It really shouldn’t matter much whether or not a Christian believes in reincarnation. Doctrines and beliefs matter very little in comparison to a mystical experience with the light of God. A multitude of near-death accounts affirm that God is not concerned about the theology that people profess; rather it is the inward spirituality that matters most. Whether reincarnation is true or not, near-death accounts reveal that it is the life we are currently living that is more important. This may be one of the reasons that reincarnation was suppressed by the Church. Forgetting an existence before birth is also an important revelation from NDEs. Accordingly, people are required to forget their prior existence in order to not dwell on the “mission” they are to accomplish in life. It is also the reason why NDE experiencers are made to forget details of their pre-existent life when they return to life. Focusing on the life we are living also ensures that we are not so heavenly minded, we are no earthly good. While debating whether or not reincarnation was once a doctrine of the early Church is like debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, reincarnation is certainly a concept that ties the other Christian doctrines together and solves many of the mysteries found in the Bible.
Jesus affirmed the way to overcome death and rebirth, and attain eternal life, is simply through the practice of love (Luke 10:25-28). Faith assumes the possibility of doubt; but knowledge implies certainty. Knowledge of God is attained through love according to John (1 John 4:7-8). When it comes to living a life of love, having faith in reincarnation does not give anyone an advantage before God. Reincarnation is a theory that, at most, explains the apparent inequities and apparent injustices between people and the dispensing of divine justice. But the spiritual life of love does not depend upon the particular creed one professes. With this in mind, the following information is an excerpt from Dr. Quincy Howe, Jr.‘s excellent book entitled Reincarnation for the Christian.
Table of Contents
- The Controversy About Origen
- The Theological System of Origen
- Objections and Rebuttals to Origen’s Theology
- Conclusion on Origen’s Condemnation
- Origen’s Theology on Human Pre-Existence
- Origen’s Theology on Reincarnation
- Other Church Fathers on Reincarnation
- The Christian Neo-Platonist Clement of Alexandria
- Biblical Support for Pre-Existence
1. The Controversy About Origen
During the period from A.D. 250 to 553 controversy raged, at least intermittently, around the name of Origen (183-253 A.D.), and from this controversy emerged the major objections that orthodox Christianity raises against reincarnation. Origen of Alexandria, one of Christianity’s greatest systematic theologians, was a believer in reincarnation.
Origen was a man devoted to scriptural authority, a scourge to the enemies of the church, and a martyr for the faith. He was the spiritual teacher of a large and grateful posterity and yet his teachings were declared heresy in 553 AD. The debates and controversies that flared up around his teachings are in fact the record of reincarnation in the church.
The case against Origen grew by fits and starts from about A.D. 300 (fifty years after his death) until 553. There were writers of great eminence among his critics as well as some rather obscure ecclesiasts. They included Methodius of Olympus, Epiphanius of Salamis, Theophilus the Bishop of Jerusalem, Jerome, and the Emperor Justinian. The first of these, Methodius of Olympus, was a bishop in Greece and died a martyr’s death in the year 311. He and Peter of Alexandria, whose works are almost entirely lost, represent the first wave of anti-Origenism. They were concerned chiefly with the pre-existence of souls and Origen’s notions about the resurrection of the dead. Another more powerful current against Origenism arose about a century later. The principals were Ephiphanius of Salamis, Theophilus of Alexandria, and Jerome. From about 395 to 403 Origen became the subject of heated debate throughout Christendom. These three ecclesiats applied much energy and thought in search of questionable doctrine in Origen. Again the controversy flared up around 535, and in the wake of this the Emperor Justinian composed a tract against Origen in 543, proposing nine anathemas against “On First Principles“, Origen’s chief theological work. Origen was finally officially condemned in the Second Council of Constantinople in 553, when fifteen anathemas were charged against him.
The critics of Origen attacked him on individual points, and thus did not create a systematic theology to oppose him. Nonetheless, one can glean from their writings five major points that Christianity has raised against reincarnation:
- It seems to minimize Christian salvation.
- It is in conflict with the resurrection of the body.
- It creates an unnatural separation between body and soul.
- It is built on a much too speculative use of Christian scriptures.
- There is no recollection of previous lives.
Any discussion of these points will be greatly clarified by a preliminary look at Origen’s system. Although it is of course impossible to do justice in a few pages to a thinker as subtle and profound as Origen, some of the distinctive aspects of his thought can be summarized.
2. The Theological System of Origen
Looking at the sequence of creation from its inception to its conclusion, one could summarize his system as follows: Originally all beings existed as pure mind on an ideational or thought level. Humans, angels, and heavenly bodies lacked incarnate existence and had their being only as ideas. This is a very natural view for anyone like Origen who was trained in both Christian and Platonic thought. Since there is no account in the scriptures of what preceded creation, it seemed perfectly natural to Origen to appeal to Plato for his answers.
God for the Platonist is pure intelligence and all things were reconciled with God before creation – an assumption which scripture does not appear to contradict. Then as the process of fall began, individual beings became weary of their union with God and chose to defect or grow cold in their divine ardor. As the mind became cool toward God, it made the first step down in its fall and became soul. The soul, now already once removed from its original state, continued with its defection to the point of taking on a body. This, as we know from Platonism, is indeed a degradation, for the highest type of manifestation is on the mental level and the lowest is on the physical.
Such an account of man’s fall does not mean that Origen rejected Genesis. It only means that he was willing to allow for allegorical interpretation; thus Eden is not necessarily spatially located, but is a cosmic and metaphysical event wherein pure disincarnate idea became fettered to physical matter. What was essential for Christianity, as Origen perceived, is that the fall be voluntary and result in a degree of estrangement from God.
Where there is a fall, there must follow the drama of reconciliation. Love is one of God’s qualities, as Origen himself acknowledged, and from this it follows that God will take an interest in the redemption of his creatures. For Origen this means that after the drama of incarnation the soul assumes once again its identity as mind and recovers its ardor for God.
It was to hasten this evolution that in the fullness of time God sent the Christ. The Christ of Origen was the Incarnate Word (he was also the only being that did not grow cold toward God), and he came both as a mediator and as an incarnate image of God’s goodness. By allowing the wisdom and light of God to shine in one’s life through the inspiration of Jesus Christ, the individual soul could swiftly regain its ardor for God, leave behind the burden of the body, and regain complete reconciliation with God. In fact, said Origen, much to the outrage of his critics, the extent and power of God’s love is so great that eventually all things will be restored to him, even Satan and his legions.
Since the soul’s tenancy of any given body is but one of many episodes in its journey from God and back again, the doctrine of reincarnation is implicit. As for the resurrection of the body, Origen created a tempest of controversy by insisting that the physical body wastes away and returns to dust, while the resurrection takes on a spiritual or transformed body. This is of course handy for the reincarnationist, for it means that the resurrected body either can be the summation and climax of all the physical bodies that came before or indeed may bear no resemblance at all to the many physical bodies.
There will come a time when the great defection from God that initiated physical creation will come to an end. All things, both heavenly bodies and human souls, will be so pure and ardent in their love for God that physical existence will no longer be necessary. The entire cohesion of creation will come apart, for matter will be superfluous. Then, to cite one of Origen’s favorite passages, all things will be made subject to God and God will be “all in all.” (1 Corinthians 15:28) This restoration of all things proposed by Origen gave offense in later centuries. It seemed quite sensible to Origen that anything that defects from God must eventually be brought back to him. As he triumphantly affirmed at the end of his “On First Principles“, men are the “blood brothers” of God himself and cannot stay away forever.
3. Objections and Rebuttals to Origen’s Theology
Objection #1: It seems to minimize Christian salvation.
This objection was expressed very clearly by Theophilus (385-412 AD), patriarch of Alexandria:
“What is the point of preaching that souls are repeatedly confined in bodies, only to be released again, and that we experience many deaths? Does he [Origen] not know that Christ came, not in order to free souls from bodies after their resurrection or to clothe freed souls from bodies once again in bodies that they might come down from heavenly regions to be invested once again with flesh and blood? Rather, he came so that he might present our revived bodies with incorruptibility and eternal life.” (Jerome, Letters 98.11.)
Rebuttal #1: The essential difference between Theophilus and Origen is this: For Origen, man, the creature of free choice, stands responsible before God for his initial defection. God uses all his love and persuasion to hasten man along his way, but man must go the whole journey. For Theophilus, however, part of the responsibility for man’s defection from God is lifted from his shoulders by the Son. Thus man is a completely free and sovereign agent only when he falls; when he rises, however, much of the travail is being borne by another. Man does what he can in a single life and Christ will make good the rest.
Reincarnation should be understood, however, not as a statement on Christ, but as a statement on man. Theophilus is in effect charging that man is so feeble that he must depend on Christ to take him most of the way. The reincarnationalist, however, is convinced of man’s divinity and hence of his innate ability to return to God’s favor.
Objection #2: It is in conflict with the resurrection of the body.
Here are the words of Epiphanius of Salamis (310 – 403 AD):
“First of all if, as the Origenists say, another body succeeds this one, then the judgment of God is not just, for he will either be condemning the new body for the sins of the former one, or he will be ushering it into its glorious and heavenly inheritance in recognition of the fastings, vigils, and persecution suffered for the name of God by an earlier body.” (Epiphanius, Ancoratus 87.)
Rebuttal #2: For the Platonic philosopher, as for Origen, the entire goal of life is to disentangle the soul from the pernicious influence of the body. This stands in strong contrast to the statement of Epiphanius that the body is itself a living principle and whatever it has endured, it will carry before God for judgment. For Origen, it is unthinkable that the body of flesh and blood should be resurrected into immortality. This body, after all, belongs to the transient world of matter and passes away as all matter must. Origen, the Christian and the Platonist, found it much more likely that a new spiritual body have nothing in common with the material elements of the “natural” body should enjoy the resurrected life. Furthermore, he found ampler support for this in 1 Corinthians 15:44. (Against Celsus 5.19.)
Objection #3: It creates an unnatural separation between body and soul.
Probably the best statement of this is to be found in a letter of the Emperor Justinian to Mennas, patriarch of Constantinople. This letter from the year 543 was the prelude to Origen’s condemnation in 553 AD:
“Therefore it is clear that souls are not cast into bodies for the punishment of sins as they [the Origenists] foolishly claim, but rather that God fashioned body and soul simultaneously, creating man in his perfected entirety [i.e., body and soul].” (Letter to Menna, PG 86.1, p. 951)
Rebuttal #3: This again raises the question of how one views the human creature. Is he basically a spiritual being, or does he exist only as a composite creature with body and soul? With pre-existence goes the assumption that he is essentially spirit. Indeed the reincarnationalist can even find Scriptural support for personal disincarnate pre-existence. Origen took Ephesians 1:4 as proof for his case:
“He chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blemish in his sight and love.” (Ephesians 1:4)
Jerome, who is just as uncomfortable as Justinian about pre-existence, interprets the passage to mean that we preexisted, not in distinct disincarnate form, but simply in the mind of God (Against Rufinus 1.22), and from this throng of thoughts God chose the elect before the creation of the world. The distinction is indeed a fine one, for Jerome is asking us to distinguish between that which exists as a soul and that which exists as a thought. What is illuminating for the reincarnationalist is that this passage from Ephesians offers very explicit Scriptural testimony for individual pre-existence.
Objection #4: It is built on a much too speculative use of Christian scriptures.
Rebuttal #4: This resistance to speculative thought is implicit in so much of what is said against Origen. Epiphanius, for example, cannot conceive of a spiritual body coming into man’s heavenly inheritance. Justinian cannot conceive of a soul that preexists the body. Methodius (311 AD) cannot conceive of man as a disincarnate creature. All these objections show an unwillingness of the early church to deal in speculative ideas that do not find immediate confirmation in the Scriptures. Origen constructed a theology and cosmology that accounts for the rise and fall of creation and the state of man both prior to the beginning and after the end. This was a very natural thing for him to do, for Greek philosophy had always been engaged in inquiry of this sort.
Objection #5: There is no recollection of previous lives.
If reincarnation is indeed true, why do we have no recollection of earlier lives? Justinian raise this question in connection with Luke 16:19-31 (Letter to Mennas, PG 86.1, p. 959). The evangelist tells of how Lazarus, the impoverished and sore-ridden beggar, sits at the bosom of Abraham after his passing, while the rich man, whose very crumbs from the table had been a boon to Lazarus, is buried in hell. The rich man calls out to Abraham in distress, only to be reminded of the profligate manner of his life. Justinian takes this as an indication that while man is in the disincarnate interval after life, he recalls what has transpired during his incarnate life – after all, the rich man does recall the manner of his life. If this is so, then surely incarnate man, upon his return to a new body, should recall the incidents of earlier incarnations. Origen does not address himself to this specific problem, but he may very well have been satisfied with the myth that Plato used to account for the lapse of recollection between lives. According to the account of Er at the end of Plato’s Republic (621 BCE), the souls of men drink from the waters of forgetfulness as they proceed from one life to another.
It should also be noted here that this phenomenon of forgetting memories remembered in the afterlife is a theme for near-death experiencers.
4. Conclusion on Origen’s Condemnation
With the condemnation of Origen, so much that is implied in reincarnation was officially stigmatized as heresy that the possibility of a direct confrontation with this belief was effectively removed from the church. In dismissing Origen from its midst, the church only indirectly addressed itself to the issue of reincarnation. The encounter with Origenism did, however, draw decisive lines in the matter of pre-existence, the resurrection of the dead, and the relationship between body and soul. What an examination of Origen and the church does achieve, however, is to show where the reincarnationist will come into collision with the posture of orthodoxy. The extent to which he may wish to retreat from such a collision is of course a matter of personal conscience.
With the Council of 553 one can just about close the book on this entire controversy within the church. There are merely two footnotes to be added to the story, emerging from church councils in 1274 and 1439. In the Council of Lyons in 1274 it was stated that after death the soul goes promptly either to heaven or to hell. On the Day of Judgment all will stand before the tribunal of Christ with their bodies to render account of what they have done. The Council of Florence of 1439 uses almost the same wording to describe the swift passage of the soul either to heaven or to hell. Implicit in both of these councils is the assumption that the soul does not again venture into physical bodies.
5. Origen’s Theology on Human Pre-Existence
Origen was a champion for the doctrine of pre-existence. Even if we didn’t have any references by Origen concerning the subject of reincarnation, his belief in pre-existence alone shows that he was a believer in reincarnation. The reason is because all of his other beliefs cannot be true without reincarnation. His other beliefs would be impossible without the assumption of reincarnation to be a fact. His beliefs in the fall of souls, pre-existence, the divinity of the soul, and universal salvation are Neo-Platonic doctrines that, without the tie that binds them together (reincarnation), his theology is not only impossible, it is irrational, illogical, and ridiculous. We don’t need any quotes from Origen concerning reincarnation. Everything he has written, in context, demonstrates his clear stance on this subject. The Church didn’t fight so hard to get rid of pre-existence for nothing. They knew that pre-existence implied reincarnation because they are virtually the same concept. And because the Church destroyed the Origenists and their texts, the rest of orthodox theology, in my humble opinion, is ridiculous and dishonoring to God.
Origen taught that the pre-existence of souls can be found in both the Old and New Testaments in the story of Esau and Jacob and how God loved Jacob and hated Esau before they were even born (Malachi 1:2-3 and Romans 9:11-24).
“So the one nature of every soul being in the hands of God, and, so to speak, there being but one collection of reasoning entities, certain causes of more ancient date led to some of these being made vessels unto honor, and others vessels unto dishonor.” (Origen, de Principiis, Bk. III, ch. i)
The phrase “certain causes of more ancient date,” is a clear and distinct reference to the pre-existence of Esau and Jacob whose past life karma (and karma implies reincarnation) caused Jacob to be a “vessel created for honor” and Esau a “vessel created for dishonor” (i.e. destruction).”
“Those who maintain that everything in the world is under the rule of the divine foresight, as is also our own belief, can give no other reply, it seems to me, in order to show that no shadow of injustice can rest upon the divine government of the world than by holding that there were certain exact causes of prior existence by consequence of which all souls before their birth in the present body contracted a certain amount of guilt in their reasoning nature, or perhaps by the actions, on account of which they have been condemned by the divine providence to be placed in their present life … Even in such a case we must admit that there sometimes existed certain causes preceding the present bodily birth.” (Origen, de Principiis, Bk. III, ch. iii, sec. 5)
These last two citations from Origen are taken from Rufinus‘ Latin translation. Rufinus took great liberties in watering down Origen’s writings to fit orthodoxy.
“Rational creatures had also a similar beginning. Indeed, if they had a beginning such as the end for which they hope, they must have unquestionably existed from the very beginning of the ages which are not seen … If this be so, then of course there has been a descent from a higher to a lower condition not only by those souls who have deserved this change by the variety of their inner movements of consciousness, but also by those who in order to serve the world, came down from the higher and invisible spheres to these lower and visible ones.” (Origen, de Principiis, Bk. III, ch. v, sec.4)
“We see that not then for the first time did Divinity begin its work when it made this visible world: but just as after the destruction of this visible world there will be another world, its product, so also we believe that other worlds existed before the present came into being.” (Origen, de Principiis, Bk. III, ch. iii, sec.3)
“Every one, therefore, of the souls descending to the Earth, is strictly following his merits, or according to the position which he formerly occupied, is destined to be returned to this world in a different country or among a different nation, or in a different sphere of existence on Earth, or afflicted with infirmities of another kind, or mayhap to be the children of religious parents or of parents who are not religious: so that of course it may sometimes happen that a Hebrew will be born among the Syrians, or an unfortunate Egyptian may be born in Judea.” (Origen, de Principiis, Bk. IV, ch. i, sec. 23)
The following are quotes from Origen’s writings and supporting texts that display his reincarnational beliefs. Origen wrote that the resurrection of corpses was preached in Churches for the “simpler class of believers” and for the ears of the “common people” and that Paul “wished to conceal the secret meaning” of 1 Corinthians 15:35-58:
“God, then, gives to each thing its own body as He pleases… the Scripture teaching us at great length the difference between that which is, as it were, “sown,” and that which is, as it were, “raised” from it in these words: “It is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.” And let him who has the capacity understand the meaning of the words: “As is the earthy, such are they also that are earthy; and as is the heavenly, such are they also that are heavenly. And as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly.” And although the apostle wished to conceal the secret meaning of the passage, which was not adapted to the simpler class of believers, and to the understanding of the common people, who are led by their faith to enter on a better course of life, he was nevertheless obliged afterwards to say (in order that we might not misapprehend his meaning), after “Let us bear the image of the heavenly,” these words also: “Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither does corruption inherit incorruption.” (Origen, Against Celsus 5.19)
When Clement states that the Mysteries of God are never written, but rather, only spoken between teacher and disciple, the ultimate meaning of this great truth is only comprehended when one arrives at the level where they realize that the true oral teaching is that which is whispered in the ear when a consecrated disciple is able to come into the presence of the True Prophet (i.e., the indwelling Son of God).
Among the mysteries that were concealed from the masses was the doctrine of the pre-existence of the soul. In “The True Word“, Celsus accused the early Church of teaching the masses the doctrine of heaven and hell while teaching the elect the doctrine of reincarnation. Origen does not refute Celsus, but rather explains that:
“But on these subjects much and that of a mystical kind, might be said; in keeping with which is the following: It is good to keep close the secret of a king, (Tobit 12:7), in order that the doctrine of the entrance of souls into bodies, not, however, that of the transmigration from one body into another, may not be thrown before the common understanding, nor what is holy given to the dogs, nor pearls be cast before swine. For such a procedure would be impious, being equivalent to a betrayal of the mysterious declaration of God’s Wisdom.” (Origen, Against Celsus)
The key verse is: “It is good to keep secret the entrance of souls into bodies, but not the transmigration from one body into another.”
Here, Origen openly affirms the doctrine of the pre-existence of the soul, as well as the doctrine of transmigration (reincarnation), are openly revealed to Christians who have been purified and matured sufficiently to comprehend the mysteries of God, while the knowledge of why the soul even came into this world is kept secret, and is not openly revealed to carnal minds. In explanation, Origen quotes scripture and writes:
“It is good to keep close the secret of a king, and affirms that certain mysteries only belong to the spiritually mature in the word, and that one should not permit what is holy given to the dogs, nor pearls be cast before swine.” (Origen, Against Celsus)
6. Origen’s Theology on Reincarnation
Perhaps the most well-known quote by Origen concerning his belief in reincarnation is the following quote:
“The soul has neither beginning nor end. [They] come into this world strengthened by the victories or weakened by the defeats of their previous lives.” (Origen, de Principiis)
In view of this very well defined Biblical doctrine, isn’t this the same exact message that Jesus mentions in his Parable of the Talents?:
“Again, it [the kingdom of heaven] will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them. To one he gave five talents of money, to another two talents, and to another one talent, each according to his ability.” (Matthew 25:14-30)
Origen wrote in On First Principles, Chap V, that he believed that the wicked will be resurrected with “dark and black bodies” according to their previous state of spiritual darkness and spiritual ignorance. Those who have lived a holy life will receive bright and glorious bodies. He then explains further in a passage that was removed from his work, but preserved by Jerome:
Origen writes: “Perhaps, however, the ‘gloom and darkness’ should be taken to mean this coarse and earthly body, through which at the end of the world each man that must pass into another world will receive the beginnings of a fresh birth.” (G. W. Butterworth, ed., Origen: On First Principles, (Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1973), Intro., p. xxiii.)
Jerome commented on the above quote from Origen:
The passage of Origen’s view on resurrection, along with Jerome’s comment of it, shows that he is referring to holy people reincarnating to another world at the end of the age (which is an astrological reference, not the end of the world). But concerning the “dark” person (spiritually ignorant) that Origen refers to had a past life in the body before the end of the age. After the end of the age, if there is more spiritual ignorance within the individual, he is incarnated again to a different world. Origen is talking about more than one incarnations and that is reincarnation. Jerome certainly knew what he meant.
Gregory of Nyssa preserved the following writing from Origen:
“By some inclination toward evil, certain souls … come into bodies, first of men; then through their association with the irrational passions, after the allotted span of human life, they are changed into beasts, from which they sink to the level of plants. From this condition they rise again through the same stages and are restored to their heavenly place.” (G. W. Butterworth, On First Principles, Book I, Chapter VIII (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), p. 73)
The above writing by Origen clearly describes not only pre-existence, but multiple incarnations as well.
Origen quoted from the Apocryphal Gospel of the Hebrews where Jacob states:
“I am an angel of God; one of the first order of spirits. Men call me Jacob, but my true name, which God has given me, is Israel.” (Orat. Joseph. apud ORIG). Many of the Jewish doctors have believed that the souls of Adam, Abraham, and Phineas, have successively animated the great men of their nation. Philo says that the air is full of spirits, and that some, through their natural propensity, join themselves to bodies; and that others have an aversion from such a union.” (Origen, Commentary on John, Book II)
Origen also discussed reincarnation with the skeptic Celsus:
“Is it not more in conformity with reason that every soul for certain mysterious reasons (I speak now according to the opinion of Pythagoras and Plato and Empedocles, whom Celsus frequently names) is introduced into a body, and introduced according to its deserts and former actions? … Is it not rational that souls should be introduced into bodies, in accordance with their merits and previous deeds, and that those who have used their bodies in doing the utmost possible good should have a right to bodies endowed with qualities superior to the bodies of others? … The soul, which is immaterial and invisible in its nature, exists in no material place without having a body suited to the nature of that place; accordingly, it at one time puts off one body, which was necessary before, but which is no longer adequate in its changed state, and it exchanges it for a second.” (Origen, Contra Celsus, Book I., chap. XXXII)
Even with the obvious attempt by a pious scribe to qualify Origen’s clear statement of reincarnation with “I speak now…etc.,” it is clear that Origen was discussing his own belief in reincarnation by referring to multiple incarnations.
In the next passage, Origen refers to “fallen souls” (which alone shows his Neo-Platonic and Gnostic reincarnation leanings) and then discusses how they have multiple incarnations:
“It can be shown that an incorporeal and reasonable being has life in itself independently of the body… then it is beyond a doubt bodies are only of secondary importance and arise from time to time to meet the varying conditions of reasonable creatures. Those who require bodies are clothed with them, and contrariwise, when fallen souls have lifted themselves up to better things their bodies are once more annihilated. They are ever vanishing and ever reappearing.” (Letter CXXIV, to Avitus)
Origen describes four types of bodies: (1) ethereal, (2) aereal, (3) gross, and (4) fleshly. This doctrine of the descent of the soul into four lower bodies is preeminently Platonic and has much in common with the doctrines of the various schools of Christian Gnostics. Origen teaches that God created matter to accommodate the fallen souls so that they could be restored to their spiritual state.
The divisive result of Origen’s doctrine on the reincarnation of men, angels and demons cannot be overestimated. The idea of fallen angels walking the Earth as humans paying their “karmic debts” for past life sins is the key to Origen’s doctrine of universal salvation – even the salvation of the devil.
Origen and early Christians believed in a higher form of “metempsychosis“, a form of reincarnation which rejected the possibility of humans reincarnating as animals (i.e., transmigration.) It is this confusion that anti-reincarnationalists have today which leads them to falsely conclude that Origen’s theology did not include reincarnation.
Origen’s writings show that the controversy was not about reincarnation (a higher form of metempsychosis) but about Plato’s doctrine of transmigration:
“And the expulsion of the man and woman from paradise, and their being clothed with tunics of skins (which God, because of the transgression of men, made for those who had sinned), contain a certain secret and mystical doctrine (far transcending that of Plato) of the souls losing its wings, and being borne downwards to Earth, until it can lay hold of some stable resting-place.” (Contra Celsus, Book IV., chap. XL)
Origen, who had obviously been initiated in the Eleusinian Mysteries, does not teach transmigration of the souls of human beings into the bodies of beasts:
“We think that those views are by no means to be accepted which some people most unnecessarily advance and support, to the effect that rational souls can reach such a pitch of abasement that they forget their rational nature and high dignity and sink into the bodies of irrational beasts, either large or small.” (Origen, de Principiis, Bk. I, ch. viii, sec.3)
Origen regarded the Biblical “fall” as separating souls from God. He taught that redemption required the active application of free will to earn reunion with God and, in the interim, souls could go around again and again, occupying human bodies as one might put on and put off clothes until salvation was achieved.
In his chapter on “Loss or Falling Away,” Origen explains that the fall necessitated the use of bodies of various levels of density. He writes:
“All rational creatures who are incorporeal and invisible, if they become negligent, gradually sink to a lower level and take for themselves bodies suitable to the regions into which they descend; that is to say, first ethereal bodies, and then aereal. And when they reach the neighborhood of the Earth they are enclosed in grosser bodies, and last of all are tied to human flesh.” (G. W. Butterworth, ed., Origen: On First Principles, (Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1973), p. 40- 41.)
7. Other Church Fathers on Reincarnation
Other prominent figures in the Church affirmed that reincarnation was a part of early Christian doctrine:
Rufinus assured Anastasius in a letter that belief in repeated lives was a matter of common knowledge among the church fathers and had always been imparted to the initiated as an ancient tradition. (Reincarnation and Karma, Pfullingen 1962, p. 41)
According to Jerome (340-420 AD):
“The transmigrations (reincarnation) of souls was taught for a long time among the early Christians as an esoteric and traditional doctrine which was to be divulged to only a small number of the elect.” (Jerome, Letter to Demetrias)
According to Origen’s predecessor, Clement of Alexandria (150-211 AD):
“The Gnosis itself is that which has descended by transmission to a few, having been imparted unwritten by the apostles.” (Miscell. Book VI, Chapter 7)
St. Gregory (257-337 AD) wrote:
“It is absolutely necessary that the soul should be healed and purified, and that if it does not take place during its life on Earth, it must be accomplished in future lives.” (Trinick 1950: 38)
Gregory of Nyssa (330-400 AD) wrote:
“The resurrection is no other thing than ‘the re-constitution of our nature in its original form'”, and states that there will come a time “when the complete whole of our race shall have been perfected from the first man to the last.” (On the Soul and Resurrection)
“And what do those suffer who are judged to be unworthy of this spectacle? said he. They are imprisoned in the bodies of certain wild beasts, and this is their punishment.” (Dialogue with Trypho)
Jerome wrote in a letter to Demetrius that among the early Christians, the doctrine of reincarnation had been passed on to the elect, as an occult tradition. (Reincarnation and Karma, Pfullingen 1962, p. 41)
According to Origen, Basilides (117-138 AD) held a doctrine of reincarnation that was identical to the Pythagorean belief that human souls may take on the bodies of animals in future lives (i.e. transmigration). (Basilides, “Fragment F,” in Layton, Gnostic Scriptures, p. 439.)
8. The Christian Neo-Platonist Clement of Alexandria
The famous Neoplatonic School was founded to restore the Platonic philosophy and theology. Reincarnation was accepted by the Christian Neoplatonists in Alexandria, Egypt.
In a passage surviving only with Eusebius, he quotes Clement in “Institutions, Book 6”:
“James the Righteous, John and Peter were entrusted by the Lord after his resurrection with the higher knowledge (gnosis). They imparted it to the other apostles, to the seventy.” (Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius Pamphilus, page 49.)
Clement stated that he possessed teachings:
“…preserving the tradition of the blessed doctrine derived directly from the holy apostles, Peter, James, John and Paul.” (Miscellanies, Book I, chap.1)
Clement on the divine mysteries of Jesus:
“The Lord … allowed us to communicate of those divine Mysteries, and of that holy light, to those who are able to receive them …. The Mysteries are delivered mystically, that what is spoken may be in the mouth of the speaker; rather not in his voice, but in his understanding…” (Miscellanies, Book I, chap.1)
9. Biblical Support for Pre-Existence
The Church of Rome in declaring Origen and his teachings heresy declared:
“If anyone assert the fabulous pre-existence of souls, and shall assert the monstrous restoration which follows from it: let him be anathema.” (Anathema I, 5th Ecumenical Council)
The whole idea of reincarnation is connected inextricably with the principle of pre-existence, and of the restoration of the soul to its former condition after the death of the body. Below is a Bible verse supporting pre-existence:
“He chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blemish in his sight and love.” (Ephesians 1:4)
The above verse reveals God choosing people before the world existed and before they could have physically been born. This suggests the people the verse is referring to, must have existed somewhere even if only in the Mind of God. Such an existence does not rule out the pre-existence of souls. After all, there is likely no difference between a soul and a thought in the Mind of God. Here is another Bible verse on pre-existence:
“Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad – in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls – she was told, The older will serve the younger.’ Just as it is written: Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.'” (Romans 9:11-13)
This verse shows that God loved Jacob and hated Esau before they were even born. Again, even if it was merely in the Mind of God, it would still be pre-existence. Below is an excellent verse in the Old Testament on pre-existence:
“The Lord brought me forth as the first of his works, before his deeds of old; I was appointed from eternity, from the beginning, before the world began. When there were no oceans, I was given birth, when there were no springs abounding with water; before the mountains were settled in place, before the hills, I was given birth, before he made the Earth or its fields or any of the dust of the world. I was there when he set the heavens in place, when he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep, when he established the clouds above and fixed securely the fountains of the deep, when he gave the sea its boundary so the waters would not overstep his command, and when he marked out the foundations of the Earth. Then I was the craftsman at his side. I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence, rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in mankind.” (Proverbs 8:22-31)
In the above passage, Solomon states that when the Earth was made he was present, and that, long before he could have been born as Solomon, his delights were in the habitable parts of Earth with the sons of men.
For information about the Biblical support for reincarnation visit the Reincarnation and the Bible page.