The term palingenesis has two common uses relevant to the Bible. One usage relates to evolutionary biology; the other is a theological term. Both usages are connected to the word’s Greek roots. The combination of the terms genesis, meaning “origin” or “birth”; and palin, meaning “again,” defines the term palingenesis as “a rebirth, new beginning, or repetition.”
At one point in history, the term palingenesis was used in biology as part of the theory of evolution. Also known as recapitulation or embryological parallelism, the theory of palingenesis taught that embryos passed through their prior evolutionary stages prior to birth. In other words, a developing fetus would look like the animals it had evolved from, in order, as it grew. A human fetus, according to palingenesis, progressed through the stages of fish, amphibian, reptile, bird, and mammal before arriving at a fully formed human being.
A major driver behind the popularity of palingenesis or recapitulation theory was the work of Ernst Haeckel. He produced drawings of various creatures in their embryonic form. The problem was that he deliberately over-emphasized the similarities between different animals. As a result, many biology students were taught palingenesis using a visual representation of embryos that was itself misleading. Recapitulation theory eventually fell out of favor and is no longer considered a valid theory by the general scientific community. Unfortunately, in no small part due to widespread use of Haeckel’s drawings, it is a lingering myth.
In the spiritual or cultural sense, palingenesis refers to a rebirth or renewal. The term is very broad, so it can be applied to both resurrection within Christianity or reincarnation in faiths such as Hinduism. At times, the term is also used in reference to a personal or cultural revival. Any restarting, re-forming, or re-invention of a once-lost or dead practice could also be considered a type of palingenesis. From a political standpoint, palingenesis refers to the idea of a culture rising from the ashes of history, making this a popular concept with revolutionaries and dictators.
The most direct biblical references to palingenesis are in passages such as John 3, where Jesus indicates that only those who are “born again” can see heaven. First Peter 1:3 says, “In [God’s] great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (see also verse 23). The theme of renewal, a core aspect of palingenesis, is also found in verses like Titus 3:5, which speaks of regeneration and renewal. The same idea is found in 1 Corinthians 6:11 and Revelation 7:14.