Is Reincarnation in the Bible?
©2015 Terry L. Craig
The mission here is to provide people with a basic grasp of some of the Biblical and logical responses to claims that reincarnation is in the Bible. Although I hope to give apologetic insight on this specific belief, the information here shouldn't be used as a formula that you can just copy, paste, and throw at someone who believes they have Bible backup for a belief in reincarnation. It's meant provide insight, a preparation that may give Christians some ideas to bounce around when the topic comes up—instead of bein' all like, "Whaaaaat?" In short, I hope you can use what I present here in genuine interaction with others.
There are myriad sites that one can access on the Internet which claim that reincarnation is "in the Bible." In the Endnotes, I'll give locations and dates I accessed sites for the quotes I give. I will also provide some links to articles and resources I read or gleaned from but didn't specifically quote.
My Backstory: I wasn't raised in a Christian home and I didn't start walking with the Lord until I was an adult, married, and a mom. Not a churchgoer or a Bible reader, I'd been led to believe that one could hold the teachings of Jesus and teachings on reincarnation in the same hand—until I became aware of the fact that the two beliefs (reincarnation and Christianity) completely contradicted one another.
Cafeteria-style religion (some of this, a little of that, skip this one, a smattering of that one) isn't new, but given the combination of Internet search engines and the exaltation of "self" in Western society today, people have taken personalized spirituality to a new level. The irony of it is that few of the people who sidle up to the religious salad bar have really considered the full implications of the choices they make, the conflicting goals of their diverse religious beliefs, or the possible eternal consequences of partaking of what’s on their plate.
Does the Bible support reincarnation?
It's my opinion that people can believe whatever they want to. However, I don't think it's possible for someone to honestly say that reincarnation is compatible with Christianity or the Bible. Please don't jump right to assumption that someone who says that they are compatible is being willfully dishonest, since many (like myself back then) are just taking another person's word for it or are reading a snippet of Scripture they were given, assuming that it fits their views, and moving on without giving it a lot of thought or study.
Indeed, if you've never encountered the verses that proponents use, be prepared for a possible jolt. It's yet another reason why average Christians should have a basic understanding of Scripture and the wisdom to know that people can make the Bible say anything if they are permitted to take verses out of the context, history, and culture in which they were written. Time, place, culture, and situation can all have bearing on the meaning of a verse. To ignore it when someone plucks a sentence out of context in order to superimpose it on an alternate belief (which stands in opposition to the heart and wisdom of the Bible) is to do a disservice to God, yourself, and others.
Coming to terms with TERMS
One of the most common ways to sell an idea to a new audience is to use a term that people are generally familiar with and capitalize on a common acceptance of that term--while giving it a meaning that's different from the original understanding. Haven't you had conversations with people who seem to be agreeing with you, but you know you're somehow not connecting, not talking about the same thing? They can say, "Oh, I agree with (insert term here)," and, in their minds, they aren't necessarily being dishonest—since the term means something else to them. What's needed to un-muddle some of these conversations is to ask people to define what they mean when they use common terms.
So let me be clear with my terms.
First, just exactly what is reincarnation? Merriam-Webster's definition is:
1. the idea or belief that people are born again with a different body after death
2. someone who has been born again with a different body after death [i]
Intertwined with reincarnation is the belief in "Karma."
1 often capitalized : the force generated by a person's actions held in Hinduism and Buddhism to perpetuate transmigration and in its ethical consequences to determine the nature of the person's next existence [ii]
If I may be allowed to summarize here: Reincarnation is the belief that when your body dies, your soul will then start a new life cycle by being physically born (or hatched if the person's reincarnation belief includes animals) in another body, living in that body, and then dying again. Over and over.
According to those who believe in it, what is the goal of reincarnation?
The goal of most forms of reincarnation is Nirvana. [iii]
Definition of Nirvana
the final beatitude that transcends suffering, karma is sought especially in Buddhism through the extinction of desire and individual consciousness
a : a place or state of oblivion to care, pain, or external reality; also : bliss, heaven [iv]
So, as I understand it, the ultimate goal of many people who believe in reincarnation/karma is to achieve a disembodied state of oblivion, where desire and individual consciousness become extinct.
There are those who believe in/ teach about reincarnation who (I say correctly) declare that this belief has no common ground with the Bible or Christianity. But, in this age when many want to find "unity" in all things, there are many others who claim that reincarnation is taught in the Bible—and then redefine Biblical terms to suit themselves. An example would be the use of the term "born again" that Jesus used in reference to a spiritual rebirth (referring to an inward transformation). Those who believe in reincarnation have a version of "born again" or "rebirthed" that specifically requires the death of multiple physical bodies and repeatedly starting new life cycles as babies. So, an adherent to this belief can look you in the eye and say that they believe that people need to be "born again," and that Jesus taught this, but you have to understand their un-biblical definition of the term "born again."
What did Jesus mean when He said we needed to be "born again"? The following is a quote from Billy Graham that expounds upon the often quoted passage in John 3 when a man named Nicodemus came to Jesus one night, and Jesus told him he needed to be "born again."
Nicodemus asked . . . “How can a man be born when he is old?” He wanted to understand it. . . . Nicodemus could see only the physical and the material, but Jesus was talking about the spiritual.
How is the new birth Jesus spoke of accomplished? We cannot inherit new birth. The Bible says that those who are born again “were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:13).
We cannot work our way to God, either. The Bible says that salvation comes “not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5).
Nor is reformation enough. We can say, “I am going to turn over a new leaf,” or “I am going to make New Year’s resolutions.” But Isaiah said that in the sight of God “all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6). . . .
To be born again means that “[God] will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you” (Ezekiel 36:26). “Old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17). We are “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4); we have “passed from death into life” (John 5:24). The new birth brings about a change in our philosophy and manner of living.[v]
In the resurrection (the promised, eventual state of all who belong to God), the Bible says people will be like Christ, with imperishable bodies (1 Cor. 15:48-49, Phil. 3:21), they will retain identity (Matt. 8:11, Luke 13:29), and they won't be oblivious, disembodied spirits with no consciousness of self. (Note that in Luke 16:19-31, it is the man who is not right with God who has no name, while righteous Lazarus retains his identity).
So, even with the broadest strokes, salvation as defined by Jesus/the Bible isn't compatible with the means, goals, and ends of reincarnation. Christianity teaches that we have only one physical life to live before we are judged (Heb. 9:27-28), and that we cannot save ourselves. Reincarnation and karma are a means of personal purification. If you do something wrong in this life, you can pay for it in another life. Put simply, if you believe in reincarnation, you believe you will eventually make yourself perfect.
What are the Scripture verses that people who believe in reincarnation use?
Again, there are probably thousands of sites that one can access on the Internet that claim that reincarnation is "in the Bible." The sources I quote here are just a small sample of what is available.
Mark Mason (who was brave enough to put an actual name to his work), on a webpage entitled Evidence for Reincarnation in the Bible, quotes Bible verses and then gives readers his interpretations of these verses. The caps in the first Bible quote below are his – not added by me.
"IF THEY HAD BEEN THINKING OF THE COUNTRY THEY HAD LEFT, THEY WOULD HAVE HAD OPPORTUNITY TO RETURN. INSTEAD THEY WERE LONGING FOR A BETTER COUNTRY — a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them." (Hebrews 11:15-16)
The sentence I have emphasized with capitals clearly indicates that people who die still hankering after the things of earth, will be given the opportunity to return to it. This is precisely what reincarnation is all about. This passage also says that people who consider themselves “aliens and strangers on earth” will have a city prepared for them by God. This ties in with Jesus saying, “In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so I would have told you. I am going to prepare a place for you.” (John 14:2)
It is also exactly what believers in reincarnation say happens when all earthly desires and karma have been worked out, except that they call these heavenly cities “astral planes” (or in some cases “etheric planes”). They mean exactly the same thing, though; only the words differ.[vi] – End quote, highlighting added by me
I would say that the reason that the words of Scripture "differ" from what he believes is that they don't mean the same thing. In the Bible, there is only one "heavenly city," not many (the Bible verse he actually quoted – Heb. 11:16 says "a city"). The reason Christians consider themselves to be "aliens and strangers on earth" is because they have accepted Jesus Christ as the one who paid the full penalty for their sins. That acceptance makes them citizens of God's Kingdom. Considering oneself to be an "alien or stranger" isn't what makes one "saved," accepting Jesus' atonement (as opposed to our own works) is what saves us, what sets us apart from (makes us "aliens" in) this world.
Mr. Mason goes on to say:
When each person overcomes all the possibilities for evil in creation, and becomes the embodiment of this love Paul talked about, he or she will be perfect, and will incarnate no more, in the physical, astral or causal. As the Spirit revealed to John in Revelation, "Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out." (Rev 3:12 AV)
After reaching perfection, people spend all their time with God. All sense of ego and separation from God is dissolved away, although a sense of individuality remains, so each soul can enjoy the bliss of being with God.
At its core, reincarnation is the belief that people can/will perfect themselves via the rules (law) of Karma, by paying for their own sins. Yet the central theme of Jesus Christ, the New Testament, and Christianity is that NO ONE can cleanse him/herself, that Jesus came to pay for sins the sins of mankind, and He is the only means of salvation. There is no other payment that we can offer.
How can one have the ego to think that he/she can pay for all personal sins, perfect himself/herself while personally dissolving the barrier that stands between God and humanity and yet be humble?
Whether they fully realize it or not, the one who believes in reincarnation is saying "I will eventually save myself." The Gospel of Jesus Christ says we cannot save ourselves, that we must accept the gift of salvation Jesus offers to us. To say one believes in reincarnation and Jesus Christ is to say that Jesus' words about Himself and about humanity were untrue and that His atonement was not needed to save us.
Another website entitled, "The Reluctant Messenger" [vii] first quotes from the gospel of John, then attempts to interpret it:
"And as he was passing by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, 'Rabbi, who has sinned, this man or his parents, that he should be born blind?" Jesus answered, 'Neither has this man sinned, nor his parents, but the works of God were to be made manifest in him.'" (John 9:1)
The disciples ask the Lord if the man himself could have committed the sin that led to his blindness. Given the fact that the man has been blind from birth, we are confronted with a provocative question. When could he have made such transgressions as to make him blind at birth? The only conceivable answer is in some prenatal state. The question as posed by the disciples explicitly presupposes prenatal existence. It will also be noted that Christ says nothing to dispel or correct the presupposition. Here is incontrovertible support for a doctrine of human preexistence. --End quote, highlighting added by me.
What? The only conceivable answer?
The assumption that the "only conceivable answer" is that the blind man sinned before he was born, completely ignores what Jesus says within the very passage quoted: (Here is the same verse in a better translation.)
Jesus answered, “It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him. (John 9:3, NASB, bold added by me)
Reluctant Messenger bolsters his assumption about reincarnation by saying, "The question as posed by the disciples presupposes a prenatal existence." The assumptions about reincarnation being the subject of this passage of scripture are a gigantic leap away from the simple answer that is given by Jesus.
Further, the notion that every bad thing that happens in someone's life has to be the result of personal sin (Karma) is also laid to rest by Jesus. Sometimes, we suffer as the result of the bad choices of others, or because we are in the wrong place at the wrong time, or simply because we live in a fallen world. Sometimes (as in the case with this blind man) it has happened so God's glory will be displayed.
Here is another Bible quote from the Reluctant Messenger which he/she claims is proof of reincarnation in the Bible.
Job 19:26-27 And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!
Could Job be speaking of reincarnation? Let's ponder it a moment.
The ultimate "goal" of reincarnation is to stop being born again (once one has learned all the lessons and atoned for all his/her own sins).
Even for those who want to embrace a Westernized spirituality that incorporates Jesus and certain Bible verses, the end goal of reincarnation is to graduate to a spiritual plane and exist without a physical body.
Let's look at the quote from Job again, remembering that the goal of reincarnation (even according to that website) is to behold God and abide with Him in a purely spiritual (disembodied) form. This verse speaks of being in a new, physical body and seeing the Lord! It speaks of resurrection, not reincarnation.
Job 19:26-27 And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me! NET
The "Reluctant Messenger" also uses this quote of Jesus (referring to John the Baptist) to make a case for reincarnation:
Matt. 11:14 And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come.
Did Jesus say this? Yes, He did. But was Jesus claiming that Elijah had been reincarnated as John the Baptist OR was he saying that John the Baptist represented the ministry of Elijah (as one who was moved by the same Holy Spirit who inspired Elijah), to prophesy to his generation?
Let's jump back to the Old Testament for a moment. Elijah the prophet was taken up from the earth by the Lord, and Elisha (his disciple) was given the "mantle of Elijah,"
Those who saw it said, "The spirit of Elijah is resting on Elisha." And they went to meet him and bowed to the ground before him." 2 Kings 2:15 NIV
Reincarnation is defined as when a person dies and then is born as a baby in a new body. Elisha was already alive while Elijah lived, and walked alongside him in ministry—so he couldn't be a reincarnation of Elijah. The words "The spirit of Elijah is resting on Elisha" simply meant that God gave Elisha Elijah's ministry and he could move in the same power of the Holy Spirit that Elijah had.
So let's return to the topic of John the Baptist and whether or not he was a reincarnation of Elijah. When the angel appeared to announce to John the Baptist's father that he would have a son, the angel said,
"For he will be great in the sight of the Lord; and he will drink no wine or liquor, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit while yet in his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the sons of Israel back to the Lord their God. It is he who will go as a forerunner before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers back to the children, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous, so as to make ready a people prepared for the Lord." Luke 1:15-17, NASB (italics mine).
John was given a ministry/task similar to that of Elijah, the same Holy Spirit that moved Elijah would operate in John the Baptist. As further proof of this, when the Pharisees ASKED him, John the Baptist declared plainly that he was NOT Elijah.
They asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” And he said, “I am not. Then they said to him, “Who are you, so that we may give an answer to those who sent us? What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am a voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘make straight the way of the LORD,’ as Isaiah the prophet said'."[viii] John 1:21-23:Amplified Bible (italics mine)
When we place Jesus' remarks regarding John being "Elijah" in the context of what the Bible says about this, we see it is NOT a reference to reincarnation, but rather the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
From a webpage entitled Dawning Spirituality, here is another "spin" on the verses of Job, this time with an attempt to explain away the text. Here are the verses from Job 19:25-27 first and then the comments from that site:
As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives, and that as the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God, whom I will see for myself, and whom my own eyes will behold, and not another. My heart grows faint within me. (New English Translation)
In the review of this evidence there is mention by Job that he will see God in his flesh, even after his skin worms have destroyed his body; which really doesn’t make a lot of sense; because the only eyes you can correctly claim to see with after your physical body has decomposed are spiritual eyes; [ix]
The author of Dawning Spirituality goes on to make a case that no one will have a body in the afterlife, and (I say) that this person is free to believe whatever he/she wants . . . but in the Bible, Job was talking about having a physical body in the future. Job was talking about a "last day" resurrection—and this is in harmony with what the Bible says about the dead in Christ being raised up in the last day as imperishable beings.
"For this is My Father’s will and His purpose, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in and cleaves to and trusts in and relies on Him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up [from the dead] at the last day." John 6:40 AMP
Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?" John 11:25-26, NASB
Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. Romans 6: 8-9, NIV
By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also. 1 Cor. 6:14 NIV (See also Acts 2:24, Rom. 6:5; Eph. 1:19, 20; 1Thess. 4:16)
Also, according to the Bible:
Jesus, whom the Romans crucified, wasn't a reincarnated being, He hadn't been here in the flesh before. Heb. 9:25-28
The resurrection of Jesus wasn't just "spiritual" He could be seen (1 Cor. 15:3-8 -- in this passage, Paul says that, in addition to being seen by the disciples, Jesus was "seen" by 500 people at once, and the word he uses for "seen" is the Greek word "optanomai" from which we get words like "optics" and "optometry"). They actually saw Jesus.
Jesus let people touch him and feel his scars (John 20:19-21, John 20:25-27,), and
Jesus ate food with the disciples (Luke 24:41-43).
Our resurrection won't just be "spiritual," when we are raised, we will live eternally in glorious, immortal bodies. (Phil. 3:21, 1 Cor. 15:42-54, 2 Cor. 5:1-5 click on these to see the text of the verses.)
One Scripture ties much of this together:
"For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made with human hands that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence. Nor did he enter heaven to offer himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood that is not his own. Otherwise Christ would have had to suffer many times since the creation of the world. But he has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself. Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him." Hebrews 9: 24-28 NIV [Emphasis added by me.]
When Jesus returns to Earth, He will be the SAME MAN who left it, not a reincarnation:
After he had said this, while they were watching, he was lifted up and a cloud hid him from their sight. As they were still staring into the sky while he was going, suddenly two men in white clothing stood near them and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking up into the sky? This same Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will come back in the same way you saw him go into heaven.” Acts 1:9-11, NET [Italics added by me.]
We only have one life to live in this flesh:
When a cloud vanishes, it is gone, So he who goes down to Sheol does not come up. He will not return again to his house, Nor will his place know him anymore. Job 7:9-10, NASB
While still growing and uncut, they wither more quickly than grass. Such is the destiny of all who forget God; so perishes the hope of the godless. Job 8:12-13, NIV
Before I go—and I shall not return—to the land of darkness and deep shadow. Job 10:21, NASB
But man dies and is laid low; he breathes his last and is no more. As water disappears from the sea or a riverbed becomes parched and dry, so man lies down and does not rise; till the heavens are no more, men will not awake or be roused from their sleep. Job 14:10-12, NIV
For when a few years are past, I shall go the way of no return. Job 16:22, NASB
He remembered that they were made of flesh, and were like a wind that blows past and does not return. Psalm 78:39, NET
This is what the LORD says—he who made a way through the sea, a path through the mighty waters, who drew out the chariots and horses, the army and reinforcements together, and they lay there, never to rise again, extinguished, snuffed out like a wick. Isaiah 43:16-17, NIV
Then I will bring you down with those who go down to the pit, to the people of long ago. I will make you dwell in the earth below, as in ancient ruins, with those who go down to the pit, and you will not return or take your place in the land of the living. Ezekiel 26:20, NIV
When I was in my twenties, I came to a fork in the road. My mix of Jesus (as a good man, a prophet in a line of wise ones who might serve as guides) and reincarnation sort of made me the hero of my own life, and the thought of many lives seemed appealing—like a pioneering adventure. In reality, like most people with mix-and-match religions, I hadn’t truly pondered what the cost of bearing my own sin might entail. I hadn’t given a lot of thought to the possibility of being born and living through future lifetimes filled with far greater pain or tragedy than I’d already experienced. I’d never seen the hypocrisy of railing against “judgmental” Christians who spoke of sin and punishment . . . while I blithely accepted the idea that I need not pity someone who was suffering because they’d brought it upon themselves (Karma). I comforted myself with the thought that people who hurt me would pay for it.
But it finally dawned on me that I could believe in a merciful God who demonstrated that He was wise enough, powerful enough, and pure enough to save me . . . OR I could believe that I would become wise enough, powerful enough, and pure enough to save myself. But I couldn't honestly believe both.
If Jesus lied about who He was and what He came to this earth to do, I didn't need Him or His cross as background scenery in in the play of my life. But if Jesus was who He claimed to be and the Gospel message was true, I could never save myself.
In the book of Romans (Rom. 11), Paul talks about people being like branches on a wild olive tree. We start life on that wild tree, but we can be grafted onto another one: God’s family tree. We can be cut off from the eternal consequences that would flow to us and be grafted into a tree where the power and life of God can flow through us, in order that we could bear fruit we couldn’t have produced before. All this has been freely offered to those who choose to accept it. I choose simple faith in Jesus Christ.
People have (I say) the God-given right to choose what they believe—even if it's a combination of out-of-context Scriptures and other religions. All I would ask of them is to consider the contradiction and the cost of doing so.
©2015 Terry L. Craig
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If this article has been of help to you, you might also be interested in reading Terry's Apologetic book on Universalism entitled, What Mama Never Told You About the Afterlife.
Resources I perused/watched that may be of interest to you[x]
Scripture quotations marked NIV are taken from THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
Scripture quotations marked Amplified Bible are taken from the Amplified® Bible, Copyright © 1954, 1958, 1962, 1964, 1965, 1987 by The Lockman Foundation, Used by permission." http://www.Lockman.org
Scripture quotations marked NET are taken from the NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2006 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. All rights reserved.
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Scripture quotations marked NLT are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved
Scripture quotations marked NASB are taken from the New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation, Used by permission. www.Lockman.org
[i] "Reincarnation," (April 4, 2015)
[ii] "Karma" (April 4, 2015)
[iii] (April 16, 2015)
[iv] "Nirvana" (April 16, 2015)
[v] "Born Again" (April 16, 2015)
[vi] Evidence for Reincarnation in the Bible, Excerpts from Ch. 16 of In Search of the Loving God by Mark Mason (April 4, 2015)
[vii]Christian Reincarnation, Scriptural support for reincarnation (April 4, 2015)
[ix] Dawning Spirituality, (April 11, 2015)
[x] RESOURCES perused / watched
"Resurrection, Of Believers"
Heiser, Michael, Genesis and Creation: The Image of God,
"Does the Bible and Science Support Reincarnation?" by Rich Deem,
"Was John the Baptist really Elijah?" Matt Slick, CARM (Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry),
Terry L. Craig is a follower of Christ, a Bible nerd, and a comparative thinker who likes to engage people and get them thinking about why they believe what they believe. She's an author, an indie publisher, and occasional speaker.
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