Reincarnation in the Bible
Reincarnation is the belief that a person can, after death, live again in another body. This teaching is most fully developed in Eastern religious thought, particularly Hinduism, which argues that a human soul can reincarnate in another human body or even in the body of an animal.
Closely connected to the teaching of reincarnation is karma, which essentially teaches that a person’s actions in this life determine his or her fate in the next life. Such Eastern religious teachings have influenced a number of other religious systems, including the New Age movement here in the West.
It’s no surprise, then, that some have sought to interpret the Bible as teaching some form of reincarnation.
Of the many variations in which the teachings of the Bible are thought to intersect with reincarnation, there are at least three predominant ways reincarnation is thought to be related to the Bible:
- Examples of Biblical characters who reincarnate into another biblical characters;
- The Bible teaches a form of reincarnation as part of its fundamental system of belief;
- The Bible originally taught reincarnation, but its teaching was systematically removed from biblical manuscripts at some point in the early development of Christianity.
But are any of these claims true? Careful exploration of these claims will show that there are fatal issues with each of these views regarding reincarnation and the Bible.
Does Reincarnation Exist in the Bible?
The relationship between Elijah and John the Baptist is that is commonly pointed to by those who believe that reincarnation exists in the Bible. After Jesus’ Transfiguration (Matthew 17; Mark 9), Jesus’s disciples ask why the religious teachers teach that Elijah must come ahead of the Christ.
Jesus responded by saying,
(All quotations from the Bible are from the KJV unless otherwise noted).
Here, Jesus tells his disciples that Elijah has already come, and identifies this person specifically in the next verse as “John the Baptist” (Matt. 17:14). Are we to understand Jesus’ words as teaching a form of reincarnation?
The Bible is always the best interpreter of itself, and the words found in Luke 1 are helpful. When the angel speaks to Zacharias, the soon-to-be father of John the Baptist, the angel declares that, “He,” meaning John the Baptist, “shall go before him [Jesus] in the spirit and power of Elias” (Luke 1:17), thus fulfilling the prophecy spoken a few hundred years before by the prophet Malachi:
Is, then, the Bible teaching some form of reincarnation? To be clear, the Bible is not teaching the existence of reincarnation.
For John to go forth in the spirit of Elijah is very different from saying that Elijah’s spirit will go forth in the body of John the Baptist.
Further, the term here for spirit (Greek pneuma) is most likely speaking of a characteristic that describes both the ministry of Elijah and John the Baptist: namely, the power of the Holy Spirit. John the Baptist serves as a type of Elijah, carrying on a similar ministry of turning the people back to the Living God.
What Does The Bible Say About Reincarnation?
A quick search of the internet reveals that many people are wondering about the relationship between the Bible and reincarnation. But does the Bible have anything to say about being born again? Well, yes and no.
Yes, it is true that the Bible uses phrases that can sound like reincarnation at first glance:
- “Born again”
- “New life”
But closer study reveals that these terms are often used in the context of spiritual transformation and spiritual rebirth.
In John 3 Jesus’ and Nicademus have a conversation about rebirth, a concept that was utterly foreign to Nicademus. After Nicademus questions the sanity of Jesus’ statement about being “born again”, Jesus explicitly says three times between verses 5-8 that he is speaking of spiritual rebirth (see John 3:1-15).
The Bible speaks in other places about a believer in Christ as having a new life (Romans 6:4), being a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17), and elsewhere even calls this process “regeneration”:
In each of these cases, there is a connection with the transformative work of the Holy Spirit to bring a person from spiritual death to spiritual life (see Romans 6:11; Ephesians 2:1) and speaks to a reality that exists in the present life rather than a future reincarnated life.
While the Bible uses words or phrases that may have some overlap with terms used to talk about reincarnation, it’s important to recognize that interpreting these words as standalone proof of reincarnation in the Bible not only would not fit the context in which the words are found, it would create teaching that is expressly opposed to teaching found elsewhere in the Bible.
In each of these cases, it is clear that the Bible is not teaching reincarnation.
Do Christians Believe in Reincarnation?
Christians who hold to the trustworthiness of the Bible, relying upon it to inform the bedrock of belief, should reject reincarnation on the grounds that it is unbiblical and incompatible with Christian doctrine.
In addition to being foreign to biblical teaching, the Bible and teachings on reincarnation expressly contradict each other in multiple ways.
Implicit to reincarnation is the concept of karma, the idea is that a soul reincarnates in order to pay off karmic debt with the hope (but not the guarantee) of improving oneself with each reincarnation, doing enough good in the world until the cycle eventually stops and the soul is absorbed into God.
Christians, on the other hand, believe Christ died to pay the penalty for sin (1 Cor. 6:20; 2 Cor. 5:21; 2 John 2:1-2) to bring us into relational peace with God (Romans 5:1).
Central to Christian belief is the teaching of a bodily resurrection. One of the most complete arguments for the resurrection of the body is found in 1 Corinthians 15, where Paul makes the case that just as Jesus was bodily raised from the dead, so too will those who are united to Christ be resurrected from the dead.
In Christ alone is the Christian’s hope. If, however, someone is trying to hold both reincarnation and resurrection together, it begs the question: if the soul has had multiple bodies, which body will resurrect, be judged, and go on to live imperishably in the New Heavens and the New Earth?
Finally, the notion of a person dying multiple times in various human bodies runs contrary to various verses in the Bible. For example, In Hebrews 9:27, the author states that
Are There Deleted Bible Verses on Reincarnation?
Some who teach reincarnation claim that the early church decisively eradicated reincarnation teachings from early manuscripts of the Bible.
However, despite imaginative speculation, there is no historical evidence to date that any biblical manuscripts were systematically altered to remove teachings on reincarnation (or another other doctrine, for that matter) as a result of early church councils.
While the early church councils condemned false, heretical interpretations of Scripture, the early church used these same Scriptures to defend traditional Christian doctrine. In other words, the Bible as it stood was used by both orthodox and heretical teachers, without need to completely change what was written.
The reliability of the manuscripts of the Bible can be seen in the vast number of documents that exist, the age of these documents, and their overall agreement with one another in their teaching.
There are occasions where minor discrepancies occur between biblical manuscripts, but in those places where there are differences in spelling, words, or even in some cases paragraphs, these differences can be visibly seen. It’s important to note that there are no unfounded speculations about what might have been added or removed.
That is to say, the reason we know there are variations in words, phrases, etc. is because these differences are found in the some 5,700 biblical manuscripts themselves; these differences were not systematically removed in order to disprove a minority view or unfavorable teaching.
To be clear, there is no evidence whatsoever that teachings on reincarnation have been removed from the Bible. And although none of the original manuscripts of Scripture are known to exist (the earliest date back to the early 100s AD), there are good reasons to believe what documents do exist were handed down from the Apostles themselves.
Eternal Life vs Reincarnation in the Bible
In contrast to reincarnation, which teaches that a person must repeat life over and over in a world marred by sin, pain, and sadness, the Bible teaches the hope of resurrection and eternal life.
The Christian hope of eternal life after death is bound up in the resurrection of Jesus. With Jesus’s own death and resurrection as our model, Christians have the hope of the resurrection of our physical bodies.
Instead of living again and again in a fallen world, subject to sin and death, Christians have the hope of entering into eternal life with God in the new heavens and the new earth in renewed, glorified bodies that will no longer be subject to death or decay.