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Malachi 4:5:

I will send you the prophet Elijah. He will come before the day of the Lord arrives. It will be a great and terrifying day

Jesus says in Matthew 11:14

"and if you are willing to believe their message, John is Elijah, whose coming was predicted"

Jesus says in Mathew 17:12

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.”

It's pretty clear from the above verses that John was Elijah reincarnated.

Wouldn't the above verses imply that reincarnation is true?

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For a comprehensive treatment of the topic, see The Resurrection of the Son of God by N. T. Wright. – Jon Ericson Nov 22 '12 at 17:19
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It is definitely not pretty clear. This is really an attempt to read into Scripture. If it really were pretty clear, then it would be affirmed elsewhere even more clearly and the church would accept that doctrine. – Narnian Nov 27 '12 at 13:47
up vote 25 down vote accepted

Faulty Premise #1: John the Baptist was a reincarnation of Elijah

When Jesus asked Peter who people said he was, he answered that some people thought that Jesus was Elijah come back. Peter knew better and said Jesus was the Christ. In any event, John the Baptist himself directly denied the claim (see John 1:19-21).

What Jesus more likely was saying in Matthew 11 is that John the Baptist was a prophet in the tradition of Elijah. Elijah was the greatest of the prophets (even if his disciple Elisha inherited a double portion of his spirit). All of the prophets that followed came in the name and spirit of Elijah, in the same way that some of Paul's letters apparently were created after his death. They were in the spirit and tradition even if not the actual man.

Note also Elijah never died - he was taken up into heaven, and people thought he would return. As such, no Elijah was not being thought to have reincarnated- only returned. Elijah's return was long a part of Jewish custom. Even today, during a Passover sedar, a chair is left empty for Elijah. But again, since he did not die, Jews look for his return, not his reincarnation.

Faulty Premise #2: The Jewish world view has any concept of reincarnation at all

The most basic rule of hermeneutics suggests that a text cannot mean what it could not mean to the original audience. If the Jews had no concept of reincarnation, then any interpretation that says it does has a very, very high bar to clear.

In his book The Gift of the Jews, Thomas Cahill advances the thesis that the primary distinctive philosophy of the Jews was precisely that history was not circular. Their linear idea of a human life was a departure from others and was an explicit rejection of reincarnation. As such, a text would need to be exceedingly explicit to a culture that rejected circular life patterns, and the obscure interpretation above (especially in light of the more obvious intepretation) simply doesn't hold water.

Furthermore, the book of Hebrews - written to the people into which both Jesus and John the Baptist were born - explicitly reject reincarnation. As the writer points out in 9:27,

It is appointed unto a man once to die and then the judgement.

Here we do have an explicit rejection of reincarnation by the followers of Jesus. There is one death. There is one judgement. Hence, in any Christian worldview, you don't come back.

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Elijah was taken up with his mortal body but John the baptist was born to Zachariah & Elizabeth. So how could he be Elijah returned? – Martin Nov 22 '12 at 12:56
    
Remarks revised and extended. – Affable Geek Nov 22 '12 at 13:04
    
It might also be useful to incorporate Mark 12:26-27, which seems to suggest that "the dead" are not as "dead" as we presume. They're still alive in God. And the living requiring no sort of reincarnation to "return" and do their work! – svidgen Nov 27 '12 at 21:00

The short answer is: No, reincarnation is not affirmed in the Bible.

Here is the long answer, extracted from my article, "The Bible, Emanuel Swedenborg, and Reincarnation":

What does the Bible say about reincarnation?

The word “reincarnation” does not appear in the Bible. However, there are several places in the Bible where the idea of reincarnation comes up.

Let’s be clear about this.

There are many spiritual leaders who claim that the Bible teaches reincarnation. However, the fact that the idea of reincarnation shows up in the Bible does not mean it is true according to the Bible. It only means that in Biblical times there were people who believed in reincarnation. In the few places where it does come up, reincarnation is not affirmed in the Bible. And there are many passages that state clearly that once we die, we go to an eternal afterlife, from which we do not come back.

As we will see, the Bible, especially the Gospels, offers a teaching in place of reincarnation that is much deeper, more spiritual, and in the end, more just and human than reincarnation.

Let’s look at some of the places where the idea of reincarnation is present in the Bible.

Was a man born blind because he sinned in a previous life?

John 9 tells the story of Jesus healing a man born blind, and its aftermath. When Jesus first encountered the man, his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). Of course, for the man to have sinned resulting in his being born blind, he would have had to sin in a previous life.

However, Jesus rejected both of the possible explanations that his disciples suggested: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him” (John 9:3). That is a fascinating reply, with a lot of meaning, as explored in the rest of the chapter. But for our purposes at the moment, the point is that Jesus rejected the idea that sins in a supposed previous life were the reason for this man’s blindness from birth. And since the doctrine of reincarnation generally holds that sins in past lives are the reason we suffer in our present life, by extension Jesus rejected the whole idea of reincarnation.

Was Jesus a reincarnation of John the Baptist or one of the prophets?

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 heartily approved of. Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” He goes on to say that he will build his church on the “rock” of this truth (not on Peter himself, as the Catholic Church teaches).

Once again, when his disciples present Jesus with popular speculations that he was a reincarnation of John the Baptist (impossible, since John the Baptist and Jesus lived at the same time) or one of the ancient prophets, Jesus did not accept that idea. Instead, he accepted the idea that he is the Christ (the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word “Messiah,” meaning “the anointed one”), and the Son of God.

Incidentally, the Bible also does not say that Jesus was a reincarnation of King David. Like Elijah as a prophet (see below), in the Hebrew scriptures David became a figure representing greatness as a king. In associating Jesus with David, the Bible does not mean that Jesus was a reincarnation of David. It means that he took over from David in spirit as the greatest King of all time.

Was John the Baptist a reincarnation of the prophet Elijah?

There was also a lot of speculation that John the Baptist was a reincarnation of the ancient prophet Elijah. This came about because of a prophecy in the Old Testament:

Behold, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse. (Malachi 4:5–6)

And in fact, in the Gospels, Jesus does identify John the Baptist as Elijah who was to come (see Matthew 11:13–14, 17:10–13). This has been seized upon by those who believe in reincarnation to say that Jesus did, indeed, teach reincarnation. But this idea cannot withstand scrutiny. Neither the prophecy in Malachi nor Jesus’ words identifying John the Baptist with Elijah were meant to be taken literally.

What does this prophecy mean, then? And how was it fulfilled by John?

Essentially, it means that John was to be a great prophet like Elijah, preparing the way for the coming of the Lord. In the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament), Elijah had come to be a representative figure of prophets, and of prophecy in general. This is why in the Gospel of Luke, an angel of the Lord told John’s father Zechariah that his yet unborn son would go before the Lord “with the spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:17, emphasis added). John was not to literally be Elijah, but to “wear the mantle of Elijah” (in Biblical terms) as a great and powerful prophet—the last of the Biblical prophets, leading up to Jesus himself.

We can be assured that John was not literally a reincarnation of Elijah by a later incident recorded in the Gospels. After John’s death, at the time of Jesus’ transfiguration, Jesus’ closest disciples, Peter, James, and John, saw Moses and Elijah with Jesus (Matthew 17:1–13; Mark 9:2–13; Luke 9:28–36). Now, if Elijah had been reincarnated as John the Baptist, he would no longer be Elijah, but John. Yet after John’s death, both Elijah and Moses were still living in the spiritual world as themselves. Many centuries after they had lived and breathed on earth, they had not been reincarnated and become someone else.

In short, according to the Bible story, Elijah could not possibly have been reincarnated as John the Baptist. Elijah was still living in the spiritual world, very much himself, after John the Baptist had already lived and died.

For some other Bible stories in which well-known figures are seen or mentioned as alive and themselves (not some other, reincarnated being) in the spiritual world years or even centuries after their deaths, see 1 Samuel 28:3–25; Matthew 22:31–32; Luke 16:19–31.

The Bible denies reincarnation, and affirms an eternal afterlife

The stories about the man born blind, the question of who Jesus was, and John the Baptist fulfilling the prophecy of Elijah’s return are sometimes pointed to by reincarnation supporters to argue that the Bible teaches reincarnation. But in fact they show just the opposite. Wherever the idea of reincarnation is brought up in the Bible, it is either directly denied or the story itself makes that interpretation impossible.

Meanwhile, there are many passages in the Bible stating either directly or through imagery that once we die, we move on to an eternal state from which we do not return. Here are just a few of them:

As the cloud fades and vanishes, so those who go down to Sheol [the grave or the underworld] do not come up; they return no more to their houses, nor do their places know them anymore. (Job 7:9–10)

“But now he is dead; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.” (2 Samuel 12:23)

“And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:46)

And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched. (Mark 9:47–48)

And just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment . . . (Hebrews 9:27)

Yes, there are shadows of reincarnation in the Bible. But the whole story of the Bible is based on the idea that we humans have but one life on earth, and we then we move on to our eternal reward or punishment, never to return.

What is the deeper meaning of reincarnation?

There is another story in the Bible that relates to reincarnation: Jesus’ nighttime conversation with Nicodemus in John 3:1–21. That story offers the key to understanding the real, deeper meaning behind the popular misconception of individual reincarnation.

Reincarnation in itself is a rather materialistic and physical-minded belief. Like the doctrine of bodily resurrection held to by many conservative Christians, the doctrine of reincarnation is well-adapted to the minds of people who are focused on material rewards and punishments.

However, it also plants the seeds of a deeper understanding of the meaning of life, death, and rebirth. That’s because if we look deeper, the real meaning of reincarnation is not physical rebirth, but spiritual rebirth. It points to the same spiritual reality that the Christian Gospels express through their teachings about being “born again.”

Here is part of Jesus’ nighttime conversation with Nicodemus:

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.”

Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”

Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the spirit.” (John 3:1–8)

Here Jesus makes it clear that the rebirth he is talking about is not re-entering the womb and being born again physically, as in the doctrine of reincarnation. Instead, the rebirth he is talking about is being “born of the spirit.”

In plain words, what Jesus is talking about is becoming new people in our minds and hearts. In 2 Corinthians 5:17, the apostle Paul is referring to the same thing when he speaks of our becoming “new creations” in Christ.

In every case, the scriptures are not talking about physical rebirth, but spiritual rebirth.

Note: This answer is based on the Bible as understood within the Swedenborgian denominations that accept the theology of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772).

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I suppose if you read those couple of verses in isolation, you could interpret it as reincarnation.

But we must ask, In what sense would Elijah return? As Elijah never died but was taken up bodily into Heaven, he could return by coming back from Heaven. Presumably he could be reincarnated, as you mention. Or this might be meant in a non-literal sense, that someone would come along who would be like Elijah.

Like, during the last election I heard some Republican say, "We need another Ronald Reagan." Did he mean that the country or his party needs a clone of Ronald Reagan, or some other form of exact duplicate? Surely not. He simply meant that we need another person who is like Mr Reagan in such-and-such ways.

Based on Bible verses like the one quoted by Wikis above, the Bible clearly teaches that there is no reincarnation, that we each live and die once. So Jesus could not have meant that John the Baptist was the reincarnation of Elijah. As John was born in the normal way, he apparently did not mean that Elijah had returned from Heaven, either. Thus, he may have simply meant that John was like Elijah in some ways, e.g. in being a great prophet. Or he may have meant something more specific than this, that there was some spiritual or supernatural phenomenon going on here. We can speculate about that, but I don't know of any scriptural basis to go beyond this.

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No, I think that It would instead means that It would be at the affected time a prophet like Elijah, not that Elijah himself will born again and walk on earth another time.

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Welcome to Christianity.SE! While I agree with your opinion, you may want to check out the faq to see what makes a good supported answer. (hint:back up your claims.) That said, I'm glad to see answers from Africa! – Affable Geek Nov 25 '12 at 13:50

Jesus is called "Israel" (Isa. 49:3) and "David" (Ezek.37:24), both notable patriarchs. Would you also think that Jesus is a reincarnation of both Israel and David?

John was prophetically referred to as "Elijah." It has nothing to do with reincarnation.

John 1:21 And they asked him, What then? Art thou Elias? And he saith , I am not. Art thou that prophet? And he answered , No.

In John 1:21, John the Baptist responds "no" because the Pharisees wanted to know if he was actually Elijah who had returned. This is because the predominate belief in Judaism was that Elijah himself would return from heaven in order to announce the Messianic advent.

Matthew 11:14 And if ye will receive [it], this is Elias, which was for to come.

On the other hand, in Matthew 11:14 (and the other synoptics), it is said that John was indeed Elijah. The answer to this is that John was not Elijah himself, but the prophetic fulfillment of Elijah, like Jesus to David and Israel. As Luke says, John the Baptist came in the "power and spirit of Elijah" (Luke 1:17).

The Jews often called others by the name of "Elijah":

Compare Targum Jonathan, Exo. 6:18:

He lived to see Phinehas, who is Elijah, the Great Priest, who is to be sent to the captivity of Israel at the end of the days.

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In addition to Affable Geek's answer, I would like to add this verse clearly showing that reincarnation is incompatible with Christianity, Hebrews 9:27:

... man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment...

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will you be offended if I incorporate your answer into mine? You are right to point this out- I was so fixated on what I viewed as a faulty premise that I neglected to give the theology. – Affable Geek Nov 23 '12 at 15:43
    
@AffableGeek: no problem, thx for asking. – Wikis Nov 23 '12 at 18:30

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