This Supreme Lord who pervades all of existence, the true Self of all creatures, may be realized through undivided love. There are two paths, Arjuna, which the soul may follow at the time of death. One leads to rebirth and the other to liberation. (BG, 8:5-7)
Krishna goes on to describe the transmigration of souls. Those who have come to know and see Brahman, that the Lord of Love is everywhere and in all creatures, are able to finally shed the endless cycle of rebirth and join with God in ecstatic, eternal unity. The rest of us have to schlep back to the beginning and have another go.
But though we are all trying to escape rebirth, having another life is not really so bad. As Stevie Wonder puts it:
I’m so darn glad he let me try it again / Cause my last time on earth I lived a whole world of sin
I’m so glad that I know more than I knew then /Gonna keep on tryin’ / Till I reach my highest ground.
Biblical authors largely reject the idea of reincarnation. When they do speak of life after death, they favor the idea of bodily resurrection. Martha says at the death of her brother Lazarus, “I know that he will rise in the resurrection on the last day” (John 11:24). Hebrews 9:27 puts it succinctly: “People are destined to die once and then face judgment.” New Testament authors probably knew that the Greek philosopher Plato had written about reincarnation and the transmigration of souls. They knew about reincarnation—they just didn’t believe in it.
Some folks point out Jesus’s reference to John the Baptist in Matthew 11:14 as support for reincarnation, “If you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come,” but it isn’t clear that Jesus actually means reincarnation. The second coming of Elijah was a widespread belief because Elijah had been taken bodily into the heavens (2 Kings 2:11), so people expected him to return a similar way. When Jesus says, “If you are willing to accept it,” he’s asking the crowd to interpret Elijah’s “return” metaphorically, since John the Baptist hadn’t dropped out of the sky.
Today, nearly a quarter of American Christians also believe in reincarnation (see the Pew study here). Many conservative Christian leaders are alarmed by such findings. It’s probably not a surprise that I’m not alarmed by these unorthodox views. I think spiritual tinkerers (Robert Wuthnow’s term) who create a bricolage of theological beliefs are responding to toxic Christianity. I suspect many Christians prefer the idea of reincarnation because the two paths they were taught—heaven and hell—seem arbitrary and unloving. They’ve heard from fundamentalists that people who die without knowing Jesus are bound for hell, and they’ve rejected that worldview because it contradicts the notion of a loving and just God. They prefer the notion of reincarnation because it only seems right that people would be given another chance. (Although, I also wonder—couldn’t that be a kind of hell?)
I prefer to have metaphysical humility when it comes to these things. I don’t know exactly what happens when we die. We have first-hand accounts of near-death experiences, but since those people are still with us, I don’t take it as empirical knowledge.
There is so much we do not know about consciousness itself. I am skeptical even about this notion of myself as a separate entity from the rest of creation. There is a part of my brain that creates this sense of separateness, and it can be suppressed. So I question this notion that my soul is a unit that travels somewhere. Sometimes I suspect that we are already there, and the life we are living is actually a vivid remembering.
I take this as a challenge to remember a better life.
God, You are the Beginning, the Destination, and the Journey itself.
PS: I don’t think it’s an accident that Carrie Underwood’s video for Love Wins uses both Holi and gospel choir imagery. I think it’s pretty clear that the response of spiritual tinkerers to toxic fundamentalist Christianity is to reach toward other traditions. I think cultural appropriation is part of what happens when we realize our culture