Why Don’t Catholics Believe in Reincarnation?

This article is from Ask Peter Kreeft.
  • The Church has always denied it, especially when it was popular in the surrounding non Christian culture, e.g., in ancient Greece.
  • The Bible contradicts it: “It is appointed unto men once to die, and after this the judgment” (Heb. 9:27).
  • Reincarnation insults the body. It’s Cartesian, or Platonic, or Gnostic. It locates our whole humanity in the soul or spirit and treats the body merely as our temporary motel room at best and as a tomb or prison at worst. (In Greek, the word for “body,” soma, is almost the same as the word for “tomb,” sema.) The Jewish and Christian Scriptures tell us that God invented and created the body, and that the image of God is bodily as well as spiritual. The first time “the image of God” is mentioned, in Genesis 2:7, it is identified as “male and female.” The words mean physical, biological male and female, not just masculine and feminine minds.
  • By the way, reincarnation makes the same mistake as contra­ception: it reduces the body to an object, a thing. It’s no longer a part of me; it’s a part of the world out there.
  • In Platonic philosophy, life after death consists of being free from the body. In Judaism and Christianity and Islam, it consists in the resurrection of the body. The resurrected Christ had a physical body that was touched, and that ate food, precisely to prove that it was not a ghost, a pure spirit.
  • Neo-Platonism and the Gnosticism that was based on it went a step further than Plato and declared that the body was the cause of all sin and evil. A convenient philosophy for sinners: “My body made me do it. It’s Your fault, God, for giving me this albatross around my spirit’s neck.”
  • Descartes was a Catholic, at least nominally, so he did not believe either of those two heresies, but he did believe that the body was a separate and distinct substance or thing or entity from the soul. Bodies had space but no thought; minds had thought but no space; so there was nothing common to them to unite them. We are essentially only minds, ghosts haunting the houses of our bodies. A most unrealistic and unhealthy psychology. Reincarnation, like Cartesian dualism, treats bodies as external temporary dwelling places.
  • The first Christian philosopher, Justin Martyr, was a Platonist, and he met a Christian who asked him how he, as a Platonist, explained why bodies existed. Justin answered that they were punishments given by the gods, just punishments for sins com­mitted in some previous bodily life. Justin was asked how he knew or remembered his previous lives, and the answer was that he didn’t. “So how could you be punished and rehabilitated and improved if you did not remember your crimes?” And then the Christian asked Justin what was his hope as a Platonist, and Justin answered that it was freedom from all bodies in Heaven once the punishments and rehabilitations were complete after enough reincarnations on earth. But the Christian asked: Is this purely spiritual Heaven perfect? And the answer was yes.
  • Why? Because there are no bodies there. But if it’s perfect, there’s no sin. So how are the gods just for punishing us by putting us into bodies if we didn’t sin in Heaven? In other words, in the Platonic scheme of reincarnation, the beginning of bodies (punishment for sin) and the end of bodies (freedom from bodies in Heaven) contradict each other. Justin could not answer that question. He soon became a Christian and realized that this new faith was also a more rational philosophy.
  • Reincarnation takes the gusto and drama out of life. If you get infinite retests until you pass, there’s no drama to the test. There’s drama in life because you get only one chance. As the old commercial said, “You go around only once in life, so grab the gusto.” That commercial would be censored today; it contradicts and offends those who believe in reincarnation.
  • Reincarnation almost always goes together with panthe­ism. To explain why, we need some philosophy. It’s matter that individuates any one essential form, that multiplies a species into many members. We all have the same essential form or es­sence — namely, human nature — as all copies of a certain book have the same essential form; but we are many, as there are many copies of the book, in quantity, because of matter, not form. The form is one; the matter is many. There are many material copies of the same essential form. So, if we are one in spirit and many only in matter (that’s premise one), and if we are essentially only spirit (that’s premise two for those who believe in reincarnation), then the logical conclusion is that we are essentially only one being, not many beings. We are all waves of the divine sea, all parts of God. That’s pantheism.
  • Reincarnation insults individuality. With reincarnation, your life is not unique. You were once somebody else. Your unique you, your “I,” is relative and exchangeable, like a mask or a uniform.
  • There is no good argument or evidence for reincarnation. Apparent evidence such as memories from past lives that have been empirically confirmed (the location of hidden treasures, for example) can all be explained in other ways, either by secret information leaked by other living human beings, or as mental telepathy by evil spirits who want to deceive us. (And I challenge anyone who thinks that that idea is ridiculous or disprovable to a debate on the reality of telepathy, of spirits, of evil spirits, and of evil — four assumptions that materialists typically deny).

This article is adapted from a chapter in the book, Ask Peter Kreeft: The 100 Most Interesting Questions He’s Ever Been Asked. It is available as an ebook or paperback through your favorite bookstore or online through Sophia Institute Press.

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Peter Kreeft, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at Boston College and also at the King's College (Empire State Building) in New York City. He is a regular contributor to several Christian publications, is in wide demand as a speaker at conferences, and is the author of over 55 books. Dr. Kreeft is a convert to the Catholic Church from reformed Protestantism. He earned an A.B. degree from Calvin College, an M.A. and Ph.D. from Fordham University, followed by post-doctoral work at Yale University. He has received several honors for achievements in the field of philosophy, including the Woodrow Wilson Award, Yale-Sterling Fellowship, Newman Alumni Scholarship, Danforth Asian Religions Fellowship, and a Weathersfield Homeland Foundation Fellowship.

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