Is Reincarnation in the Bible?

Women reading the Holy Bible
krisanapong detraphiphat / Getty Images

Reincarnation is the ancient belief that after death, a person continues to undergo a series of deaths and rebirths into a new body until ultimately reaching a state of purification from sin. At this stage, the cycle of reincarnation ceases as the human soul obtains oneness with the spiritual "Absolute," and thereby experiences eternal peace. Reincarnation is taught in many pagan religions with origins in India, particularly Hinduism and Buddhism.

Christianity and reincarnation are not compatible. While many who believe in reincarnation claim that the Bible teaches it, their arguments hold no biblical foundation. 

Reincarnation in the Bible

  • The word reincarnation means "to come again in the flesh."
  • Reincarnation is contrary to several fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith.
  • Many people who attend church regularly believe in reincarnation, even though orthodox Christian beliefs deny the teaching.
  • The Bible says humans have one life to receive salvation, while reincarnation affords limitless opportunities to get rid of sin and imperfection.

Christian View of Reincarnation

Many apologists in the reincarnation camp claim that their belief can be found in the Bible. They contend that their proof texts from the original manuscripts of the New Testament were either altered or removed to suppress the thinking. Nevertheless, they claim that vestiges of the teaching remain in Scripture.

John 3:3
Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God.” (NLT)

Supporters of reincarnation say this verse speaks of rebirth into another body, but the notion is pulled out of context. Jesus had been talking to Nicodemus, who wondered in confusion, "How can an old man go back into his mother’s womb and be born again?" (John 3:4). He thought Jesus was referring to physical rebirth. But Jesus explained that he was talking about spiritual rebirth: "I assure you, no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit. Humans can reproduce only human life, but the Holy Spirit gives birth to spiritual life. So don’t be surprised when I say, ‘You must be born again’" (John 3:5–7).

Reincarnation prescribes a physical rebirth, while Christianity involves a spiritual one.

Matthew 11:14
And if you are willing to accept what I say, he [John the Baptist] is Elijah, the one the prophets said would come. (NLT)

Defenders of reincarnation claim that John the Baptist was Elijah reincarnated.

But John himself emphatically denied this assertion in John 1:21. Furthermore, Elijah never, in fact, died, which is a critical element of the reincarnation process. The Bible says that Elijah was taken up bodily or translated into heaven (2 Kings 2:1–11). A prerequisite of reincarnation is that a person dies before being reborn into another body. And, since Elijah appeared with Moses at the transfiguration of Jesus, how could he have been the reincarnation of John the Baptist, yet still Elijah?

When Jesus said that John the Baptist was Elijah, he was referring to John’s ministry as a prophet. He meant that John had functioned in the same "spirit and power of Elijah," just as the angel Gabriel foretold to Zechariah, John’s father, before his birth (Luke 1:5-25).

These are just two of a handful of verses that proponents of reincarnation use either out of context or with improper interpretation to support their belief. More disturbing, however, is that reincarnation opposes several fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith, and the Bible makes this plain.

Salvation Through Atonement

Reincarnation asserts that only through a repeating cycle of death and rebirth is the human soul able to purge itself of sin and evil and become worthy of everlasting peace through assimilation with the eternal All. Reincarnation eliminates the need of a Savior who sacrificially died on the cross for the sins of the world. In reincarnation, salvation becomes a form of work based on human actions rather than on the atoning death of Christ

Christianity asserts that human souls are reconciled to God through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ on the cross:

He saved us, not because of the righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He washed away our sins, giving us a new birth and new life through the Holy Spirit. (Titus 3:5, NLT)
And through him God reconciled everything to himself. He made peace with everything in heaven and on earth by means of Christ’s blood on the cross. (Colossians 1:20, NLT)

Atonement speaks of Christ’s work of saving humanity. Jesus died in the place of the ones he came to save:

He himself is the sacrifice that atones for our sins—and not only our sins but the sins of all the world. (1 John 2:2, NLT)

Because of Christ’s sacrifice, believers stand forgiven, cleansed, and righteous before God:

For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ. (2 Corinthians 5:21, NLT)

Jesus fulfilled all the righteous requirements of the law for salvation:

But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. And since we have been made right in God’s sight by the blood of Christ, he will certainly save us from God’s condemnation. For since our friendship with God was restored by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies, we will certainly be saved through the life of his Son. (Romans 5:8–10, NLT)

Salvation is God’s free gift. Humans cannot earn salvation through any of their own doing:

God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. (Ephesians 2:8–9, NLT)

Judgment and Hell

Reincarnation denies the Christian doctrines of judgment and hell. Through a continuous cycle of death and rebirth, reincarnation maintains that the human soul eventually frees itself from sin and evil and becomes united with the all-embracing One. 

The Bible affirms that at the precise moment of death, the believer’s soul departs the body and goes immediately into the presence of God (2 Corinthians 5:8, Philippians 1:21–23). Unbelievers go to Hades, where they await judgment (Luke 16:19–31). When the time for judgment arrives, the bodies of both the saved and unsaved will be resurrected:

And they will rise again. Those who have done good will rise to experience eternal life, and those who have continued in evil will rise to experience judgment. (John 5:29, NLT).

Believers will be taken to heaven, where they will spend eternity (John 14:1–3), while unbelievers will be thrown into hell and spend eternity separated from God (Revelation 8:12; 20:11–15; Matthew 25:31–46).

Resurrection vs. Reincarnation

The Christian doctrine of resurrection teaches that a person dies only once:

And just as each person is destined to die once and after that comes judgment. (Hebrews 9:27, NLT)

When the body of flesh and blood undergoes resurrection, it will be changed into an eternal, immortal, body:

It is the same way with the resurrection of the dead. Our earthly bodies are planted in the ground when we die, but they will be raised to live forever. (1 Corinthians 15:42, NLT)

Reincarnation involves many deaths and rebirths of the soul into a series of many flesh and blood bodies—a repetitive process of life, death, and rebirth. But Christian resurrection is a one-time, conclusive event.

The Bible teaches that humans have one chance—one life—to receive salvation before death and resurrection. Reincarnation, on the other hand, allows for unlimited opportunities to rid the mortal body of sin and imperfection.

Sources

  • Defending Your Faith (pp. 179–185). Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications.
  • Reincarnation. Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (p. 639).