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Reincarnation and the Message of Jesus

by Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D.

Throughout human history people have wondered what—if anything—lies beyond the grave. Is death the end of existence, an entry into eternity, or an intermission between earthly lives? These questions have intrigued and haunted mortals for the millennia.

Some Eastern religions such as Hinduism teach that the soul reincarnates in many different bodies. Because of the influence of the New Age movement, approximately twenty five percent of Americans now believe in reincarnation. Celebrities such as actress Shirley MacLaine and country singer Willie Nelson believe they have lived before and will live again. Why are so many people drawn to reincarnation?


Reincarnation offers hope to many. If we don't "get it right" in this life, we have another chance the next time around. Some even consult therapists in the hope of learning the details of their past lives which may help them solve their present problems.

Reincarnation also claims to insure justice in human affairs. We get what we deserve in every life. In Eastern religions, reincarnation is connected with the law of karma; it teaches that good deeds from past lives produce rewards in the next life or lives. Bad deeds produce punishments in the next life or lives. The law of karma is understood as an unbending and impersonal rule of the universe. We all get what we deserve. This consoles some who agonize over the apparent injustices in the world. And by working off one's bad karma over many lifetimes, a person can finally escape the process of rebirth and attain enlightenment.

Can reincarnation realistically offer hope and a sense of justice to a troubled world? Can it answer the nagging problem of death and what lies beyond?


We should take a second look at reincarnation. Even reincarnationists admit that the vast majority of humans do not remember their previous lives. Yet how can we learn from our past mistakes if we cannot remember them? We seem to make the same mistakes over and over again. The second chances don't appear to be doing us very much good. Given the moral failure rate of human history, do we any have reason to hope that we will get it right in a future lifetime? Where is the basis for such optimism?

In cultures such as India, the law of karma has justified not helping the suffering because it is thought that they are working off their bad karma. The lowest social class in India, the Untouchables, have been traditionally viewed as deserving their fate because of actions in previous lives. To help an Untouchable would be like releasing a guilty prisoner who had served but a small portion of his jail term.

According to reincarnation, the innocent do not suffer. All suffering is deserved on the basis of bad karma. The baby born without legs deserved it, as did the woman who was raped. There is no injustice—and no forgiveness. None are innocent, and there is no grace available—only the demands of karma.

Such teaching undercuts the basis for compassion in this life and makes the prospect for future lives less than heavenly for those without a perfect track record. Every wrongdoing will be punished without forgiveness, and no one can help you along the way. This is not good news.


The law of karma is unmerciful, yet the message of Jesus Christ is entirely different. Jesus taught that no one can keep the moral law. The human heart is unclean because of wrong attitudes and actions. Yet he never spoke of the law of Karma as a cosmic mechanism assigning rewards and punishments. For Jesus, wrongdoing is an offense against a loving and absolutely good God, who created the universe and each person in it.

Jesus never encouraged anyone to try to build up good karma from lifetime to lifetime in order to find enlightenment. Jesus said, "I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin" (John 8:34). Given the depth of the of human sin, saving oneself through good karma would be like trying to build a ladder out of water.

Jesus spoke of people receiving either eternal reward or eternal punishment according to how they responded to him during their one lifetime on earth (Matthew 25:31-46; see also Hebrews 9:27). He also declared that he would raise the dead at the end of history; those who believed in him would experience life, those who rejected him would be condemned (John 5:24-29). This teaching leaves no room for reincarnation.

But how can someone enslaved to sin find hope if not in reincarnation? How can eternal life be received? If so, how?

Jesus proclaimed that he came into the world "to seek and to save the lost" (Luke 19:10). Through his ministry of teaching, preaching, and healing, he demonstrated a sinless life and the power over death itself by raising the dead. He said about himself, "The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45). He came to touch the untouchables as no one else could. He can do the same today.

Jesus gave his life for humanity by going to the cross to die. The apostle Paul said this about Jesus: "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor. 5:21). Jesus also instructed his disciples that his body and blood would be given for the forgiveness of sin (Luke 22:19-20).

Jesus showed his forgiving love even on the blood stained cross. A thief on a cross next to Jesus confessed his sin and asked Jesus to remember him. Jesus responded, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43). Only faith in Jesus was required for paradise, not lifetime after lifetime of working off bad karma and building up good karma.


The message of reincarnation is ultimately bad news. You must earn your own salvation through countless lifetimes and no one can help you. The message of Jesus is good news. No, you can't save yourself. But Jesus left heaven and came to earth to rescue you. He died to pay the just penalty for your sin. He rose from the dead to demonstrate his authority as the Son of God (Rom. 1:4). And he asks you to turn from your old ways to follow him. He said:

      For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).

      All who believe in him and give their lives to him are freed from the fear of death and the penalty of sin. They can rejoice in these words of Jesus:

      I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. (John 11:25, 26, NRSV).

Copyright 2000. Douglas Groothuis. All rights reserved. Douglas Groothuis (Ph.D., University of Oregon) is associate professor of philosophy at Denver Seminary in Denver, Colorado. A well-known public speaker and writer on apologetics (particularly on the New Age movement), he has published several other books including the Soul in Cyberspace (Baker, 1997) and On Jesus (Wadsworth, 2002). Permission kindly granted to Faith and Reason Forum by InterVarsity Press.