“What exactly is reincarnation? Is it contrary to the teachings of the gospel?” Ensign, Aug. 1989, 52–54
Spencer J. Palmer, president of the Seoul Korea Temple and professor of comparative world religions, Brigham Young University. Advocates of reincarnation believe that this life is only one of many we have lived in the past or will live in the future. They also believe that reincarnation is the process by which life (or a soul) migrates from one material body to another through repeated births and deaths—not only of human spirits, but also of spirits within animals and sometimes plants.
More than 1.5 billion people—more than one-third of the world’s population—believe in reincarnation. It is a commonly accepted belief in Asia, especially among Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, and Jains.
Among Eastern religious writings, none is more forceful than the Bhagavad Gita in expressing the Hindu belief that the spirit is subject to an indefinite series of existences, in various material forms, and that it must ultimately escape these rounds of rebirth. The Gita says that one existence follows another, just as different stages—childhood, young adulthood, and old age—follow one another in this life (2:13), and that just as one lays off old garments and dons new ones, so the spirit lays off an old, worn-out body and puts on a new one. (2:22.)1
In Hindu lore, deities are also reincarnated; they appear, disappear, and reappear. Hindus believe that the god Brahma issued forth from the navel of the lord Vishnu, and that Vishnu himself has been or will be incarnated on earth in at least ten guises—as a fish, a turtle, a boar, a man-lion, a dwarf, a Brahmin warrior, as Rama and Krishna (Hindu deities), and as Kalki (the “Messiah” of the future). In each incarnation, Vishnu preserves the world from the material or moral destruction.
The Jataka Tales, the moralizing birth stories of the historical Buddha, state that before he was born on earth as the great Buddha-to-be, he had lived as a king of the monkeys, a discontented ox, a pigeon, the divinity of a tree, and as a pure white elephant with six tusks.
Underlying this succession of reincarnations is “the law of karma.” Karma is similar to what Latter-day Saints know as “the law of the harvest”—“Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” (Gal. 6:7.) According to Eastern thought, one’s “rebirths” are determined by one’s actions in his or her previous lives. Since souls in their previous existences behave differently, they are reborn differently. According to this theory, a belief in reincarnation poses amazing possibilities: the queen of Sheba might be reborn as a water buffalo or a milfoil plant; an ugly man could be reborn as a beautiful woman, or vice versa; one who kills a priest may end up in the womb of a dog; and a good man caught stealing runs the risk of passing a thousand times through the bodies of spiders and snakes.
According to this theory, reincarnation is thought also to work the other way: a soul that was once in an animal or a plant can “work up” and be “reborn” as a human. Thus, disadvantaged humans may see reincarnation as a chance to be “reborn” to a higher or more respectable caste or social position. (Many Western advocates of reincarnation accept the doctrine only at the human level. They reject the notion that humans can be reborn as animals and plants, and vice versa.)
Those who believe in reincarnation maintain that all inequalities of birth (divine or human, rich or poor, healthy or handicapped) are determined by one’s performance in past lives and that one’s cycle of “rebirths” is based on his or her accumulated karma over aeons of time. What one does in one particular “life,” or incarnation, however, cannot by itself determine one’s eternal status. In fact, one’s being “reborn” (presumably because he or she did not qualify to gain release from the round of rebirths in his or her last life) is not a good sign. The Hindu deity Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita that earth is a place of misery and confinement for the perpetually migrating spirit and that to be born (or reincarnated) on earth again is neither a blessing nor an indication of forward progress.
There is so much that is unknown about our premortal existence, birth, mortality, death, and life after death and its possibilities—particularly as they relate to communication between the living and the dead—that it should not surprise Latter-day Saints to learn that people everywhere are intrigued with the possibilities suggested by reincarnation.
Indeed, there are some similarities between reincarnation and Latter-day Saint doctrine. We believe that life does not begin with our birth into mortality; neither does it end with death, nor is one “life-time” sufficient to attain perfection. We know that each of us is a spirit child of our Heavenly Father and that we lived in a premortal “first estate” before we were born. (See Abr. 3:22–26.) When we were born into mortality, we each received a physical body. Animals and plants, too, existed before this life; all things were created spiritually before they were “naturally upon the face of the earth.” (Moses 3:5–7.)
Similarly, both the scriptures and the prophets have repeatedly affirmed that our righteousness in mortality will determine our circumstances in the life to come. How we live in mortality, here and now, is of central importance to our eternal happiness.
But despite some similarities to LDS doctrine, reincarnation is contrary to revealed truth. The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that reincarnation is a false doctrine.2 It may well be a corruption or counterfeit of the plan of salvation. In any event, the doctrine of reincarnation does not agree with Latter-day Saint teachings about the purpose of life and, more important, the unique and essential mission of Jesus Christ as the Savior of the world. For Latter-day Saints, the problems with the idea of reincarnation are as follows:
There is only one physical death, not many. The Apostle Paul wrote that “it is appointed unto men once to die.” (Heb. 9:27.)
In the resurrection, spirits inhabit the bodies they had in mortality, not other bodily forms. Death separates the spirit from the body; resurrection reunites that same spirit with the essential elements of that same physical body, never to be separated again. In the Book of Mormon, we read the prophet Amulek’s explanation that after the resurrection, men and women “can die no more; their spirits uniting with their bodies, never to be divided; thus the whole becoming spiritual and immortal, that they can no more see corruption.” (Alma 11:45.) This negates the belief that the body is a casual abode of the spirit or a tabernacle that is either repeatedly changed or terminated. Spirit and body are inextricably bound to one another; this is the meaning of the resurrection. “The resurrection from the dead is the redemption of the soul.” (D&C 88:16; see also D&C 88:15–18.)
In the resurrection, we will regain our bodies, which are created in God’s image. (See Gen. 1:26–27.)
Reincarnation implies that the body is of little consequence. Those who believe in reincarnation believe that bodies can be taken on and cast off repeatedly and that spirits can be reincarnated as insects, animals, and a variety of human or even hybrid human-animal forms. Those who advocate theories of reincarnation have no understanding of our bodies’ value—that they are created in God’s image and are given to us as a mortal inheritance in preparation of becoming as God, who is himself a being with a fully sanctified, perfected, and tangible body.
To Latter-day Saints, the physical body is sacred. One of the primary reasons we entered mortality was to gain a physical body. It is not only a great blessing now, but also a prerequisite to exaltation and eternal life hereafter.
Now is the time to prepare to meet God—not later, in some indeterminate future. The Lord has made it clear that mortality is the time for us to be tested and proved—“to see if [we] will do all things whatsoever the Lord [our] God shall command [us].” (Abr. 3:25.)
The scriptures tell us that “they who keep their first estate [or premortal existence] shall be added upon [will have the opportunity to gain a physical body and experience in mortality]; and they who keep not their first estate shall not have glory in the same kingdom with those who keep their first estate; and they who keep their second estate [our mortal lives here and now] shall have glory added upon their heads for ever and ever.” (Abr. 3:26.)
Ultimately, it is the Atonement and the Lord’s mercy that will determine our future prospects—despite all we have done to serve the Lord and keep his commandments. But reincarnation promotes the false notion that human beings are given many “future lives” in which to work out their salvation. Reincarnation implies that we have no urgent need to repent of our sins and obey the commandments. Reincarnation contradicts Amulek’s admonition that “this life is the time for men to prepare to meet God.” (Alma 34:32.)
5. Reincarnation denies the entire purpose of the atonement of Jesus Christ. Those who believe that spirits and gods can repeatedly inhabit a variety of physical forms do not take into account Christ’s mission and the purpose of the Atonement. For a person who believes in reincarnation, Christ would be but one manifestation of a temporarily embodied savior—one of many possible incarnations.
To accept this premise would be to repudiate the most fundamental teaching of the gospel—that there was a single, unique act of redemption made by the Lord Jesus Christ. By denying the ultimate importance of the Atonement and of Christ’s mercy and love, those who believe in reincarnation fail to see the Savior in his rightful position as King of Kings and Lord of Lords—the only name given whereby we can be saved. (See D&C 18:23.) Though reincarnation is an interesting theory that may have a few similarities with the gospel, it denies the absolute centrality of the Atonement and must be rejected as false.