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Reincarnation – Scientific American: Ian Stevenson’s Case for the Afterlife

Scientific American Article

This was an interesting article about Ian Stevenson who conducted the first systematic and rather monumental research effort into reincarnation.  Stevenson was a psychiatrist at the University of Virginia for ~50 years.  His work is continued there today by other folks in the Division of Perceptual Studies.   It was a bit shocking to see an article like this in Scientific American, especially one that acknowledges any rigor or the compelling nature of Stevenson’s work.  Indeed, despite what certain folks think of reincarnation, it is rare to hear disparaging comments thrown in the direction of Stevenson.  Perhaps that alone says much for his repute of a scientist and the quality of his work, even if folks may not like the topic.

Overall, the article seemed like a fair assessment of his work.  I’ll quote some of it here with a link to it included below.  I will also briefly discuss reincarnation further below, with a focus on Christianity.


Stevenson’s main claim to fame was his meticulous studies of children’s memories of previous lives. Here’s one of thousands of cases. In Sri Lanka, a toddler one day overheard her mother mentioning the name of an obscure town (“Kataragama”) that the girl had never been to. The girl informed the mother that she drowned there when her “dumb” (mentally challenged) brother pushed her in the river, that she had a bald father named “Herath” who sold flowers in a market near the Buddhist stupa, that she lived in a house that had a glass window in the roof (a skylight), dogs in the backyard that were tied up and fed meat, that the house was next door to a big Hindu temple, outside of which people smashed coconuts on the ground. Stevenson was able to confirm that there was, indeed, a flower vendor in Kataragama who ran a stall near the Buddhist stupa whose two-year-old daughter had drowned in the river while the girl played with her mentally challenged brother. The man lived in a house where the neighbors threw meat to dogs tied up in their backyard, and it was adjacent to the main temple where devotees practiced a religious ritual of smashing coconuts on the ground. The little girl did get a few items wrong, however. For instance, the dead girl’s dad wasn’t bald (but her grandfather and uncle were) and his name wasn’t “Herath”—that was the name, rather, of the dead girl’s cousin. Otherwise, 27 of the 30 idiosyncratic, verifiable statements she made panned out. The two families never met, nor did they have any friends, coworkers, or other acquaintances in common, so if you take it all at face value, the details couldn’t have been acquired in any obvious way.” *

This Sri Lankan case is one of Stevenson’s approximately 3000 such “past life” case reports from all over the world, and these accounts are in an entirely different kind of parapsychological ballpark than tales featuring a middle-aged divorcée in a tie-dyed tunic who claims to be the reincarnation of Pocahantas. More often than not, Stevenson could identify an actual figure that once lived based solely on the statements given by the child. Some cases were much stronger than others, but I must say, when you actually read them firsthand, many are exceedingly difficult to explain away by rational, non-paranormal means. Much of this is due to Stevenson’s own exhaustive efforts to disconfirm the paranormal account. “We can strive toward objectivity by exposing as fully as possible all observations that tend to weaken our preferred interpretation of the data,” he wrote. “If adversaries fire at us, let them use ammunition that we have given them.” And if truth be told, he excelled at debunking the debunkers.” *

“I’d be happy to say it’s all complete and utter nonsense—a moldering cesspool of irredeemable, anti-scientific drivel. The trouble is, it’s not entirely apparent to me that it is. So why aren’t scientists taking Stevenson’s data more seriously? The data don’t “fit” our working model of materialistic brain science, surely. But does our refusal to even look at his findings, let alone to debate them, come down to our fear of being wrong? ‘The wish not to believe,’ Stevenson once said, ‘can influence as strongly as the wish to believe.’ “ *

Towards the end of her own storied life, the physicist Doris Kuhlmann-Wilsdorf—whose groundbreaking theories on surface physics earned her the prestigious Heyn Medal from the German Society for Material Sciences, surmised that Stevenson’s work had established that ‘the statistical probability that reincarnation does in fact occur is so overwhelming … that cumulatively the evidence is not inferior to that for most if not all branches of science.’ ”*

Christianity and Reincarnation

Reincarnation was a common idea around the time of Christ among the Jewish people.  It was a fairly foundational concept within Jewish Mysticism like Kabbalah.  

“The Zohar and related literature are filled with references to reincarnation, addressing such questions as which body is resurrected and what happens to those bodies that did not achieve final perfection, how many chances a soul is given to achieve completion through reincarnation, whether a husband and wife can reincarnate together, if a delay in burial can affect reincarnation,18 and if a soul can reincarnate into an animal.”**

“The Bahir, attributed to the first century sage, Nechuniah ben Hakanah, used reincarnation to address the classic question of theodicy — why bad things happen to good people and vice versa”**

Reincarnation was also very common among the Greeks.  No doubt Luke, an author of one of the three synoptic gospels, was also familiar with the concept.

Prominent early Church Fathers like Origen taught metempsychosis, or transmigration of the soul, now better known as reincarnation.

” …. ‘On First Principles’, which is the most systematic and philosophical of Origen’s numerous writings. In this work Origen establishes his main doctrines, including that of the Holy Trinity (based upon standard Middle Platonic triadic emanation schemas); the pre-existence and fall of souls; multiple ages and transmigration of souls; and the eventual restoration of all souls to a state of dynamic perfection in proximity to the godhead.” ***

Certain Bible quotes also suggest that not only was the idea common, but that discussion centered around it was not anathema.

John, Chapter 9:1-3
And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from his birth.  And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?  Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.”

How can a man sin before he is born?  This sounds more like “karma” from a past life than anything.  Also, Jesus did not repudiate them for intimating at reincarnation, which would be surprising if reincarnation was a taboo, off-limits topic, as it it considered to be today in the Christian tradition.

Matthew 17:10-13
“The disciples asked him, ‘Why then do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?’  Jesus replied, ‘To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things. But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.’ Then the disciples understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist.”

Once again, this sounds like a clear case of reincarnation, specifically dealing with John/Elijah.  Not only was it not repudiated by Jesus, he played a part in the suggestion!

Let’s not also forget that reincarnation becomes an obvious theme when reading the theories within the Bible on just who Jesus was, as thought by the people of the day.

Mark 8:27-28
“Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, ‘Who do people say I am?’ They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.'”

All the theories here presented in Mark 8 clearly involve reincarnation.  Herod was also left confused by the theories he was hearing.

Luke 9:7-9
“Now Herod the tetrarch heard about all that was going on. And he was perplexed because some were saying that John had been raised from the dead, others that Elijah had appeared, and still others that one of the prophets of long ago had come back to life. But Herod said, ‘I beheaded John. Who, then, is this I hear such things about?’ And he tried to see him.”

Modern Day Accounts

Modern day accounts of reincarnation persist, even in cultures like our own where reincarnation is not an accepted belief.  The following is perhaps one of the more popular stories of a young boy who presumably remembered a past life, despite his parents being traditional Christians with no belief in reincarnation.  Some of the details are rather remarkable.

Here’s a few more videos on this particular case:

Case for Reincarnation – Part I 

Case for Reincarnation – Part II


The idea of reincarnation has been a very wide-spread belief across many cultures throughout time.  Why it waned within Western culture is a complex discussion I might try to tackle another time.  However, it can be found within the seeds of our beliefs, even if it is hiding at times.  It is a recurrent theme in modern day Mystical Experiences and Near Death Experiences.  Despite the fact that the evidence could be claimed to be anecdotal, I think the sheer volume suggests that it would be best to at least keep an open mind when it comes to reincarnation.  And, if studies like AWARE end up showing that consciousness can exist independent of the body, concepts like reincarnation may suddenly become rather plausible.

Here is a video by Jim Tucker who is continuing Stevenson’s work at the Division for Perceptual Studies, University of Virginia.  He provides a nice summary of Stevenson ‘s work where one can also start to get a feel for the rigor of the work and the amount of systematic studies that have been done.


*Scientific American: Ian Stevenson’s Case for the Afterlife: Are We ‘Skeptics’ Really Just Cynics?

**Reincarnation and the Jewish Tradition

***Origina of Alexandria

University of Virgina School of Medicine, Division of Perceptual Studies