Encyclopedia  |   World Factbook  |   World Flags  |   Reference Tables  |   List of Lists     
   Academic Disciplines  |   Historical Timeline  |   Themed Timelines  |   Biographies  |   How-Tos     
Sponsor by The Tattoo Collection
Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index


Reincarnation, also called transmigration of souls, is the rebirth in another body (after physical death), of some critical part of a person's personality or spirit. Its occurrence is a central tenet of Hinduism, Jainism, some African religions, as well as various other religions and philosophies. Most modern Pagans also believe in reincarnation.

It has traditionally also been understood to be akin to the Buddhist concept of Rebirth, but in recent years it has become clear that the two concepts are very distinct - Buddhism teaches that there is no self to reincarnate.

Although reincarnation shares certain common features across these belief systems - a continuation of the self usually associated with some karmic task - there are often differing descriptions of the actual mechanism by which reincarnation occurs, as well as the details of what aspect of the person is being continued.

Table of contents
1 Reincarnation in Religions
2 Reincarnation in contemporary thought
3 References
4 External Links
5 See also

Reincarnation in Religions


Vedic religions of Hinduism, liberation from samsara, the cycle of death and rebirth, is considered the ultimate goal of earthly existence. This is known as Moksha or mahasamadhi in Hinduism.


In Jainism, gods reincarnate after they die. A Jainist, who accumulates enough good karma, may become a god; but, this is generally seen as undesirable since gods eventually die and one might then come back as a lesser being.

Greek Philosophy

Some ancient Greek philosophers believed in reincarnation; see for example Plato's Phaedo and The Republic. Pythagoras was probably the first Greek philosopher to advance the idea.


Many Gnostic groups believed in reincarnation. For them, reincarnation was a negative concept: Gnostics believed that the material body was evil, and that they would be better off if they could eventually avoid having their 'good' souls reincarnated in 'evil' bodies.

The Gnostic Gospel of the Nazirenes - Chapter 69:

1. As Yeshua sat by the west of the temple with his disciples, behold there passed some carrying one that was dead, to burial, and a certain one said to Him, "Master, if a man die, shall he live again?"
2. He answered and said, "I am the resurrection and the life, I am the good, the beautiful, the true; if a man believe in me he shall not die, but live eternally. As in Adam all (1997 = are bound to cycles of rebirth) die, so in the Messiah shall all be made alive. Blessed are the dead who die in me, and are made perfect in my image and likeness, for they rest from their labors and their works do follow them. They have overcome evil, and are made pillars in the temple of my God, and they go out no more, for they rest in the eternal."
3. "For them that persist in evil there is no rest, but they go out and in, and suffer correction for ages, till they are made perfect. But for them that have done good and attained to perfection, there is endless rest and they go into life everlasting. They rest in the eternal."
4. "Over them the repeated death and birth have no power, for them the wheel of the eternal revolves no more, for they have attained to the center, where is eternal rest, and the center of all things is God."

The texts contains several parallels to the Gospels, which are, though, traditionally interpreted differently in their context:
"I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. John 11:25f RSV
Him who overcomes I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will he leave it. Revelation 3:12 (NIV)


In all main traditions of
Christianity (orthodox, catholic, protestant) reincarnation was never part of the doctrine.

Some smaller groups (Christian gnostics, the Liberal Catholic Church, the Christian Community or the Mormons do include the concept of reincarnation in their doctrine, though.

In New Age related groups it is frequently maintained, based on certain Bible texts and church fathers (especially Origen), that the early Christians did believe in reincarnation and that the reincarnation proofs had been destroyed by the church later on.

Bible verses used as proof texts for the reincarnation teachings of early Christians are, e.g. Mt 11:14 and 17:12f and John 9,1 ff. Read with a new-age worldview, these texts can indeed be interpreted as referring to reincarnation. :Jesus identifies John the Baptist as the returning prophet Elijah in Matthews 11:14.

When the disciples ask Jesus about a blind man who had sinned: John 9:2 (NIV) His disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?"
John 9:34 (NIV) To this they replied, "You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!" And they threw him out.
In the Old Testament, David writes:
Psalms 51:5 (NIV) Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.

Actually no traditional Christian theologian of any age has interpreted these Bible verses in favor of reincarnation (not even Origen, see below).

It is also maintained, that the 3rd century church father Origen had been an adherent of reincarnation. Actually, Origen stood for the pre-existence of the soul -- the concept that the human soul existed already before birth. "The soul has neither beginning nor end... [They] come into this world strengthened by the victories or weakened by the defeats of their previous lives" (De Principiis). Origen, however, understood this "previous life" of the soul to be a life in heaven, not a previous incarnation on Earth. He also know the reincarnation teachings of the Greek philosophers and mentions them in his writings. In his exegesis of the above Bible verses, he does mention how they are interpreted by adherents of reincarnation but also stresses that the teachings of reincarnation are foreign to the church of God. Origen, Comment on the Gospel of John, Book VI, Chapter 7).

New Age adherents also maintain, that the (Catholic) church (or a Council or Constantine or the Pope) in later centuries had removed all traces of reincarnation from the Bible. Shirley MacLaine quotes this teaching in her book "Out on a Limb": "The theory of reincarnation is recorded in the Bible. But the proper interpretations were struck from it during an ecumenical council meeting of the Catholic Church in Constantinople sometime around A.D. 553, called the Council of Nicaea [sic]" (Out on a Limb, 234?35).

There is no historical basis for this theory. There was no Council of Nicea in the year 553 and the two councils of Nicea in 325 and 787 do not even mention anything like reincarnation. The second ecumenical Council of Constantinople in 553 (which was not conducted by the Pope but by the emperor Justinian I does not mention reincarnation either. The origin of the theory could be the fact that this council, rather as an aside, rejected Origen's teachings on the pre-existence of the soul: "If anyone asserts the fabulous pre-existence of souls, and shall assert the monstrous restoration which follows from it: let him be anathema."

That all verses regarding reincarnation have been removed from the Bible on the order of a Pope or council is historically not justifiable. The first universally acknowledged authorities in Christianity since the time of the apostles were the ecumenical councils, the first of which took place in 325. A single-handed decision of the pope accepted by the whole of Christianity is historically not imaginable - even his one-sided addition of two words to the Nicene creed (the Filioque) in the late first millenium is fiercely contended by the Orthodox churches until today. Moreover, the findings of textual criticism and the many very early fragments of the Bible that have surfaced during the last two centuries,make it extremely unlikely that anything of importance was ever removed from the Bible.

The Christian concepts of rebirth and resurrection which are taught my all mainstream Christian churches are completely different from the oncept of reincarnation.

New Religious Movements

Today belief in reincarnation is widespread in New Age and Neopagan circles. It is an important tenet of Theosophy, and central to Spiritism, founded by Allan Kardec.

Some Hasidic Jews also include this doctrine.

Similarly, Scientology holds that the people of earth have been brainwashed into believing that they cannot exist without a physical body, and that the resulting fear of death and compulsive need to reincarnate immediately after death are responsible of much of their misery. The Church of Scientology's Sea Org has been known to issue employment contracts with a duration of one billion years and a clause specifically stipulating that the contractual obligations continue after death.

Toward the Light is an example of a contemporary work originating in the western world, which very detailed accounts for reincarnation.

Reincarnation in contemporary thought

Evidence of reincarnation

anecdotal evidence abounds, the scientific evidence for reincarnation is currently fairly weak. The most detailed collections of personal reports in favor of reincarnation have been published by Dr. Ian Stevenson in works such as Reincarnation and Biology: A Contribution to the Etiology of Birthmarks and Birth Defects, which documents thousands of detailed cases where claims of injuries received in past lives sometimes correlate with atyptical physical birthmarks or birth defects. Perhaps the most significant anecdotal evidence in this regard is the phenomenon of young children spontaneously sharing what appear to be memories of past lives, a phenomenon which has been reported even in cultures that do not hold to a belief in reincarnation. Upon investigating these claims, Stevenson and others have identified individuals who had died a few years before the child was born who seem to meet the descriptions the children provided. In the most compelling cases, autopsy photographs reveal that the deceased individuals have fatal injuries that correspond to the unusual marks or birth defects of the child; for example, marks on the chest and back of a child line up precisely with the bullet entry and exit wounds on the body of an individual who has been shot. However, Stevenson cautions that such evidence is suggestive of reincarnation, but that more research must be conducted.

Skeptics such as Paul Edwards have analyzed many of these and other anecdotal accounts, and claim that further research into the individuals involved provides sufficient background to weaken the conclusion that these cases are credible examples of reincarnation.

Critics who claim that reincarnation is impossible often espouse the alternate theory that a large number of mental phenomena such as memory and ability are already accounted for by physiological processes; and may point to moral and practical inconsistencies in the various theories of reincarnation. To the materialistic mind, Occam's Razor would then seem to dictate that the critical view is to be preferred, as it demands no extraordinary new evidence beyond what is already known to science.

A more skeptical view is that without solid evidence showing that reincarnation exists (regardless of the current state of science), the theory of reincarnation cannot be considered to be a valid scientific theory regarding the real world. Some skeptics explain the abundance of claims of evidence for reincarnation to originate from selective thinking and the psychological phenomena of false memories that often result from one's own belief system and basic fears, and thus cannot be accounted as empirical evidence.

Another theory of reincarnation

It should be noted that a belief in reincarnation does not in and of itself disprove the existence of heaven, hell, or a final judgment. There are a number of small children who have reported having memories of past lives prior to their present life, and some also report being able to recall a time between lives (see books by Dr. Ian Stevenson, Carol Bowman, and Elisabeth Hallett). In some cases these children have also reported being in a place like heaven between lives, and sometimes that they were given some degree of choice as to whether and when to be reborn, and even in selecting their future parents. It is however unclear how truthfully their statements have been reported, and also how much of it is fantasy and how much is reality.

Some of these children have indicated that being reborn is not necessarily a punishment for past bad "karma", but rather an opportunity for a soul to grow spiritually. Additional lifetimes could give individual souls a greater opportunity to accomplish more for God, if that is a person's goal, and to develop better character traits. It should be noted that such a concept is at odds with Eastern views of reincarnation, which almost universally regards it as a bad thing.

Jane Roberts

In the Seth series of books Jane Roberts talks about reincarnation and life after death. Seth believed that time and space are basically illusions. Consistent with this view, Seth argues not only that each person lives several lives (in what only appear to be different time periods) in physical reality simultaneously, but also that only parts of each person incarnate (appear in physical reality). This last argument is part of Seth's view that man is a multi-dimensional entity simultaneously alive in many contexts.

See also: Afterlife, Bible and reincarnation, Carol Bowman, Ian Stevenson, Karma, Metempsychosis, Pre-Birth communication.


External Links

See also