The Concept of Reincarnation
Past life work goes hand in hand with theories of reincarnation. This is a concept that has evoked a variety of reactions in the western world, from ridicule to condemnation -- essentially fear-based reactions to something unfamiliar and misunderstood. Interestingly enough, although publicly people may joke about prior lifetimes, millions of people have read books on the subject of reincarnation. The public image doesn't accurately reflect what people believe in private. A recent Gallup poll showed that 27% of adult Americans admitted anonymously that they believed in reincarnation, with an even great percentage saying they just weren't sure one way or another.
There really is nothing to fear from the concept of reincarnation. Today over half the world's population espouses this belief -- for good reason. There is a great sense of serenity that comes from knowing that the deepest parts of ourselves will always exist, that we are much more than just our current physical bodies, and that we have many opportunities to master human existence and learn the lessons we are here to learn. For many people, the idea just makes sense.
And What About Karma?
Along with reincarnation, the topic of karma usually also comes up. Borrowing the word from the Hindu tradition the typical Westerner interprets karma as "predestination" -- everything is set before our birth, we have no real choice in how our lives unfold. In reality, karma is the good old concept of "what goes around, comes around." It refers to the continuity of soul experience, the fact that we will reap the consequences of both prior good works and prior unloving deeds. For example, if a lifetime has been spent with very negative, racist attitudes and actions, then we may have the opportunity to experience this from the other side of the fence in a subsequent life, as the member of a group who is discriminated against or even persecuted. An individual who commits suicide to escape from perceived difficulties, will undoubtedly have the opportunity to meet similar problems and situations more creatively in another lifetime.
Although karma may contribute to the types of situations we may face, we have free will in each and every moment to choose our response -- either through love and connection, or through negativity and fear. If we choose the latter, we will have opportunities to learn the lesson again.
How Does This Fit with Christianity?
Many Early Christians Embraced Reincarnation
Why is it that Christian religions appear to be so opposed to the concept of reincarnation? As it turns out, this attitude is a departure from the origins of Christianity. Nowhere in the Bible is reincarnation repudiated, in fact it appears to be a concept that Jesus and his followers took pretty much for granted. Jesus himself speaks of John the Baptist as the return of Elias (Matthew 11:14 and 17:11, Mark 9:11-13). We must look to the development of the Roman Catholic Church and its doctrines to understand how the concept of reincarnation lost favor in Christian tradition.
The Council of Nicaea Omits Reincarnation
The first 300 years after Jesus’ death, there were many variations of Christian doctrine as the new religion spread throughout the Roman Empire. A number of factions developed, some believing in reincarnation, some not, and the factions were frequently in conflict. In an attempt to consolidate his crumbling Roman Empire, the Emperor Constantine in 325 A.D. offered his official support to Christians if they would settle their differences and establish a unified set of beliefs. The resulting Council of Nicaea put together the foundation of the Roman Catholic Church and established a new doctrine, from which reincarnation was omitted. Christians were subsequently instructed to drop any belief that was not covered in the doctrine.
However, the belief in reincarnation did not disappear easily, and in fact persisted for centuries afterwards. In the early 13th century, the Pope launched a crusade against the Cathars, a reincarnationist Christian sect in Italy and Southern France, and wiped them out completely. This, and the ensuing Spanish Inquisition with its fatal intolerance for any deviance from strict church doctrine, was finally effective in forcing Christians to give up their belief in reincarnation – at least publicly.
Personal Responsibility for Your Spiritual Evolution
Why should the early church care so much about this belief, which so many early Christians accepted? The truth was, reincarnation undermined the authority and power of the developing church. A believer in reincarnation assumes greater personal responsibility for his own spiritual evolution, relying less on the influence and control of priests, confessionals, and rituals to ward off eternal damnation. None of these trappings of the church were part of Jesus’ original teachings, they were added by the men who shepherded the developing religion. Early Christianity was subject to the same pitfalls many grass-roots movements face when their original leaders are gone. Of necessity, the followers begin to establish a structure and organization to carry on what was given to them. In the process, some valuable elements can be lost and even replaced by dogma that has more to do with practical concerns (like church finances) than spiritual ideals. Reincarnation has never been in conflict with the tenets of Christ’s teachings, merely in conflict with the control wielded by the church.