What does the Bible say about reincarnation?

MARK’S QUESTION:

What does the Bible say bout reincarnation? Was it an esoteric teaching of Jesus that was censored by church councils in the 4th and 5th Centuries?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

According to historians, nothing, and no. Forget pop novels, conspiracy theories about church censorship, or supposed secret knowledge from Jesus. The experts say the Bible, and thus Christianity, never taught reincarnation. That’s not to say individual Christians haven’t pondered the idea along with some mystics in Sufi Islam and Judaism’s medieval kabbalah movement.

Some basics on what’s also called transmigration of souls, metempsychosis, or samsara (Sanskrit for “running together”). With certain differences the belief is central for Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism (a synthesis of Hindu elements with Islam’s worship of the one God).

The late Professor J. Bruce Long said the soul’s succession through a series of human or animal lives was often taught by early pre-literate cultures, then by certain Egyptian and Greek thinkers, and reached elaborate form in ancient India.

In this developed system “the circumstances of any given lifetime are automatically determined by the net results of good and evil actions in previous existences” through the Law of Karma (meaning “action”). Assessment of each soul’s moral performance is a “universal law of nature that works according to its onw inherent necessity,” not judgment by a God or gods. Jainism, uniquely, views karma as a material substance attached to the migrating soul.

Each soul’s deeds determine the varying status in future lives, whether within humanity or animal species. The ultimate goal is spiritual purification to gain release from the inconceivably long series of rebirths. Karma and reincarnation “have done more to shape the whole of Asian thought than any other concept,” Long wrote.

Bible proponents, however, often say that belief produces psychological and spiritual harm. The Bible’s contrasting belief was affirmed  in a 1998 joint declaration by the Catholic Church and world Lutherans (worth noting upon this year’s 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation): “By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of ny merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.”

True, “New Age” believers, including some who identify as Christian, embrace Eastern religions and seek hints of reincarnation in the New Testament (less so the Old Testament) but Christianity rejects such interpretations. A sampling:

— Matthew 11:14:  Jesus calls his cousin John the Baptist the “Elijah who is to come.” But Luke 1:17 says John merely prophesied in “the spirit and power of Elijah,” not as a literal reincarnation, and the prophet himself denied he was Elijah reborn (John 1:21).

— John 3:3:  Jesus states that “unless one is born anew he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Christians say this refers to spiritual conviction within the one and only earthly life, not a succession of rebirths.

— John 9:2:  Jesus is asked whether a man was born blind because of his own sins or those of his parents, and replies that neither is true. Christian interpreters see no suggestion of multiple lives here.

— Galatians 6:7:  “Whatever a man sows, that he will also reap.” Christianity believes Paul cites future rewards and punishments but not a long-running Law of Karma.

— James 3:6:  Speech is called dangerous because it sets “on fire the cycle of nature.” The common understanding says that means natural cycles during earthly existence, not countless rebirths.

Christian traditionalists, meanwhile, cite Hebrews 9:27-28 against reincarnation: “Just as it is appointed for men to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time . . .”

Regarding Mark’s point about church councils, it’s sometimes claimed early Christians favored reincarnation and the church didn’t condemn it till the Second Council of Constantinople (A.D. 553). Actually, that council rejected not reincarnation but the idea that a soul exists in heaven before earthly birth, as proposed by the 3rd Century theologian Origen. Origen himself spurned “the false dogma of the transmigration of souls into bodies” in his commentary on Matthew 11:14.

Modern variations:

Rather like Origen, the Latter-day Saints (“Mormons”) believe in an unremembered “premortal life.” The “Encyclopedia of Mormonism” explains that each person’s intelligence was co-eternal with God, receives a “spirit body” as one of the “literal spirit sons and daughters of heavenly parents,” then inhabits the one and only earthly body, and finally lives on in eternity.

Like New Agers, Mormonism finds biblical support in God’s words to Jeremiah: “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee” (1:5, King James Version). The standard Jewish and Christian understanding is that God spoke only of the earthly unborn child growing in the womb, not past lives.

Scientology, formulated by science fiction novelist L. Ron Hubbard, says “the vast majority” of the world’s peoples believe in incarnation but prefers to speak of “past lives.” This organization states that “people are immortal spiritual beings who have lived before and who will live again.” Its techniques are said to remove “engrams,” negative mental aberrations accumulated during this and past lives, a process that spans 75 million years.

 

 

 

 

About Richard Ostling

Richard N. Ostling, a religion writer for the Associated Press, was formerly senior correspondent for Time magazine, where he wrote twenty-three cover stories and was the religion writer for many years. He has also covered religion for the CBS Radio Network and the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS-TV.