Monday, February 13, 2012
My friend asked me this question the other day and I promised her an answer. Of course, I have no smoking gun, definitive answer to such questions, but I can point to what I have read and heard of afterlife issues, which comprises quite a lot of material since 2009.
The Protestant/Evangelical box
I can’t help but picture the TV guru, Dr. Oz. He takes one of his audience members by the hand and leads them to a table. He uncovers whatever he wants to show them, then takes them to the next table.
So, come with me, Reader. Let’s go to this first table, on which is a box labeled “Protestant/Evangelical.” Looking in this box we find all kinds of books and ‘testimonies’ about healings, miracles, prophecies, exorcisms, changed lives, media scandals (alas), and even resurrections from the dead. The people in this box believe that Jesus Christ is truly the Son of God, Who died on a painful cross, was resurrected from death by the power of the Holy Spirit, and now represents all of those who trust in Him as an advocate before the Eternal Father. There is a real heaven and a hell, and you either enter heaven through a relationship with Jesus Christ or you go to hell. In this box, you might find a story like “Khosrow’s Journey” on youtube, in which a depressed young Muslim converts to Christianity due to a vision of Jesus offering him a hand. In this box, there is no priesthood, other than that of every believer. Angels do God’s bidding and are often seen, as is Christ Himself, and even occasionally God the Father.
I have shelves of books full of such positive stories and can’t begin to catalogue all of the proofs here. For example, there are all of the usual afterlife books on the market now. The soul leaves the body, goes into the tunnel, sees a loving, Being of Light (or Jesus Christ), receives an enlightening life review, sees a deceased relative or friend, then comes back a changed human being. Some actually see hell. A skydiver named Mickey Robinson almost got caught there. One interesting new source of proof is the TV show, “I Survived Beyond and Back,” on the Biography Channel. Two of the men on that show, first names only, claimed that they came within a hair of winding up in hell. They were rescued at the last minute and sent back to earth. Others had more heavenly experiences, saw hints of their unborn grandchildren, saw beloved relatives, and saw the best place they had ever been to. I believe firmly that the Kingdom of God exists and is at work in this box.
By the way, most of the people in all of the boxes only know about what is in their box. They are not interested in the other boxes… which is why I am calling it a box.
The Catholic box
OK, now let’s move to box number two, “The Catholic Box,” and here, for lack of time and space, I will deal only with the western version of the catholic churches. They hail the Pope as the “Vicar of Christ” on Earth and the “Most Holy Father,” (which is fine, except that it denies the possibility that God’s presence could inhabit another world leader or denominational chief. It also goes against the warning of Jesus Christ to not call anyone on Earth ‘good’ or ‘Father.’ Um, but that is splitting hairs for now and is off topic.)
Almost everything that was said in paragraph one above can be applied to the Catholics. They also have their miracles, healings, prophecies, exorcisms, scandals, and resurrections. They have all kinds of delicious and arcane history that goes way back into the Middle Ages. They have Crusades, hermits, visionary saints, levitating ascetics, rituals, liturgy, massive pockets of corruption and persecution of Others (same with the Protestants), and of course, St. Peter’s Basilica, with its fabulous art, architecture, décor, and incalculable wealth.
In this box it is the Catholic Church that mediates salvation. Be baptized a Catholic or go to hell. Even the baptized must confess their sins to a priest or go to hell. I don’t know how it is today but when I was young, you could be baptized, confirmed, confessed on Friday, but if you missed Mass through your own negligence on Sunday, and died on Monday, it’s still the hot place for you. You sizzle along with all the poor souls that left the Catholic Church to become an Evangelical.
There is also Mary, who brought the concept of “the most holy Rosary” into the church. In her visitations she brings new titles and declarations of who she is and how she should be addressed. I read one the other day, given to a Bernadine sister some time before 1938, in which Mary designated herself as “August Queen of heaven! Sovereign Mistress of Angels!” It was she who crushed the head of Satan in Genesis 3, and it is her legions that will rout Satan’s demons in the end times (Prophecy for Today, by Edward Connor, Tan Books, 1984, p. 48).
Well, some of the items in the Catholic box, I’m happy to leave there, but many of us who were raised Catholic and are now Evangelicals will admit that growing up Catholic was not so bad. It was a long, warm-and-fuzzy hug that kept [some of] us safe and planted values in our hearts. And where genuine faith is, God is there. If we reach out to God, He reaches back. I believe that the Kingdom of God is at work in this box.
There are so many other boxes. There’s a Jewish box, an alien box, a ghostie-ghoulie box, a New Age box, a Buddhist box, and many more. There is a shaman box in which the western shaman plays with dangerous underworld entities. But we can’t deal with them all in one blog, so let’s just walk over to the table with the reincarnation box. After all, that was the original question.
The reincarnation box
Do I believe in reincarnation? In a word, yes. And don’t think I’m comfortable saying that.
The stories are too numerous and compelling to dismiss. Even religious people occasionally have past life memories. My friend and her sister were both raised Catholic, yet Sandy claims to recall a past life, something not promoted by the Catholic Church.
There are some tremendous researchers in this box. One of the finest was Dr. Ian Stevenson who spent decades studying anecdotes all over the world. His approach and results cannot be faulted. I can’t say that his research demonstrated a coherent system or how it works, but one cannot simply say that it doesn’t. He dealt mainly with children, and would not employ hypnotism. Very often a child from one family, let’s say in India, would have such accurate memories of another family nearby that he or she would not accept the current family and name as their own.
As the matter was investigated further, the former family might make a claim on the child as their beloved deceased family member. If the growing child was a former bride, the bereaved husband might come and visit until the child was tired of it all and wanted to just move on. It seemed that the older the child grew, the more the memories faded, and the past life was of much less interest. (Ian Stevenson, Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation, 1966).
In the meantime, ripples of hurt needed to heal. The current mother was rejected for the previous mother and thus was deeply hurt. The child that couldn’t accept the new home was confused. The family that lost a loved one and then had to deal with new and shocking claims of rebirth was stunned.
These memories are such a complex phenomenon that it would take another whole blog to discuss it properly. The approach taken by Christian author James Garlow (Heaven and the Afterlife, Ch. 20) is that reincarnation may comprise an entity intrusion into a body where it doesn’t belong. He points out that even Dr. Stevenson considered this option as a possibility.
I can think of two incidences that I recently came across, one on the internet sent by a friend, and the other on TV. In one case a man known only as Tony was hit by lightning. Afterward, he began to be obsessed with the idea of becoming a concert pianist. He had a new ability to play and compose. His interest became more of an addiction rather than just a new talent because music was downloaded "in torrents" into his brain. He felt he was leading a double life. So is this a bump in IQ or something else? Ultimately, it tore up his family life, and he and his wife separated. Both now have their regrets that the whole thing ever happened.
In the second event, it was a man who found a sudden ability to paint. He began to see scenes of Italy in his head, so he painted what he saw. It’s fascinating and impressive, but what if it’s like a home invasion robbery? An unhappy soul in the afterlife wants to live again. Is that someone with whom we want to share our life and body?
In the case of a 6-year-old child knowing things about airplanes and war and friends of a deceased pilot, it’s clear that the intrusive soul in that child is already an “adult” with adult memories. Because such a child has his or her own soul, which is developing normally, the memories of a former life may fade in time. The fact is, those memories don’t really belong there and probably aren’t helping anything. (See my first post on Dr. Frank Ritchie for a description of the aural layer of protection cracking open to allow intruders.)
When Jesus was on Earth, He admonished us not to be anxious about what we will eat or drink or wear, because each day’s evil is enough of a burden to bear. Anxiety about tomorrow can wait until tomorrow. The same could be said about anxiety about our past. Our Heavenly Father knows what we need and will provide it if we ask (Matt. 6:34).
As for working out karma, if you read the literature, you find that trying to undo the karmic knots of this life and former lives is hard work, and the results are pretty random. There seem to be all kinds of entities involved and they don't claim to be angels. That is why Christ paid the price for us at Calvary. Paul expressed it this way: “Therefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature. Old things are passed away, all things become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
So here is my answer. Even if reincarnation is true, I’m not sure God is in it, and I’m not sure it’s helpful. I can’t say I have all the answers or that I understand it all, but as for me, I’m happy to trust in Christ’s free gift of eternal life in a real place that some describe as the best place they’ve ever been.