by Nathan A. Barton

Do the passages Matthew 11:11-15 and Matthew 17:9-13 teach reincarnation? In these passages, Jesus refers to the coming of His cousin, John the Baptizer (or Baptist, if you prefer) as being the coming of Elijah, as asked by various people of Him.

Many people have used these verses to support the idea of reincarnation, but we need to look closely at this use. In addition, we also need to consider several other passages, including Mark 9:11-13, Luke 1:17, and John 1:21, where the connection of John the Baptizer and Elijah is also discussed by Jesus.

A Definition of Reincarnation

It is also important to consider some other Biblical information. But first, let us make sure that we are clear on just what reincarnation is. For convenience, let’s use the common definition found in on-line dictionaries, such as The Free Dictionary. This defines “reincarnation” in five ways, and gives an example:

  1. Rebirth of the soul in another body.
  2. A reappearance or revitalization in another form; a new embodiment: "The brownstone had already endured one reincarnation: In the 1940's, it was converted into eight studio apartments" (Ben Lloyd).1
  3. (Christian Religious Writings / Theology) the belief that on the death of the body the soul transmigrates to or is born again in another body
  4.  (Christian Religious Writings / Theology) the incarnation or embodiment of a soul in a new body after it has left the old one at physical death
  5.  embodiment again in a new form, as of a principle or idea

Definitions 1, 3, and 4 really duplicate each other, as do 2 and 5. Those who propose that the Bible (and specifically, these passages) teach reincarnation can be assumed to use 1/3/4, and we will use that assumption for this study. Note in particular that the soul is incarnated in another body, not that the old body is revived or resurrected. (The second definition can be viewed, by the way, as a figurative use of the word, and seemingly could be applied to people as well as objects and ideas, but let us concentrate on the primary definition.)

It is also important to be sure to distinguish between the concepts of reincarnation and resurrection: resurrection is not the same as reincarnation, though some people seem to confuse the two.

Elijah and John

Back to the Bible: All of these passages deal with Elijah and John the Baptizer, and the idea is that John was Elijah reincarnated; that Elijah’s soul (or spirit) left his body at physical death and was born again in another body, that of John the son of Zacharias and Elizabeth, and cousin of Jesus (Luke 1:51).

John was the “forerunner” – he began teaching some time before his younger Cousin began his ministry (Luke 3:1-3), and specifically taught that he was fulfilling the prophesy of Isaiah, and making ready the Way of the Lord. He specifically identified Jesus of Nazareth as the One who was coming (Matthew 3:13-17).

Elijah was the Old Testament (Tanakh) prophet quoted by John, who preached during the reign of Ahab of Israel. Also known as Elias, or Elijah the Tishbite, he was from Gilead, a part of Canaan now in the Kingdom of Jordan, and his career in recorded in I Kings 17:1 to II Kings 2:11. He did not die, but instead was taken up to Heaven by a whirlwind (II Kings 2:11). A later prophet, Malachi, predicted Elisha’s return “before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord” (Malachi 4:5). As a result, Elijah was always mentioned in Hebrew worship on the Shabbat both in the time of Jesus and even today, as well as other Hebrew observances, and was considered to be the harbinger of the Messiah.

Was John Elijah Reincarnated?

In John 1:21, John the Baptizer explicitly denied being Elijah, simply quoting Elijah himself to identify himself as the Forerunner, preparing the Way for the Messiah. This is a strong argument in itself that John was not Elijah reincarnated.

Another strong argument is the fact recorded in II Kings 2:11: Elijah did not die. There can be no reincarnation without death. If John (despite his denial) did have (or was?) the soul of Elijah, that was not reincarnation, but some other miraculous act of God. We know that John’s birth was as miraculous as that of Jesus Himself (Luke 1ff), and this could be part of the miraculous process that led to his birth.

In the Spirit of Elijah

Why, some ask, would Jesus then say that Elijah had returned in fulfillment of Malachi’s prophesy (and Elijah’s own), if he really did not? For the same reason that we speak of someone sending or carrying a warning to others of attack as a “Paul Revere.” Or the same reason that a historian might refer to Simon Bolivar as “George Washington” – not because the messenger is thought to be the reincarnation of Revere or because General Bolivar was the reincarnation of General Washington, but because they filled a role like that previously filled by the earlier person. We do the same thing today, speaking of someone as a “Clara Barton” or “JFK” returned. We can see that Malachi’s prophesy is of this nature as well: a new Elijah, calling “make ye ready the way of the Lord” will appear before that awesome day of the Lord. This is figurative language, just as calling Jesus “the Lamb of God” is figurative: Jesus was not an actual lamb. Nor was He a vine nor a door (John 10:9).

Indeed, those who knew of Elijah’s ascension said (II Kings 2:15), “The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha.” The “spirit” – whether that means only the commission of God or whether that means that the Holy Spirit inhabited Elisha and later John in the same way that the Spirit had dwelt in Elijah, or something else. It does not demand reincarnation as an answer. This is supported by Zacharias’ words in Luke 1:16-17: “he will go forth in the spirit and power of Elijah.” He does not say, “He is Elijah.”

Any Other Evidence of Reincarnation?

Are there other passages in the Bible to support this doctrine, and give us the authority to interpret John as an actual reincarnation of Elijah, or there evidence of someone else being reincarnated?

Some people cite Matthew 17:3 as further proof -- the incident in which Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus and talked with Him on what we call the Mount of Transfiguration. This appearance does not meet the definition of reincarnation, however. Their appearing was miraculous and not a birth; and the disciples recognized them as who they were, they did not have different bodies. While it may be that the disciples recognized them because they were wearing nametags, it is not a good justification for believing in reincarnation.

Still others claim that Jesus taught reincarnation, citing John 3:3 and Jesus’ teaching about the new birth: "In reply Jesus declared, 'I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.'” According to some people, this verse is cited more than any other to support reincarnation in the Bible. But when we study John 3, we find in a few verses that Jesus explains what He means when he says "born again." John 3:5 reads: "Jesus answered, 'I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.'" It is clear that the Lord is speaking of the “new birth” as being born again spiritually, and not as a physical one.

Evidence Against Reincarnation

We now need to look at a few other critical passages, beginning with Hebrews 9:27-28: “And just as it is appointed for people to die once—and after this, judgment — so also the Messiah, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for Him.” This is clear and matches what is taught by all the other New Testament writers: that there is one lifetime after which we will be judged. There is no endless (or even lengthy) cycle of rebirth, of life after life. And there is no need for it as is a common doctrine of Hinduism and other eastern religions. We do not need to be perfected through a long series of incarnations until we are pure enough to ascend to Heaven. Jesus’ sacrifice – His death – perfects us so that we can ascend.

Hebrews 9:27 is reinforced by Romans 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” We do not need to die over and over again because Jesus has purchased freedom from death by His blood. We must die physically – once – because of sin, that of Adam and our own, but we will live eternally because of Jesus’ sacrifice.

Still more passages support this idea that reincarnation is not taught or shown in the Scriptures: In IICorinthians 5:8, Paul speaks of his confidence: “…yet we are confident and satisfied to be out of the body and at home with the Lord.” In death, the Christian goes home to God, whether in Paradise or to Heaven, our spirit and soul are with God. Would He then send us back to “try again?” What about those who are not children of God, faithful to Him? Revelation 20:11-15 speaks of the judgment before the Throne of God: non-believers are judged for their works (they have rejected the blood of Christ Jesus) and then are sent (cast) into the lake of fire. Not sent back to try again.

Job 14:7-12 also explicitly refutes the concept of human reincarnation. There are other passages that show that, taken as a whole, the doctrine or belief of reincarnation is not supported in the Bible.

It is clear that reincarnation is not a valid Christian doctrine which should be believed or taught. Indeed, the idea that we may have other lives ahead of us can be an active deterrent to someone to not accept Jesus the Christ as the Savior.

1 These two actually come from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition copyright ©2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Updated in 2009. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.