Reincarnation and the Bible: A Forgotten Doctrine By Joshua L Tilghman
This week I would like to address the concept of reincarnation and its relevance to the Bible. Next we'll look at scriptures that some use to support reincarnation, as well as scriptures that opponents use to refute it. Finally, I'll explain what my personal beliefs are on this fascinating subject. Growing up and attending traditional church services, I was never told about reincarnation; it certainly wasn't up for discussion in Wednesday night Bible study. Of course, you can hardly blame religious leaders for leaving it out of their teachings when everything they have studied and read probably refuted the idea. But many people today-including some religious leaders-do not know that reincarnation was a common belief at the time of Christ. In fact, even the disciples of Jesus accepted it. John chapter nine makes this absolutely clear. In this incident, the disciples and Jesus pass a blind man on the side of the road. The disciples then asked Jesus if it was this man or his parents who sinned to make him be born blind. The question reveals what they believed, for how can a man come into this world blind because of sin if he had not lived a previous life to do the sinning?
For many years following Christ's ministry, reincarnation was believed by many of the most influential Christians. Origen stated, "The soul has neither beginning nor end. [They] come into this world strengthened by the victories or weakened by the defeats for their previous lives." Many centuries later, reincarnation was so widespread among Christians that the Roman emperor Justinian took action that led to its banishment in the mid sixth century AD. It is interesting that this was accomplished by a Roman emperor. At this time, the church was more of a state institution than an avenue of spirituality, and I imagine a belief in reincarnation probably wasn't in the best interest of an emperor who demanded total obedience from his subjects; if the people were allowed to believe reincarnation was true, then eternal punishment really wouldn't be the judgment for a soul who disregarded the divine orders of the Christian emperor. Because of the efforts of Justinian and many others, it didn't take long for this doctrine to be systematically removed from Christian theology. And as you probably already know, most Christians didn't have access to the scriptures. In fact, at certain times in history, it wasn't just reincarnation that was banned-READING THE BIBLE WAS TOO! So it REALLY shouldn't surprise us that the idea of reincarnation didn't survive the divine will of the emperor, and has only resurfaced in the last few centuries when more people are able to think critically about what the scriptures truly mean. So where does the idea of reincarnation surface in the Bible? Actually, there are too many places for one blog post, so let's go over the more popular ones used for reincarnation discussions.
One of the most well-known prophecies in the Old Testament is the return of Elijah. Prominent scriptures teach that Elijah must return to earth to prepare the way for the Lord. In fact, according to common Jewish belief, Elijah was to come and "restore all things" before any messiah could appear. So in order for Jesus to have been the messiah, this prophecy had to have come to fruition. And it seems that Jesus confirmed that it did.
In Matthew 11:14 Jesus tells the multitude of John the Baptist: "If you are willing to accept it, he [John] is Elijah who is to come." Jesus also states in the Gospel of Mark: "But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written of him." The phrase "...as it was written of him..." which is speaking of Elijah, makes this whole point pretty clear: Jesus was trying to convey that John the Baptist was of the same spirit as that of Elijah.
I think these scriptures are pretty clear about who John was. Nevertheless, and to be fair to the opponents of the idea of reincarnation being supported in the Bible, there do seem to be scriptures that refute it, at least on the surface. But upon close inspection, I do not think they are very strong. For instance, many Westerners-often ones that have not studied what reincarnation truly is or means-will combat the reincarnation of Elijah as John with Luke 1:17, which states that John will go before the messiah "...in the spirit and power of Elias [Elijah]." They conclude that "in the spirit and power of Elijah" means it wasn't Elijah. This is probably one of the worst arguments an opponent could give. Why? Because returning to the earth in the "spirit and power" of someone who has already lived on the earth IS REINCARNATION! Actually, there isn't really a much better definition for it. It would seem that the opponents of Biblical reincarnation haven't thought this one through very well, and only someone who didn't understand the concept of reincarnation would use this scripture as proof against it. The sad part is that there are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of websites that do in fact use this argument.
Opponents of Biblical reincarnation also use John 1:21-23 as ammunition. Here, the Levites ask John the Baptist point blank if he is Elijah that was to come. John responds by telling them no. So If John really was the reincarnated Elijah, why would he deny it? We could also ask why John didn't know Jesus was the true messiah while in jail before being beheaded. In the beginning of his ministry, the gospels make it clear that John understood exactly who Jesus was. But after being put in jail, he went through a period of doubt where he wasn't sure if Jesus really was THE messiah or not, so he sent his disciples to personally ask him. It seems John lost faith when he failed to comprehend the full extent of Jesus' ministry. Couldn't John have also made the mistake of not realizing he was the reincarnation of the spirit to be in Elijah before?
When I began to understand more of what reincarnation was, I realized that just because John didn't believe he was Elijah reincarnated doesn't mean much. Each reincarnated life is a culmination of previous lives and conscious experiences before it. Reincarnation is not about the exact same person coming back to inhabit a different body. It's about many life experiences that one soul goes through in order to grow and hopefully mature. Each incarnation of the soul can therefore still be understood to b a unique individual person. And when that soul dies, that same soul doesn't come back. Why? Because what reincarnates is that same soul in addition to the culminate experiences that soul has had in perpetuity. Let's say that I, Joshua Tilghman, was to reincarnate on the earth two hundred years from now. Is it Joshua Tilghman that is reincarnating? Not exactly. However, some of the same personality traits that made up Joshua Tilghman would reincarnate.
We must also remember that the Old Testament states Elijah must come back to prepare the way of the messiah. So if you don't believe Elijah returned in the spirit of John, how can you believe Jesus was the messiah? Another scripture often used to refute reincarnation is Hebrews 9:27. It states "...it is appointed men once to die..."
But even this is within the confines of reincarnation. As we already discussed, after death it is not the exact same soul that returns. It is the culmination of all of that soul's incarnations which results in a unique individual every incarnation cycle. So even in the doctrine of reincarnation, it is still appointed unto man once to die! As both nature and Jesus taught, through death always comes more physical life! The death of one tree or plant produces thousands of more lives. Reincarnation is really not much different. So why does mainstream Christianity still vehemently deny reincarnation today? One of the most prominent reasons is because it contradicts the idea of a resurrection after death. However, this is where I believe the institutionalized church of antiquity also missed the point. The resurrection does not take place after death, as the literal interpretation supposes. The resurrection takes place while you LIVE, as a spiritual experience. As the Gospel of Philip, a Gnostic scripture, states:
"People who say they will first die and then arise are mistaken. If they do not first receive resurrection while they are alive, once they have died they will receive nothing."
This scripture was written because the Gnostics of antiquity understood that the literalists did not fully comprehend the spiritual intent of the New Testament writings. Even Jesus told Nicodemus that you must be "born again", which better translates as "born from above". This being born from above is a
spiritual birth that happens while one is yet alive in the physical. When you combine this with Jesus' statement that the Kingdom of Heaven is within you, it all becomes very clear; becoming born from above IS a resurrection! If we are honest with ourselves, even most children would find the idea of God putting back together a body after it has been decomposed by worms and bacteria a little far-fetched. I would now like to share a little more about my personal beliefs on reincarnation. Consider the following scenario, as I have:
Imagine a baby dying and then appearing before God. Since we are judged by the deeds done on this earth, what crown would this baby be able to place at the feet of Jesus? In other words, what could the baby offer in return for reward? Not only would the baby be able to offer nothing, but what could the baby receive? Wouldn't this be the ultimate example of something totally unjust and unfair? The baby would not have even had the chance of offering something to God. Consider another scenario: how can a merciful God create a place of eternal punishment for a sinner, especially when that God KNEW before hand that the creation would end up there? If God really did this, is "merciful" the right word to describe Him? After thinking for myself instead of believing what I have been told about the Bible, I can't help but wonder how much institutionalized Christianity strayed from its spiritually humble beginnings. I am willing to bet a whole lot. Finally, and as you probably already know, reincarnation works on the principle of karma. This is exactly the same thing as reaping what you sow! THAT is just. THAT is merciful. This is also truly in line with a loving Father who rains both on the just and unjust! So yes, I think the idea of reincarnation is a very logical belief, and personally, I am glad to see that Jesus supports it. What do you think?
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