By Jill Lowy
I had a Christian friend of mine ask me about reincarnation the other day. My friend and I practice Hatha Yoga together at the local fitness center. She is familiar with yoga philosophy and reincarnation, but wanted to know how it could fit into her theology. Her pastor had told her that it was not a Christian doctrine and was a belief held by many Hindus and Buddhists. I told her that his statement was true of mainstream Christianity today, but that reincarnation had many roots in early Christianity.
For those who are not familiar with the term reincarnation, it comes from the Latin, “re-meaning over again,” in carnis meaning “in flesh or reinfleshment.” Basically reincarnation means to return to the flesh again after death. The basic theology of reincarnation is that all people have a soul or spirit, and after death are reborn again on the physical plane. The belief in reincarnation has been around for thousands of years and can be seen in early Egyptian, Hindu and Buddhist theology. Now what many people do not know is that the belief in reincarnation was also held in early Christianity. First of all, we see the belief in reincarnation throughout the Hermetic literature which had an impact on the formulation of early Christianity. Secondly, we see the doctrine of reincarnation discussed by the early Church fathers i.e., St. Augustine, Clement of Alexandria and Origen. Thirdly, reincarnation is prevalent in some of the early Christian Gnostic sects, such as the Valentinian and Sethians. Later in the medieval period, reincarnation is advocated by the Templars, the Cathars and the Waldensian Christian sects. And following the Renaissance period, reincarnation is central to the Christian Spiritualist Movement and especially to the Rosicrucians.
Although the Christian Bible does not specifically discuss the belief in reincarnation, it is strongly alluded to in several passages. The principle person that was to return was Elijah; his reincarnation is indicated as John the Baptist. Jesus spoke, “And if you will receive it, this is Elijah, who was to come (Matt. 11:14). Herod when hearing of the fame of Jesus told his servants that this is John the Baptist who has come back from the dead (14:1-2). Others thought Jesus was reincarnated. When Jesus asked his disciples who others said he was they answered John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the other prophets (16:13-14). The Jewish priests and Levites from Jerusalem questioned John the Baptist asking who he was…if not the Christ, then Elijah? (John 1:19-21).
Many Christians believe in reincarnation while maintaining their Christian beliefs. Many of my friends who practice yoga also believe in reincarnation and are able to maintain their Christian beliefs. Many popular, well known Christian writers, such as Rudolf Steiner, Geddes Macgregor and the well know psychic, Edgar Cayce believed in reincarnation. Nancy Roth, who is an Episcopal priest, wrote the book, Invitation to Christian Yoga that discusses the belief in reincarnation and Christian theology.
I don’t think that mainstream Christianity is going to advocate the belief in reincarnation any time soon. Not at least until there is hard scientific evidence. It took a while for the Church to come around to the idea that the earth is not the center of the solar system. But I think those individuals who are open-minded should reflect on the belief in reincarnation as it gives an explanation as to why there are so many injustices in this world. Why are babies born deformed? Why do good people suffer tremendous losses? How come so many things seem so unfair? One person is rich, another is so poor. One person is born into a wealthy family, another into a ghetto. Why so much inequality? The theology of reincarnation explains that there is a balance to life and that everyone “reaps what they sow”. If you help others in this life, then others will help you, either in this life or the next. If you hurt others, then you will be hurt, either in this life or the next. Our fate is a result of our past actions and we are ultimately responsible for our situation on this earth. We can improve this life and the next by being good people. We become good people by following Christ’s and other religious saints’ teachings, and by being kind and helping others. It is our choice, but we are held accountable for the choices we make. This is what reincarnation has to teach us.
For further information, see:
Nancy Roth, Invitation to Christian Yoga, Charles Addison & David Childress,
History of the Knights Templar,
J.M. Dechanet, Christian Yoga,
Paramahansa Yogananda, Yoga of Jesus,
Richard Smoley, Inner Christianity, A Guide to the Esoteric Tradition.