YOLO or No? How a Christian Wrestled with Reincarnation

My father and me in 1993, with his signature beard and ball cap.
My father and me in 1993, with his signature beard and ball cap, a spitting image of the younger version of the “Hushpuppy Crier”

Hushpuppies

North Carolina’s State Fair is ten days of crispy deliciousness. This annual fall celebration beckons residents from all over our state to our capital, where “in the name of agriculture!” we deep fry everything.

The autumn after my father’s death, Fred and I made our yearly trek to the fair. Enticed by the sign, “Free Hushpuppies!” we stood in line at the Old Grist Mill, a small wooden structure where corn morphs into Southerners’ favorite appetizer.

The line wove down the paved path for longer than anyone would have liked, but North Carolinians cannot resist the siren call of hushpuppies.

As we waited, a man two yards behind us began to holler,

“What are they a-doin’ in there, grindin’ the meal? This is takin’ too long!”

The town crier was a tall, slender man with a long white scraggly beard and unkempt hair that poked out of his ball cap. His faded overalls hid what may have been a cirrhosis pot belly; he scratched his groin and removed a red handkerchief from his back pocket and blew his nose.

It was my father, just as he would have looked and behaved had he lived long enough for his jet black beard to turn white.

“Hurry-it-up!” The man cuffed his hands to his mouth, shouting in staccato.

I elbowed Fred. “It’s him!”

Fred turned around to see which him I was referring to.

My husband never met my father, but they spoke once on the phone. My father chattered non-stop about his “monastic” lifestyle in his rural Indiana trailer. When Fred, exhausted, handed the phone back to me, Daddy shouted from the earpiece, “Boy, Fred doesn’t shut up! I couldn’t get in a word!”

Fred snickered at my attempt to reincarnate Daddy. “It doesn’t work that way, ” he offered.

How could my father’s postmortem appearance at the state fair be hijacked by theological details?

“How does it work, then?” I asked.

“He may not have even come back as a human,” Fred said. “Depends on his karma.”

“What the heck would he be, then?” I asked.

“I dunno—an animal maybe.”

“Do you think I’d recognize him if I saw him?”

“Probably not. You don’t recognize anyone else from your past life, do you?”

“You really think I had a past life?” I asked.

“Of course. You’ve had many of them.” He said.

“The soul is eternal. It is our bodies that change, just like we change clothes. We change our clothes when they were out. We change bodies when they wear out and we call it death. Your soul is eternal. It only changes bodies,”[1] Fred added nonchalantly, deciding whether to forego the hushpuppies in lieu of kettle corn.

“Hurry-it-up! I ain’t gettin no younger!” The old man yelled, exasperated.

We stepped out of line.

Death Grip 

It wasn’t until I turned 30 that I began to fear death.

The anxiety came on as the sun set. The day wrapped up neatly, another routine completed, and I lay in bed frightened that death would mean end to this rhythm, separation from the people I love.

Theologically, I trusted what Christian scripture taught me about the promise of eternal life. From Sunday School to seminary, I was humbled Jesus’ teachers of love and sacrifice that pointed the way toward God.

But, amid the loss of my father, and one year later, Fred’s father, the cycle of grief overwhelmed any eschatological comfort Jesus offered. Why hadn’t God developed a better system, one in which we could all stay together here, in the lives we’ve always known?

Death felt too final; heaven felt too far away.

But, death and grief hadn’t gripped Fred’s spiritual assumptions the way they had mine. He wasn’t anxious by physical separation from his father. Instead, he was comforted knowing his father was a soul, not a body, and that his soul was back here on earth, giving it another try.

“But, how is that possible?” I asked. “If I’ve ever been reincarnated, I don’t remember my last life.”

“Do you remember what outfit you wore on a Monday, twenty years ago?” Fred asked.

YOLO

YOLO is a popular acronym most recently coined by Drake that stands for, “You Only Live Once.” While its intention is as old as the sun, it’s become a modern invitation to  indulgence and risk.

For Christians, a theological YOLO means getting it right this round. Go to church. Find Jesus. Get saved. Be a good Christian and share Jesus with others. This is your one shot at eternal life.

But, the more I’ve been exposed to Hinduism, the more I’ve realized that it’s really difficult for everyone to get it right spiritually in one try. There are many factors at play: exposure to Jesus as “the way” (according to Orthodox Christian doctrine), getting “saved,” living a Christian life, establishing spiritual practices, learning life lessons, and trying not to screw up too badly.

I cannot parse out the doctrines of eternal life, original sin, salvation, karma, and reincarnation in one post. But, I can encourage you to ask yourselves and one another: do we really only live once? And, if get one chance, what does that mean for our lives, relationships, and faith?

I’m not God. I have no definitive answers about death and afterlife. With each new death in our family (Fred’s Granny died in January), I continue to hold Christianity’s linear eternal life path in tension with Hinduism’s cycle of reincarnation.

But, I do know that the hushpuppy crier made me wonder what it might mean to consider both of the faith traditions represented in our household. I keep asking myself, do I live just once? Or, have I lived (and will I live) eternal lifetimes?

Your Turn

I’d love to hear from you! Have you ever pondered reincarnation? Post your thoughts and experiences with death, grief, the afterlife, eternal life, and reincarnation in the comments. 

[1] Bhagavad Gita 2.22

14 Replies to “YOLO or No? How a Christian Wrestled with Reincarnation”

  1. The logic of one lifetime can support a tendency to favor abortion. If the newborn child is pure and innocent or we can quickly baptize it and dispatch it, then it does not risk making some mistake that will condemn it to an eternal lake of fire.

    1. Sarvopama Dasa:

      First, thanks so much for reading this post.

      Most Christians would not subscribe to the reasoning that “one lifetime can support a tendency to favor abortion.” That line of reasoning is utilitarian, and I think it’s more accurate to say that the crux of Christianity’s debate with reincarnation has to do with the creation narrative in Genesis.

      Because God created humans from dust (rather than humans being eternal souls that have always existed per Hindu theology), and mortality is introduced in the Garden of Eden via original sin, humanity’s lifetime becomes a linear path (versus cyclical). Compared to Hindus, Christians place much more emphasis on the physical body and its future resurrection, as made possible through Christ (1 Corinthians 15).

      In essence, because Christians and Hindus take two different approaches on creation, body vs. soul, and suffering, and thus, it makes it difficult to reconcile the two paths (linear vs. cyclical).

      Thanks again for reading and sharing your thoughts.
      Best,
      Dana

  2. Hi Dana. I just came across your blog, ironically, because of an occasional search I do on the term, reincarnation. I am fascinated by the story of you and your husband, and I am going to buy your book to read more about your intriguing journey. I do believe in reincarnation. Once I learned about it, in the context of Christian Spiritism as codified by Allan Kardec, there was no turning back. Reincarnation was the key to answering so many questions I had about life! However, I believe in reincarnation not simply because it is so philosophically and logically sound, but also because of the abundant evidence we can find for it. I am the author of the book you’ll find at the website linked to via my name on this comment. I would be happy to send you a copy for free. Just let me know and I’ll email you for details.
    Thank you for sharing this experience of yours.

    1. Heather,

      Wow! Thanks for reading. How neat that you came upon this post so soon with your search–as it was *just* published. I’m grateful for your reading and interest.

      I don’t know anything about Christian Spiritism, but would like to learn more. Yes, please do email me with the details of your book! I explored your website yesterday, and was very impressed with your material.

      Indeed, reincarnation is philosophically and logically sound, and certainly offers an explanation of day-to-day suffering that is generally more satisfactory than Western Christianity. I’ve been drawn to it because of this reasons, but still find myself holding the two in tension.

      I look forward to chatting with you more. Meanwhile, thanks again for reading this post and Saffron Cross.

      Best,
      Dana

  3. I’ve never seen why reincarnation couldn’t be a doctrine of Christianity. I’ve been told that the early church erased mentions of reincarnation because it threatened their power (but I don’t know if that’s true). But why wouldn’t it be true that we have several go arounds until we are ready for heaven?

    1. Oh, and I also had a Jewish friend who went to a talk by a Rabbi once who said that he believed reincarnation was a part of Judaism. How could we achieve the over 600 mitzvah in one lifetime?

    2. Ambaa:

      You’re right! Christians have “played” with the idea of reincarnation throughout Church history. (See Melissa’s comments for additional explanations.) I don’t know about the “power” reasoning, but do like Melissa’s idea about procrastination. 🙂

      Catholics certainly have a more refined theology of purgatory than Baptists, so it’s probably not fair for me to say that all Christians seen eternal life as a linear path. There are caveats. I also love the Jewish idea of possible reincarnation. Judaism, from my studies at Duke, does a better job than its Abrahamic counterparts of exegeting the spaces in between scripture (Midrash). While there is law, there is also interpretation, and I love Judaism’s rich history of it. I also like the idea we need many lifetimes to achieve the mitzvah.

      Thank you for sharing this. I so appreciate reading about your faith journey.

      Best,
      Dana

  4. Dana, I don’t think that reincarnation is antithetical to Christianity. Geddes MacGregor, Emeritus Distinguished Professor Philosophy at the University of Southern California, has written a book called “Reincarnation in Christianity.” In it he writes,

    “The widespread notion that Christianity must wholly exclude all forms of reincarnationism is very understandable. It has never been officially entertained by the Church, has sometimes been officially frowned on, and has generally been at least suspect. Nevertheless, the supposition that there is a clear, unambiguous biblical or patristic or conciliar teaching about immortality and resurrection would be mistaken. On the contrary, though the expectation of an afterlife is certainly an integral part of Christian faith and constitutes Christian hope, its form is far less clearly defined than is popularly supposed. True, heaven and hell have been seen as alternative destinies for the good and the wicked respectively, and within central Christian traditions, Greek, Roman and Anglican, purgatory has also played a role as a key concept. Nevertheless, attempts to say anything specific about these states has often, if not generally, ended in intellectual confusion, not to say disaster. The wisest of theologians have tended to be reticent about detailing the celestial and infernal geographies.”

    You write that the Christians have a linear view while Hindus have a cyclical view of our journey on earth. May I suggest that modern Westernized culture tends to think of things as “linear,” though we are beginning to understand that this is a mistaken understanding. Jesus’ teachings are anything but linear. The Bible itself is full of enigmas, paradoxes and apparent contradictions. To see it as linear is to invite confusion. Do we not learn from our mistakes? Are there not instances when our greatest sufferings give birth to our deepest joys? Do you remember how it is told in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus asked Simon the Pharisee, who would love the master more, the one who had been forgiven a debt of 50 denarii or the one who had been forgiven a debt of 500 denarii? Our paths are not linear. Our poor, depleted Western culture falsely posits linearity.

    In terms of creation, that we are created of dust is literally true. We are made of the elements of the Earth, and the Earth is made of long-ago extinguished stars. The Genesis 1 creation story is the story of our earthly bodies and the humility of their form. Its first words are “In a beginning….” It is one way of telling the story. Humble, of the humus, the earth.

    To say that we are formed of dust does not speak of what we were before. As David says in Psalm 139,
    My frame was not hidden from you,
    when I was being made in secret,
    intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
    Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
    In your book were written
    all the days that were formed for me,
    when none of them as yet existed.

    And there is the story of when Jeremiah was instructed to go to the potter’s house:

    Jer. 18:1 ¶ The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD:
    Jer. 18:2 “Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.”
    Jer. 18:3 So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel.
    Jer. 18:4 The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.

    And isn’t it interesting that in the Gospel of Matthew, the blood money that Judas threw on the Temple grounds before he went to hang himself was used to buy “the potter’s field.” As if we know who the potter is. Is he the one who forms us? Who re-works and re-forms us?

    The apostle Paul speaks of the potter in Romans 9:21, “Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one object for special use and another for ordinary use?”

    How is it that Jesus said, “Elijah has already come again, but they did not know him.”

    I wonder if life on this earth is not purgatory.

    I wonder, as Duke Divinity Professor Eboni Marshall Turman wondered aloud at the recent Black Bodies Matter panel discussion at Duke Memorial United Methodist Church, are not the victims of the hate, oppression and injustice like those of whom it is written, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

    My own personal view is that reincarnation has not been taught by the Church because of the very human tendencies for procrastination. Perhaps I might see how much I can get for myself this go around and worry about all of that salvation stuff in another life-time. Isn’t that what Augustine of Hippo did? “Give me celibacy, but not yet!”

    What I try to remember is how relatively easy I have it now. The next time I come back could be much worse. Better make the best of it in order to avoid a more dire situation. That’s my self-centered view.

    The other view, that is much more satisfying, is the one that approaches Jesus. This is the view that those who are washed may choose to come back to this purgatory and suffer it again, in order to be with and teach our brothers and our sisters. In order to care for our animals and our planet. This is the view that gives me peace. In this view, I hope to grow in strength and purity so that I may be this kind of a vessel. As I try it, I find that what Jesus said is true:

    Matt. 11:28 ¶ “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.
    Matt. 11:29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
    Matt. 11:30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

    We have much to learn. You remember what Jesus said? How he had other sheep? There is only one God, and there is only one way. But that way is not a way that can be named, and whoever worships God, whatever form or whatever name it is given, it is God who is able to read the sincerity of the heart.

    With love, Melissa

    1. This is wonderful, Melissa!

      You’ve given us much to chew on. I especially appreciate these wise words from Geddes MacGregor. I’m going to look him up!

      Thank you for your thoughtful reading and comments, as always.

      Hugs,
      Dana

  5. Incarnation is seen at Luke 1:17. I do know why the so called Bible Pundits are afraid of it like John 1.1.
    More or less all the religions hold the idea of eternity of Soul. In India, we are proud to keep and spread the idea as Hinduism is not based on a single text / person. I love your blog. Already shared on twitter. Thanks.

    1. VijayaraghavanMb:

      Thank you for reading! I love these pieces of scripture. Jesus (and subsequently Paul), taught us the value of our souls (though they may have named it another way) by encouraging us to not be of this [material] world. We are to instead, “take up our cross,” which means the spiritual life–the real life–where we will be much more fulfilled by connecting with the Divine than clamoring to hold on to our aging bodies and stuff.

      Thanks for sharing this post, too.

      Deep peace,
      Dana

  6. This is an interesting topic!

    Is Life Linear or Cyclic?

    I believe there is not much changing in our lives over a lifetime, i.e our mental mould is almost the same as when we were little, our core values like love, compassion, empathy, courage, righteousness do not change a lot (unless we are subjected to extreme conditions). If we become what we become by the choices and decisions we make, then little kids of 5/6 must all behave in a same way, since they have not yet had many opportunities to use freewill. (i.e we all must act similarly in childhood and our actions should only deviate as we grow )

    I believe Freewill has less to do with what we are/ what we become over one lifetime, rather there must be something within us (previous life impressions/ karma/ habits) already that we have carried from before which plays a big role in our actions/intentions.

    In that case..

    In a linear system God created us each differently and made us what we are, he also gave us free will, but it does not account for much, thus our place in heaven/hell is mostly his choice.

    In a cyclic system, he gave us freewill to exercise our freewill, when we misuse it we pay for it and ultimately we learn to use our freewill the way God would like us to use ( to love everyone like we love ourselves), we are responsible for what we become.

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