No serious Christian wishes to be “carried about with divers and strange doctrines,”1 but rather to be established in “the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.”2 Therefore our purpose in this brief study will be to determine if, in good conscience, a Christian may believe in reincarnation.
Reincarnation-also known as the transmigration of souls-is not some exotic idea of non-Christian mysticism. In ancient orthodox Jewish and Christian writings, as well as the Holy Scriptures, we can find reincarnation as a fully developed belief, although today it is commonly ignored.
A Catholic Cardinal Speaks
Just what do we mean by reincarnation? Cardinal Mercier (1851-1926) of the Roman Catholic Church, an eminent scholar and theologian of the conservative Christian Tradition, in his book Psychologie gives this definition of three views of reincarnation: “Under the term Wiedermenschwerdung, metempsychosis, or the transmigration of souls, a great variety of ideas may be understood: either a series of repetitions of existence under the twofold condition that the soul maintains consciousness of its personality and that there is a final unit in the series of transmigrations; or a series of repetitions of existence without any final unit, and yet with the presupposition that the soul maintains consciousness of its personality; or, finally, an endless series of repetitions of existence with the loss of consciousness of personal identity….So far as concerns the first assumption, we do not see that reason, if left to itself, would declare this to be impossible or certainly false.”
Three Views Of Reincarnation
Perhaps that heavy nineteenth century prose should be restated, though I did want to give you the Cardinal’s exact words so you would know I was not putting a forced interpretation on them. What the Cardinal indicates is this: there are three possible beliefs about reincarnation: (1) that there is an immortal soul which goes from birth to birth until it attains salvation, which ends the rebirth process, (2) that the immortal soul is reborn eternally with no ending of rebirth, and (3) that there is no immortal soul, but only a kind of force or energy which keeps creating a chain of rebirths. In A Manual of Modern Scholastic Philosophy, Cardinal Mercier again enumerates the three views on reincarnation and this time states that the first view “cannot be shown either to be impossible or even to be false” (I, 326).
A Public Teaching?
But what about reincarnation as a public teaching? Being a persecuted religion for three centuries, the Church barely salvaged the Holy Scriptures from the ravages of her persecutors. Many books referred to by early writers as being widely used by the Church have vanished. Even the book of Enoch, quoted by Saint Jude in his epistle (v. 14), is no more; nor is the book of Jasher, mentioned in Joshua (10:13) and Second Samuel (1:18).
A Jewish Belief
Reincarnation is commonly represented in the West as being an exclusively Hindu or Buddhist belief, but it is not. Reincarnation is a tenet of orthodox Judaism, wherein it is called gilgul or ha’atakah, and was so at the time of Christ, and automatically passed over into Christian theology.
The Jewish philosopher, Philo Judaeus, whose lifespan included that of Christ, wrote in detail about reincarnation as a normal belief, but a brief quote should suffice: “The air is full of souls; those who are nearest to earth descending to be tied to mortal bodies return to other bodies, desiring to live in them.”3 These words, which speak of souls returning to many earthly births from their desire to do so, are reminiscent of Solomon’s words about his own ancient, cosmic past: “The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his way, before his works of old….from the beginning, or ever the earth was….Then I was by him, as one brought up with him: and I was daily his delight, rejoicing always before him; rejoicing in the habitable part of his earth; and my delights were with the sons of men.”4
The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, nearly a contemporary of Christ, recorded that both the Essenes and the Pharisees believed in rebirth (not in the resurrection of the physical body as is presently thought). The Pharisees, he tells us, “say that all the souls are incorruptible, but the souls of good men only, are removed into other bodies, but the souls of bad men are subject to punishments lasting for ages.” That is, the good quickly reincarnate to work out their destined return to God, whereas the wicked undergo great sufferings in the other world, only getting the chance to return to the earth for further spiritual hope after the lapse of ages. He himself in a speech to some Jewish soldiers, said: “Do ye not remember that all pure spirits when they depart out of this life obtain a most holy place in heaven, from whence in the revolution of ages, they are again sent into pure bodies?”5 Note that he says: “Do ye not remember?” indicating that they had been taught reincarnation previously.
Solomon And Job Speak
The above words of Josephus regarding the righteous spirits being sent into pure bodies after periods in heaven are an echo of further words of Solomon: “For I was a witty [wise] child, and had a good spirit. Yea rather, being good, I came into a body undefiled.”6
And Job had said: “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither.”7 Later on, Job expressed his conviction that he would be reborn on earth to behold the days of the Messiah. “For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: and though after my skin, worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God: Whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not another.”8> Although these words are commonly interpreted as referring to the end of the world and the resurrection of the physical body, an examination of the context of these words will show otherwise.
Rabbi Simeon ben Jochai
Rabbi Simeon ben Jochai, a contemporary of the Apostles, wrote: “All souls are subject to the trials of transmigrations; and men do not know the designs of the Most High with regard to them;…They do not know how many transformations and mysterious trials they must undergo; how many souls and spirits come to this world without returning to the palace of the divine king.” These words, especially the reference about reincarnating souls not returning to “the palace of the divine king” are echoed in the Revelation of Saint John wherein the Lord Jesus says: “Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out.”9 But Rabbi Simeon continues: “The souls must reenter the absolute substance whence they have emerged. But to accomplish this end they must develop all the perfections, the germ of which is planted in them; and if they have not fulfilled this condition during one life, they must commence another, a third, and so forth, until they have acquired the condition which fits them for reunion with God.”10 Once again, these words regarding a series of successive births for the purpose of attaining spiritual perfection are not just his own, but tie in with the inspired words of the book of Job: “”Lo, all these things worketh God oftentimes with man, to bring back his soul from the pit, to be enlightened with the light of the living.”11
“Fathers” And “Sons”
Also in keeping with the above are the symbolic words spoken by God Himself-words which, when misunderstood, have caused many to call them unjust: “The Lord is longsuffering, and of great mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression, and by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation.”12
In the most basic meaning, a “father” is a physical body which engenders other bodies. Thus, according to the mystical interpretation, “fathers” means our previous lives and bodies, the failures of which necessitate our being reborn in further bodies, which thereby are the “children” of those prior bodies. For they are engendered by the necessity for the workings of divine justice, which visits on these subsequent body “children” the iniquities of the original, “father” bodies. The prophet Ezekiel spoke of this phenomenon in this way: “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”13 We will consider the “how” of this later on in the explanation which Saint Paul gives in the New Testament.
This verse also gives a right perspective on karma and rebirth. They are never intended as punishment. We are plainly told that “the Lord is longsuffering, and of great mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression.” Therefore there can be no question of God being angry or holding a grudge against us for any actions, however negative. Rather, as a loving and merciful Father He “forgives” us without our even asking for it. But there is a law whose execution is necessary for our spiritual development: the law of karma and rebirth. And we are not exempted (cleared) from its fulfillment, for that would not be mercy or forgiveness but harmful indulgence. The abrogation of a law that benefits us would be detrimental to us. God loves us too much for that.
Rabbi Manaseh ben Israel
Our final witness to the stand of orthodox Judaism is the great Rabbi Manaseh ben Israel, who in the seventeenth century single-handedly obtained the repeal of the banning of Jews from England. In his book, Nishmath Hayem, he writes: “The belief of the doctrine of the transmigration of souls is a firm and infallible dogma accepted by the whole assemblage of our church with one accord, so that there is none to be found who would dare to deny it….Indeed, there are a great number of sages in Israel who hold firm to this doctrine so that they made it a dogma, a fundamental point of our religion. We are therefore in duty bound to obey and accept this dogma with acclamation…as the truth of it has been demonstrated by the Zohar, and all books of the Kabalists.”
A Jewish Prayer
Today, after a private recitation of the Song of Songs, an orthodox Jew recites the following in a prayer: “…May we attain to that place from which all spirits and souls have come forth, and may we be credited with having fulfilled all that we have been charged to accomplish, whether in this incarnation or in another incarnation, and to be among those who ascend and merit the world to come together with the other saints and righteous….”14
Right away, in the New Testament, we encounter the subject of reincarnation. The Apostles believed that Jesus was the Messiah, but they had one doubt. In the book of Malachi there was the prophecy: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.”15 If Jesus was the Messiah, Elijah should have preceded Him. So “his disciples asked him, saying, Why then say the scribes that Elias [Elijah] must first come? And Jesus answered and said unto them,…I say unto you, that Elias is come already, and they knew him not, but have done unto him whatsoever they listed….Then the disciples understood that he spake unto them of John the Baptist.”16 Previously, speaking to a crowd about John the Baptist, Jesus told them: “This is he, of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee….And if ye will receive it, this is Elias, which was for to come.”17Words could hardly be clearer, yet how many Christians today “are willing to receive it”? And they are the words of Christ Himself, in Whom we place all our hope. As the modern philosopher-writer Robert Graves has commented about this passage: “No honest theologian can therefore deny that his acceptance of Jesus as Christ [Messiah] logically binds every Christian to a belief in reincarnation-in Elijah’s case, at least.”
The Common Belief Of The People
That the Jewish people believed in reincarnation is shown by the following interchange of Jesus and the disciples. “When Jesus came into the coasts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, Whom do men say that I the Son of man am? And they said, Some say that thou art John the Baptist: some, Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets.”18 Some believed that John the Baptist had secretly escaped from prison and was preaching under an alias. But many more believed that one of the ancient prophets had been reborn as Jesus. This was because belief in reincarnation was the norm at that time. And nowhere in the Scriptures is it said that the Jews were in doctrinal error at the time of Christ, or that He came to free them from false beliefs-He Himself saying that He had only come to fulfil.19
Belief Of The Apostles
The Apostles also believed in reincarnation, for: “As Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.”20Jesus, the Light of the World, would certainly have rebuked the Apostles for wrong belief if reincarnation was not true. Although the man’s blindness was for the glory of God, the Lord said, “neither this man nor his parents sinned,” implying that the man had certainly existed-and been capable of sinning-before his birth in which he was blind.
Non-Belief in Reincarnation Rebuked By Jesus
When the Pharisee, Nicodemus, expressed his doubts as to a man being able to enter the womb and be born again, physically, saying: “How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?” the Lord Jesus reproved him, saying: “Art thou a master [teacher] of Israel, and knowest not these things?…If I have told you earthly things [about physical rebirth], and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things [about the spiritual rebirth]?”21 especially when every educated Jew was familiar with the already-cited words of Job: “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither.”22 Moreover, every Jew had heard these words of Moses scores of times: “Even from everlasting to everlasting, Thou art God. Thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, Return, ye children of men….Thou carriest them away like a flood; they are as a sleep: in the morning they are like grass which groweth up [again]….in the evening it is [again] cut down.”23
This same idea was also to be found in the prayer of Tobit: “Blessed be God that liveth for ever, and blessed be his kingdom. For he doth scourge, and hath mercy: he leadeth down to hell [hades], and bringeth up again: neither is there any that can avoid his hand.”24
Also familiar would have been the direct reference to reincarnation in Ecclesiasticus: “Woe be unto you, ungodly men, which have forsaken the law of the most high God! For when you are born, you shall be born to a curse: and when you die, a curse shall be your portion. All that are of the earth shall return to the earth again: so the ungodly shall go from a curse to destruction.”25
God’s Law Behind Reincarnation
But why? Saint Paul tells us: “Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.“26 In other words, if we lie, we shall be lied to; if we steal, we shall be stolen from; if we cheat, we shall be cheated; if we injure, we shall be injured; if we kill, we shall be killed. Is this law inexorable? In the verse from Numbers, previously quoted, it is flatly stated that the Lord by no means clears the guilty. This supports Saint Paul’s contention that “God is not mocked.”
This principle is not new to either of the Testaments, for when Noah had come forth from the Ark, God enunciated the law: “Surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast I will require it, and at the hand of man….Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.”27 Notice that this is not a social law, such as those given to Moses. Noah is not being instructed to take the life of murderers; the Lord says, “I will require it.” Yet, how many murderers go undetected and unpunished? Think of the murderers that die natural deaths-even in prisons. Yet God, Who “is not mocked” has said that their life shall be taken by man. And this is in keeping with the next verse in Saint Paul’s Galatians exposition: “For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap”-that is, we shall reap in our bodies exactly what we sow in our bodies. And if we die before so doing? Rebirth is the law.
What about the objection that Saint Paul also wrote: “It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment” (Hebrews 9:27)? Nothing, except Saint Paul’s meaning: “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men” (Romans 5:12). Adam’s transgression pronounced the death sentence upon all humanity. And, indeed, after each death we are judged to determine where we shall go in the astral world and when and where we shall return to earth in our next birth. It is interesting that the twentieth-century stigmatic, Teresa Neuman, saw that after death the departed soul was judged by Christ right here, some passing onward with Christ and others remaining in in the earth’s astral atmosphere, obviously to await rebirth.
Jewish Writings From The Time Of Jesus And The Apostles
Here are some quotations from Jewish writings that would have been studied by Saint Paul28 and known to Jesus and the Twelve.
“Most souls being at present in the state of transmigrations, God requites a man now for what his soul merited in a bypast time in another body, by having broken some of the 613 precepts….He who neglects to observe any of the 613 precepts, such as were possible for him to observe, is doomed to undergo transmigration once or more than once till he has actually observed all he had neglected to do in a former state of being.”29
“The sages of truth remark that Adam contains the initial letters of Adam, David, and Messiah; for after Adam sinned his soul passed into David, and the latter having also sinned, it passed into the Messiah.”30
Regarding this, Gershom Scholem says in his book, On the Mystical Shape of the Godhead: “The consonants in Adam’s name are read as an acronym for the names of the three bearers of this one soul:Adam, David, Messiah. Kabbalistic literature is filled with discussions of this transmigration chain. At times this chain also includes Moses, the redeemer of Israel from its first Exile.” This latter statement is most significant in view of the fact that for many centuries on Good Friday during the exposition of Christ Crucified the choir sings a hymn beginning: “My people, what have I done to you? In what have I offended you, answer me?” in which Jesus speaks to the people most explicitly of His life as Moses, contrasting it with His crucifixion. “Becaue I led thee through the desert forty years: and fed thee with mann, and brought thee into a land exceedingly good, thou hast prepared a cross for thy Savior….I opened the sea before thee: and thou with a spear hast opened My side…I gave thee the water of salvation from the rock to drink: and thou hast given Me gall and vinegar….”
Scholem further says: “The Kabbalists focus quite intensely on Adam’s fall. Adam’s transgression at the beginning of Creation is repaired by Moses, the lawgiver, by David, who established a throne for the Shekhinah, and will ultimately be perfected by the Messiah. The complementary relationship between the Fall and the Redemption, a notion first expressed by St. Paul and which also occupied the talmudic aggadah, is now given a Kabbalistic formulation in the doctrine of the transmigration of the Messiah’s soul: the man who missed humanity’s great chance in Paradise is the same one who will ultimately bring about its realization. The situation of Adam, Eve, and the serpent reappears in various guises throughout these transmigrations, each time needing to be overcome. An important Kabbalist of the late Middle Ages offered a highly dramatic retelling of the story of David, Bathsheba, and Uriah from this perspective. Paradoxically, David comes off a great deal better in this esoteric explanation than one might expect from the biblical tale: King David, of blessed memory, was a great sage and recognized transmigrations. When he saw Uriah the Hittite, he knew that he was the Serpent who had seduced Eve, and when he saw Bathsheba he knew that she was Eve, and he knew that he himself was Adam. Thus, he wished to take Bathsheba from Uriah, because she was [destined to be] David’s mate….And the reason Nathan the prophet chastised him was because he hastened, and did not wait….For his haste caused him to go to her without performing tikkun (restoration), for he first needed to remove from her the contamination of the Serpent, and thereafter to go to her, and he did not do so. Therefore, his first son from Bathsheba died, for he was from the impurity of the Serpent, but from there on there was no Satan and no bad effect. In Tikkunei ha-Zohar (end of ß61), Adam’s reincarnation in Moses is clearly alluded to, albeit in the context of transferring Abel’s sin onto Adam, and without any relation to the transmigrations of the Redeemer and of the Messiah: ‘”And Moses hid his face”-for he remembered what had happened to him before; he remembered his sin and covered himself in shame’ similar to Adam’s behavior after the sin.”
In the book of Ezekiel we have proof that the Messiah was to be the reincarnation of David, for there we read: “And I will set up one shepherd over them, and he shall feed them, even my servant David; he shall feed them, and he shall be their shepherd. And David my servant shall be king over them; and they all shall have one shepherd.”31 Since Ezekiel lived four hundred years after David, his prophecy could only mean that David was going to reappear on the earth later as the Christ. And he did.
But there are further ancient authorities for us to consider.
“Know thou that Cain’s essential soul passed into Jethro, …Samson the hero was possessed by the soul of Japhet, and Job by that of Terah.”32
“Cain had stolen the twin sister of Abel, and thereafter his soul passed into Jethro. Moses was possessed by the soul of Abel, and therefore Jethro gave his daughter to Moses.”33
“If a man be niggardly either in a financial or a spiritual regard, giving nothing of his money to the poor or not imparting of his knowledge to the ignorant, he shall be punished by transmigration into a woman.” At the time this was written, women were prohibited to own property or to receive an education. Thus a man who did not use his possessions or knowledge to benefit others would be born in a body wherein he would be prevented from having them himself. And experiencing the bitterness of this deprivation, he would be sure to share his benefits in a future life, impelled by the subconscious memory of his soul.
Returning to the quotation: “Know thou that Sarah, Hannah, the Shunammite,34 and the widow of Zarepta were each in turn possessed by the soul of Eve….The soul of Rahab transmigrated into Heber the Kenite, and afterwards into Hannah; and this is the mystery of her words, ‘I am a woman of a sorrowful spirit,’35 for there still lingered in her soul a sorrowful sense of inherited defilement….Eli possessed the soul of Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite….Sometimes the souls of pious Jews pass by metempsychosis into Gentiles, in order that they may plead on behalf of Israel and treat them kindly.”36
Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel, having been mentioned as a reincarnation of Eve, it is appropriate to recall here her words spoken in prophetic inspiration when she brought her son to live in the tabernacle in fulfillment of the vow made when she prayed to have a child. In her canticle, under prophetic inspiration, she sang: “The Lord killeth, and maketh alive: he bringeth down to the grave, and bringeth up.”37That is, God causes man to die and then to live again; to go into the grave and then be born once more. Again we can recall the parallel words of Job already cited: “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither.”
A Dramatic Example
Certainly from the above we get the idea! Yet I cannot resist giving one more Biblical instance-bridging both the Old and the New Testaments-of how the human drama can be played out over the “acts” of several births on the stage of this world. (This example, by the way, was pointed out to me by Bess Hibarger, a Presbyterian Sunday School teacher of long standing and great popularity, who at least once a year devoted one Sunday to the subject of reincarnation.)
Ahab, the king of Israel, married Jezebel, who was a Gentile and an idolater. For these reasons, Elijah the prophet came to Ahab and challenged him, demanding that he rid himself of Jezebel. As could be expected, Jezebel decided that either Elijah or she had to go-and she preferred that it be Elijah. Though she had squadrons of soldiers searching for the prophet to kill him, he managed to elude them, and departed from this world still in hiding. Later, Jezebel died, but with the desire for the death of Elijah burning in her heart. Thus was the sowing; then came the reaping.
As the Lord Jesus said, Elijah was born again as John the Baptist. Ahab was reborn as Herod, and Jezebel as Herodias, the wife of Herod’s brother. Herod broke the Law by marrying Herodias illegally, thus committing the double crime of adultery and incest. Just as in the previous lifetime, John came to Herod and demanded that he get rid of Herodias. Herod had respect for John, and so tried to simply ignore him. Finally, at the insistence of Herodias he imprisoned John, and ultimately Herodias got John’s head on a platter, fulfilling her desire of centuries.
Further Reading on Reincarnation:
- The Necessity for Reincarnation — A remarkable article on various scientific, moral, and historical aspects of reincarnation by Annie Besant (1847 – 1933), a renowned speaker and writer, and president of the Madras Theosophical society.
- Esoteric Christian Insights Into Reincarnation
1) Hebrews 13:9 [Go back]
2) Jude 3 [Go back]
3) De Somniis I:22 [Go back]
4) Proverbs 8:22,23,30,31 [Go back]
5) Jewish War, Book 3, chapter 8, no. 5 [Go back]
6) Wisdom 8:19,20 [Go back]
7) Job 1:21 [Go back]
8) Job 19:25-27 [Go back]
9) Revelation 3:12 [Go back]
10) Zohar, vol. II, fol. 99, et seq. [Go back]
11) Job 33:29,30 [Go back]
12) Numbers 14:18 [Go back]
13) Ezekiel 18:2 [Go back]
14) Siddur Tikun Meir, Hebrew Publishing Company, 1935 [Go back]
15) Malachi 4:5 [Go back]
16) Matthew 17:10,12,13 [Go back]
17) Matthew 11:10,14 [Go back]
18) Matthew 16:13,14 [Go back]
19) Matthew 5:17 [Go back]
20) John 9:1-3 [Go back]
21) John 3:4,10,12 [Go back]
22) Job 1:21 [Go back]
23) Psalm 90:2,3,5,6 [Go back]
24) Tobit 13:1,2 [Go back]
25) Ecclesiasticus 41:9,10 [Go back]
26) Galatians 6:7 [Go back]
27) Genesis 9:5,6 [Go back]
28) See Acts 22:3; and 26:4,5 [Go back]
29) Kitzur Sh’lu, p. 6, col. I and II [Go back]
30) Nishmath Chaim, fol. 152, col. 2 [Go back]
31) Ezekiel 34:23,24 [Go back]
32) Yalkut Reubeni, Nos. 9:24 [Go back]
33) Yalkut Chadash, fol. 127, col. 3 [Go back]
34) II Kings 4:8 [Go back]
35) I Samuel 1:15 [Go back]
36) Yalkut Reubeni, Nos. 1,8,61,63 [Go back]
37) I Samuel 2:6 [Go back]