Question: Does the Bible teach reincarnation? For example, wasn’t John the Baptist the reincarnation of Elijah?
My Answer: A brief answer is simply, no. But let’s explore this a little bit.
First of all, we need to make sure we understand what we are talking about. To be “incarnate” means to be “in the flesh,” i.e., in a bodily form. So reincarnation means returning to a bodily form after death. You die then you are reborn in a different body. This concept is also called metempsychosis, or the transmigration of souls.
This idea is basic to a number of religions, especially in the East—Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, etc. In these religions, a person may be reborn in many different forms. You may come back as another human being, or you may return as a monkey or a fly. The idea of karma is very much tied to the idea of reincarnation. You are reborn based on the karma you carry from this life into your next life. Live a good life, you may reincarnate as a king. If you are really bad, you may be reborn as a flea. Your karma determines your rebirth.
The belief in reincarnation has been found in the West in some pagan religions. For example, some believe that the ancient Druids believed in the idea. It is commonly accepted in many modern occult groups, such as Wicca and spiritualism. However, in the West it is normally taught that humans are reborn as other humans. You generally do not hear teaching about people being reincarnated as animals or other life forms.
When you read the literature of these occult groups, they sometimes assert that the Bible teaches reincarnation. They often use what Jesus said about John the Baptist as an example (e.g., Matthew 11:14). They also use Christ’s teaching in John 3 about being “born again,” saying that Jesus is talking about reincarnation in this passage. However, both assertions are in error, and demonstrate poor understanding of biblical doctrine.
At first glance it could seem that Jesus taught that John the Baptist was the reincarnation of Elijah. For example, in Matthew 11:13-15 Jesus said this, “For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” Jesus said more about this in Matthew 17:10-13, “And His disciples asked Him, saying, “Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” Jesus answered and said to them, “Indeed, Elijah is coming first and will restore all things. But I say to you that Elijah has come already, and they did not know him but did to him whatever they wished. Likewise the Son of Man is also about to suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that He spoke to them of John the Baptist.” What are we to make of this? Clarity comes by looking at another passage about John in the first chapter of Luke. This is where the angel Gabriel appears to the priest Zachariah and prophesies the birth of John the Baptist. The angel says that John will prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah and that “he will also go before Him [the Lord Jesus] 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). John came demonstrating the same pattern of ministry as Elijah. He was a prophet in the same spirit as Elijah, turning men back to God. John was “Elijah” in the sense that he accomplished the same kind of prophetic work as Elijah. Jesus did not mean that John was literally Elijah reborn. For, as we will see below, this is contrary to biblical teaching. It would be like if I commented on someone who has a great evangelistic ministry, and I said, “That preacher is a Billy Graham!” I am not saying that the soul of Billy Graham has entered a new body. I am simply saying that this evangelist exhibits the same kind of calling and ministry as is seen in the life of Billy Graham.
As for Christ’s teaching in John 3, this is certainly not about reincarnation at all. When Jesus told Nicodemus that a man must be “born again,” he was speaking a spiritual rebirth in this life. Indeed, Jesus was not referring to physical birth at all. This is what Nicodemus questioned Jesus about: How can a man be physically reborn? Jesus made it plain that he was talking about a work of the Spirit of God, and the rebirth he was referring to was a spiritual experience in this life, not physical (see John 3:3-8). It should also be pointed out that the phrase “born again” should more properly be translated as “born from above.” Jesus is talking about a spiritual transformation that occurs as a work of the Holy Spirit.
Now what does the Bible say about reincarnation? Well, it actually is not dealt with directly in the Bible at all. It did not need to be. We have to remember that the Bible was mostly the work of Jewish writers, and mainly written to a Jewish audience. Reincarnation was not something that was taught in Judaism. So it was a non-issue. Even in the parts of the New Testament that are addressed to Gentile believers, this was not an issue that had to be dealt with.
However, there are several relevant passages to this issue. Probably the most explicit is found in Hebrews 9: 27. Here the writer definitively states that “it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment.” What could be more clear? God has ordained that all men die ONCE. And after death, they face the judgement of God. There is no wiggle room here for belief in people living many lives spread out over centuries (or even eons, if you are a Hindu). If we look at Luke 16:20-31 and Revelation 20:5 we also see clearly that after death there is no returning to this life. What the Bible does teach is that we are born, we die, we face the judgement of God, and then ultimately we will be resurrected in a bodily form. But the resurrection is not coming back to this earth in another natural human body. Resurrection means that you, the person you are now, will be raised from the dead in a new body that will last forever.
One other point must be made about the erroneous nature found in the teaching of reincarnation. One of the basic ideas of reincarnation is that we keep being born in order to work out our salvation. The concept is this: We are sinful, imperfect. How do we overcome this? We work at it, trying over and over again, in lifetime after lifetime. We need many lives to overcome sin and learn to be perfect. Notice that this concept essentially teaches that we save ourselves. We are eventually saved through our own efforts—although spread out over many lives and many centuries. This idea is directly in opposition to the biblical teaching about salvation. It contradicts the New Testament teaching that we cannot save ourselves, that no work can save us. It also is in opposition to the truth of the sufficiency of Christ’s death on the Cross. In fact, reincarnation is an insult to the work of Jesus. It says that Jesus’ blood is not sufficient for our salvation. If we need to come back in many lives to achieve salvation, then Jesus’ blood is not good enough. How could any Christian believe such error, such nonsense?
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