The Gospel passage set in the Lectionary for last week has a curious line in it which reads as follows: “His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, for him to have been born blind?’
The question we might ask is, in what way could the man have sinned before his birth, for him to be born blind? Is it possible to ‘sin’ before one is born?
Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, for him to have been born blind?’
We’ll come back to that question:
At the time of Jesus, most scholars will tell you that there appear to have been two dominant Jewish views of what happens after death:
The first view represented by the Sadducees was that there is no life after death. At most they would have believed that those who had died resided in the place of the dead called Sheol, a kind of shadowy existence but where nothing really ever happens.
The Pharisees however believed in what they called the Resurrection of the dead. In other words, that those who had died and dwelt in this shadowy place called Sheol would one day be raised to life again with a new bodily existence.
This idea seems to have largely shaped the views of the Apostle Paul who had himself been a Pharisee. His view expressed in 1 Thessalonians 3 was that the general Resurrection of all who had died would take place when Jesus returned, and that in the meantime those who had died were sleeping until the day of Resurrection.
But Paul’s views seems to have modified over time. In his letter to the Philippians which is one of his later writings , as contemplates his own looming death he says “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain,” and he speaks of his desire to depart the body in order to be with Christ, nothing about sleeping until the day of Resurrection.
What is interesting about the passage from John 9 is that it suggests that at the time of Jesus, there was possibly a 3rd view on what happened after death that was held by at least some in the general population and indeed possibly even by some of Jesus disciples, the belief in what is sometimes called rebirth or reincarnation. It is difficult to know how else to interpret this question put to Jesus by his disciples:
‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, for him to have been born blind?’
How else would it be possible to have sinned before birth in order to be born blind if not by sinning in a previous life before being born back into this world?
This is not the only possible reference in Scripture to this belief in rebirth or reincarnation. There are a few other allusions to it. For example, in Luke’s Gospel (:18-19) we read these words:
Once when Jesus was praying in private and his disciples were with him, he asked them, “Who do the crowds say I am?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, that one of the prophets of long ago has come back to life.”
It is quite possible that many of the Jews of Jesus day had been influenced by Greek thinking and culture. In 165 BC the Greek Hellenistic King of the Seleucids, Antiochus Epiphanes, invaded Palestine and forced Greek culture on the Jewish people. And so by the time Jesus lived, Greek ideas had been influencing Jewish people in Palestine for at least 180 years.
The eminent Greek philosopher Plato was a major exponent of this belief in rebirth or reincarnation as was Pythagoras. Plato wrote that these views went back to Socrates.
Also, according to Greek mythology, it was believed that if a person were to achieve Elysium (or Heaven), they would have the choice of either staying there, or being reborn. A person would be brought to the River Lethe to forget one’s past life before being reborn.
And so it is quite probable that after 180 years of the influence of Greek culture, many Jews of Jesus day may have imbibed or absorbed some of these Greek views of rebirth and reincarnation in much the same way that many modern western people have imbibed and absorbed some of these views from exposure to religious ideas from India and East Asia. This is not an absurd suggestion because the first century Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria accepted the doctrine in his writings.
What is perhaps interesting to note is that in the first few centuries of Christianity, there clearly were groups of Christians who held these views. While St Jerome did not hold these views, he states that some Christian sects did teach it, and these seem to have included Clement and Origen of Alexandria who were both influenced by Plato and Philo.
I can’t be sure if this is an accurate quote from St Gregory of Nyssa who died in 332 AD, but it certainly summarises the perspective which some Christians like Clement and Origen might have held at the time:
“It is absolutely necessary that the soul should be healed and purified, and if this does not take place during its life on earth it must be accomplished in future lives. . . . The soul . . . is immaterial and invisible in nature, it at one time puts off one body . . . and exchanges it for a second.”
About two weeks ago, I had some communication with my father in which we spoke a little about the changing religious and spiritual landscape in the world today. Interestingly, he shared an article with me with statistics from the United States that suggests that 33% of Protestants and 36% of Catholics in the United States believe in the doctrine of rebirth or reincarnation.
Many would find in the doctrine an alternative to the more simple traditional view of heaven and hell as the two possible destinations one might go to after one dies.
For some people the doctrine of rebirth provides a helpful framework to make sense of life and that maintains a sense of justice in a world that doesn’t always feel just. From this perspective, this world is a school in which lifetime by lifetime we gradually evolve and grow as we gradually learn the rules and the ways of love, slowly awakening to the knowledge of our Divine origins. From this perspective, even the Hitler’s and the Putin’s of this world will need to learn the harder lessons of life that will enable them to grow in love. And from this perspective perhaps in his next lifetime, Putin might be born into a situation that will teach him more empathy towards those who are living under despotic, ruthless and cruel leaders.
Those who might hold such views would believe that, we have all done cruel and unloving things in past lifetimes and we are all learning at different speeds the lessons that will enable us to evolve and grow to greater maturity and to become more and more loving just as Christ embodied love in his earthly life.
I offer these perspectives with you today, not that you need to adopt these views yourselves, but to make us aware that these views exist and that at various times in history some Christians have held these views as not necessarily contrary to their faith in Christ or the view that there are indeed heavenly realms which we will experience the deeper we grow in the Love of God. Even Paul speaks of different levels of heavenly existence in 2 Corinthians 12:2 where he speaks of having been taken up into what he calls the Third Heaven a reference to the Jewish belief in the existence of 7 heavens or 7 levels of heaven.
At the very least having an understanding of these views on rebirth and the evolution of the soul can help us to better understand the views and beliefs of many people of other faiths across the world from India to Japan, including people from a Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, and Jewish Kabbalist backgrounds.
While he does not refer specifically to the teaching of rebirth or reincarnation, the Non-Subscribing Minister Rev. Wilde from many decades ago suggested that at that time, many Non-Subscribers believed in the ongoing evolution and growth of the soul even beyond this earthly life. On page 10 of his little booklet “The Faith of a Non-Subscribing Presbyterian” he writes: Non-Subscribing Presbyterians Believe that men (and women) never die. Of course their bodies die… But Non-Subscribing Presbyterians do not believe that the real person dies. They are sure that man is much more than a body. He (or She) is a soul or spirit, and spirit is immortal. The spirit or soul lives on after the body dies, and the real person goes on growing and learning, doing better and better the gracious and perfect will of God. Non-Subscribing Presbyterians do not pretend to know much about what the after-life might be like. But we do know that when people die, they are still in God’s love and care and are happy in God’s keeping; that they are with those they love who also have died, and that the immortal life is a life where people go on growing and learning.
Getting back to the disciples question to Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” Jesus is not interested in getting into the blame game. His answer is short and to the point. Neither. It was not the sin of either the man, or his parents.
May God bless you as you ponder these things and as you consider what your own beliefs are in the afterlife and as you seek in your own way to grow in Christ’s love for all the people of the world. Amen.