Monday, June 10, 2019

Reincarnation, Resurrection, and Christian Theism: Interacting with the Case for Reincarnation in the Book "Soul Survivor"

·     The following letter was written to Bruce Leininger regarding the book he co-authored with his wife, Andrea Leininger and Ken Gross—Soul Survivor: The Reincarnation of a World War II Fighter Pilot, (Grand Central Publishing, 2009).  I have made minor editing updates and taken out dead online links. (June 2019)--for a previous, shorter version I posted online see Book Review and Dialogue on Soul Survivor.

October 12, 2009

Dear Bruce,

I recently read the book Soul Survivor written by you and your wife.  A co-worker of mine loaned me the book and I thought I might skim a little here and there but I was soon caught up in the narrative and read the whole book in a few days.  I was particularly interested in the fact of your Christian background and your struggle to come to grips with a potential case of reincarnation.  I have spent a little time on your blog devoted to the book and it appears to me that at least three broad perspectives are evident in those responding to the book.

1.    Naturalistic materialism.  These are the folks that deny the story outright or keep attempting to find some plausible, naturalistic explanation for the details of James’ memories (i.e., he read some of your books, he picked this information up from museums, etc.). These self-styled skeptics are bound to a particular notion of rationality dictated by metaphysical assumptions about what can and cannot happen in the world.

2.    Historic Christian theism.  This would be that group of individuals who have written in (sometimes without eloquence or civility!) to proclaim that Christianity and reincarnation are incompatible.  I call this “historic Christian theism” because this is the considered opinion of the Christian church through the centuries.  I noticed on the blog that this view is often simply dismissed with the epithet “Fundamentalist.”

3.    Spiritual openness to reincarnation.  This is a broad category encompassing a spectrum of opinion but that is unified around a belief in the possibility of reincarnation.   I would include in this category various views that attempt to combine some variant of Christianity with a belief in reincarnation.  As I read Soul Survivor the impression I got was that this is where you land—an integration of Christianity and reincarnation.

My goal in writing is to give a perspective from historic Christian theism regarding your experiences as narrated in your book with the hopes of providing an alternative explanation for what you and your family have experienced.  I’ll try to be thorough (thus I use footnotes, which is odd for a personal letter) but I know I can’t be exhaustive.

My fundamental belief about reincarnation prior to reading your book was that it is incompatible with historic Christian theism.[1]  This is still my understanding after reading your book and I hope to offer an alternative understanding of the realities that you experienced.  My hope is that I can offer an explanation that is rooted in historic Christian theism and thus show the resources inherent within the Christian worldview to provide an explanatory matrix for what you and your family experienced.  I will break up my presentation under various headings.

Evidence and Analysis

You obviously engaged in a great deal of painstaking research in uncovering the various facets of the Natoma Bay and its crew. It is evident, as well, that you were able to provide needed comfort and closure for many families associated with the ship and its crew.  The research was detailed but I kept asking myself, “What was the evidence pointing to in terms of a conclusion?”  Your wife and you (eventually) drew the conclusion from the evidence available that this is indicative of, if not proof of, reincarnation.  But is this conclusion warranted?  The evidence, at best, shows the reality of retrocognition(knowledge of the past) but this is not necessarily proof of reincarnation.  John Snyder has aptly brought out this crucial distinction as it is found throughout the literature promoting reincarnation.

In virtually all reincarnationist literature, there is one rarely questioned assumption: that cognition implies presence.  It is assumed that if someone has unexplained, detailed knowledge of persons, places, or things in the past, it must follow that he or she was actually there is some form: in other words, if I remember a past life, then it has to be my life that I remember.[2]

For this reason, it is more accurate to speak of your son’s experiences as retrocognition rather than memories.  The concept of memory presupposes actual presence.  In other words, to speak of James’ experiences as memories is to beg the question in favor of reincarnation.  Again, John Snyder is helpful in his articulation of this:

Reincarnationists throw caution to the wind when they use the word memory to describe retrocognition; and the unwary reader can easily get drawn in.  Retrocognition can legitimately be called memory only after reincarnation is proved.[3]

With this distinction between retrocognition and reincarnation in mind it becomes easier to see what your research actually accomplished.  Bruce, you spent a great deal of time, energy, and money researching the factual accuracy of your son’s knowledge of the past.  Your book details the extent to which you went to verify the truthfulness and reality of the items your son described. But this is conceptually distinct from demonstrating the truthfulness of the reality of reincarnation with all its attendant metaphysical dynamics.  What I was hoping for from your book was a serious discussion and analysis of these larger worldview dynamics flowing from the belief in reincarnation and how such a belief is compatible with Christian theism.  It appeared, at times, that you operated with a certain dichotomy of rational scientific causes versus a blind leap of faith.  On page 73 there is talk of seeking to “establish a natural cause for James’ nocturnal misery.” Why must it be a “natural cause” especially since you have a background of Christian theism?  Was there consideration of what resources the Christian worldview provided to analyze and interpret the experiences of your son? The move to the conclusion of reincarnation seemed overly quick.  I recognize you took time to come to that conclusion but it is equally obvious from reading the book that this conclusion, although resisted by you at first, was the hypothesis under consideration and the one that you were testing in your research.  Did you consider other alternative answers that flow more naturally from premises found within the Christian worldview?  I would like to provide one such attempt at a Christian analysis—one the ultimately rejects reincarnation but nevertheless provides an explanation grounded in Christian worldview presuppositions.  

Christian Theistic Analysis

At the center of the Christian worldview stands Jesus Christ.  The authoritative accounts of his life and teaching are found in the New Testament with its portrait of Jesus found in the canonical Gospels and the Apostolic witness found in the rest of the New Testament.[4]  Taking these documents as a starting point (and I recognize that someone without a Christian commitment won’t do this, so the process of dialogue would need to start further back) it can be seen that there are teachings and examples that would serve to illuminate your son’s experiences.

The New Testament speaks of God, angels, and the spirits of humans.  It also speaks of other malignant forces in the spiritual realm (Ephesians 6.12, for one example; the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are replete with these “unclean” spirits).  Such a doctrine about a devil and demons does not find ready acceptance in our culture but the witness of the New Testament is unambiguous regarding the reality of such entities.  I know from what you have written that C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity was instrumental in your own Christian pilgrimage so I will quote a few lines from this work because Lewis captures the reality of the Christian view with such wonderful prose.

Very well then, atheism is too simple.  And I will tell you another view that is also too simple. It is the view I call Christianity-and-water, the view which simply says there is a good God in Heaven and everything is all right—leaving out all the difficult and terrible doctrines about sin and hell and the devil, and the redemption.  Both of these are boys’ philosophies.

And a few pages later Lewis concludes:

But I freely admit that real Christianity (as distinct from Christianity-and-water) goes much nearer to Dualism than people think.  One of the things that surprised me when I first read the New Testament seriously was that it talked so much about a Dark Power in the universe—a mighty evil spirit who was held to the be the Power behind death and disease and sin.  The difference is that Christianity thinks this Dark Power was created by God, and was good when he was created, and went wrong.  Christianity agrees with Dualism that this universe is at war.  But it does not think this is a war between independent powers.  It thinks it is a civil war, a rebellion, and that we are living in a part of the universe occupied by the rebel…. I know someone will ask me, “Do you really mean, at this time of day, to re-introduce our old friend the devil—hoofs and horns and all?”  Well, what the time of day has to do with it I do not know.  And I am not particular about the hoofs and horns. But in other respects my answer is “Yes, I do.”[5]

We are not given exhaustive information about the devil or the demonic but the narratives of the Gospels do give us information that provides insight.  In light of this, I would like to develop three main points that are derived from the Christian Scriptures that serve to provide the basis for a Christian analysis.

The first point to consider is that the New Testament describes the reality of demons interacting with children in significant ways.  Mark 9.14-29 describes such an instance.  Verses 20 and 21 provide the clear insight here:

They brought the boy to him [Jesus].  When he saw him, immediately the spirit threw him into a convulsion, and falling to the ground, he began rolling around and foaming at the mouth.  And he asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?”  And he said, “From childhood.”

Now, I recognize that this is an extreme case and the physical conclusive aspects are not necessarily in line with all reported demonic experience.  My only point, so far, is that the New Testament here provides us with data regarding demons and children.  There is nothing about moral blame attributed to the child.  Nor are we given any answers to the questions as to how and why a demon may have entered this child. The simple point, again, is to see that demons can be an active force upon children.

I probably should pause here to speak to any potential misunderstanding at this point.  I can you imagine you thinking, “Oh, I see. You think my son James is possessed by demons.  You haven’t even met him but now you are talking about him being possessed by the devil!” Actually, I don’t believe it has to be “possession” although this word is used in the technical literature regarding reincarnation and its alternatives.[6]  The word “possession” is too often tainted with Hollywood notions stemming from such films like The Exorcist that it may not be helpful to use the word at all.  Many modern Evangelical theologians prefer the term “demonization” which can be used to cover a range of demonic influence.[7]  Furthermore, some have added theological nuance by the addition of other terms (i.e., “oppressed”) to signal an even greater spectrum of demonic influence without necessarily seeing the most extreme case as paradigmatic for all cases of demonic involvement.

Now, back to the analysis.  My first point concerned the demonic and children.[8]  The second point to consider is this: Is there any evidence that the devil or demons can influence a person without there being full-blown psychological distortion such as is found in the extreme cases of demonization?  The answer would appear to be “yes.”  Consider Luke 13.10-17 in which Jesus heals a woman with a bent spine who could not stand up straight.  The text very clearly states that this woman is one “whom Satan has bound for eighteen years” (v. 16).  The point here is that for eighteen years this woman had a physical condition of infirmity that would not necessarily have been seen by the normal means to be spirit induced.  Yet, Jesus very specifically gives us insight into this reality when he speaks and heals her.[9]

These two points above allow us to see that within a Christian worldview that it is possible to have demons influencing children without there being full-blown “possession,” as that term is popularly understood.  Working from these set points derived from Jesus is may be possible to speculate as to how this dynamic might work.  Evangelical philosophers Gary Habermas and J. P. Moreland spend time interacting with reincarnation researcher Ian Stevenson. In so doing they accept the distinction made by Stevenson between reincarnation and possession. Stevenson grants that possession by a discarnate person is a possible explanation for the retrocognition sometimes taken as evidence for reincarnation.  Stevenson seems to believe that one can distinguish between possession by another spirit and a case of reincarnation in that possession episodes generally change one’s personality while the presence of the child’s personality favors the reincarnation scenario.  In responding to this Habermas and Moreland argue:

But if this is the chief way to distinguish varieties of possession from reincarnation, it raises some serious problems.  For example, how can we really be dogmatic about differences between “possession behavior” and “reincarnation behavior”?  Do we know enough about either?  And doesn’t the rather classic distinction between possession and obsession (the latter involves a milder power being exerted by the invading spirit, which strongly influences, but does not possess the person) blur the distinction enough to make differentiation such as Stevenson’s even more questionable?

Also, if another personality or spirit has enough control to speak through a child and successfully impart large quantities of information through her, would controlling her behavior, emotions, and mannerisms be so much more difficult?  Wouldn’t this be even more likely if, over a period of time, she had already come to (rather impressionably) accept the spirit of the other deceased person as herself?[10]

Two concepts mentioned by Habermas and Moreland deserve consideration as potentially relevant and applicable.  Putting together the concept of “obsession” as defined above and the concept of an impressionable child unable or unaccustomed to differentiating between their own thoughts of identity and the “voice” of another spirit might provide an explanatory mechanism for how such demonic influence on a child might work.[11]  If this is possible, it might also help explain the diminishment of the identification over time.  As the child undergoes normal psychological development he is able to more accurately form and understand his own self-identity thus being in a position where the deceptive “voice” becomes lessened or, at least, not as easily accepted as his own inner voice.  Reasoning by analogy, consider how it is often the case that the younger a child is, the easier it is to deceive them but this is lessened over time as the child develops cognitively.  Again, I’m just speculating here but it is speculation driven by a foundation from within the revelational constraints of Jesus-centered Scripture.  I would argue that such a scenario of demonic influence upon a child provides just as much explanatory power and scope as does the idea of reincarnation.  One benefit of the demonic deception idea is that it flows from premises found within the Christian worldview—more specifically it flows from ideas presented in the teaching of Jesus.

A third point to consider revolves around the nature and goal of these unclean spirits to which Jesus so often has to interact with and overcome in the Gospels.  In a heated exchange with the religious leaders of the day, Jesus speaks to the nature of the devil.

You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father.  He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him.  Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies. John 8.44

So the devil and the demonic are about promoting lies and deception.  In particular, these lies focus on distorting the true reality of God and his Son Jesus Christ.  We ought not to think that these unclean spirits are merely looking to joy-ride in some bodies (whether people or pigs—see Luke 8.26-39).  One of their major goals is to re-direct the focus off Jesus.  The apostle Paul clearly describes this dynamic in 2 Corinthians chapter 11:

But I am afraid that, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, your minds will be led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ.  For if one comes and preaches another Jesus whom we have not preached or you receive a different spirit which you have not preached, or you receive a different spirit which you have not received, or a different gospel which you have not accepted, you bear this beautifully.  2 Corinthians 11.3-4

The Corinthian church had received this message of “another Jesus” from false messengers whom Paul speaks of as imposters in alignment with Satan.

For such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ.  No wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. Therefore it is not surprising if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness, whose end will be according to their deeds.  2 Corinthians 11.13-15

Notice, in particular, “Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.”  This is the disguise of deception with its goal to move the mind away from pure devotion to Christ Jesus.  So this becomes a crucial test—if not the crucial test—of analysis regarding spirits: do they point to and magnify the historical Christ Jesus of the apostolic proclamation? The Holy Spirit loves to testify and speak of the Jesus who gave himself to die on the cross and who has been resurrected in power and glory (John 14.16-17, 26; 15.26-27; 16.7-15). The false spirits always lead away from Jesus Christ as revealed in the Gospels.  Gordon R. Lewis has written about this in the context of alleged contact and communication with deceased people in African tribal societies.

As you hear accounts of words from dead relatives which seemingly no one else could know, and when you learn of the distinction between ancestral spirits and evil spirits in African tribes…, the most consistent hypothesis to explain the phenomena seems to be communication from dead people. But when you stop to realize that these alleged messages from the dead give no warning about the torments of the life beyond separated from the Father—the source of all good, you wonder if there is not some deception by Descartes’ evil genius.  Then you fail to find any reference to the gospel of Christ, let alone any priority for that message central to the entire Christian faith.  Finally, you conclude that the only consistent account of the content of spirit-messages, so antithetical to the gospel of Christ, is agents of the father of lies.

However good and beneficial the spirit-messages may be thought to be, the gospel of Christ does not have priority in them.  Secondary matters, if not outright blasphemy and obscenity, have usurped the place that rightfully belongs to the gospel.[12]

Bruce, I believe, based on what I read in Soul Survivor, that such displacement from the historical, Gospel-defined Jesus is underway in your family.  There are relevant resources from the Christian worldview to make sense of the experiences of your son without resorting to explanations involving reincarnation.  The conclusions being drawn by you and your wife from the words of your son are at variance with a Jesus-centered worldview which is resurrection oriented rather than reincarnation oriented.  I know that you still affirm the reality of Jesus Christ.  I think this statement from your blog (June 30, 2009) is indicative of your faith:

I appreciate what you mean by rocking the foundations of your belief. It shook us to our very core. One thing for sure.  We do not know how God works or Why God does things.  We only know that Salvation comes from the Lord through sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

And yet the belief in reincarnation is fundamentally at odds with the resurrection-oriented worldview of Jesus and the Apostles.[13]  This raises other concerns and questions.  I am concerned about what I see as the continued drift toward other practices universally condemned in Scripture such as astrology (Leviticus 19.31; 20.27; Deuteronomy 18.9-14; Isaiah 8.19-20; 19.3; 47.12-14; Jeremiah 10.1-3; Acts 13.8-11; 16.16-18; 19.18-19) which your family seems to be countenancing as demonstrated by the blog entry of July 26, 2009 entitled, “For Those of You Interested in Astrology…”[14]  A further concern relates to what your views are promoting or encouraging, even if unintentionally, in others who read and take comfort in the message of your book.  The message of Soul Survivor appears to be giving a number of people a false hope in that it confirms people in a belief in reincarnation but does not speak of the reality of Jesus Christ.  I also wonder about your son James.  Will he ever be able to really consider the claims of Christ Jesus as outlined in the New Testament and articulated by C. S. Lewis while he believes that he is the continuation of the life of James Huston? Won’t the belief in reincarnation eclipse the resurrection-oriented worldview of the New Testament? Will James have a biblical view of hope in the resurrection or will his hope be in the next reincarnation of who he is?  And who is he, exactly… James Huston?  James Leininger?  Somebody further back in history?  Somebody yet to be in a few hundred years as he undergoes a few more incarnations?  The belief in reincarnation leaves one with a metaphysical mess.

The movement away from Jesus is manifest and troubling, Bruce.  I believe that the more you give credence to reincarnation the farther you will move from real Jesus-centered Christianity.  I hope you will give consideration to the perspectives raised in this letter.  I urge you to go back again to the New Testament documents and consider the possibility of demonic deception.  The enemy is active in profound ways.  The apostle Paul gives us insight into the damaging and deceptive power of the devil.

And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.  
2 Corinthians 4.4

Again, notice the work of the devil is to blind the minds of people to the glory of Christ. This cannot be stressed too much. Christianity is not merely a theological system with abstract principles we can move around and meld with other philosophies.  Christianity is centered around Christ Jesus.  Any spirit that does not speak of the Jesus of the Bible is not a good spirit. This is the claim of historic Christian theism.  This is the claim of Jesus himself.  Any view that desires to claim him as an authority is going to have to reckon with this fact.

Bruce, I believe the possibility of demonic deception must be seriously considered. Allegiance to Jesus Christ entails that he be the center of all of our thinking and experience.  He is the one “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2.3).  I hope that this letter provokes you to go back again to the center—to go back to Jesus and seek to reason through your family’s experiences in light of him who is “the resurrection and the life” (John 11.25). My conclusion is from the apostle Paul: “Truth is in Jesus”—Ephesians 4.21

Thank you for taking the time to read this letter.  I would love to hear your thoughts as you consider the perspective of this letter.

For the Cause of Jesus,

Richard J. Klaus


     [1]Resources that have shaped my thinking in this regard are: The Reincarnation Sensation by Norman L. Geisler and J. Yutaka Amano (Tyndale, 1986); Immortality: The Other Side of Death by Gary R. Habermas and J. P. Moreland (Thomas Nelson, 1992)—especially chapter 8, “Reincarnation: Is It True?”; Reincarnation vs. Resurrection by John Snyder (Moody, 1984); Reincarnation by Mark C. Albrecht (Intervarsity Press, 1982, 1987).  
     [2]Synder, Reincarnation vs. Resurrection, p. 29.
     [3]Synder, Reincarnation vs. Resurrection, p. 32.
     [4]I recognize that these claims are often resisted and argued against but they are, nonetheless, the claims of historic Christian theism.  For a few of the many books that could be cited in defense of these claims (particularly against claims of “other” Gospels like The Gospel of Thomas) see the following: The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition by Paul Rhodes Eddy and Gregory A. Boyd (Baker, 2007); Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels by Craig A. Evans (Intervarsity, 2006); Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus edited by Michael J. Wilkins and J. P. Moreland (Zondervan, 1995); The Gospel Code: Novel Claims About Jesus, Mary Magdalene and Da Vinci by Ben Witherington III (Intervarsity, 2004); Jesus and the Victory of Godby N. T. Wright (Fortress,1996).
     [5]C. S. Lewis Mere Christianity(Barbour and Co., 1952), pp. 35, 39-40.
     [6]All the books mentioned in footnote #1 discuss the work of Ian Stevenson, Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation(American Society for Psychical Research, 1966), which lists among its taxonomy of suggested alternatives to reincarnation the notion of “possession.”  My understanding of Stevenson’s research is not based on a first-hand reading of his work but is the distillation of the work of others who have evaluated his hypotheses.
     [7]Wayne Grudem writes: “The term demon possession is an unfortunate term that has found its way into some English translations of the Bible but is not really reflected in the Greek text.  The Greek New Testament can speak of people who ‘have a demon’ (Matt. 11:18; Luke 7:33; 8:27; John 7:20; 8:48, 49, 52; 10:20), or it can speak of people who are suffering from demonic influence (Gk. daimonizomai), but it never uses language that suggests that a demon actually ‘possesses’ someone.”  Systematic Theology(Intervarsity/Zondervan, 1994), p. 423.  Also see Clinton E. Arnold Three Crucial Questions About Spiritual Warfare(Baker, 1997), especially pages 77-101.
     [8]The possible connection between children and an unclean spirit is also given confirmation by the other end of the spectrum.  The Holy Spirit can and has interacted with children even before cognitive development sets in (see Luke 1.41-45 where John the Baptist is moved by the Holy Spirit while yet in his mother’s womb).  Rich Lusk in his book Paedofaith: A Primer on the Mystery of Infant Salvation and a Handbook for Covenant Children(Athanasius Press, 2005) goes over more of this ground with a fuller discussion of the many relevant Scripture texts.  The point to be stressed here is that there is nothing in the make-up or constitution of a child that somehow renders it impossible for a spirit (Holy or unclean) from interacting and influencing the child.
     [9]John Christopher Thomas writes concerning this passage in Luke: “It is clear from the text that this woman’s infirmity is the direct result of demonic and/or Satanic influence, as indicated here [v. 11] and in v. 16.  Yet it is equally clear that the normal signs of demon possession, the loss of control over personality, etc., are missing here.  Rather than an internal assault of the person, as with demon possession, here the assault comes from the outside.  Therefore, while this woman is afflicted (bound) by Satan she is not demon possessed, as the term is normally understood in Luke.” The Devil, Disease and Deliverance: Origins of Illness in the New Testament Thought (Sheffield Academic Press, 1998), p. 223.
     [10]Habermas and Moreland, Immortality: The Other Side of Death, p. 125 (emphasis added).
     [11]The notion that the devil and/or demons can interject thoughts into the minds of people is an idea accepted by some theologians throughout the ages.  For one example, see the 18thcentury theologian Wilhemus a’ Brakel’s work The Christian’s Reasonable Service—vol. 4 (Reformation Heritage Books, 1995), pp. 242-246 where the main topics are “Satan’s Interjection of Sinful Thoughts” and “How Interjections of Satan May Be Distinguished from a Person’s Own Thoughts.”  A’ Brakel is not dealing with the topic under consideration here but he has teaching, based upon Scripture, that has potential relevance and application to the current discussion.
     [12]Gordon R. Lewis, “Criteria for the Discerning of Spirits” in Demon Possessionedited by John Warwick Montgomery (Bethany, 1976), p. 357.
     [13]Again, I would urge you to read the resources in footnote #1 for substantiation of this claim.
     [14]Not all of these Scriptural references refer explicitly to astrology but they do speak of what the Bible mentions as “divination” of which astrology is a subset.  Consider also these words from Clarence B. Bass and Thomas McComiskey from their article on “astrology” in the Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible: vol. 1(Baker, 1988), p. 225:
“Basic to the principles of astrology is the belief that one’s destiny is affected by mysterious ‘forces’ in the universe.  Such a concept in effect sets up a ruling power in the world other than God. It also creates a subtle dependence on the astrological system that may lead one away from trust in God. If one’s destiny is determined by a confluence of the heavenly bodies, prayer may no longer seem appropriate. Astrology can thus undercut the concept of individual responsibility to God and keep one from seeking to determine God’s will.”