God Squad: Do we get a second chance at life through reincarnation?
Q: I’m confused and need some help understanding reincarnation. I was raised in Episcopal Church and converted to Catholic two years after marriage when our first child was born. I’ve always understood that when you die one of three actions take place. 1. Your soul goes up 2. Your soul goes to purgatory, if appropriate, to pay penance for certain level of spiritual “cleansing” or 3. Your soul goes “south” forever. My question is serious and not meant to make light of the issue, but this is the easiest way for me to pose my question. I don’t understand the concept that when you die, you may (?) be reincarnated one or more times rather than just die or go through the one or two processes above. Is it another form of cleansing (separate from purgatory)? In what form does it manifest i.e., human with soul? I assume that to be the case since coming back as a snake, poison ivy, etc. does not have a soul. Is this the belief in most religions? Last, my apology for not having a better understanding of religion and highlighting my ignorance. Respectfully, (R)
A: No apologies necessary, dear R. Thank you for raising one of the biggest of the big questions about our spiritual life.
There are several answers given by the world’s great faiths. The Judeo-Christian answer is that our souls live on with God until the Messiah comes (or, for Christians, when the Messiah comes again). At that apocalyptic time souls are reunited with their bodies and resurrected from the dead. They then live on here on earth in a blessed Messianic time. Leaving aside the thorny questions of overcrowding and the problem of reuniting a soul with a vaporized or disintegrated body, this official view of Judaism and Christianity takes a strong position that this ensouled life we are living right now is the only embodied life our souls will ever know.
The problem of rewarding souls of evil people with resurrection in the Messianic age is solved by Purgatory and Hell. Christianity is much clearer and more elaborate in its beliefs about purgatory and Hell, but Judaism does share both beliefs in less elaborated forms. Purgatory allows for souls to, in some way, understand and atone for sins committed in life. Then the purified souls are released into Heaven to join all those souls of the righteous who never had to atone or be purified. The thoroughly and irredeemably evil ones among us are sent to Hell where they are destroyed utterly and for all time or tortured by having to read all my old columns.
In addition to this traditional belief about the “one time through life and that’s it” answer, there is another option that is the reason for your deep question. Perhaps our souls after death are cleaned off and brushed up and dressed up in a new body of a newborn baby and allowed to live life again. This is called reincarnation.
In the Hindu faith as well as in Buddhism and Jainism and Sikhism, this reincarnation is determined by one’s karma from one’s previous life. If your soul (called Atman in Hinduism and Jiva in Jainism) and body were kind, then your atman will be reincarnated into a higher form of being. The Hindu caste system unfortunately fits into this belief. It is possible that if one’s atman had bad karma that it could be reborn as an animal (hence the regard for cows) but in general people are reborn as people, not bugs.
Eventually the goal of the spiritual life for all the Eastern faiths is to achieve release (moksha) from the cycle of rebirth which is the state of Nirvana. Judaism and Christianity both steer clear of endorsing reincarnation as a mainstream official belief. Augustine explicitly reject reincarnation for all of Christianity in his work, The City of God. Judaism has a mystical tradition called Kabbalah and it does endorse reincarnation, which it calls the transmigration of the souls, gilgul ha-neshamot.
In my ask-the-rabbi sessions with children, I would always ask the kids if they think we get a second chance at life through reincarnation, and frankly the kids are split down the middle. What do you think, dear readers? Do you think we get another turn at bat? My personal belief is that we do. I think babies who die deserve a chance to live a full life. I believe that life is just too filled with stupid mistakes to make those mistakes irreversible for all eternity. I think one life is divine justice, but I think reincarnation is divine mercy. Plus, if there is reincarnation, I want the chance to come back as the highest form of life I know. I want to be reborn as a dog in a Jewish home.
Send ALL QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad via email at email@example.com. Rabbi Gellman is the author of several books, including “Religion for Dummies,” co-written with Fr. Tom Hartman.