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Its meaning and consequences

by Ernest Valea

A) Reincarnation in world religions;
B) Past-life recall as proof for reincarnation;
C) Reincarnation and cosmic justice;
D) Reincarnation and Christianity.

Part D:

Reincarnation and Christianity

Reincarnation and the Bible
Did the clergy rewrite the Bible, so that the passages teaching reincarnation were removed?
Did the early Church fathers believe in reincarnation?
Reincarnation according to Platonism
Origen and Origenism
Other early church fathers vs. Reincarnation
Why cannot Christianity accept reincarnation?


Today’s religious syncretism not only accepts reincarnation as one of its basic doctrines but also tries to prove that it can be found in the Bible and that it was accepted by the early Church. We will therefore analyze the basic texts in the Bible which are claimed to imply belief in reincarnation, examine the position of some important Church fathers who are said to have accepted it, and emphasize the basic antagonism of this doctrine with Christian teaching


Reincarnation and the Bible. Biblical texts that seem to imply belief in reincarnation


The most "convincing" texts of this kind are the following:

1) Matthew 11,14 and 17,12-13, concerning the identity of John the Baptist;
2) John 9,2, "Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?";
3) John 3,3, "No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again";
4) James 3,6, "the wheel of nature";
5) Galatians 6,7, "A man reaps what he sows";
6) Matthew 26,52, "all who draw the sword will die by the sword";
7) Revelation 13,10, "If anyone is to go into captivity, into captivity he will go. If anyone is to be killed with the sword, with the sword he will be killed."

1. The first text concerns the identity of John the Baptist, supposed to be the reincarnation of the prophet Elijah. In Matthew 11,14 Jesus says: "And if you are willing to accept it, he (John the Baptist) is the Elijah who was to come." In the same Gospel, while answering the apostles about the coming of Elijah, Jesus told them: "But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands." The commentary adds: "Then the disciples understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist" (Matthew 17,12-13; see also Mark 9,12-13).

At first sight, it may seem that these verses imply the reincarnation of the prophet Elijah as John the Baptist. The prophecy of the return of Elijah appears in the last verses of the Old Testament, in the book of the prophet Malachi (3,1; 4,5-6): "See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes." In Luke 1,17 an angel announces the fulfillment of this prophecy at the birth of John the Baptist: "And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous- to make ready a people prepared for the Lord." What could be the meaning of the words "in the spirit and power of Elijah"?

First we must be aware that the Jews viewed 'spirit' and 'soul' as quite different things. The human person has a soul which will live on after physical death. The spirit is a kind of driving force, a motivation that makes people behave in one way or another. When a group of people are working to fulfill a common goal, they are said to be in the same spirit. Second, the text does not say that John the Baptist will go "in the soul of Elijah," but "in the spirit of Elijah." This means that John the Baptist and Elijah had the same "team spirit," not that one was the reincarnation of the other. John the Baptist was rather a kind of Elijah, a prophet who had to repeat the mission of Elijah in a similar context. The same as Elijah did nine centuries before him, John the Baptist had to suffer persecution from the royal house of Israel and act in the context of the spiritual degeneration of the Jewish nation. John had the same spiritual mission as the prophet Elijah, but not the same soul or self. For this reason the expression "in the spirit and power of Elijah" should not be interpreted as meaning the reincarnation of a person, but as a necessary repetition of a well-known episode in the history of Israel.

Other Gospel passages that refer to Elijah and John the Baptist confirm that this text cannot teach reincarnation. At the time John the Baptist began his public preaching, the priests in Jerusalem asked him about his identity: "Are you Elijah?" (John 1,21) John answered simply: "I am not." Another text that contradicts reincarnation as applying to this case is the story of Elijah’s departure from this world. Elijah didn’t die in the proper sense of the word, but "went up to heaven in a whirlwind" (2 Kings 2,11). According to the classic theory of reincarnation, a person has to die physically first in order that his self may be reincarnated in another body. In the case of Elijah this didn’t happen. So it must be considered an exception both to the natural process of death, and to the rule of reincarnation. Finally, the three apostles at the Mount of Transfiguration said that they had seen Elijah, not John the Baptist, with whom they were familiar (Matthew 17,1-8, Mark 9,2-8; Luke 9,28-36).

2. The next disputed text is the introduction to the healing of the man born blind in John 9,2. Considering the apostles' question: "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?", it is obvious that the first option (the man was born blind because of his sin) implies that he could sin only in a previous life. According to the classic theory of reincarnation, he might have been a cruel dictator who got the just reward for his bad deeds.

However, the apostles' question about the possibility of having sinned before birth should not necessarily be judged as indicating an existing belief in reincarnation. It rather confirms that some religious factions believed that the fetus could somehow sin in its mother womb. If Jesus had considered reincarnation to be true, surely he would have used this opportunity, as was his custom, to explain to them how karma and reincarnation work in such a peculiar situation. Jesus never missed such opportunities to instruct his disciples on spiritual matters, and reincarnation would have been a crucial doctrine for them to understand.

Nevertheless, in the answer Jesus gave, he rejected both options suggested by the apostles. Both ideas of sinning before birth and the punishment for the parents' sins were wrong. Jesus said: "Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life" (John 9,3). "The work of God" is described in the next verses, when Jesus healed the blind man as a proof of his divinity (v. 39).

3. In the Gospel According to John Jesus said to Nicodemus: "I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again" (John 3,3). Out of its context, this verse seems to suggest that reincarnation is the only possibility for attaining spiritual perfection and admission into the "kingdom of God." Nicodemus’ following question indicates that he understood by these words a kind of physical rebirth in this life, and not classic reincarnation: "How can a man be born when he is old? Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb to be born!" (v. 4). Jesus rejected the idea of physical rebirth and explained man’s need for spiritual rebirth, during this life, in order to be admitted into God’s kingdom in the afterlife.

Jesus further explained the meaning of his words by referring to a well-known episode in Israel’s history: "Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up" (John 3,14). That episode occurred while the Israelites were travelling in the wilderness toward the Promised Land under the command of Moses (see Numbers 21,4-9). They spoke against God and against Moses, and God punished them by sending poisonous snakes against them. Grasping the gravity of the situation, they recognized their sin and asked for a saving solution. God’s solution was that Moses had to make a bronze copy of such a snake and put it up on a pole. Those who had been bitten by a snake had to look at this bronze snake, believing that this symbol represented their salvation, and so were healed. Coming back to the connection Jesus made between that episode and his teaching, he said: "Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life" (John 3,14-15). In other words, as Moses lifted up the bronze snake 13 centuries earlier, in the same way was Jesus to be lifted up on the cross, in order to be the only antidote to the deadly bite of sin. As the Jews had to believe that the bronze snake was their salvation from death, the same way Nicodemus, his generation and the entire world had to believe that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is the perfect solution provided by God for the sins of the world. Therefore the kind of rebirth Jesus was teaching was not the Eastern concept of reincarnation but a spiritual rebirth that any human can experience in this life.

4. A fourth text interpreted as indicating reincarnation is found in the Epistle of James 3,6, where the ASV version translates the Greek trochos genesis as "the wheel of nature" and the RSV version as “the cycle of nature.” This could seem to be the equivalent of the cycle of endless reincarnations affirmed in Eastern religions. However, we must be aware that the context of the two words is the teaching about the need to control our speech in order not to sin. The ASV translation states: "And the tongue is a fire: the world of iniquity among our members is the tongue, which defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the wheel of nature, and is set on fire by hell." The tongue out of control is compared with a fire that affects the whole course of human life, thought and deed. This means that sinful speech is the origin of many other sins which are consequently generated. The NIV translation is clearer at this point: "The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell."

5. A classic example of suggesting karma and samsara in the Bible is often claimed to be represented by the words of the Apostle Paul in Galatians: "Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows" (Galatians 6,7). This "sowing and reaping" process would allegedly represent someone’s acts and their consequences as dictated by karma in further lives. However, the very next verse indicates that the point is judging the effects of our deeds from the perspective of eternal life, as stated in the Bible, without a further earthly existence being involved: "The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life" (6,8; see also the entire chapter). "Reaping destruction" means eternal separation from God in hell, while "eternal life" represents eternal communion with God in heaven. In their given context, these verses cannot suggest the reincarnation of the soul after death. According to Christianity, the supreme judge of our deeds is God, and not impersonal karma.

6. After Peter had cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant in his attempt to prevent Jesus’ arrest in Gethsemane, Jesus rebuked him by saying: "All who draw the sword will die by the sword" (Matthew 26,52). Could this be the justice of karma in action?

All four Gospels give the account of Jesus’ rebuke to Peter’s initiative. Although heroic, it went against God’s plan ("How then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?" – verse 54). In this case Peter was sinning and, according to the well-known Old Testament law of sin retribution, the sinner must be punished consistently ("Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man" - Genesis 9,6; see also Exodus 21,23-25; Leviticus 24,19-20; Deuteronomy 19,21). However, throughout the Old Testament this law was referring solely to one’s present physical life, by no means to future lives. Otherwise Jesus’ words would lead to an absurd implication. If he meant that killing someone in this life with a sword would require that the doer would be literally killed at his turn with a sword in a future life, then his crucifixion (which followed soon after this episode) must have been a punishment for his own sins done in previous lives and not a solution for other people’s sins, as he claimed.

7. "If anyone is to go into captivity, into captivity he will go. If anyone is to be killed with the sword, with the sword he will be killed" (Revelation 13,10). This verse belongs to a prophecy that speaks about the end times, when Satan and his subjects will have temporary power on earth. Adherents of reincarnation must be aware that it is a quotation from the Old Testament: "And if they ask you, 'Where shall we go?' tell them, 'This is what the LORD says: "'Those destined for death, to death; those for the sword, to the sword; those for starvation, to starvation; those for captivity, to captivity'" (Jeremiah 15,2). This sentence was spoken by Jeremiah just before the fall of Jerusalem and the Babylonian exile (586 BC) and expresses God’s punishment of a sinful Jewish nation which had rejected him. It is not the impersonal law of karma acting here but the will of the personal creator God. He chooses how to punish those who have rejected him. (See also Jeremiah 43,11, which uses the same words for announcing the punishment of Egypt for its sins.) The author of Revelation used this quotation for assuring those involved in the events to come that God would do justice again, as he did in the ancient times. Therefore they should act in "patient endurance and faithfulness" as Revelation 13,10 adds.

As can be observed, in all situations where "Biblical proofs" for reincarnation are claimed, the context is always ignored. Other passages used as proofs of reincarnationist beliefs mean, in fact, the existence of Christ prior to his human birth (John 8,58), the continuity of the souls' existence after death (John 5,28-29; Luke 16,22-23; 2 Corinthians 5,1), or the spiritual rebirth of believers in their present life (Titus 3,5; 1 Peter 1,23), without giving any plausible indication for reincarnation.


Did the clergy rewrite the Bible, so that the passages teaching reincarnation were removed?


Another hypothesis is that the Bible contained many passages teaching reincarnation in an alleged initial form, but they were suppressed by the clergy at the fifth ecumenical council, held in Constantinople in the year AD 553. The reason for this would have been the spiritual immaturity of the Christians, who could not grasp the doctrine at that time, or the desire of the clergy to manipulate the masses. However, there is no proof that such "purification" of the Biblical text has ever occurred. The existing manuscripts, many of them older than AD 553, do not show differences from the text we use today. There are enough reasons to accept that the New Testament was not written later than the first century AD. For more information on the accuracy of the present text of the Bible one can use the following links:

Dating the Oldest New Testament Manuscripts, by Peter van Minnen
The Gospels as Historical Sources for Jesus, the Founder of Christianity, by Prof. R. T. France

If the clergy had decided to erase from the Bible the "compromising" passages about reincarnation, why did they keep those mentioned above (concerning the identity of John the Baptist, etc.)? On the other hand, there are other passages in the Bible that clearly contradict the idea of reincarnation, explicitly or implicitly. (See for instance 2 Samuel 12,23; 14,14, Job 7,9-10, Psalm 78,39, Matthew 25,31-46, Luke 23,39-43, Acts 17,31, 2 Corinthians 5,1;4;8, Revelation 20,11-15.) Here is one verse in the New Testament which contradicts reincarnation as clearly as possible:

Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him (Hebrews 9,27-28).

That the Christian Church teaches that we live only once is beyond doubt, as surely as it teaches that Jesus had to die only once for our sins. In other words, the unique historical act of Jesus’ crucifixion and the teaching that we live only once are equally affirmed and cannot be separated. The judgment that follows death is obviously not the judgment of the impersonal karma, but that of the personal almighty God, after which man either enters an eternal personal relation with him in heaven, or an eternal separation from him in hell.


Did the early Church fathers believe in reincarnation?


Early Christianity spread in a world dominated by Greek philosophy. Many important figures of the early church had this spiritual background when they became Christians. Could they have been influenced by the doctrine of reincarnation? In order to answer this, we first have to understand the actual teaching on reincarnation at that time in the Greek world.


Reincarnation according to Platonism


The dominant form of reincarnation known by Greek philosophy during the first three Christian centuries belongs to Platonism. Unlike the Eastern spiritual masters, Plato taught that human souls existed since eternity in a perfect celestial world as intelligent and personal beings. They were not manifested out of a primordial impersonal essence (such as Brahman) or created by a personal god. Although the souls lived there in a pure state, somehow the divine love grew cold in them and, as a result, they fell in physical bodies to this earthly, imperfect world. Plato writes in Phaedrus about this:

But when she (the celestial soul) is unable to follow, and fails to behold the truth, and through some ill-hap sinks beneath the double load of forgetfulness and vice, and her wings fall from her and she drops to the ground, then the law ordains that this soul shall at her first birth pass, not into any other animal, but only into man; and the soul which has seen most of truth shall come to the birth as a philosopher, or artist, or some musical and loving nature.

In the same work, Plato states that "ten thousand years must elapse before the soul of each one can return to the place from whence she came." Only the soul of the philosopher or of the lover can get back to its original state in less time (i.e., in three thousand years). The souls that fail to aspire to perfection and live in ignorance are judged after their earthly life and then punished in "the houses of correction, which are under the earth." One lifetime is not enough to return to the original celestial state of purity. For this reason "the soul of a man may pass into the life of a beast, or from the beast return again into the man." This is the Platonist idea of reincarnation. It does not represent a voyage of an impersonal essence (as atman) toward an impersonal union with the Absolute (Brahman), but only a temporary punishment on the way back towards a purified personal existence (the state of pure being). Between Platonism and Eastern religions there is a big difference concerning man’s identity in general and reincarnation in particular. Plato’s meaning of salvation is definitely personal, as can be understand from Phaedo:
Those also who are remarkable for having led holy lives are released from this earthly prison, and go to their pure home which is above, and dwell in the purer earth; and those who have duly purified themselves with philosophy live henceforth altogether without the body, in mansions fairer far than these, which may not be described, and of which the time would fail me to tell.

How did these ideas affect the beliefs of the early church fathers? We will now proceed to examine the most important cases of early church fathers accused of holding reincarnationist convictions.


Origen and Origenism


The most controversial early church father concerning his alleged beliefs on reincarnation is undoubtedly Origen (185-254). Many adherents of reincarnation mention him today as a classic example which proves the alleged early Christian belief in reincarnation, which is supposed to have been condemned and forbidden by the fifth ecumenical council (Constantinople, AD 553). Although it is a fact that Origen was strongly influenced by Platonism prior to his conversion to Christianity, the claim that he believed in reincarnation is absurd.

Before using any quotes from his writings, we strongly advise you to read the file Origen and Origenism in order to get a brief description of Origen’s life, writings and teachings. This article will give you a sound perspective on what he actually taught and what was later condemned as Origenism. Then see the act of refuting Origenism by the fifth ecumenical council, The 15 Anathemas Against Origen.

As can easily be observed, there is no clear concept of reincarnation mentioned at this council of the early church, but only the Platonist ideas concerning the pre-existence of souls, besides universalism and a wrong form of Christology, as main heresies to be rejected. Since Origenism had incorporated these Platonistic ideas, it was rejected at the council of Constantinople. But the issue was not any form of Eastern reincarnation, as it is claimed today. For instance, the fourth anathema states:

If anyone shall say that the reasonable creatures in whom the divine love had grown cold have been hidden in gross bodies such as ours, and have been called men, while those who have attained the lowest degree of wickedness have shared cold and obscure bodies and are become and called demons and evil spirits: let him be anathema.

The condemned ideas are closely related to what Plato had stated in Phaedrus. Origenism did not teach a classic form of reincarnation. In fact, Origen rejected plainly this doctrine in his Commentary on Matthew (Book XIII,1), written in the last years of his life. He refutes the speculation of considering John the Baptist the reincarnation of Elijah (Matthew 11,14; 17,12-13), a text we mentioned earlier. Origen writes:
In this place it does not appear to me that by Elijah the soul is spoken of, lest I should fall into the dogma of transmigration, which is foreign to the church of God, and not handed down by the Apostles, nor anywhere set forth in the Scriptures; for it is also in opposition to the saying that "things seen are temporal," and that "this age shall have a consummation," and also to the fulfillment of the saying, "Heaven and earth shall pass away," and "the fashion of this world passeth away," and "the heavens shall perish," and what follows.

In the same commentary, under the title "The spirit and power of Elijah" - not the soul - were in the Baptist, Origen adds: "For, observe, he did not say in the ‘soul’ of Elijah, in which case the doctrine of transmigration might have some ground, but ‘in the spirit and power of Elijah.’" Origen’s whole commentary on this text is a refutation of the reincarnation theory. Therefore it is obvious that he cannot be considered at all an "early Christian adherent of reincarnation."


Other early church fathers vs. Reincarnation


Here are some quotations from other early church fathers which express their opinion on reincarnation. They prove that it cannot have been one of their beliefs. Follow the links in order to get a larger picture on their writings.

Justin Martyr (100-165)

His opinion on reincarnation is plainly stated in the following fragment of his Dialogue with Trypho (AD 155), part one, chapter 4, where he discusses Platonism with Trypho the Jew:

The old man: "What, then, is the advantage to those who have seen [God]? Or what has he who has seen more than he who has not seen, unless he remember this fact, that he has seen?"
Justin: "I cannot tell," I answered.
The old man: "And what do those suffer who are judged to be unworthy of this spectacle?" said he.
Justin: "[According to Plato] They are imprisoned in the bodies of certain wild beasts, and this is their punishment."
The old man: "Do they know, then, that it is for this reason they are in such forms, and that they have committed some sin?"
Justin: "I do not think so."
The old man: "Then these reap no advantage from their punishment, as it seems: moreover, I would say that they are not punished unless they are conscious of the punishment."
Justin: "No indeed."
The old man: "Therefore souls neither see God nor transmigrate into other bodies; for they would know that so they are punished, and they would be afraid to commit even the most trivial sin afterwards. But that they can perceive that God exists, and that righteousness and piety are honourable, I also quite agree with you," said he.
Justin: "You are right," I replied.

Irenaeus (130-200)

In his well-known treatise Against Heresies (Book II), Irenaeus entitled the 33rd chapter "Absurdity of the Doctrine of the Transmigration of Souls." The whole chapter criticizes this doctrine, emphasizing the futility of reincarnation devoid of any memory of past lives:
They (the souls) must of necessity retain a remembrance of those things which have been previously accomplished, that they might fill up those in which they were still deficient, and not by always hovering, without intermission, round the same pursuits, spend their labour wretchedly in vain.

Tertullian (145-220)

In his Treatise on the Soul (see ch. 28-33), Tertullian traces the origin of reincarnationist ideas down to Pythagoras. He writes:
If, indeed, the sophist of Samos is Plato's authority for the eternally revolving migration of souls out of a constant alternation of the dead and the living states, then no doubt did the famous Pythagoras, however excellent in other respects, for the purpose of fabricating such an opinion as this, rely on a falsehood, which was not only shameful, but also hazardous.

His conclusion is that "we must likewise contend against that monstrous presumption, that in the course of the transmigration beasts pass from human beings, and human beings from beasts."

Gregory of Nyssa (335-395)

Finally, one of the master theologians of early Christianity rejected in his turn any idea of predestination in his writing Against Fate, and also the concept of reincarnation in the 28th chapter of his treatise On the Making of Man:
Those who assert that the state of souls is prior to their life in the flesh, do not seem to me to be clear from the fabulous doctrines of the heathen which they hold on the subject of successive incorporation: for if one should search carefully, he will find that their doctrine is of necessity brought down to this. They tell us that one of their sages said that he, being one and the same person, was born a man, and afterwards assumed the form of a woman, and flew about with the birds, and grew as a bush, and obtained the life of an aquatic creature; - and he who said these things of himself did not, so far as I can judge, go far from the truth: for such doctrines as this of saying that one soul passed through so many changes are really fitting for the chatter of frogs or jackdaws, or the stupidity of fishes, or the insensibility of trees.

One can also use the following links for more information:

Reincarnation - A Catholic Viewpoint. These articles refute the hypothesis that the early church believed in reincarnation, using many good references;
What did early Christians believe about reincarnation

All these early church fathers lived before the fifth ecumenical council (Constantinople, AD 553), so it cannot be true that the doctrine of reincarnation was condemned and forbidden only as a result of that council, as a deceitful act of manipulating Christianity by the clergy. Although reincarnation was taught by some non-Christian movements of that time, such as the Gnostics and the Neo-Platonists, it had nothing in common with the teachings of the early church, being always rejected as a heresy by the early church fathers.


Why cannot Christianity accept reincarnation?


The idea of reincarnation has never been accepted by Christianity because it undermines its basic tenets. First, it compromises God’s sovereignty over creation, transforming him into a helpless spectator of the human tragedy. But since he is sovereign and omnipotent over creation, God can punish evil and will do it perfectly well at the end of history (see Matthew 25,31-46; Revelation 20,10-15). There is no need for the impersonal law of karma and for reincarnation to play this role.

Second, belief in reincarnation may affect one’s understanding of morality and motivation for moral living. An extreme application of reincarnationist convictions could lead to adopting a detached stand to crime, theft and other social plagues. They could be considered nothing else but normal debts to be paid by their victims, which originated in previous lives.

Third, reincarnation represents a threat to the very essence of Christianity: the need for Christ’s redemptive sacrifice for our sins. If we are to pay for the consequences of our sins ourselves in further lives and attain salvation through our own efforts, the sacrifice of Christ becomes useless and absurd. It wouldn’t be the only way back to God, but only a stupid accident of history. In this case Christianity would be a mere form of Hindu Bhakti-Yoga.

As a result, no matter how many attempts are made today to find texts in the Bible or in the history of the Church that would allegedly teach reincarnation, they are all doomed to remain flawed.

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Copyright Ernest Valea. No part of this work will be used or reproduced by any means without prior permission from the author.