The disciples asked him, “Why then do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?” Jesus replied, “To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things. But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way, the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that he was talking about John the Baptist.
—Matthew 17:10-13, NIV
The question often arises: Was John the Baptist a reincarnation of Elijah?
The answer is no, for these reasons:
- The concept that the general population is recycled through a series of incarnations is completely absent from Jewish thinking and from all surrounding cultures.
- We see this in Roman, Greek, Germanic, Celtic, Nordic, and Egyptian mythology, all of which conceived of the dead as proceeding to a special realm of the dead where they remained forever. Clearly, the Egyptian funerary rites, for example, make no sense unless it is understood that the dead were being prepared for a one-way trip.
- In the Psalms and in Ecclesiastes, it is especially clear that the Hebrews believed that the soul upon death entered Sheol, never to return. In fact the entire book of Ecclesiastes is predicated upon the idea that life is brief and death is permanent.
- Therefore, we cannot interpret the Hebrews as anticipating the reincarnation of Elijah, since the concept of reincarnation was absent.
- The idea of reincarnation requires the person who is being reincarnated to die first.
- That is, a person can only be in one lifetime at a time; the alleged reincarnations take place serially and not in parallel. No one can be the “reincarnation” of me until after my death.
- The Hebrews believed, as it is recorded in scripture, that Elijah never died, but was assumed into heaven in a fiery chariot. In the process of being taken up into heaven into a fiery chariot, his mantle (that is, his coat) fell upon his protégé who took over his duties. Therefore, even if the concept of reincarnation were present in Hebrew culture at the time, Elijah is the last person they would expect to be reincarnated, because he wasn’t dead. They would expect him to come down bodily from heaven, along the lines of what happened in the vision recorded in this chapter of Matthew.
- Since Jesus was very well acquainted with scripture, we can hardly expect Him to make the mistake of claiming that a person was reincarnated without dying first!
- Reincarnation directly contradicts resurrection.
- Clearly, if we are reincarnated over and over again, there is no need for the process to have an ending. (Buddhists believe that the cycle is endless and requires escape, not culmination.) There is also no need for a resurrection or a last day. For if we are resurrected on an arbitrarily chosen last day, as which lifetime will we be reincarnated? It is also not so important to make proper choices in this life, since there will be many more opportunities to correct errors.
- Scripture teaches that the universe is not eternal, but that it had a beginning in God’s creation and that it will have a final ending. With that, the overwhelming majority of scientific cosmologists agree. Scripture goes beyond that to assert that the universe has a purpose, which is redemption of the human race, which will culminate in the resurrection and judgment on the last day. Jesus also teaches that moral decisions and right living are urgent. The prophet Ezekiel teaches in chapter 18 that the death of the wicked is a tragedy that can only be overcome if the wicked people mend their ways beforehand—an idea that is also inconsistent with reincarnation.
Thus we see that reincarnation and Hebrew thought are fundamentally incompatible, and the incompatibility grows in Jesus’ teaching of a last day, a resurrection, and a judgment.
So what were the disciples thinking when they concluded that “Elijah’s coming” had been fulfilled in John the Baptist? Surely not a reincarnation, because that concept, even if it were present, would not have been applicable because they considered Elijah still to be alive.
Jesus meant that John the Baptist was Elijah in a representational sense. If scripture says that Israel suffered under Pharaoh four hundred years, none of us, nor any of the ancient Hebrews, takes that to mean that the man named Israel suffered under an Egyptian Pharaoh who ruled for four hundred years! We understand it representationally; that the people descended from Israel suffered under the government of the Pharaohs. In that sense Elijah heralded the coming of the Son of Man in the person of John the Baptist.
Note also the text says, “Then the disciples understood that he was talking about John the Baptist,” it does not say, “Then the disciples understood that John the Baptist was Elijah come again in the flesh.”
Does reincarnation happen? Let’s be pragmatic. If you are not sure of the answer to that question, take my advice and comport yourself as if it does not. If you live this life as if it were your only chance, and it turns out that you have more chances, then all the better for you. But if you live this life as if there were many more to come, and it turns out that there are none, then you may be caught up short.
It is given to us once to live, and then to face judgment. Therefore, while you still have the opportunity, harken to His voice and obey His commandments, so that on that last day, He will welcome you into His rest.