Reincarnation and Christianity: How a Theological Concept Was Lost

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This model shows the design of the Jerusalem Temple, where Jesus was discussing with his disciples. Photographer unknown.

This model shows the design of the Jerusalem Temple, where Jesus talked with his disciples. Photographer unknown.

We are so used to talk of heaven and hell that we overlook the fact that Jesus talked very little about going to heaven. He promised his followers that they would enjoy eternal life in the Age to Come, which would begin at the Last Day, when the dead would be raised.

Jesus talked of everlasting damnation, but he gave no systematic account of what happens to those who die before the Age to Come arrives. This is known as the eschatological gap, and it has been filled with a variety of speculative concepts. Indeed, heaven itself is speculation, as Jesus said very little about it.

Did Jesus Believe in Reincarnation?

The idea of reincarnation persists in Western culture, if not in mainstream Christianity: in June of 2013, internationally known talk show host Oprah Winfrey interviewed Dr. Brian Weiss, a best-selling author and expert in the psychiatric therapy known as past-life regression. According to the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), 288,000 viewers watched the Super Soul Sunday episode. Nonetheless, few people know that many early Christians believed in some form of reincarnation, but the idea fell out of favour in the sixth century.

John 9:1 shows that reincarnation ideas were present among Jesus’ followers. The apostles ask of the man born blind, “Did this man sin or his parents that he was born blind?”  The idea that you were punished for your parents’ sins was common in Judaism, but that  a man could sin and be born blind as a consequence is more difficult to explain. The most obvious alternative is that he had sinned in a previous incarnation – the idea of reincarnation was in circulation at the time, as it has always been in Hasidic Judaism.

This would indicate that the apostles and Jesus were discussing reincarnation. Note that Jesus did not affirm or deny the belief, so it was not something to which he strongly objected. Note also that Jesus at this moment did not deny the pre-existence of the soul, which is essential for belief in reincarnation.

Many lost works by great thinkers might still remain in the enduring sands of Egypt. Image by ahamenes.

Many lost works by great thinkers might still remain in the enduring sands of Egypt. Image by ahamenes.

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.

The Gnostics

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.

Today, we can still see the ruins of ancient Christian Constantinople, where church councils took place, Image by Scaliger.

Today, we can still see the ruins of ancient Christian Constantinople, where church councils took place, Image by Scaliger.

 

The Origenists and the Council of Constantinople

By 553, orthodox Christians were in dispute with a group known as the Origenists, whose views had little to do with Origen. Their view was that after a series of incarnations a person could be equal to Christ. Effectively, they were claiming that humans could reach divine status. This view was unacceptable to orthodox Christians, who believe that Christ, while human, is also divine and as such cannot be equaled, merely emulated.

The dispute simmered until the emperor, Justinian, infamous for interfering in religious disputes, called a council. Constantinople Two was held contrary to the wishes of the Pope, who was imprisoned by Justinian at the time and refused to attend. It was mainly attended by Eastern bishops, there being but few from the West.

To get rid of the Origenists, the council condemned the belief in the pre-existence of the soul, and with this went reincarnation, which requires the soul to pre-exist its present incarnation. It is doubtful, however, that the council actually passed these verdicts in full session; they were probably passed at an extra-conciliar meeting after the council had finished. From then on the church taught that a new soul is created every time a child is conceived, as God’s blessing on the union.

Constantinople Two allowed Justinian to stifle theological discussion, and we lost an interesting religious idea at the time. Fortunately Justinian is long gone, along with his murderous invasions and theological interference. The council is testimony to the fact that while there may be problems when religion becomes involved in politics, there are also problems when politicians interfere in religion.

Resources

MacGregor, Geddes. Reincarnation in Christianity. (1978). The Theosophical Publishing House, Quest Books.

Head and Cranston. Reincarnation. (1971). The Julian Press, New York.

OWN. Super Soul Sunday – Oprah and Dr. Brian Weiss: Reincarnation, Past Lives and Miracles. Television. Aired June 2, 2013. Accessed July 22, 2013.

The Futon Critic. OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network Scores Highest Rated Week in Network History Across Key Demos. (June 4, 2013). Accessed July 22, 2013.

Walker, E. D. Reincarnation: A Study of a Forgotten Truth. (1923). The Aryan Theosophical Press.

 

 

© Copyright 2013 Frank Beswick, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past

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Comments

  1. VonMagnum says:

    Sadly, the Orthodox church has no clue about the soul or most things. Jesus said John the Baptist was Elijah. John, himself said he was not when asked. The fact that he was even asked should tell you what “life after death” meant in those times. It meant reincarnation. The Catholic Church has basically called Jesus a LIAR when they say reincarnation doesn’t exist and that souls don’t predate their bodies. This is an INDISPUTABLE FACT what Jesus said in the Bible (Matthew 11:14). It’s black and white, clear as crystal in the Bible for anyone to read for themselves and yet churches the world over DENY JESUS when they contradict his words and try to explain it away as a symbol or comparison. And yet it was the Catholic Church that decided it needed a patriarchal hierarchy to maintain rule over the nations. Jesus taught to pray to the Father directly (another indisputable fact). The Catholic Church is guilty of murder and torture (look up the Spanish Inquisitions in the history books) and cannot be trusted to tell the truth and yet they assembled the Bible as we know it today. Fortunately, Jesus taught in parables to hide the higher knowledge from those without eyes to see and ears to hear. This is why the Bible cannot be read literally or you end up in error (aka “sin”).

    Not everyone on earth forgets their past lives entirely. Not all of us are new to this world. There’s a reason some children can play the piano at only a few years old or some can speak in full sentences before age one and read at the college level by fourth grade as I could. The conscious mind is normally made to forget past lives so they do not unduly interfere with what one is meant to learn in this lifetime (with some apparent exceptions), but the subconscious remembers the skills (whether language, math or an instrument) from previous lives and picks them up very quickly in this one, sometimes giving the appearance of “genius” (e.g. say with piano) where it is in fact skill quickly picked up where one left off and thus able to move forward to striking levels. The same applies to speech, math, etc. I believe this is how the soul progresses in spiritual terms as well. Some children are seemingly born with an inherent “good” nature while others are problem children. The very idea that God would create such extremes or by some random chance only to throw the bad ones into Hell forever (thus suggesting God creates life only to torture it for all eternity for the mistakes made in a tiny little temporal zone rather than taking the more logical view that God is a father who LOVES his children and in fact, is LOVE Himself. No, I say most humans are spiritually ignorant to the point of retardation or they could never come to such a conclusion in the first place. This is because Earth is the spiritual equivalent of KINDERGARTEN. You repeat it until you graduate. Some people come back to help others move forward and it is these people that are the most likely to remember past lives.

    Personally, I can remember back to 1 week old very clearly and I was born 7 weeks premature. I’ve had memories of living in the Middle Ages all my life and when the World Wide Web came to be, I found my memories had a distinct match in history. I don’t remember everything, but the things I do remember are an exact one of a kind match. I believe there is a reason I was permitted to carry these memories into this life because it is these memories that have shaped my progress in this life. No, I’m not perfect, but the quest to get to the level where Jesus stands is a long one. Jesus told his disciples that he was no longer their master, but their brother. The Catholic Church says you cannot get to Jesus’ level and be a “Son of God” but Jesus himself said, “Ye are Gods” (John 10:34).

    I hate to break it to the thick-headed out there, but there is only ONE Spirit out there and it is the vine that gives life to all. Without it, there is no life as no one lives apart from God since God is THE ALL. He is the Universe itself and beyond and all life within it. He is you and me too. We are drops from an Ocean of God where God is exploring the question of who He is and all He can do. Jesus is the WORD that came forth from God. They were ONE in the beginning. God gave the word and the word created everything that is. You and me are part of that word (drops from the ocean). Time itself is an illusion to facilitate learning. Where you were once one (with God in spirit) you became two (spirit and soul) and ALL souls are older than the Universe itself. What parts of time you manifest in body doesn’t change that fact. In the end (your end), you become one again with God and your experiences and his become one again. So it is with all. There is only ONE being in the Universe. ONE Holy Spirit. Individuality is an illusion of experience of Creation. Ideas of Devils (“Satan” is a metaphor for ignorance and forbidden knowledge a tool of “Ego” which is the only true “demonic” force out there and the cause of all the conflicts among humans on Earth). The very idea that God would create a “Devil” that He cannot apparently control and lets run around maiming people is just patently absurd. It’s another control mechanism of the Church. Man creates religion. God simply creates. God is LOVE. God is ALL. God is ONE. Nearly all “religions” get this wrong and the doctrine of the Trinity is a good example. The only trinity is mind, soul and spirit. Matter is an illusion and so is body and time. Mind is your consciousness and free will. Soul is the collection of your individual experiences (multifaceted over many potential lifetimes) and some might say “personality”. Spirit is your life force and is always ONE with God. Thus the saying if you are not born of spirit you are not really alive. Without spirit, you are just a non-player character equivalent of a D&D game. When Jesus said he was ‘in the Father’ and the ‘Father was in him’, it perfectly described the Universal relationship and ONENESS. Is God Jesus? Yes. Is Jesus God? Partly. Jesus is part of God and God is Jesus. You and I are also part of God because God is ALL. It cannot be otherwise and there be an eternity for a soul unless that soul always exists since all beginnings can have an end. If your end is also your beginning (the Ouroboros), you always exist. So we begin as ONE, so we end as ONE and so the cycles continue. If you are merely “created” at some point, you will be destroyed at another point because in the end there is only ONE who stands, the Omega. God is the Alpha and the Omega. There are NO OTHERS. So either you are destroyed or your are one with God. There are no other possibilities or else what is ascribed to God is a lie. Thus, you either were always alive WITH God or you never were alive. Why is there something rather than nothing? It’s a misnomer. There is both something AND nothing. The Something is GOD and the NOTHING is what is not God. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness perceives it not. Let he who has ears to hear and eyes to see, do so (the very statement so often uttered by Jesus speaks of spiritual growth; until you are advanced enough to comprehend what is said for what it is, you will not see or hear what is meant, only what is said on the surface. You cannot accept that which you are not ready to see).

    Hell you say? An eternal hell? Outside of the material Universe there is no such thing as “time”. Thus, any ‘time’ spent there is a misnomer. A second is a million years and vice versa. The idea of a God who would create a place to eternally punish being he creates would be like God choosing to punish Himself. Hell is what you create in your heart and where you’ll judge yourself to be if that is where you belong and it will be you that pardons yourself to move on from there as well since you are your own judge. For Jesus said the Kingdom is inside of you and whether that kingdom is heaven or hell is up to you. Those that need to come back to grow further do so. It is no great mystery. God compels no one. You choose to grow yourself and you plan the life ahead of you with God. You choose the white water rafting course with God and you are free to move within that course here, but you are stuck with that course throughout this lifetime. If you fail to complete the course, you will have to repeat a similar course until you pass or else you would not progress to the next one (where the course is a pattern for spiritual growth). But instead, “Hell” has been used as a tool of FEAR to control the masses over the ages. Those at the top wish to stay at the top where the food and luxury is plentiful and where they can lord it over the poor all day long.

    The blind and deaf will see and hear none of this and thus their errors and teaching those errors shall continue unabated. A few may learn something and is for their benefit that I write. Until one actively SEEKS the Truth, one will not find it. Jesus did not teach to seek the truth because it would be handed on a silver platter. He knew the evil people of this world would twist his words and use it for their own rule and riches and hence the parables. The truth is in one’s heart. If you never look, you never find. One does not need to be taught right from wrong and so one does not have to look far to see how lust and greed infects one’s heart. Politicians decry their allegiance to the Church, yet they live lives of luxury and opulence and vote to deny money to help feed the poor and destitute in direct contradiction to what Jesus taught about giving away your wealth to help those in need. Hypocrisy is an ugly thing indeed. The greatest “beast” is so often the one in the mirror.

    • Frank Beswick Francis Beswick says:

      There is a whole Theology wrapped up in this argument, and it would require a whole book to discuss the issues.

      I am unsure how far back I can remember, but it is to aged just under three at least, in this incarnation. But what are my other memories? Can you call them memories? I do not know. They cover two incarnations. They have come out in later life, but they are vague, and I do not wish to speak of them without further thought. Let it suffice to say that some recollections were stirred at a battlefield site. No more need be said.

    • Darla Dollman Darla Sue Dollman says:

      VonMagnum, your rant is so filled with anger and hatred, all-caps shouting and name-calling (thick-headed?) that it is nearly impossible to follow. Perhaps if you could take a deep breath and try to form a logical argument without the insults and holier-than-thou speech you might attract readers to participate in a logical discussion. Just a suggestion.

  2. Cristina De Rossi Cristina De Rossi says:

    That was a very interesting informative and entertaining article. The links to Hinduism and Buddhist philosophy are intriguing. It makes me want to read more about it.

    thank you!

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