The concept of reincarnation has enjoyed considerable growth in recent years. Once confined to the Eastern religions and various esoteric and occult circles, it is now widely accepted in the West, due in part to the influence of Hinduism and Buddhism in the U.S. and Europe and the resultant syncretistic sentiments of our day. A 1979 Gallup poll states that 28 percent of the people in the United Kingdom believe in reincarnation, up from 18 percent in 1968. Twenty-five percent of the U.S. population accepts it as well.
Proponents of the reincarnation theory have taken advantage of that crest in popularity, offering an aggressive apologetic in its behalf. One frequently recurring element in those apologies is the insistence that, whereas reincarnation was accepted and taught as a correct doctrine by Jesus and the early Church, it was later suppressed and anathematized at the Ecumenical Councils. If that charge is in fact true, it would have serious implications for Christian theology and doctrine. This paper briefly examines those allegations in the light of the original authors and texts in question.
(Note: The word reincarnation was not used by Greek writers. Philosophers and church Fathers who wrote in Greek used the phrase "transmigration of souls." From this point on, therefore, I shall use the term transmigration when speaking of reincarnation. Being largely a semantic difference, both words convey approximately the same meaning.)
The idea of transmigration was first developed by the sages of northern India circa 1000 to 800 B.C., and it first appeared in crude form in the early Hindu scriptures known as the Upanishads. Buddha (ca. 500 B.C.) accepted and promoted the doctrine, and it became widespread in the Orient well before Christ. The Indian Buddhist emperor Asoka reportedly sent missionaries to the Mediterranean in the third century B.C. To what degree they were successful is unclear from history, but
they certainly helped promote rebirth speculations that were already common among the Greek philosophers.
Pythagoras (ca. 450 B.C.) is one of the Greek thinkers who formulated and taught transmigration, and Plato frequently employed it as a speculative and literary device. Thus, it is virtually certain that transmigration theories were, to some extent, in common parlance in the eastern Mediterranean at the time of Christ. It has often been pondered whether or not the disciples were referring to transmigration when they asked Jesus about the man born blind (John 9:1-3): "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Our Lord retorted that neither the man nor his parents had sinned but that his condition might serve to make manifest the works of God.
In the early centuries of the Church, transmigration theories were revived by the Neoplatonic philosophers, most notably Plotinus who, along with Origen, was a student of the enigmatic teacher Ammonius Saccas. Some mystery religions (the Orphic sects) and schools of Gnosticism also held to transmigration, although it seems to have been a secondary doctrine. Before citing the church Fathers’ comments on transmigration, however, one biblical passage--the relationship of John the Baptist to Elijah--should be commented upon. In Matthew 11:14 Jesus says, "And if you are willing to accept it, he (John) is the Elijah who was to come." Similar statements are found in Matthew 17:12-13 and Mark 9:13. The reference to Elijah in Malachi 3:1 and 4:5 states that Elijah will be sent to prepare the way of the Lord. Thus, many have asserted that John the Baptist was Elijah reincarnate. While a full exegetical treatment of that interpretation is beyond the scope of this paper, several factors should be mentioned to rebut the transmigration thesis. In John 1:21 the Jews asked John if he was Elijah. He replied, "I am not." Luke 1:17 says that John will appear "in the spirit and power of Elijah," a statement which, in the context of Jesus’ and Malachi’s proclamations1 seems to indicate that this instance is an example of classic biblical typology. Finally, Elijah never died but was taken up into heaven. Transmigration, on the other hand, presumes the death of the individual body in question.
Another frequent claim by contemporary reincarnationists is that many esoteric doctrines, such as transmigration, were taught by Christ and are contained in the apocryphal Gospels, Acts, and revelations excluded from the canon. A perusal of the subject indexes of those works, however, reveals not one reference to the doctrine of transmigration.
As mentioned in the Introduction, it is often alleged that transmigration was an esoteric doctrine of the early Church which was later purged and anathematized by dogmatists at the Ecumenical Councils. A thorough search of the Fathers and apologists, however, does not support that commonly held view. The following sampling of eminent writers of that period bears adequate testimony to their views.
We find many statements today regarding Justin’s alleged teaching of transmigration. For example:
There is no doubt that many of the Christian Fathers held this view or were more or less disposed to it. Justin Martyr expressly speaks of the soul inhabiting more than one human body, and says that souls which fail in their duty pass into grosser forms.(1)
The writer here, an Anglican clergyman, is referring to a passage in Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho, but in his misplaced zeal to syncretize reincarnation with Christian doctrine, he omits Justin’s conclusion. After discussing the subject with Trypho at some length, Justin concludes that in fact transmigration is not a good idea.
Trypho: Therefore souls neither see God nor transmigrate into other bodies....
Justin: You speak the truth, I agree.(2)
Irenaeus’ apostolic pedigree is beyond dispute, as he was one generation removed from John through Polycarp. Thus, we can be sure that if transmigration were an esoteric doctrine, he would know about it. In Against Heresies he addresses the allegations put forward by the Gnostics that esoteric doctrines were being suppressed.
Even if the Apostles had known of hidden mysteries, which they taught to the perfect secretly and apart from others, they would have handed them down, especially to those to whom they were entrusting the churches themselves.(3)
Irenaeus devotes the entire Chapter 33 of Against Heresies to the subject of transmigration. His chapter heading sets the tone: "Absurdity of the Doctrine of Transmigration of Souls." He proceeds with an argument too tortuous to summarize here, but it might be noted in passing that he credits the concept to Plato.
Many earnest reincarnationists flatly state that Origen staunchly upheld the doctrine of transmigration. One scholarly anthology on the subject states, "That Origen taught the preexistence of the soul in past world orders of this earth and its reincarnation in future worlds is beyond question."(4)
It seems quite certain that Origen (at least in his earlier works) taught the pre-existence of the soul. But he specifically denied transmigration after the initial incarnation of the soul. His writings on pre-existence, condemned at the Council of Constantinople in 553, are frequently misunderstood by modern reincarnationists who believe he is speaking of transmigration. Even many modern Christian scholars (for example, Bouyer) are unsure as to whether or not Origen taught transmigration. Origen’s extant writings do not support the transmigration theory. Theologians, such as Augustine, who criticized Origen and charged him with heresy, may have been referring to his writings which are no longer extant or responding to opinions held in theological circles. In Origen’s commentary on Matthew, we find the following title to Chapter 1 of Book XIII: "Relation of John the Baptist to Elijah--the Theory of Transmigration Considered." He comments:
In this place, it does not appear to me that by Elijah the soul is spoken of, lest I should fall into the dogma of transmigration, which is foreign to the Church of God and not handed down by the Apostles, nor anywhere set forth in the Scriptures....For observe, he (Matthew) did not say, in the "soul" of Elijah, in which case the doctrine of transmigration might have some ground, but "in the spirit and power of Elijah."(5)
Those comments on John the Baptist and Elijah are followed by a lengthy refutation of the doctrine of transmigration. In another place Origen says:
Let others, who are strangers to the doctrine of the Church, assume that souls pass from the bodies of men into the bodies of dogs....we do not find this at all in the divine Scriptures.(6)
Origen’s commentary on Matthew was written toward the end of his life (when he was over 60 years of age) and undoubtedly records his final opinions on the subject.
The Apology, written somewhere between 198 and 217, reveals the opinionated Tertullian’s thoughts on the topic.
The doctrine of transmigration... is a falsehood which is not only shameful, but also hazardous.... It is indeed manifest that dead men are formed from living ones; but it does not follow from that, that living men are formed from dead ones.(7)
Tertullian traces the doctrine to Pythagoras and does not mention that any Christians taught it.
A scholar and writer who lived from 260 to 330, Lactantius tutored Constantine’s son. In Chapter 36 of The Epitome of the Divine Institutes, he comments sarcastically:
And the foolish man (Pythagoras), to gain credit for his saying (transmigration), said that he himself had been Euphorbus in the Trojan War, and that, when he had been slain, he passed into other figures of animals and at last became Pythagoras. O happy man! To whom alone so great a memory was given; or rather unhappy, who when changed into a sheep, was not permitted to be ignorant of what he was!(8)
In his book Reincarnation--Ancient Beliefs and Modern Evidence, David Christie-Murray asserts that
St. Jerome is supposed to have supported reincarnation in his ‘Letter to Avitus’ and...the doctrine was propounded among early Christians as an esoteric doctrine. Jerome was also an admirer and translator of Origen.(9)
It seems, however, that Christie-Murray has relied on hearsay or second-class scholars’ gossip. In fact, Jerome’s letter to Avitus severely criticizes Origen for speculating about transmigration in his earlier writings (unfortunately, he does not give the citation). He also refutes Origen’s teaching on pre-existence in his letter to Demetrias, calling Origen’s literary perambulations "a fountainhead of gross impiety." There is no mention of the doctrine being taught by other Christians.
Gregory (335 to 395) also engages in sarcastic polemics in his treatise On the Making of Man. In Chapter 28 he says:
...the fabulous doctrines of the heathen which they hold on the subject of successive incorporation: They tell us that one of their sages said that he, being one and the same person, was born a man, and afterwards assumed the form of a woman, and flew about with the birds, and grew as a bush, and obtained the life of an aquatic creature; and he who said these things of himself did not, so far as I can judge, go far from the truth: for such doctrines as this of saying that one soul passed through so many changes are really fitting for the chatter of frogs and jackdaws, the stupidity of fishes or the insensibility of trees.(10)
A Manichaean before his conversion, Augustine was certainly thoroughly familiar with Gnostic, pagan, and Christian thought. Thus, his opinion brings an insightful perspective to the debate. In his letter to Optatus, he writes concerning Origen’s teachings on pre-existence,
For it is impossible that you should hold the opinion of Origen, Priscillian, and other heretics that it is for deeds done in a former life that souls are confined in earthly and mortal bodies.(11)
The above quotations prove convincingly that transmigration/reincarnation was not taught by the early church Fathers. While the doctrine was frowned upon, there is no evidence in any of the extant literature or proceedings from the early Ecumenical Councils that it was much of an issue or problem for the Church. In fact, none of the Councils even broached the subject. Although it was certainly entertained by a variety of pagan thinkers (especially the Neoplatonists), the concept of transmigration never got past the front door of the Church. Origen’s theories on pre-existence could have easily developed into a full-blown incorporation of transmigratory speculations, but it appears that even those thoughts were never given serious credence at any point. Let us hope that the twentieth-century Church can separate the wheat from the chaff with the same vigor and theological precision as the early church Fathers.
Mark Albrecht is a former editor of Update and author of the book Reincarnation (InterVarsity Press, 1982).
1. A clergyman of the Church of England. in Reincarnation and Christianity (London: Wm. Rider and Co., 1909), p. 51.
2. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, trans. Thomas Falls (NY: Christian Heritage Press, Inc., 1948). p. 155.
3. C. C. Richardson, ed., Early Christian Fathers (NY: MacMillan, 1970), pp. 371-372.
4. J. Head and S. Cranston, eds., Reincarnation, The Phoenix Fire Mystery (NY: Warner Books, 1977), p. 145.
5. Allan Menzies, ed., The Ante-Nicene Fathers, X (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), pp. 474-475.
6. Ibid., p. 447.
7. Tertullian, "Apology," in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, ed. Philip Schaff (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), p. 209.
8. Lactantius, "The Epitome of the Divine Institutes," in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, VII, eds. A. Roberts & J. Donaldson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), p. 236.
9. David Christie-Murray, Reincarnation, Ancient Beliefs and Modern Evidence (London: David and Charles, 1981), p. 59.
10. Gregory of Nyssa, "On the Making of Man," in Nicene and Post -Nicene Fathers, V, eds. Schaff and Wace (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), p. 419.11. Augustine, "Letter to Optatus," in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, VI, Eds. Schaff and Wace (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), p. 283.