An exhaustive paper on this subject is not contemplated in this article, but even a sketch will show that the Christian Bible has in it the doctrine of Reincarnation. Of course those who adhere only to what the church now teaches on the subject of man, his nature and destiny, will not quickly accept any construction outside of the theological one, but there are many who, while not in the church, still cling to the old book from which they were taught.
In the first place, it must be remembered that the writers of the biblical books were Jews with few exceptions, and that the founder of Christianity — Jesus — was himself a Jew. And examination of his own sayings shows that he thought his mission was to the Jews only and not to the Gentiles. He said, "I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel." This clearly referred to the Jews and as clearly excluded the Gentiles. And on one occasion he refused for some time to do anything for a Gentile woman until her importunity at last compelled him to act: and then too he referred to his mission to the Jews. So in looking into these things we must also look at what were the beliefs of the day. The Jews then most undoubtedly believed in reincarnation. It was a commonly accepted doctrine as it is now in Hindustan, and Jesus must have been acquainted with it. This we must believe on two grounds: first, that he is claimed by the Christian to be the Son of God and full of all knowledge; and second, that he had received an education which permitted him to dispute with the doctors of divinity. The theory of reincarnation was very old at the time, and the old testament books show this to be so.
"Proverbs" gives the doctrine where Solomon says he was with the Creator from the beginning and that then his (Solomon's) delights were with the sons of men and in the habitable parts of the earth. This disposes of the explanation that he meant he existed in the foreknowledge of the Creator, by the use of the sentences detailing his life on the earth and with men. Then again Elias and many other famous men were to actually return, and all the people were from time to time expecting them. Adam was held to have reincarnated to carry on the work he began so badly, and Seth, Moses, and others were reincarnated as different great persons of subsequent epochs. The land is an oriental one, and the orientals always held the doctrine of the rebirth of mortals. It was not always referred to in respect to the common man who died and was reborn, but came up prominently when the names of great prophets, seers, and legislators were mentioned. If readers will consult any well educated Jew who is not "reformed," they will gain much information on this national doctrine.
Coming now to the time of Jesus, all the foregoing has a bearing on what he said. And, of course, if what he said does not agree with the view of the church, then the church view must be given up or we will be guilty of doubting the wisdom of Jesus and his ability to conduct a great movement. This, indeed, is the real position of the Church, for it has promulgated dogmas and condemned doctrines wholly without any authority, and some that Jesus held himself it has put its anathema upon.
When there was brought into the presence of Jesus a man who was born blind, the disciples naturally wondered why he had thus been punished by the Almighty, and asked Jesus whether the man was thus born blind for some sin he had committed, or one done by his parents. The question was put by them with the doctrine of reincarnation fully accepted, for it is obvious the man must have lived before, in their estimation, in order to have done sin for which he was then punished. Now if the doctrine was wrong and pernicious, as the church has declared it to be by anathematizing it, Jesus must have known it to be wrong, and then was the time for him to deny the whole theory and explode it, as well as definitely putting his seal of condemnation upon it for all time. Yet he did not do so; he waived it then and said the blindness was for other reasons in that case. It was not a denial of it.
But again when John the Baptist, who had, so to say, ordained Jesus to his ministry, was killed by the ruler of the country, the news was brought to Jesus, and he then distinctly affirmed the doctrine of reincarnation. Hence his waiving the matter in the case of the blind man is shown to have been no refusal to credit the theory. Jesus affirmed the doctrine, and also affirmed the old ideas in relation to the return to earth of the prophets by saying that the ruler had killed John not knowing that he, John, was Elias "who was for to come."
On another occasion the same subject arose between Jesus and the disciples when they were talking about the coming of a messenger before Jesus himself. The disciples did not understand, and said that Elias was to come first as the messenger, and Jesus distinctly replied that Elias had come already in the person called John the Baptist. This time, if any, was the time for Jesus to condemn the doctrine, but, on the contrary, he boldly asserts it and teaches it, or rather shows its application to certain individuals, as was most interesting and instructive for the disciples who had not enough insight to be able to tell who any man was in his real immortal nature. But Jesus, being a seer, could look into the past and tell just what historical character any one had been. And so he gave them details about John, and we must suppose more particulars were gone into than have come down to us in the writings naturally incomplete and confessed to be but a partial narrative of the doings and sayings of Jesus.
It must now be evident that there is a diametrical disagreement between the church and Jesus. The church has cursed the doctrine he taught. Which is right? The true believer in Jesus must reply that Jesus is; the church will say it is right by acting on that line. For if the doctrine be taught, then all men are put on an equal basis, and hence the power of the human rulers of heaven and earth is at once weakened. Such an important doctrine as this is one that Jesus could not afford to pass over. And if it is wrong, then it was his duty to condemn it: indeed, we must suppose that he would have done so were it not entirely right. And as he went further, even to the extent of affirming it, then it stands with his seal of approval for all time.
John the Revealer believed it of course, and so in his book we find the verse saying that the voice of the Almighty declared that the man who overcame should "go out no more" from heaven. This is mere rhetoric if reincarnation be denied; it is quite plain as a doctrine if we construe it to mean that the man who by constant struggle and many lives at last overcomes the delusions of matter will have no need to go out into life any more, but from that time will be a pillar, what the Theosophist knows as "Dhyan Chohan" forevermore. And this is exactly the old and oriental doctrine on the point.
St. Paul also gives the theory of reincarnation in his epistles where he refers to the cases of Jacob and Esau, saying that the Lord loved the one and hated the other before they were born. It is obvious that the Lord cannot love or hate a non-existing thing, and that this means that Jacob and Esau had been in their former lives respectively good and bad and therefore the Lord — or Karma — loved the one and hated the other before their birth as the men known as Jacob and Esau. And Paul was here speaking of the same event that the older prophet Malachi spoke of in strict adherence to the prevalent idea. Following Paul and the disciples came the early fathers of the church, and many of them taught the same. Origen was the greatest of them. He gave the doctrine specifically, and it was because of the influence of his ideas that the Council of Constantinople 500 years after Jesus saw fit to condemn the whole thing as pernicious. This condemnation worked because the fathers were ignorant men, most of them Gentiles who did not care for old doctrines and, indeed, hated them. So it fell out of the public teaching and was at last lost to the Western world. But it must revive, for it is one of the founder's own beliefs, and as it gives a permanent and forceful basis for ethics it is really the most important of all the Theosophical doctrines.
1. Reprinted from The Path, Vol. VII. William Brehon is one of the pen-names of W. Q. Judge, second Leader of the Theosophical Society. — Eds. (return to text)