The Incompatibility of the Resurrection and Reincarnation
An Everyday Theology Blog
Choice is fundamental to the popularity of buffets. Many people enjoy these restaurants because of the ability to mix and match their favorite foods at their discretion.
The notion of Karma has taken on a similar modern role as some seek to blend this Eastern religious belief with Christianity.
However, such choices have consequences. Unlike a food buffet, religions often espouse contrary views that make melding their perspectives untenable. In the case of Buddhism or Hinduism, (which both espouse Karma) and Christianity, their foundational tenets of reincarnation and resurrection, respectively, are incompatible.
The Christian faith is founded on the resurrection of Jesus. It originally emerged from Judaism and was the idea that those deemed righteous by God would be bodily raised from the dead in the future. It was grounded in “God’s covenant promise to Israel, but came to be applied as a physical hope for individuals . . .”[See also, Job 19:26 & Ezk. 37:1–3].
Although the notion of a resurrection was familiar to Jewish and Christian audiences, it was an unpopular belief in the Greco-Roman world. The apostle Paul wrote a letter to the Corinthian church, which came from Greek culture, so they naturally struggled with the concept of the resurrection. He discussed many aspects of it, including the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus and how it fulfills the Christian life. However, Paul’s statement in 1 Cor. 15:14 provides the ultimate grounding for the faith. He said, “And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain, and your faith is in vain.” Paul’s point is that the whole of the faith, the hope of the Christian, hinges on the validity of the resurrection of Jesus.
Conversely, reincarnation derives from Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism and refers to “a seemingly endless cycle of lives encompassing the entire realm of beings, from the lowest animals to humans.” In essence, it is the returning of the soul to a different physical body. A person’s reincarnation is based on their Karma or how their actions in one life affect their next life.
With the modern fusing of Eastern religious beliefs in the West, there are a considerable number of Christians that attempt to reconcile the notions of resurrection and reincarnation. For the two to be reconcilable, both ideas would have to be found in Scripture. Although we’ve already discussed resurrection in the Bible, let’s briefly look at two popular biblical events that Christians sometimes equate with reincarnation.
In Jeremiah 1:5, God states, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” The argument that sometimes is offered in support of the Bible promoting reincarnation is that this verse implies a prior existence of Jeremiah or that he has been reincarnated. Nevertheless, the Lord merely states that He had chosen or pre-ordained Jeremiah to serve as a prophet to Israel before his birth.
There is also the claim that Jesus refers to reincarnation in Matthew 11:14, which states, “And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come.” The assertion is made that Jesus suggests that John the Baptist is the Old Testament prophet Elijah reincarnated. In the greater context of this verse, John is in prison and has sent some of his disciples to find out about this Messiah (Jesus) that he had heard about. After Jesus spoke to them, He then turned to the crowd and began to exalt John by praising him with such statements as, “truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist . . .” (Matt. 11:11) So when he mentions Elijah in v. 14, Jesus is merely drawing a parallel between their similar prophetic roles.
This idea is further grounded in Luke 1:17, which states, “And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children . . .” This verse parallels a similar promise about Elijah that he would “turn the hearts of the parents to their children.” (Mal. 4:6) Nothing in the text indicates this is the same soul reincarnated; instead, it indicates a similar prophetic mission.
One further way to show the incompatibility of resurrection and reincarnation is through their application. Though many people reference reincarnation as a positive because you get more than one life, it is ultimately undesirable. Consider the following description referring to reincarnation as a “negative concept”:
“It is a burden, because to live is to suffer; and having multiple lives means going through multiple lifetimes of suffering. Reincarnation does not give hope for life after death. It is a threat of continuing misery.”
Hebrews 9:27 also shuts the door on reincarnation, stating, “And just as it appointed for man to die once….”
Jesus is honest about the trials and tribulations of life. He says that we will encounter difficult times in this world, but to “take heart” as He has conquered this world. (Jn. 16:33) Yet He desires that their burdens be lighter for those who follow Him. In fact, He, our Lord and Savior, invites us to bring our burdens to rest upon Him. (Matt. 11: 28–30) Yet whatever misery we encounter in this world, our ultimate hope rests in being resurrected. Reincarnation involves the continuous paying off of sins, while Jesus paid for our sins once through His sacrifice on the cross. There is little to no hope in reincarnation, but hope is ever-present for those who place their faith in Jesus.
For more on this topic, check out this episode of Everyday Theology ⤵️
References & Footnotes:  Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, p. 2012.  Winfried Corduan. Neighboring Faiths: A Christian Introduction to World Religions (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Academic, 2012), 278.  There are some variations on reincarnation in the different Eastern religions, but these are shared general characteristics.  According to a 2005 Gallup poll, 1 out of 5 American adults believe in reincarnation. More recently, a 2009 survey conducted by The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reported that that number had risen to 1 in 4. Unfortunately, even among those proclaiming to be evangelical Christians, belief in reincarnation is alarmingly on the rise. Recent surveys by the Barna Group have reported that 25% of American Christians, including 10% of those who define themselves as “born-again,” have embraced a belief in reincarnation.  Corduan, 278.