This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 30, number 4 (2007). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
According to premiere cults authority Walter Martin, New Agers interpret this verse to mean that “Jesus was referring to cyclic rebirth when He said that one must be born again.”2 “Born again,” then, is said to refer to the soul’s reincarnation in other bodies in order ultimately to reach nirvana. One may raise the question, however, as to whether such New Age interpretations do full justice to the cultural and theological context of this passage.
Rebirth and the Rabbis. First, there is the matter of the Jewish context of that time. Scholars long have noted parallels between New Testament teaching on “new birth” and rabbinic proverbs of the day; for example, Jews often said, “The proselyte” or Gentile who wished to convert to Jewish faith “is like a new‐ born child.”3
William Barclay describes the transformation of one who experiences this “rebirth” as follows: “So radical was the change that the sins he had committed before his reception were all done away with, for now he was a different person. It was even theoretically argued that such a man could marry his own mother or his own sister, because he was a completely new man, and all the old connections were broken and destroyed. The Jew knew the idea of rebirth.”4
In this instance the said new birth had nothing to do with reincarnation, but with conversion to a belief system, namely the conversion of the Gentile proselyte to Jewish faith. This would imply that Jesus’ “new birth” ought rather to be interpreted to mean entry into Jesus’ new covenant of grace and appropriation of its necessary benefits.
“Rebirth” in Jesus’ economy extended beyond the mere affirmation and acceptance that the rabbis preached, of course, and included a tangible transformation from within through the agency of the Holy Spirit. This will be demonstrated in greater detail below.
Rebirth in John. Any interpretation worthy of academic respect must take note not only of the author’s cultural context, but of his theological context and intentions. An honest application of the principle of interpreting Scripture with Scripture reveals that for John “new birth” has nothing to do with reincarnation, but rather refers to vital, immediate transformation from within at a crucial point of choice in this life.
A worthy interpretation must note further that John makes a clear distinction between two classes of people: those who have and those who have not experienced this “new birth,” where the former are commended and the latter are condemned. John does this in parallel passages such as John 1:11–13: “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God” (emphasis added). The “new birth” is experienced by those who choose to receive Jesus as Lord in this life, and such born‐again believers are sharply contrasted with those who reject Him. Note also that John contrasts, rather than equates, this “new birth” with physical birth.
This distinction is again found in the immediate context of the John 3:3 passage, where Jesus emphasizes the difference between these two births in that “flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit” (v. 6). Once again John contrasts the “new birth” with physical birth, and views it as a spiritual phenomenon wrought by the Holy Spirit.
Notably too, Nicodemus (like many New Age apologists) appears to be under the impression that “born again” refers to physical birth, remarking, “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!” (v. 4). Interestingly, Jesus rebukes him for this assumption, pointing out instead that being “born again” refers to spiritual transformation (v. 5).
John makes the element of choice between life and death, salvation and judgment, clear in the remainder of the section (John 3:14–21, 36). He refers to the famous incident of Numbers 21:1–9, where God instructs rebellious Israelites who are bitten by poisonous snakes to look upon a bronze image of a serpent on a pole in order to be healed, and makes the following comparison: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14–15).
By implication, being “born again” (vv. 3 and 7) refers to one’s transformation in this life as a result of choosing Christ’s work of redemption, rather than to one’s transmigration after death as a result of choosing one’s own works in reincarnation. The choice regarding salvation is clear; thus the immediacy of Jesus’ challenge to Nicodemus.
The distinction between the “two births” is also apparent in John 20:22. Here, following His resurrection, Jesus breathes on the disciples and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Commentator Raymond Brown points out that the language of John 20:22 “echoes” and forms a deliberate parallel with that of the Septuagint5 in Genesis 2:7, “the creation scene.”6 In Genesis 2:7, God breathes the breath of life into the first man, Adam, and he lives, as God’s creation. In John 20:22, by comparison, Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit on the disciples as a symbol of “new birth,” and they live anew, as God’s new creation. The first birth is physical; the second birth is spiritual, and transformative from within.
The gospel of John thus ends as it starts, by making a distinction between believers who have received Christ and the Holy Spirit and have experienced the new birth, and unbelievers who have not (cf. John 1:12–13). This granting of the Holy Spirit as the means of salvation and transformation is an ongoing theme in the gospel of John (see John 1:33; 3:34; 7:39; 14:26; 15:26).
Cementing this theological paradigm is the fact that Scripture often depicts the coming of the Spirit as an act of creation, whether of nature (Gen. 1:2; Ps. 104:30); of the humanity of the Messiah (Luke 1:35); or, in fulfillment of John 3:3, of the Church and its members (Acts 2:2–4).
John follows similar reasoning in his first epistle, where to be “born of God” likewise means to undergo inner transformation in this life. In 1 John 5:4, “Everyone born of God overcomes the world,” and in 1 John 4:7, “Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God” (emphasis added). Most notable is 1 John 3:9, where “no one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in him” (emphasis added; see also 2:29; 5:1, 18). Here, “seed” underscores this notion of spiritual birth.
Rebirth as a Biblical Principle. This reading of “new birth” is uniform for the rest of the New Testament. According to Titus 3:5, for example, “he saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.” “Rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit” here strongly resembles the language of John.
According to Peter, God has “given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Pet. 1:3). Like John, moreover, Peter tells Christians that “you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable” (1 Pet. 1:23, emphasis added; see also James 1:18).
Elsewhere, believers are compared to children (Matt. 18:11), who are either given “milk” or “solid food” (1 Cor. 3:1–2; Heb. 5:12–14); and who have become a “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15). As many authorities point out, the roots of New Testament teaching on regeneration lie in passages such as Ezekiel 36:26–27, which speaks of transformation associated with reception of the Spirit.7
Religious Intolerance? It is clear from the natural flow of the biblical context that the Eastern doctrine of reincarnation or the transmigration of souls has no place at all in the broad gamut of Christian theology, yet many followers of Eastern religions try to force it on to the Bible despite the context. By contrast, if Christians were to attempt to explain away the relevant Hindu texts pertinent to reincarnation by divorcing them from their contexts, there would be no small outcry. It is an act of gross intolerance to make a religion say what it does not in its own context say simply to make it conform, ironically, to current pluralistic political trends.
It is clear that the Bible was written largely by Hebrews and reflects a thoroughgoing Hebrew mindset; furthermore, much of the time it was written by conservative Hebrews to counter aberrant doctrine or heresy. Many times those Hebrews were martyred for the conservative statements they were trying to make.
It is apparent that “rebirth” had similar connotations even in pagan Greco‐Roman culture. According to William Barclay, a new convert to the ancient Greek mystery religions was often referred to as “twice‐ born,” and “in the Phrygian [mystery cult] the initiate, after his initiation, was fed with milk as if he was a new‐born babe.”8 Barclay concludes that “the ancient world knew all about rebirth and regeneration. It longed for it and searched for it everywhere.”9
Walter Martin succinctly distinguished between the Eastern and Judeo‐Christian traditions in his interpretation of this passage. As he concluded, “The context of John 3:1–12 is clearly referring to spiritual rebirth, not physical rebirth”10 (emphasis added).
Reincarnationist interpretations of biblical “rebirth” are clearly guilty of eisegesis, of reading Eastern religious sensitivities into a profoundly Judeo‐Christian religious expression. As this article has demonstrated, a scholarly approach to understanding context is imperative in this matter.
Gregory Rogers is an internationally published writer in theology. He is currently enrolled at the South African Theological Seminary (SATS) on the honors level.
- All Bible quotations are from the New International Version.
- Walter Martin, The New Age Cult (Cape Town: Struik Christian Books, 1990), 93. See also Swami Nirmalananda Giri, “May a Christian Believe in Reincarnation?”Atma Jyoti, http://www.atmajyoti.org/sw_xtian_believe_reinc.asp.
- William Barclay, The Gospel of John, Volume I (Edinburgh, Scotland: The Saint Andrew Press, 1965), 115. See also A. Ringwald, New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, vol. I, ed. Colin Brown (Exeter, England: Paternoster Press, 1975), s.v. “gennaw.”
- Barclay, 115.
- The Septuagint is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament; often abbreviated LXX.
- Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to St. John XIII‐XXI (New York: Doubleday, 1970), 1037.
- L. Kynes, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, ed. Joel B. Green, Scott McKnight, and I. Howard Marshall (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), s.v. “New Birth.”
- Barclay, 116.
- Martin, 93.