Pre-Existence, Incarnation, and Reincarnation in the Bible
by James A. Scarborough, Ph.D., Professor of Physics, retired, Delta State University, Cleveland, MS, 38733
Paper given at the International Forum on New Science, October 14-17, 1993, Fort Collins, Colorado, 80526
Current investigators in some areas of religious thought and psychological studies have found the ideas of spirits and spirit influences to be useful working hypotheses. Some researchers working near the frontiers of our understanding of humankind have sometimes committed to these ideas as a belief system. In many cases, these parties meet with resistance, and even hostility, from orthodox Christians. Charges of heresy and Satanism are not uncommon. This paper shows that the ideas of pre-existence, incarnation, reincarnation and higher dimensions of space-time are found in the Christian Bible. The individual seeker thus has the option of deciding whether these ideas are valid without concern over whether they are extra-Biblical.
Biblical texts indicate that human spirits have existed before, during, and after their current lives as human beings. Additionally, these same texts give numerous details revealing what a spirit is. We will begin there.
Humans are spirits
In the moments before the physical death of Christ, He uttered, "Father, into Thy hands I commit My Spirit" (Luke 23:46 NAS), and at that instant released His spirit from His physical body (Matt 27:50, John 19:30). Physical life ended when His spirit departed from His body. Nevertheless, He continued to exist as a spirit.
Paul referred to physical death as departing from the physical body (Phil 1:22-23), and Peter wrote of it as "laying aside my earthly dwelling" (2 Peter 1:14 NAS). As Stephen was being stoned to death, he cried out, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit" (Acts 7:59 NAS) and his spirit left his body permanently. In the cases of Paul, Peter, and Stephen, their spirits continued to exist after leaving their bodies. Similarly, the spirits named Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were continuing to exist in higher realms, although their bodies were buried in the desert (Mark 12:26-27, Luke 20:37-38). When a certain beggar died, he was carried (as a spirit) by the angels (spirits themselves) to be with Abraham (a spirit) in Heaven (God's spirit world) (Luke 16:22).
Physical life is simply that state in which the spirit is housed in the physical body. When Christ caused the daughter of Jairus to be raised from the dead, He commanded, "Child, arise. And her spirit returned, and she rose up immediately" (Luke 8:54-55 NAS), or "In an instant her spirit returned into her body and she stood up" (Luke 8:55 GNT). Quite obviously, her spirit had not ceased to exist. It was simply no longer in her physical body to animate it. We are not told from whence her spirit returned, only that she did. (This phenomenon is reported in modern times and referred to as a "near-death experience" or an "out-of-body experience." These experiences are consistent with the Scriptural accounts, which tell us that such events do in fact occur, but which do not tell us what the people experienced while absent from the body. In any event, physical death clearly does not imply that the spirit is extinguished).
The spirit itself is quite human and is housed in a body composed of matter that is necessarily in a different condition than ours. As a result, there are numerous Biblical verses relating to this "spiritual", or "celestial", body. The easiest verification of this is a case of the appearance of a spirit, which we would call a "materialization" in modern parlance, or even a "beaming down." When three angels materialized and met with Abraham, he greeted them and fed them, referring to them simply as "men" (Gen 18:1-8). When Gabriel materialized before Daniel (Dan 9:20-22, and others), and when Raphael, in solid form, walked with Tobit's son Tobiah (Tobit 5:4-8), they were complete human beings with all the necessary internal and external organs. (We note there that angels are said simply to be spirits in Hebrews 1:14).
From the Scriptural record we quickly conclude that humans don't have spirits, as it is commonly said, bet we are spirits. Physical life is simply the condition in which the spirit entity (that is, person) is imbedded in a physical body. Naturally, it is of great interest to see what explanation, if any, is offered by the Scriptures as to why we are here on Earth, while other spirits of the same species live in higher and more pleasant dimensions of space-time. The Biblical creation stories are a logical place to start.
Three creation stories
Genesis, the first chapter. The first chapter of Genesis relates that creation required six days, followed by a day of rest for the Creator. In the first chapter, God is said to have created evening and morning, day and night, on the first day, even though the sun, which produces day and night, did not exist until the fourth day. The saga then relates that God formed the plants on the third day (verses 11-12), which would mean they were without sunlight for their first day of existence. In the remaining two days, the lower animals were formed first then the higher ones. The final act was the creation of man and the culminating creation of woman.
Genesis, the second chapter. In the second chapter of Genesis, the creation is said to have proceeded quite differently. There were no shrubs or plants of any kind (see Gen 2:5) when God formed man (verse 7). The story does not divulge where this man was kept until God planted a garden spot in Eden in which to put him (vs. 8). In contrast to the first chapter, where humankind in general were called into existence, the man is said to have been alone (Gen 1:26-27). Naturally he was lonely, having already endured a period of time without even a green plant for company, and now finding himself without other people or even animals. Animals had not yet been formed (see Gen 2:18-20), although we were told in the first chapter that they were created before Adam (see Gen 1:20-25). The other people mentioned in the first creation story are nowhere to be found, so God formed woman to be Adam's "help mate" as His final act of creation.
It is apparent that each of these accounts has serious internal inconsistencies, and, in addition, that the two stories contradict each other. However, it is not surprising that these two accounts of creation are flawed, for Jeremiah quotes God as saying that all of His communications up to Jeremiah's time had been seriously contaminated. In particular, the first five Biblical books, known in theological language as "the Law", are divinely indicted by the statement: "How can you say, 'We are wise, and THE LAW of the Lord is with us?' But behold, the lying pen of the scribes has made it into a lie" (Jeremiah 8:8 NAS). This is a strong indictment, indeed, of the Scriptures then available to Jeremiah. Those sacred scrolls included Genesis (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible [or Christian Old Testament] are known by Jews as the Torah, the Hebrew word for "law"). We therefore read the first two chapters of Genesis with caution, knowing that they do not measure up to the Divine standards of truth and accuracy.
Ezekiel, the third creation story. The legendary Eden has never been located. It is said to be a lush paradise to which man cannot return, his entry being prohibited by cherubim with flaming swords. Yet, explorers have never encountered a supernatural force blocking their entry into any region on Earth. Nor have they encountered cherubim guarding the entrance of any place on this planet. There are, however, places that are not on Earth. Ezekiel gives us the keys to this mystery.
The inhabitants of Eden are symbolically referred to by Ezekiel as trees. They were in Eden (see Ezek 31:8-18), the "garden of God" (vs 9), before being ejected (vs 16) to the "nether parts of the Earth" (vs 18). The Biblical claim is not that the inhabitants of Eden were on Earth, but that they were cast down to Earth. The Bible clearly refers to Adam and Eve allegorically, for many other inhabitants are mentioned in this passage in Ezekiel. The spirits were exiled from a paradise wherein grew the "tree of life" (Gen 3:22). Therefore, if we can locate the "tree of life", then we will have located Eden. Whatever is represented by the symbolic tree of life, the tree cannot be on Earth, because the tree is in Eden, and Eden has not been found on Earth.
The tree of life is in that paradise of God to which humans can ascend upon leaving Earth life, as is explicitly stated in, "To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the Paradise of God" (Rev 2:7 NIV). If the tree is both in Eden and also in the paradise to which we shall ascend, then Eden must be in this paradise. Accordingly, Eden and the entire Adam and Eve story refer by allegory and symbolism to the fall from Heaven in ways not clearly understood by the churches.
This location for Eden is transparently clear in the message from God to the King of Tyre: "You were in Eden, the garden of God . . . you were . . . a gardian cherub . . . I threw you to the Earth" (Ezek 28:13-18 NIV). From this we see that the King of Tyre was a spirit (angel) thrown down from Eden to Earth. It follows that he necessarily existed prior to his entry on the Earth plane. The King of Tyre was like the rest of us in that respect.
The errant spirits of the higher dimensions were injected into the lower dimensions, including the physical universe, which serve as places of confinement and rehabilitation for those spirits until such time as they might be restored to their original estate (Rev 12:4; 12:9; 12:13). The identification is thus made that humans are in fact those outcast spirits, and that we are reaping the results of our participation in the discord in heaven.
There are a number of Biblical verses which refer to human existence prior to our present lives. Some examples are: "Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee: and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations" (Jer 1:5 AJK); "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding" (Job 38:4 NAS); "You know, for you were born then, and the number of your days is great!" (Job 38:21 NAS); "The spirit shall return unto God who gave it" (Eccl 12:7); "We proclaim . . . a plan . . . which God established before time began in order to lead us back to glory" (1 Cor 2:7 GNT); "In the hope of eternal life . . . promised before the world began . . ." (Titus 1:2); and "According as He hath chosen us in Him before the foundation of the world" (Eph 1:4).
These verses, and others, repeatedly mention plans made and people known before material creation ever took place. They indicate that our existence had already been established by then, and that the fall from Heaven had already occurred. In the days of the Apostles, many people believed that they had previously existed and that they could have transgressed before their current lifetime. "Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he should be born blind?" (John 9:2 NAS). In order for this man's blindness possibly to be due to his own transgressions, he would have had to commit those sins before his human birth. Jesus did not contradict this assumption, but simply responded to the real point of the question.
Since we are spirit beings and are at the same time imbedded in a flesh ("carne") body, we are therefore in-carnated spirits, simply according to the meanings of the words used.
The downcast spirits placed into lower dimensions of creation are eventually brought up for an earthly incarnation in order that they may grow spiritually and strive for purity. In ascending to the earth realm, they have the opportunity to find at least a certain level of enlightenment. "Lo, all these things worketh God oftentimes with man, to bring his soul back from the Pit, to be enlightened with the light of the living" (Job 33:29030 AKJ).
Christ alludes to the incarnation of the fallen spirits from the lower dimensions with these words, "you are from below" (John 8:23 NAS). The Psalms often refer to the incarnation of David from below: "For great is thy mercy toward me: and thou hast delivered my soul from the lowest hell" (Psalm 86:13 AKJ); and "O Lord, thou hast brought up my soul from the grave (Sheol)" (Psa 30:3). We may be confident that these verses are correctly interpreted as meaning coming up from the lower dimensions (Hells), because the same mode of expression is used in the verses referring to the raising of Christ from Hell, into which He had temporarily descended after His crucifixion. It is precisely this point that Luke is supporting (Acts 2:27-31; 13:35), when he invokes the sixteenth Psalm as his proof: "Thou wilt not abandon my soul to Sheol (or, Hades)" (Acts 2:27 NAS), "Neither wilt Thou allow Thy Holy One to undergo decay" (Psa 16:10 NAS).
If incarnation from below is possible, then incarnation from above is equally possible. Christ is the foremost among these incarnated heavenly spirits. We cite only, "(Christ) Who verily was foreordained before the foundation of the world" (I Peter 1:20), and "You are from below, I am from above" (John 8:23 NAS). Christ was preceded by other incarnating spirits who helped prepare the way for His coming. The verse, "no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of Man" (Johm 3:13) applies to everyone, although some translators render this verse so that is seems to refer exclusively to Christ. In other words, the Biblical teaching is that, at the time of Christ, no person had ascended into the higher spheres unless he had first come from there, this restriction including even Christ Himself.
Accordingly, Abraham was one of the spirits incarnated from above, for he was later described by Christ as being in Heaven (Luke 16:23), implying that he must have come from there. Both Enoch (see Gen 5:24; Hebrews 11:5) and Elijah (II Kings 2:11), who preceded Christ by centuries, were taken directly into Heaven, even though Christ had not yet achieved the redemption of man. These two agents of God had, therefore, incarnated from above.
Other examples of incarnated spirits, who also must have existed prior to their incarnations, are the King of Tyre and the King of Babylon. To the King of Tyre Ezekiel's message stated: "You were . . . a . . . cherub . . . I drove you in disgrace from the mount of God, and I expelled you, O guardian cherub . . . I threw you to the Earth . . . You have come to a horrible end" (Ezek 28:11-19 NIV). Similarly, the King of Babyon had no memory of his earlier and happier days in the heavenly realms. Isaiah brought him this message: "How you have fallen from heaven, O morning star, son of the dawn! You have been cast down to Earth, you who once laid low the nations! You said in your heart, I will ascend to heaven . . . but you are brought down to the grave (Sheol), to the depths of the pit" (Isa 14:12-15 NIV). (Certain translations render "O morning star" as "O Lucifer," thereby distorting the entire meaning of this passage. The message is clearly addressed to the King of Babylon (Isa 14:4), not to Lucifer, for it would have to be, literally, the King of Babylon himself, not Lucifer, who would be denied burial (Isa 14:19-20).
According to these Scripture references, we are said to have existed long before our present incarnations. Our lack of memory of any portion of our existence has no relevance to whether we existed during the time forgotten. In this vein, lack of memory cannot be claimed to prove nonexistence when we encounter it in other contexts. Can we remember even a single event from the first year of life? We cannot. Yet, it is clear that we existed during that year. Do we remember our existence while asleep? No. Except for an occasional dream, the third of our lives spent in sleep is a blank region in our memories. But who would dare claim we did not exist while sleeping?
"Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God" (John 3:3). The "new birth" is held to be essential for admission into Heaven after this life on Earth. However, interpretations vary as to the exact meaning of what is called the "born-again" experience. We have here one of the many doctrines about which no consensus has been reached, despite much discussion and thought. In order to clarify this confusion of ideas, we examine the Scripture references from which the various interpretations are drawn. The prime source is the third chapter of John.
In John 3, we read that a learned, scholarly, devout Pharisee named Nicodemus approached Jesus at night with a statement that he believed Jesus was sent from God. Jesus replied, "Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God" (John 3:3). Nicodemus reacted with astonishment, believing that Christ had said a physical rebirth would be necessary. "How can a man be born when he is old?" he asked. "Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb to be born!" (vs 4, NIV). Nicodemus understood Jesus to be saying "reincarnation" because the words Jesus used, "born again," as conveyed to us by the Greek manuscripts, were the words meaning a literal, physical rebirth. The verb used there is translated as physical birth in numerous places in the New Testament. The adverb used, anothen, translated as "again," refers in the Greek to the repetition of an act, with special reference to a return to the beginning point and a repetition from the very outset onward. Thus, Nicodemus understood Christ to mean reincarnation because that is reportedly what He said. (In some places in the Scriptures, the adverb translated "again" in John 3:3 is translated as "from above." The Biblical phrase "born from above" is therefore an alternate translation used instead of "reborn in a physical body").
In discussing reincarnation, the Greeks sometimes used the word paligennesia, literally, "to become again." Pythagoras, Plato, and other Greek writers had used this term to refer to the rebirth of souls into other bodies. Paligennesia was therefore a well-known term for a long time before its use in the New Testament, where it is usually translated in English as "regeneration." It occurs in Paul's letter to Titus, in which he explained that a man is made fit for Heaven "by the washing of regeneration" (Titus 3:5), so translated. This rendering hides the meaning of the Greek terms, which may be brought out as "by (by means of) the washing (the purifying and cleansing bath) of reincarnation." Accordingly, these passages assert that one is made fit for Heaven by means of repeated life experiences until one's lessons are learned and sufficient purity of soul is achieved.
The usual objection Christianity offers to reincarnation finds its basis in the verse, "It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment" (Hebrews 9:27 AKJ). Upon superficial reading, this verse would seem to settle the doctrinal issue. However, if this verse is read with the meaning usually ascribed to it, then Lazarus, whom Jesus brought back to physical life, must still be alive somewhere in the world, and well over two thousand years old by now. Otherwise, he must have died again, and thereby died twice in contradiction to the above passage. Naturally, the same can be said for the daughter of Jairus (Luke 8) and for many others who were brought back to life. Are they still alive? If not, then they died more than once and the standard interpretation of this verse fails.
On the other hand, the Bible states that neither Enoch nor Elijah died even once. They were transferred directly to Heaven, so the usual reading of this verse from Hebrews fails again. Clearly, the accepted interpretation of Heb 9:27 as meaning physical life and death is incorrect. (To understand this verse, we must recall that "death" in the Bible usually does not mean "deceased." Instead, it is the ancient term for the old idea of "spiritual death," meaning separated and removed from God and His kingdom, or exiled and estranged from God).
Returning to the fundamental point, we note that "incarnate" simply means "in flesh." "Reincarnate" means "in flesh again." The reference, then, is to a spirit, such as a human spirit, that is put into a fleshly body again. There is no reference at all to any change in the species of the spirit. It is still a human, not a lower animal.
Numerous early church fathers held reincarnationist ideas. Justin Martyr, in the second century, taught that human souls inhabit more than one body in the course of their pilgrimage on Earth. Origen, an influential Christian writer some two hundred years after Christ, taught a version of reincarnation, as did another church leader, Clement of Alexandria. This is weighty testimony, as the letters of Clement were regarded as Holy Scripture by many of the early churches. Numerous other writers in the first few centuries promulgated their versions of reincarnation. St. Jerome, the distinguised scholar of Hebrew and Greek who translated the Bible into Latin (The Vulgate), explicitly stated that reincarnation was held as a secret doctrine by some Christians. Reincarnation is by no means a doctrine foreign to early Christianity.
It is further obvious that many of the people, priests, and scribes believed in reincarnation. Some of them thought that Jesus was one of the prophets reborn (Mark 8:27-28), while others thought that He was "the Prophet" (perhaps Moses reincarnated, or perhaps the prophet predicted in Deuteronomy 18:15,18). Still others considered that Jesus might have been Elijah or one of the prophets of old (Mark 6:14-16; 8:27-28; Luke 9:18-21). Herod suspected Jesus might have been John the Baptist revived from the deceased. Jesus knew of the speculating among the people. He asked His Apostles who they thought He was, to which Peter responded simply that He was the Messiah sent from God (Mark 8:28).
On another occasion, priests and Levites came to John the Baptist to inquire about his identity. They asked if he was Elijah, or the Messiah, or a prophet (John 1:19-25). Such questions would have been completely pointless had the questioners not seriously believed that an affirmative answer was possible. Since the questioners were Pharisees (vs 24), their actions confirm that belief in reincarnation existed among at least some of the Pharisees. (Interestingly, both Nicodemus and Paul the Apostle were Pharisees). It is conspicuous that neither Jesus nor John the Baptist is on record as having corrected the widespread belief in reincarnation among their own followers or the general population. If they left a widespread erroneous belief, circulating even among the Apostles themselves, go uncorrected, then a great deal of theological gymnastics is required to explain why. It is far more reasonable to take their lack of correction as tacit agreement that reincarnations do occur.
During Jesus' lifetime, a central objection that He could not be the Messiah of Israel was that Elijah had not returned as prophesied: "Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord . . ." (Malachi 4:5-6). When Peter, James, and John were with Jesus on a mountain, they saw Him converse with the materialized spirits Moses and Elijah, who had physically died centuries earlier. These three Apostles had concluded that Jesus was, in fact, the Messiah, but that belief troubled them greatly. On the way down the mountain, they tried among themselves to reconcile the Messiahship of Jesus of Nazareth with the prediction that Elijah had to first return. Unable to do so, they directed the question to Jesus. It was in direct response to their questions that Jesus identified John the Baptist as Elijah in person (Matt 17:1-13). Matthew records: "And His disciples asked Him, saying, 'Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?' And He answered and said, 'Elijah is coming and will restore all things; but I say to you, that Elijah already came, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they wished. So also the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands. Then the disciples understood that He spoke unto them of John the Baptist" (Matt 17:10-13 NAS). Here Jesus emphasized that the true identity of John the Baptist as Elijah had gone unrecognized by his persecutors. (John had already been beheaded by that time).
John the Baptist retained no memory of his previous mission on Earth under the name of Elijah. When asked if he were Elijah or one of the prophets, he replied simply that he was the "voice of one crying in the wilderness" (John 1:23). Yet, Christ identified him as the spirit previously known as Elijah. We are left with the unambiguous statement of Christ: "And if you care to accept it, HE HIMSELF IS ELIJAH, who was to come." Jesus then added the phrase He sometimes used when revealing a truth that was not necessarily meant for the entire audience to understand: "He who has ears to hear, let him hear" (Matt 17:15 NAS). Curiously, the acceptance of the reincarnation of Elijah as John the Baptist is crucial for those who choose the Christian faith, because the Old Testament ends with Malachi's prophecy that Elijah must return before the Messiah arrives. Consequently, if John the Baptist was not actually Elijah, as Jesus claimed, then Jesus of Nazareth could not have been the Messiah, and Christianity collapses for lack of a Christ.
Purpose of Reincarnation
The purpose of reincarnation appears to be the education and rehabilitation of the soul. The course of study may well be difficult and the lessons hard-won. To be taught that an act or a way of thinking is harmful convinces but few of us, although for a time we might refrain from it. The conviction that it is harmful becomes firm, however, when we are allowed to suffer the consequences of our acts and ways of thinking. By no other way than personal experience is the point truly driven home. And understanding of reincarnation does not lead one to play havoc now and make up for it later: it has just the opposite effect. It is a sobering realization to grasp that the evil sown in a present life must surely be reaped in a future one, that truly we reap what we sow. Indeed, it appears that we are currently doing precisely that in our present lives. Yet, at the end of our course of study by means of repeated earth lives, a guarantee awaits: "He that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall no more go out" (Rev 3:12 AKJ).
Until that time, however, the Scriptural teachings indicate that karmic cause and effect will insure that the debts must be "paid to the last farthing" (Matt 5:26 NEB). The payment is "payment in kind," for, "If anyone is destined for captivity, to captivity he goes; if anyone kills with the sword, with the sword he must be killed. Here is the perseverance and the faith of the saints" (Rev 13:10 NAS). Is it any wonder that in such marvelous knowledge lay the "perseverance and faith of the saints?" What could instill perseverance and sincere effort better than the somber and certain knowledge that admission to the higher realms requires meeting their entrance qualifications, that God cannot be tricked into awarding access to heaven to an evil person? "Make no mistake about this: God is not to be fooled; a man reaps what he sows . . ." (Gal 6:7-8 NEB). The harvest can be in another lifetime.
Overview and Conclusions
By using only Biblical references upon which various Christian creeds have built their doctrines, we find quite different conclusions from the usual teachings. Those Scriptural passages contain within them references to a multiplicity of higher dimensions of space-time ("heavens"), the existence of humans as spirit beings in those dimensions in the remote past, the ejection of those spirits to lower dimensions due to their aberrant behavior, the incarnation of spirits into human bodies with their consequent loss of memory of their past history and of their true identity, and the reincarnation of those same spirits for the purpose of their rehabilitation. Some of these ideas are common in various forms among many people, but are usually believed to be outside the Christian heritage. As we have shown, although in abbreviated form, this is not the case.
As a final point of logic, we note that this paper has not proven either the truth or falsity of any of these concepts. It has simply shown that they are part of the Biblical record. Proof must come from elsewhere.
The various translations of the Bible used in this paper are indicated by the following abbreviations in the text: Authorized King James Version (AKJ); The New Testament, Johannes Greber translation (GNT); New American Standard Version (NAS); New English Bible (NEB); and the New International Version (NIV).