Did You Live Before You Were Born?
THE idea that a person has had a previous existence has held a particular fascination for many Western writers. The English novelist Sir Henry Rider Haggard frequently had characters in his novels who philosophized on reincarnation. Just a few years ago a book by another author that dwelt on the subject soared to the top of the best-seller list for books in the United States. Its title was “The Search for Bridey Murphy.” The author relates how a housewife under hypnotism describes the life she claimed to have lived as Bridey Murphy from 1798 to 1864. Investigators who checked the information she gave found so many discrepancies that they concluded that she was drawing upon her imagination.
Some persons in the West have made the idea an article of their religious faith. Mormons, for example, contend that they existed before they were born. On this point one of their leaders, Heber J. Grant, stated: “We have been placed upon this earth because of our faithfulness in having kept our first estate. The labors that we performed in the sphere that we left before we came here have had a certain effect upon our lives here, and to a certain extent they govern and control the lives that we lead here, just the same as the labors that we do here will control and govern our lives when we pass from this stage of existence.”
In the Far East belief in a preexistence is centered around karma. This is the view that the fate of the soul in the present life is determined by what it did in its previous existence. Everything a person does in this life, it is thought, will inexorably affect his position in the next life and so on for innumerable rebirths. The Hindu Laws of Manu state: “In consequence of many sinful acts committed with his body, a man becomes in the next birth something inanimate, in consequence of sins committed by speech, a bird, and in consequence of mental sins he is reborn in a low caste. . . . A Brahmin who steals the gold of a Brahmin shall pass a thousand times through the bodies of spiders, snakes, lizards, of aquatic animals and of destructive Pukhasas. . . . For stealing grain a man becomes a rat; . . . for stealing fruits and roots, a monkey.”
The Law of Karma has no provision for mercy or for forgiveness. It presents a despairing future of possibly a billion rebirths for a transmigrating soul. The prospect is so discouraging that the Maitri Upanishad of Hinduism states: “In this sort of cycle of existence what is the good of enjoyment of desires, when after a man has fed on them there is seen repeatedly his return here to earth? Be pleased to deliver me. In this cycle of existence I am like a frog in a waterless well.”
The doctrine of the transmigration of souls, known in India as samsara, presents such a disheartening prospect for the future that the keen desire of believers in karma is to get out of this seemingly endless cycle of rebirths that Hindus call “The Wheel” and be freed from the power of karma. Their desire is to be in a state where misery will no longer exist.
What people who believe themselves to be under the power of karma seek is what the Holy Bible shows man how to attain without rebirths. It reveals man to be the product of a Creator who is forgiving and merciful. Instead of putting man under the power of an unrelenting, impersonal law that requires sins to be expiated by rebirths, he lovingly provided a means for man to be forgiven of his sins and to be freed from miseries. An endless life in joy, peace and security is what he has promised to give as a free gift to all who obey him and worship him in the manner he wants to be worshiped.
By the sin-atoning sacrifice of a perfect man, Jehovah provided the means by which humans can be forgiven their sins. Regarding that One the Bible states: “To him all the prophets bear witness, that everyone putting faith in him gets forgiveness of sins through his name.” (Acts 10:43) No matter what their past may have been, that sacrifice makes forgiveness possible if they are repentant. Jehovah does not require them to suffer through multitudinous rebirths to be purified of their sins. “Though the sins of you people should prove to be as scarlet, they will be made white just like snow; though they should be red like crimson cloth, they will become even like wool.”—Isa. 1:18.
The idea that the soul transmigrates or that a person had a previous existence before he was born into this one hinges upon the belief that the human soul is immortal and survives the death of the body. The soul usually is regarded as something that continues the conscious existence of a person separate from the body. Although this belief is widely accepted among the religions of the world, including many that profess to be Christian, the Creator of man does not confirm it as being so.
Very plainly the Bible states that when a man dies his conscious awareness of things ceases. “His spirit goes out, he goes back to his ground; in that day his thoughts do perish.” (Ps. 146:4) His spirit or life force cannot be regarded as that intangible thing that makes a person the individual that he is any more than the electrical force that operates many types of machines has any connection with the distinctive differences of those machines. The fact that his thoughts perish indicates a cessation of conscious existence. Instead of conveying the thought that the soul is something in man that is immortal, the Bible states that the soul dies. “The soul that is sinning—it itself will die.”—Ezek. 18:4.
With nothing in man that can preserve his conscious existence apart from his body, the life he has now is the only existence he has had. His hope for the future is in the provision the loving Creator of man has made for awakening the dead by resurrection. What he does while he is living is a determining factor as to whether he will be remembered and resurrected or forgotten and left in the unconscious state of death. To all who receive the approval of Jehovah will go the gift of eternal life. “For God loved the world so much that he gave his only-begotten Son, in order that everyone exercising faith in him might not be destroyed but have everlasting life.”—John 3:16.