Question: Was John Baptist the reincarnation of Elias? That seems to be what our Lord was saying in the [extended] Gospel you read on the Transfiguration [Matthew 17: 1-9+10-13]. Who were Elias, Elijah, Eliseus, etc?
Answer: While reincarnation was held to be possible by some of the Pharisees, it has no place in Christian thinking. Souls are judged at their particular judgment, and there is neither a second chance nor the double jeopardy of a soul being placed in a new body.
Elias is one of two figures of the Old Testament who appear not to have died, but were taken into heaven alive. In 3 Kings 2: 1-12, he “went up by a whirlwind into heaven.” The other is Henoch, who in Genesis v: 24, “walked with God, and was seen no more: because God took him.” Some conjecture that they will be returned to earth in the last days, and will be the “two witnesses” of Apocalypse xi who will “prophesy for twelve hundred and sixty days” before being killed by “the beast.”
In Malachias 3: 23 (4: 5 in some versions) God said through the Old Testament prophet: “Lo, I will send you Elia, the prophet, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and terrible day, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, less I come and strike the land with doom.”
In Luke 1, the Archangel Gabriel, prophesying the birth of John the Baptist to Zachary, describes John as one who “shall be filled with the Holy Ghost even from his mother’s womb,” and shall himself go before [the Lord] in the spirit and power of Elias to turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the incredulous to the wisdom of the just; to prepare for the Lord a perfect people.” “In the spirit and power of Elias” suggests that John will be very much like Elias, who did a great deal to return the Jewish people to the worship of the true God during Old Testament times.
Our Lord identifies John the Baptist with Elias in Matthew 11: For all the Prophets and the Law have prophesied until John. And if you are willing to receive it, he is Elias who was to come.” And in 17: “But I say to you, that Elias is already come, and they knew him not, But have done unto him whatsoever they had a mind. So also the Son of man shall suffer from them.” Then the disciples understood, that he had spoken to them of John the Baptist.” In both cases the identification is more symbolic than actual, depending upon the listener to accept the resemblance, rather than equating the actual persons of Elias and John.
In 4 Kings 2 we learn that there are two prophets with similar names: “Helias et Heliseus “ in the Latin of the Vulgate, which Douay Rheims translates as Elias and Eliseus—Eliseus being the successor to Elias. As with many biblical names the spelling varies from one translation to another. The Catholic Encyclopedia gives us: Elias (Hebrew ’Eliahu, "Yahveh is God"; a.k.a. Elijah) and Eliseus (Hebrew ’lysh‘, God is salvation” a.k.a. Elisha). The names can be confusing, so it is wise to give a biblical reference when dealing with one or the other.