More than one in five professing Christians in the United States believes in reincarnation. What are its origins and what does the Bible say?
One quiet afternoon in February 1989, I found a small handwritten note in my mailbox. It had been left by the receptionist of my Bangkok apartment complex. Written in Thai, it simply said, “Sawat is dead.”
Sawat Yingyuad was a good friend and mentor to me and a number of Western colleagues who worked in Thailand, Sri Lanka and Nepal in the 1980s. He died in a car accident somewhere in rural Thailand. Questions flooded my mind. For a start, I didn’t even know where he was. I only had the note. With some help from local Thai monks, I soon found him.
A couple of days later I arrived at Sawat’s childhood home in a remote village in northern Thailand. His body was in a closed casket on the open veranda. The atmosphere was hot and humid. And, as was the custom, he was not embalmed.
Sawat was a follower of Theravada Buddhism, as are some 60 million Thais today, 94 percent of the population. He had been in the monkhood from childhood into his 20s, studying at major Buddhist centers of learning in Thailand, India, Sri Lanka and Burma. He was a gifted linguist and scholar.
One other important fact: Sawat believed in reincarnation—rebirth in new bodies or forms of life, such as a human, animal, insect or some type of spirit.
Funeral rites and beliefs
Buddhist funerals in Thailand usually last at least seven days but sometimes continue 100 days or longer. After the first seven days, funeral rites may be held on a weekly basis until an auspicious date—based upon astrology and local tradition—is selected for the cremation.
Funeral proceedings for high-ranking monks or royal family members may continue for over a year. For example, the long-reigning king of Thailand, Bhumibol Adulyadej, died on Oct. 13, 2016. But his public cremation will not occur until Oct. 26, 2017, during a royal ceremony attended by thousands held near the Grand Palace in Bangkok.
In Sawat’s case, several monks came to the house nightly for several days to chant Buddhist verses, encouraging those present that he would be reborn into a better life in the future. Monks pray continually in the same manner for the late king and will continue to do so even after the royal cremation.
Family and friends came daily to pay respects to Sawat and his family and to eat, drink and openly discuss life and death—and the next life too. As is common, they also talked about their past lives. Yes, I mean before this life—before the last time they died. They also reminisced about Sawat’s life.
They believed Sawat’s karma, his good or bad deeds in this life and in countless previous lives, would determine the nature of his next existence. They also believed that there are many levels of heaven and hell, places where the souls of the dead are tested and purified prior to rebirth. They believed that continual prayers and acts of merit for the dead will improve their loved one’s afterlife and rebirth.
Reincarnation in the Western World
All of this may seem unusual and foreign to Westerners, especially those of us from a Christian background. However, more than 1.5 billion people around the world believe in some form of reincarnation or transmigration. The primary adherents are Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs and Jains.
Still, a 2009 research study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that although the United States is “an overwhelmingly Christian country, significant minorities profess belief in a variety of Eastern or New Age beliefs. For instance, 24% of the public overall and 22% of Christians say they believe in reincarnation—that people will be reborn in this world again and again.”
In 2006 Erlendur Haraldsson, psychology professor at the University of Iceland, published data regarding beliefs about reincarnation throughout Europe, collated from European Values Surveys over two decades. His research indicated that at least 10 percent of all Europeans believe in some form of reincarnation, with highs of 30 to 40 percent in parts of Eastern Europe and the Baltic countries.
Where did these beliefs originate?
In the fifth century B.C., the Greek philosopher Plato wrote his work Phaedo, which addressed metempsychosis, “the passing of the soul at death into another body either human or animal” (Merriam-Webster.com). And in the first century B.C., Julius Caesar said of the people of Gaul (now France), “The cardinal doctrine which they [the Druids] seek to teach is that souls do not die, but after death pass from one body to another” (Caesar, Gallic War, Book VI, 14).
Some scholars believe that these writings, as well as Roman and Celtic histories and literature, indicate that a belief in rebirth and reincarnation was very common in Europe before the Christian era.
However, were any of these ancient beliefs really the origin?
The real source
Many Christians and other readers are familiar with the Garden of Eden account in the book of Genesis. But many may pass over the specific words the serpent spoke to Eve and their direct impact on mankind’s beliefs about life and death ever since.
Satan asked Eve whether God had forbidden them from eating of every tree in the garden. Of course, he already knew the answer. But Eve said, “We may eat the fruit of the trees of the garden; but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden [the tree of the knowledge of good and evil], God has said, ‘You shall not eat it, nor shall you touch it, lest you die’” (Genesis 3:2-3).
What was Satan’s response? “You will not surely die. For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (verses 4-5, emphasis added throughout).
Satan lied. He knew that physical humans surely would die if they disobeyed and rejected God’s instructions. Adam and Eve sinned and ate from the forbidden tree. God thrust them out of the Garden of Eden, cutting them off from access to the tree of life and all its godly benefits.
Sure enough, mankind has suffered and struggled—and died—ever since. But humans still look for ways to believe Satan’s words: “You shall not surely die.”
What does God say?
However, those who believe in an Almighty God who created the universe and all that exists, look to His Word, the Bible, as the genuine source of truth. Followers of Jesus Christ don’t look to Eastern religions, philosophy, astrology or even modern forms of Christian belief for answers to life-and-death questions.
“For the living know that they will die; but the dead know nothing.”Ecclesiastes 9:5 clearly states what death is like: “For the living know that they will die; but the dead know nothing.” A few verses later, we read, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work or device or knowledge or wisdom in the grave where you are going” (verse 10).
Death is the complete end to all consciousness, thought, knowledge or action. Simply put, the dead are not living in any form or fashion; they’re literally dead.
The prophet Ezekiel tells us that all souls (all lives) belong to God, and “the soul who sins shall die” (Ezekiel 18:4). So they aren’t alive in hell or purgatory.
The psalmist wrote that at death a person’s “plans perish” (Psalm 146:4). And “the dead do not praise the Lord, nor any who go down into silence” (Psalm 115:17).
This is consistent with the rest of the Bible in describing death as a state of total unconsciousness. The dead do not make plans or worship God. They are not in heaven or hell.
And they are not reborn to die again and again. God tells us in Hebrews 9:27: “And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment [at the resurrection].” Humans die once, though some (we hope only a few) will choose the second and final death (Revelation 20:14).
God’s incredible plan
God has a plan. Billions of people have died throughout human history. What happens to them and all who will ever live and die on earth?
The Bible reveals a future time when the “dead shall live; together with my dead body they shall arise. Awake and sing, you who dwell in dust; for … the earth shall cast out the dead” (Isaiah 26:19).
Jesus, the Son of God, spoke of a time when the dead would be resurrected and live again. He said: “Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation” (John 5:28-29). In verse 26, Christ revealed that He and the Father are the only beings capable of raising the dead.
According to the Word of God, my good friend Sawat is dead and awaiting resurrection to life, according to God’s own purpose and will. He is not in an endless cycle of rebirth and reincarnation. He is not in heaven or hell; he is not suffering for past lives or karma.
The truth of God’s plan is simple yet profound. Everyone will die—but God promises that through the resurrection of the dead all will come to life once again. Those who have not had the opportunity to be saved and receive eternal life in His family will then be given this marvelous opportunity (1 Timothy 2:4).
Who will you believe? God—or Satan?
For a deeper study into what the Bible teaches, see our booklet The Last Enemy: What Really Happens After Death?