Thursday, March 12, 2009

Does Scripture teach reincarnation?

Absurd as it may seem, there are actually some folks out there who pretend that Scripture teaches reincarnation. Robert Almeder tries to make just such a case:

“There are basically four New Testament texts that Geddes MacGregor (and others) cited in favor of reincarnation. The first is from the gospel of John [Jn 9:1-3], and it concerns the man born blind whom Jesus cured,” Death and Personal Survival, 67.

“Commentators have noted that the disciples apparently thought there were only two possible explanations for blindness: either the man preexisted his body and was being punished for sin in that earlier existence, or the parents sinned and the punishment was passed on to the offspring…Jesus does not deny the doctrine of reincarnation that his disciples apparently accept,” ibid. 67.

i) He doesn’t cite any commentators who present these two exegetical options. Needless to say, if you actually consult standard commentaries on John, none of them offers reincarnation as an exegetical option.

ii) Having told the reader that there are only two possible explanations, Almeder then proceeds to totally ignore one of the possible explanations (hereditary guilt) which he himself presented.

iii) The disciples either had in mind prenatal sin or hereditary guilt. Neither explanation has anything in common with reincarnation.

iv) Even more to the point, Jesus explicitly rejects their interpretation of the event.

“The second text–also from John [Jn 3:3-7]–is stronger in that it reveals that Jesus actually taught reincarnation,” ibid. 67.

i) This is willfully obtuse. Nicodemus takes Jesus literally. Jesus corrects his misinterpretation. He explains his figurative usage to Nicodemus. He’s using birth or rebirth as a spiritual metaphor.

ii) Moreover, there’s a play on words: it can either mean “born again” or “born from above.” That double entendre reinforces the figurative connotation.

“The third text is from Matthew [16:13-14, par. Mk 8:27-28; Lk 9:18-19]. Clearly, the disciples are saying that some people believe Jesus is the reincarnation of John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets. But Jesus does not correct them and insist that the doctrine of reincarnation is false; rather, he makes the point that he existed before all the prophets,” ibid. 68.

i) To the contrary, the point of eliciting these popular opinions, superstitions, and rumors is to contrast popular opinion with the true identity of Jesus. Jesus is none of the above. Rather, he’s the Son of God.

ii) Since Jesus and John the Baptist were contemporaries, it would be physically impossible for Jesus to be the reincarnation of John the Baptist.

iii) Even in theory, reincarnation is hardly the only way in which a person could return from the dead. It might take the form of an apparition (e.g. Samuel; Moses & Elijah at the Transfiguration). It might take the form of a bodily resurrection (e.g. Mt 27:52-53). Different modalities are possible. Different from reincarnation.

“Finally, also in Matthew [11:7-15]…Jesus asserts that Elijah has returned in the person of John the Baptist,” ibid. 68.

i) This is typological. Elijah prefigures John the Baptist.

ii) And if we equate typology with reincarnation, then that generates some odd consequences since types include inanimate objects as well as people. In what sense is the temple reincarnated? Does it have a soul? Is the temple reborn?

Almeder clearly began with a precommitment to reincarnation, and then attempted to superimpose that alien outlook onto the text of Scripture.

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