Skip to main content

Reincarnation and infinite punishment in hell


In the first part of the paper, I argue that Christians should incorporate the theory of reincarnation into their belief system. The problem of the apparent disproportion between finite human sin and infinite punishment in Hell becomes far more tractable against the background of reincarnation. In the second part of the paper, I address and answer three objections that may be raised against a Christian theory of reincarnation. The first objection is based on the role of memory in identity, the second points to the essential unity of body and soul, and the third revolves around the suggestion that living multiple lives may more easily lead to damnation than to salvation.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  1. See, for example, Tertullian, De Anima, 28–35.

  2. For some critical considerations, see Kaufman (2005).

  3. For an overview of solutions, see Seymour (1998, 2000). Cain (2002) is also relevant.

  4. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2000) puts it, “Every man who is ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of his Church, but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, can be saved. It may be supposed that such persons would have desired Baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity” (prop. 1260). Regarding unbaptized children, prop. 1261 states that “the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus’ tenderness toward children which caused him to say: ‘Let the children come to me, do not hinder them,’ allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism.”

  5. Much like years of Earth time may feel like hours to a space traveler who is moving at a speed close to that of light. See Cain (2002).

  6. “We can solve [the] problem by supposing that the damned have the freedom to sin even after death. If they choose to sin continually, it is fair that they suffer continually. This suffering may come directly from God or it may, in whole or in part, come from the other damned. For the sake of simplicity, imagine there are only two damned persons, both of whom freely indulge in their violent tendencies. In their anger, they choose to fight each other tooth and nail for all eternity, much like the Wrathful in Dante’s Inferno. Since they sin forever, they deserve to be punished forever, and being subjected to each other’s violence is at least part of this punishment” (Seymour 1998, p. 78).

  7. For the “separationist” view of Hell, see Lewis (1944), Walls (1992), and Kvanvig (1993). Another important deflationary approach is the view that, despite their sins and shortcomings, all human beings will eventually be saved. Bauckham (1979) reconstructed the history of the doctrine of universal salvation and von Balthasar (1988) argued that revelation requires us to hope that all human beings be saved. If Hell exists but is destined to remain empty, the issue I attempt to solve in this paper does not even arise. Thus, my argument is intended for those who do not accept the doctrine of universal salvation.

  8. For arguments against the doctrine’s plausibility, see Edwards (2002), Chapt. 3.

  9. On this point, see Filice (2006), p. 51: “[Mastery of this earthly dimension] would require a broad, deep, and lasting experience of life. Such experience can be attained only if we encounter this rich life from many different perspectives—each of us must live as a man and as a woman, as rich and as poor, as gifted and as deprived, as physically inclined and as musically inclined, in a social context of freedom and in one of oppression, in a desert environment, and in a cold mountain environment, as a shepherd and as a scientist. Only from the combined experience of these first-person perspectives can we get a well-rounded sense of what it is like to be human on earth.”

  10. This rests on the plausible Aristotelian assumption that we are the makers of our own character. See Nicomachean Ethics, 1113b–1114b.

  11. See note 7 above.

  12. In this section and in the two that follow, I will focus on specifically philosophical objections to reincarnation. These are objections that turn on philosophical concepts like identity, the composite of soul and body, and character dispositions. There is, however, another objection that is based on facts about the world. An anonymous referee for this journal pointed out the notorious problem of population growth, which can be stated as follows. If, after living a certain number of lives, some people attain salvation and are thus “retired” from the reincarnation cycle, we should observe a gradual decrease in world population; demographic data, however, incontrovertibly point in the opposite direction. This is an interesting difficulty, but it seems to me that it could easily be met in a Christian context. The objection only applies to those versions of the theory of reincarnation that postulate a fixed number of souls and oppose the idea that a soul may not have existed for all eternity. From a Christian perspective, on the other hand, nothing stands in the way of believing that God may introduce more and more people into the world as the march of humanity progresses. In fact, this would be especially consistent with the idea that God aims to extend an opportunity for salvation to as many human beings as possible.

  13. Not remembering past lives also conduces to a robust focus on the moral importance of one’s present efforts and on the difference they can make to one’s salvation. Kaufman (2005) argued that belief in reincarnation diminishes the sense of moral urgency that characterizes one-life conceptual schemes, for it lulls a person into a sense of confidence that “all mistakes and misdeeds can be rectified in the fullness of future lives” (Kaufman 2005, p. 24). However, if we do not remember past lives and do not know how much (or how little) progress we have made in our moral and spiritual development, a powerful sense of urgency can more easily manifest itself in a sincere and motivated believer than the facile fatalistic attitude Kaufman describes. Knowing that she will have to complete many laps to win the race does not make a long-distance runner less motivated than a sprinter.

  14. See, for example, Aquinas, Summa, I, Q. 75, Art. 4 and Geach (1969). Interestingly, in some contemporary discussions of resurrection, materialism has been identified as a viable alternative to traditional Christian dualism about human persons. See Merricks (2001), Baker (1995, 2001) and Zimmerman (1999).

  15. See Catechism of the Catholic Church (2000), props. 988–1004. In addition to Catholicism, many other Christian denominations adopt a form of this Creed.

  16. See Aquinas, Summa, Suppl. IIIae, Q. 79, Art. 1.

  17. For an overview of attempts to solve this problem, see Merricks (2009) and Bynum (1995).

  18. Cp. van Inwagen (1978) and Merricks (2009).

  19. “It seems possible that, when God set about to create me, God was able to do just that: create me, not just somebody or other. To do this, God didn’t need to make use of matter that had previously been mine, for none had. To do this, God didn’t need to secure my continuity, for any kind of continuity at all, with something I had previously been continuous with, because I hadn’t previously been. And if God could see to it that I—not just somebody or other—came into existence the first time around, what’s to preclude God from doing it again, years after my cremation?” (Merricks 2001, p. 197).

  20. Kaufman (2005) pointed out the problem with reference to the doctrine of karma: “[...] once one has a wicked disposition, it is a puzzle how one can escape spiraling down into further wrongdoing, or at best being permanently stuck at a given moral level, if karma has already determined one’s moral character” (p. 26).

  21. Many thanks to Jonathyne Briggs, Thomas Bruno, David Parnell, Jerry Pierce, Christopher Young, an anonymous referee for this journal, and members of an audience of Penn State Hazleton students to whom I presented the paper via video conference bridge.


  • Baker, L. (1995). Need a Christian be a mind/body dualist? Faith and Philosophy, 12, 489–504.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Baker, L. (2001). Material persons and the doctrine of resurrection. Faith and Philosophy, 18, 151–167.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bauckham, R. J. (1979). Universalism: A historical survey. Themelios, 4(2), 48–54.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bynum, C. W. (1995). The resurrection of the body in Western Christianity, 200–1336. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Cain, J. (2002). On the problem of hell. Religious Studies, 38, 355–362.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Catechism of the Catholic Church. (2000). Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana.

  • Edwards, J. (2001 [1753]). The justice of God in the damnation of sinners. In M. X. Lesser (Ed.), The works of Jonathan Edwards (Vol. 19, pp. 339–376). New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press.

  • Edwards, P. (2002). Reincarnation: A critical examination. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

    Google Scholar 

  • Filice, C. (2006). The moral case for reincarnation. Religious Studies, 42, 45–61.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Geach, P. (1969). God and the soul. New York, NY: Schocken Books.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hick, J. H. (1976). Death and the eternal life. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

    Google Scholar 

  • Kaufman, W. R. P. (2005). Karma, rebirth, and the problem of evil. Philosophy East and West, 55, 15–32.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kvanvig, J. (1993). The problem of hell. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Locke, J. (1979 [1690]). An essay concerning human understanding. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Lewis, C. S. (1944). The problem of pain. New York, NY: Macmillan.

    Google Scholar 

  • Merricks, T. (1998). There are no criteria of identity over time. Noûs, 32(1), 106–124.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Merricks, T. (2001). How to live forever without saving your soul: Physicalism and immortality. In K. Corcoran (Ed.), Soul, body, and survival (pp. 183–200). Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Merricks, T. (2009). The resurrection of the body. In T. P. Flint & M. C. Rea (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of philosophical theology (pp. 476–490). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • Seymour, C. (1998). Hell, justice, and freedom. International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, 43, 69–86.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Seymour, C. (2000). A theodicy of hell. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • van Inwagen, P. (1978). The possibility of resurrection. International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, 9, 114–121.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • von Balthasar, H. U. (1988). Dare we hope “That all men be saved”? (D. Kipp & L. Krauth, Trans.). San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press.

  • Walls, J. (1992). Hell: The logic of damnation. Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Zimmerman, D. W. (1999). The compatibility of materialism and survival: The “falling elevator” model. Faith and Philosophy, 16, 194–212.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Gianluca Di Muzio.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Di Muzio, G. Reincarnation and infinite punishment in hell. Int J Philos Relig 74, 167–180 (2013).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: