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  Wikipedia: Bible and reincarnation

Wikipedia: Bible and reincarnation
Bible and reincarnation
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

There is some dispute among Christians over whether the Bible allows for the possibility of reincarnation. Most Christian denominations reject the possibility, yet the Bible has verses that could be construed as both supporting and denying the concept of reincarnation.

The verse most commonly used to dispute reincarnation is Hebrews 9:27, which states that it is appointed to man to die once, and after that face judgment. The problem is that many churches base their opposition to reincarnation primarily on this single verse. Yet the authorship of the book of Hebrews is uncertain, and many people feel it is dangerous to base a church doctrine on a single verse.

People who have had Near Death experiences often report that they do in fact experience a "life review", but that the judgment comes from themselves. During this experience, they are allowed to experience their actions from the viewpoint of others who were affected by those actions, and in some cases to feel the emotions that were felt by those persons. So it could be said that after a person dies, they experience a form of judgment. Whether this is the same judgment referred to in Hebrews 9:27 is open to debate.

Also note that Hebrews 9:27 is only a problem when one believes in Biblical inerrancy. It is possible that the writer of Hebrews was expressing a personal belief, much as a bishop over a group of churches might today write a letter expressing certain personal theological beliefs to the churches in his sphere of influence. The author of Hebrews, whoever it may have been, may never have intended for his thoughts to be preached as ultimate truth for centuries to come. Hebrews is different from most other New Testament books (in part because it was apparently an apologetic directed toward people of the Jewish faith), so Hebrews 9:27 may have been intended only to refute a common Jewish belief of the time, that the soul ceases to exist after death.

At the same time, there are verses that some claim support reincarnation. Among these are:

  • Matthew 11:13-15, which some think indicate that Jesus said that John the Baptist was the reincarnation of Elijah the prophet. Note that this is an apparent contradiction with John 1:19-21, in which John the Baptist denies being either the Christ or Elijah the Prophet (he denies the latter both by name and title). However, just as most people have no memory of past lives, it's plausible that John was not aware of who he was in a previous life, but that Jesus had that knowledge. Another possibility is that even if John may have had some idea of who he was in a previous life, he nevertheless chose to answer the question in the most literal sense possible (he may have been Elijah in a past lifetime, but in that lifetime he was John), in order to avoid a confrontation with the priests and Levites that had been sent to ask the question.

  • Matthew 17:11-13, another reference by Jesus that equates John the Baptist with Elijah.

  • John 9:1-3, where the disciples observe a man who was born blind, and inquire of Jesus whether the man himself or his parents sinned, that he was born blind. The question implies that the man would have had some opportunity to sin prior to birth, which at least presupposes the pre-existence of the soul in a situation where there was free will and the ability to commit sin. Jesus replies that in this case neither the man nor his parents sinned, but he does not rebuke the disciples in any way for their belief that it would have been possible for the man to sin prior to birth.

  • Galatians 6:7 states that whatever one sows, that he will also reap. While some feel that this agrees with the idea of enforced karma, a basic tenet of some other religions that hold the belief in reincarnation, the subsequent verses seem to imply that this statement applies more to a single lifetime. In any case, those who attempt to use this verse to prove that the Bible endorses the concept of karma suffer the same burden as those who attempt to use Hebrews 9:27 to disprove reincarnation - it is the use of a single verse to support a belief, and in neither case is it a direct teaching of Jesus.

  • Jeremiah 1:4-5 says that the word of God came to Jeremiah, and said "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you..." This verse is also sometimes used by Christians as an objection to abortion.

In addition, Origen, an early Christian theologian that lived during the third century, wrote that "The soul has neither beginning nor end… [They] come into this world strengthened by the victories or weakened by the defeats of their previous lives" (De Principiis). This belief was not unique to Origen; many early Christians believed that the soul exists prior to the conception and birth of a person. In AD 553, more than three hundred years after Origen's death, the Emperor Justinian issued an edict against Origen, and convinced the Pope to convene the Second Council of Constantinople (which the Pope then refused to attend). This Council issued "The Anathemas Against Origen" (an "anathema" is an offense worthy of excommunication and damnation). The first sentence reads, "IF anyone asserts the fabulous pre-existence of souls, and shall assert the monstrous restoration which follows from it: let him be anathema."

The Anathemas Against Origen not only suppressed the teachings of Origen within the Church, but also any teaching supportive of Origen's views on the pre-existence of the soul. Anyone espousing such beliefs could be excommunicated from the Church, or worse. The taboo against belief in pre-existence or reincarnation survived the reformation, and to this day few Christian denominations embrace the possibility that a soul might exist through multiple lifetimes.

Strangely enough, for a doctrine that so few Christian denominations espouse, it is interesting that most Christian apologists feel the need to attempt to refute this belief. And in many cases, they do so by claiming that the verses that appear to support the idea of reincarnation are taken out of context, while apparently applying a different standard to verses that appear to deny the possibility. Unfortunately, the practice of taking verses out of context (and sometimes, stringing unrelated verses together in a way that makes them appear related) to prove a favored belief or disprove someone else's belief is nothing new to Christianity.

Some think that the Jewish belief in "resurrection" could have been nearly synonymous with reincarnation.

Another theory of reincarnation

It should be noted that a belief in reincarnation does not in and of itself disprove the existence of heaven, hell, or a final judgment. There are a number of small children who have reported having memories of past lives prior to their present life, and some also report being able to recall a time between lives (see books by Dr. Ian Stevenson, Carol Bowman, and Elisabeth Hallett). In some cases these children have also reported being in a place like heaven between lives, and sometimes that they were given some degree of choice as to whether and when to be reborn, and even in selecting their future parents.

Some of these children have indicated that being reborn is not necessarily a punishment for past bad "karma", but rather an opportunity for a soul to grow spiritually. Certainly, additional lifetimes would give individual souls a greater opportunity to accomplish more for God, if that is a person's goal, and to develop better character traits.

Some Christians object to reincarnation because they believe it is not compatible with the idea of salvation through Jesus. But another view would be that Jesus' death on the cross freed Christian believers from the necessity to reincarnate if they do not wish to do so. In any case, reincarnation might simply delay a person's ultimate destiny - even religions that believe in reincarnation do not believe that a person continues to reincarnate indefinitely.

There are those who feel that after Constantine made Christianity the state religion in 360 AD, Christianity became tainted with elements of Paganism. After that, the church began to select acceptable doctrines based in part on what would cause the church (and its leaders) to have the greatest influence in society. If someone believed that they had multiple lifetimes to gain favor with God, they might not be as inclined to obey the church teachings, or to serve the church leaders. On the other hand, if people could be convinced that they had but one lifetime to "get it right", and that eternal punishment in hell awaited those who failed to heed the teachings of the church, they would be more inclined to do whatever the church leaders expected of them, including supporting the church financially. It therefore would not come as any surprise that a church that had strayed from the original teachings of Jesus would emphasize doctrines that increased the amount of control that the church had over its members.

So there is the theory that reincarnation is not incompatible with Christianity, but was suppressed by the church in order to increase the power and influence of that institution. The texts that offered the greatest support to official church doctrine were made part of biblical canon; those that tended to reduce the influence of the church were declared as heresy.

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