This week's question comes to us from two sources. Kathy in Georgia and Susan in Oklahoma both want to know about the Biblical view of reincarnation--is there one, and if there is, how does Christianity deal with it?
When I think of reincarnation I once used to think primarily of the Hindu faith. In a nutshell the Hindu faith teaches we are judged in each life we live and progress either up or down the ladder of creation (and all living creatures are subject to reincarnation, from ants to human to cattle) until one reaches a state of perfection and becomes one in Nirvana. However, in more recent times, the New Age movement has adopted reincarnation as one of its tenets, thus there has been a renewal of interest in the belief.
The traditions of orthodox Christianity have always rejected the claims of reincarnation, and yet there are at least two instances in the scriptures where reincarnation is suggested. The first is in the answer of Christ to the crowds about John the Baptist, "For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John came; and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah" (Matthew 11:13-14). Here Christ indicates rather directly that John is Elijah come back to earth, i.e., reincarnated. The second instance of suggested reincarnation is in Christ himself. In the context of 1 Corinthians 15:45-47 Paul suggests that Christ is a reincarnation of Adam, "Thus it is written, 'The first man, Adam, became a living being;' the last Adam became a life-giving spirit" (15:45).
For the most part, Christians tend to simply dismiss these two passages as indicating types of figures, thus John is a prophet much like Elijah and Christ is the antithesis of Adam. However, for those seeking support for the belief in reincarnation these passages are pivotal, for none can deny they suggest this teaching.
The difficulty in reconciling reincarnation with Christianity is the teachings regarding forgiveness and eternity. According the traditional Christian view of forgiveness, Christ has "paid the price" for the sins of all (Romans 6:10), though those of the Calvinistic view believe Christ paid only for the sins of the elect, or those who God has fore-ordained for salvation. In either case, to appropriate this forgiveness one has only to "call on the name of the Lord" (Acts 2:21). This teaching would indicate that the purpose of reincarnation, the cleansing and purification of one's soul, would be redundant.
The teachings of orthodox Christianity regarding eternity also belie reincarnation. Christ taught that after death came life with God (cf. Matthew 22:30-32). Paul stated, "We are confident and willing to be absent from the body, to be present with the Lord" (1 Corinthians 5:8), thus indicating those who have died in this life are present with God. The bulk of the teachings throughout scripture regarding the hereafter seem clear that once one has completed this life we pass into another "dimension," so to speak, that is, a place where we are with God (or one with God).
Orthodox Christianity has, therefore, rejected the notion of reincarnation. To be sure, there are Christians whose jury is still out regarding reincarnation, for no one has the corner on truth. But for the vast majority of Christians, there is comfort that what lies ahead is an eternity of presence with God.