Clement and Origen, Early Christian Thinkers
Seminal Christian thinkers Clement and Origen lived and wrote in Egypt. We know little of Clement’s works, as many were lost, but we know that he wrote stories about worlds before Adam and about metempsychosis, a term for reincarnation, implying that he agreed with it. Clement was the tutor of a more famous thinker, Origen.
Origen, however, the greatest mind in the third century church, is now regarded as suspect by conventional religious authorities. This is because he took a view of original sin which differed from the conventional view blaming Adam and Eve. Origen was influenced by Orphic philosophy, which saw the world as a cyclic event with worlds following worlds. In his doctrine of apocatastasis he expressed the view that souls are reborn in successive worlds, bearing the strengths and weaknesses that they have developed in previous incarnations, until they are ready for God.
Origen’s writings are sometimes confused, but Geddes MacGregor, who wrote on this issue, is convinced that he taught reincarnation in some form. Origen acquired powerful enemies, whom philosopher and theologian Paul Johannes Tillich calls the simple ones, and for this reason, despite his renowned holiness and suffering for the faith, he has never been ranked as a saint.
Reincarnation ideas circulated in the first few centuries, but they became increasingly associated with Gnosticism. Gnosticism gets an unduly good press. It was a movement of spiritual elitists who believed that humans were divided into three broad bands, with spiritual men like them at the top (obviously).
Many Gnostics believed that we had to go through a cycle of incarnations before we became spiritual enough to go to God. This has affinities with Hinduism and may derive from Pythagorean thought, which was certainly circulating in the Roman world. It differed from orthodox Christianity as the latter believed that ordinary, unintellectual people could be saved by the ministry of the church. Gnosticism thought we were saved by knowledge; orthodox Christianity taught that we were saved by faith and love.
Through its association with Gnosticism, reincarnation began to drop out of the theological picture.