Can a Christian believe in reincarnation? This article explores the history of the doctrine of reincarnation within the greater Christian spiritual tradition in an effort to answer this controversial question. The evidence gathered and answers given may surprise you.
Introduction: Does God Recycle Souls?
If we look around us at the world of Nature, it is apparent that Nature recycles all things; birth, growth, maturity, aging, decline, death, decay and regeneration are all part of the grand cycles of Life, and nothing is wasted. If Nature recycles all things, and if Nature’s God does indeed work in harmony with the grand cycles of Nature, it is reasonable to believe that God just might recycle Souls as well. You can also look at reincarnation from the perspective of divine justice and the Golden Rule; reincarnation, or coming back into different lifetimes in different bodies, and as different people in many different socioeconomic positions and roles in life would also give us the opportunity to actually live the Golden Rule, to do unto others as we would have them do unto us, and to have done unto us what we have done unto others. We could actually live and experience the fruits or consequences of our own actions, good or bad, to actually learn real life lessons. Many have chosen to believe in reincarnation because it makes sense to them that a loving, merciful God would give them a second chance. Hippocrates wrote, “Life is short, the Art long.” Of course, in this famous saying or aphorism, Hippocrates was talking about the Art of Medicine, but this could just as easily be applied to the Art of living as well. Is it really reasonable to assume that a loving and merciful God would condemn us to eternal damnation if we didn’t get everything right within the space of one brief lifetime?
In this article, I will be taking a look at the various attitudes that Christianity has had towards the doctrine of reincarnation during its long history, especially during its early or formative years. Most Christian sects and denominations today strongly condemn the doctrine of reincarnation, but it wasn’t always that way. The answer to whether or not someone can believe in reincarnation and still call themselves a Christian may be a lot closer than you think.
Reincarnation is Not Just an Eastern Teaching
Perhaps the greatest misconception that most Christians have about reincarnation is that it is exclusively an Eastern teaching, peculiar to religions like Hinduism and Buddhism; it is true that the doctrine of reincarnation has flourished and developed to a high degree in these Asian religions, but it has also been known and taught in the West as well. The ancient Greek philosophers called reincarnation Metempsychosis, or the Transmigration of Souls; at the end of his dialogue, The Republic, Plato tells the myth of Er, a soldier wounded and left for dead on the battlefield who went up to heaven, and came back to report on what he saw. It deals quite a bit with reincarnation, and how souls were assigned to various bodies and lifetimes. Certain sects of Judaism, particularly the more mystical and esoteric ones, teach reincarnation; they call it Gilgulim, which means the rounds of birth and death, like revolutions on a wheel.
We know that the doctrine of reincarnation was known and taught in Jesus’ day, by the way Jesus’ disciples asked him about the man who had been blind from birth: “Master, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9: 2). Just thinking about this passage logically, for yourself, shows that the disciples of Jesus must have been familiar with the doctrine of Gilgulim, or reincarnation; if the man himself had sinned, he must have sinned previously to his current birth in order to be born blind. Jesus deftly sidesteps the issue and replies that neither the blind man nor his parents sinned, but he was born that way so that the works of God may be made manifest in him, upon which Jesus proceeds to heal the man of his congenital blindness. The fact that Jesus did not take this opportunity to refute the doctrine of reincarnation, which his disciples had implicitly raised by their question, shows that, at the very least, Jesus was not opposed to this doctrine.
Reincarnation and the Pre-existence of the Soul
Where do souls come from? Are they generated on a daily basis, at the moment of conception? Are they calved off of a great World Soul in order to enter into fetuses in the womb? Did they descend from heaven, where they had forever been with God prior to being born? Or had they lived other lifetimes previous to the current conception and birth? These questions have occupied the minds of philosophers since remotest antiquity. In their zeal to attain eternal life, which they conceptualize as a happy hereafter in heaven, most Christians forget the simple fact that eternity extends infinitely backwards in time as well as infinitely forwards into the future. And so, the idea or doctrine of the pre-existence of the Soul before birth is the necessary prerequisite or foundation for the doctrine of reincarnation. The Bible says that man was created in the image of God (Genesis 1: 27). Part of that image of God that exists within man is his ability for conscious awareness, self reflection and self knowledge; could the other part of that image of God be eternal existence? Believing in reincarnation, or that the eternal life of the Soul extends infinitely backwards in time as well as infinitely forwards, takes man out of the realm of merely being a created being into being a full participant in the eternal life of God.
In the early days of Christianity there lived a great Christian philosopher and theologian; in fact, he was the first Christian to write a comprehensive, systematic treatise on Christian theology, which was entitled On First Principles. His name was Origen, or Origen of Alexandria, because he lived his early life in Alexandria, Egypt, which was a great center of Christian scholarship and learning in the first centuries of the Christian era. And Origen, an expert on biblical exegesis or interpretation, believed in and taught the doctrine of reincarnation. According to Origen, all souls are on an evolutionary journey back to God. Although most souls, in their wanderings through many lifetimes, gradually became cold to the divine ardor for God, there was one soul, Jesus Christ, who never grew cold, who never lost the fire of his divine ardor for God. Origen saw Jesus Christ as a divine catalyst who could greatly speed up a soul’s return journey back to God. According to Origen, God’s plan was to eventually redeem and reconcile all souls back to Him; there is the claim that Origen believed that even Satan himself would eventually be redeemed, although this claim is controversial and contested.
Jesus Teaches Reincarnation in the Gospels
Origen was regarded as one of the greatest theologians that Christianity has ever produced – yet he believed in and taught reincarnation. How could this be, when reincarnation is almost universally rejected by Christian theologians today? The answer is very clear and very simple: Jesus Christ himself taught reincarnation to his disciples. Consider the following Bible verses:
For all the prophets and the Law have prophesied until John. And if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah, who was to come. He that hath ears to hear, let him hear!
– Matthew 11: 13 – 15
A little later on, Jesus elaborates even further to drive home his point:
And the disciples asked him, saying, “Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” But he answered them and said, “Elijah indeed is to come, 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. So also shall the Son of Man suffer at their hand.” Then the disciples understood that he had spoken to them of John the Baptist.
– Matthew 17: 10 – 13
The Gospel of Mark is even shorter and more blunt:
But I say unto you, Elijah has come.
Mark 9: 13
Get the point? Jesus was plainly teaching his disciples that Elijah had reincarnated as John the Baptist. You don’t need to read anything into these passages; it’s there, as clear as day, in black and white. Yet modern Christian preachers and theologians, who claim to accept the Bible as the literal Word of God, will dance around these passages and go through all kinds of theological contortions in order to evade the plain truth – that Jesus teaches reincarnation right front and center, in the Christian gospels.
And Jesus’ teaching of reincarnation to his disciples doesn’t come out of nowhere; the return of the Old Testament prophet Elijah is foretold in the Book of Malachi, at the end of the Old Testament:
Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.
– Malachi 4: 5
The Gospel of Luke, also known as the Gentile Gospel because it was written by Luke, a Greek physician, is quite lengthy and elaborate in its pre-nativity narrative. This also includes the pre-nativity narrative of Jesus’ prophet and forerunner, John the Baptist:
But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your prayer is heard; and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth. For he will be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink. He will also be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. He will also 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: 13 – 17
Modern Christian theologians maintain that it was not the soul of Elijah who reincarnated as John the Baptist, and that John the Baptist was merely coming forth in the spirit and power of Elijah – in other words, following in the same prophetic path, and preaching the same kind of message. But it must be remembered that the word Spirit was used as a synonym for the human soul in ancient times, so the above passage could, after all, be referring to the reincarnation of Elijah as John the Baptist. A further clue is given in the episode of Mary’s visitation to the house of her cousin Elizabeth, then pregnant with the fetus of John the Baptist, right after the Annunciation:
And Mary arose in those days, and went into the hill country with haste, into a city of Juda; And entered into the house of Zacharias, and saluted Elizabeth. And it came to pass, that, when Elizabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost: And she spake out with a loud voice and said, Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For, lo, as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in mine ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy.
– Luke 1: 39 – 44
In this passage, Luke is plainly telling us of the great spiritual affinity between the souls of Jesus and John the Baptist, even while still in the wombs of their mothers. He might also be hinting that the reason for this great spiritual affinity is that these souls had known each other in past lives. John the Baptist, if we are to heed the teaching of Jesus, was the reincarnation of Elijah; then who was Jesus in his previous lifetime, to cause such great soul affinity? Jesus, according to those who believe in reincarnation, was Elijah’s disciple, Elisha, reincarnated. In other words, the old master, Elijah, had reincarnated as the prophet and forerunner of Jesus / Elisha, John the Baptist. Is this what Luke is hinting at in this passage?
John and Jesus: A Reincarnational Epic Spanning Two Testaments
As the episode of Mary’s visitation to the house of her cousin Elizabeth after the Annunciation suggests, Jesus and John the Baptist were twin souls who had a great spiritual affinity for one another. To the believer in reincarnation, the cause or genesis of this great affinity between the two souls, which was apparent even while in their mothers’ wombs, was due to the fact that Elijah, the great Old Testament prophet and spiritual master, was reincarnating as John the Baptist, whereas his disciple Elisha, who had himself attained spiritual mastery and liberation during his lifetime as Elisha, was reincarnating as Jesus. In an attitude of spiritual service and humility, Elijah, the former master and guru of Elisha, reincarnated as John the Baptist to serve as a prophet and forerunner for the arrival of his disciple, who was now reincarnating as Jesus. The great Indian yogi and spiritual teacher Paramahansa Yogananda summed up this divine and eternal relationship between master and disciple beautifully:
The relationship between Jesus and John was of a continuing journey together of two divine souls, begun in previous lifetimes… God’s plan was in evidence from the moment of conception of these two souls in the wombs of their earthly mothers, embodying them for their incarnations as John and Jesus. Even when still in the womb, their spirits recognized one another and communicated their everlasting fealty and love. – 1.
Someone like Yogananda, coming as he did from the Hindu tradition, in which reincarnation is still taught, can plainly see the reincarnational themes running through the lives of Elijah / John the Baptist and Elisha / Jesus as presented in the Christian Bible. On page 38 of his two volume masterpiece I quoted from above, The Second Coming of Christ: The Resurrection of the Christ Within You, Paramahansa Yogananda recounts how he listened to the reading and exegesis of the Christian Scriptures by his own guru, Swami Sri Yukteswar. According to Yogananda, the future return of Elijah and Elisha as John the Baptist and Jesus, respectively, was set up in their lifetimes as Elijah and Elisha, when Elisha was watching his spiritual master Elijah being taken up to heaven in a fiery chariot:
And it came to pass, when they were gone over, that Eijah said unto Elisha, Ask what I shall do for thee, before I be taken away from thee. And Elisha said, I pray thee, let a double portion of thy spirit be upon me. And he said, Thou hast asked a hard thing: nevertheless, if thou see me when I am taken from thee, it shall be so unto thee; but if not, it shall not be so.
– 2 Kings 2: 9 – 10
The following verses relate how Elisha did see Elijah as he was taken away in the fiery chariot, and how a double portion of Elijah’s spirit fell upon him. And so, Elisha became a spiritual master in his own right, and performed many mighty works for the remainder of his life as Elisha. The fact that Jesus, in his previous life as Elisha, had attained full spiritual mastery in that previous lifetime is evident in the encounter between Jesus and John the Baptist at the baptism of Jesus, when John the Baptist recognizes and defers to Jesus’ full spiritual power and glory. Jesus had been spiritually perfected in his previous lifetime as Elisha, and all that was needed to reactivate his previous spiritual mastery was a perfunctory initiation by John.
The eternal laws of reincarnation and Karma, or reaping what one sows, also played out in less fortunate or pleasant ways in the lives and destinies of Jesus and John the Baptist. Regarding the Law of Karma, or cause and effect, Jesus tells us that those who live by the sword shall die by the sword (Matthew 26: 52). Jesus told his disciples this because he had seen it play out in the life of Elijah / John the Baptist. John the Baptist, in his previous lifetime as Elijah, had slain the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18: 40). Although the negative karma he incurred through this mass slaughter did not come due during his previous lifetime as Elijah, the retribution that John the Baptist had to pay for the mass taking of life in his previous incarnation was to meet his own end by beheading in his lifetime as John the Baptist. This shows us how much the Law of Karma must be heeded and respected, even by a spiritual master like Elijah / John the Baptist.
When the priests and Levites sent from Jerusalem go out into the wilderness to ask John the Baptist who he was, whether or not he was the Messiah, or Elijah, John the Baptist denies that he is Elijah (John 1: 19 – 23). Modern Christian theologians often cite this as a biblical passage that disproves the doctrine of reincarnation. But put yourself in John’s shoes: If priests and Levites from the Jerusalem Temple, who were known to be collaborators with the Roman occupation of Judea, and constantly on the lookout for insurrectionists and troublemakers who were out to whip up crowds into a messianic frenzy, came to you asking who you were, wouldn’t you, in the simple instinct of self preservation, be inclined to deny things as to your true identity, or at least to frame things in very vague, cryptic terms, as John proceeds to do in the following verses? At the beginning of John’s gospel, John’s work as a forerunner for Jesus Christ had not yet finished or been fulfilled; in fact, at that point, he had not yet baptized Jesus, and still had plenty of spiritual work to do.
Passages Suggesting Reincarnation from the Old Testament
In the initial verses of the Book of Jeremiah, God tells Jeremiah that He knew him even before he was formed or conceived in the womb and set him apart for his prophetic mission:
Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee, and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.
– Jeremiah 1: 5
In this passage, God is plainly saying to Jeremiah that he, as Soul, existed before his birth as Jeremiah, and that God knew him in his existence prior to conception and birth. And as I said above, the pre-existence of the Soul is the prerequisite or foundational doctrine for reincarnation. And then, there is the famous story of Jacob and Esau:
The burden of the word of the Lord to Israel by Malachi. I hath loved you, saith the Lord. Yet ye say, Wherein hast thou loved us? Was not Esau Jacob’s brother? saith the Lord: yet I loved Jacob. And hated Esau, and laid his mountains and his heritage waste for the dragons of the wilderness. Whereas Edom saith, We are impoverished, but we will return and build the desolate places; thus saith the Lord of hosts, They shall build, but I will throw down; and they shall call them, The border of wickedness, and, The people against whom the Lord hath indignation forever. And your eyes shall see, and ye shall say, The Lord will be magnified from the border of Israel.
– Malachi 1: 1 – 5
In this passage from Malachi, it is clear that God, or the Lord, loves Jacob and hates Esau, but it isn’t clear exactly why this is so. And so, we must assume that the cause of this love for Jacob and hatred of Esau existed in a realm that was unknown to mortal man – and to the believer in reincarnation, that would be in the previous lifetimes of Jacob and Esau. Similarly, even children born to the same parents and raised in the same family environment can grow up to be very different, with one being good and lovable, and the other not so, for hidden reasons and causes that may not be clear to us. Indeed, no child comes into this world a totally blank slate; all of us had certain inclinations of personality and character even from our earliest years. Those who believe in reincarnation say that this is due to causes set up in previous lifetimes.
Early Church Fathers Weigh In On Reincarnation
In 553 AD, the Second Council of Constantinople was convened by the Roman Emperor Justinian. Although other matters of business were also taken care of at this church council, the teachings of Origen about reincarnation and the pre-existence of Souls was declared to be heresy and anathema at this church council. – 2. This was during the Byzantine era, a time of great dogmatic rigidity and fundamentalism for the emerging Christian Church. The Emperor Justinian wanted to close the door to all liberal interpretations of Christian doctrine and greatly strengthen the power and control of the priesthood over the lives of their flock of believers, and banning reincarnation was a good way to do that. But previous to the Second Council of Constantinople, Christians were free to believe in reincarnation if they so chose. Even early church fathers, some of them who are regarded today as the very pillars of Christian orthodoxy, wrote things that were very accepting and supportive of the doctrine of reincarnation. The first of these is Saint Augustine, or Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430 AD), who is best known for the doctrine of Original Sin:
The message of Plato, the purest and most luminous in all philosophy, has at last scattered the darkness of error, and now shines forth mainly in Plotinus, a Platonist so like his master that one would think they lived together, or rather – since so long a period of time separates them – that Plato is born again in Plotinus. – Augustine, Contra Academicos -3.
This was a perfectly reasonable hypothesis, albeit ultimately speculative, from an early Christian church father who was free to believe in reincarnation. The following quote by Saint Gregory of Nyssa (257 – 332 AD) puts the whole concept of reincarnation into therapeutic terms:
It is absolutely necessary that the soul should be healed and purified, and if this does not take place during its life on earth it must be accomplished in future lives. -4.
Doesn’t it make a lot more sense to believe in a just and loving God who is primarily interested in our healing and purification than it does to believe in a God who is so wrathful and unforgiving that He would be eager to condemn us to eternal damnation simply for not believing as He would like us to believe? You have to get to the root cause of things, and ultimately, the soul that is not healed and purified will continue to sin, and no amount of fear of God’s wrath will really hold this tendency in check.
Saint Jerome (340 – 420 AD), the author and translator of the Latin Vulgate Bible, gives us his brief synopsis of all the various theories of where souls came from that were popular in his day, including the theory of reincarnation, which he attributes to Pythagoras, Plato and Origen:
As to the origin of the soul, I remember the question of the whole church: whether it be fallen from heaven, as Pythagoras and the Platonists and Origen believe; or be of the proper substance of God, as the Stoics, Manicheans and Priscillian heretics of Spain believe; or whether they are kept in a repository formerly built by God, as some ecclesiastics foolishly believe; or whether they are daily made by God and sent into bodies… or whether by traduction, as Tertullian, Apollinarius, and the greater part of the Westerns believe, i.e., that as body from body so the soul is derived from the soul… -5.
Sola Scriptura? Christian Hypocrisy on Reincarnation
Among the newer Protestant and evangelical denominations of Christianity especially, there is the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, that Scripture alone is their sole authority in all doctrinal matters. We have already seen that Jesus himself taught his disciples openly about reincarnation, and how Elijah had reincarnated as John the Baptist – it’s right there in Scripture, right front and center in the gospels, and is undeniable to any reader of those passages who is really honest with himself. Yet these same Christian denominations that claim the Sola Scriptura doctrine will vehemently deny reincarnation, even though it is right there in their Bibles, as plain as day, taught by none other than Jesus Christ himself. This is proof positive that Scripture alone is not the sole authority in all doctrinal matters, not even for Christians who claim that it is. This is proof positive that not only Scripture, but also the rulings of church councils, like the Second Council of Constantinople, which banned reincarnation from Christianity, are also followed. At least the older Christian denominations, like Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy, are more accepting and acknowledging of ecclesiastical tradition and precedent in deciding doctrinal matters. All major denominations of Christianity today, be they Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox or whatever, follow the decisions and rulings of the Seven Great Ecumenical Councils, of which the Second Council of Constantinople, which officially banned reincarnation, is one.
The main so-called “proof text” that these hypocritical Christians use for asserting that reincarnation is not biblical is the following verse from the Epistle to the Hebrews:
And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment:
– Hebrews 9: 27
Yes, this verse does, at first glance, seem to deny the doctrine of reincarnation, but actually it doesn’t. The key word here is men, which denotes the outer man, and not the inner soul. Yes, as the man David Osborn I will die only once, and after my death as David Osborn, I will face a judgment, also known as a life review, which happens at the end of every lifetime lived. In truth, this biblical passage doesn’t disprove the doctrine of reincarnation at all. Or, if you feel that it does, it provides quite flimsy disproof, as contrasted with the very clear teachings of Jesus himself on the subject of reincarnation, right front and center in the gospels, which is supported by a variety of other passages from both the Old and New Testaments, as we have seen. If you go by the sheer weight and clarity of the evidence in Scripture, reincarnation clearly wins out.
Nothing in the ecclesiastical history of the Christian Church, in keeping with the general laws of historical development, happened overnight, or came out of nowhere; everything had its precedents and antecedents, which set the stage for what was to follow. And so it was with reincarnation. Christian theology, as it was developing even before the Second Council of Constantinople, was growing increasingly inhospitable to the doctrine of rebirth. And the main theological obstacle was the increasing exaltation of Jesus Christ to ever higher levels of divinity. A view that Jesus Christ was absolutely coequal and coeternal with God the Father as the second person of the Holy Trinity, which had been set forth at the Council of Nicea some two centuries previously, did not favor the idea that Jesus, like his mentor and forerunner John the Baptist, had been reincarnated. Being so exalted in his divinity, Jesus Christ must have come down straight from heaven. Reincarnation also seemed to minimize the importance and necessity of the Incarnation, and the sacrifice and atonement of Jesus on the cross at Calvary. The Second Council of Constantinople was merely the final closing of the door on reincarnation in Christianity, which made the church’s rejection of the doctrine official. When the Christian Scriptures were written, Christians were still free to believe in reincarnation.
So – can a Christian believe in reincarnation? I clearly believe that the answer is yes. Or, you can qualify things a bit, and say that it depends on what kind of a Christian you are. Are you a Christian who makes up his own mind on doctrinal matters after carefully weighing the Scriptural evidence, without fear or favor? If so, the answer is definitely yes. But if you are a Christian who sheepishly follows what your church or pastor says or wants you to believe, perhaps the answer would be no. At any rate, I hope that I have proven to you in this article that reincarnation definitely has a place within the Christian spiritual tradition. And so, it is up to you to weigh the evidence and see how reincarnation sits with you in terms of your spiritual conscience and life experience, and make your judgment accordingly. With reincarnation, at least there will be no firebrand pastor or Christian missionary threatening you with eternal damnation if you don’t believe. This is probably the single biggest difference between Christians who believe in reincarnation and those who don’t; the church’s main motive in banning reincarnation was for the priesthood to consolidate its power and control over their flock of believers via the threat of eternal hell fire and damnation. The Christian who believes in reincarnation accepts personal responsibility for his own moral actions and choices, and tends to see himself more as the captain of his ship, or the decider of his own fate.
- The Second Coming of Christ: The Resurrection of the Christ Within You, Volume I, by Paramahansa Yogananda, from overleaf to page 31. Copyright 2004 by Self Realization Fellowship, Los Angeles, California.
- Reincarnation: An East – West Anthology, compiled and edited by Joseph Head and S. L. Cranston, pp. 39 – 40. @ 1961 by Joseph Head and S. L. Cranston. Published by The Theosophical Publishing House, Wheaton, IL, USA.
- Ibid, pg. 38.
- Ibid, pg. 36.
- Ibid, pp. 37.