This article is part of an ongoing project Christianity Must Change Or Die¹, and specifically a follow-up to The Anathema Against Origen, an early Church Father whose belief in the pre-existence of the soul, and therefore of reincarnation, was later declared a heresy, extraordinarily by the Roman Emperor Justinian rather than the Church itself. The aftermath of the Council of 553 A.D. is that Christianity still officially denies reincarnation; some Christians believe that it has never been part of their faith, and others, more knowledgeable, may think that the question of pre-existence, and therefore reincarnation, was forever settled at this Council. We may have reached the point where Christians think that anyone who believes in reincarnation is “either rather uncivilised or an unfathomable Oriental”².
Many Christians believe that their religion is the truth, and may think that its rejection of reincarnation contributes to its distinctiveness, considering how many other traditions believe in it. As E. D. Walker says: “its undiminished sway has been wellnigh universal outside of Christendom”, mentioning Hindus, Buddhists, Sufis, Zoroastrians, the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and inhabitants of Mexico and Peru (all of whom can be conveniently dismissed by Christians as ‘pagan’). However, in the light of the circumstances surrounding the Anathema Against Origen, we can argue that Christianity has lost its way, and needs to accept pre-existence and reincarnation, that it is inferior if it does not believe. As an online article says: “Origen was banished… amidst a backdrop of swirling political intrigue and dissension that was so severe it leaves many students of the event to question whether or not Christians are bound by the edicts and anathemas that were adopted there”³.
When assessing the validity of any religious or spiritual tradition which has changed down the centuries, an obvious question is, which sources, which version, should we trust if we want to arrive at the best understanding? It seems obvious to me that the most authoritative are going to be the earliest sources, the ones closest to the original inspiration. So what were the early beliefs about pre-existence and reincarnation in Christianity? I’ll begin with the Bible itself.
Some time ago I heard an interview on the radio with an Anglican scholar, who had been part of a group assigned the task of scouring the Bible for any references to, therefore evidence of, reincarnation. He said quite categorically that they had found none. On the one hand, believers in reincarnation could say “so much the worse for the Bible”. More to the point, how is it possible that these scholars could not have recognised some fairly obvious references? The clearest of these is the identification of John the Baptist with the prophet Elijah. In the Old Testament (Malachi 4:5) it had been announced: “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes” . This in itself is evidence for a belief in reincarnation in the Bible, and is the context for Jesus saying of John the Baptist, “He is Elijah who is to come” (Matthew 11.14), and some of the crowd saying of Jesus, “It is Elijah” (Mark 6.15).
Along similar lines, but perhaps even more extraordinary, is the following passage: “Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets’ ” (Matthew 16: 13–14). Clearly, it would seem, the Jews of the time believed in reincarnation. (Strangely, since they presumably knew that John the Baptist had been alive at the same time as Jesus, some also believed that two different humans could be generated by a single soul source.)
There are other relevant passages, the best example being John 9.1: “As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ ”. The disciples seem to be asking Jesus to choose between a worldview of reincarnation and karma, and the Old Testament teaching that the sins of the fathers would continue to the children of the third and fourth generations. They are therefore clearly aware of the possibility that people pre-exist their birth, that it is possible to sin in some prenatal state, most obviously in a previous incarnation.
Also interesting is this quotation from the book of Revelation: “Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out” (3: 12). If he shall go no more out, he has obviously been out before. This is arguably a reference to the Buddhist doctrine of the Liberation from the Cycle of Death and Rebirth (although other translations may not suggest this interpretation quite so clearly).
It seems reasonable to conclude, therefore, that Jesus, his disciples, Christian writers, and members of the public at the time believed in reincarnation, or at the very least were aware of it and considered it a possibility. That is the most obvious explanation for the above passages, although other interpretations might be possible. How could these Anglican scholars have missed this? Do we actually have to see the word ‘reincarnation’ in the text for them to take notice? Perhaps they can only see what they want to see.
Having had a brief look at the Bible, let’s turn now to the early Church. It is obviously true that for reincarnation to be real, the soul (or whatever word you choose to call the incarnating entity) must pre-exist the body. Reincarnation and pre-existence are therefore closely linked. It is modern official Christian doctrine, however, that the soul is born with the body.
E. D. Walker, who has made a comprehensive study of these issues, says this of the early Fathers:
- “Origen refers to pre-existence as being the general opinion. Clemens Alexandrinus (Origen’s master) taught it as a divine tradition authorized by St. Paul himself in Romans 5: 12, 14, 19. Rufinus in his letter to Anastasius says that ‘This opinion was common among the primitive fathers’. Later, Jerome relates that the doctrine of pre-existence and reincarnation was taught as an esoteric one communicated to only a select few”.
- “Many of the orthodox Church Fathers welcomed reincarnation as a ready explanation of the fall of man and the mystery of life, and distinctly preached it as the only means of reconciling the existence of suffering with the idea of a merciful God. It was an essential part of the church philosophy for centuries, being stamped with the authority of the leading thinkers of Christendom, and then gradually was frowned upon as the Western influences predominated, until it became heresy and at length survived only in a few scattered sects”⁴.
- “Justin Martyr expressly speaks of the soul inhabiting more than once the human body… Clemens Alexandrinus is declared by a contemporary to have written ‘wonderful stories about metempsychosis and many worlds before Adam’. Arnobius, also, is known to have frankly avowed this doctrine. Noblest of all the church advocates of this opinion was Origen. He regarded the earthly history of the human race as one epoch in a historical series of changeful decay and restoration, extending backward and forward through aeons; and our temporal human body as the place of purification for our spirits exiled from a happier existence on account of sin”⁵.
Other figures said to believe in reincarnation are Saint Gregory of Nyssa and Saint Jerome. Also, in his Confessions, St. Augustine is said to have pondered “the common sense viability of reincarnation”⁶.
Walker also says that pre-existence is frequently alluded to in the Bible: “It is taken for granted, cropping out here and there as a fundamental rock”. In support of this claim he quotes:
- Proverbs 8: v 22–27, where Solomon says: “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth. When there were no depths I was brought forth… When he established the heavens, I was there…”
- Jeremiah 1: v 5, where the Lord tells him: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you”. (In both quotes I’ve used a more modern translation.)
The latter is surely the most unequivocal antithesis to the modern Christian doctrine that one could imagine. Yet many Christians believe that the Bible is the infallible word of God. Should a Christian trust the Bible, or the suspicious activities of a Roman Emperor several centuries later?
2. S. Digby Smith in the Introduction to E. D. Walker, Reincarnation: a Study of Forgotten Truth, University Books, 1965, Pv
4. as 2, p 204
5. as 2, p 210
6. as footnote 3