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Does reincarnation occur in the Bible?

9 November 2023

The question of whether belief in reincarnation appears in the Bible will surprise many Bible readers. “Never read anything about it”, they will think. Yet this question is answered by many with 'Yes'.

Research Professor of Early Christianity

What is reincarnation?

Reincarnation or transmigration of souls means that the soul of a human being can successively lead several lives in different bodies. So before the current life, someone could have already lived another life, in another body. Similarly, after the present life, one could expect a new life in another body. The belief also exists that a human soul can eventually reincarnate into an animal. The idea of reincarnation appears in Hinduism, Buddhism, the philosophies of Pythagoras, Empedocles and Plato (6th to 4th centuries BC), and in schools of thought inspired by these Greek philosophers. In Judaism, the idea of reincarnation is found perhaps inconspicuously in Philo of Alexandria (1st century) and clearly in Kabbalah (since the 10th century). In Christianity it is mainly the Gnostics of the first centuries, the Manichaeans and other 'esoteric' currents who were (or are) convinced of reincarnation of the soul. The wider church, both Catholic and later Protestant, has not gone along with this.

Why reincarnation?

In Western culture as well, many assume reincarnation. This belief in reincarnation can arise from a profound experience of memories from a past life, or from the view that your current problems stem from unresolved issues or wrong behavior in a past life. If someone who experiences this is a Christian, he or she will be inclined to look in the Bible for confirmation. There are some texts that seem reminiscent of this, such as Read this passageGalatians 6:8.

Elijah and John the Baptist

There is nothing in the Old Testament that points to reincarnation. At most, the Old Testament is brought to bear in discussions on reincarnation because Jesus believed the prophet Elijah had returned. In the Old Testament, 1 Kings 17 to 2 Kings 2 are devoted to the appearance of Elijah. In the last chapter it is told that Elijah is taken up into heaven. That someone had been taken up into heaven was not believed of every pious Israelite at that time; it was considered something very exceptional. Much later, the prophet Malachi writes that God would send Elijah to Israel before God's judgment came upon the land. Elijah's commission would be to reconcile parents and children and restore Israel (Malachi 3:23-24 or 4:5-6; Sirach 48:10). Ever since then, there has been an expectation among the Jews (or at least some of them) that Elijah would return from heaven and prepare the land for the coming of the Messiah. According to the Gospel of Matthew 11:14 and 17:10-13, Jesus believed that Elijah had come, namely in the person of John the Baptist.

As early as the second century of our era, the Gnostic Carpocrates of Alexandria explained the relationship between Elijah and John the Baptist in the sense of reincarnation. This is known because Tertullian of Carthage disputes Carpocrates' view about the year 210. He points out that according to the Gospel of Luke (1:17), John would act “in the spirit and power of Elijah.” According to Tertullian, this does not indicate transmigration of souls.

A few decades later, Origen of Alexandria also addresses this Gnostic view of the relationship between Elijah and John the Baptist. Like Tertullian, he rejects reincarnation and refers to Luke 1:17. He writes of the doctrine of reincarnation that it is foreign to the church of God, was not handed down by the apostles and does not appear anywhere in the Bible.

In our day too, Jesus' statement about John the Baptist as the returned Elijah is interpreted by esoteric believers as evidence that Jesus taught reincarnation. Yet that is far-fetched and unconvincing. Elijah and John are a specific case: according to the Old Testament, Elijah was taken up into heaven by great exception. Therefore it was thought that he could return from there, as Malachi had announced. Centuries later, the appearance of Elijah was recognised in the figure of John the Baptist. That is not the same as the souls of people having several lives.

The blind-born beggar 

Another scripture associated with reincarnation is a question from Jesus' disciples about a beggar who was born blind. According to the Gospel of John 9:2, they ask Jesus, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Proponents of the belief in reincarnation interpret this question as meaning that the man may have been born blind as punishment for sins committed in a previous life. He would then have been born blind in his present life to atone for the sins of his previous life. Since Jesus' disciples seem to take into account the possibility of a past life - and thus of reincarnation - this would mean that they were aware of that concept, and that Jesus had spoken to them about it.

Yet it is going too far to see evidence in this question that Jesus or his disciples assumed multiple lives so that you can be punished in one life for the sins of a previous one. If that was Jesus' view, he could have clearly stated it, but there is no such teaching in the Gospels. In John 9:3 Jesus firmly rejects the two explanations offered by his disciples.

Possibly, the question of Jesus' disciples can be related to the existence of the soul prior to life in the body. This is called pre-existence. That view was prevalent in the Judaism of Jesus' day. But again, according to the Gospels, Jesus did not teach such a pre-existence of human souls.

It is better to relate the question of Jesus' disciples to later discussions of Jewish rabbis. They reckoned with the possibility that embryos could already sin in the womb. For this they referred to the twins Esau and Jacob, who already clashed in the womb (Genesis 25:22-26). Jesus' disciples might have been thinking of such a sin in the womb. But again: Jesus rejects their possible explanation.

Reincarnation removed from the Bible?

However, this does not exhaust the attempts to connect belief in reincarnation with Jesus' teaching: it has been assumed that it belonged to Jesus' secret teaching, which is not in the Bible. The early Gnostics are said to have known about it, but the early Catholic Church is said to have obscured that element. It is much more likely, however, that the Gnostics took the element of reincarnation from the Greek philosophical traditions, from which they borrowed several other things.

It is also believed that the teaching of reincarnation was originally written in the Bible, but that the bishops in major councils removed such texts. For instance in the councils of Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (553). However, this can not be taken seriously. There are no indications in the older sources that this deletion ever took place. If it had, it should have left traces in the old manuscripts of the Bible, which it does not.

Another view: when the "canon" (compilation) of the New Testament was established, Gnostic books containing reincarnation were excluded from it. This, too, is said to have happened at the Council of Nicaea, at the insistence of Emperor Constantine. However, the Council of Nicaea was not about the compilation of the New Testament. That canon grew organically and came to a global conclusion in the fourth century. Gnostic books have never been nominated for inclusion, because their content was too divergent.

So the answer to the question asked is clear: reincarnation does not occur in the Bible. However, my experience is that people who are convinced of reincarnation will not be convinced by the arguments mentioned here. Nevertheless it might be useful to the people around them, who wonder about that conviction of their loved one, friend, or relative.

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