Can a Christian Believe in Reincarnation?



Many Christians hold New Age beliefs that are not a part of the Christian doctrine. With the advent of the New Age movement in the second half of the 20th century some Christians have moved away from their traditional Christian upbringing to either include New Age spirituality and mysticism with their Christian beliefs or they have entirely left the Christian faith and joined some part of the New Age movement.

I was quite happy with my church throughout my youth even though I had obtained quite a lot of the New Age repertoire by the time I moved away from home. I studied astrology, believed in the power of crystals and most important to me, I totally embraced reincarnation. As I mentioned in an earlier article my belief in reincarnation was a part of me before I knew even what reincarnation was.

According to a 2017 Pew Research survey of over 4,700 Americans, I certainly was not alone on my spiritual journey. Twenty-nine percent of Americans believe in astrology and 33 percent believe in reincarnation. An even greater percentage (41 percent) believe in psychics. Thirty percent were non-religious and the rest were divided into a highly religious group (39 percent) and somewhat religious group (32 percent).

While I never questioned why my church did not teach reincarnation, I had the sense, by the time I reached eighteen, that I needed to go out in the world and find a church that incorporated my beliefs beyond what was presented in my church. So I went out and went to a few different churches. That journey ended because I suddenly left the U.S. after getting married and lived on a Navy Base with one non-denomination chapel.

Children's Memories of Past Lives
The first earlier beliefs of a previous life came to me when I was between seven and nine years of age. It wasn't that I remembered a specific lifetime, rather I knew I had died before of drowning and in freezing water, and another lifetime freezing to death. I felt it was an accident at sea where the boat went down in a storm. My fear of boats and water began as an infant whereby I would start screaming as soon as we reached the boat docks. I also was terrified of lightning. If a storm woke me up I would be frozen in fear and it would take several minutes before I could gain the courage to move and reach for the bed covers to cover my head. I took swimming lessons when I was around eight. Again, I was terrified of going into the water. I made it through the first lessons and when I found out I would be graduated to level two and I would have to learn to swim in the deep water when I only knew how to dog paddle, I conveniently got pneumonia and I never had to continue anymore lessons. Even though I was living in South Florida the pool water was still too cold for me and contributed to my getting ill.

These fears led to me a certain plea request that when I die again this time I would prefer to burn to death rather than going the freezing method. Another plea happened during a storm at sea in the Gulf of Mexico. I just knew our boat was going to capsize and I pleaded with God that if he let us live through this storm I would be "good" for the rest of my life. I was around nine years of age. My fear of lightning diminished some time in my youth.

When my oldest son was seven he began telling me of what he saw in the unseen world. As a toddler, he would often tell me things of what he saw but I would discount it as stories he was making up. Yet when he was seven I was doing protection prayers to Archangel Michael while driving in my car when my son suddenly described to me that he saw four angels appear at each corner of our car. I was not a good religious teacher to him as he moved in with his father at four years old when we separated. After our divorce, he continued to live with him. Thus I knew that many of the things he described to me was not from his being tutored by me.

As the months went by he would hear me giving my prayers and decrees that I learned through the Summit Lighthouse and he would describe to me what he saw. He could see elementals although I had not taught him what these elemental creatures looked like. He would tell me that he saw little fairy-like beings that would come and dance on our head. One blew us a kiss. He described how these small creatures would work tirelessly trying to repair broken leaves on plants. The idea still lingers with me today that I should cut off torn or broken leaves because of the possibility that his vision was true.

One of the first past lives he described came spontaneously. He described being on a top of a hill and there was some kind of battle being outplayed in the valley below. When I asked him what he was wearing he described the clothes and shoes he was wearing that was not in this period of time. Then he saw himself in some kind of Buddhist temple with statues all around him. One had many arms. The last time he described something I could not see was when he was visiting for the weekend and was about ready for bed. He said to me Jesus was appearing to him. What came to me was to tell him to welcome Jesus into his heart. After he did I asked him what happened, and in that childlike simplicity he responded that "Jesus came into my heart."

Since his father was agnostic he was told by him that angels were not real nor any of the visions he was seeing. It was not many months before his ability to see beyond the veil was closed. Yet this is not unusual for children who have memories of who they were in a prior life. These children can start describing other lives as soon as they learn to talk. Then around seven years of age they begin to connect with the world and the veil that had been thinned for them with their past closes. As adults, they usually can remember nothing of those experiences. The exception are those cases where the children are taken to their prior relatives before their death and incorporate their previous life families into their world along with their new parents in their present life.

Dr. Ian Stevenson, a former Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Virginia School of Medicine and former chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Neurology, methodically documented over 3,000 examples of reincarnation during his life. He shared his findings with the scientific community by writing over 300 papers. He dedicated the majority of his career to finding evidence of reincarnation with young children, traveling around the world following these children's leads until his death in 2007.

Dr. Stevenson would check the child's statements and attempt to locate the deceased person the child identified with, then verify the facts of the deceased person's life that matched the child's memory. He also matched birthmarks and birth defects to wounds and scars on the deceased, verified by medical records from autopsy reports and photographs. He has written many books presenting his scientific documentation on what he uncovered in his investigations.

Carol Bowman began her research into children's spontaneous past life memories after her own children began revealing their past lives. Her popular book written in 1997, Children’s Past Lives, was the first non-academic book to explore the phenomenon of reincarnation experiences through young children. Her sequel book, Return to Heaven, was also well received and documents cases where children are reborn within the same families.

Many past life therapists, and the individuals they have helped, have found that after uncovering a past life death trauma their present life fears and phobias are dramatically improved, if not entirely relieved. I never had any past life therapy for my fears outside of the therapy of having to confront those fears over and over again throughout my youth. In time, having to vacation on my father's boat most every summer I challenged my fears and reached a level of tolerance. I eventually loved to watch lightning storms. By the time I became a therapist I could find no fears that I needed to help myself with.

Yet, no matter the documentation and testimonies to past life memories and healing after contacting them, most of the skeptics remain unconvinced. Many Christians and Christian leaders will refute the idea of reincarnation based on their belief and interpretation of Scripture. Christians refuting reincarnation claim there is no evidence in the Bible supporting it while they claim there are many examples where Scriptures supports only one life.

The most frequent Scriptural verse used to claim reincarnation as unbiblical is in Hebrew 9:27 where it states that we die once and then face the judgment. They state that the Bible never mentions people having a second chance at life or coming back as different people or animals.

Those who support reincarnation claim there is another way to look at that verse. In fact, they give several possible meanings besides that we die only one physical death.

  • The word "death" may refer to a death to sin and worldliness.
  • The mortal body does only die once after being born. But this does not preclude coming again in another mortal body.
  • Revelation 20:6 teaches that more than one death is possible. It teaches that the majority of mankind is in danger of a second death. "Blessed and holy are those who have part in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years." If there is no reincarnation this verse would be in contradiction to Hebrew 9:27 that a man only dies once.
  • Hebrew 9 is not talking about reincarnation at all. The whole chapter is about blood sacrifice and the concerns of the Jewish people that the Messiah has to die every year for them as the blood sacrifices rituals done every year. The author is using a simile that just as man only dies once so would Christ in his physical temple. Mortal men cannot die more than once (except for exceptions like Lazarus as part of Jesus' proof of who he was) but that does not preclude the idea that men can be born more than once in a different body with each body that can only die once.

In another verse in a previous chapter in Hebrews, Heb. 7:10 states that when "Melchizedek met Abraham, Levi was still in the body of his ancestor..." This verse refers to a previous time when Levi tithed. That would easily be accepted by believers in reincarnation that Levi tithed in an earlier life. The common Christian interpretation is that it is just referring to Levi’s “seed” being still back with his line of descent, a number of generations before he was born. 

Verses on Returning
Another verse in Job 1:21 states, "Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return there." Christians talk about the suffering of Job and that he is not blaming God for his lot in relation to this verse without giving meaning to returning to the womb. It is impossible they say because it cannot be referring to reincarnation because it is not in the Bible and it is impossible for him to return to his present mother. Yet why would he mention returning naked (without clothing of this world) to a mother's womb if not referring literally to a womb again? Reincarnationists do not view that it is the womb of his current mother but to an unspecific "mother's" womb in another life.

Likewise with Ecclesiastes 5:15 "As he had come naked from his mother’s womb, so will he return as he came." The writer is said not to be speaking about reincarnation, but about coming into the world with nothing and returning to the earth with nothing. Yet how can we be returning to the earth unless we are being reincarnated? When we are resurrected we won't be in this world returning.

The Blind Man
John 9:1–12 is the story of Jesus and the blind man since birth. His disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" The Jewish people believed that Exodus 34:7 says that God "visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children's children to the third and fourth generation."  The Torah claims that although God is merciful, God does not simply wipe the slate clean when begged for forgiveness. Rather God inflicts punishment on the sinner and/or his descendants for four generations.

Thus when the disciples asked Jesus "who sinned this man or his parents" they knew God could pass on the sin to the children. Jesus replied, "neither... this happened so that the works of God would be displayed in him" (John 9:3). If Jesus did not accept reincarnation would he have not challenged them for asking if this man sinned before he was born?

The Christians believe Ezekiel 18:20 tells us that the Old Testament law is no longer applicable after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. “The soul who sins is the one who will die. The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son.” Yet we need to think in terms of what the disciples believed when they asked Jesus, not what we believe today.

Jacob and Esau
In this following verse we read of a child hated (in contrast to loved) by God before even being born and having a chance to sin against God. Christianity has no explanation for why except to say God is a sovereign God and could choose to do what He likes.

"Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad - in order that God's purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls - she was told, The older will serve the younger.' Just as it is written: Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.'" (Romans 9:11-13)

Origen, (185-253), one of the most influential Church theologians, argued that God could not love Jacob and hate Esau until Jacob had done something worthy of love and Esau had done something worthy of hatred, therefore, this passage only means that Jacob and Esau had not yet done good or evil in this life and their conduct before this life was the reason why Esau would serve Jacob. He wrote, "So the one nature of every soul being in the hands of God, and, so to speak, there being but one collection of reasoning entities, certain causes of more ancient date led to some of these being made vessels unto honor, and others vessels unto dishonor." (Origen, de Principiis, Bk. III, ch. i) The phrase "certain causes of more ancient date," is referring to the twins pre-existence whose past life karma caused one to be a vessel of honor and the other not.

Elijah Come Again
Christians have another meaning for the story of Elijah come again as John the Baptist that differs from the interpretation of the proponents of reincarnation. Jesus had said to the crowd, "And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come." Jesus was referring to the Old Testament verse of the prophet Malachi who said in Malachi 4:5 "I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes."

Again, Christians state that it is impossible that either Jesus or the people he was speaking to would interpret this literally because no one believed in reincarnation in those days. Of course there is no proof that this is so and that is why there are many, many interpretations of Scripture from Biblical scholars and from the proponents of reincarnation, One interpretation by a well-respected scholars regarding these words is that John the Baptist is called “Elijah” because he came in the “spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:17) but not Elijah himself. They also state that Elijah never died, and therefore could not be reincarnated because in 2 Kings 2:11 it says, "As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind."

Some in the New Age groups interpret that verse to mean Elijah ascended. Yet the New Testament makes it clear that “no one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man” (John 3:13). Although we know that Elijah went into heaven we don't know what heaven. There are various levels of heaven with one being the atmosphere, which some believe this is the heaven Elijah was taken to. What may confirm that interpretation is that Elijah's disciples looked for him for three days believing he was taken somewhere else on earth. Then several years later during Jehoram's reign, Jehoram received a letter from Elijah (who is supposed to be out of this world) warning the king of dire consequences because of his sins. This letter is recorded in 2 Chronicles 21:12:15. 

When Jesus was transfigured in front of Peter, James, and John it is recorded He said to them that Elijah had come already. In Matthew 11:14 He said, "and if you are willing to believe their message, John is Elijah, whose coming was predicted." Then in Mathew 17:12 Jesus said, "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.”

Some believe the laws of karma came to play in Elijah's death and the appearance of an unjust beheading by King Herod. Going back to Elijah's life he had killed with a sword the prophets of Baal who were associated with the King's wife Jezebel. Consequently, although Elijah may have repented and God forgave him, divine justice through the Law demands "life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth" to satisfy divine justice (Exodus 21:23-25). So when Elijah reincarnated as John the Baptist his life had to end by being killed by the sword. This karma or law of divine justice is taught other places in the Bible. In Matthew 26:52 Jesus warns Peter of not entangling himself in karma saying, "Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword."

Who Do You Say I Am?
In Matthew 16:13–20, Jesus asked his disciples who people were saying that he is. They responded, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” Jesus was not satisfied with this answer. He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Then Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” This answer Jesus approved answering him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.”

Being Born Again
One last verse often used by those who support the belief in reincarnation is in John 3:3-4. A Pharisee named Nicodemus comes to Jesus and asks, "Rabbi, we know you are a teacher from God, because nobody can do these miracles unless God is with him." Jesus then replies to Nicodemus, "Truly, truly I say to you: Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." Nicodemus seems skeptical and wants further clarification. He asks if it is necessary to go back into his mother's womb to be born again, and if so, how is this possible?

In the following, Dr. Herbert Puryear, a clinical psychologist, ordained minister, and former university professor shared his interpretation of this chapter in his book, Why Jesus Taught Reincarnation: A Better News Gospel. Most Gospel readers assume that Nicodemus' question about going back into the womb is said in a mocking tone, simply because he is a Pharisee. But there is nothing in his words to support this especially because he addresses Jesus respectfully as "Rabbi," and he says he knows he is from God. If Nicodemus was seeking to clarify if "rebirth" was literally rebirth in the womb, and, if so, how does it happen, then the next statements by Jesus -- about how one must be born of "water and the spirit," that "flesh begets flesh and spirit begets spirit," and that the wind (in Hebrew or Greek, the same word means "spirit") goes "where it wills," make sense as references to reincarnation. Jesus is not telling Nicodemus to get baptized, he is saying that a soul must be born over and over again to become a Zaddik (saint). Not into his mother's womb again in this life, but into another womb when the spirit goes "where it wills" in the next life.

Greek Philosophers and Church Fathers
There is no doubt reincarnation was a known and accepted belief in Jesus' time on earth as well as before His coming by the Jewish Pharisees. Nowhere in the New Testament is it recorded that Jesus answered anyone with denying, disputing or questioning this belief of reincarnation. Wherever the subject comes under discussion, as it frequently does, the fact of reincarnation is either tacitly accepted or unequivocally asserted, as in the case of Elijah. Origen wrote in his de Principils: "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." Origen was a follower of Plato who also believed in reincarnation. The Greek philosopher Plato said, quoting Socrates, “The return to life is an actual fact, and it is a fact that the living are generated from the dead and that the souls of the dead exist.”​

Other church fathers wrote about reincarnation as a part of their belief. St. Gregory (257-337 AD) wrote: "It is absolutely necessary that the soul should be healed and purified, and that if it does not take place during its life on Earth, it must be accomplished in future lives." (Trinick 1950: 38) According to  Jerome (340-420 AD): "The transmigrations (reincarnation) of souls was taught for a long time among the early Christians as an esoteric and traditional doctrine which was to be divulged to only a small number of the elect." (Jerome, Letter to Demetrias)

Synods and Ecumenical Councils
In the early developing years of the church when someone had an idea that they wanted to put forward they did so in a public forum with the hope to gain populist support for it.  The most popular beliefs had a chance of making its way into the canon.  These meetings came to be called “synods” and numerous groups within the church would call them.  With enough support for the ideas presented in the synod, those at the forefront of these meetings would press for an Ecumenical Council to be called so that new law could be made about what was being presented or discussed. The conflict between the East and the West never stopped with a lot of intrigue as well misconceptions between bishops opposing bishops. A major schism now developed, with excommunicating each other as heretics. The details of what happened between them that brought about these councils and heretical charges is beyond the scope of this article, yet it is important to know how the concepts surrounding Christ and what comprises our Christian beliefs came about.

For example, some synods were called where discussions related to the nature of Jesus as both man and God were discussed. The council that in 451, called the Fourth Ecumenical Council (also known as the Council of Chalcedon). condemned monophysitism (the teaching that Messiah’s two natures are joined into a new single human-divine nature) as heresy and persecuted its advocates. One of the most zealous persecutors was the later Emperor Justinian. Nestorius, Abbot of Antioch, believed that Mary (the mother of Jesus) should not be called “the Mother of God” since she had only given birth to the ‘human’ Christ. But a Council declared Nestorius a heretic, sent him into the desert, and determined that Jesus Christ was simultaneously human and divine. One of Nestorius’ bitterest opponents was Eutyches, who, on the other hand, believed that Christ was "a fusion of human and divine elements".

Twenty years earlier, in 431, the third ecumenical council called the Council of Ephesus confirmed the original Nicene Creed and condemned the teachings of Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople. He held that the Virgin Mary may be called the Christotokos, "Birth Giver of Christ" but not the Theotokos, "Birth Giver of God". Then, in 448, Eutyches was accused of heresy by Domnus II of Antioch and Eusebius, bishop of Dorylaeum, at a synod presided over by Flavian at Constantinople. The council deposed him from his priestly office and excommunicated him.

Eutyches protested against this verdict and received the support of Pope Dioscorus I of Alexandria, the Emperor convoked another Council to Ephesus called The Robber Council of Ephesus. At this council, which assembled in August, 449, Flavian, who started the condemnation of Eutyches, was deposed and exiled instead. The council then reinstated Eutyches. Later, the Council of Chalcedon in 451 condemned the work of the Robber Council and returned Flavian's body to the capital to be buried honorably after he died in exile from wounds received at the Robber Council.

The several differences in teaching among the Christian sects of the fourth century paralleled the Empire's disturbances under the weak emperors so that by the time Justinian took charge in 527, he had serious problems. He, along with Empress Theodora, worked desperately to reunify the crumbling empire, and proceeded to do so on two lines: the first prong of his effort was the drive of his army against the petty states; the second set out to enforce a uniform canon of belief, to be strictly adhered to. No mean theologian himself, he launched his campaign against the beliefs of the Nestorian Christians and other minority groups, and to do so he had to circumvent the decisions of the Council of Chalcedon (451).

Theodora later pressed Patriarch Mennas to convene the synod of the Eastern Church of Constantinople in 543, which sought to revoke the condemnation of monophystism. Mennas, the Patriarch of Constantinople, was ordered to convene a local or provincial synod to deal with this and meet the demands of several churchmen who opposed certain teachings, including Origen's on the pre-existence of souls. During these religious controversies, reincarnation was never once a topic of discussion because some believe it was held to be a fundamental dogma. The local synod accepted the bans phrased by Mennas, but this did not seem to achieve much.

Second Ecumenical Council
Justinian called the fifth Council of Constantinople in 553, now known also as the Second Ecumenical Council. It was presided over by the incumbent patriarch of Constantinople, Eutychius (who had earlier been excommunicated and then reinstated), with the presence of 165 bishops. Pope Vigilius had been summoned by the Emperor but he opposed the council and would not attend as a gesture of protest, and as an indication that he would not be held responsible for the council. There had previously been conflict between Vigilius and the Emperor and Empress Theodora. Thus he was not present at the deliberations, nor was he represented.

Justinian, independent of the Pope, had several of the teachings of the church father Origen banned by a synod. Origen had spoken out in unmistakable terms on the question of the repeated incarnations of the soul. Some have argued that Theodora greatly influenced the outcome of this synod. Some say she did not like the concept of reincarnation because it had the power to wipe away her ability to ascend to the level of a worshiped goddess. Regardless, the deed was done.

The Council drafted a series of anathemas mainly directed against the doctrines of three "schools" or "heretics," the documents relating thereto becoming known as "The Three Chapters." Only these papers were presented to the pope for his approval. Succeeding popes, including Gregory the Great (590-604), while dealing with the matters arising out of the Fifth Council, made no mention of Origen's concepts. Nonetheless, Justinian enforced the acceptance of the decision of what seems to have been merely an extra-conciliary session. He made it appear to have ecumenical endorsement or sanction. The clerics opposing Origen's teachings, mainly the one dealing with the pre-existence of souls, secured an official condemnation, which they tried to make binding.

Anathema 1: Whoever says or thinks that human souls pre-existed, i.e., that they had previously been spirits and holy powers, but that, satiated with the vision of God, they had turned to evil, and in this way the divine love in them had died out (apyugeisas) and they had therefore become souls (yukas) and had been condemned to punishment in bodies, shall be anathema. (Labbe and Cossart, Concilia, Tom. v., col. 677.)

Does the Bible confirm the pre-existence of the soul? This one verse seems to: "Now the word of the Lord came to me, saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:4-5 ). Origen, in his De Principiis said, " How could his soul and its images be formed along with his body, who, before he was created in the womb, is said to be known to God, and was sanctified by Him before his birth?"

Reincarnation did not entirely cease to be practiced by Christians after the anathemas. In the early thirteenth century, the Cathars, a devout and enlightened sect of Christians who believed in reincarnation, read the Bible and where many practiced asceticisms, flourished in Italy and southern France. When the Cathars could not be converted to Catholicism the then reigning Pope launched a crusade to stop their heresy, whereupon half a million of people were massacred. Eventually, the Cathars were completely wiped off the map. This drain set the tone of the brutal Inquisition that would begin soon after. Their belief in reincarnation was just one of the many supposed heresy that caused their ruthless persecution.

We are left with many views on whether Scripture confirms or denies reincarnation. As many as there are great theologians holding the belief in the philosophy of continuing embodiments there are as many or more holding the belief that reincarnation is not true. Yet there is a plethora of books and documents available today on not only past lives done through regressions, but thousands of stories of very young children experiencing memories of their former lives. Near-death experiences sharing a view of the afterlife are abundant, in part, due to the medical profession's advancements in bringing people from death back to life. Their stories all confirm (if you are not a die-hard skeptic) that there is an afterlife and not only that life continues after death but in some cases confirming reincarnation and that they have lived before, such as in Carl Jung's near-death experience.

The choices and sides are many. I will keep my mind and heart open to a higher truth, but for now I believe from the Holy Spirit and my communion with Jesus that reincarnation is a part of God's plan for us and an opportunity to grow in love and wisdom and to serve and help in bringing souls back to God and His truth.