Thursday, April 9, 2009

Reincarnation in the Bible?

Dennis Ingolfsland

The Bible seems to have only one thing to say about the increasingly popular subject of reincarnation: " is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment..." (Heb. 9:27; NIV). But why so little on such an important subject? Is it possible that at one time the Bible did in fact teach reincarnation, but that early Christian leaders had the teaching expunged? Such is the accusation made in Shirley Maclaine's book Out on a Limb.

The idea that the church struck the doctrine of reincarnation from the Bible is not a passing suggestion in MacLaine's book. She makes that claim on no less than six separate occasions. It is as though she is deliberately intent on disarming the anticipated antagonism she expects from those who have been raised on the Bible. This paper will examine each claim in the order in which it appears in the book.

Shirley Maclaine became interested in the idea of reincarnation through her friend,
David. One day after one of their talks she looked up "reincarnation" and "religion" in the
encyclopedia. She came to this conclusion:
"Each religion had its own belief for the origin of the soul, but no religion
was without the belief that the soul existed as a part of man and was
immortal. And somewhere between Judaism and Christianity, the West had
lost the ancient concept of reincarnation" (52).

Ms. MacLaine seems to have concluded that all religions once believed in the immortality of the soul and, by implication, reincarnation, and that this belief was somehow lost "between Judaism and Christianity". While it may be true that each religion has a theory for the origin of the soul and believes the soul to be immortal, it is non-sequitur to imply from that premise that all religions believe, or once believed, in reincarnation. It is true that Judaism and Christianity do teach the immortality of the soul. But immortality of the soul is not synonymous with reincarnation. Nevertheless, Ms. Maclaine has planted a seed that has left the reader with the impression that the biblical doctrine of reincarnation has somehow been lost.

Some time later in another one of her conversations with David, he argues for the "reasonableness" of reincarnation:
"Now wait! Science believes in cause and effect. Most reasonable
people believe in cause and effect, right? ...But think that through--if you
don't reap in this life, then when? In heaven? In hell? Even
religion believes in cause and effect--that's why, when they threw out
reincarnation, they dreamt up heaven and hell to take care of all the
unfulfilled effects. But why, for God's sake, are a hypothetical heaven or
hell easier to believe in than the justice of reincarnation on Earth? I
mean, on the face of it, what seems more reasonable to you?" (96).

MacLaine has not yet explained when the doctrine of reincarnation was "tossed out", but she has reemphasized to her readers that it was at one time a biblical teaching. There are at least two major concerns in this paragraph. First is the assertion that "they" threw out reincarnation and "dreamt up heaven and hell". Later on in the book Maclaine gets more specific about the "throwing out" of reincarnation at the Second Counsel of Constantinople so for now we need to focus on how it was that the church made up heaven and hell.

The Second Counsel of Constantinople (553 ad) says nothing about heaven and hell but it is clear that the early church fathers believed in their existence long before that Council. Tertullian (145-220 A.D.), for example makes reference to heaven (Tertullian, 642). Irenaeus (120-202 A.D.) argues against Valentinus' gnostic view of heaven (Irenaeus, 322f). Hippolytus (170-236 A.D.) makes repeated reference to Sheol or Hades (Hippolytus, 174) and Justin (110-165 A.D.), commenting on Matthew 10:28 says: "And hell is a place where those are to be punished who have lived wickedly, and who do not believe that those things which God has taught us by Christ will come to pass. (Justin, 169)
It is clear that Justin's teaching on hell is based squarely on the teaching Jesus himself. This being the case, it is very difficult to understand how MacLaine and company can hold such a "high" view of Jesus, yet reject His teaching. In Out on a limb her friend David says:
Christ was the most advanced human ever to walk this planet. He was a
highly evolved spiritual soul whose purpose on Earth was to impart the teachings
of a Higher Order...He obviously knew more than the rest of us about life and
death and God. I think his resurrection proved that." (92).

Why, then, would Shirley and David reject Christ's clear teaching on the existence of Hell? It would seem that they should either agree with Him or disagree with Him. For "David" to accept some of what Jesus said as being true while writing off the disagreements as later fabrications of the Church is either ignorance or deception.

The second issue is a question of epistemology. Shirley's friend David argues for reincarnation because he thinks it is "easier to believe" and "seems more reasonable" (96). But many theories which were easy to believe and seemed to be reasonable later proved to be false. The question is "how do we know".

David and Shirley's strongest argument would seem to be that their "religion", like Christianity, is a revealed religion. It is revealed first of all by the "entities" they have spoken to in trance-channeling sessions (185-213). These "entities" presumably have a higher knowledge than we mortals and have conveyed this knowledge on to the enlightened few. Second, it was revealed to David by extraterrestrials (289-312) who also presumably have greater knowledge than mere mortals.

Christianity is also a revealed religion. By way of great over simplification, Christians know of the nature of God and reality because God became flesh and dwelt among us. He affirmed to us the divine origin of the Old Testament and the teaching therein. He promised that the Spirit of Truth would lead His disciples into further truth. He gave evidence of who He was and the truthfulness of what He taught by raising Himself from the dead, as He had promised.

Since both David and Shirley as well as Christians claim to have a revealed religion are we therefore at an impasse? I think not. We must go further by asking how each system fits the other system into its own. Christianity could account for David's evidence quite easily as simply demonic. Concerning the issue of UFO's Weldon and Levitt comment:

"We believe that there is an important correlation between the upsurge of occult phenomena in human society and the increased prevalence of the UFO's...Thus, to the extent that the UFO phenomenon aligns itself with occult phenomena-to that degree it is linked to the power of demons" (Weldon, 93).

Geisler would seem to agree with this. In his book, Signs and Wonders he cites parallels between numerous UFO encounters and the biblical teaching on demons and concludes, "Taken as a whole, this evidence is a powerful indication that some UFO encounters of a 'third kind' are demonically inspired" (Geisler, 100).

Whether or not we accept Geisler's, or Weldon and Levitt's conclusion, the fact remains that there are alternate explanations for the UFO phenomena, other than the explanation offered by Shirley and David.

Concerning the "evidence" of trance-channeling, the Bible has numerous references to demons speaking through people both in the Old Testament and in the New. This, of course, does not necessarily mean that Ms. MacLaine's experience with trance-channeling was authentic. F. LaGard Smith, reports that he went to Kevin Ryerson, the same psychic Shirley MacLaine visited and came away with quite a different impression. Smith states:
"...I was not convinced that any astral-plane entities were using Kevin as their
'instrument.' The two voices of 'John' and 'Tom McPherson' seemed to me to be mere affectations of Kevin's own voice. I have spent a lot of time in England and Ireland, but never have I heard an Irish accent like the supposed voice of the entity 'Tom,' who is supposed to be Irish." (Smith, 101).
"On one occasion, as a test of factual accuracy, I purposely misrepresented that my mother was no longer living. The response to the question which I had posed wrongly assumed the truth of that misrepresentation. Wouldn't the Akashic Records know whether of not your mother were still on the earth-plane?" (Smith, 102).
On the other hand, we must ask how David and Ms. MacLaine integrate the Bible into their system. It would seem that the only way they can is to twist it, take it out of context, accept the parts that seem to agree with them and blatantly ignore the rest. One example is their acceptance of Moses as a great prophet and psychic, while simply ignoring his severe condemnation of mediums and spiritists (Dt. 18:11).

Another is their acceptance of Jesus as the "most advanced human" and a "highly evolved spiritual soul", while writing off His teaching on hell as a fabrication of the church. The Christian has an adequate explanation for the phenomena recorded by Ms. Maclaine, but Ms. Maclaine and David do not adequately explain how they can hold Jesus and Moses in high esteem and yet reject their teaching on the occult.

McClain's interest in the occult began to grow to the point that she made an appointment with a "trance-channeler" to come to her home. During the course of their discussion he told her
"But then the Bible says nothing about reincarnation either and it's quite well
known that the Council of Nicea voted to strike the teaching of reincarnation
from the Bible.""How do you know that?" I asked."Well, most serious metaphysical
students of the Bible know that. The Council of Nicea altered many of the
interpretations of the bible". (181).

Up to this point in her book, MacLaine has been vague in her hints that the teaching of reincarnation was removed from the Bible. Here she gets a little more specific. Although the trance-channeler, Kevin, says it was the Council of Nicea which altered the Bible, he seems to have meant the Second Council of Constantinople. On page 235 David gets very specific saying that reincarnation was struck from the Bible "during an Ecumenical Council meeting of the Catholic church in Constantinople sometime around 553 A.D. called the Council of Nicea". (The council of Nicea took place in 325 A.D. in Nicea, not Constantinople).

Kevin's confusion over church councils is minor, however, compared to his confusion over the history of the Bible. Although it is not entirely clear how "many of the interpretations" of the bible can be "altered", the implication is that the Council made changes in the text of the Bible itself. To anyone who is familiar with the history of the transmission of the biblical text, this assertion is absurd. For the sake of argument, even if a church council had tampered with the text of a particular manuscript, they would not have had access to all of the biblical manuscripts in circulation throughout the Mediterranean world and we would certainly expect some manuscripts to surface which contained some of the supposed references to reincarnation.

The fact is that there are several extant manuscripts which pre-date the Second Council of Constantinople (eg. p1, p4, p5, p15, p22, p23, p27, p30 et al.) and some which even pre-date the Council of Nicea, for that matter (p46, p66, p67). None of these have the imagined references to reincarnation. In fact, of the thousands of Greek manuscripts extant today, none have the supposed references to reincarnation. Certainly something would have survived. Concerning the Old Testament, one has only to refer to the biblical texts found at Qumran, none of which were even available for the church councils to alter, yet are entirely free of references to reincarnation. The idea that the early church deleted all references to reincarnation in the Bible is simply absurd to those who know of the history of the biblical text. But the accusation can be very convincing to those who don't know any better.

Later in Shirley's meeting with Kevin she had the "opportunity" of speaking to "John", a spirit guide who spoke through Kevin. In the course of their discussion, Shirley asked:

"Wait a minute," I said. "Isn't the Bible
supposed to be the Word of God?"

"Yes, in the main it is. Although much of what exists in your Bible today has been reinterpreted."

"Reinterpreted by whom?"

"By various persons through time and through various languages. Ultimately, by the Church. It was to the advantage of the Church to protect the people from the real truth."

"The real truth being what?

"The real truth being the precess of each soul's progression through the ages..."

"You mean reincarnation?"

"That is correct..."

"Well, would the church deny us that truth?"

"Yes, because such a truth would make the power and authority of the
Church unnecessary. ...Let us say simply that the authorities in the Church desired
to 'shelter' mankind from a truth they felt you were not prepared for." (204-205).

Again, the implication is that "what exists in your Bible" has been changed or "reinterpreted" by the church in a effort to "shelter mankind" from the truth of reincarnation. For someone not familiar with the church or the nature of the Bible, this undoubtedly sounds like a major conspiracy to keep information from the public. During the dark ages it might have been possible to make such a claim, since most people did not have access to a Bible, but today everyone can pick up a Bible and read it for themselves. They don't need to have "the church" interpret it for them. They can do it themselves. And as we have shown above, the teaching of reincarnation was not deleted from the text. It was never there.
The subject of reincarnation and the Bible keeps coming up, however. As they were walking along the beach David told Shirley:

"...when Christ returned to Israel he taught what he had learned from the Indian masters, that is, the theory of reincarnation.

"But David,", I said, "why aren't these teachings recorded in the Bible?"

"They are," he said. "The theory of reincarnation is recorded in the Bible. But the proper interpretations were struck from it during an Ecumenical council meeting of the Catholic Church in Constantinople sometime around 553 A.D., called the Council of Nicea. The Council members voted to strike those teaching from the Bible in order to solidify Church control" (234-235).

Having read some of the literature David had given her Shirley relates:

"Again, I read that Christ's teachings about reincarnation were struck from the Bible during the Fifth Ecumenical Council meeting in Constantinople in the year 553 A.D. The Catholic Encyclopedia itself states, in regard to the Fifth Ecumenical Council meeting, that 'anyone asserting the belief in the preexistence of souls' would be anathema" (246).

Note that in the first quote David says that "proper interpretations" of reincarnation were struck from the Bible, in the second quote Shirley says "Christ's teachings about reincarnation were struck from the Bible".

David's statement is quite ambiguous. We are left wondering, "are the teachings of reincarnation still in the Bible or not?" We might also ask just how one strikes "interpretations" from the Bible (or any other document, for that matter). MacLaine, however, is very clear. She states that it was Christ's teachings of reincarnation which were "struck from the Bible".

When we read the "transcripts" from the Second Council of Constantinople, however, it is immediately apparent that nothing whatsoever was "struck from the Bible". What MacLaine and David are apparently referring to is article "one" of the "Anathemas against Origen". This article states:

"If anyone asserts the fabulous pre-existence of souls, and shall assert the monstrous restoration which follows from it: let him be anathema." (The Fifth Ecumenical Council, 318)

What Origen taught, however, and what was condemned at the Council, was the pre-existence of souls, that is, that the soul existed before birth. Origen believed that ones position in hell is determined by his or her life here and now. He seems to have believed further, that our pre-existent life determined our present position here on earth (see Origen, 372-374).

Two points need to be emphasized. First, although Origen's theories may have some similarities to Maclaine's view, he did not teach reincarnation. Commenting on the relation of John the Baptist to Elijah, Origen says:

"In this place it does not appear to me that by Elijah the soul is spoken of,
lest I should fall into the dogma of transmigration [reincarnation], which in
foreign to the church of God, and not handed down by the Apostles, nor anywhere
set forth in the Scriptures; for it is also in opposition to the saying that
'things seen are temporal', and that 'this age shall have a consummation,' and
also to the fulfillment of the saying, 'Heaven and earth shall pass away,' and
'the fashion of this world passeth away,' and 'the heavens shall perish,' and
what follows." (Origen, 474).

It is very clear that Origen did not believe in reincarnation and that his view, condemned at the Second Council of Constantinople, was that of pre-existence of souls. But the doctrine of the preexistence of souls and reincarnation are not necessarily the same thing; and Origen himself renounces the latter, saying that it was "not handed down by the apostles, nor anywhere set forth in Scriptures".

This is very significant because Origen lived long before both the Council of Nicea and the Second Council of Constantinople and he says that the Scriptures teach nothing about reincarnation! So we find that nothing concerning reincarnation was "struck from the Bible" or even "reinterpreted" at the church councils. It was never there in the first place. It would seem that the only witness for the prosecution has become a witness for the defense of the integrity of Scripture.


The accusations and implications made by Shirley MacLaine in her book Out on a Limb are that the Bible teaches, or taught reincarnation, but that the Church "struck" or "reinterpreted" those teachings from the Bible. We have seen that the accusations are clearly false, and the implications are deceptive.

Works Cited

"The Fifth Ecumenical Council". The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. Second Series. Vol. 14. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981.

Geisler, Norman. Signs and Wonders. Wheaton: Tyndale, 1988.

Hippolytus. "The Extant Works and Fragments". The Ante-NiceneFathers. Vol. 5. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981.

Irenaeus. "Against Heresies". The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Vol. 1. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,

Justin Martyr. "An Answer to the Jews". The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Vol. 1. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981.

Maclaine, Shirley. Out on a Limb. New York: Bantam Books, 1983.

Origen. "De Principilis". The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Vol. 4. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981.
---. "Commentary on Matthew". The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Vol. 10. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981.

Smith, F. LaGard. Out on a Broken Limb. Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1986.

Tertullian. "Scorpiace". The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Vol. 3. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981.

Weldon, John and Zola Levitt. UFO's; What on Earth is Happening? Irvine, CA: Harvest House, 1975.