“Reincarnation” connotes coming back to life, of the same person that had died. It means “Re-embodiment”. He comes back to earth, having taken another body, and is no more present in the spirit world. Whether, or not, this is possible, has been a subject of interesting debate in several quarters.
Some religions and persons believe in reincarnation as explained above, and some members of some esoteric organizations even talk about their personal experiences of coming and going, and claim to remember their past incarnations. I wonder why only those few of them remember past incarnations. If what they claim is true then it means that God wants only insignificant few to know what they know and not the generality of humanity. Most of us, therefore, are not expected to believe, having got no basis to believe.
Christianity does not admit the existence of reincarnation. There is no evidence in Scripture and Tradition that points to any reason for the Christian to believe in reincarnation. Rather, the bible says: “And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment: So Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many; and unto them that look for him shall he appear the second time without sin unto salvation.” (Hebrews 9:27-28).
I have no reason not to subscribe to the Christian tenet. Some people, however, point to some bible passages and some practices and beliefs in our Tradition, which seem to insinuate that reincarnation might be true. These are used to justify familiar thoughts in our society concerning the veracity of Reincarnation as described:
- Jesus Christ, talking about John the Baptist in Matthew 11:14, said “And if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come”
- Matthew 17:12-13: “Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Indeed, Elijah is coming first and will restore all things. But I say to you that Elijah has come already, and they did not know him but did to him whatever they wished. Likewise the Son of Man is also about to suffer at their hands. Then the disciples understood that He spoke to them of John the Baptist.’”
- Malachi 4:5 says “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord”
- Matthew 16:13-14 reads “When Jesus came into the region of Caesarea Philippi, He asked His disciples, saying, “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?” So they said, “Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” This suggests that the Jews believe in coming back from the dead. See also Luke 9:7-8.5. Hebrews 11:13-16 “All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them”. The emboldened verse has been reported to mean that people have opportunity to return to earth after death.6. A well-known belief in this environment is “Ilo-Uwa” (Earth-Return) among us Igbos and the corresponding practice of “Iko-Uwa”(Divination to identify the Returnee). The familiar thought is that the forebear has reincarnated and returned as the present child and this thought makes it seem that Igbo Tradition supports the doctrine of Reincarnation as described.7. There have been stories of people declaring to be someone that lived in the past. Some of such declarations are said to have been reportedly made by children, including infants who could not yet speak (and who went back to their normal state directly thereafter as if nothing happened)
In view of the ongoing, is it accurate to say there is evidence that Reincarnation, as the principle of same dead man leaving the world of the dead and returning to another life here on earth, is plausible? In any case, is this proof that the cultures involved in the above analysis really believe in Reincarnation as described?
(a) Regarding the verses insinuating that John the Baptist was Elijah, it has to be noted that Elijah did not die but was taken up in a chariot of fire and so it is expected that the Jews would be expecting his return, naturally and especially as it was prophesied he would return before the coming of the Messiah; this is not Reincarnation but a return of the same body.
(b) Given that Elijah might have been regarded as dead, it should also be noted that John the Baptist was coming “in the spirit and power of Elijah” as the angel Gabriel said (Luke 1:17). The bible also has a report of who John said he was and was not: “And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the Prophet?’ And he answered, ‘No.’ Then they said to him, ‘who are you, that we may give an answer to those who sent us? What do you say about yourself?’ He said: ‘I am “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Make straight the way of the LORD,’” as the prophet Isaiah said.’ Now those who were sent were from the Pharisees”. It is thus clear that John the Baptist was not, really, Elijah and there was no Reincarnation.
(c) “Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets”. This really shows the Jews believe in coming back to life but what is special in this belief is that it is often expressed for special people and special circumstances. They are usually prophets and God sends them in a special way. It is all about sending by God, of special creatures such as angels and prophets for special purposes at special times and special circumstances; not a routine picking up of a garb of body and retuning to earth, by all comers. Prophets are not ordinary people but God’s special messengers, like angels also are. They are sent by God for clearly defined, special mission. So was John the Baptist sent to prepare the way for Christ, who was sent shortly afterward. The Bible is replete with references confirming this principle of special sending by God: Jeremiah 7:25 says “From the time your ancestors left Egypt until now, day after day, again and again I sent you my servants the prophets.” Also see 2Kings 17:13, 2Chronicles 24:19, 36:15, Isaiah 49:1, Jeremiah1:4-5, 25:4-5, 44:4-5, Malachi 4:5, Matthew 23: 34, Luke 11:49, Galatians 1:15. It is also clear from the bible that the basic Jewish belief is that life after death is eternal. This belief, and that of Special Sending, is seen in Luke 16:19-31, the story of Lazarus and Dives, which is obviously based on basic Jewish belief system to make them understand the message. It can be understood that sending people to earth from the dead is an extraordinary event and the literal coming back from the dead is not readily granted by God.
(d) There are many other references in the Bible showing the finality of death and that life after death is eternal. See Ecclesiastes 12:1-8, Psalm 16:11, Psalm 39:12-13, Matthew 25:46, John 3:16, 1John2:25, 5:13.
(e) Regarding “Ilo-Uwa”, there are a number of important facts:
- While believing that a child is an incarnate of a forebear, our people pray to that ancestor and pour libations to him believing he is seeing and listening from the spirit world. This means that they do believe he is still there and has not transferred to earth as it is in the tenet of reincarnation. What do our people believe therefore?ii. The possibility of multiple such incarnations from one forebear exists in our Tradition. Ozoani, my maternal grandfather is regarded as the one that incarnated in a very large number of persons in my hometown Ogugu in Awgu Local Government Area of Enugu State of Nigeria, and from a few other communities. My paternal grandfather also has a number of persons bearing his name Okonkwo-Ebia as his incarnates.
iii. Trans-gender manifestations of such incarnations exist also. I know a number of women who are called Okonkwo-Ebia in my village because they manifested, through divination, as his incarnates. Denis Chukwu my elder cousin was popularly called Nwankwo-Ani for he was known as the incarnate of a female forebear of the same name.
It is clear from these facts that Reincarnation as believed by the Igbo people is not the same as Reincarnation as classically described: one and the same person vacating the spirit world and appearing on earth in one person. What obtains in Igbo Tradition is not Reincarnation but what I, on a number of occasions, called Incarnation Sponsorship, almost similar to the “spirit and power of the great ancestor” believed by the Jews, and seems to be line with, and representing the Christian practice of Canonization as a Saint, for it is believed in our tradition that only good spirits “incarnate”. Part of a traditional Igbo man’s prayer is, usually, “All ye good spirits of our ancestors that can incarnate, come and take kola nuts, come and drink wine with us, but all ye wicked spirits that cause trouble, run far away”. Those good ancestral spirits are the Saints, their sainthood being manifested by “Ilo-uwa”, incorrectly called Reincarnation. What I feel is the principle here in Incarnation Sponsorship is that the ancestor saint is in heaven and has earned the ability to obtain favours from God on behalf of the living. “Ilo-uwa” is, therefore a signal favour from God showing that that person said to have incarnated in the child has caused that most precious gift to be given by God to his relative, his earth-life benefactor or any other worthy person.
This is the spirit of the belief in Reincarnation in our clime, the Judeo-Christian-Igbo Traditional belief environment. We believe that God does a signal sending of life to earth in the name of an ancestor who was remarkably good while on earth; the names of bad people are not used for this kind of sending; no one, good or bad, takes up body to return to earth – there is no Reincarnation.