Today I’d like for us to think about reincarnation. Reincarnation is something that most of us don’t think much about because it’s not something that’s a widespread belief in our society, but reincarnation does have a history within Christianity.
What Is Reincarnation?
Reincarnation is the belief that your spirit, or soul, begins new life in another physical form after the death of your present physical body. Among people who believe in reincarnation, some believe that a human being always reincarnates as another human being. Others, however, believe a human being could reincarnate as an animal or plant.
The idea behind reincarnation is that your spirit, that is, the essence of who you are, is independent of any one physical body. When any one physical body dies, the spirit moves on to another. Usually, the belief is that you have no memory of those lives in previous bodies, but some people believe that you can tap into your unconscious and remember things from a former life.
Reincarnation is seen as having a goal. Eventually, you reincarnate over and over until your spirit reaches some kind of goal or stage of development, and then your spirit is able to quit reincarnating over and over and move completely into the spiritual world.
Reincarnation in Christianity
While no major Christian denomination officially believes in reincarnation, studies show that about one fourth of Americans who identify themselves as Christian do believe in reincarnation in one form or another.
Among early Christians, there were groups that believed in reincarnation. Writings have survived from early Christians that talk about reincarnation, and from other parts of the historical record, we know that there were early Christians who believed in reincarnation. Exactly how widespread that belief was, we don’t know. Scholars and historians argue about it, but we do know that it was a belief held by some early Christians.
From the historical record, we know that in the year 553, reincarnation was officially rejected by the institutional church, and it disappeared from Christianity, at least officially.
Today I thought it would be interesting to see what the Bible says about this.
Reincarnation in the Bible
There are several things in the Bible that some people point to as support for reincarnation.
The first comes from the Old Testament. It has to do with a man named Elijah. Elijah was an Old Testament prophet who appears in the books of First and Second Kings. Elijah was one of two people the Bible reports that didn’t die. Elijah was taken up directly up into heaven. It says this, “Lo, there came a fiery chariot with fiery, fiery horses, and he went in a whirlwind to heaven.”
In the Old Testament book of Malachi, it says God will send Elijah back before what it calls “the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord.” Christians traditionally have interpreted this to mean that God would send Elijah back before the coming of Jesus, and it is a traditional Christian belief that John the Baptist was the fulfillment of this prophecy.
This belief is based on things Jesus said. In Matthew chapters 11 and 17, Jesus identifies John the Baptist as the fulfillment of this prophecy from Malachi. Jesus flatly states, referring to John the Baptist, that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him.
So was John the Baptist the reincarnation of Elijah? Well, the traditional Christian interpretation is that John the Baptist was allegorically Elijah, not really Elijah. The traditional Christian belief is that although Malachi said specifically “Elijah,” he did not mean literally that Elijah would come back, but figuratively. The coming of John the Baptist was the fulfillment of this prophecy. That’s the traditional Christian interpretation.
But of course, that’s not the only possible interpretation. You can take what Malachi said literally, and you can take what Jesus said literally and say that John the Baptist was the reincarnation of Elijah.
It is possible to interpret those passages to mean that John the Baptist was the reincarnation of Elijah. It depends on whether you take it literally or figuratively. Since Christianity in our day does not believe in reincarnation, naturally they’ll take it figuratively in order to make the Bible agree with their preexisting beliefs.
Let’s move on to something else. In the Gospel of John is the account of the death of Jesus’ friend Lazarus. Lazarus was sick, and his family sent for Jesus, but by the time Jesus got there, Lazarus had already died. His sister, Martha, went out to greet Jesus and told Him He was too late. Lazarus had already died.
And then it says this, “Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha answered, ‘I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”
This passage has always created a bit of confusion because Jesus makes a statement that has two parts, and they seem contradictory. The statement is, “He who believes in Me will live, even though he dies, and whoever lives and believes in Me will never die.”
In the first part, Jesus said that anyone who believes in Him would live, even though they die. In the second part, He said that anyone who believes in Him would never die. This appears to be a contradiction. You’ll live even though you die, but you won’t die. Theologians and biblical scholars have argued for years about what this means.
Those who believe in reincarnation explain it like this: When Jesus told Martha that Lazarus would rise again, Martha thought Jesus meant Lazarus would rise again at the final resurrection at the end of the world. But those who believe in reincarnation take the position that’s not what Jesus meant.
They look at the sentence “I am the resurrection and the life” to be Jesus correcting Martha, telling her that He was not referring to the final resurrection. What He actually meant was that those who believe in Him are spiritually regenerated, and when they die, they go straight on to the spiritual realm. According to this interpretation, that’s what He meant when He said, “He who believes in Me will live, even though he dies.” They don’t have to reincarnate again.
However, those who don’t believe in Jesus have to reincarnate again. They get another chance in another life to believe in Jesus. That is an interpretation of Jesus’ statement “whoever lives and believes in Me will never die.”
How do you get, from that statement, the belief that those who don’t believe in Jesus will reincarnate and get another chance? Well, if you go to the original Greek, this statement is very difficult to translate. The reason it’s so difficult to translate is that there are actually two words in it that are negatives—the word for no and the word for not.
Most translators assume the extra negative is there for emphasis. However, that’s an assumption. They make the assumption that the extra negative is there for emphasis and do not include it in the translation.
But, if you translate it literally and don’t omit one of the negatives, you get this: “Whoever lives and does not believe in Me will never die.” That is interpreted to mean that those who don’t believe in Jesus die from this incarnation, but they don’t cease to exist. They do not die totally. They get another chance in another life. The interpretation is that the spirits of those who don’t believe in Jesus don’t die. Their bodies die, but their spirits reincarnate into another body, and they have another chance to believe in Jesus.
As I said, this is not the way it’s usually translated, but it is possible to translate it that way. And, that actually is the literal translation.
It depends on how you want to translate it, how you need to translate it to make the Bible agree with the beliefs you already have.
Now let’s move on to something that’s not as confusing. In Matthew chapter 16, we find this, “When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, He asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’ They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’”
Keep in mind that by the time of this passage, John the Baptist was dead. And so, when Jesus asked His disciples who people thought He was, they replied that people thought He must be the reincarnation of either John the Baptist or one of the dead prophets.
This passage is pretty clear, and so biblical scholars have no choice except to conclude that in this time period, people thought it was possible for one of the dead prophets to have been reincarnated. Since they thought Jesus was a reincarnation of one of the dead prophets, obviously they believed reincarnation was possible.
Keep in mind that our knowledge of the ancient world is very limited, and we really don’t know exactly what the beliefs at that time were. But from this passage, we have to say that people back then believed the spirit of a dead person could reincarnate. If they hadn’t believed the spirit of a dead person could reincarnate, they wouldn’t have thought Jesus was either the reincarnation of John the Baptist or one of the dead prophets.
There’s another passage we need to look at. In John chapter 9 is the account of how Jesus and His disciples came up on a man who had been born blind. The disciples asked Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
Think about that question. The disciples asked Jesus if this man had been born blind because he sinned. How could he have sinned before he was born? Why would the disciples even ask that?
Well, the only way he could have sinned before he was born is if he sinned in a past life. That’s the only way you can take it. If you take the position that you don’t exist until you are born, you obviously can’t sin if you don’t exist, so the disciples asking if he had sinned to cause him to be born blind would have been nonsense. In order for their question to make sense, the disciples must have believed in some sort of prior existence.
There is one other passage in the Bible to look at: Revelation 3: 12. This is the part of Revelation where Jesus is talking to various Christian groups, giving them warnings. It says, “Him that overcometh I will make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go out no more.”
What does that mean, “and he shall go out no more”? When did he “go out?” What does “go out” mean? Theologians and biblical scholars argue over that.
It is possible to interpret that passage as saying that you reincarnate over and over again until you reach the goal; that is, until you overcome. Then you reincarnate any more, you “go out no more.” You reach heaven and don’t need to reincarnate again.
It just depends on how you want to interpret it, how you need to interpret it to get the Bible to agree with what you already believe.
So. We’ve seen a number of places in the Bible that you can interpret as supporting a belief in reincarnation. For at least a couple of them, there really is no other interpretation possible except to say that there must have been some sort of belief in reincarnation back then. There’s just no other way to explain those passages.
Reincarnation in Ancient Christianity
There were early Christians who believed in reincarnation. A man named Synesius, who lived in the 400’s, wrote this in a prayer, “Father, grant that my soul may merge into the light, and be no more thrust back into the illusion of earth.”
This is a clear reference to reincarnation. If you don’t reach the goal now, you reincarnate until you do.
In another of his writings that has survived, he wrote this, “It is possible by labor and time, and a transition into other lives, for the imaginative soul to emerge from this dark abode.”
Again we see the belief that you reincarnate until you reach the goal.
An early Christian named Origen, who lived about 200 years earlier than Synesius, wrote this, “By some inclination toward evil, certain spirit souls come into bodies, first of men; then, due to their association with the irrational passions after the allotted span of human life, they are changed into beasts, from which they sink to the level of plants. From this condition they rise again through the same stages and are restored to their heavenly place.”
This is complicated. It basically says that everyone exists, first of all, as a spiritual being and then takes some kind of bodily form as a human being. If someone does really bad in this life, they reincarnate as an animal, or maybe even as a plant, and then have to progress back upward to a human again, and then hopefully reach the goal of heaven.
In addition to these, there are many other writings from early Christianity that express a belief in reincarnation.
An early Christian named Gregory of Nyssa wrote this in the 300’s: “Christians are all confused about the preexistence. Some say we lived in families there, and in tribes just as we do here, and that we lost our wings when we came down here and will get them back again upon earth.”
Gregory is talking about what he calls the “preexistence.” If you read his complete writing, you’ll see that Gregory is saying that Christians in the past believed in the preexistence, but that Christians in his day were no longer sure exactly what that referred to. From this, we know that some early Christians had some sort of belief in reincarnation called the “preexistence,” but the specifics of it have been lost to history.
A direct reference to reincarnation has survived in the writings of a man called Clement of Alexandria. He lived in the late 100’s and early 200’s. Another direct reference has survived in the writings of a man called Justin Martyr, who lived in the early 100’s. From those, we know that reincarnation was a belief among at least some Christians back in the earliest days.
Reincarnation was officially rejected in Christianity around the year 550. The Roman Emperor Justinian was desperately trying to revive the empire, and to do that, he decided he needed to unify Christianity and stamp out all dissenting beliefs. One of the things he got the institutional church to stamp out was the belief in reincarnation. So from then on, reincarnation was officially rejected by the institutional church.
But, for the first 500 years or so after the time of Jesus, there were Christians who believed in some form of reincarnation, and that belief was not necessarily seen as wrong.
What do we do with all this? Well, it is possible to find writings that show some early Christians rejected a belief in reincarnation. Also, although we found places in the Bible that can support a belief in reincarnation, you can’t find in the Bible a specific, clear statement of belief in reincarnation. It’s certainly not something that’s emphasized in the Bible.
Christian Beliefs Were Developed by People
But, there is something we need to realize here. I think it’s something most people don’t really think about. Sometimes when people do think about it, it causes them to lose their Christian faith.
Christian beliefs did not just suddenly appear on the scene in a neat little package. Christian beliefs developed over the years, and they were developed by people. Sometimes these people had agendas, like we saw with the Emperor Justinian, that had nothing to do with Christianity. They were just using Christianity for a certain purpose.
This can be disturbing. We might like to think that Jesus came and outlined everything in perfectly clear terms. And then along came Peter and Paul and the other New Testament writers and spelled out everything in perfectly clear terms. And there were Christian beliefs, all clearly expressed and wrapped up in a neat little package.
Everything we’re supposed to believe was explained clearly and handed to us all at once.
But that’s not the way it happened.
Jesus came. Jesus did things, said things, and things happened to Him, and then He was gone. People were left wondering what it all meant. They wondered about it and thought about it, and different people came up with different ideas about what it all meant. Christian beliefs went in all different directions.
Then at some point, some people got together and took it upon themselves to decide what was correct. They created the institutional church, and over years and years, the institutional church developed Christian beliefs. Their motives were not always pure; in fact, their motives were often clearly impure. They were often using the Christianity they created to further their own aims.
In the final analysis, we inherited a Christianity that is based on some things Jesus said and did, and it is based on some early Christian writings that we consider to be scripture. But it is based on certain interpretations of these things. People decided what the correct interpretation of these things is.
That means that the Christianity we inherited is really, in the final analysis, based on decisions people made almost 2000 years ago. They could have made other decisions, and if they had, we would have inherited a completely different kind of Christianity. And maybe if they had made their decisions based less on furthering their own agendas, we would have had completely different beliefs today.
Some people believe that the fact that Christian beliefs are based to a large extent on decisions people made 2000 years ago to further their own agendas is a reason to reject Christianity itself.
But that’s no reason to reject Christianity. Just because some of the beliefs we have inherited are based on decisions people made to further their own agendas does not mean we have to reject Christianity.
We don’t have to go along with the decisions they made. We can reject some of the decisions they made without rejecting Christianity itself.
So let’s go back to reincarnation. Do I believe in reincarnation? I don’t know. Do I believe it’s unchristian? No, I do not. I believe that in this life, we’ll never have complete understanding of the way things really are. When we finally do make it to heaven, I think we’ll be surprised to realize how narrow-minded we really were on earth when we thought we understood it all. And when I say narrow-minded when we thought we understood it all, I’m referring equally to Christianity and to science. I think everyone is going to be surprised when this life is over at how narrow-minded we all were.
I think we’re a part of something much bigger than we could ever imagine. Maybe reincarnation in some way is a part of that.