Q: One of my close friends believes in reincarnation. My Catholic education and faith leave me with no reason to believe in multiple lives. Among other things, my friend claims that all mention of reincarnation was removed from the Bible in the early centuries of the Church. Please provide me with some background on reincarnation, its presence in the Bible at any time in history and the Catholic Church’s position on it.
A: In A Concise Dictionary of Theology (Paulist, 1991), Jesuits Gerald O’Collins and Edward Farrugia describe reincarnation as “the belief, also calledmetempsychosis (Greek ‘animate afterward’), that souls inhabit a series of bodies and can live many lives on this earth before being completely purified and so released from the need to migrate to another body.
“According to this belief, the soul preexists its embodiment, and after death exists in a disembodied state before animating [inhabiting] once again a body of the same or a different species. In various forms, reincarnation has been accepted by Buddhists, Hindus, Neoplatonists and others.
“Belief in resurrection and official rejection of the preexistence of souls…rule out reincarnation. By maintaining an indefinite series of chances, the doctrine of reincarnation reduces the seriousness of God’s grace and human liberty exercised in one life that is terminated by a once-and-for-all death.”
In 1991 the Holy See’s International Theological Commission published Certain Aspects of Eschatology, which says: “Christianity defends duality, reincarnation defends a dualism in which the body is simply an instrument of the soul and is laid aside, existence by successive existence, as an altogether different body is assumed each time.
“As far as eschatology is concerned, the doctrine of reincarnation denies both the possibility of eternal damnation and the idea of the resurrection of the body. But the fundamental error is in the rejection of the Christian doctrine of salvation. For the reincarnationist the soul is its own savior by its own efforts” (Section 9.3).
Reincarnation denies the need to convert, about which Jesus spoke often. If souls keep recycling, won’t they all end up in the same place eventually? If so, why are our decisions today important?
Arguing that some major doctrine was originally in the Bible but was later removed strikes me as too easy a solution.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “When ‘the single course of our earthly life’ is completed, we shall not return to other earthly lives: ‘It is appointed for men to die once’ [Hebrews 9:27]. There is no ‘reincarnation’ after death” (#1013).