a small, dark space—and our possibilities for growth are very limited. There comes a time when we must leave the womb. If we don’t, there will be no more room for growth, and both we and our mother will die.
In the same way, there comes a time when we have done all the growing we can do in the rather dark and restrictive “womb” of the material world. Not only Swedenborg, but practically everyone who has ever had a brief glimpse of the spiritual world through a vision or a near-death experience describes it as incredibly more real and alive than the material world, and as positively vibrating with love, light, and activity. In that greatly enhanced environment, our ability to learn and grow intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually vastly surpasses what is possible for us here.
If that is so, what would be the purpose of coming back to earth?
It would make no more sense than returning to the womb after we have already been born.
There is absolutely no need for us to return to earth once we have completed the initial process of development as human beings that the material world is designed to provide for us. Any return to the material world would not be a step forward in our spiritual evolution, but a huge step backward.
Reincarnation is unnecessary
There is a very good reason that the Bible does not teach reincarnation.
There is a very good reason that Swedenborg, who is the one human being in all of history who has had the most extensive first-hand experience in the spiritual world, says that reincarnation simply doesn’t happen.
Reincarnation is unnecessary.
Believing in reincarnation isn’t the worst thing in the world. Yes, the popular Hindu belief in reincarnation did serve as a justification for the brutal caste system in India for many centuries. But a belief in reincarnation also helps many people to feel that there is ultimate justice in the universe, and that it is worth avoiding evil actions and doing what is good and right in their own lives.
However, a belief in reincarnation becomes unnecessary when we realize that:
- Heaven and hell are a choice.
- The ability to make that eternal choice is what makes us human.
- Whatever choice we make, we can pursue and experience our own pleasures.
- This is true even if other people think our choice of pleasures is wrong and disgusting.
- The material world is an environment in which we are prepared for the spiritual world.
- If we choose heaven, we can continue to learn and grow to eternity.
- Our ability to learn and grow mentally, emotionally, and spiritually is vastly greater in heaven than it is on earth.
When we realize and understand these things, then we will understand what Nicodemus realized: that once we have grown old, we cannot possibly return into the womb and be born again physically. We have already done that, and we don’t need to do it again. Instead, we are born from the womb of the material world into the wide open vistas of the spiritual world.
There, we will continue to learn and grow and face new challenges every day to eternity. Life will never get old, because we will be continually renewed and reborn in our heart, mind, and life.
For further reading:
- Who Are the Angels and How Do They Live?
- Is There Really a Hell? What is it Like?
- Can Gang Members Go to Heaven? (Is Life Fair?)
- If God is Love, Why all the Pain and Suffering?
- What about Spiritualism? Is it a Good Idea to Contact Spirits?
- What Happens To Us When We Die?
- What does Jesus Mean when He Says we Must be Born Again?
- Heaven, Regeneration, and the Meaning of Life on Earth