People sometimes say they want the secret of the universe. Here’s one answer. It’s from a 1938 play called Our Town, by Thornton Wilder:
Now there are some things we all know, but we don’t take’m out and look at’m very often. We all know that something is eternal. And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names, and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars. . . . Everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.
Here, in this old play, is the central truth of our existence. Something about us, within us, is eternal. Very likely everyone, at some level, knows that this is true, whether or not they admit it.
If something is eternal in all of us, it stands to reason that this something—whatever it is—survives death. This leads us to the question of the afterlife. In what way do we survive death?
There are two basic answers to this question:
- You go on to life in another realm that is different from this one. It may be better or it may be worse.
- You are born again on earth.
The first possibility entails heaven and hell as conceived by many religions. The second possibility opens up the idea of reincarnation, meaning that after you die you are reborn as a completely different person on earth. You may (but usually do not) remember something of the lives you have led before.
Most people would probably say that reincarnation is an Eastern teaching—that it came to the West through Hinduism and Buddhism. But reincarnation goes much further back in our history. It was taught by the Greek philosopher Pythagoras in the sixth century BC. Plato, who lived in the fourth century BC, is considered to be the single most important philosopher of Western civilization. Plato too believed in, and taught, the doctrine of reincarnation.
Plato’s greatest book is The Republic. It essentially tries to answer the question, “Why should we be good?” Plato’s answer is long and complex, but the end of the book contains the story of a near-death experience of a soldier named Er. Er, a soldier, is slain, or nearly slain, on a battlefield. Journeying through the land of the dead, he comes to the point where the souls choose to take on their next lives, in which “there was every possible combination of qualities.” They draw lots to find the order in which they will be allowed to choose their lives. The soul of Odysseus, the shrewdest of men, draws the lowest lot and has the last choice. He chooses the life of an ordinary citizen who minds his own business, and says that he would have done the same if he had drawn the first lot.
Plato’s story is probably fiction, but it is clear that he took reincarnation seriously. So his account of why we should be good ultimately hinges on the afterlife—an afterlife that involves rebirth on this planet.
Reincarnation, as a concept, has an unusual history in our culture. Only a few generations ago, it was seen as outlandish and heretical. Few Americans believed in it. Today it is completely different. Many polls have been taken over recent decades to find out how many Americans believe in reincarnation. The answer: between 20 and 25 percent. Around 25 percent of Christians believe in it as well.
This is an enormous number, especially since Christianity, by far the largest of all religions in the U.S., has usually denied that there is any such thing as reincarnation. What changed? And does it give us any reason to believe in this idea ourselves?
In the first place, human beings have a profound need for justice—not only in their own interactions, but in the cosmos as well. We want to believe, and most of us do believe, that there is justice in the universe. Yet we also see a great deal of suffering—much of it undeserved. Bad people don’t always get what is coming to them. And what about the innocent? Why should infants and children suffer? This situation seems completely unfair.
One answer to this problem lies in reincarnation and a closely related concept: karma. This word that has many meanings in the original Sanskrit, but one of them has to do with cause and effect—namely, that a given cause produces an effect like itself. Good promotes good; evil promotes evil.
Another aspect of this teaching is that any act, good or bad, will eventually rebound upon the doer. This idea is nearly universal. We find it in the Bible: “Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap” (Galatians 6:7).
In the context of a single lifetime, this does not always seem to be the case. The wicked sometimes go unpunished, while the good suffer, it would seem, for no reason at all.
The idea of karma suggests that sufferings—even ones that seem undeserved—come from the “seeds” of actions performed in previous lives. An evildoer gets away with all sorts of crimes and is never caught. He thinks he is off the hook, but he is not. The hook is baited for him in a later life. When his actions finally catch up with him, he may look innocent from the perspective of that life alone.
As you can see, these concepts go far toward showing how there is justice in the universe. In fact, they show more justice than the conventional concepts of heaven and hell (which may be one reason a belief in reincarnation has become so popular). Heaven and hell are eternal states: they are limitless. But even the great monsters of history have done only a limited amount of evil (however large). Is eternal damnation fair for crimes that, however enormous, only span a few decades?
The ideas of karma and reincarnation come much closer to being fair. You suffer to the exact degree that you have caused suffering to others. Even though this karma may take many lifetimes to exhaust, it is still a finite quantity.
Reincarnation, then, is much better-suited to our belief in—and need for—cosmic justice than many of the more conventional views of the afterlife.
But is it true?
Actually, there is a large body of evidence suggesting that reincarnation is a fact. It would help explain unusual abilities (performing complex mathematical computations or extraordinary skill with music) that people sometimes show at extremely young ages. It could be that they gained these skills in a previous life and have kept them in this life. They may also remember who they were in the past.
In one case, a two-year-old boy, Christian Haupt, showed unusual skills at playing baseball. Furthermore, he had memories of a past life as baseball great Lou Gehrig. At one point Christian was shown a photo of Gehrig with another baseball great, Babe Ruth. He said: “They didn’t talk to each other.” And in fact Gehrig and Ruth had a falling-out and did not speak for several years. This, along with other, equally striking facts—which Christian could not have known by ordinary means—suggests that his claim to be Gehrig in a past life may have some validity.
Christian Haupt’s case is not unique. Researchers have collected cases all over the world in which an individual—usually a young child—shows past-life knowledge that can’t be explained by ordinary means. Some display what is called xenoglossy—speaking a language that one has not learned in this lifetime. In other cases, birthmarks and deformities have been connected to traumas that occurred in the same part of the individual’s body during previous lives.
Spontaneous past-life memories are rare, but it is possible to reconnect individuals to these memories during hypnotic trance. Some psychologists, using such techniques, even specialize in treating mental and emotional wounds that can be traced back to past lives.
There are potential drawbacks to a belief in reincarnation. Some individuals may claim, or believe, that they were famous historical figures in the past as a way of compensating for feelings of inferiority. Some may also feel a sense of doom hanging over their heads for things they believe they have done in the past.
It’s important to watch out for, and avoid, such thoughts, just as it is to watch out for negative thoughts as a whole. Nevertheless, both the logic of the idea and the evidence on its behalf suggest that reincarnation is a genuine possibility for the afterlife.
— Richard Smoley
Byrd, Cathy. The Boy Who Knew Too Much: An Astounding Story of a Young Boy’s Past-Life Memories. New York: Hay House, 2017.
The Dalai Lama XIV. The Opening of the Wisdom-Eye. Wheaton, Ill: Quest, 1966.
Plato. The Republic. Translated by Robin Waterfield. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Stevenson, Ian. The Evidence for Survival from Claimed Memories of Former Incarnations. Fulham, U.K.: T.W. Pegg, 1961.
———. Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation. New York: American Society for Psychical Research, 1966.
Wilder, Thornton. Our Town. New York: Harper Perennial, 2003.
Woolger, Roger J. Past Lives, Past Selves: A Jungian Psychotherapist Discovers Past Lives. New York: Doubleday, 1987.