Out On A Limb With Shirley MacLaine: Is Reincarnation True?


June 4, 2000 | Ray Pritchard

This is a sermon about reincarnation, which means that I have a serious problem right off the bat. It is also a sermon about Shirley MacLaine, which poses a second problem. My first challenge is to convince you that reincarnation matters enough to warrant a full sermon. Perhaps this will help. Over the past 25 years a number of pollsters have surveyed the religious mood of America. When the results of various surveys are compared, it appears that approximately 25% of all Americans believe in reincarnation. Interestingly, that number remains about the same for self-identified Christians. And it even stays about the same for those who call themselves “born again.” Worldwide, the number rises to at least 50% when you include the followers of Buddhism, Hinduism, and the various New Age religions. Those figures alone should be reason enough to examine reincarnation from a biblical perspective.

This week I received the following e-mail that illustrates the point:

I am in a bit of a pickle in regard to reincarnation. In chatting with two close friends about “it is appointed a man once to die, then the judgment,” and other passages, my friends said that there were originally whole books in the Bible about reincarnation. They say they were removed during some council or another (maybe Nicea or Trent?). I know nothing of this and am at a loss as to what to say next. Please help! Of course they also interpret being “born again in the spirit” as the spirit returning to another body for another round at life. I hope you get a chance to address these issues in your sermon as I know this is a big stumbling block to many “new-agers” and those of us who love them.

P.S. I have also asked these self-proclaimed Christians what they thought the purpose of Jesus’ death was if not for the forgiveness of sin so that we could spend eternity with God. Their response was that folks in those days needed to have someone die for them because they didn’t understand how worthy they were. Today, they say, we are more aware of our “divine selves” and we can get it all “done” on our own. Gee, it’s really just about self-esteem. And here I thought I was depraved!

And what about Shirley MacLaine? Most of us know her as an accomplished actress, the star of such movies as Steel Magnolias and Terms of Endearment, an outspoken advocate for certain political causes, a celebrated entertainer, and a rather free spirit. An Internet biography calls her “a dancer, singer, highly regarded actress and metaphysical time traveler.” She has written at least five books describing her spiritual journey and her belief in reincarnation:

Out on a Limb—1983

Dancing in the Light—1986

It’s All in the Playing—1988

Going Within—1990

The Camino—2000

In preparation for this sermon I read Out on a Limb and The Camino (which was released in May 2000 and is already a bestseller). Of those two books I would say that Out on a Limb is better written, more interesting, and provides a clearer picture of her journey into New Age religion. The Camino, while also easy to read, strikes me more as a hardcore tract in favor of reincarnation, past-life recall, and some truly bizarre visions involving a place called Lemuria that supposedly once existed in the Pacific Ocean and was centered near Hawaii.

By her own admission, Shirley MacLaine thought a long time before writing Out On A Limb because “it is the written expression of a spiritual odyssey that took me further than I ever intended to go, into an astonishing and moving world of psychic phenomena where past lives, the existence of spirit guides, and the genuine immortality of the soul became more than concepts to me—they became real, true parts of my life” (from the preface).

It may come as a shock to hear a public figure speak so frankly in favor of reincarnation. I realize there is some temptation to dismiss Shirley MacLaine as a kook. But clearly she is a gifted individual with a deep curiosity to understand the universe and her place in it. I do not doubt her sincerity. Most of us have never thought about these matters and know no one who has given them serious thought. But Shirley MacLaine has and she is deadly serious when she says she believes in reincarnation. In making that statement she claims to stand in a line that stretches back thousands of years. Her list of people who believed in some form of reincarnation includes Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, William Blake, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Henry Miller, Mark Twain, Louisa May Alcott, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

When I read Out on a Limb it struck me as a book that might have been written by Campus Crusade for Christ if Campus Crusade believed in reincarnation. As she details her spiritual journey, she asks the right questions but somehow ends up with the wrong answers. And that’s why I take all what she says seriously.

I. An Introduction to Reincarnation

What exactly is reincarnation? Let’s start by taking the “re” off the front end of the word. We are left with “incarnation.” To incarnate something is to cause it to be born in a human body. To reincarnate something is to cause it to be born more than once in a human body. Reincarnation is the belief that each individual soul lives a succession of lives in various human bodies over the course of history. The purpose for such reincarnation is to gradually purify the soul so that it eventually reaches perfection. When that state is reached, no more incarnations are necessary.

Thus, it is the goal of each life to make as much progress as possible and shorten the time until perfection is reached. Most teachers of this doctrine believe that the soul must pass through many lives on earth—hundreds and probably thousands—before perfection is achieved. Any one of us might have been a stevedore on a Mississippi River barge or a soldier in the army of Alexander the Great or a monk in a medieval monastery or a housewife in the days of Napoleon. Shirley MacLaine says she was once a Buddhist monk, a court jester to King Louis XIV, a Moorish girl who lived along The Camino in northern Spain, and a mistress to Charlemagne. She also believes her daughter was once her mother in a previous life.

Key to the doctrine of reincarnation is the concept of karma—the doctrine of cosmic justice. This means you pay in a future life for the misdeeds of your previous lives. Or you are “rewarded” for your spiritual enlightenment. Stated in biblical terms, you reap what you sow. When the Bible writers use that concept, they mean you reap either in this life or in eternity. But Shirley MacLaine means you reap in the next life and the next and the next and the one after that. Thus as each individual soul works out its own karma, that soul is slowly purified, cleansed, ennobled, enlightened, uplifted, and finally perfected.

Reincarnation, then, is a kind of self-salvation worked out over the eons of time. Some people are very bad and will take many thousands of lifetimes to perfect. It has been suggested that someone like Adolf Hitler must come back six million times to atone for his crimes against humanity. Others progress rapidly and take fewer lifetimes. New Agers generally regard Jesus Christ as an example of the truly perfected soul. His life on earth, which is recorded in the Bible, is simply the last in a series of incarnations.

There is a second key to reincarnation without which it could not exist as a viable doctrine. This is the belief in the essential divinity of the individual. That is, that God is within you. This is actually a common New Age teaching, which is why in so much New Age literature you are encouraged to journey into yourself, explore your feelings, discover a “higher consciousness,” and there experience true spiritual reality. This is a major point made over and over again by Shirley MacLaine. When she asks her spiritual guru David about the meaning of life, he replies that “happiness and purpose and meaning is you.” And then he said, “You are everything. Everything you want to know is inside of you. You are the universe” (Out on a Limb, p. 87). The TV movie based on the book includes a scene where David is trying to get her to say the phrase, “I am God.” She has trouble and says it slowly, hesitantly. “Say it again.” “I am God.” “Say it again.” “I am God.” This time triumphantly: “I…AM…GOD.”

Douglas Groothuis points out five key elements of Shirley MacLaine’s New Age gospel. 1) All is one. We are not separate beings but all part of a great mystical Oneness. 2) Everyone and Everything is God. This is called pantheism. Our goal is to reach the “Higher Self” within us. Thus all the talk about the unlimited potential inside each person. 3) All lived before and will live again. This is the heart of reincarnation. 4) We create our own reality. This theme shows up very strongly in The Camino. All of us can and should be in contact with the spirit world through ESP, telepathy, Eastern religion, and so on. 5) We should communicate with spirit guides. The Bible calls such person “mediums.”

I would add two other elements to that list. There is a devaluing of the body (because you’re going to leave it behind when you die and take another body in your next life), and a rejection of the Bible as the Word of God.

Who is Jesus according to Shirley MacLaine? This from her guru David again: “Christ was the most advanced human ever to walk this planet. He was a highly evolved spiritual soul whose purpose on earth was to impart the teachings of a Higher Order” (Out on a Limb, pp.91-92). Later on in the book, she explains that Jesus actually spent the years between ages 12 and 30 in India where he learned yoga and reincarnation and that was the secret of his miracle-working ability. He never said that explicitly, of course, and the early church deliberately suppressed the truth. (This is nonsense, of course, and contradicted by every fact we have from early Christianity, but it is often repeated by New Age adherents.) Groothuis sums it up well when he says: “Shirley MacLaine’s Jesus is a pure fiction, a false Christ. Her contention that we are really gods puts us on a par with Christ and makes us pitiful imposters of deity.”

Out on a Limb has gone through 40 printings since it was published in 1983 and has sold over three million copies. Her newest book is already a bestseller. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There is a tremendous interest in the paranormal in our day. Think about the continuing popularity of Star Trek, the Star Wars movies, the X-Files, and Sabrina, the Teenage Witch. Listen to Oprah Winfrey. Deepak Chopra’s book How to Know God is a runaway bestseller. Ditto for Conversations with God and The Celestine Prophecy. It’s all there—slickly packaged Eastern religion. I also include the fascination with horoscopes, psychic hotlines, Tarot Cards, UFOs, ESP, astrology, and yoga. The growing openness to various forms of Eastern religion coincides with the postmodern denial of absolute truth. Now that the Judeo-Christian framework has been dismantled from our culture, into the vacuum has come a host of strange teachings. If we pretend they aren’t there or won’t affect us, we are simply giving up the game without even taking the field.

II. Reincarnation and the Christian Faith

When you boil it all down, there are three great reasons Christians have always opposed reincarnation.

Reincarnation teaches we will live and die many times. Christianity teaches the doctrine of eternal judgment following death.

Hebrews 9:27 says “And as it is appointed unto men once to die, and after this the judgment” (KJV). You live once, you die once, and then you face God in judgment. Jesus said the same thing in John 5:28-29: “Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out—those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned.” You live, you die, and then you face God. Reincarnation isn’t mentioned because it doesn’t exist.

Reincarnation devalues this present life. After all, if you blow it there’s always next time. Maybe you’ll get it right in the next life. “Reincarnation is like show business. You just keep on doing it until you get it right” (Out on a Limb, p. 233). The whole focus of biblical faith is on the brevity of this life. The Psalmist said, “So teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts to wisdom” (Psalm 90:12 KJV). And James 4:14 says, “What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” This life is the only life we have. We only get one chance to serve the Lord. If we reject Jesus Christ, we will regret it for all eternity.

Reincarnation teaches that my only hope is to save myself through successive lives. Christianity teaches that God forgives and extends mercy in the face of human sins and shortcomings.

The reincarnationists are right about two things: l) All men are sinners and 2) No man can save himself in one lifetime. But they are wrong about the biggest thing: No one can save himself in a thousand lifetimes. There aren’t enough lifetimes in all the rolling eons of eternity to purge a man of his sins. When you come right down to it, the reincarnationists see the problem, but their solution is hopeless because they have no concept of a merciful God. But the Lord said in Isaiah 55:6-7: “Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon.” How many verses are there which speak of God’s love and mercy and grace? There must be hundreds. Pick any one of them and there’s your answer.

But how could God forgive us if we can do nothing in a million lifetimes to be forgiven? This is the question which Shirley MacLaine cannot answer. Let the Bible give its own answer: “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6). “But God demonstrates his love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (II Corinthians 5:21). “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace” (Ephesians 1:7). “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

Unlike the reincarnationist, we don’t have to pretend the answer is in us. We know it isn’t. But we know where the answer is. It is in Jesus Christ. And through him we have come to know God and through him we have found forgiveness.

Reincarnation teaches that after this life we are doomed to return again and again in hope of attaining perfection someday. Christianity teaches that we are given eternal life here and now and when we die, we go into the presence of the Lord.

So many scriptures teach this truth it would be impossible to quote them all. Jesus said to the repentant thief, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). And Paul said in II Corinthians 5:8 (KJV) “To be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord.”

How sad it would be to lay our loved ones to rest and our only hope be that sometime, somewhere, somehow they will be reincarnated in some other body, in some other personality, in some other place, in some other time. What kind of hope is that? And what would it be to think that this life was just the latest in a long series of lives, a brief, nearly-meaningless stopover in the dreary march toward an elusive perfection?

Thank God for hope in Christ which gives meaning to this life and rock-solid security for the future! We do not rest our souls on the flimsy testimony of strange voices, spirit guides, astrologers, mediums, or misguided actresses. As II Peter 1:16, 19 puts it, “We did not follow cleverly invented stories…and we have the word of the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place.”

No wonder the Christian church has always rejected reincarnation. There’s nothing there we need.

III. Our Response to New Age Confusion

Understand that there is a vast spiritual hunger in our generation.

If the people of this generation do not find God’s truth, they will believe Satan’s lie. A starving dog will eat whatever you put in front of him. No place on earth is that hunger more evident than in America. There is a reason why New Age books sell in the millions and why Oprah Winfrey loves Deepak Chopra and Shirley MacLaine. They have tapped into the deep desire inside every human heart to understand who we are, where we came from, and where we are going. Ecclesiastes 3:11 reminds us that God has put a longing for eternity in every heart. The popularity of New Age teaching means that many people are truly searching for spiritual reality. The fact that many have bought into a false system doesn’t make their desire any less real.

Do not be taken in.

Be informed. There are a number of good books you might read:

Ankerberg, John and Weldon, John. Facts on the New Age Movement. Harvest House, 1998.

Eidsmore, John. Basic Principles of New Age Thought. New Leaf Press, 1991.

Felter, David. In Search of Eden: Understanding New Age Thought. Beacon Press, 1992.

Groothuis, Douglas. Confronting the New Age. InterVarsity, 1988.

Groothuis, Douglas New Age Jesus. InterVarsity, 1999.

Habermas, Gary and Moreland, J. P. Beyond Death. Crossway Books, 1998.

Hunt, David. Occult Invasion. Harvest House, 1998.

Jones, Peter. The Gnostic Empire Strikes Back: An Old Heresy for the New Age. Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1992.

Kole, Andre. Astrology and Psychic Phenomena. Zondervan, 1998

Kole, Andre. Mind Games. Harvest House,1998.

Martin, Walter. Kingdom of the Cults. Bethany House, 1997.

Rhodes, Ron. New Age Movement. Zondervan, 1994.

Let’s ground our children in the Word of God.

Our children are the ones who will face the onslaught of New Age teaching in the years to come. Even now the battle rages for the minds of our children and it has reached to their toys, their video games, their cartoons, their music, their books, and the things they are taught in school. Our best defense is to get our children fully involved in the program of the church and thereby teach them the Word of God. After all, if we do not give our children a faith to believe, they are going to find one on their own. And people like Shirley MacLaine are more than willing to help them in their quest.

Realize the danger of dabbling in the occult.

Dabbling is how many people are taken in. Perhaps they read the horoscope or keep an amulet or play with a Ouija board or experiment with seances or consult a fortuneteller or read some of the popular New Age books. Often people are taken in unawares by something they regard as “neutral” like transcendental meditation or yoga. Unfortunately, many people do not realize the extent to which occult teaching has penetrated much of what is produced in Hollywood. In some ways what is happening today is simply a westernized revival of the ancient mystery religions. It’s hard to find anything in Shirley MacLaine’s book that was not taught somewhere else thousands of years ago. The content is the same, only the packaging is new. (For specific biblical commands against dabbling in the occult, see Leviticus 19:31; Deuteronomy 18:9-13; Isaiah 8:19; Galatians 5:20).

Can a Person Be Born Again?

Although the Bible knows nothing of reincarnation, it does talk about a second birth. Jesus said to Nicodemus, “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3 KJV). Here is the final, fundamental difference between reincarnation and Christianity. Both teach the need for rebirth, but the reincarnationists mean physical birth over and over again. The Bible teaches a spiritual rebirth from above—once for all, never to be repeated.

The choice is simple: Either you believe that you will pay for your own sins as you are reincarnated over and over again or you believe that God was incarnate in Christ once for all. It’s either the incarnation of Jesus or your own reincarnation. Either Jesus saves you or you try to save yourself. If you are willing to believe that Jesus Christ died in your place bearing your sins, and if you will trust him as your Savior, you can be born again. If you have never made that decision, I urge you to do it right now.

In the end we can say many positive things about Shirley MacLaine. She is gifted, talented, persuasive, and very open about her own spiritual journey. She is profoundly committed to the New Age views she espouses. And I believe the people who follow her are equally sincere and many of them are genuine spiritual seekers. But that makes the bottom line even more tragic. Shirley MacLaine is spiritually blind. She walks in darkness because she has been deceived by the Father of Lies (John 8:44) who appears as an “angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14). She is the blind leading the blind and those who follow her will end up in the trap of eternal destruction.

You can follow the teaching of reincarnation and end up in hell or you can trust your life to the Lord Jesus Christ and end up in heaven. Our answer to New Age deception is not an argument, it’s a person, the Lord Jesus Christ. He alone is the light of the world. Those who follow Him will never walk in darkness. We believe in resurrection, not reincarnation because we believe in full salvation from all our sins through the blood of Christ.

Let no one think that reincarnation is a harmless philosophy. It is a deadly evil. If reincarnation is true, then the Bible is false, the gospel is a lie, and Jesus Christ did not die for our sins. But if the gospel is true, then Jesus Christ paid the full price for your sins when he died and rose again. There is no middle ground.

May God help us to reject every clever philosophy designed only to destroy our souls. And may we hold fast to the faith once for all delivered unto the saints. Hold on to Jesus. Run to the cross and put your trust completely in the One who died for you and who rose on the third day. This is the gospel that comes from God. It is good for earth, good for heaven, and good for everything in between. Amen.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?