Reincarnation in Christian History
Christians have the misconception that the concept of reincarnation
holds that, at the time of death, people reincarnate immediately
and do not have any experiences in the spirit realms in between
Earth lives. Near-death experiences prove this misconception
to be untrue. Because time does not exist in the spirit world,
a person can spend an "eternity" in the spirit realms,
if they wish to do so, and have the freedom to decide if they
want to reincarnate or not. The ultimate goal of reincarnation
is to learn enough lessons from Earth lives that reincarnation
is no longer necessary.
Does it make any difference whether or not
one believes in reincarnation? The doctrine of reincarnation,
like any dogmatic tenet, is not very important when it comes
to living a spiritual life. It is probably equivalent to believing
that so many angels can dance on the head of a pin. There is
probably no special spiritual advance for a person to believe
or not believe in reincarnation. Reincarnation only provides
a reasonable theory to account for the apparent absurdities
in the dispensation of divine justice.
Prophet was a minister with
The Summit Lighthouse and
author of several books dealing with early Christianity and
many related metaphysical books, such as: •
Reincarnation: The Missing Link in Christianity •
Fallen Angels and the Origins of Evil •
Karma and Reincarnation •
The Lost Teachings of Jesus •
The Book of Enoch the Prophet •
Quietly Comes the Buddha •
The Path to the Universal Christ •
Kabbalah: Key to Your Inner Power •
Keys to the Kingdom •
The Astrology of the Four Horsemen
Walking with the Master.
Elizabeth Clare Prophet's meticulous and
impressive research into the history of reincarnation in the
early Christian movement provides the seeker of truth a valid
reason to believe that the early Church officials decided to
halt the long history of reincarnation in the early Christian
sects in order to further their own political purposes. The
following information comes from my favorite book by Ms. Prophet,
Reincarnation: The Missing Link in Christianity.
1. The Mystery
of God in Humanity
Early in the fourth century, while
Alexander of Alexandria was expounding on the Trinity to
his flock, a theological tsunami was born.
A Libyan priest named
stood up and posed the following simple question: "If the
Father begat the Son, he that was begotten had a beginning of
existence." In other words, if the Father is the parent
of the Son, then didn't the Son have a beginning?
Apparently, no one had put it this way before.
For many bishops, Arius spoke heresy when he said that the Son
had a beginning. A debate erupted, led by Arius on the one side
and by Alexander and his deacon
on the other. Athanasius became the Church's lead fighter in
a struggle that lasted his entire life.
In 320 A.D., Alexander held a
of Alexandria to condemn the errors of Arius. But this did
not stop the controversy. The Church had nearly split over the
issue when the controversy reached the ears of the
Constantine. He decided to resolve it himself in a move
that permanently changed the course of Christianity.
The orthodox accused
the Arians of attempting to lower the Son by saying he had a
beginning. But, in fact, the Arians gave him an exalted
position, honoring him as "first among creatures." Arius
described the Son as one who became "perfect God, only
begotten and unchangeable," but also argued that he had an
The Arian controversy
was really about the nature of humanity and how we are saved.
It involved two pictures of Jesus Christ: Either he was a God
who had always been God or he was a human who became God's Son.
If he was a human who became God's Son, then
that implied that other humans could also become Sons of God.
This idea was unacceptable to the orthodox, hence their insistence
that Jesus had always been God and was entirely different from
all created beings. As we shall see, the Church's theological
position was, in part, dictated by its political needs. The
Arian position had the potential to erode the authority of the
Church since it implied that the soul did not need the Church
to achieve salvation.
The outcome of the Arian controversy was
crucial to the Church's position on both reincarnation and the
soul's opportunity to become one with God. Earlier, the Church
decided that the human soul is not now and never has been a
part of God. Instead it belongs to the material world and is
separated from God by a great chasm.
Rejecting the idea that the soul is immortal
and spiritual, which was a part of Christian thought at the
Clement of Alexandria and
the Fathers developed the concept of "creatio ex nihilo",
creation out of nothing. If the soul were not a part of God,
the orthodox theologians reasoned, it could not have been created
out of his essence.
The doctrine persists
to this day. By denying man's divine origin and potential,
the doctrine of creation out of nothing rules out both
preexistence and reincarnation. Once the Church adopted the
doctrine, it was only a matter of time before it rejected
both Origenism and Arianism. In fact, the Arian controversy
was only one salvo in the battle to eradicate the mystical
tradition Origen represented.
Origen and his predecessor, Clement of Alexandria,
lived in a Platonist world. For them it was a given that there
is an invisible spiritual world which is permanent and a visible
material world that is changeable. The soul belongs to the spiritual
world, while the body belongs to the material world.
In the Platonists' view, the world and everything
in it is not created but emanates from God, the One. Souls come
from the Divine Mind, and even when they are encased in bodily
form, they retain their link to the Source.
Clement tells us that humanity is "of
celestial birth, being a plant of heavenly origin." Origen
taught that man, having been made after the "image and
likeness of God," has "a kind of blood-relationship
While Clement and Origen were teaching in
Alexandria, another group of Fathers was developing a counter-theology.
They rejected the Greek concept of the soul in favor of a new
and unheard of idea: The soul is not a part of the spiritual
world at all; but, like the body, it is part of the mutable
They based their theology on the changeability
of the soul. How could the soul be divine and immortal, they
asked, if it is capable of changing, falling and sinning? Because
it is capable of change, they reasoned, it cannot be like God,
who is unchangeable.
Origen took up the problem of the soul's
changeability but came up with a different solution. He suggested
that the soul was created immortal and that even though it fell
(for which he suggests various reasons), it still has the power
to restore itself to its original state.
For him the soul is poised between spirit
and matter and can choose union with either: "The will
of this soul is something intermediate between the flesh and
the spirit, undoubtedly serving and obeying one of the two,
whichever it has chosen to obey." If the soul chooses to
join with spirit, Origen wrote, "the spirit will become
one with it."
This new theology, which linked the soul
with the body, led to the ruling out of preexistence. If the
soul is material and not spiritual, then it cannot have existed
before the body. As
of Nyssa wrote: "Neither does the soul exist before
the body, nor the body apart from the soul, but ... there is
only a single origin for both of them."
When is the soul created then? The Fathers
came up with an improbable answer: at the same time as the body
- at conception. "God is daily making souls," wrote
If souls and bodies are created at the same time, both preexistence
and reincarnation are out of the question since they imply that
souls exist before bodies and can be attached to different bodies
The Church still teaches the soul is created
at the same time as the body and therefore the soul and the
body are a unit.
This kind of thinking led straight to the
Arian controversy. Now that the Church had denied that the soul
preexists the body and that it belongs to the spiritual world,
it also denied that souls, bodies and the created world emanated
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|2. The Arian Controversy
When Arius asked whether the Son had a beginning,
he was, in effect, pointing out a fundamental flaw in that doctrine.
The doctrine did not clarify the nature of Christ. So he was
asking: If there is an abyss between Creator and creation, where
does Christ belong? Was he created out of nothing like the rest
of the creatures? Or was he part of God? If so, then how and
why did he take on human form?
The Church tells us that the Arian controversy
was a struggle against blasphemers who said Christ was not God.
But the crucial issue in the debate was: How is humanity saved
- through emulating Jesus or through worshiping him?
The Arians claimed that Jesus became God's
Son and thereby demonstrated a universal principle that all
created beings can follow. But the
said that he had always been God's Son, was of the same essence
as God (and therefore was God) and could not be imitated by
mere creatures, who lack God's essence. Salvation could come
only by accessing God's grace via the Church.
The Arians believed that human beings could
also be adopted as Sons of God by imitating Christ. For the
Arians, the incarnation of Christ was designed to show us that
we can follow Jesus and become, as Paul said, "joint heirs
The Orthodox Church, by creating a gulf between
Jesus and the rest of us, denied that we could become Sons in
the same way he did. The reason why the Church had such a hard
time seeing Jesus' humanity was that they could not understand
how anyone could be human and divine at the same time. Either
Jesus was human (and therefore changeable) or he was divine
(and therefore unchangeable).
The orthodox vision of Jesus as God is based
in part on a misunderstanding of the Gospel of John. John tells
us: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with
God, and the Word was God ... All things were made by him; and
without him was not any thing made that was made." Later
John tells us the "the Word was made flesh and dwelt among
us." The orthodox concluded from these passages that Jesus
Christ is God, the Word, made flesh.
What they didn't understand was that when
John called Jesus "the Word," he was referring to
the Greek tradition of the
John tells us that the Word created everything, he uses the
Greek term for Word - "Logos." In Greek thought, Logos
describes the part of God that acts in the world.
called the Logos "God's Likeness, by whom the whole cosmos
was fashioned." Origen called it the soul that holds the
Philo believed that great human beings like
Moses could personify the Logos. Thus, when John writes that
Jesus is the Logos, he does not mean that the man Jesus has
always been God the Logos. What John is telling us is that Jesus
the man became the Logos, the Christ.
theologians believed that everyone has that opportunity.
Clement tells us that each human has the "image of the Word
(Logos)" within him and that it is for this reason that
Genesis says that humanity is made "in the image and
likeness of God."
The Logos, then, is the spark of divinity,
the seed of Christ, that is within our hearts. Apparently the
orthodox either rejected or ignored this concept.
We should understand that Jesus became the
Logos just as he became the Christ. But that didn't mean he
was the only one who could ever do it. Jesus explained this
mystery when he broke the bread at the Last Supper. He took
a single loaf, symbolizing the one Logos, the one Christ, and
broke it and said, "This is my body, which is broken for
He was teaching the disciples that there
is one absolute God and one Universal Christ, or Logos, but
that the body of that Universal Christ can be broken and each
piece will still retain all the qualities of the whole. He was
telling them that the seed of Christ was within them, that he
had come to quicken it and that the Christ was not diminished
no matter how many times his body was broken. The smallest fragment
of God, Logos, or Christ, contains the entire nature of Christ's
divinity - which, to this day, he would make our own.
The orthodox misunderstood Jesus' teaching
because they were unable to accept the reality that each human
being has both a human and a divine nature and the potential
to become wholly divine. They didn't understand the human and
the divine in Jesus and therefore they could not understand
the human and the divine within themselves. Having seen the
weakness of human nature, they thought they had to deny the
divine nature that occasionally flashes forth even in the lowliest
of human beings.
The Church did not understand (or could not
admit) that Jesus came to demonstrate the process by which the
human nature is transformed into the divine. But Origen had
found it easy to explain.
He believed that the human and divine natures
can be woven together day by day. He tells us that in Jesus "the
divine and human nature began to interpenetrate in such a way
that the human nature, by its communion with the divine, would
itself become divine." Origen tells us that the option
for the transformation of humanity into divinity is available
not just for Jesus but for "all who take up in faith the
life which Jesus taught."
Origen did not hesitate to describe the relationship
of human beings to the Son. He believed that we contain the
same essence as the Father and the Son: "We, therefore,
having been made according to the image, have the Son, the original,
as the truth of the noble qualities that are within us. And
what we are to the Son, such is the Son to the Father, who is
the truth." Since we have the noble qualities of the Son
within us, we can undergo the process of divinization (at-one-ment
To the Arians, the divinization process was
essential to salvation; to the orthodox, it was heresy. In 324
A.D., the Roman emperor Constantine, who had embraced Christianity
twelve years earlier, entered the Arian controversy. He wrote
a letter to Arius and Bishop Alexander urging them to reconcile
their differences, and he sent
Hosius of Cordova to Alexandria to deliver it. But his letter
could not calm the storm that raged over the nature of God -
and man. Constantine realized that he would have to do more
if he wanted to resolve the impasse.
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|3. The Council of Nicea
In June, 325 A.D., the
Nicea opened and continued for two months, with Constantine
attending. The bishops modified an existing creed to fit their
purposes. The creed, with some changes made at a later fourth
century council, is still given today in many churches.
Creed, as it came to be called, takes elaborate care by
repeating several redundancies to identify the Son with the
Father rather than with the creation:
"We believe in one God, the Father Almighty,
maker of all things visible and invisible; and in one Lord Jesus
Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten of his Father, of
the substance of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very
God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance
with the Father. By whom all things were made ... Who ... was
incarnate and was made human ..."
Only two bishops, along with Arius, refused
to sign the creed. Constantine banished them from the empire,
while the other bishops went on to celebrate their unity in
a great feast at the imperial palace.
The creed is much more than an affirmation
of Jesus' divinity. It is also an affirmation of our separation
from God and Christ. It takes great pains to describe Jesus
as God in order to deny that he is part of God's creation. He
is "begotten, not made," therefore totally separate
from us, the created beings. As scholar George Leonard Prestige
writes, the Nicene Creed's description of Jesus tells us "that
the Son of God bears no resemblance to the ... creatures."
The description of Jesus as the only Son
of God is carried forward in the Apostles' Creed, which is used
in many Protestant churches today. It reads: "I believe
in God, the Father Almighty ... I believe in Jesus Christ, his
only Son, our Lord." But even that language - calling Jesus
God's only Son - denies that we can ever attain the sonship
that Jesus did.
Christians may be interested to know that
many scholars analyzing the Bible now believe that Jesus never
claimed to be the only Son of God. This was a later development
based on a misinterpretation of the gospel of John.
There is further evidence to suggest that
Jesus believed all people could achieve the goal of becoming
Sons of God. But the churches, by retaining these creeds, remain
in bondage to Constantine and his three hundred bishops.
Some of the bishops
who attended the council were uncomfortable with the
council's definition of the Son and thought they might have
gone too far. But the emperor, in a letter sent to the
bishops who were not in attendance at Nicea, required that
they accept "this truly divine injunction."
Constantine said that since the council's
decision had been "determined in the holy assemblies of
the bishops," the Church officials must regard it as "indicative
of the divine will."
The Roman god Constantine had spoken. Clearly,
he had concluded that the orthodox position was more conducive
to a strong and unified Church than the Arian position and that
it therefore must be upheld.
Constantine also took the opportunity to
inaugurate the first systematic government persecution of dissident
Christians. He issued an edict against "heretics,"
calling them "haters and enemies of truth and life, in
league with destruction."
Even though he had begun his reign with an
edict of religious toleration, he now forbade the heretics (mostly
Arians) to assemble in any public or private place, including
private homes, and ordered that they be deprived of "every
gathering point for [their] superstitious meetings," including "all
the houses of prayer." These were to be given to the orthodox
The heretical teachers were forced to flee,
and many of their students were coerced back into the orthodox
fold. The emperor also ordered a search for their books, which
were to be confiscated and destroyed. Hiding the works of Arius
carried a severe penalty - the death sentence.
Nicea, nevertheless, marked the beginning
of the end of the concepts of both preexistence, reincarnation,
and salvation through union with God in Christian doctrine.
It took another two hundred years for the ideas to be expunged.
But Constantine had given the Church the
tools with which to do it when he molded Christianity in his
own image and made Jesus the only Son of God. From now on, the
Church would become representative of a capricious and autocratic
God - a God who was not unlike Constantine and other Roman emperors.
Tertullian, a stanch anti-Origenian and a father of the
Church, had this to say about those who believed in reincarnation
and not the resurrection of the dead: "What a panorama
of spectacle on that day [the Resurrection]! What sight
should I turn to first to laugh and applaud? ... Wise philosophers,
blushing before their students as they burn together, the followers
to whom they taught that the world is no concern of God's, whom
they assured that either they had no souls at all or that what
souls they had would never return to their former bodies? These
are things of greater delight, I believe, than a circus, both
kinds of theater, and any stadium." Tertullian was a great
influence in having so-called "heretics" put to death.
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|4. The Fifth General Council
After Constantine and
Nicea, Origen's writings had continued to be popular among
those seeking clarification about the nature of Christ, the
destiny of the soul and the manner of the resurrection. Some
of the more educated monks had taken Origen's ideas and were
using them in mystical practices with the aim of becoming
one with God.
Toward the end of the fourth century, orthodox
theologians again began to attack Origen. Their chief areas
of difficulty with Origen's thought were his teachings on the
nature of God and Christ, the resurrection and the preexistence
of the soul.
Their criticisms, which were often based
on ignorance and an inadequate understanding, found an audience
in high places and led to the Church's rejection of Origenism
and reincarnation. The Church's need to appeal to the uneducated
masses prevailed over Origen's coolheaded logic.
The bishop of Cyprus,
claimed that Origen denied the resurrection of the flesh. However,
as scholar Jon Dechow has demonstrated, Epiphanius neither understood
nor dealt with Origen's ideas. Nevertheless, he was able to
convince the Church that Origen's ideas were incompatible with
the merging literalist theology. On the basis of Ephiphanius'
writings, Origenism would be finally condemned a century and
a half later.
believed that resurrection bodies would be flesh and blood,
complete with genitals - which, however, would not be used in
the hereafter. But Origenists believed the resurrection bodies
would be spiritual.
The Origenist controversy spread to monasteries
in the Egyptian desert, especially at Nitria, home to about
five thousand monks. There were two kinds of monks in Egypt
- the simple and uneducated, who composed the majority, and
the Origenists, an educated minority.
The controversy solidified around the question
of whether God had a body that could be seen and touched. The
simple monks believed that he did. But the Origenists thought
that God was invisible and transcendent. The simple monks could
not fathom Origen's mystical speculations on the nature of God.
In 399 A.D.,
Theophilus wrote a letter defending the Origenist position.
At this, the simple monks flocked to Alexandria, rioting in
the streets and even threatening to kill Theophilus.
The bishop quickly reversed himself, telling
the monks that he could now see that God did indeed have a body: "In
seeing you, I behold the face of God." Theophilus' sudden
switch was the catalyst for a series of events that led to the
condemnation of Origen and the burning of the Nitrian monastery.
Under Theodosius, Christians, who had been
persecuted for so many years, now became the persecutors. God
made in man's image proved to be an intolerant one. The orthodox
Christians practiced sanctions and violence against all heretics
(including Gnostics and Origenists), pagans and Jews. In this
climate, it became dangerous to profess the ideas of innate
divinity and the pursuit of union with God.
It may have been during the reign of Theodosius
Nag Hammadi manuscripts were buried - perhaps by Origenist
monks. For while the Origenist monks were not openly Gnostic,
they would have been sympathetic to the Gnostic viewpoint and
may have hidden the books after they became too hot to handle.
The Origenist monks of the desert did not
accept Bishop Theophilus' condemnations. They continued to practice
their beliefs in Palestine into the sixth century until a series
of events drove Origenism underground for good.
(ruled 527-565 A.D.) was the most able emperor since Constantine
- and the most active in meddling with Christian theology. Justinian
issued edicts that he expected the Church to rubber-stamp, appointed
bishops and even imprisoned the pope.
After the collapse of the Roman Empire at
the end of the fifth century, Constantinople remained the capital
of the Eastern, or Byzantine, Empire. The story of how Origenism
ultimately came to be rejected involves the kind of labyrinthine
power plays that the imperial court became famous for.
Around 543 A.D., Justinian seems to have
taken the side of the anti-Origenists since he issued an edict
condemning ten principles of Origenism, including preexistence.
It declared "anathema to Origen ... and to whomsoever there
is who thinks thus." In other words, Origen and anyone
who believes in these propositions would be eternally damned.
A local council at Constantinople ratified the edict, which
all bishops were required to sign.
In 553 A.D., Justinian convoked the
Council of the Church to discuss the controversy over the
so-called "Three Chapters." These were writings of
three theologians whose views bordered on the heretical. Justinian
wanted the writings to be condemned and he expected the council
to oblige him.
He had been trying to coerce the pope into
agreeing with him since 545 A.D. He had essentially arrested
the pope in Rome and brought him to Constantinople, where he
held him for four years. When the pope escaped and later refused
to attend the council, Justinian went ahead and convened it
This council produced fourteen new anathemas
against the authors of the Three Chapters and other Christian
theologians. The eleventh anathema included Origen's name in
a list of heretics.
The first anathema reads: "If anyone
asserts the fabulous preexistence of souls, and shall assert
the monstrous restoration which follows from it: let him be
anathema." ("Restoration" means the return of
the soul to union with God. Origenists believed that this took
place through a path of reincarnation.) It would seem that the
death blow had been struck against Origenism and reincarnation
After the council, the Origenist monks were
expelled from their Palestinian monastery, some bishops were
deposed and once again Origen's writings were destroyed. The
anti-Origenist monks had won. The emperor had come down firmly
on their side.
In theory, it would seem that the missing
papal approval of the anathemas leaves a doctrinal loophole
for the belief in reincarnation among all Christians today.
But since the Church accepted the anathemas in practice, the
result of the council was to end belief in reincarnation in
In any case, the argument is moot. Sooner
or later the Church probably would have forbade the beliefs.
When the Church codified its denial of the divine origin of
the soul (at Nicea in 325 A.D.), it started a chain reaction
that led directly to the curse on Origen.
Church councils notwithstanding, mystics
in the Church continued to practice divinization. They followed
Origen's ideas, still seeking union with God.
But the Christian mystics were continually
dogged by charges of heresy. At the same time as the Church
was rejecting reincarnation, it was accepting original sin,
a doctrine that made it even more difficult for mystics to practice.
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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 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 A.D. 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 A.D. In the Council of
Lyons, in 1274 A.D., 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
of Florence of 1439 A.D. 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.
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