The Western Doctrine of Reincarnation. A Critique From the Point of View of Catholic Theology

Presentation (Elaboration), 2002

10 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Reincarnation – a question for Christian theology ?

3. Reasons why the doctrine of reincarnation is theologically incompatible with the Christian faith

4. Concluding remarks

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

In this contribution[1] I am not looking for confrontation with those who believe in a doctrine of reincarnation. Nor do I want to be a dogmatic know-all or the kind of person who superciliously dismisses the faith-context of two world religions (i.e., Hinduism and Buddhism). Today’s Catholic theology is sincerely seeking a respectful and peaceable dialogue with the different religions – and the recently canonized Pope John Paul II repeatedly showed this by his own example – so that people might be able to live together in peace, tolerance and mutual understanding throughout the world, but also, and particularly, in our own multicultural and multi-religious society. Whenever dogma has been made the subject of dispute between people it has ended in violence and blood-letting. Decades ago, consequently, Catholic theologians (at least the overwhelming majority of them) abandoned disputes on matters of faith with people outside the Catholic ambit. Catholic Christians have had to learn bitter lessons from their past mistakes and now prefer open dialogue to embittered confrontation. The Second Vatican Council committed itself to this approach in the following words :

The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men. [….] The Church, therefore, exhorts her sons, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men.

Nostra aetate 2

Explicity, what I am offering is a clear, positive statement of the Christian faith itself, which has been increasingly called into question in our society in recent decades. Unfortunately this questioning goes hand-in-hand with a (by now) widespread religious indifference on the part even of those of our fellow-citizens who regard themselves – in the broadest sense – as adherents of the Christian religion. My critique is therefore quite deliberately addressed to those within the Christian fold who would attempt to fabricate a western-style syncretizing version of the doctrine of reincarnation and amalgamate it with Christian convictions.

2. Reincarnation – a question for Christian theology ?

There is a recurring legend to the effect that in early Christianity there were believers in reincarnation who were subsequently wiped out by the Church’s official theology. This legend keeps cropping up. In fact it flies in the face of the historical facts and cannot be found in the sources at all.

In the Early Church not a single Christian theologian can be found to have defended the idea that the dead assume a new embodiment. Such a belief would have been meaningless, given the apostolic faith as transmitted in the ancient Church. Rather, theologians at that time were busy refuting gnosticism, a many-sided, syncretistic religious movement of late antiquity that, with roots in Platonism, taught a reincarnation of the dead. (An example of this is Manichaeism, which posed a real challenge, if not an actual threat, to early Christianity even as late as the 5th/6th centuries – a period when the Catholic Church was gradually taking shape.) The Church Fathers and other theologians of the ancient Church never regarded this doctrine of reincarnation as a Christian teaching. It was not even held to be a heresy, which would have had to be condemned. It was always seen as a non-Christian belief, and the Church has never officially condemned beliefs that are external to itself. Why should it ?

Origen is occasionally cited as a proponent of reincarnation. He was one of the Church Fathers of the 3rd century and was held in such high regard that, even in the 5th century, Christian theologians argued about his views and condemned some of his teachings. However, Origen taught only the pre-existence of souls, a doctrine that was definitively rejected by the universal Church at the time.

The doctrine of reincarnation has only gained prominence in present theological debate :

- Karl Rahner regards the doctrine of reincarnation as a possible starting-point for a more acceptable interpretation of the Church’s problematical teaching on the soul’s intermediate state (between death and resurrection); it would function as a kind of replacement for Purgatory.
- Hans Küng wonders whether the doctrine of reincarnation, like other teachings in the history of theology (e.g., those that arose in a Hellenistic context), could be integrated into the Christian system of teaching and faith as a means of promoting an ecumenism of world religions.
- Michael von Brück sees the doctrine of reincarnation, in the context of dialogue with the eastern religions, as a starting-point in the search for a solution to the problem of the theodicy and as a model for explaining the “irrationality of the universe”.

From the perspective of historico-biblical studies and systematic theology none of these three approaches can be validated, as I shall show in the following section.

Nonetheless, despite these serious issues Catholic theology does acknowledge certain common elements between the eastern doctrine of reincarnation and the Christian faith :

- Both faith-systems embrace a hope that goes beyond death and transcends a purely materialistic world-view.
- We also share the conviction that the actions of human beings have consequences even beyond death.
- We counter all fatalism by insisting on man’s moral responsibility for his own life and its fulfilment.
- We share a belief that the individual’s life is woven into the past history of mankind.
- We also share the belief in the individual’s ethical purification, a process that is not simply ended by death, but leads man towards his fulfilment.

Having said this, overwhelming differences remain between the two world-views, and for this reason the two religious conceptions of man’s fulfilment in and/or after death cannot consistently be reconciled.

3. Reasons why the doctrine of reincarnation is theologically incompatible with the Christian faith

First, some words of clarification before we examine in detail why the two world-views under consideration are incompatible. Theologically speaking it is irrelevant whether there is actually a body of Christians who have combined the doctrine of reincarnation with their personal faith and woven it into their religious conceptions. In our society, for instance, there are people who do not accept the doctrine of the Trinity, or the divinity and incarnation of Christ, or his resurrection after his death on the cross, and yet still call themselves Christians.


[1] A slightly reworked and updated version of a lecture given on 12.01.2002 at the XLVI. Weekend Conference of the Philosophical Institute of the RWTH Aachen under Prof.Dr.V.Berning entitled “Über die Seele III: Weltseele – Seelenwanderung – Parapsychologie” in the Arnold Janssen Monastery, Wahlwiller, Netherlands.

Excerpt out of 10 pages


The Western Doctrine of Reincarnation. A Critique From the Point of View of Catholic Theology
RWTH Aachen University  (Philosophisches Institut)
“Über die Seele III: Weltseele - Seelenwanderung - Parapsychologie”
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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528 KB
English translation of a German lecture manuscript.
reincarnation, Catholic Faith
Quote paper
Frank Drescher (Author), 2002, The Western Doctrine of Reincarnation. A Critique From the Point of View of Catholic Theology, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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