REINCARNATION AND THE BIBLE
by Dr. Paul R. Eddy
Many modern-day adherents of reincarnation claim that Jesus and His disciples taught the doctrine of cyclical rebirth. Often the charge is made that the Bible originally supported the idea of reincarnation, but in the name of control and self-interest, the Church eventually eliminated these teachings from it. The popular prophetess of the New Age Movement, Shirley MacLaine, has promoted this view. In her book Out on a Limb, she records the following comments from David, a New Age adept,
....The theory of reincarnation is recorded in the Bible. But the proper interpretations were struck from it during an Ecumenical Council meeting of the Catholic Church in Constantinople sometime around 553 A.D, called the Council of Nicea. The Council members voted to strike those teachings from the Bible in order to solidify Church control."1
Here we find the main ingredients of a common New Age understanding of reincarnation and the Bible. It will be our purpose to look briefly at these claims and evaluate the foundations on which they are built.
IS REINCARNATION TAUGHT IN THE BIBLE?
Several passages have been offered as evidence that reincarnation is taught in the Bible. We will now consider some of the most important ones.
1. lohn 3:3, 7 - Some reincarnationists suggest that Jesus' statement "You must be born again" points to the idea of successive " reincarnations". This misunderstanding can be cleared up when the passage is read in its full context. First there is no hint here that Jesus was referring to many physical "rebirths" rather one spiritual "birth" of "the Spirit" is what Jesus has in mind (verse 5). Interestingly, the Greek word anothen, here translated "again", can also be translated "from above". This understanding would clearly fit with Jesus' insistence of the need for a spiritual birth. Jesus' response to Nicodemus' question (verse 4) is also instructive; He clearly states that He wasn't talking of another physical birth via the womb. Viewed in the full context of the New Testament, one can see that this was simply another metaphor that Jesus used to describe the spiritual conversion to which he called all seekers of God. Jesus was affirming the need for a spiritual birth--beyond mere physical birth--for those who seek to enter the kingdom of God.
2. Matthew 11:14; 17:11-13 - Another group of passages that are often cited as evidence that reincarnation is taught in the Bible centers around Jesus' description of John the Baptist as "Elijah, who is to come." Jesus makes implicit reference here to a prophecy in Malachi4:6: "Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord." Several factors serve to show that Jesus was not claiming that John was the literal reincarnation of Elijah. First, and most importantly, John was asked this very question, and his answer was an emphatic "No"! (John 1:21). Secondly, the Bible explains the way in which John wass connected to Elijah. Zacharias was told by the angel Gabriel that John, his son, would move in "the spirit and power of Elijah" (Luke 1:17). Here we see an example of typology commonly found in the Bible. John is portrayed as a "type" of Elijah, one who functions much the way the prophet did in his own day. This conclusion is supported by the fact that Elijah, with Moses, appeared with Jesus during the transfiguration. The disciples who witnessed this did not see John the Baptist (which they would have if he was the reincarnated Elijah), but rather Elijah himself! Beyond this, one must remember Elijah's miraculous departure from this earth (II Kings 2:11); he had the strange experience of being taken to heaven without experiencing physical death, that is, without his soul leaving his body. And of course death is a necessary aspect of the reincarnationist birth-death-rebirth cycle.
3. John 9:1-3 - In this passage, Jesus and His disciples encounter a man blind from birth. The disciples inquire, "Rabbi, who sinned, man or his parents, that he should be born blind7" Reincarnationists often point to this question as evidencethat the disciples believed in reincarnation: by asking if it was his sins that caused him to be born blind, they must have believed that he had sinned in a previous life and was thus born blind in this life to fulfill karmic justice. It is interesting that reincarnationists will cite this passage, given Jesus' answer to the disciples' question. Jesus replies, "It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was in order that the works of God might be displayed in him." Here, with an ideal oppqrtunity to affirm the ideas of karmic law and reincarnation, we find Jesus clearly denying this interpretation of the situation! That Jesus rejected the karma-reincarnation system as the answer to human suffering in the world is clear from other passages as well (e.g, see Luke 13:1-5). But how do we explain the disciples' original question: "Who sinned, this man or his parents?" The last half of the question probably refers to the concept or parental sins being in some manner passed down to later generations (this idea is mentioned in several Biblical passages, e.g., Exodus 20:5; 34:7). The first half of the question possibly reflects the disciples' curiosity of whether a reincarnationist system was responsible for this man's predicament. Reincarnation doctrines definitely circulated in the Near East during New Testament times. The influences came both from Eastern religion/philosophy as well as from the Greek notion of the 'transmigration of the soul". This is not the only possibility, however. The disciples's question may reflect different streams of rabbinic thought that held to the discarnate preexistence of souls, or to the notion that one could suffer for sins committed while still in the womb!2 Whatever the case, Jesus' response precludes a reincarnationist interpretation of the man's plight.
4. Galatians 6:7 - The end of this passage, at first glance, seems to proclaim an idea very similar to the law of karma: ...for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap." Again, however, reading the passage in context is the key to understanding its real intent. The first part of this verse states that "God is not mocked"-- thus we are dealing not with an impersonal force of karmic law but with a personal God who calls all to responsibility for their choices and promises that they shall be held accountable for them. Secondly, the following verse explains the particular application of this statement: Those who "sow to the flesh" shall reap "corruption": while those who "sow to the Spirit" will reap "eternal life." Not only does the apostle Paul avoid anything like reincarnationist implications in this passage, but his language here parallels that used elsewhere in support of his alternate, Biblical view: resurrection (see I Corinthians 15:36-58).
Several other Biblical passages are sometimes claimed to be indicative of reincarnationism. These include: Job 1:20-21; Jeremiah 1:4-5; John 8:58: and James 3:6. Each of these can only be construed as supportive of reincarnation when taken out of their Scriptural context and the historical/cultural situation in which they were written. When viewed in their proper context and within the Judeo-Christian worldview, the reincarnation interpretations fail. Add to this the numerous passages that in one way or another preclude the doctrine of reincarnation, and one can only conclude that the claim of Biblical support for this belief is entirely unfounded (see: II Samuel 12:23; 14:14; Psalms 78:39; Luke 23:39-43; Acts: 17:31; 11 Corinthians 5:1; 4:8; 6 :2; Galatians 2:16; 3:10-13; Ephesians 2:8-9; Philippians 1:23; Hebrews 10:12-14; Revelation 20:11-15). The Christian view of things is succinctly put by the author of Hebrews: "... it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment" (9:27).
WAS THE DOCTRINE OF REINCARNATION REMOVED FROM THE BIBLE7
Interestingly, the same people who claim that reincarnation is taught in the Bible often claim that the doctrine was removed from the Bible, by Church authorities, several centuries after it was written. The first question that we must ask is, Which is it!?! Does the Bible teach reincarnation, or were the teachings about it purged from the Bible by a control - seeking Church hierarchy? Logic dictates that we can't have it both ways!"
If one decides to opt for the theory that reincarnationist teachings were "censored" from the Bible, they must grapple with several difficult problems. First, when could this "censoring" have taken place? The common reincarnationist answer to this question often reveals a lack of basic understanding of early Christian history. For example, the passage quoted earlier from MacLaine's book suggests that these teachings were removed from the Bible "during an Ecumenical Council meeting of the Catholic Church in Constantinople sometime around 553 A.D, called the Council of Nicea."3 In response to this claim, we must begin by pointing out a few basic historical inaccuracies. First, The Council of Nicea, the first of the seven Ecumenical Councils, took place in 325 A.D. It was concerned with the teachings of Arius and their implications for a correct understanding of the person of Jesus Christ. The documents from this Council offer no evidence that the topic of reincarnation ever came up for discussion, let alone that it was condemned and removed from the Bible. No doubt this claim means to refer, rather, to the fifth Ecumenical Council, held in 553--the Council of Constantinople. The primary purpose of this Council was to ease the tensions in the Church caused by the Council of Chalcedon 100 years previous. Again, there is no evidence whatsoever that the idea of reincarnation was ever discussed, let alone condemned and purged from the Bible. What the reincarnationists are probably referring to here is the condemnation of Origenism, which included belief in the preexistence of the soul. This should not, however, be confused with the notions of the karmic cycle of reincarnation. This is clear from Origen's own words on this matter when he writes of "the dogma of transmigration, which is foreign to the Church of God not handed down by the Apostles, nor anywhere set forth in the Scriptures."4 Other early theologians, including Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Gregory of Nyssa, also explicitly rejected the idea of reincarnation.
Another problem with this theory is the fact that manuscripts of the Bible exist dating back to the third century. For example, the Bodmer Papyri (dated around 200-225), the Chester Beatty Papyri (dated around 200-250), Codex Vaticanus (dated around 325-350), and Codex Sinaiticus (dated around 340) are all documents written centuries prior to the533 Council, and none of them reveal any supposed reincarnationist teachings that were removed from later editions of the Bible! Beyond this, it is known that the core canon of the Bible was essentially recognized and acknowledged throughout the orthodox Church as early as the late second and early third centuries, as evidenced by the list contained in the Muratorian Fragment (dated around 170).5 All of this points towards the impossibility of a conspiratorial purgation of the doctrine of reincarnation--or any other doctrine for that matter--from the Bible during any of the Ecumenical Councils.
In the end, all available evidence points to one conclusion: the claim that the Bible does--or ever did-support the concept of reincarnation simply has no foundation. Those reincarnationists who make such claims do so without any historical basis. It is instructive that the most noted scholar attempting to fuse the idea of reincarnation with Christianity today, Dr. Geddes MacGregor, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at U.S.C., openly admits that "the Bible does not explicitly teach reincarnationism, " and he gives no credence to the idea that such teachings were ever removed from the Bible.6 The Bible offers humanity not a seemingly endless cycle of karmic rebirth, but rather the hope of the resurrection of the body to eternal life--that is, to an everlasting relationship of love with the personal Creator God.7
- Shirley MacLaine, Out on a Limb (New York: Bantam Books, 1983), pp. 234-5.
- See lohn Snvder. Reincarnation Vs. Resurrection (Chicago: Moody Press, 1984), p. 52.
- MacLaine, Out on a Limb, p. 325.
- Allan Menzies, ed.. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 10 (Crand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), pp. 474-75.
- For information on the datinq of exta nt manuscripts, see N. Ceisler and W. Nix A Ceneral Introduction to the Bible (Chicago: Moody press, 1968).
- Geddes MacGreqor, Reincarnation in Christianity (Wheaten: The Theosophical Publishing House 1978), p. 16.
- For fu rther study on the issue of reincarnation and Christianity, see Snyder, Reincarnation Vs. Resurrection; Mark Albrecht, Reincarnation: A Christian Critique of a New AgeDoctrine
(Downers Grove:IVP, 1982); PatMeans, The Mystical Maze (Campus Crusade for Christ 1976); F. LaGlard Smith, Out on a Broken Limb (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Pub., 1986).
For a technical treatment of karmic law and reincarnation, see Bruce Reichenbac The Law of Karma: A Philosophical Study (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1991).
Paul R. Eddy is an Associate Professor of Theology at Bethel Collage in St. Paul, MN