Are souls reincarnated after death?
We remember our deceased family and friends in November with the commemoration of All Saints and All Souls. When we recall their passing, it is natural for us to wonder about questions such as: Is there life after death? What will eternal life be like? Who will be there? As we seek possible answers, we recognize that within us is a natural inclination toward justice that impacts our perspective. Though in this life bad things happen to good people, and vice versa, in the life to come, we believe, there will be a corrective. Many people, including non-Christians, believe that goodness will be rewarded and evil will be punished in eternity.
Humanity has often understood this just afterlife in one of two ways: Either each soul is judged and enters into the presence of God (heaven) or into God’s absence (hell) — or souls begin anew after death. This new start is popularly called reincarnation. According to this belief the soul traverses through different bodies or forms, whether animal or human, until it finds liberation.
Each soul is judged and enters into the presence of God (heaven) or into God’s absence (hell).
Though reincarnation is a tenet of several Eastern religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism, one in four American Christians also indicate a belief in it. The popularity of a belief in reincarnation, though not part of Christian belief, can provide an opportunity to examine God’s revelation about the afterlife compared to other beliefs about what happens to the soul after death.
The way reincarnation is understood by Eastern faiths is diverse, even within a single religious tradition. In Hinduism a soul takes on a new form after death, whether a higher or lower state. One’s past moral conduct determines the quality of his or her new existence until one has cycled high enough to achieve salvation (called moksha). In Buddhism one may be reborn to achieve higher levels of consciousness, eventually leading to liberation (called nirvana).
The Christian understanding of our life and destiny is much different. Christians live, die, and are judged, without the possibility that the life cycle begins anew and the soul takes on flesh again. The Christian Scriptures witness to the uniqueness of each soul and life in this world as preparation for the life to come. We believe that Jesus died for each individual and offers eternal life to all. The Letter to the Hebrews records:
Just as it is appointed that human beings die once, and after this the judgment, so also Christ, [was] offered once to take away the sins of many (9:27–28).
Jesus offers insight into eternal life when he answers the Sadducees who denied the resurrection. They gave the example of seven brothers who died in succession. Each married the same woman upon the death of the previous brother. They asked which brother will be her husband in the afterlife. Jesus explained: “At the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage but are like the angels in heaven” (Matthew 22:30). His response attested to eternal life, earthly life as a preparation for that life, and the finality of a single earthly life.
In the early Church several theologians considered the question of reincarnation. They wrote that belief in the resurrection did not allow for reincarnation. In the fourth century, St. Ambrose of Milan concluded:
Though they [non-Christians] … say that souls pass and migrate into other bodies … for us who have read the law, the prophets, the apostles, and the Gospel, it is not lawful to doubt [the resurrection] (On the Decease of His Brother Satyrus, II: 65–66).
Though reincarnation is not compatible with Christianity, we affirm the underlying belief that how we live this life matters. We, too, believe in a just afterlife — either with God for eternity or absent from him. Reincarnation may appeal to some because it provides another chance, a clean slate. Yet Christian belief, too, bears witness to our need for cleansing at the time of our death. A process of purgation (often called purgatory) prepares our souls, not for rebirth, but for entry into heaven. And while we live on this earth, we are called to repentance and transformation, relying on God’s mercy to cleanse us of our sins.
Like other faiths, Christians believe that “the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God” (Wisdom 3:1) — not for a new opportunity at life in this world, but for eternal life with God.
The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God.