Themes of rebirth are both ancient and profound, stretching backward and inward as far as mind and heart can intuit. They are suggested by primordial images like the Ouroboros (the serpent whose tail is in its mouth) and the Phoenix fire bird who rises from the ashes of its own funeral pyre. They are recalled in ancient stories of the Hindus by the Dance of Siva and the dreams of Vishnu, in the Sumerian descent of Inanna, the Egyptian imagery of the death and rebirth of Osiris, and the Christian story of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.
In most of the world's religious mythologies, death is not seen as the final end, a total annihilation, but as part of an ongoing cycle. Though most Christians reject the idea of reincarnation, traces of it can still be discerned in the notion of physical resurrection. It seems impossible to discover any clear-cut, unambiguous Christian doctrine to explain what death is or what happens after death — what is available does not contradict the idea of reincarnation. In fact, there are Christian scriptures that are in essential harmony with the vision of man as a reincarnating being. After all, it was a common enough belief in Jesus' time and was understood by many of the people who influenced Christian thinking 2,000 years ago.
Reincarnational ideas are found in the ancient religion of the Jews — the temples were even polytheistic until sometime between the 8th and 6th centuries BC — and were a part of the education of the early church fathers. Most bishops of the early church were pagan by birth and education; many held two services, one in the church and one at the shrine of Serapis. They had political and social as well as ecclesiastical duties, so sacrifices and sacraments were all in a day's work. Though they were kept alive in the Orient, ideas concerning reincarnation were suppressed in the West until they were reborn in the Middle Ages and again during the Renaissance. We are again seeing their rebirth in the popular Western consciousness.
It is tempting to dismiss the past as irrelevant; we tend to feel ourselves linked to history and its truths linearly — the further away we are from an event, the fainter its effects and the less its influence. While we look at our life as if it were a straight line — the longer we live the longer the line — the ancients saw it more as a circle which expands, stressing the interconnectedness of life and acknowledging the immediacy of all experience. They pulsed to the seasons, not to clocks. We are usually out of touch with this kind of perception; we construct convenient but arbitrary boundaries and call them beginnings and endings, births and deaths. We can appreciate a more holistic perception of time as eternally renewing cycles rather than as signals which progressively degrade the further they get from their source. Events are no less true or powerful, have no less integrity, for being yesterday's events. Christian scriptures seem to reflect this shift in consciousness from the cyclical to the linear, from an interconnected, dynamic yet sacred universe to solitary, disconnected, disenfranchised Man who is only an image of deity.
Whether or not Christianity caused this turnabout is hard to determine; what is known is that at the time there was a deep fear or belief that the world was about to end. As late as the 2nd or 3rd century AD people in the fertile crescent literally expected the violent finish of the planet. Jesus was said to have come in the fullness of time to inaugurate the "last time"; he prophesied Judgment Day and great tribulation complete with wars, famines, pestilences, earthquakes, betrayals, false prophets and more (Luke 21:8-28). Perhaps the horror of the anticipated apocalypse mirrored or in some way influenced the shift in perception from a symbolical one to a more exoteric or literal one. Not that the death of our planet is an impossibility; as the concept of reembodiment applies to all beings, it applies to planets and suns. The possibility of universal conflagration was not absurd, just untimely.
In the words of American novelist Tom Robbins, many folks have difficulty imagining "God just stomping on the brakes one day and sending the world flying through the windshield" (Skinny Legs and All, 1991, p. 302) — so an alternative explanation must be found. The Church might say that by coming, Jesus inaugurated the Piscean Age. But we could also say that the Piscean cycle was about to begin and Jesus came because of that; there was a feeling in the people who were sensitive to the natural timing of things, that something (the old Aries cycle) was dying. Jesus described the end of an age (aion); Christians took it literally to mean the end of the world. Fear often collapses vision; we may expect to see more of the same as our own century comes to a close.
Many ideas compatible with reincarnation appear in the Bible. Reincarnation assumes that we are immortal beings. Jesus speaking to the Jews in the Temple of Jerusalem said, "Is it not written in your law, I said, Ye are gods?" (John 10:34). Reincarnation also presupposes we are bound by karmic laws. Biblical scriptures tell us that those who live by the sword die by the sword (Matt 26:52) and that we will reap what we sow (Gal 6:7). Paul taught that each seed gets its own body (1 Cor 15:38). Our thoughts are seeds, and our actions are seeds for more actions — it could take countless eons for them to come to fruition, to get their own bodies — and it could take many rebirths to work out all the effects of causes we set in motion.
Cycles are the mainspring in the reincarnational clock; reincarnation suggests recurring cycles. Despite the millenarian theme there are scriptures that preserve an understanding of these cycles: "Unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again" (Eccl 1:7); "The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; . . . and there is no new thing under the sun" (Eccl 1:9); "That which hath been is now; and that which is to be hath already been" (Eccl 3:15); "No man ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven" (John 3:13).
Too literal an interpretation makes no sense. Some churches have contended that God creates each soul brand new, but this seems at odds with Scripture. If there is nothing new, then we could have been here before, and if we've been here before, we could come again, and again and again. As the poet Blake said, "the Pangs of Eternal birth are better than the Pangs of Eternal death" ("Vala, or the Four Zoas," ix, line 742; The Complete Writings of William Blake, ed. Geoffrey Keynes, p. 377).
The Bible is full of examples that demonstrate a much larger picture of life than just one earthly existence. The prophets were thought to journey through life and back again, but it is unclear where they went in between: the priests asked John the Baptist if he was Elias (John 1: 2 1); Elijah is prophesied to come before Judgment Day (Mal 4:5) — where was Elijah when God spoke these words? Herod thinks Jesus is John the Baptist (Matt 14:1-2); and his disciples acknowledge that men considered Jesus to be either John the Baptist, Jeremias, or Elias (Matt 16:14).
Other examples that push at the boundaries of the idea of only one earthly life are verses that describe preexistence, a subject that was taught in the early church. The prophet Jeremiah says God knew him before he was born (Jer 1:5); Solomon, son of David, says that he existed before the earth or heavens (Prov 8:2 2-30); Jesus said, "Before Abraham was, I am" (John 8:58).
In addition to the reincarnation of the prophets and the statements about preexistence, there are demonstrations of people being raised from the dead. Elijah revived a young boy (1 Kings 17:22), Jesus revived a daughter of one of the rulers (Matt 9:18-25) as well as Lazarus who had been in the grave for 4 days (John 11:44). After Jesus died, "Many bodies of the saints which slept, arose and came out of the graves (Matt 27:52-3). Peter preached to the dead (1 Pet 4:6) and many churches have prayers for the dead. The dead are thought to go to heaven, hell, or purgatory, or alternatively to sleep till judgment Day. Clearly death represents some kind of state, but modern-day Christianity does not recognize time spent after death as existence. One wonders what is the point of these stories if not to show the impermanence of death?
It seems paradoxical that a modern tradition could espouse a full physical, once-and-for-all bodily resurrection and find reincarnation unacceptable. The rejection seems to originate in the deep concern that the soul should get its own body, not someone else's (here the word soul includes the idea of spirit). Christianity teaches that body and soul belong to each other — which seems just another way of expressing the intimate bonds of karmic connections.
The Gospels give examples of the body and soul separated before birth and after death, demonstrating that the soul must be able to exist without the body. What then is the mechanism for the informing soul to find its body or to re-collect its physical building blocks? We know nature is the great recycler and that we've all shared in the use of the same physical atoms over and over again. How can any set of atoms belong exclusively to a specific soul? Where would they go awaiting Judgment Day?
Considering the billions of life-atoms created and sloughed off in a lifetime — we are said to be practically new every seven years — then at the time of resurrection, only some of them could be reunited with the soul. This is not so different from the idea that when we reincarnate we re-gather our own life-atoms to us, those that had helped make our former bodies; we attract them back karmically. It isn't as if reincarnationists believe there are extra bodies lying around and when the time comes to be born they might not get the right one — do butterflies worry they'll get the wrong caterpillar?
Paradoxes abound; on the one hand we are given to understand that modern-day Christianity teaches only one life, only one throw of the dice which will determine an eternity of pleasure or pain, but on the other hand we are told that God is loving, wise, and just. Even the most devout fundamentalist believes in more than one chance. Jesus says to forgive not seven times, but, "Until seventy times seven" (Matt 18:2 1-2).
The principles of reincarnation go far beyond the mere mechanics of physical bodies. There are exoteric and esoteric laws, physical and spiritual rebirths. Could Jesus have been speaking about both kinds when he stated, "Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God" (John 3:3)?
The idea of spiritual rebirth was an ancient tradition in India; long before Jesus, initiates were called "twice-born" or dvija. Initiation into the Mysteries was considered a birth into a new life and the candidate took a new name, just as monks and nuns do today when taking the order or veil. H. P. Blavatsky suggests a way of understanding this inner process of rebirth when she explains that the task is for each of us to resurrect the spirit crucified in us by our own terrestrial passions, a spirit we have buried deep in the sepulcher of our own flesh, he who has the strength to roll back the stone of matter from the door of his own inner sanctuary, he has the risen Christ in him (cf. H. P. Blavatsky, "The Esoteric Character of the Gospels — I," Studies in Occultism, Theosophical University Press, Pasadena, 1973, p. 134).
One can't really prove (or disprove) reincarnation — we aren't going to catch ourselves reincarnating any more than our waking consciousness can quite catch our sleeping consciousness. Whether the promise of eternal life (mentioned 28 times in the Bible) is literal or figurative, or whether one believes in reincarnation or resurrection (the latter mentioned 41 times), if we live as if our every thought and action lived forever, we meet the challenge of all religions, ancient and modern.
(From Sunrise magazine December 1992/January 1993. Copyright © 1993 by Theosophical University Press)