By Richard G. Howe
(Originally printed in the January/February 1996 Issue of the MCOI Journal)
No doubt, some in our society today find the doctrine of reincarnation to be strange, at best; and false, at worst. In Christian circles, especially, reincarnation is looked upon as heretical. Many Christians, without being able to articulate the subtle differences between other faiths that embrace reincarnation and their own Christian faith, nevertheless sense an incompatibility. But there are those who do believe that reincarnation is true. There are even those who believe that reincarnation is compatible with Christianity. Some even suggest that reincarnation used to be taught within Christian circles and that it is tacitly in the Bible.
Joe Fisher is the author of the book The Case for Reincarnation (New York: Bantam New Age Books, 1985). In it he defends, from a variety of angles, the doctrine of reincarnation. In this issue I want to respond to one of those angles.
Fisher’s arguments are not unlike the way many New Agers try to use the Bible to defend a New Age view of reality. Interestingly, in chapter seven entitled “The Lost Chord of Christianity,” Fisher seeks to advance the notion that the doctrine of reincarnation is compatible with the Bible. Fisher’s arguments and conclusions are not uncommon within New Age circles. To the frustration of many Christians, New Agers often try to argue that their New Age beliefs are compatible with the Bible.
While admitting that there is a disparity between reincarnation and present day Christianity, Fisher argues that this should not be, and once was not the case. In chapter seven of his book, Fisher defends the thesis that reincarnation was a doctrine of the early Christian church. In the first section of this chapter, he asserts that reincarnation was accepted and taught by early church fathers and treasured by “Christian Gnostics.” (p. 66),1 He discusses Origen’s beliefs and Constantine’s role in sowing the “seeds of reincarnation’s banishment.” (p. 67)
My concern here is not so much whether reincarnation is true or false (though I believe it to be false), but whether reincarnation was originally a Biblical doctrine as Fisher asserts. My argument is that the Bible in no way teaches reincarnation, neither explicitly nor implicitly. Therefore, it behooves us to examine Fisher’s treatment of the biblical testimony to see if his arguments are sound.
A Critique of Fisher’s Argument Rebirth vs. Reincarnation
Fisher begins his argument with a fallacy of circular reasoning in the first paragraph of the section “Biblical Testimony.” Consider his first two sentences:
“Confirmation that reincarnation is the lost chord of Christianity . . . can be found in the pages of the Bible. While the Old and New Testaments hardly trumpet the belief from the rooftops, there are numerous references to rebirth in both books.” (p. 71)
While no Christian would argue that there are references to rebirth in the Bible, it does not follow that these references to rebirth are a confirmation of reincarnation. Fisher has not made his case that the doctrine of rebirth in the Bible and the notion of rebirth in the doctrine of reincarnation are the same. To merely assume they are the same is to beg the question.
Indeed, the Biblical doctrine of rebirth and the notion of rebirth in the doctrine of reincarnation most certainly are not the same-thing. In reincarnation, rebirth is a physical event in which a soul is born into one body after another. But, according to the Bible, rebirth is a spiritual event in which a lost man (i.e. one who is morally separated from God by sin) is given a new relationship with God on the basis of the sacrifice of Christ. (2 Corinthians 5:17) It is clearly contrasted with physical birth by Jesus in His dialogue with Nicodemus in John 3:1-12. (See also Titus 3:5: John 1:12-13; Ephesians 2:4-6: 4:24.)
Jesus on Reincarnation
Fisher claims that several of the most explicit statements about reincarnation are made by Jesus Christ, (p. 72). The first of these is Jesus’ affirmation of His own preexistence when He said: “Before Abraham was, I am.” (John 8:58) Fisher employs a non-sequitur that is common among reincarnationists. (A non-sequitur is when the conclusion of an argument does not logically follow from the premises of the argument.) Fisher erroneously concludes that since Jesus preexisted, therefore, He must have been reincarnated. But preexistence does not necessitate reincarnation. Some religions, e.g., Mormonism, accept preexistence and yet deny reincarnation.
A more thorough examination of the Bible reveals that the reason Jesus Christ was preexistent is because He is God and, therefore, eternal. (Cf. John 1:1, 14; Micah 5:2; Philippians 2:5-8: Colossians 1:15-17; 1 Timothy 3:16; Hebrews 13:8; Revelation 1:11) Indeed. His claim “I am” is a direct affirmation of Deity, and the Jews understood it as such. (John 8:58) This expression was well recognized by the Jews because this was the name God gave to Himself. (Exodus 3:14)
Another of Jesus’ supposed “explicit statements” according to Fisher, involves Jesus’ refusal to challenge the disciples’ thinking regarding the man born blind in John 9:1-3. The verses read: “Now as Jesus passed by, He saw a man who was born blind from birth. And His disciples asked Him, saying, “Rabbi, who sinned this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him.”
Fisher asserts that the disciples clearly were attributing prenatal existence to the blind man. (p. 72) But why is it problematic that the disciples attributed prenatal existence to him? Is prenatal existence something that those who reject reincarnation should reject? Certainly not. “Prenatal” only means ”before birth.” Could it be the case that humans exist before birth if the doctrine of reincarnation is not true? Definitely, yes. Everyone exists prenatally in the womb before they are born.
The disciples thought that the man was born blind either because of his own sins or the sins of his parents. (Exodus 20:5) Among the various views of the Jews at that time was the belief that one could sin in the womb. Genesis 25:22 was quoted to support this. Since, in general, sin was regarded to be a direct cause of physical maladies, then it was not unusual to ask whose sin caused the man’s blindness.2 This perfectly explains the text. But Fisher doesn’t stop there. He shifts concepts in the middle of his argument. Consider these statements:
“Although the disciples were clearly attributing prenatal existence to the blind man, Christ does nothing to correct or dispel this presupposition as he goes on to prepare a salve that restores the man’s sight. By refusing to challenge the disciples’ thinking, Jesus acknowledges the fact of preexistence with its undeniable implication of reincarnation.” (p. 72)
Notice the change. He moves from “prenatal existence” to “preexistence.” The difference is critical. Prenatal means nothing more than ‘before birth.’ Certainly, everyone has existed in the womb before birth. This fact has nothing to do with reincarnation. ‘Preexistence’ means ‘to exist before the conception of the body in the womb.’ The shift is subtle and tragic. Fisher concludes, from the fact that humans exist in the womb ‘before birth’ that we must have existed before our conception. But this does not follow. On the basis of prenatal existence, we can conclude nothing about preexistence.
Furthermore, as has already been shown, reincarnation most certainly is not an undeniable implication of preexistence. For a person to exist before his body exists does not necessarily entail his existence after his body dissolves, much less does it entail reincarnation into another body.
Far from being an “explicit statement,” Jesus’ response to the disciples actually flies in the face of reincarnation dogma. For, if the man had actually been reincarnated, then his “sin” would most certainly have been the cause of his blindness. According to reincarnation, what you do in one life affects your state in a subsequent life. Thus, what your state is in this life will have everything to do with what you did in a previous life. This is the Law of Karma. In the preface to Fisher’s book, the Dalai Lama of Tibetan Buddhism states: “It [reincarnation] is related to the theory of interdependent origination and to the law of cause and effect.” (emphasis added) Thus, if it were the case that the man had been reincarnated from a previous existence, then Jesus could not have argued that his blindness was not the man’s own fault. But, since Jesus argued that the man was not to blame for his own blindness, then it must be the case that the man was not reincarnated.
The last of Jesus’ supposed statements of reincarnation, according to Fisher, involves the relationship of John the Baptist to the prophet Elijah. I will deal with that argument at the end.
Paul on Reincarnation
Next, Fisher deals with Paul’s statement in Galatians 6:7: “whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” Fisher says that Paul here “hints strongly at rebirth because one life is plainly insufficient for a perfect balancing of accounts.” (p. 72) But the truth is that a “balancing of accounts” is not even the issue of this verse. The verse says that one will reap what one sows, not that there is some sort of balancing of accounts.
Furthermore, there is no reason to think that Paul is “hinting” at anything. It is clear that Paul is quite unambiguous on this matter. He goes on to say in verse eight: “For he who sows to his flesh will, of the flesh, reap corruption; but he who sows to the Spirit will, of the Spirit, reap everlasting life.”
In no uncertain terms, Paul declares his belief in resurrection, not reincarnation: “. . .knowing that He who raised up the Lord Jesus will also raise us up with Jesus, and will present us with you.” (2 Corinthians 4:14). . . “So also is the resurrection of the dead. The body is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption.” (1 Corinthians 15:42) . . . “But, if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.” (Romans 8:11)
Another statement from Paul that Fisher examines is from Romans 9. Surprisingly, Fisher quotes references to Jacob and Esau as examples of rebirth. The verses read: “For the children not yet being born, nor having done any good or evil,… As it is written, Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated” (Romans 9:11, 13; Malachi 1:2, 3)
Is the implication here that God could not love someone before that person was born unless that person preexisted? (Even though, as I’ve argued above, preexistence is not necessarily related to reincarnation.) Whether that is true, Fisher never defends nor even addresses. But, there is no need to appeal to a doctrine of preexistence or reincarnation to explain God’s prior love for persons. If God is an eternal being (i.e., if God transcends time and space), then it is possible for Him to act toward those things that are future. If God is beyond time then it would be possible for Him to love someone who does not yet exist.3 Furthermore, far from supporting reincarnation, the verses actually are quite contrary to it. How could it be said about anyone who had preexisted and then reincarnated that he had not done any-good or evil? The fact that Jacob and Esau had not done any good or evil must be because they never existed until their birth.
The Case of John the Baptist
There are several verses that reincarnationists appeal to in order to argue that John the Baptist was the reincarnation of Elijah. For example: “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. Then Jesus answered and said unto them, “But I say unto you that Elijah has come already; then the disciples understood that He spoke to them of John the Baptist.” (Matthew 11:13-14; 17:11-13) On the surface, these verses may seem to allow for the belief that John the Baptist was, indeed, the reincarnation of Elijah. However, upon closer examination, this conclusion will not stand for at least two main reasons. First, there are logical problems with the position (in light of other things we know from the Bible about Elijah); and second, there are textual problems in which Fisher ignores relevant verses that contradict his views and explain the true meaning of these verses.
1) Logical Problems
The first logical problem with Fisher’s view that John the Baptist is Elijah reincarnated is that it is impossible for John the Baptist (or anyone else) to be Elijah reincarnated, for Elijah never did “disincarnate” in the first place. The fact of the matter is that Elijah could never reincarnate because he never died.
Then it happened, “. . . as they continued on and talked, that suddenly a chariot of fire appeared with horses of fire, and separated the two of them [Elijah and Elisha]; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.” (2 Kings 2:11)
Whatever else might be said about reincarnation, one thing that seems certain is that death is a prerequisite for it. My argument here maintains that Elijah’s soul never did leave his physical body. It is entirely consistent with the Bible’s doctrine of the afterlife to maintain that what happened to Elijah was that his body was transformed into an incorruptible, albeit physical, body. Thus, John the Baptist could not be the reincarnation of Elijah because Elijah still has his own original physical body.
A second logical problem for Fisher’s view is found in Mark 9:2, 4 which took place after the time of John the Baptist’s death: “Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John, and led them up on a high mountain apart by themselves and He was transfigured before them. And Elijah appeared to them with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus.”
The reincarnationist is hard pressed to explain how Elijah could have appeared on the Mount of Transfiguration if he, beforehand, had already reincarnated into John the Baptist. Are we to suppose that after reincarnating into John the Baptist he then reincarnated back into Elijah? It would seem that a more reasonable position would be to reject the notion that John the Baptist is the reincarnation of Elijah.
2) Textual Problems
Several relevant texts pose problems for Fisher’s view that John the Baptist is Elijah reincarnated. First, John the Baptist explicitly denied being Elijah when asked. John 1:19-21 says:
“Now this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?? He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed. ‘I am not the Christ.’ And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?* He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the Prophet?’ And he answered. ‘No.'”
Neither should we entertain the notion that because the priests and Levites asked John the Baptist if he was Elijah they, therefore, considered it a possibility that he was Elijah reincarnated. It was perfectly within the realm of possibility, in their worldview, that John the Baptist was, literally, Elijah returned from heaven. Thus, even if John the Baptist admitted to being Elijah, there is no reason to suppose that any reincarnation look place.
A second reference that nullifies Fisher’s view does so by clarifying the relationship of John the Baptist with Elijah. If John the Baptist is not Elijah reincarnated how, then, are we to understand verses such as these from Matthew 11 and 17? How are we to reconcile Jesus’ claim that John the Baptist is Elijah with John’s denial that he is Elijah?
There is no doubt that John the Baptist “is Elijah who is to come,” but this claim about John the Baptist is not without qualifications. Notice Jesus said that John the Baptist was Elijah “if you are willing to receive it.” In what sense, then, was John the Baptist Elijah? Whatever the sense, it had to be a way in which the disciples needed to be “willing to receive it.” The answer is revealed in the scripture itself. Luke 1:17 tells us exactly in what sense John the Baptist is Elijah: “He will also go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah. . . to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (emphasis added)
The sense in which John the Baptist is Elijah had everything to do with the mission and ministry John the Baptist was given to fulfill. That mission was to prepare the nation Israel for the coming of her Messiah. That was why Jesus said “if you are willing to receive it.” It was imperative that the disciples and the whole nation know and make ready for the Messiah. Thus, Jesus was in no way teaching that John the Baptist was the reincarnated Elijah but, rather, that John the Baptist was fulfilling the ministry of Elijah by being the forerunner of Israel’s Messiah.
My argument in this issue has not been to show that reincarnation is a false doctrine. Rather, I have argued that the Bible does not assume nor declare the doctrine of reincamation.4 Instead, it offers the hope of the resurrection. Jesus himself said in John 5:26-29:
“For as the Father has life in Himself, so He has granted the Son to have life in Himself, and to execute judgment also, because lie is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this for the hour is coming in which all who arc in the graves will hear His voice and come forth those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.”
The Midwest Christian Outreach Inc. Journal would like to thank Richard G. Howe, President of
The Issachar Institute, Inc.. for untangling our “Spiders Web” in this issue. This article was reprinted, with permission, from the Nov.’95 issue of The Issachar Institute Newsletter. P.O. Box 241583. Charlotte, NC 28224
Endnotes: 1) All page numbers refer to Fisher’s book unless otherwise noted 2} See Wiliam Barclay, The Gospel According to John, The Westminster Press, 1975, Vol-2, pgs 37 38. 3) For a defense of this notion see Eleonor Stump and Norman Kretzmann’s article “Eternity” in The Journal of Philosophy 78, August 1981, p.429- 458 4) For further Christian critique of reincarnation see Mark Albrecht. Reincarnation: A Christian Appraisal (Downers Grove, IL, Intervarsity Press, 1982); Norman L. Geisler and J. Yutka Amano, The Reincarnation Sensation, (Wheaton, IL; Tyndale House Publishers, 1986); Gary Habermas and J.P. Moreland, Immortality: The Other Side of Death (Nashville, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1992); and Robert A Morey, Reincarnation and Christianity:; (Minneapolis, Bethany Fellowship Inc, 1980)