Generally speaking people are unaware that there are definite references in the New Testament that unequivocably imply reincarnation. In fact many ask why, if the subject of reincarnation is so important — from the religious point of view — there is so little mention of it in the Bible. One obvious answer is that the reality of reincarnation, at least in the New Testament, was simply taken for granted, just as we take for granted that a healthy tree which has lost its leaves for the winter will get a new crown of leaves in the following spring. Let us examine the evidence which leads to this conclusion.
The first sign of a “taking for granted” of the doctrine is found in Matthew, 11:13-14; 16:13. Jesus is asking his disciples “Whom do men say that I, the son of man, am” (Matt. 16:13) and the disciples answer “Some say that thou art John the Baptist, some Elias and others Jeremias, or one of the prophets.” How could Jesus be thought to be any of these except in a past life? Elias and Jeremias lived centuries before. As for John the Baptist, since he had recently been put to death, there could not have been a reincarnation, but it seems that some people thought that his spirit could have inspired Jesus. If people could speak in this way they obviously took the doctrine for granted. That Jesus is actually asking the question shows he is aware of the doctrine and considers it valid. Jesus himself tells his disciples who John the Baptist really was in the past: “For all prophets and the law prophesied until John. And if ye will receive it, this is Elias which was for to come. He that hath ears to hear let him hear.” (Matt. 11:13-14). So Elias, according to Jesus himself, came back to earth in the personality of John the Baptist. This is repeated or confirmed in Matt. 17:12: “But I say unto you that Elias is come already and they knew him not, but have done unto him whatsoever they listed. Likewise shall also the son of man suffer of them. 13. The disciples understood that he spake unto them of John the Baptist.”
There is here no equivocation, no polemic: the words are from the Master himself. As for his past identity, Jesus is not interested in discussing it. He was far more interested in finding out what his disciples thought: “Whom do ye say that I am?” (Matt. 16:15). And the answer of Simon that Jesus is the Christ, the son of the Living God, and that nothing else matters, pleases Christ who immediately makes Simon Peter the corner-stone of his church. The point is, it does not matter what we have been in the past and trying to recover our past identities represents an inappropriate clinging to the personality. The doctrine of reincarnation is only important at the personality level in so far as it teaches us that we are given many opportunities on this earth to perfect ourselves and work out our salvation. Over-emphasis on past lives has serious drawbacks. It may encourage sloth: “I’ll make an effort in the next life”. On the other hand it might cause personality attachment, “I was Julius Caesar” or “Cleopatra”, according to predilection. This merely bolsters the ego and is thus detrimental to the spiritual life which requires the ultimate elimination of ego-centredness.
The third reference comes as a question concerning a blind man. The disciples ask Jesus: “Who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind” (John 9:2-3). How could a man sin before he was born? Unless the sin was committed in another life. The apostles are not asking what kind of sin resulted in blindness, but who sinned, taking for granted that the act of sinning itself brought about this dire result. Furthermore, the sin could have been committed either by the man in a previous existence, or by his parents. This implies both that the sins of the parents are visited upon the children, which is a Biblical doctrine, and that the soul exists and therefore pays for the transgressions of previous lives. Jesus does not rebuff the apostles for asking such a question. If the doctrine had been alien to his mind, he would have told them that they were talking nonsense. He simply takes a different attitude. His answer “Neither hath this man sinned nor his parents, but that the works of God should be made manifest in him” (John 9:3) implies that the doctrine of karma (and therefore its corollary, reincarnation) is not always understood rightly and that the calamities that befall humans should not necessarily be laid at its door. Superficially we might take the meaning “that the works of God should be made manifest” as referring to his own healing ministry; that it can be shown that he, as God incarnate, can heal all, even blindness from birth. But I would tend to think that his answer has several levels of much deeper meaning, one possibly being that the man’s blindness (if we take it as a literal physical blindness) was not brought about by sin but by a deliberate choice by the soul for a certain crucial experience necessary for its development. Out of that experience the soul would emerge triumphant through its perfect faith and trust in the “Christ” — by which could have been meant the external Jesus Christ or as appearing the inner divinity to which Saint Paul referred when he said: “My little children of whom I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you” (Galatians 4:19).
That the doctrine of karma (and reincarnation) is all too often used as a crude palliative to resolve problems that appear unresolvable, may have been understood to some extent in Biblical times, even as it is nowadays in certain cultures and communities. This may be gathered from Leviticus where we find the following:
“And if a man cause a blemish in his neighbour as he hath done, so shall it be done to him. Breach for breach, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; as he hath caused a blemish in a man, so shall it be done to him again.” (Lev. 24:19-20; cf. Ex. 21:24. Deut. 19:21).
In this Jewish expression of the law there seems to be no room for the “transformation” of the man, the change of heart and mind that would automatically bring about a different reaction. Jesus seems to have tried to counteract this notion of an inexorable law that leaves no room for human change of attitude in his “new commandment” “that ye love one another”. This commandment superseded all the others and is the law of laws which conveys compassion, forgiveness and grace, and implies the possibility of transformation.
With regard to karma, an interesting passage is found in Luke concerning the “Galileans whose blood Pilate has shed in the midst of their sacrifices” (Luke 13:1). In his commentary, Jesus says: “Suppose ye that these Galileans were sinners above all the Galileans because they suffered such things? I tell you nay; but except ye repent ye shall all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:2-3). The implication is that calamity does not occur to some because they have sinned more than others, but that all of us have wrong attitudes and wrong attitudes lead us into misfortunes of one kind or another. To change one’s attitude, to transform one’s self, is the whole purpose of the many parables by which Jesus taught his disciples. The important point of the Gospels’ teachings is the transformation of the inner man, the psychological man. In its esoteric sense Jesus’ remark to Nicodemus “Thou must be born again” cannot be interpreted as referring to reincarnation, but to that inner transformation of man, equivalent to a new birth. That alone can transmute us into new beings capable of entering into that spiritual state called the kingdom of heaven. This is the main concern of the Gospels and of Jesus’ teachings.