Is Reincarnation Biblical?
by Ron Rhodes
Today approximately 30 million Americans (one in four) believe in reincarnation. The word "reincarnation" literally means to "come again in the flesh." The process of reincarnation—continual rebirths in human bodies—allegedly continues until the soul has reached a state of perfection and merges back with its source (God or the "Universal Soul").
One's lot in life, according to those who believe in reincarnation, is based on the law of karma. This law says that if bad things happen in one's life, this is an outworking of bad karma. If good things happen in one's life, this is an outworking of good karma.
"Karma" refers to the "debt" a soul accumulates because of good or bad actions committed during one's life (or past lives). If one accumulates good karma by performing good actions, he or she will be reincarnated in a desirable state. If one accumulates bad karma, he or she will be reincarnated in a less desirable state. In Shirley MacLaine's book Out on a Limb we are told, "Reincarnation is like show business. You just keep doing it until you get it right."
Some people twist the Scriptures and say that Jesus Himself taught reincarnation or "cyclical rebirth." In Matthew 11:14, for example, Jesus said, "And if you are willing to accept it, [John the Baptist] is the Elijah who was to come." Likewise, in John 3:3 Jesus said, "I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again."
But these passages, rightly interpreted, do not support reincarnation. Matthew 11:14 does not really teach that John the Baptist was a reincarnation of Elijah. Luke 1:17, an important cross reference, tells us that the ministry of John the Baptist was carried out "in the spirit and power of Elijah." Moreover, reincarnationists conveniently forget that John the Baptist, when asked if he was Elijah, flatly answered, "No!" (John 1:21).
Regarding Jesus' words about being "born again" in John 3:3, the context clearly shows that Jesus was referring to a spiritual rebirth or regeneration. In fact, the phrase born again carries the idea of "born from above," and can even be translated that way. Jesus clarified His meaning by affirming that "flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit" (v. 6).
There are other Scriptures that clearly debunk the notion of reincarnation. Hebrews 9:27 tells us that "man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment...." Each human being lives once as a mortal on earth, dies once, and then faces judgment. He does not have a second chance by reincarnating into another body. Second Corinthians 5:8 indicates that at death the Christian immediately goes into the presence of the Lord, not into another body. Luke 16:19-31 indicates that unbelievers at death go to a place of suffering, not into another body.
We must also remember that Jesus taught that people decide their eternal destiny in a single lifetime (Matthew 25:46). This is precisely why the apostle Paul emphasized that "now is the day of salvation" (2 Corinthians 6:2).
Further, Jesus taught the concept of resurrection, not reincarnation. In fact, He predicted His own resurrection early in His public ministry (John 2:19). And after Jesus resurrected from the dead, He appeared to some disciples and said, "Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have" (Luke 24:39). Jesus resurrected in the same body that went into the tomb. His body even retained the scars and wounds in His hands, feet, and side from the crucifixion (John 20:28).
In addition to biblically refuting reincarnation, we must also point to some of the practical problems involved in the theory of reincarnation. For example, we must ask, Why does one get punished (via "bad karma") for something he or she cannot remember having done in a previous life? Moreover, if the purpose of karma is to rid humanity of its selfish desires (as reincarnationists say), then why has there not been a noticeable improvement in human nature after all the millennia of reincarnations on earth?
Finally, if reincarnation and the law of karma are so beneficial on a practical level, as reincarnationists claim, then how do they explain the immense and ever-worsening social and economic problems—including widespread poverty, starvation, disease, and horrible suffering—in India, where reincarnation has been systematically taught throughout its history?