Bible and reincarnation

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Belief in reincarnation is held by many Hindus, Buddhists, and Taoists but such beliefs are held by relatively few Christians, Jews, and Muslims. The vast majority of Christian denominations do not include reincarnation among their doctrines. Some small sects, such as the Liberal Catholic Church, do however include the concept of reincarnation.

Judaism's attitude is broad enough to allow many Jews within Orthodox Judaism to hold "reincarnation" doctrines (see Jewish eschatology) and at the same time it does not emphasize these difficult notions. Judaism does not totally deny it but does not focus on it nor attest to it. It is a central concept within the Kabbalah though.

Most of modern Abrahamic religions however reject belief in reincarnation, sometimes even viewing it as heresy.

Many however have long questioned or rejected this exclusion, and in modern, western Christendom a few churches and denominations have first begun to explore this issue - both from a philosophy of inclusion and integration with Eastern philosophy, as well as a struggle to return to teachings of the original, pre-Roman church.

Contents

Differences between conservative and liberal Christian views

Modern Christianity is divided on how much authority the Bible has in determining the life and belief of its adherents. Fundamentalist and Evangelical Christians place a high and sometimes exclusive view of the Bible's authority and hold to Biblical inerrancy. Belief in reincarnation is extremely rare among Conservative Christians, because of their attitude towards, and interpretation of, the Bible and church doctrine. Liberal and progressive Christians do not see the Bible as being inerrant, or interpret it very differently (often in an idiosyncratic fashion), and many Christians (both liberal, conservative, as well as moderate or centrist) attribute more authoritative weight to selected parts of the Bible (Jesus' teachings for example, as being more authoritative than the teachings of the Apostle Paul). Additionally, more progressive Christians are less likely to be bound by traditional interpretation, and often taking a more subjective and Post-structuralist approach to reading the Bible, which results in a variety of interpretations. They do not find the concept of reincarnation in conflict with their Christian faith.

Jews

See main article: Jewish eschatology.

Some think that the Judaism's belief in "resurrection" could have been nearly synonymous with reincarnation. Orthodox Judaism cites the teachings of Maimonides' Maimonides's 13 Principles of Faith one of which teaches the importance of techiyat hameitim, the "revival of the dead" after the Jewish Messiah arrives. Therefore a minority of the Jewish denominations today indeed believe in reincarnation, but like all Jews do not make the afterlife a central focus of their teaching and preaching.

Supporting passages from a Christian point of view

There are several verses that some claim support reincarnation:

Jeremiah 1:4-5

The word of God came to Jeremiah, and said 'Before I formed you in the womb I knew you..." . This verse has been used by Traditional Christians as evidence that God has foreknowledge of persons and events - a God that is not limited by time and space. Christians who believe in reincarnation may see this verse as evidence of God's ability to "know" a person throughout a variety of reincarnated lifetimes.

Matthew 11:13-15

Jesus is recorded as saying that John the Baptist is the "Elijah who is to come". This verse has been interpreted traditionally as Jesus speaking of John being a type of Elijah - that John acted as an important messenger from God in the same way as the prophet Elijah was centuries beforehand. For Christians who hold to a belief in reincarnation, however, this verse might imply that John the Baptist was the reincarnation of Elijah the prophet. However, just as most people have no memory of past lives, it's plausible that John was not aware of whom 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 denied it in John 1:19-21 and chose to answer 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

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. Some interpret this question to imply 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. This can be and has been interpreted in many ways.

Galatians 6:7

"Whatever one sows, that he will also reap". Some feel that this agrees with the idea of enforced karma, a basic tenet of some other religions that hold the belief in reincarnation; however it also agrees with the concept of divine justice, and of each person being judged fairly, a central tenet of Christianity. The subsequent verses seem to imply that a certain amount of time may pass before a just person reaps their true reward: "at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up". However there is no indication that this time might span more than one 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 problematic because, by itself, it does not prove reincarnation and is only a single verse. The fact that it was written by the Apostle Paul, and not a saying of Jesus, may also influence Christians who give more weight to Jesus' teachings than to Paul's.

New Testament passages seen to be in opposition

There are also some Biblical passages commonly seen to refute a Christian belief in reincarnation:

Hebrews 9:27

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. This verse does not, by itself, rule out reincarnation. Traditional Christian teaching (including beliefs held by modern Fundamentalists and Evangelicals) interprets this verse in the context of the "Day of Judgment", when Christ will return and judge the earth - including all those who have died. In this sense, a person has only one life, and then, when he dies, will face judgment. More progressive Christians, however, may feel comfortable in dismissing or reinterpreting the verse - especially considering the debate over the authorship of the book of Hebrews. Many consider it dangerous to base 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 directed towards Jewish Christians throughout the Roman Empire rather than those living in Palestine), 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.

Luke 13

Something that seems to deny not reincarnation itself but any notion of karma and retribution can be found in Luke chapter 13: After hearing about an accident that killed 18, Jesus warns his listeners not to think that this happened to the afflicted because they were especially evil people.

The thief on the cross

Jesus, when on the cross, tells the thief being executed beside him "This day you will be with me in paradise". This would seem to imply that the thief would go straight to heaven, and not be reincarnated. On the assumption that a thief convicted of a capital crime would be likely to need a reincarnation before achieving perfection, this passage could point more to the one-stroke redemption believed in by traditional Christians.

Hindus and others would refute this interpretation's claim to contradict reincarnation, pointing out that God's grace can overcome the karma of man.

Paul's teaching

Paul, in his epistles, teaches extensively about the nature of heaven. It would seem likely that had reincarnation been involved, he might have mentioned it. Indeed a strong argument against reincarnation is that in the whole of the Bible, only a tiny number of passages exist that could even remotely be interpreted as supporting it. Significant doctrines in Christianity are usually based on dozens or sometimes hundreds of passages.

Apologetics

Most Christian apologists maintain that the concept of reincarnation is not described in Biblical texts. They maintain that the verses that appear to support the idea of reincarnation are interpreted from the context of a reincarnation worldview and not from context of the Biblical Jewish/Christian worldview.

This might be best understood when one considers the popularity that Hinduism and Buddhism have gained in some circles of the West. 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, or to the opponents of Christianity; according to some, this technique has already been applied in composition of the New Testament writings itself.

Contemporary Christian thought objects to reincarnation because it is not seen compatible with the traditional biblical view of man and the idea of salvation through Jesus.

Some Christians, though, interpret Jesus' death on the cross as providing believers the opportunity to grow towards salvation despite personal imperfections, rather than ensuring instant salvation for all believers after death. Reincarnation may simply delay a person's ultimate destiny - most religions that believe in reincarnation do not believe that a person continues to reincarnate indefinitely.

Origen

Origen, an early Christian theologian who 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; early Christians believed that the soul exists prior to the conception and birth of a person, a belief that many then-popular variants of Greek philosophy accepted. However, this does not in and of itself imply reincarnation, cf. the Mormon view of the "beforelife" of the soul. In AD 553, more than three hundred years after Origen's death, the Emperor Justinian issued an edict against Origen, whose writings had by then become very divisive, and convened the Second Council of Constantinople. This Council issued "The Anathemas Against Origen". 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."

Some see the Anathemas Against Origen not only suppressing the early Christian teachings within the Church, but also any teaching supportive of views on the pre-existence of the soul. Anyone publicly espousing such beliefs could be reprimanded, and, if he persisted, excommunicated from the Church.

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.

Quote from Origen:

"It can be shown that an incorporeal and reasonable being has life in itself independently of the body... then it is beyond a doubt bodies are only of secondary importance and arise from time to time to meet the varying conditions of reasonable creatures. Those who require bodies are clothed with them, and contrariwise, when fallen souls have lifted themselves up to better things their bodies are once more annihilated. They are ever vanishing and ever reappearing."

History of Canonical and extra-biblical writings

There is theory that reincarnation is not incompatible with Christianity, but was suppressed by the church (or the pope or the emperor Constantine) in order to increase the power and influence of the church. According to this theory, the texts that offered the greatest acceptance of Roman Pagan doctrine were made part of biblical canon; those that tended to reduce the influence of the church and were offensive to Roman Pagans were declared as heresy.

There are those who feel that after Constantine's Edict of Milan in AD 313, which made Christianity a tolerated religion, Christianity became tainted with elements of Roman Paganism. Reincarnation was offensive to Roman Pagans, as were other early Christian concepts. The Roman 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.

Some maintain that it is not historically justifiable that verses regarding reincarnation could have been removed from the Bible. The first universally acknowledged authorities in Christianity since the time of the apostles were the ecumenical councils, the first of which took place in 325. Various groups contended their decisions for most of the century. A single-handed decision of the bishop of Rome accepted by the whole of Christianity in the first centuries is not seen by apologists to be likely - even his addition to the Nicene creed (the Filioque) in the late first millennium, is fiercely contended by the Orthodox churches until today. Moreover, the findings of textual criticism and the many early fragments of the Bible that have surfaced during the last two centuries lead many to believe it extremely unlikely that anything of importance was ever removed from the Bible.

There exist non-canonical texts that do support reincarnation, especially the Nag Hammadi texts, among them the Gospel of Thomas, as well as the Dead Sea scrolls.

New Age views

Some New Age writers in the 80s picked up the above theory that references to reincarnation had been removed from the Bible. Shirley MacLaine, e.g., quotes this teaching in her book "Out on a Limb" (1983): ";The theory of reincarnation is recorded in the Bible. But the proper interpretations were struck from it during an ecumenical council meeting of the Catholic Church in Constantinople sometime around A.D. 553, called the Council of Nicaea [sic]".

This theory cannot be confirmed by church history: There was no Council of Nicaea in the year 553 and neither the First Council of Nicaea in 325 nor the Second Council of Nicaea 787 do even mention anything like reincarnation.

The Second Council of Constantinople in 553 (which was not conducted by the Pope but by the emperor Justinian I) does not record mention of reincarnation either. The origin of the theory is the fact that this council rejected Origen's teachings on the pre-existence of the soul: "If anyone asserts the fabulous pre-existence of souls, and shall assert the monstrous restoration which follows from it: let him be anathema."

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