I live in India where 80% are Hindus and believe in reincarnation. I don’t believe in it but yesterday I checked out a website that has testimonies regarding Near to Death experiences. Some of them have seen Jesus after their death and he told them either to go back or reincarnate to a new body. They provide the verse about John the Baptist in the Gospel of Mathew as proof that Jesus also taught about reincarnation. So if my Hindu friends ask questions regarding this, how can I respond and convince them that reincarnation is not real? And what’s your opinion about these Near to Death experiences?
It is really quite common for Hindus to try to read reincarnation into Christianity and the Bible. I have even seen some claim that the Church removed references to reincarnation from the Bible at the Council of Nicea in AD 325. This, of course, is quite ridiculous as we have copies of the New Testament from before this time, which would include these supposed removed passages. Besides, it would take a conspiracy of world-wide scale to get the entire Church to change the New Testament at that date.
Anyway, this crazy idea is not the one being raised by your friends. They are saying that reincarnation is consistent with 1. Experiences such as near-death events and 2. The Bible. Neither is the case.
First, let me deal with near-death experiences. First of all, by its very nature, subjective experience does not prove anything. These near-death experiences are very subjective. Quite a bit of research has been done into such experiences and what has been discovered is that what people “see” in near-death experiences reflects their cultural expectations. Muslims see something that reflects Islamic ideas. Christians see something akin to heaven or hell and Hindus see something related to reincarnations. These experiences are really completely useless in establishing what is true. The fact is that when the brain undergoes oxygen deprivation, chemicals are released which tend to cause hallucinations and a feeling of detachment from the body. There is almost certainly nothing “true” about the meaning of life to be discovered in these near-death experiences. I am aware that many—including some Christians—take great comfort from such subjective experiences, but I believe this is not a wise path to go down.
There is good reason for all of us to be extremely skeptical of claims of multiple reincarnations. Population scientists have estimated that somewhere near one third of all people who have ever lived are alive today. If all of us are supposed to have had multiple past human lives, the math does not add up. Every story of a past life I have heard about from New-Age folks and practitioners of Eastern religion in general involves someone who was a general or a wealthy merchant of something like that. The very idea of reincarnation and beliefs about it simply do not square with the facts about human existence as we know it. Multiple cycles of death and rebirth for all humans are mathematically excluded. Period.
Putting that aside, the claim that reincarnation is found hidden in the Bible is totally unfounded. Like the Hebrew writer says, unambiguously, in Hebrews 9:27; “Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment.” The entire tenor of the Old and the New Testament is that when we die we face judgment for what was done in this life. There is literally not a hint (other than a couple of passages taken rather obviously out of context) of the idea of multiple lives and multiple chances to work off our karma. The Parable of the workers in the fields (Matthew 20:1-16), the Parable of the great banquet (Luke 14:15-24), the scene in Revelation 20:11-15—all of these make it crystal clear that this life is our only chance at a life in a human body.
As for the passage about John the Baptist, I would agree that if we take this single passage and ignore the biblical context (a really bad idea) we could try to squeeze some sort of reincarnation idea in there, but if we look at the context it is absolutely ruled out. Let us look at this passage. It is Matthew 11:13-14. “For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come.” I can see that if we look through the Bible through a lens of assuming reincarnation is real, we could, like I say, squeeze this single statement into this view. But if we look at the context, at the Old Testament and at what Jesus is trying to say, then this claim completely collapses. What Jesus is saying her is that John the Baptist is the fulfillment of the prophetic expectation of Elijah. He does not say that John is Elijah. He says that he is “the Elijah” or prophetic expectation. This expectation was created by the next-to-last verse in the Old Testament—Malachi 4:5. “See, I will send to you the prophet Elijah before the great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.” In fact, in Matthew 16, when Jesus asks the apostles who people said he was, some had responded that he may have been “the Elijah who was to come.” The wording of this reveals that they thought that an Elijah was to come, not that, literally, Elijah would come. The idea of reincarnation was not known to the Jews. A crucial passage on this is Luke 1:17. Speaking of John the Baptist, the angel tells Zechariah that his son would work “in the spirit and power of Elijah.” John the Baptist, like Elisha, was a prophet in the spirit and power of Elijah. Elisha even asked to be given the spirit of Elijah, and it was granted to him (2 Kings 2:9). Like Elisha, who inherited the ministry of Elijah, John the Baptist reincarnated the spirit, power and ministry of Elijah, but he certainly was not the literal reincarnation of Elijah. That certainly is not how Jesus viewed him, as is proved by the interpretation of John the Baptist in Luke 1:17.
Hindus who find reincarnation in the Bible are guilty of wishful thinking and we would do them a favor to lovingly point this out to them.