No amount of logical arguments can convince some Christians of the fact of reincarnation. Nor would the accounts of the personal experiences of other people persuade such Christians. Even though it is quite obvious that, without reincarnation, one cannot argue convincingly of the perfect Justice of God, many Christians would still want to know what the Scriptures say about reincarnation. They would ask: Does the Bible support it? What did the earliest followers of Christ think of it? We shall show, in this Chapter, that in Biblical times, belief in reincarnation was so widespread, was so much a part of the culture, that it was taken for granted.
Some Truths Are Not in the Scriptures
Before we discuss specific passages in the Bible that indicate acceptance of reincarnation, let us remark that it is wrong to assume that all truths are to be found in the Scriptures. It is simply not so. Truths are revealed to mankind according to men's state of spiritual maturity. Some truths may not have been given to men at some particular point in time because they were not yet ready for such truths. Even the way a particular truth is presented also depends on how mature the audience is perceived to be. We find that this makes sense in our educational system; why should it not make sense in the school of spiritual life?
When a child has finished drinking his bottle of Coke, we may tell him that the bottle is empty. He will agree, and this is true for his age. But we may tell an older child that the bottle is not really empty, that nature does not permit a vacuum. The bottle is full of air. And again, this is true. And yet we can go on to tell a yet more mature person, that the empty bottle contains more than one item; that it contains a mixture of many gases including nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon dioxide. It is in a similar manner that spiritual truths have been revealed to mankind over millennia.
It was the same with the mission of Christ. He spoke only of those things that people of His time needed to know to enable them to make spiritual progress. He did not teach all there was to know. And so Paul could say:
For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully ... ( I Corinthians 13: 9 - 12 ).
It should, therefore, be clear that the fact that an idea is not in the Bible, does not mean that the idea is false. That is, some truths are not in the Scriptures.
In this connection, let it be noted that the Trinity is not a concept that is mentioned frequently in the Bible. Indeed, the only direct mention is one single verse in the First Epistle of John:
For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word and the Holy Ghost, and these three are one (1 John 5:7). (Authorized King James Version).
But even this verse is known to biblical scholars to be a very late interpolation (addition) and is sometimes omitted from modem translations of the New Testament. In other words, a direct mention of the Trinity is technically non-existent in the Bible. The Revised Standard Version, for example, states: 'There are three witnesses, the Spirit, the water, and the blood". It is almost far-fetched to consider this a reference to the Holy Trinity.
Matthew reported that Jesus commissioned the disciples to go and teach all nations, baptizing them "in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost" (Matthew 28:19). But this quotation does not necessarily imply that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are one. Despite the slimness of the evidence in the Bible, the Trinity has come to be accepted as central to Christian belief about the nature of God. And, of course, the Trinity is a correct teaching, a definite reality. But it must be rightly understood.
Therefore, we are not at all justified to think that all important spiritual concepts must be found in the Bible. Reincarnation, however, is one truth for which there are supporting or suggestive passages in the Bible.
Old Testament Accounts
First, let us consider texts from the Old Testament. In narrating his call to prophethood, Jeremiah stated:
Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, "Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you; and before you were born I consecrated you, and I appointed you a prophet to the nations" (Jeremiah 1:45).
This passage clearly suggests that Jeremiah existed in a non-earthly part of Creation before he was conceived. This is to say that pre-existence is acknowledged by the Scriptures and that human beings do not come into existence only at birth. If we existed before birth, does that period of existence include, or can it include, a time on earth? Why not?
The Man Born Blind
Let us now move on to some New Testament passages relevant to reincarnation. We will first discuss the account of the healing of the man who was blind from birth (John, Chapter 9). The blind man, it would appear, often sat by the roadside begging. As Jesus and his disciples passed by him, a question agitated the minds of the disciples. And so they asked:
Rabbi, who sinned, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind? (John 9:2).
We should reflect carefully on this question because of its importance in the context of our discussion of reincarnation.
The question indicates that the disciples believed, or knew, that it was possible for a baby to be born blind as a result of the baby's sin. The disciples were, of course, intelligent and wise enough to know that any punishment of being born blind could only have been due to a sin committed before birth. In other words, the disciples would not have asked the question if they did not consider it possible for a person to commit a sin before birth.
If a person must be made to suffer on earth for a wrong done before birth, such wrong could only have been done on earth in a previous earth-life. Thus, the question the disciples asked our Lord Jesus Christ implied that they believed in reincarnation.
It is important for us to emphasize that the answer Jesus gave does not in any way contradict a belief in reincarnation. Jesus is quoted as saying:
It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him (John 9:3).
What this means is that 'in this particular case, the cause of blindness was not due to the sin of the man nor of his parents. Christ's answer should not be interpreted to mean that there are no cases in which adversity or infirmity is due to a man's own sin.
And there are cases-of birth defects that are caused by the bad habits, carelessness or ignorance of the parents. One may recall the case of thalidomide, a sedative and hypnotic drug that caused serious malformations in infants born to mothers who had used the drug during pregnancy. Certainly, no well-meaning Christian would imagine that all those "thalidomide babies" were born so that in them "the works of God should be made manifest."
Let us further note that if the disciples were wrong in believing that one could be born blind because of one's sin, Jesus would have told them so. He was ever so ready to teach them and to help them do away with wrong concepts. The two possible causes suggested by the disciples for the man's blindness were wrong in this particular case. But this fact does not mean that, in other cases, these two possibilities might not be valid. Therefore, they were not wrong in their basic reasoning. And so Jesus did not rebuke them.
What are we to make of the explanation that Jesus gave? Of the fact that the man was born blind so "that the works of God might be made manifest in him"? In Chapter 4, we cited the story of the rich young man as an example of wrong generalizations of Christ's statements. We must again warn against the tendency of some Christians to generalize statements that apply only to specific cases. Unfortunately, many Christians today imagine that the explanation Jesus gave in respect of the man born blind applies to all cases of sick people. This thought is a dishonour to the Teachings of Christ.
To appreciate the explanation Jesus gave for this particular case, we must understand the concept of "Mission Karma". Mission Karma is a fate, a consequence, a sacrifice that a person voluntarily accepts in order to fulfill a particular mission. A man is drowning in a swimming pool. I notice it, and even though I am fully dressed, I jump into the pool to try to save him. By my action, I have accepted voluntarily a number of consequences.
First, my clothes will be wet and I will have to change afterwards. If the clothes are such that they should never go into water, I run the risk of ruining them. Second, I accept the risk of being drowned myself, depending on how I handle the drowning man. These possible consequences of my action are the karma that might be associated with my mission of mercy.
Similarly. suppose a house is burning and I enter it to save a child trapped in it. By undertaking the mission, I accept voluntarily the possibility, indeed the likelihood, of being burnt. Any burns I receive are the associated mission karma.
In Chapter 6, we discussed the Law of Sowing and Reaping, which is also called the Law of Karma. The idea of mission karma helps to deepen further our understanding of the working of this Law. Mission karma explains, for example, how it was possible for Jesus Christ to be murdered even though He obviously and definitely was sinless. That is, the murder was not the fruit of His sowing.
Even before He set out on His mission of salvation, it was appreciated that darkness had descended heavily on earth, that men had become exceedingly evil and confused, that even their religious leaders sought only earthly power and influence and were no longer interested in the truth. It was therefore clear that earth men could reject His teachings and might even kill Him. Because Jesus was, and is the personification of Love, He accepted the risk, in the manner that the man, who out of love, dashed into the burning house to save a trapped child, accepts the risk of being burnt.
It should, of course, be easy to understand that the man who voluntarily, and out of genuine love, accepts a mission that is associated with dangers is at the same time sowing good seeds, seeds of pure love. The seeds will grow, mature, and, in due course, yield a bountiful harvest. Such harvests arising from acts of selfless love are the treasures we store for ourselves in heaven; they form points of anchor for the invisible threads that pull us to Paradise.
We are now in a position to understand the real significance of what Christ meant when he said that the man was born blind "that the works of God might be made manifest in him". The man might have been one of those in the Beyond who requested the Almighty to permit them to be on earth during the time of Jesus Christ and to contribute something, however little, to the success of the Mission of Jesus Christ. The requests of many human spirits, presumably including this man born blind, were granted. Thus, the man voluntarily accepted the burden of being born blind as his way of helping the Mission of Christ. And it came to pass, that at the time of his own fulfillment, the man crossed the path of Jesus and provided an opportunity for a spectacular miracle.
That this healing was a very important event is shown by the fact that all the 41 verses of Chapter 9 of the Gospel according to St. John are devoted to it. The miracle was seen as strong evidence of the Divine Mission of Jesus:
Never since the world began has it been heard that any one opened the eyes of a man that was born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing (John 9-:32-33).
The Pharisees, who claimed to be disciples of Moses, were determined to see that Jesus Christ was not accepted by the masses. They said: "God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man (Jesus) we do not know where he comes from" (John 9:29). They must have considered the miracle a major setback for them. They went to the parents of the formerly blind man, and also confronted the man directly hoping that the parents and the man would deny the cure.
Such were the courage and conviction of the man that he refused to budge but asserted the fact of his cure, even though he faced the certainty of being excommunicated put out of the synagogue). The Pharisees did, in fact, cast him out. Jesus later met and spoke with him. So clear and strong was the cured man's spiritual insight that he immediately believed and worshipped Jesus. He must indeed, have been a noble spirit, worthy of being permitted to render service to the Lord.
Let us summarize the key lessons of the story of the healing of the man born blind. First, it provided an opportunity for the disciples to indicate their belief in reincarnation. As we shall see, they expressed, on other occasions, this same belief that was prevalent in their time. The belief could not have been wrong; if it was, Jesus would have told them so. The story also provides a probable example of mission karma and permits us to extend our knowledge of the Law of Sowing and Reaping.
John the Baptist
Both Matthew (11:1-15) and Luke (7:19-28) report what Jesus thought of John the Baptist. John the Baptist heard, while in prison, about the activities of Jesus. He sent two of his own disciples to go and find out if Jesus was indeed the one "who is to come, or shall we look for another?" (Matthew 11:3; Luke 7:20).
Many Christians would probably have wondered about this errand. Why would John the Baptist send people to find out for him who Jesus was? John had baptized Jesus at the River Jordan before Jesus started on His Mission. Matthew's account of that occasion suggests that John the Baptist recognized Jesus, that he knew who Jesus was, as the following passage indicates:
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" But Jesus answered him, "Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness". Then he consented (Matthew 3: 13 - 15).
It should be noted that St. Mark's account of the baptism of Jesus contains nothing to indicate whether or not John the Baptist recognized Jesus (Mark 1:9-12). Was Matthew in error in reporting that John the Baptist knew exactly who Jesus was at the time he baptized Him?
If John the Baptist recognized Jesus at the time of the baptism, what follow-up actions did he take? Had he forgotten about the event by the time he sent his followers, or had his faith wavered in prison? Obviously his faith could not waver; for his courage and the strength of his conviction were exceedingly great. And we have it on Christ's authority that he was much more than a prophet and that "among them that are born of women, there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist." These considerations are somewhat of a digression since they do not touch on the issue of reincarnation - the subject matter of this book.
What is of great relevance to reincarnation is a statement provided by Matthew in the account of this incident:
And if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. He that hath ears to hear, let him hear. (Matthew 11:14-15).
And if you are willing to understand what I, mean, he is Elijah, the one the prophets said would come. And if ever you were willing to listen, listen now! (Matthew 11:14-15, The Living New Testament).
Here in a clear language, the writer of Matthew says that John the Baptist is the reincarnation of Elijah. As we have already discussed, the Jewish people were expecting Elijah to reincarnate "before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord." It is clear from his Gospel that Matthew firmly believed that the time of Jesus Christ was the "great and terrible day of the Lord." For this reason he could state, without any hesitation, that John the Baptist was the reincarnation of Elijah.
Please note that John the Baptist was conceived and born as a baby by Elizabeth, the wife of Zechariah. He did not appear on the scene as an adult, as would be expected if a mere return of the physical body of Elijah was what happened.
By this statement, the author of the Gospel according to Matthew makes two points: first, reincarnation is a fact; second, Elijah reincarnated as John the Baptist.
The first point confirms the fact that belief in reincarnation was widespread at the time of Jesus and was accepted by His followers. Some Christian sects today believe, on the strength of this passage in Matthew, that John the Baptist was indeed a reincarnation of Elijah. But there is considerable doubt about this. St. Luke's account of the same visit of the disciples of John the Baptist to Jesus is the same as that of Matthew with one important exception: Luke completely omits the statement that John the Baptist was Elijah.
A statement that appears similar to Matthew's assertion is found in St. Luke's account of the foretelling of the birth of John the Baptist. Angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah to tell him that his wife, Elizabeth, would bear a child who would be named John. The Angel described the activity of John the Baptist in the following terms:
And he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord (Luke 1:17. Italics mine).
One must admit that it is not exactly clear how the phrase "in the spirit and power of Elijah" should be interpreted. The Popular Edition of The Jerusalem Bible translates the same expression as "with the spirit and power of Elijah", which is not any clearer. The phrase could be interpreted to mean that the spirit of Elijah and the spirit of John the Baptist would be one and the same. This would agree with Matthew's view that John the Baptist was a reincarnation of Elijah.
But the same phrase could also be interpreted differently to indicate simply that John the Baptist would carry out his mission in a manner closely similar to that of Prophet Elijah. An argument in favour of this latter interpretation is found in John 1:21. On one occasion, priests and Levites were sent from Jerusalem to ask John the Baptist who he was. He told them that he was not the Christ.
And they asked him, What then? Are you Elijah? He said, I am not (John 1:21).
He also said he was not the prophet that God promised (in Deuteronomy 18:15) to raise among the Levites. He said he was the one of whom Isaiah said: "the voice of one crying in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord." It would, therefore, appear that while Matthew was right in his underlying belief in reincarnation, his specific claim that John the Baptist was the reincarnation of Elijah was not correct.
This does not in any way weaken the case for reincarnation. One can be correct on a general point and yet be wrong on a specific point. The error on the specific does not imply an error in the general. Let us illustrate. A man on a flight from Canada to the United States of America lands at an international airport in New York. He has always heard about John F. Kennedy Airport and so he writes on a postcard to be mailed to a friend back home stating that his plane was about to land in the New York area at the John F Kennedy Airport. On alighting from the plane, he notices that he is, in fact, at the La Guardia Airport. It just happens that flights from Canada to the New York metropolis have a choice of airports. The gentleman is wrong about the airport but this does not affect the correctness of his statement that he had arrived in the New York area.
Let us again note that the priests and Levites specifically asked John the Baptist if he was Elijah. The question again implies that the priests and Levites believed in reincarnation. Otherwise, they would not think that John the Baptist might be Elijah. And it was not necessary for them to ask if John the Baptist was working in a manner similar to Elijah; they themselves could tell whether or not this was the case. In other words, the priests and Levites interpreted the phrase "in the spirit and power of Elijah" in the sense of reincarnation.
The name of Elijah comes up again in the accounts of the Transfiguration given by Matthew (17:1-13) and by Mark (9:1-13). Jesus had gone up to a high mountain in the company of three disciples - Peter, James, and John. While there, the disciples witnessed a deeply moving spiritual spectacle that has come to be known as the Transfiguration. The countenance of Jesus changed. "And His garments became glistening, intensely white ... And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, and they were talking to Jesus" (Mark 9:3- 5).
A cloud overshadowed them and a voice out of the cloud declared: 'This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him" (Matthew 17:5). For the disciples, the event was further confirmation that their Master was indeed the Son of God. But they also remembered the teaching of the Scribes (presumably based on the prophecy recorded in Malachi 4:5) that Elijah must come before the Messiah. Hence, they, sought clarification from Jesus. They asked "Why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?" In answer, Jesus is reported to have said:
But I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not know him, but did to him whatever they pleased (Matthew 17:12).
But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written of him (Mark 9:13).
The two statements are substantially the same. And they show Jesus as confirming the truth of the prophecy
that Elijah would reincarnate, and stating that Elijah had, in fact, already reincarnated. But Jesus does not reveal the identity of the reincarnated Elijah.
Matthew goes on to add a statement that is not in Mark: 'Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist" (Matthew 17:13). This is a repetition of the view of the author of this Gospel that John the Baptist was a reincarnation of Elijah (Matthew 11: 14 15). Matthew gives the impression here that this view was also held by the three disciples - Peter, James, and John - who were in the company of Jesus on the occasion of the Transfiguration.
We have already noted that this relationship between Elijah and John the Baptist is of doubtful validity. The doubt is based on the declaration by John the Baptist himself that he was not Elijah (John 1:21). The response of Jesus can, however, be interpreted as a confirmation that Elijah had reincarnated; but we are not told the identity of his reincarnation.
"Who Do Men Say that I am?"
A question that Jesus posed to his disciples led to what has become known as Peter's Great Confession, and is recorded in all the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). Jesus and His disciples were in Caesarea Philippi when He asked them: "Who do men say that I am?" (Mark 8:27).
And they told him, John the Baptist, and others say Elijah; and others, one of the prophets (Mark 8:28).
It is not Peter's confession that is of interest to us here but rather the above question and the answer. The way the question was framed and the kind of answer the disciples gave indicate an underlying belief in reincarnation. It is reasonable to assume that, at least, some people knew that Jesus was the son of Mary, the wife of Joseph the carpenter. This fact was not one of the answers given by the disciples. It could not have been that all the people were ignorant of this fact, but rather that such an answer would have been inappropriate.
Christ's question was a spiritual one. He was not asking whom the people thought he was in an earthly sense but in a spiritual sense. The disciples understood this, and it was the understanding that led to Peter's Great Confession.
But, in the same understanding, they provided the view of ordinary people. These people thought Jesus was Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets; a thought that could come only from their belief in reincarnation and their recollection of old prophecies. Jesus was, and is, a part of God and could, therefore, not be the reincarnation of any prophet. This was the key lesson.
But another important lesson for us is the knowledge of how widespread belief in reincarnation was at the time of Jesus Christ. Christ did not need to tell people to accept the idea of reincarnation, because they already did. And if -the idea was not a valid one Jesus had many opportunities to tell the disciples so.
Herod Links John the Baptist with Elijah
A further indication of just how widespread was the idea of reincarnation and the expectation that Elijah would reincarnate were the speculations of Herod and the people around him when he first heard about the miracles of Jesus. Herod was said to be perplexed, and according to Mark, even thought that John the Baptist had resurrected from the dead:
And he (King Herod) said that John the Baptist was risen from the dead, and therefore mighty works do show forth themselves in him. Others said that it is Elijah. And others said that it is a prophet, or as one of the prophets. But when Herod heard thereof, he said, It is John whom I beheaded; he is risen from the dead (Mark 6:14-16). (Authorized King James Version).
Luke (9:7-9) similarly reports that people thought that Jesus was John the Baptist resurrected, or a reincarnation of Elijah or one of the old prophets.
A Revelation Passage
Finally, another Bible passage that strongly suggests reincarnation is found in the message to the Church at Philadelphia:
Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shalll go no more out... (Revelation 3:12). (Authorized King James Version).
The statement, "he shall go no more out," suggests that the norm, that is the usual expectation, is to go out repeatedly. This repeated going out stops only for those who have overcome, have conquered all sins, have passed the Last Judgment, have gained full spiritual maturity.
In other words, a most reasonable interpretation of this Revelation passage is in the sense of the cycle of reincarnations, which ends only with the complete maturity of the spirit. Once a spirit has attained to such maturity, he is allotted a place in Paradise and remains there forever. His reincarnations on earth come to an end. He has become one of those who "have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb" (Revelation 7:14).
Copyright 1996 by Millennium Press. All rights reserved. Used with author's permission.