Does John 9:2 imply reincarnation?

Luke Wayne
02/14/17

No, John 9:2 does not teach or imply reincarnation in any way. John 9 records the events surrounding a man blind from birth whom Jesus miraculously healed. Before Jesus heals the man, we are told that:

"And His disciples asked Him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he would be born blind?” (John 9:2).

Here is where people try to read reincarnation into the passage. The disciples ask whether or not the man was born blind because of his parent's sin or his own. They argue that the only way the man could have sinned before his birth was for him to have lived a previous life in another body, thus reincarnation. This argument is flawed on a number of levels.

1. The disciples were wrong

The first and most important thing to note is that, even if the disciples were assuming reincarnation (they weren't, but we'll set that aside for just a moment), the disciple's assumptions were incorrect. Jesus responded:

"It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him," (John 9:3).

The man's blindness had nothing to do with anyone's sins, his or his parents. The disciples may have thought it possible that the man was born with some personal sin debt that was worse than his sighted neighbors, but Jesus corrects their error. Though we are all born stained with the sin of Adam, the Bible denies that we commit personal sins before our birth. Describing God's choice of Jacob over Esau, the Apostle Paul writes:

"For though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad, so that God’s purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls, it was said to her, 'The older will serve the younger,'” (Romans 9:11-12).

There were no previous lives. The boys had done nothing good or bad before their birth. Whether in the case of Jacob, Esau, or the blind man, God based His choice on His own purposes. The unborn children had not done anything moral or immoral yet, which means they did not have earlier incarnations. Indeed, the Bible is quite clear:

"It is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment," (Hebrews 9:27).

There is absolutely no room here for multiple lives or a cycle of death and rebirth.

2. Reincarnation is alien to John's Gospel as a whole

In an earlier chapter, when Jesus' pictures salvation as being "born again," Nicodemus finds the idea absurd, stating:

"How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?" (John 3:4).

Jesus is using an outlandish image that He knows presents a physical impossibility and communicates a spiritual truth. Jesus often did so, such as the extreme metaphor of destroying the temple and rebuilding it in three days (John 2:10) or that of the crowd eating His own flesh and blood, (John 6:48-58). The scene between Jesus and Nicodemus only makes sense if the idea of a second literal, physical birth is ridiculous. The conversation wouldn't work if reincarnation were real, or were even believed to be real by Nicodemus or the original readers of John's Gospel. The idea of one person enduring multiple physical births was assumed to be impossible up front by everyone involved.

Also, throughout John's Gospel, Jesus' preexistence stands as completely unique. John the Baptist says of Jesus:

"He who comes after me has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me," (John 1:15, 30).

Jesus existed before this life, and that established His great authority because it is only true of Him. John did not exist before this life, nor did anyone else, or it wouldn't grant Jesus a privileged position. Consider Jesus' conversation with the hostile crowd:

"'Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.' So the Jews said to Him, 'You are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham?' Jesus said to them, 'Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am,'" (John 8:58).

Notice their argument. Jesus could not have seen Abraham because Abraham died long before Jesus was born. Jesus emphasizes that He did exist in Abraham's day, not because everyone did, not because of a cycle of countless deaths and births, but rather because He is God, the "I AM" of Exodus 3:14. They got His point and found it blasphemous. They were ready to stone Him to death! (John 8:59). Reincarnation had no place in this encounter. We are not all divine, nor did we all exist before this life. Only Jesus. That is the point. Jesus is unique:

"You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world," (John 8:23).

"If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man," (John 3:12-13).

"He who comes from above is above all, he who is of the earth is from the earth and speaks of the earth. He who comes from heaven is above all," (John 3:31).

Obviously, none of us is supposed to walk away from John's Gospel believing that we are all heavenly souls from ancient days who are going through one human life after another. The idea is antithetical to everything the Gospel says.

3. Reincarnation was not behind the disciple's question

But if not reincarnation, what were the disciples thinking? Why would they ask if a man was born blind for his own sin?

Behind this question was the assumption that suffering and affliction are the results of personal guilt. If someone became ill, was maimed in an accident, or lost their property in a storm, people assumed that God was punishing that person for some sin in their life. When life gets bad, people must deserve it. This assumption is wrong-headed. The Bible doesn't deny that God sometimes uses affliction to punish evil or correct sin, but that is not the only reason an individual might suffer. Whether in James 1, Romans 5, or the entire book of Job, the Scriptures are littered with God's use of trials and difficulties for higher purposes. Jesus Himself warned against thinking that someone is more sinful than you are just because they suffer more than you:

"Now on the same occasion, there were some present who reported to Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. And Jesus said to them, 'Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans because they suffered this fate? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them were worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish,'” (Luke 13:1-5).

Jesus didn't deny that sinners deserve punishment, but He sharply rebuked the idea that someone must be a worse sinner than you just because they are suffering more than you are right now. Jesus' admonition echoes far beyond the misconceptions of these first century Jews. It challenges this lie throughout all nations and all ages, where ever it is told. When the Hindu says that a man's troubles are the result of his own deeds in either this life or some previous life, he is falling into the same sort of error, and Jesus is rebuking him just as strongly.

Nevertheless, at that time the disciples still thought a man's suffering must be the result of individual sins. But such a belief made this particular blind man a riddle. If a man lost his sight to disease or misfortune then one could easily argue that he did something wrong and deserved it, but why would a man be born blind? Whose fault could that be? The fact of the matter is, the disciples probably did not have a ready-made answer. If Jesus had said, "it was the man's own sin that caused him to be born blind," they probably would have followed that up with, "...okay...but how?" This was not a simple, casual inquiry where they were merely asking Jesus to settle the matter between two easy possibilities. This was a profound mystery to them. On their worldview, the blindness of this man was an enigma. Jesus dispelled the mystery only by dispelling the myth: the man's affliction was not on account of anyone's sin at all! The man was born blind, not to punish an evil deed, but rather to bring about a glorious good!

Of course, the Jews of the day had not been silent on the matter. Theories about such things existed, and the disciples may have been aware of them. There were, for example, those who said that babies could commit personal sins even in the womb. There is a Jewish Midrash that mentions a woman bringing a complaint before a judge against her child because he "kicked her unreasonably in the womb."1 Some early commentators said that God chose Jacob over Esau because Esau quarreled with his brother in the womb, (Genesis 25:22). The Bible rejects these speculations (as noted above in Romans 9:11-12, for example) but their existence demonstrates both that these questions were serious issues in the day, and also that one did not need to assume reincarnation to discuss such matters.

  • 1. Vajicra Rabba, as cited in John Lightfoot’s Commentary on the Gospels: John 9:2