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Oct 18, 2017

Was John the Baptist a Reincarnation of Elijah?

Dr. Andrew Swafford

John the Baptist could not have been the reincarnation of Elijah, for the simple reason that we know that death (or the end of one’s earthly life) results in a definitive judgment—determining whether or not we are heaven bound, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains here: “Death puts an end to human life as the time open to either accepting or rejecting the divine grace manifested in Christ…. Each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death in a particular judgment that refers his life to Christ: either entrance into the blessedness of heaven—through purification or immediately—or immediate and everlasting damnation” (CCC 1021, 1022). The Letter to Hebrews echoes this same point: “It is appointed for men to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). The notion of reincarnation denies this finality, giving rise to endless cycles of death and reincarnate life. 

Even though Elijah technically did not die, reincarnation is not a real theological possibility, so something else must be going on with John the Baptist.

Hope for Elijah’s Return

Elijah has a very important prophetic ministry, running from 1 Kings 17 to 2 Kings 2. He arises in a time of crisis under the rule of Ahab (see 1 Kings 16-22) and performs several miracles, many of which prefigure those of the Savior, Jesus Christ (e.g., he raises a widow’s son from the dead, 1 Kings 17:8-24). In fact, while it’s commonly thought that miracles are more or less “everywhere” in the Old Testament, the reality is they are very much clustered around the time of Moses and that of Elijah and Elisha (1 Kings 17-2 Kings 13).

As mentioned, Elijah is not said to die. Rather, as he passes his ministry off to his spiritual son Elisha, Elijah is taken away to heaven in a fiery chariot (2 Kings 2:11).

Because of the dynamic importance of Elijah’s work and because he did not actually die, an expectation developed among the prophets that Elijah would return as a precursor to the great definitive coming of the Lord. This is most explicit in the last of the writing prophets, the prophet Malachi, whose ministry likely dates around 450 B.C. He writes: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord” (Malachi 4:5).

Now, Malachi’s ministry takes place some 400 years after Elijah’s heavenly departure.

Further, Malachi 3:1 is likely drawing from Isaiah 40:3, where Malachi states: “Behold, I send my messenger to prepare the way before me” (Malachi 3:1). The similarity is apparent with the Isaiah passage in the repetition of the words “prepare” and “way.” Isaiah writes: “A voice cries in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord” (Isaiah 40:3).

John the Baptist as the New Elijah

In fact, Mark’s Gospel begins by citing Malachi 3:1, but attributes it to Isaiah. In other words, Mark understands the Malachi passage and that of Isaiah as something of a unit, elaborating a single thread, which allows him to see both against the Isaianic backdrop: “As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who shall prepare your way [Malachi 3:1]; the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’” [Isaiah 40:3] (Mark 1:1-3).

The Gospels quote this Isaiah passage (Isaiah 40:3) in order to set the context for the ministry of John the Baptist. For example, speaking of John the Baptist, Matthew writes: “For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord” (Matthew 3:3). It’s also worth noting that John the Baptist hands off his ministry to Jesus at the Jordan River—the very same place where Elijah passed his ministry off to Elisha (see 2 Kings 2).

And Jesus himself is explicit: John the Baptist fulfills the expectation of Elijah’s return. Speaking of John the Baptist, Jesus states: “This is he of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who shall prepare your way before you’ [see Malachi 3:1]. Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence…. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John; and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come” (Matthew 11:11-15).

The same teaching comes out in Luke’s account of John the Baptist’s birth, namely, that John will come “in the spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:17).

When Jesus utters from the Cross his famous words, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachtani” (My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Matthew 27:46), some in the crowd think he is calling for Elijah—because Elijah’s name in Hebrew sounds like the semitic form of “My God, my God” (“Eli, Eli”), showing us an example of the Jewish expectation of Elijah’s return. This expectation is also witnessed in the disciples’ response to Jesus’ question: “Who do men say the Son of man is?” They respond: “Some say John the Baptist, other say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets” (Matthew 16:13-14).  

Thus, the Jewish expectation of Elijah’s return—and the expectation that his return would augur the return of the God of Israel to Zion—gives rise to the question of whether or not John the Baptist is Elijah reincarnate. While, for theological reasons, that can’t be the case, this whole discussion does imply something profound. It means that the God of Israel—YHWH—has returned to his people in and through Jesus Christ.

Typology as Analogy

From the vantage point of the New Testament, there is no reason to force an overly literal reading of Elijah’s return. Rather, John the Baptist is the New Elijah—just as Jesus is the New Moses and the New David. This is a matter of typology whereby figures in the Old point to greater realities to come in the New. The Old Testament is very much a story in search of an ending, giving rise to hopes and expectations that are sometimes fulfilled in surprising and unexpected ways. In hindsight, we see what God was doing; but such matters are not nearly so clear from the other side of the veil before Christ.

Just to give one example, the Church can be understood as the Davidic Kingdom “transfigured.” That is, the Church is related to, but transcends the earthly kingdom of David. In a real way David’s kingdom foreshadows and points to the Church, as a prophetic expectation; but this fulfillment comes about in a surprising and somewhat unexpected way.

Thus, typology often functions like an analogy, which entails a “like and unlike” in terms of how it’s fulfilled in Christ. Reading the Bible from the heart of the Church means attuning ourselves to the rhythms of God’s providence and seeking to understand the divine movement of salvation—from the Old to the New, from the earthly to the heavenly, from nature to grace.

How can we grow in our ability to enter into God’s Sacred Word from the heart of the Church?

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John the Baptist’s Nativity and God’s Will

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  • Thank you for this clarification. Such an interesting topic which inspired great conversation in our bible study group. We appreciate your time and attention!

  • I guess according to u, Jesus is wrong . Hmm, I’m gonna stick with the Son of God. Please read the bible folks, we are all one in the body of Christ, only thru Him can we reach heaven. God bless us all

    • Was he? If you believe John the Baptist wasn’t Elijah then Jesus was wrong or misinformed.

      And Elijah must’ve reincarnated himself into John.

      (Matthew 17)10 And his disciples asked him, saying, Why then say the scribes that Elias must first come?

      11 And Jesus answered and said unto them, Elias truly shall first come, and restore all things.

      12 But I say unto you, That Elias is come already, and they knew him not, but have done unto him whatsoever they listed. Likewise shall also the Son of man suffer of them.

      13 Then the disciples understood that he spake unto them of John the Baptist.

      • Even John the Baptist denied that he was Elijah reincarnated. It meant that John would do the same thing Elijah down.

  • Clear as day in Matthew 11:14. Jesus said he is Elijah. The truth shall set you free. I’ll take Jesus’ word over men’s interpretation of His word any day.


    My commentary & reflections regarding reincarnation after our LORD, and how resurrection and reincarnation coexist in perfect harmony in the infinite mysterious plan of G-d according to our LORD. I quote other religions belief in reincarnation such as the Indian religion, not because I believe in their doctrines, but only as an example. I only believe in our LORD’s Revelation in both the Torah and the 4 Gospels as well as Apocalypses. I do not believe in anything that paul has to say regarding our LORD even though paul is a talented poetic writer but simply killed it when he went against God’s Covenant. But definitely Christian Catholics should be very proud of +Father Francis of Assisi instead of paul. Here is my commentary about both resurrection and reincarnation according to our LORD.

    Why most Cristian-Catholics and Christians in general do not believe in reincarnation, but believe in resurrection? First, lets take a look at the difference between these two concepts, resurrection and reincarnation. And what our LORD have to say regarding both concepts in scripture.

    What’s the difference between resurrection and reincarnation?

    And again with the Wikipedia definition. Resurrection (anglicized from Latin resurrectio) is the concept of a living being coming back to life after death. It is distinguished from resuscitation, and is a religious concept used in two distinct respects: a belief in the resurrection of individual souls that is current and ongoing (Christian idealism, realized eschatology), or else a belief in a singular “Resurrection of the Dead” event at the end of the world. The Resurrection of the Dead is a standard eschatological belief in the Jewish-Abrahamic religion. In a number of ancient religions, a life-death-rebirth deity is a deity which dies and resurrects. The death and resurrection of JESUS is rightfully the central focus of Christianity.

    On this one, Wikipedia is as good a source as any. Reincarnation is the religious or philosophical concept that the soul or spirit, after biological death, begins a new life in a new body that may be human, animal or spiritual depending on the moral quality of the previous life’s actions. This doctrine is a central tenet of the Indian religions. It is also a common belief of various ancient and modern religions such as Spiritism, Theosophy, and Eckankar and is found in many tribal societies around the world, in places such as Siberia, West Africa, North America, and Australia. The only recorded case ever of spirits going into animals can be found in the Gospel of Luke 8:30: “30 Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” “Legion,” he replied, because many demons had gone into him. 31 And they begged Jesus repeatedly not to order them to go into the Abyss. 32 A large herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside. The demons begged Jesus to let them go into the pigs, and he gave them permission. 33 When the demons came out of the man, they went into the pigs, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.” This is the only case we have of spirits who after becoming demons went into animals, even if it was for a short time as the pigs drowned in the lake shortly after Jesus allowed them to go into the pigs.

    But resurrection involves living again in the same own body like in the case of Lazarus when he was resurrected by Jesus. (or perhaps a glorified version of it), as yourself after final judgement day at the end of the world.

    Now that we have an idea of the definition and the difference between resurrection (which our LORD talked about it both in the Torah and in the 4 Gospels) and reincarnation which our LORD also talked about it. Let’s start by revisiting this part of the scripture in Matthew 22:23-34 – Marriage at the Resurrection. That same day the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question. “Rabbi,” they said, “Moses told us that if a man dies without having children, his brother must marry the widow and raise up offspring for him. Now there were seven brothers among us. The first one married and died, and since he had no children, he left his wife to his brother. The same thing happened to the second and third brother, right on down to the seventh. Finally, the woman died. Now then, at the resurrection, whose wife will she be of the seven, since all of them were married to her?” Jesus replied, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. But about the resurrection of the dead—have you not read what God said to you, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’[a]? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.” When the crowds heard this, they were astonished at his teaching.

    REFLECTION: Let us notice how our LORD begins by always correcting us every time we say something that is incorrect. JESUS said: “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven” In this passage our LORD corrected us by saying that people do not will neither marry nor be given in marriage in the afterlife. Then our LORD continues by reassuring us about the validity of His promise in the resurrection.

    But what about reincarnation and what our LORD had to say about reincarnation? Let’s begin by analyzing this Gospel reading: “When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, He asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” “But what about you?” He asked. “Who do you say I am?”

    REFLECTION: Let us notice how the disciples answered our LORD when asked who do people say our LORD is by making a refference to the nature of reincarnation, as people back in the day believe that perhaps our LORD was John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the prophets that came back. If reincarnation wouldn’t stand as valid our LORD would have corrected us the same way He did when the Sadducees asked Him regarding resurrection. But our LORD did not correct the assumption that reincarnation does not applied because we are in error in this assumption and it does not exist. Again, if reincarnation did not stand as valid just like getting marry in the afterlife is not valid, then our LORD would have corrected us immediately in the same manner he did when our LORD was questioned by the Sadducess and then our LORD would have say that once again, we are in error because people do not come back to this life as another person. But instead, our LORD did not denied or corrected the assumption of the nature of reincarnation if in fact was wrong, but instead our LORD continues by saying, “But what about you?” Our LORD asked, “Who do you say I am?” And so then Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Then our LORD said “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.” So again our LORD never corrected the assumption of reincarnation been an error in the Gospel.

    Let’s take a look at another discussion by our LORD and His disciples regarding “reincarnation” on Matthew 17:10. “The disciples asked Him, “Why then do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?” Jesus replied, “To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things. But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist.

    REFLECTION: Here is a clear indication of “reincarnation” once again even though the Catholic Clergy and other Christian denominations denies it, even after our LORD HIMSELF talked about it in John and Elijah being the same Spirit and the same individual as prophet in both instances, as Elijah and John. I questioned more than one priest in this part of the scripture, and all of them denied that John the baptist and Elijah are the same spirit and the same person in two different life times by saying that our LORD did not meant to say that John was Elijah, but that John came in the spirit of Elijah. Once again, our LORD never said that John came in the spirit of Elijah, and I quote our LORD own words, “But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished.” Meaning John was executed and killed. Also notice in the same scripture but from the beginning of the “Transfiguration how our LORD appeared talking to both Moses and Elijah after John was executed. Obviously now that John was killed and has return to heaven, its obvious that in the Transfiguration our LORD appeared to be talking to John and Moses or Elijah and Moses which is the same thing. Also, our LORD uses the term recognize when saying: “But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him”. According to the dictionary, the definition of recognize is: “rec·og·nize
    verb: recognize; 3rd person present:
    identify (someone or something) from having encountered them before; know again. ” That means that according to our LORD the people at the time must have reincarnated from a previous life time but were not able to recognize John as Elijah even though some of them lived also in a previous life when John was Elijah. So our LORD is giving us more than one clue in the same passage regarding reincarnation.

    When different priests explained to me they all concluded that our LORD meant to say that John came in the spirit of Elijah and there for John and Elijah were not the same person, even though our LORD clearly never said it like that. I have to say that even if our LORD would say it like that, that John came in the spirit of Elijah, it would still mean the same thing, that John and Elijah are the same Spirit, simply because nobody can come in the spirit of anybody else who was another individual in a previous life and be a different spirit as the spirit is the very essence of who you are as a person an as a spirit. Your spirit can only be you and only represent you as an individual. Even if that spirit comes first as Elijah and then as John the Baptist. Having said that, I can conclude without a doubt that when our LORD said that John came and and he was Elijah this is true, because it is our LORD HIMSELF who is saying it very clearly. So John was indeed the reincarnation of Elijah.

    Then how does reincarnation and resurrection coexist in the mysterious plan of GOD? I supposed that reincarnation can occur more than once during the cycle of the lifespan of the world before the world comes to an end, and then resurrection can occur for all of us for final judgment day. Does it mean that we get more than one chance before judgment day? I suppose so, as GOD is an infinite merciful GOD that is more interested in redemption than total condemnation. I think anything is possible for GOD, and we are better off giving the benefit of the doubt to infinite possibilities in GOD, than to say I know for sure this is it and there are no more chances.

    Here is the part of the Holy Scripture in the Torah, that talks about Elijah coming back again. 4“Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel. 5 “See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.”

    But, if reincarnation really exist, then when we hear that some people actually remember their past lives would that be true? Not necessarily and probably not unless our LORD allows it, because when John the Baptist was questioned, if he (John) was Elijah, John said no he wasn’t. “They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah? ”He said, “I am not.” But when JESUS spoke who John the Baptist really was, as our LORD knows everything (but we don’t) our LORD said: “And if you are willing to accept what I say, he is Elijah, (referring to John the Baptist) the one the prophets said would come.e 15 Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand!”

    So now we hear from our LORD who is a Jew and “The Authority” of Jewish Law as a Rabbi, the REBBE of Israel, and the authority of Kabbalah which is Jewish mysticism, that John was in fact Elijah, and in more than one occasion. In my opinion this confirms the validity of reincarnation. But what is Judaism have to say about reincarnation? In Jewish mysticism, the kabbalists, on the other hand, do believe in reincarnation as well. The Zohar, the book of brilliance [the great 13th century kabbalistic text] refers to the doctrine in a number of passages (e.g. ii. 94a, 99b). Nahmanides [1194-1270], in his commentary to the book of Job (to Job 33:30), speaks of reincarnation as a great mystery and the key to an understanding of many biblical passages. The later Kabbalah is full of the belief in the transmigration of souls. The usual Hebrew term for reincarnation is gilgul, “rolling,” that is, the soul “rolls” through time from one body to a different body. The earliest [non-Karaite] reference to the doctrine is that of Saadiah [882-942]

    Saadiah writes: “Yet I must say that I have found certain people, professing the doctrine of metempsychosis, which is designated by them as the theory of the ‘transmigration’ of souls. What they mean thereby is that the spirit of Reuben is transferred to Simeon and afterwards to Levi and after that to Judah. [These names are generic, like Tom, Dick and Harry; no reference to the sons of Jacob is intended. Ed.]

    In John 5:25 “Two Resurrections”
    25 “Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. 26“For just as the Father has life in Himself, even so He gave to the Son also to have life in Himself; 27 and He gave Him authority to execute judgment, because He is the Son of Man. 28 “Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice, 29and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment.

    reincarnation – the “revolving” of souls through a succession of lives, or “gilgulim” – is an integral part of Jewish belief. But this teaching has always been around. And it is firmly rooted in source-verses. Examples abound. Ramban, one of the greatest commentators on the Torah (and on the Talmud), and a seminal figure in Jewish history, hints several times that reincarnation is the key to penetrating the deep mysteries involved in the mitzvah of yibum (the obligation of the brother of a childless, deceased man to marry the widow). In his explanation of Gen 38:8, he insists that Yehudah and his sons were aware of the secret of reincarnation, and that this was a major factor in their respective attitudes towards Tamar.

    The responsibility lies with us The Jewish understanding of reincarnation is different from Buddhist doctrines. It in no way leads to fatalism. At every point of moral decision in his life, a Jew has complete free choice. If not for freedom of choice, how unfair it would be of G‑d to make demands of us – especially when reward and punishment is involved! Reincarnation does not imply pre-determination. It is, rather, an opportunity for rectification and soul-perfection.

    The holy Ari explained it most simply: every Jew must fulfill all 613 mitzvot, and if he doesn’t succeed in one lifetime, he comes back again and again until he finishes. For this reason, events in a person’s life may lead him towards certain places, encounters, etc., in ways that may or may not make sense. Divine providence provides each person with the opportunities he needs to fulfill those particular mitzvot necessary for the perfection of his soul. But the responsibility lies with us. At the actual moment of decision in any given situation, the choice is ours.
    One of the ways in which heaven maintains our ability to exercise complete freedom of choice is by not allowing us conscious knowledge of previous incarnations. Consequently, it might seem to some people that there is little practical benefit in being aware of this doctrine. Furthermore, many scholars contend that these mystical concepts can easily be misunderstood, or carried to erroneous and misleading conclusions. We can therefore understand why this and similar subjects are only hinted at in scripture, and why some knowledge and a great deal of determination are often required in order to gain access to this information. For an in-depth English treatment of the Jewish doctrine of reincarnation, see the running translation and commentary of Shaar Gilgulim on (For the first article in the series, “Gate of Reincarnations”.

    (Also, the English edition of “Derech Hashem” by Rabbi Moshe-Chaim Luzzatto, “The Way of G‑d”, translated by Aryeh Kaplan (Feldheim, 1983), II:3:10 (page 125) plus notes 39-40 (pp. 342-3) provides an English list of Torah sources on this topic in both scripture and Kabbalah.)

    REFLECTION: It certainly makes sense that children who died in the womb of the mother before they even had a chance to be born, or children who died early in life would not be given another chance in life and live a longer or long prosperous life before final judgement day. It also make sense that people can have a chance to see the world through the eyes of perhaps, another race, ethnic background or social status before final judgment day. I think only GOD knows, but again, we should never say that we know for sure, as only GOD knows and not us. Unless our LORD HIMSELF reveal it to some of us. At that time Jesus prayed this prayer: “O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, thank you for hiding these things from those who think themselves wise and clever, and for revealing them to the childlike. 26 Yes, Father, it pleased you to do it this way.

    This reflection wants to proof through our LORD’s own words and teaching that both reincarnation and resurrection are valid according to our LORD. I myself was raised Roman Catholic and I am very grateful, but I am of Sephardic descent and I honor first my Jewish faith and roots as I consider our brothers and sisters who are Christians converted Jews by virtue of becoming Christians. The Christians follow the CHRIST as the CHRIST is our LORD who is a “Jew” and a Rabbi. Our LORD taught the TORAH as Rabbi in the Synagogue. But our LORD never gave up being a Jew as one of us in fact our LORD speaks of the superior understanding of us the Jews with our LORD. In this Gospel passage in John 4: JESUS said: “You Samaritans do not really know whom you worship; but we Jews know whom we worship, because it is from the Jews that salvation comes.” This is why I never understood why Christians denied the possibility of reincarnation when our LORD pointed out clearly and with authority in John (his cousin) being Elijah. in Judaism we have an understanding about it. If the Christians who follow one of our own in JESUS as their LORD and SAVIOR but they don’t accept the possibility of reincarnation, then in order for them to follow JESUS they have to convert first to JESUS’s faith and religion which is Judaism. And then they have to accept the possibility of reincarnation the same way we Jews accept it. This is indeed a hot topic and thought provoking subject that is also very controversial among most Catholics but not all. Nevertheless, I know a great number of Catholics who acknowledge that reincarnation is also true. But it should not be a taboo among christian-catholics to talk about the possibility of reincarnation through out our eternal existence as well.

    Research & reflections by Fernando De Rojas (Fernando Rojas)

    “I, JESUS, have sent my angel to give you this message for the churches. I am both the source of David and the heir to his throne. I am the bright morning ✡Star.”

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