Does the Bible Teach Reincarnation?
A recent Newsweek magazine (28 November 1994) ran as its cover story, "The Search for the Sacred: America's Quest for Spiritual Meaning." This was a particularly revealing article not just because it acknowledged and discussed the significant increase in interest in spirituality, but because the observations demonstrated the dominance of the New Age Movement (NAM), especially the infiltration through the compromising mainline church.
Consider some of the following quotes: "In a pluralistic society, `one institution feels a little spiritually claustrophobic,'" writes a religion professor at Rutgers University. He says he used to deride this new, cafeteria approach to faith calling, it a "pick and choose religion" that was "frivolous and narcissistic," but now, "he believes that a person who has synthesized different traditions can find a path that may be spiritually profound as traditional religions or even more spiritually profound" (p. 55).
In a related article, Kenneth L Woodward writes, "A typical expression of this search is the eclectic Quest program at Grace Episcopal Cathedral in San Francisco. Participants are encouraged to experiment with four spiritual paths to the sacred" (p. 61). Two of those paths are the mystical and the integration of Eastern and Western spiritual disciplines.
Woodward, Newsweek's religion writer astutely observed, "No doubt much of this reconfiguring of the sacred is inspired by a new religious pluralism in America which makes any one spiritual path seem inherently parochial. In this environment, many searching Americans flit from one tradition to the next the search for the sacred turned sharply inward, a private quest. The goal over the last 40 years, has been variously described as `peace of mind, higher consciousness, personal transformation'" (pp. 61-62).
Why are so many people with traditional Christian backgrounds, participating in New Age spirituality? There are many possible reasons: not truly being born-again, a lack of discipleship and thus discernment, anemic churches or weak Christian experiences to name a few.
Leaders and promoters of the New Age Movement, like most cults, must deal in some way with the basis of Christian authority and doctrine, the Bible. Typically, antagonists to Christianity will either attack the validity of the Bible or else twist the Scripture to make it accommodate the cults' beliefs. Those in the New Age attempt to do both, depending on which position would best promote their agenda.
An example of this canard would be the way New Age teachers deal with the hinge doctrine of reincarnation in relation to Christianity. In Shirley MacLaine's book, Out on a Limb, her medium/teacher Kevin Ryerson supposedly channels an entity named "John." Shirley asks John, "Isn't the Bible supposed to be the Word of God?" He answers, "Yes, in the main it is. Although much of what exists in your Bible today has been reinterpreted."
"Reinterpreted by whom?"
"By various persons through time and through various languages. Ultimately by the church. It was to the advantage of the church to protect the people from the `real truth'" (p. 204).
The "real truth" John explains is reincarnation. When MacLaine asks, "Why aren't these teachings recorded in the Bible?" He answers, "The theory of reincarnation is recorded in the Bible. But the proper interpretations were struck from it during the Ecumenical Council in Constantinople sometime around 553 A.D., called the Council of Nicea" (pp. 234-235).
Several observations should be made here concerning these pronouncements.
First, "John" claims that the Bible cannot be trusted because of "reinterpretations." He seems to confuse interpretation with translation. In fact, there are many manuscripts and quotes from church fathers and other church publications dating well before 553 A.D. The actual corpus of the Old and New Testament Scripture was settled and circulated also well before this time.
"John" can't get basic facts straight either. The Council in Constantinople was called just that, not "Council of Nicea," The two Nicene Councils occurred in 325 A.D. and 787 A.D. The focus of the 553 A.D. Constantinople Council was on Christology, not reincarnation. In fact, the early church councils never addressed the issue of reincarnation. The central doctrine of resurrection obviously made any concept of reincarnation moot.
What "John" and other New Agers might be stretching for is the fact that the 553 A.D. council did condemn Origin as a heretic (Eerdman's Handbook to the History of Christianity, p. 178). Origin (185-254) did postulate the possibility of a pre-existence of souls, which is more akin to Mormonism, not reincarnation (Confronting the New Age, Groothius, p. 102).
Oprah Winfrey and the Council of Nicea
An example of the confusion of the New Age leaders on this topic can be seen from an appearance of New Age experts on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Dr. Donald Curtis, a Unity minister and transchanneler, Marilyn Ferguson and Kevin Ryerson were the guests. Oprah begins, "As I study the New Age Movement, it all seems to say exactly what the Bible has said for years, but many of us were brought up with a restricted, limited understanding of what the Bible said."
Curtis responds, "Because of the literal interpretation, for within the framework of sectarianism, no one really knows what the filter of translation down through the ages, what the Bible really said."
Ferguson adds, "When you start taking a scholarly look at when the translations occurred, you realize that many important ideas got lost along the way."
Curtis concludes, "And then they threw out most of it in 325 A.D. anyway at the Council of Nicea. We don't really know what was there. The Emperor, whatever his name was, sat down in counsel and said `this is in and this is out.' They threw out reincarnation at this time" (video on file with Watchman Fellowship).
Several observations and responses can be made to this as well. Notice how Oprah blurs the distinction between the Bible's teachings and those of the New Age. Her explanation of the perceived differences are attributed to "limited, restricted understanding" and "literal interpretations." Curtis reinforces the concept of faulty "filters of translation" through time as a reason for distortion.
Christians must put the questions to Oprah, "How else do you suggest one understand the text apart from the literal, historical-grammatical meaning of the writers? By whose authority can one apply some mystical, esoteric, subjective interpretation when the text itself refutes that?"
Curtis betrays his "scholarly look" by not even knowing who the Emperor (Constantine) was at the Council of Nicea. And worse, he not only contradicts what other New Age teachers have said, but also is wrong about what transpired at Nicea in 325 A.D. Nicea delt with the Arian heresy, not reincarnation.
Scripture Twisting: Reincarnation
In order to gain support for their position, the New Age teachers/leaders turn right around and try to use the Bible (which they claim has been corrupted and expunged of reincarnation) to prove Christianity teaches reincarnation.
Four passages are most frequently used to prove that the Bible teaches reincarnation: Matthew 11:13-15, Matthew 17:10-13; John 9:1-3; John 3:3; and Galatians 6:7-8.
Matthew 11 & 17In Matthew 11 and 17 (parallel passage Mark 9:11-13) Jesus refers to John the Baptist as the coming again of Elijah. Is Jesus teaching that Elijah was reincarnated as John the Baptists? Surely not. Another coming of Elijah was prophesied by Malachi (4:5-6) to occur before judgment day.
Elijah didn't experience physical death as he was translated into heaven (2 Kings 2:1). Elijah still maintained his own identity and being as he was seen with Jesus at the Mount of Transfiguration after John the Baptist was born (Matthew 17:1-3). A good principle of Bible interpretation is to allow Scripture to interpret Scripture. The explanation of Jesus' reference is given in Luke 1:17 by Zechariah when he declared that John would go in the "power and spirit of Elijah," thus fulfilling Malachi 4:5-6. As Elisha received the mantle of the "spirit of Elijah" and was obviously not a reincarnation of Elijah, John too held the same office and function of Eljiah the prophet.
John even clearly stated that he was not literally Elijah (John 1:21).
John 9In the John 9 passage, the disciples speculated on why a man was born blind. The disciples were not referring to reincarnation, although, at the time similar doctrines were propagated through the pagan religions which had emanated from Babylonia and Persia. Instead the disciples were almost certainly referring to the false beliefs of some Jewish Rabbis that all sickness is a result of sin and that infants could sin in the womb before birth.
Biblical scholar, F.F. Bruce, cites the rabbinical commentary, Geneses Rabba 63.6, and explains, "It does sometimes happen that men and women are themselves responsible in part for physical ailments.... But it is not usually so,.... The idea that an infant might sin while still in the womb, however, appears to have been entertained by some rabbis, and the disciples may have thought it possible" (The Gospel of John, p. 208).
The important point is, despite what ever the disciples meant by the question, their presuppositions were wrong. Jesus answered and corrected them by saying "neither" is the cause, but that what God will do in or through this malady is the answer and reason. In other words, in order to bring glory to God through the situation.
John 3In John 3:3, some reincarnationists insist that to be born again must mean a previous birth.
But again, the context demonstrates another meaning. Born physically the first time and spiritually the second, while still living the first birth life (John 3:3-5). Comparing Scripture with Scripture bears out that it is the regeneration brought about by God, the Holy Spirit indwelling a believer (John 14:16-17, 16:5-15; 1 Peter 1:3, 23; 2 Corinthians 5:17).
Galatians 6In Galatians 6:7-8, there is not even an implied reference to reincarnation.
The immediate context, chapter context, and the whole New Testament is consistent with an understanding of the consequences of sin and negative character development contrasted to walking in the Spirit and obeying Christ for those who are heaven-bound.
Another distinctive doctrine of the New Age is that there is no Sovereign God separate from and ruling over creation and mankind, instead man is intrinsically God within Himself.
Again, Dr. Curtis stated on the Oprah Winfrey Show, "Where is one to go to find the Divine Self, except within. The greatest teacher even once said, `the kingdom of God is within'" (video on file). This often repeated verse (Luke 17:21) is used by New Agers to show that Jesus taught that the search for the divine is inside oneself.
The interpretation consistent with the context and the rest of Scripture is that Jesus, the King, is ushering in the kingdom of God with His reign over the creation, and in the hearts of man. It is a spiritual reign which will produce righteousness and peace (Romans 15:17; Luke 23:3; Ephesians 1:18-23; John 1:12).
Jesus taught that the proper response to this kingdom is repentance and faith in His gospel (Mark 1:14). Also, only those who have been born again enter into the kingdom of God (John 3:3-5) and Jesus is addressing the Pharisees in Luke. All evidence points to the spiritual realm of Christ.
Psalm 46:10 and John 8:58
Two other passages used by New Agers to indicate man is God are Psalm 46:10, "Be still, and know that I am God...," and John 8:58 (Exodus 3:14-15), "Before Abraham was, I AM."
Shirley MacLaine writes about this enlightened state in which man is God saying, "when that awareness is achieved, I will be aligned completely with that unseen Divine Force that we call God. Since I am part of that force, then I AM that I AM" (Dancing in the Light, p. 420). Unity School of Christianity leader, Eric Butterworth, writes, "Praying to God about things is taking the name of the Lord in vain.... God is present as the reality of you. There is no where to go, no one to reach for - only a Presence to experience and feel at one with. The need is to be still and know that I AM" (How to Break the Ten Commandments, p. 38).
Oprah asked Shirley MacLaine, "When you were asking yourself these questions [Who am I?; What's the purpose of my life?; What happens when I die?] the answers that came back were?"
MacLaine: "First, I had to learn to meditate... I learned to be quiet, to be still inside, to just say,`what shall I do about this?' and boom, the answer would come" (emphasis added).
Oprah continued, "And that's the same thing the Bible says, `ask and it shall be given, seek and ye shall find'. And when you connected to the higher self, is it what other people call `being born again'?" Shirley responded, "Yeah, probably, although I don't know what their definition of being born again means" (video on file).
In the Bible, Peter warns that the untaught and unstable will twist the Scriptures to their own destruction (2 Peter 3:16). These typical New Age leaders are trying to force these passages to say the exact opposite from their clear and obvious meaning. All of these passages are actually saying that God is separate from man, that Jesus is the unique God incarnate, and that man must seek Him alone for salvation and communion, not travel inside themselves.
Christians must be ready at all times to give a defense of the faith (2 Timothy 4:2).