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Did Jesus and the disciples believe in reincarnation?
Thank you for your question about the life of Jesus and the disciples. Your question is an interesting one and also very important. Jesus said that he was “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6) and as the apostle Peter said that only Jesus had the words of eternal life (John 6:68), and so understanding clearly what he said and taught is vital.
You may be aware that the word 'reincarnation' does not occur in any English translations of the New Testament and so I'm going to look at the main passages that may give rise to the belief that Jesus (or his disciples) held to some sort of belief in reincarnation. Then I will look at whether the idea of reincarnation is compatible with the message of the New Testament.
Reincarnation is the belief that after death, a person’s soul begins life in a new body within the context of a cycle of deaths and rebirths. It is very different from the biblical teaching of resurrection which refers to an event at the end of this age when those who trust in Jesus are brought into new life, with new bodies that will live forever. With this definition in mind, the one verse that may lead to an understanding that Jesus taught or believed in reincarnation can be found in Matthew 11.
Whilst he was preaching in Galilee, Jesus speaks to the crowds about John the Baptist and says to them; “if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come” (Matthew 11:14) Jesus is making a direct reference to an Old Testament prophecy found in Malachi 4:5 "Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes."
The expectation that Elijah would return before the coming of the Messiah was tied up in this text, and this was anticipated by many during Jesus' ministry. Many of the Jewish religious leaders believed and taught that Elijah would return before the coming of the Messiah.
So was John the Baptist the reincarnation of the great Old Testament prophet Elijah?
In John 1:21, when John is approached by priests from Jerusalem seeking his identity, they ask him directly whether or not he is Elijah:
They asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.”
John very clearly states that he is not Elijah, certainly not in the way that they were anticipating. So how then do we resolve this tension between Jesus' words saying that John is Elijah, and John saying that he isn't? The answer is tied up in the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel. When the birth of John is foretold to his father Zechariah by the angel Gabriel, the angel speaks about the life and ministry that John will have; "he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared" (Luke 1:17)
The angel does not say that John the Baptist is Elijah come again, but that his ministry will be like that of Elijah. There are great similarities between John and Elijah both their appearance (compare 2 Kings 1:8 with Matthew 3:4) and in a message of repentance to God's people (compare 1 Kings 18:21 with Luke 3:3). John was a prophet like Elijah, in the same power and anointing, a promised messenger sent to God's people to let them know that the Day of the Lord was near and to prepare the way for the Messiah.
This prevents us from believing that John was the reincarnation of the prophet Elijah. It is also worth stating that because Elijah did not die, but was taken up in a Chariot of Fire (2 Kings 2) and because he did not die, there is no need for his reincarnation.
However, the rest of the bible is in opposition to the notion of reincarnation. The writer to the Hebrews says it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgement (Hebrews 9:27) showing clearly that once a person has come to the end of their life what is waiting for them is not another try, but a judgement before God for their life.
Central to Christianity is the teaching that Jesus died on the cross for the forgiveness of sin. During the last supper, Jesus says to his disciples in Matthew 26:28, "for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins". The cross is at odds with the notion that humanity needs to repeat the cycle of reincarnation to remove their wrong doing. At the cross, Jesus deals with the sins of the world, and offers forgiveness to all who put their trust in him.
The apostle Paul declares "let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses" (Acts 13:38-39)
I hope this helps to give you some clarity on the teaching of Jesus. The message that Jesus and the disciples proclaimed was that through Jesus' atoning sacrifice on the cross we can come to know God and be forgiven from our sins, this can be done during this life only, there are no second chances.
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*All Scripture references are taken From The English Standard Version of the Holy Bible unless stated otherwise
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