Having been raised in fundamentalist and evangelical Christianity, I always thought of ‘reincarnation’ as just a weird belief of ‘eastern religions’; a ‘Satanic deception’ whereby millions of ‘poor lost souls’ were kept from finding true ‘salvation’ in Jesus Christ. It certainly had nothing to do with the Judeo/Christian religion and the Bible. Imagine my surprise, then, when a New Testament Survey professor at a Baptist Jr. College I was attending pointed out that both the Essenes and Pharisees among the Jews believed in reincarnation! We had reached the Gospel of John in our classroom studies, the 9th chapter, which concerns Jesus’ healing of a man who was born blind. The disciples asked Jesus (verse 2): who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind? Now, I was rather proud of how well I knew the Bible, especially the New Testament; but I had never thought of that question as anything more than a bit strange. Certainly there were Old Testament references, like Exodus 20:5, which taught that children would be punished by God for their parents’ sins, but obviously the man could not be punished for sins he himself committed before birth since there was no way he could have sinned before birth. It was strange that the disciples should ask that, but I had never before even thought to connect that question to the idea of reincarnation. It would be heresy to think that the disciples would believe something so “unbiblical”! Yet here was this professor, who used to be a Baptist minister, saying that the Pharisees actually believed in it! And that made sense in the context of this passage, because it is precisely the teaching of reincarnation and karma that we have lived previous lifetimes, and our actions from those former lifetimes have consequences in the present lifetime.
The really confusing thing, though, was that it was Jesus’ own disciples asking the question, not the Pharisees. The Pharisees could be expected to be guilty of twisted and delusional thinking! After all, wasn’t Jesus continually castigating them for following the commandments of men rather than the doctrines of God, and making the word of God to be of no effect by their man made regulations? But could Jesus’ own disciples have been so deluded? Well if they were, this would have been the perfect occasion for Jesus to correct them; and according to the professor that is precisely what Jesus did when he said: Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. That satisfied me at that time. It was only much later that I realized that Jesus had not in fact said that the man had not sinned before he was born, any more than he said that the parents had not sinned before he was born. All he has said was that no one’s sins had been responsible for the blind man’s condition. The parents had certainly ‘sinned’ prior to the conception and birth of their son, but their sins were not responsible for him being born blind. Neither were any sins the man himself had committed prior to his own birth (in other words, past life sins) the cause of his blindness. So, as I said, Jesus had not repudiated the idea that the man had lived and sinned before his birth in this lifetime, any more than he repudiated the idea that his parents had lived and sinned before he was born! He merely pointed out that there can be other reasons for birth defects than personal ‘karma’ and the sins of our parents. Jesus apparently did not consider the concept of reincarnation to be ‘strange’ or ‘evil”.
Another reference to the fact that many of the Jews believed in reincarnation, and that it may have influenced the Gospel writers thinking, was found in Matthew Henry’s Commentary on Matthew 27:9. ‘Matthew’ there referred to a quotation from the prophet “Jeremiah” as being fulfilled in the price Judas was paid to betray Jesus. The problem being (aside from the fact that this is another instance where the Gospel writer has ripped a verse out of its context and badly distorted its meaning) that the quotation is not actually from Jeremiah, but Zechariah (11; 12, 13). Matthew Henry made the interesting observation: “How they are here said to be spoken by Jeremy is a difficult question; but the credit of Christ’s doctrine does not depend upon it; for that proves itself perfectly divine, though there should appear something human as to small circumstances in the penmen of it”. That’s an ‘interesting observation’ for Matthew Henry to make, since he would usually be considered a very ‘fundamentalist’ and ‘evangelical’ writer; and such writers generally are adamant that there are no errors in the Bible. But Mr. Henry did not himself actually believe the Gospel writer erred, so he proceeded to give several possible explanations for the apparent error. One of those ‘possible solutions’ was this: “The Jews used to say, The spirit of Jeremiah was in Zechariah, and so they were as one prophet.” So here was another reference to the fact that the Jews believed in reincarnation; and if that was the explanation for the Gospel writer’s ‘apparent error’, then the Gospel writer necessarily accepted reincarnation also. Of course, that might not be the explanation for the ‘apparent’ error; there may be another explanation (and Mr. Henry gives several), or the writer may just have actually been in error! But Mr. Henry did confirm my college professor’s assertion that many of the Jews believed in this doctrine. (The ‘Strict Baptist’ commentator John Gill also made this observation when commenting on this passage in Matthew.)
Another plain reference to the popularity of the teaching concerning reincarnation among the Jews of Jesus’ time is found in Matthew 16: 13, 14: Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist; but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets”. Here it is plain that the Jews expected that the ‘prophets of old’ would be reborn to again be leaders of the nation, and they were identifying Jesus as being one of those former prophets. I guess the identification with John the Baptist would have to be by people who had never heard of Jesus before John was beheaded, so they thought John might have bodily risen from the dead; but the other prophets had lived several hundred years before their time, so reincarnation was the only explanation for such an identification. There was no doubt that Jesus and John were born in the usual way (though Jesus was supposed by some at least to have been conceived in an ‘unusual’ way) – that is, they started out as babies and grew into manhood; so there was no idea here that one of the former prophets had just been ‘resurrected’ as a fully grown man. Even those who thought Jesus might be John resurrected knew that John had been born in the normal way and grown up from a baby into adulthood.
The Gospel writers also plainly tell us that Jesus himself believed in and taught reincarnation. There are several places in the Gospels where Jesus identified John with Elijah. Malachi 4:5 had prophesied, Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. Jesus made the plain statement that this was fulfilled in John: For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John came; and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. Let anyone with ears listen! (Matt. 11: 13-15). Matt. 17: 10-13: And the disciples asked him, ‘Why, then, do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?’ He replied, ‘Elijah is indeed coming and will restore all things; but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but they did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man is about to suffer at their hands.’ Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them about John the Baptist. See also Mark 9: 11-13. Some try to evade the force of these statements of Jesus by pointing out that according to the Old Testament accounts, Elijah never actually died, but was carried alive and bodily up to heaven in a mysterious fiery chariot. So they seem to be claiming that Elijah had just physically returned as an adult man, and had changed his name to John. Well, are we to understand that John’s mother Elizabeth somehow ‘miraculously’ managed to give birth to a full grown man? No, if Elijah returned as John, as Jesus is quoted as saying, it could only have been through ‘reincarnation’: the soul or spirit of Elijah returning as a baby in a new body, not the body of Elijah descending from heaven. But again, some try to evade this by pointing out that when the angel appeared to John’s father Zechariah before John’s birth, he said that Zechariah’s son would go before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah. They say John wasn’t literally Elijah returned, but John merely ‘resembled’ Elijah, coming in Elijah’s ‘spirit and power’. But coming ‘in the spirit and power’ of someone is just what reincarnation is all about! It is ‘the spirit’ of a previous personality coming back as a newborn child, and growing up in a different body. You actually could hardly have a more plain statement that John was ‘the reincarnation’ of Elijah than this prophecy that John would come in Elijah’s spirit and power! There were no doubt many rough and outspoken leaders (or would be leaders) ‘resembling’ Elijah who had come before John, and also since John; but they didn’t come in Elijah’s ‘spirit and power’. But the ‘spirit’ of Elijah was reborn in John (at least according to the Gospel writer’s quotations of Jesus and the angel who appeared to Zechariah), and that is ‘reincarnation’.
In order to keep this particular post from becoming a book, I’ll stop here and resume this subject in my next post.