During the period from A.D. 250 to 553 controversy raged, at least intermittently, around the name of Origen, 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. 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, Eppiphanius of Salamis, Theophilus, 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 preexistence 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.
Looking at the sequence of creation from its inception to its conclusion, one could summarize Origen’s 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 spacially 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 Cor 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.
There is one episode in particular from the healing miracles of Christ that seems to point to reincarnation: “And as he was passing by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who has sinned, this man or his parents, that he should be born blind?” Jesus answered, ‘Neither has this man sinned, nor his parents, but the works of God were to be made manifest in him.'” (John 9:1) The disciples ask the Lord if the man himself could have committed the sin that led to his blindness. Given the fact that the man has been blind from birth, we are confronted with a provocative question. When could he have made such transgressions as to make him blind at birth? The only conceivable answer is in some prenatal state. The question as posed by the disciples explicitly presupposes prenatal existence. It will also be noted that Christ says nothing to dispel or correct the presupposition. Here is incontrovertible support for a doctrine of human preexistence.
Also very suggestive of reincarnation is the episode where Jesus identifies John the Baptist as Elijah. “For all the prophets and the law have prophesied until John. And if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who was to come.” (Matt 11:13-14) “And the disciples asked him, saying, ‘Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?’ But he answered them and said, ‘Elijah indeed is to come and will restore all things. But I say to you that Elijah has come already, and they did not know him, but did to him whatever they wished. So also shall the Son of Man suffer at their hand.’ Then the disciples understood that he had spoken of John the Baptist.” (Matt 17:10-13)
Here again is a clear statement of preexistence. Despite the edict of the Emperor Justinian and the counter reaction to Origen, there is firm and explicit testimony for preexistence in both the Old and the New Testament. Indeed, the ban against Origen notwithstanding, contemporary Christian scholarship acknowledges preexistence as one of the elements of Judeo-Christian theology.
As for the John the Baptist-Elijah episode, there can be little question as to its purpose. By identifying the Baptist as Elijah, Jesus is identifying himself as the Messiah. Throughout the gospel narrative there are explicit references to the signs that will precede the Messiah. “Behold I will send you Elijah the prophet, before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.” (Mal 4:5) This is one of the many messianic promises of the Old Testament. One of the signs that the true Messiah has come, according to this passage from Malachi, is that he be preceded by a forerunner, by Elijah. Jesus was sometimes taken to be a reincarnation of one of the prophets.
In Mark 8:27, Jesus asks “Whom do men say that I am?” The consensus of opinion seems to have been that He was a reincarnation of either John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the Old Testament prophets. It is hard to see how Jesus could have been a reincarnation of the prophet by whom He was baptized, but that has not deterred these believers in reincarnation around Jesus.
Indeed the reincarnationist can even find scriptural support for personal disincarnate preexistence. Origen took Eph 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.” Jerome, who is just as uncomfortable as Justinian about preexistence, 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 reincarnationist is that this passage from Ephesians offers very explicit scriptural testimony for individual preexistence.
With the condemnation of Origen, so much that is implied in reincarnation was officially stigmatized as heresy that the possiblity 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 preexistence, 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.