Friday, August 28, 2009

Is reincarnation taught in the Scriptures? (part 1)

This is a topic that gets brought up from time to time by New Agers and gnostics - the assertion that Jesus Christ and the early Christians believed and taught reincarnation. Anyone who really knows the Scriptures and understands their cultural context will balk at this assertion and rightly find it laughable; as far as I know, I have only written on reincarnation on this blog once before. This time I am going to go through some of the verses in the Scriptures brought forward by New Agers which they claim point to reincarnation and debunk these ridiculous claims.

The most popular (indeed, almost the only) Scripture brought forth in support of reincarnation is from Matthew 17, where Jesus is speaking to the disciples about how John the Baptist is the Elijah that was prophesied to prepare the way for the Messiah:

The disciples asked him, "Why then do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?" Jesus replied, "To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things. But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands." Then the disciples understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist (Matt. 17:10-13).

The claim is that Jesus is here saying that John the Baptist was the reincarnation of the Prophet Elijah, since Jesus says that Elijah "comes" but has also "already come", we are led to conclude that John the Baptist must be the literal Elijah reincarnated.

A very cursory reading of Scripture is enough to debunk this, for it is clear that Jesus is not saying John in the literal Elijah returned to earth - rather, he is one who comes, as St. Luke tells us, "in the spirit and power of Elijah" (Luke 1:17). The Book of Malachy has prophesied the coming of "Elijah" before the Day of the Lord, and St. Luke and St. Matthew tell us that it was John the Baptist who fulfilled this prophecy by coming in the "spirit" of Elijah - that is, by taking up Elijah's ministry.

But advocates of reincarnation will say that the words of St. Luke, that John came "in the spirit and power of Elijah", should be taken in the sense that the literal spirit/soul of Elijah and his very life force ("power") entered John, and thus John truly is a reincarnated Elijah.

This is what we fall into when we attempt to read the Scriptures in the light of other cultural or religious vocabulary that are foreign to the Judaic-Christian context. In the Old Testament, the "spirit" is always something from God that comes upon the prophet or anointed one in order to fulfill a certain mission - it is rarely taken to mean a literal soul of a person, and if it does, the context is clear.

Consider the famous passage of the Messiah from Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me; because the LORD hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound; To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD, and the day of vengeance of our God (Is. 61:1-2).

In the case of the Messiah, this Spirit is the Holy Spirit of God, which quite literally comes upon Him at His baptism and flows from Him by virtue of His divine nature and union with the Father. But in the case of other, human prophets such as David, Ezekiel, Isaiah, etc., the spirit that the Bible refers to is a spirit of prophecy given by God, and in this sense "spirit" can be equated with "power", just as it is in St. Luke's Gospel when he mentions "the spirit and power of Elijah." The "spirit" that comes upon these men is a divine power from God that gives them the ability to perform whatever task God calls them to. Some examples:

The book of Judges says of the Judge Othniel: And the Spirit of the LORD came upon him, and he judged Israel, and went out to war: and the LORD delivered Chushanrishathaim king of Mesopotamia into his hand; and his hand prevailed against Chushanrishathaim (Jud. 3:10).

And of Gideon: But the Spirit of the LORD came upon Gideon, and he blew a trumpet; and Abiezer was gathered after him (Jud. 6:34).

And of Samson, whose mighty power came from God's Spirit: And the Spirit of the LORD came mightily upon him, and he rent [the lion] as he would have rent a kid, and [he had] nothing in his hand: but he told not his father or his mother what he had done (Jud. 14:6).

In the case of King Saul, we see the spirit being poured out upon him to work the gift of prophesy:

And when they came thither to the hill, behold, a company of prophets met him; and the Spirit of God came upon him, and he prophesied among them (1 Sam. 10:10).

But to get back to the case in point, Elijah, we see that not only is the spirit poured out upon him for the gift of prophesy and the working of miracles, but that this spirit is transferable. Here is the account of the taking of Elijah in 2 Kings 2 (notice the function of the Spirit of the Lord):

And it came to pass, when they were gone over, that Elijah 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."

And it came to pass, as they still went on, and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. And Elisha saw it, and he cried, "My father, my father, the chariot of Israel, and the horsemen thereof!" And he saw him no more: and he took hold of his own clothes, and rent them in two pieces. He took up also the mantle of Elijah that fell from him, and went back, and stood by the bank of Jordan; And he took the mantle of Elijah that fell from him, and smote the waters, and said, "Where is the LORD God of Elijah?" and when he also had smitten the waters, they parted hither and thither: and Elisha went over. And when the sons of the prophets which were to view at Jericho saw him, they said, "The spirit of Elijah doth rest on Elisha." And they came to meet him, and bowed themselves to the ground before him.
(2 Kings. 2:9-15).

The spirit of Elijah was passed on to Elisha as his successor. In verse 15 the prophets say plainly that Elisha now possessed the "spirit of Elijah." This helps us to further understand the words of St. Luke about St. John the Baptist coming in the "spirit of Elijah." It is the power and authority of Elijah that is passed on, not his literal spirit in the sense of a soul. If John the Baptist is the reincarnation of Elijah because it says John came in his "spirit and power," then Elisha would have to be a reincarnation of him as well, since he, too, had the "spirit of Elijah." But ths is nonsense because (1) Elisha and Elijah were contemporaries and neither could be reincarnation of the other, and (2) Elijah never died, so even if reincarnation was possible, it would not be possible in his case since he was taken alive from the earth.

Another verse brought up occasionally is Matthew 26:52, in which Jesus says,

"Whoever lives by the sword will die by the sword."

The argument is that since not everybody who takes up the sword literally dies by the sword (some violent men survive and live to an old age or die naturally), the import of Jesus' words must be that these men will die by the sword in another life - i.e., they will be reincarnated, and then die by the sword in their new reincarnated existence. I found this argument on a website attempting to prove reincarnation is biblical.

Well, I'm not going to waste much time refuting this one, save to say that nobody has ever interpreted Jesus' words here in a strictly literal sense; i.e., that every single person who lives a violent life or lives by the sword will literally die violently. Jesus is not giving us a literal, theological truth but is uttering a proverb. Proverbs are pithy sayings that usually impart some common sense about an issue and are generally true.

Another example of a proverb is "A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger" (Prov. 15:1). As a rule of thumb, this is generally true: gentle words are more effective in defusing volatile situations than harsh ones - but there may be exceptions, and certain angry persons may be just as outraged by a gentle word than an angry one. But the Scriptures are not asserting this proverb to be universally absolutely applicable in all situations - they are merely giving us a common sense statement that, if we live by, will make us more godly.

In the same sense, Jesus is telling us that, as a rule, violent people meet violent ends. This is certainly true - those who make their living by violence tend to eventually run afoul of somebody more powerful or violent than them and come to a bloody end. But there are certainly exceptions, like King David, for example, who lived his whole life by the sword but died peacefully in his bed. If we simply understand that Jesus is giving us a proverb and not a absolute theological dogma in the narrow sense, His words to St. Peter can be easily understood without having recourse to reincarnation to explain them.

These two texts about John the Baptist and living by the sword provide very weak arguments for reincarnation. Ironically, there is a string of verses in the Bible that, taken out of context, could be used to support reincarnation much more soundly than either of the ones quoted above. These verses are found in the Book of Wisdom, and I have never seen them quoted in support of reincarnation - probably because those who argue in favor of a biblical case for reincarnation are themselves ignorant of much of the Bible. But, it's best to deal with it any way so this stupid but popular New Age assertion can be put to rest.

We'll follow up with the Book of Wisdom in part 2.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I checked out that website that tries to prove reincarnation is part of the bible. all I have to say about it is "ugh, someone get me a basin before I throw up!"