God's Creation 5: Born Again
--From James A. Scarborough, The Steppingstones (Merigold, MS: Merigold Spiritual Center, 1987) 104-116.
"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."
One interpretation of being born again is that of mending one's ways, turning over a new leaf, or starting afresh with a new viewpoint on life. Consequently, the rebirth might be understood as a reformation, a repentance, or a starting over again. Another interpretation of the rebirth is that of suddenly becoming "religious," a term equally as vague as the term rebirth. Therefore, it is sometimes taught that a person is reborn if he joins a church, receives baptism, and perhaps begins to behave in other ways like his fellow church members. Some interpreters conclude that the rebirth consists of a radical change of heart accompanied by some manifestation of Divine power. Indeed, it is sometimes claimed that the sign of "speaking in tongues" (see Acts 2:4) must accompany the experience in order for it to be valid, and that without such an experience a person is not truly assured of a happy afterlife. We have here one of those many doctrines about which no consensus has been reached, despite much discussion and thought. The situation recalls to our attention that, "God, when he made man, made him straightforward, but man invents endless subtleties of his own" (Eccl 7:29 NEB).
In order to clarify this confusion of ideas, let us 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. The Scriptural account at this point has a peculiar skip in subject matter, as though something has been omitted from the story. Jesus seems to respond to a question not recorded when He replies, "Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God" (John 3:3).
Nicodemus reacted with apparent astonishment, thinking that Christ had said a physical rebirth would be necessary. "How can a man be born when he is old?" Nicodemus asked. "Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb to be born!" (verse 4 NIV). We, in turn, might be astonished that Nicodemus could so misunderstand Christ's words. Nicodemus was, after all, an educated man, and a member of the Sanhedrin. He was surely aware of Jesus' teachings, for he was a secret disciple who later assisted in burying Christ's physical remains.
"Nicodemus answered and said to Him, 'How can these things be?'" (John 3:9 NAS), to which Christ responded, "What! . . . Is this famous teacher of Israel ignorant of such things?" (John 3:10 NEB). The difficulty in conveying a new understanding of a familiar concept to the scholarly Nicodemus, already steeped in dogma and doctrine, is painfully clear in the poignant question posed by Christ in verse 12 (NAS): "If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how shall you believe if I tell you heavenly things?"
Christ's choice of words was purposeful. He testified that, "I did not speak on My own initiative, but the Father Himself . . . has given Me commandment, what to say, and what to speak" (John 12:49 NAS), and "Whatever I say is just what the Father has told me to say" (John 12:50 NIV). "The word which you hear is not Mine, but the Father's who sent Me" (John 14:24 NAS). The words "born again" which Jesus used in talking with Nicodemus, as relayed to us by the Greek manuscripts, were the words meaning a literal, physical rebirth. The verb used 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 certainly understood Christ to mean reincarnation, because that is reportedly what He said. His astonishment is akin to his saying to Christ: "Do you mean this is really so?!"
Let us consider other translations of these words of Christ to Nicodemus. In some instances, 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 the physical body." The phrases "born of the Spirit," "born of God," and "born from above," all admit the possibility of being incarnated from a higher realm than Earth, a spirit realm "above" Earth in its nearness to god. Christ, having incarnated from the highest such realm, declared that He was from above and that His earthly adversaries were from below. Pre-existence, if not repeated incarnation, is implied here for all people.
In discussing reincarnation, the Greeks sometimes used a specific word for it: paliggenesia. Pythagoras, Plato, and other Greek writers had used this term to refer to the "transmigration of souls," that is, to the rebirth of souls into other bodies. Paliggenesia was therefore a well-known term a long time before its New Testament usage, where it is usually translated as "regeneration." It occurs in the letter to Titus, where Paul the Pharisee 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" (em add). Accordingly, one is made fit for Heaven by means of repeated life experiences until the lessons are learned and purity of soul is achieved.
The other occurrence of paliggenesia in the New Testament is in Matthew 19:28, where its meaning is completely lost in most translations. A vestige of its meaning is retained in at least the following version: "Truly I say to you, that you who have followed Me, in the REGENERATION [paliggenesia] when the Sone of Man will sit on His glorious throne, you also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel" (Matt 19:28 NAS) (em add). If we read this remarkable passage without prior doctrinal bias, we in it Christ's statement that upon the establishment of His throne and kingdom at His return, the Apostles will be reincarnated and serve as judges of the twelve tribes. If this is, in fact, His meaning, then His present-day followers will have to rethink certain doctrines. Even one observation alone, that Judas Iscariot was on of the Apostles to whom Christ was speaking, gives rise to rethinking certain accepted beliefs.
The possibility of reincarnation opens new vistas of meaning for a great number of other Biblical passages. "The Lord killeth, and maketh alive: he bringeth down to the grave, AND BRINGETH UP" (I Sam 2:6) (em add). Is this a reference to reincarnation? Regarding the regathering of the Israelites, Ezekiel wrote: "And [I] shall put my spirit in YOU, and YE shall live, and I shall place YOU in YOUR own land: then shall YE know that I the Lord have spoken it, and performed it" (Ezek 37:14) (em add). "I will open YOUR graves, and cause YOU to come up out of YOUR graves, and bring YOU into the land of Israel" (Ezek 37:12) (em add). "Then I will set over them one shepherd, My servant David, and he will feed them: he will feed them himself and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and My servant David will be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken" (Ezek 34:23-24 NAS. Repeated in Ezek 37:24-25 and Jer 30:9). "Behold, he cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him, AND THEY ALSO WHICH PIERCED HIM" (Rev 1:7) (em add).
In the translating of paliggenesia and anothen, we have one of those cases where doctrinal beliefs seem to have preceded understanding of the Scriptures. Some scholars of the Greek have remarked in their expositions that these words took on new and expanded meanings in their New Testament usages, different from their meanings is secular writings. That remarkable state of affairs would mean that we could not necessarily determine the meanings of Biblical words from their everyday, contemporary usage. Although such ambiguities occasionally occur, and although we must undergo a "regeneration" ["renewing," as in Rom 12:21] to reach spiritual maturity, it is probable that we must also undergo reincarnation. Translation includes interpretation.
The usual objections Christianity offers to reincarnation finds its basis in the verse, "it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment" (Heb 9:27). Upon superficial reading, the verse would seem to settle this issue. If this verse has 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 Scripture. Naturally, the same can be said for the daughter of Jairus and for many others who were brought back to life. Are they still alive? If not, then they died more than once., and the usual interpretation of the verse fails. On the other hand, the Bibles state that neither Enoch nor Elijah died even once. They were transferred directly into Heaven, so the usual reading of this verse from Hebrews fails again. Clearly, the accepted interpretation of Heb 9:27, as referring to 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 means divorced from God, separated and removed from God and His kingdom, exiled and estranged from God. And so it is true that mankind did, indeed, suffer once this death of separation from God's heavenly kingdom, and was stranded on Earth without hope of escape until the coming of the Savior.
Returning to the fundamental point, we note that "incarnate" simply means "in flesh." Christians agree that Christ was an incarnated Spirit Who existed prior to His incarnation. Other, lesser, spirits also existed prior to their earthly lives. David made references to having been brought up from below (see Psa 30:3), while Isaiah (Isa 49:1,5), Jeremiah (Jer 1:5), and Paul (see Gal 1:11-17), all aver that they were known to God and their missions were assigned before they were born in human bodies. John the Baptist was a man "sent from God" (John 1:6), Who is in Heaven, which reveals that he was a spirit who had incarnated from above.
"Reincarnation" means "in flesh again." The reference, then, is to a spirit, such as a human spirit, being put into a fleshly body again. It is well established that Christ was an incarnated Spirit. The question before us is simply whether a spirit is ever incarnated more than once. In this question, there is no reference at all to any change in the species of the spirit. There is neither scientific nor Scriptural evidence for the popular myth that one might return to another Earth life as an animal of some sort. On the contrary, we are human spirits, and humans we remain.
On this train of thought, consider John 9:1-3 (NIV): "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Clearly, for the man to have been born blind, any sin for which he was atoning must have been committed prior to that lifetime. The assumption that this was possible was obviously accepted by the disciples asking the question. Otherwise, their question would not have arisen at all. In Christ's response, He did not alter their point of view, but simply responded that, in this case, neither the man nor his parents were guilty, that the purpose of the blindness was to reflect the work of God by the restoration of sight. It would be difficult to explain why Christ did not correct His disciples' point of view if it was in error. We therefore presume that He understood their point of view and agreed with its validity.
On another occasion, the Jews had sent priests and Levites to John the Baptist to inquire of his identity. They asked if he was Elijah, or the Messiah, or a prophet (see John 1:19-25). Such a question would have been completely pointless had the questioners not seriously believed that an affirmative answer were possible. Since the questioners were Pharisees (verse 24), their act shows that the belief in reincarnation existed among at least some of the Pharisees.
Josephus, the ancient historian of the Jews, tells us how the chief schools of Jewish religious belief regarded immortality. In The Anitiquities of the Jews, he states that the Pharisees believed the soul to be immortal, and that virtuous persons have the power to revive and live again on Earth. We note that both Nicodemus and the later Apostle, Paul, were Pharisees. The Jewish Josephus sheds more light on early beliefs in the return of the soul in The Jewish Wars, where he writes, "Do you not know that those who depart out of this life obtain a most holy place in heaven, from whence, in the evolution of the ages, they are again sent into pure bodies?" Other, modern, writers have pointed out that reincarnationist ideas are so deeply written into esoteric Jewish literature that those Jews who follow the Kabbalistic way make reincarnation sound almost like an essential part of the faith.
The Pharisees and the Sadducees often came under stinging condemnation from the mouth of Jesus, yet the third Jewish sect, the Essenes, escaped His criticism. Further, the Essene teachings, which have since been discovered in certain Dead Sea Scrolls, bear strong resemblances to the teachings of both Jesus and John the Baptist. These facts have led some scholars to conjecture that both Christ and John the Baptist were Essenes, since they were known to be Jews. Some investigators have further concluded that a form of reincarnation was an Essene belief. It is not completely clear what the Essenes taught, but a passage in Josephus' The Jewish Wars reports that taught preexistence, at the very least.
It is further obvious that many of the people, priests, and Scribes believed in reincarnation. They seem to have taken it for granted. Some of them thought that Jesus was one of the prophets returned (see Mark 8:27-28), while others thought He was the Prophet (perhaps Moses reincarnated, or perhaps the prophet predicted in Deut 18:15,18). Still others considered that Jesus might have been Elijah or one of the prophets of old (see Mark 6:14-16, 8:27-28; Luke 9:18-20). Herod suspected Jesus might have been John the Baptist revived from the deceased. Jesus, of course, knew of the speculating among the people. He asked His Apostles who they thought He was, at which question Peter responded that He was the Messiah sent from God (see Mark 8:28 NEB). Conspicuously, Jesus paid attention to their speculations as to His identity and offered no correction to the possibility that He was a reincarnated prophet. If He let a widespread erroneous belief among His very Apostles pass by uncorrected, a great deal of theological gymnastics is required to explain why. Far simpler is it to take His lack of comment as tacit agreement to the commonly held belief that reincarnations do occur.
Reincarnation was not an entirely alien doctrine in the time of place of Christ's mission on Earth. Although reincarnation is often associated with India, the belief is so widespread that it cannot even be claimed to have had its roots there. Reincarnation was also well known to the Romans, for a number of Roman poets refer to it. In the British Islands to the northwest, and in Gaul, reincarnation formed part of the mystic lore of the Druids. The ancient Greeks had long known of the idea, as witnessed by Pythagoras' and Plato's writings regarding the "transmigration of souls." Plato, along with Plutarch and Herodotus, attributed the belief in reincarnation to the ancient Egyptians. The famous scripture of the Egyptians, The Book of the Dead, presents a version of reincarnation.
There were other religious movements extant at the time of Christ which taught reincarnation, such as the Alexandrian Neoplatonic school of thought and Persian Mithraism. Those Persians wise in divine matters, who were called Magi, held as a primary doctrine that which was called the transmigration of souls. It could be speculated that the Magi who came from the East to honor the newborn King Jesus might have believed Him to be some great person reincarnated. Certainly, the common people entertained the notion. Thus, we see that Jerusalem at the time of Christ was surrounded by nations, many of whose ancient religions had taught some form of reincarnation for centuries. Moreover, the idea was common where Nicodemus lived. We are reminded that it is, therefore, natural that Nicodemus thought Christ referred to reincarnation when He spoke of a physical rebirth.
The coming of the Savior had been anticipated for centuries, but it was not clear to the people of Jesus' day that He was truly the promised Messiah. They knew he was a greatly anointed man, and they speculated that He might be one of the prophets reborn. But most believed He could not be the Christ. The central objection was that Jesus could not be the Messiah because Elijah had not yet returned as prophesied. "Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord: and he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and that heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse" (Malachi 4:5-6). No doubt this unfulfilled prophecy caused much consternation among the Pharisees and Sadducees, and even more among the Apostles who were committing their lives to Jesus.
When Peter, James, and John were with Jesus on the mountain they saw Him converse with Moses and Elijah. The Voice from the bright cloud identified Jesus to them, saying, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him." These Apostles then understood that Jesus was in fact the Messiah, but the revelation troubled them greatly. On the way down the mountain, they tried to reconcile the Messiahship of Jesus of Nazareth with the prediction that Elijah had to first return. Unable to do so, they addressed the question to Jesus. It was in response to their question that Jesus identified John the Baptist as Elijah in person (see Matt 17:1-13). Matthew records, "And his disciples asked him, saying, 'Why then say the scribes that Elias must first come?' And Jesus answered and said unto them, 'Elias truly shall first come, and restore all things, But I say unto you, that Elias is come already, and they knew him not, but have done unto whatsoever they listed [desired]. Likewise shall also the Son of Man suffer of them. Then the disciples understood that He spake unto them of John the Baptist" (Matt 17:10-13) (em add). Here Jesus emphasized that the true identity of John the Baptist as Elijah had gone unrecognized by his persecutors. (John the Baptist had already been beheaded, thus freeing the spirit, who reappeared from above in his previous identity as Elijah.)
The identification Christ made of John the Baptist with Elijah is usually avoided by interpretations of Luke's words that "he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias [Elijah], to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord" (Luke 1:17) (em add). Apparently the interpreters are unaware that that idiom, "in the spirit of," did not mean the same then as the English idiom does today. It meant simply that the identity of the spirit in control was in fact Elijah. This is the same usage whereby the Bible says "in the Holy Spirit," to convey the meaning that the Holy Spirit is the identity of the spirit in charge.
John the Baptist retained no memory of his previous mission under the name Elijah. When asked if he were Elijah or one of the prophets, he replied 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.
It is a weak rebuttal to assert, as is often done, that John the Baptist was a "type" of Elijah. Malachi specifically says that Elijah himself shall return, not someone like Elijah, and so the Jews believed. "Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord" (Mal 4:5 NAS). In contrast, when the Old Testament wishes to express a "type" it manages to do so, such as when it refers to Moses as a "type" for the Messiah to come, with the words, "the Lord thy God raise up unto thee a Prophet from the midst of thee, of thy brethren, like unto me [Moses]; unto him ye shall hearken" (Deut 18:15) (em add).
We are left with the completely unambiguous statement of Christ Himself: "And if you care to accept it, he himself is Elijah, who was to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear" (Matt 11:15 NAS).
Let us find the ears to hear with and consider the enormous weight of the statement. Even today, many honest people cannot accept that Jesus is the Messiah because Elijah must return before the Messiah comes. They need wait no longer for Elijah. He has already returned, in person. And if John the Baptist was not actually Elijah, as Jesus claimed, then Jesus of Nazareth could not have been the Messiah.
The early Christian church was well aware that Jesus was the Messiah, and portions of the early church were aware of the Scriptural basis for reincarnation. Justin Martyr, in the first 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 (Bishop of Alexandria). Numerous other writers in the first few centuries promulgated their versions of reincarnation. Sketches of their ideas, as well as evidence of suppression of the doctrine of reincarnation, are presented in some of the more scholarly books on the subject of reincarnation. St. Jerome, the distinguished scholar of Hebrew and Greek who first translated the Bible into Latin [Tibbs' note: Jerome made a "better" or "corrected" Latin translation from older Latin versions that had existed since the second century], explicitly stated that reincarnation was, from the earliest days of the Church, held as a secret doctrine not suitable to be imparted to the masses. Reincarnation is, therefore, by no means a doctrine foreign to Christianity. It is unnecessary to choose between Christianity and reincarnation. Neither need be rejected because of the other.
Suppose we have been incarnated into human life from a lower or higher realm than Earth. If so, then we obviously have little or no recall of our previous existence. However, this is no rebuttal to reincarnation. We are accustomed to having no remembrance of parts of our existence, yet we pay it no attention. As already noted, we sleep approximately one-third of our lives, yet remember nothing except a few dreams. If we accept those dreams as evidence of personal existence, then perhaps we should seriously consider the recollections of people who claim to remember events from past lives, as investigated in several current books. St. Augustine in his Confessions struggled with the problem of memory: "Tell me, Lord, tell me, did my infancy succeed another age of mine that died before it? Was it that which I spent within my mother's womb? And what before that life again, O God my Joy, was I anywhere or in any body? For this, I have none to tell me, neither father nor mother, or experience of others, nor mine own memory." As expected, "There is no remembrance of former things: neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after" (Eccl 1:11).
If the doctrine of reincarnation is indeed a Christian truth, as it appears to be, then many statements in the Bibles take on much clearer meanings and more forceful relevance. For example, it is stated quite clearly that one will indeed reap what he sows, that the debts must be "paid [to] 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) (em add). Is it any wonder that in such knowledge is the perseverance and faith of the saints?" What could instill perseverance and sincere effort better than the sober realization that God cannot be tricked into awarding access to Heaven to an evil person? (What an advantage to the adversary that reincarnation has been replaced with today's doctrinal definition of "born again.")
Salvation is promised to all who believe in Christ, but that entry into Heaven is possible only after Christ has made us fit for that realm by the cleansing fire of repeated Earth lives. Thus it is, that "every one shall be salted with fire." Yet, "Salt is good" (Mark 9:49-50). The fire of reaping what we sow brings with it the blessing that we learn and grow, and eventually reject our erring ways by virtue of our having experienced the results of those ways. The resulting change of heart is then not superficial but genuine. The knowledge and wisdom so gained are then not borrowed, but are our own possession to treasure.
The purpose of reincarnation appears to be the education of the soul. The course of study may well be difficult and the lessons hard-won. The student soul cannot permanently graduate unless he adequately passes his tests, and he cannot pass the tests unless he takes them. As a result, suicide, a direct violation of God's law, is a tragic error. It is an act to be shunned at all costs. Not only must the lessons temporarily avoided still be learned in some future life, and the same tests passed, but the spirit must also learn the additional lesson of persevering in God's school of souls: Earth life. "He that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and HE SHALL GO NO MORE OUT" (Rev 3:12) (em add).
To be taught that an act or thought is harmful convinces 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 experience is the point truly driven home. "For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation" (II Cor. 7:10 NAS). The responsibility for ourselves lies, then, with us. With the guidance and love of God's spirits, we are required to work out our own salvation with reverent awe and trembling (see Phil 2:12).
It is not true that a correct understanding of the doctrine of reincarnation leads one to play havoc now and make it up later. A correct understanding of it has just the opposite effect. It is a sobering realization to know with certainty that the evil sown in a present life must surely be reaped in a future one, that truly we shall reap what we sow. Indeed, we are doing precisely that in our present lives. On the other hand, the doctrine that a last minute deathbed confession is sufficient to gain entry into Heaven has seduced multitudes into living profligate lives. God forgives the truly repentant soul, it is true, but then He corrects its defects. Otherwise, that soul is not fit for Heaven.
"If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (I John 1:9 NAS). The cleansing can require another life, another "salting with fire," if the present life has been unsatisfactory. A man of a totally depraved nature might be forgiven, but his nature remains unchanged. He is by no means ready for Heaven until his nature improves: "Make no mistake about this: God is not be fooled; a man reaps what he sows. If he sows seed in the field of his lower nature, he will reap from it a harvest of corruption, but if he sows in the field of the Spirit, the Spirit will bring him a harvest of eternal life" (Gal 6:7-8 NEB).