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REINCARNATION in the BIBLE
I began studying reincarnationist literature some years ago, I soon become aware
of how both sides are often dishonest in their use of the Bible in support of
their arguments. It was evident that reincarnationists commonly read more into
a particular passage of scripture than was intended while it was equally evident
that opponents of reincarnation were just as guilty of misapplying or misinterpreting
certain verses as well as taking passages out of context to bolster their position.
In effect, both sides have been guilty of making the Bible say or imply what
they wish rather than simply letting the texts speak for themselves.
Such is to be expected, of course, for all of us are occasionally guilty of using propaganda to defend deeply held positions or, at a minimum, parroting what we have been told by those whose opinion we have come to trust and respect. However, if our study of reincarnation is to be either fair or complete, we must be willing to look at books like the Bible from an objective perspective, which can only be done by examining it from outside the venue of faith. Such is not easy to do, of course, but it is the only way to bring some degree of balance to the debate and keep it from disintegrating into the shouting match it frequently turns into when a religion's holy texts become involved.
And remaining objective is not the only hurdle one must jump when looking for reincarnationist passages in the Bible; one must also overcome the limitations imposed by the scriptures themselves. Translating from the original Greek or Hebrew into modern tongues is far from a precise science and one that can frequently result in considerable confusion. Further, the meaning of certain passages can hinge on the use of a single word that can be absent or rendered differently from one translation to another, further amplifying the problem. Of course, such difficulties were a problem which hampered the translators themselves, as attested to by the many footnotes denoting alternate definitions found in the margins of most modern Bibles. Additionally, there is the issue of how complete the scriptures are in terms of their teachings. There's a whole body of writings that did not make it into the modern Bible so one is immediately hampered by having only the sanitized, "orthodox" or official version of the Bible to consider. To include these other books, however, would be to make this a ponderous discussion, so for the sake of brevity we will consider only those verses that appear in the pages of the authorized Protestant Bible. Additionally, I will endeavor to be as fair as possible, for I am fully cognizant of the exalted status the scriptures play in the hearts and minds of many professing Christians and have no wish to diminish the status of these inspirational writings. I hope the reader will find that I have succeeded in this endeavor, even if I fail to convince them of any particular position.
to Die Once, and Then the Judgment: Hebrews 9:27
The most commonly quoted passage of scripture used to disprove reincarnation is contained in one of the lesser known books of the New Testament: the Epistle to the Hebrews. Originally believed to have been penned by the apostle Paul, scholars today are nearly unanimous in their opinion that it is actually a fairly late first century book written some years after Paul's death in 64 CE by an unknown author. None-the-less, they do agree that it was written by a man who obviously knew a great deal about Judaism and how it related to the emerging Jewish sect called Christianity, making it an important and valuable part of the Bible. While most of Hebrews is a fairly long treatise on how Christ fulfills the law of ancient Judaism, in the ninth chapter we find the following quotation: "Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people..." (Hebrews 9:27-28 NIV )
On the surface this seems pretty straight forward, and as such anti-reincarnationists use it with damning effect on the unwary. Unfortunately, this is one of the best demonstrations I can find of how a passage can be lifted out of context and made to address an issue its author never intended. The fact of the matter is that Hebrews chapter nine has absolutely nothing to do with reincarnation or life after death in general. Instead, it is an eloquent defense of how Christ's single sacrifice was sufficient to cleanse mankind of all unrighteousness. The writer is making the case that Jesus supersedes the old Mosaic laws and explains how his sacrifice displaced their previous traditions of achieving salvation through animal sacrifice (or, more precisely, the shedding of blood.)
The problem is with the word translators frequently use for "man" in this passage. The word is anthropos, which is normally translated either as men (plural) or, more figuratively, mankind. Many translations, however, improperly translate this word in the singular as man rather than the more all encompassing men or mankind demanded by the word athropos. (The more proper word for a man in the singular, personal sense would be aner, which is used frequently in this sense throughout the New Testament.) The difference is small but important, for if we interpret the passage properly, it should read something to the effect that: "...just as mankind died and so came under judgment (the fall), so Christ's onetime sacrifice 'fixed' the problem."
The point the author is trying to make, then, is that just as mankind fell (in the Garden of Eden) once, Christ's sacrificial death needed to be performed only once to successfully atone for all the sins of mankind; the one time death eluded to here being not physical, but spiritual in nature. Mankind sinned once (with Adam) and so came under judgment; Jesus died once (on the cross) undoing the consequences of that earlier disobedience. As such, the author of Hebrews is simply using metaphorical prose to note that Christ's death offset the consequences of the fall. There is nothing about reincarnation in the passage at alleither in support or in opposition to the idea. To see it in there is simply wishful thinking.
As a sidebar, however, I have encountered another take on this verse from a reincarnationist perspective I found interesting. Some reincarnationists do read the verse in the traditional mannerinterpreting it to mean personal judgment following physical deathbut interpret it to mean that once each incarnation ends, the person is judged and reaps the rewards or suffers the consequences of that life in the next incarnation. In effect, they are judged "once" for each incarnation and then sent back into the flesh to do it all over againwhich is, of course, the essence of the Hindu concept of karma. Once again, however, this interpretation is simple conjecture based upon the individual's personal preference and bias. Just as the traditional position is guilty of lifting this verse out of context to make it an anti-reincarnationist proof text, so too is the reincarnationist guilty of reading more into the verse than is there. Such, however, is human nature.
In conclusion, then, Hebrews 9:27 is not the ironclad case against reincarnation it is assumed to be. While it does not support the reincarnationist position in any way, neither does it deny it. It simply has nothing to say on the subject and should not be read as though it does.
Case of the Man Born Blind
The Christian reincarnationist has his own "proof text" that is often pointed to as being indicative or, at least suggestive, of reincarnation. In the ninth chapter of the well-known Gospel of John, Jesus and his disciples happen upon a man born blind. Immediately, one of his disciples asks him: "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" to which Jesus immediately replies: "Neither this man nor his parents sinned...but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life." (John 9:2-3 NIV), whereupon Jesus promptly restores the man's sight.
Reincarnationists rightfully point out that the disciples seem to suggest some form of preexistence here, for when else could the man have sinned to deserve being born blind except during some preexistent spiritual state or in a prior incarnation? (This idea is, in fact, consistent with many traditional beliefs about the role that karma teaches.) They also point out that had Jesus not believed in reincarnation (or, at least, the preexistence of souls) he overlooked a golden opportunity to set his disciples straight on the subject. How do we explain Jesus' silence? Did he also believe in preexistence, or did he simply ignore his follower's misconceptions and move on? It's hard to say.
However, there is more to the story than meets the eye. Note that the disciple's question is a two parter. Not only does it suggest that a man might sin before he is born, implying some sort of preexistence, but they also wonder if his condition could have been the result of his parent's sins, a common theme that runs throughout Old Testament literature. (Remarkably, this Jewish belief that assumed any deformity in a child to be God's punishment for a sinful act on the part of the child's parentsthe punishing-the-son-for-the-crimes-of-the-father theoryis uncanny close to some teachings on karma.) However, notice that Jesus doesn't address that idea either, but instead ignores both choices the disciples offer. Since Jesus doesn't address that element of the equation either, however, couldn't the case be made that Jesus also believed in hereditary punishment (or karma) based purely upon his silence in not addressing it?
This is the argument from silence technique that reincarnationists are famous for. Since Jesus didn't correct his disciple's error (in believing in preexistence), it is thought by some that that means he must have believed it himself or, at very least, was content to let his disciples believe it. If that's the case however, it can be argued then that he also believed in hereditary retributiona close cousin to karmafor he failed to correct that assumption as well. See the problem with arguments from silence?
Still, this verse does demonstrate one thing. It strongly suggests there was some belief in preexistence or even reincarnation evident among the Jews of Jesus' day, which would not be difficult to imagine. Israel's proximity to the major trading routes of Asia as well as a substantial Hellenized Jewish community in existence throughout the Roman Empire made it a certainty that other philosophies and ideas would have made their way into the region and have possibly been integrated into their own belief systems. It's curious, though, that Jesus seems unconcerned about it. Perhaps he considered such beliefs too trivial to deal with or maybe he believed that once the Holy Spirit came upon his followers to lead them into all truth, they would figure it out for themselves. Or could he have even embraced some of these ideas himself and didn't bother to correct his followers because he considered them self-evident truths? In any case, if Jesus seems so nonchalant about the issue, why do we fret so?
Elijah/John the Baptist Link
Perhaps the most powerful reincarnationist passages in scripture are those linking the Old Testament prophet Elijah with the New Testament prophet John the Baptist. In Malachi 4:5 the ancient prophet writes: "Behold I will send you Elijah the prophet, before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord."Later, in several gospel passages, we see John the Baptist alluded to as being that very Elijah. In fact, Jesus himself makes it clear that John was the one prophesied in Malachi when he says: "For all the prophets and the law have prophesied until John. And if you are willing to receive it, he [John] is Elijah who was to come." (Matt. 11:13-14 NIV). Jesus further reiterates this idea in Matthew chapter 17 (verses 10-13) and again in Mark 9:13.
On the surface, it sounds as if Jesus is indeed implying that the Old Testament prophet had reincarnated as John the Baptist (despite John's own denial of the possibility recorded in John 1:21.) Traditional Christianity refutes this idea, however, by insisting that John was a type of Elijah and worked under the power and spirit of Elijahnot that he was literally the Old Testament prophet come back to life (Luke 1:17). In response, reincarnationists are quick to point out that nowhere does the text make this clear. In this case, they interpret both Malachi and Matthew quite literally, accusing the traditionalist of being the ones who are guilty of "spiritualizing" the text rather than accepting it at face value.
There are two problems with these passages that reincarnationist literature rarely deals with, however. First, there is the problem that, at least according to the Old Testament book of 2 Kings (chapter 2, verse 11), Elijah never died. He was instead "swept up" by a flaming chariot and spirited away, presumably to Heaven. Even a reincarnationist can't explain how someone can be reincarnated if they haven't first died. Of course, the reference to the "flaming chariot" could be a euphemism for death or, perhaps, he was simply "translated" into spiritual form directly without experiencing the trauma of death . (This latter possibility might even explain how Elijah could appear alongside the long-dead Moses in the story of the Transfiguration recorded in Matthew 17:1-13 and Mark 9:2-8. Such would imply that both figures were in the same spiritual state, though their means of acquiring their final spirit form may have been different.) What's important to note is that Elijah did not appear as John the Baptist, but apparently as his old mortal self. If he had reincarnated as John the Baptist, in this instance at least, he was appearing in his earlier earthly incarnation alsoa clear case of regressive incarnation if there ever was one.
Obviously, something is wrong here. Presumably Elijah can't be both John the Baptist and himself at the same time. For that matter, if Elijah didn't die, he couldn't be anyone else, either, which remains the best evidence that John was a "type" of Elijah in that his ministry mirrored the earlier prophet's insistence that the people prepare for the return of God.
On the other hand, it is possible the Elijah/Moses appearance if, indeed, it literally took place, was purely a vision and not an actual appearance of the two long-dead prophets. In other words, could the transfiguration experience have been less a genuine spiritual visitation than a type of "waking dream" or shared vision in which John, Peter, James and Jesus not only saw the Old Testament patriarchs but were able to speak with them? This would not be remarkable in the Bible, which has several accounts of visions occurring to the Old Testament prophets in which figures both spoke and seemed to interact with them. Could this have been the case here also? If so, however, that would render the case against reincarnation entirely moot, for if Elijah is simply a vision, there is no problem with the notion of John the Baptist being a later reincarnation of the man.
Another possibility is that since the spiritual realm exists outside of linear time, spiritual beings could appear at any time regardless of what incarnation their soul was currently experiencing in the world of physicality. As such, Elijahbeing outside of linear timecould feasibly appear to the disciples as himself while also existing as John the Baptist at the same time without any conflict. It only would appear contradictory from the perspective of linear time; from the realm of the spirit, however, no such problem would exist, in which case the reincarnationist has a better argument in maintaining the John the Baptist/Elijah connectionespecially in light of Jesus' later repeated affirmation of that link (Matthew 17:11-12 and Mark 9:11-12). Unfortunately, the text can be read to support either interpretation, so it seems to be another dead end.
Another point about this incident Christian opponents of reincarnation often point out is that John the Baptist himself denied being Elijah when asked about the possibility directly (John 1:21)a point they feel destroys the entire notion of an Elijah/John soul link. This is not as ironclad as it appears however, for John may simply not have known he was the reincarnation of Elijah (though Jesus did) just as most people have no idea who they may have been in a previous incarnation. A point frequently overlooked by traditionalists is that John also denied being a prophet (John 1:21) whereas Jesus clearly refers to him as such in the Gospel of Luke (7:26-28). So who should know betterJesus or John?
Finally, there is one last possibility. If John was not merely a "type" of Elijah or the actual reincarnation of the ancient prophet, the only other possibility is that Elijah himself returned to earth still in his previous body just as predicted in scripture. Obviously, since there was no one alive at the time who would have known what the prophet actually looked like, he could simply take the name John the Baptist and continued his interrupted ministry. Why he would do such a thing remains a mystery, of course, and it does play havoc with accounts of John's birth as recorded in Luke, but it is a possibility, albeit a remote one.
The reincarnationist points to John 3:3 as stating that Jesus was implying reincarnation when he said: "...no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the [Holy] Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the [Holy] Spirit gives birth to [human] spirit." These versus are clearly dealing with salvation, however, and not reincarnation. Being born "of water" is usually understood to mean baptism ormore preciselyrepentance, while being born of the spirit means to be infused with eternal life by God's Holy Spirit. In essence, Jesus was saying that unless one allows themselves to be washed (symbolically) of their sins so that the Spirit of God may infuse their life, they cannot see the kingdom of God. To read reincarnation into that is unnecessary and unwarranted although, admittedly, it does appear to brush upon some of the symbolism of rebirth.
Another verse reincarnationists frequently use to bolster their argument is contained in Revelations 3:12 where is states: "Him who overcomes I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will he leave it." The problem is with the use of the word "again" in this passage, for it implies that one may have left the temple of God before (through being reincarnated?) but in the end will return to the temple and remain there forevermore. This is, however, a very weak reference to reincarnation at best, especially when one compares this translationthe New International Version--which reads a little differently than how it reads in the more familiar King James Version. In the KJV, Revelations 3:12 is rendered as: "Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out..." The original Greek manuscripts do not contain the word "again" (palin) at all, and without that, the verse may simply be interpreted to mean that once one is made a pillar in the temple, they will stay there forever. Finally, even if one does accept the idea of leaving the temple numerous times before returning to it in the end, this does not say what happens once one leaves or imply that they are reincarnating; it simply says that once they return and overcome, they will never leave. On the other hand, since reincarnationist beliefs often contain the idea of returning to the Creator as the ultimate goal of spiritual evolution, this passage could be read as a reincarnationist text as well. However, I personally find it a very weak reference to reincarnation at best, though I am quite willing to allow others their belief.
Reincarnationists also interpret such verses as Mark 10:29-30, Matthew 26:52, and Exodus 21:24-25 as promises to be realized in the next earthly life as opposed to some future noncorporeal existence. As such, when Jesus says that one who lives by the sword shall die by the sword or assures us that no one who gives up family or land for his sake will fail to be rewarded many times over "in this present age and in the age to come," the reincarnationist sees this as being possible only in multiple lifetimes. Metaphor, apparently, is not the reincarnationist's strong suitat least in some instances.
The traditionalists are not much better off, however. Besides the disingenuous use of Hebrews 9:27 (discussed above) to refute reincarnation, they usually point to the various references concerning resurrection versus reincarnation and the idea that upon death one goes immediately into God's presence and into judgment. The Christian reincarnationist, however, does not have a problem with the resurrection or judgment. To them the term "resurrection" could be construed as simply denoting the final state of human spiritual development, with the various birth and rebirth cycles being intermediate steps that ultimately brings one to that point. And as for being judged, reincarnationists are often open to the idea of some sort of intermediate stage of punishment between incarnations where the truly wicked may go to work off some of their "bad karma." In other words, they don't necessarily see anything permanent about punishment for wicked deeds, nor do they necessarily see judgment and punishment as being realized only through an earthly manifestation into the next incarnation. Finally, the use of Paul's admonishment in 2 Corinthians 5:6-9 that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord likewise fails to impress the reincarnationist. They have no trouble with the idea that in our disembodied spiritual state we may, in fact, see Jesus. Some suggest He may even help prepare us for our next incarnation or point out areas we need work on. I'm sure this is not what Paul had in mind when he penned his thoughts, of course, but this demonstrates how reincarnationist concepts can be easily read into the very verses the orthodox use to deny the idea. Exegesis can be a cruel sport not to be played by the weak-hearted.
It is apparent from a careful study of scripture that the Bible has next to nothing to say on the subject of reincarnation. Beyond the suggestion that some Jews of Jesus' day seemed to hold to reincarnationist or preexistent beliefs of some kind and some word play around Elijah being John the Baptist, it is clear scripture simply doesn't deal with the subject. What also seems abundantly evident is that Jesus did not openly, clearly and unequivocally teach the concept. It simply isn't there. Jesus seems far more concerned with redemption and resurrection than in reincarnation, and that is what he teaches. As such, efforts by reincarnationists to use the Bible in support of their beliefs are tenuous at best and positively dishonest at worst.
However, it's equally true that Jesus never clearly taught against the belief in reincarnation, despite having several opportunities to do so. To me, this remains inexplicable, especially if it is as incompatible and, indeed, even harmful, to Jesus's own message as so many people insist. Of course, simply because a subject is not specifically addressed doesn't demonstrate it is invalid. The concept of the Trinity, for example, is not clearly articulated in the Bible (the word itself is never used), yet it remains a cornerstone doctrine of orthodox Christianity. Issues such as abortion, euthanasia, birth control, cloning, stem cells and a whole host of modern ethical issues also are not directly addressed in scripture, yet that doesn't mean they don't exist as well.
The reincarnationist often maintains the scriptures are silent on the issue for two reasons: first, the apostles clearly were anticipating Christ's imminent return and with it the end of the age, thereby ending the process of multiple rebirths and so rendering any teaching on the subject superfluous and, secondly, it was well known that teachings on the subject fell into disfavor with the early church fathers, in which case any writings in support of the position may have been intentionally suppressed for the sake of orthodoxy.
While the first point has some potential, it is the second point which is probably closer to the truth. Clearly, history has aptly demonstrated that the early church did make a concerted and, apparently, successful effort to suppress reincarnationist teachings and omit any writings that did touch upon the subject from the final canon. In fact, the church even went so far as to declare reincarnationist teachings a heresy punishable by death, thus stilling reincarnationist voices for the last fifteen hundred years and demonstrating how thorough and successful were the efforts of Christendom to expunge any thought of multiple rebirths from its long shadow. Why such an approach to the subject was necessary remains a point of debate, though most likely it was a result of reincarnationist concepts being too closely associated with the mystical teachings of the Gnostics. Considered a heretical branch of Christianity by the early church fathers, its suppression would have been seen as doing "God's work" and so maintaining the "purity" of the faith.
However, I suspect its suppression had considerably more to do with the more immediate concerns of the church fathers, for a person who believes they have a "second chance" (or, literally, an infinite number of second chances) is a person who is not as easily controlled, and control was an important element of the early church. Clearly reincarnation was a threat to the natural order of things, just as it remains for many people today, which is why it is unlikely to be even tentatively embraced by the modern church. It is simply too radical an idea for any but the most liberal branches of Christianity, just as it always has been and will likely remain.
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