The intention of this article isn't to rubbish reincarnation or Christian gnosticism on the one hand, NOR to defend orthodox Christianity on the other.
A lot of people (including some Christians) today claim that reincarnation was an early Church teaching—that it was a core belief of Christians throughout the early centuries, and that the Church deliberately conspired to suppress this fact by outlawing the belief at a Church Council in 553 A.D.
Those who support this theory also claim that many prominent Christian theologians believed in and taught reincarnation as a doctrine of the Church, including Origen, Justin Martyr, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine of Hippo, Nemesius, Basil, Jerome, John Chrystostom, and the medieval mystic Francis of Assisi. Here are just ten reasons why this reincarnation and Christianity conspiracy theory is indisputably false.
No other “Doctor of the Church” gets wrongly accused of supporting reincarnation as much as Origen does. Though Origen did favor the idea that souls preexist before being born into physical bodies, there is no evidence that he believed souls to have previously inhabited other physical bodies, or that they would migrate to new physical bodies after death. On the contrary, Origen was an outspoken opponent of the Platonic teaching of reincarnation. In his extant writings, he actually speaks out against the doctrine about half a dozen times.
Origen belonged to the Alexandrian school of Christianity, which steered heavily toward Greek philosophy, and which many early Christians were wary of. He was however misquoted in the Church councils that conspired to condemn his writings (and thereby weaken the authority of the Eastern Church in favor of Rome’s supremacy). In a similar way, Origen now ironically gets misquoted across the internet by those who favor the idea that the Roman Church was conspiring to suppress a widespread belief in reincarnation.
Anyone who cares to look into it can see for themselves that Origen was never directly condemned by the Church councils for believing in reincarnation (even if the “monstrous restoration” in the first anathema against Origin is assumed to mean the transmigration of souls). Bottom line: while Origen was of the Alexandrian school, and was influenced by Platonic philosophy, he never seems to have directly taught reincarnation, and he definitely opposed the doctrine openly.
Gregory of Nyssa is often quoted by those who claim reincarnation was originally a Christian teaching. An extensive search on the internet shows that most people quoting Gregory of Nyssa in connection with reincarnation offer no source. Those who do all seem to get the quote from Theosophical publications. According to these publications, Gregory of Nyssa said this:
“It is absolutely necessary that the soul should be healed and purified, and if this does not take place during its life on earth it must be accomplished in future lives. (. . .) The soul (. . .) is immaterial and invisible in nature, it at one time puts off one body (. . .) and exchanges it for a second.”
Whether or not Gregory ever wrote those words, he did write a whole dogmatic treatise entitled To Those Who Say That Souls Existed Before Bodies, Or That Bodies Were Formed Before Souls; Wherein There is Also a Refutation of the Fables Concerning Transmigration of Souls. In this treatise, Gregory writes:
"If one should search carefully, he will find that their doctrine is of necessity brought down to this. They tell us that one of their sages said that he, being one and the same person, was born a man, and afterward 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 should pass through many changes—are really fitting for the chatter of frogs or jackdaws or the stupidity of fishes or the insensibility of trees."
Gregory’s brother, Basil the Great, is sometimes also implicated as a supporter of reincarnation. But in his collected writings (pages 292-3), Basil reiterates his brother’s sentiments on the subject almost exactly.
Augustine actually did believe in reincarnation—prior to his conversion to Christianity. Originally, Augustine belonged to the Gnostic sect of the Manichaeans, which held reincarnation to be one of its primary teachings. Sometimes, a quote from Augustine’s Confessions is used to encourage the idea that he persisted in the belief after his conversion to Christianity. However, a reading of the context shows that Augustine was here only relating thoughts he had had previously concerning his soul’s preexistence.
Augustine lived in the midst of the Origen controversy and he is known to have spoken out against those aspects of Origen’s thinking which were later made heretical. Augustine was also converted to Christianity by Ambrose of Milan, who is likewise sometimes claimed as a believer in reincarnation. Ambrose was, like Augustine, well acquainted with Neoplatonism, but he rejected the doctrine of reincarnation in no uncertain terms in his work On Belief in the Resurrection:
"It is a cause for wonder that though they (. . .) say that souls pass and migrate into other bodies. (. . .) But let those who have not been taught doubt [the resurrection]. For us who have read the law, the prophets, the apostles, and the gospel, it is not lawful to doubt." (pages 65-6).
"But is their opinion preferable who say that our souls, when they have passed out of these bodies, migrate into the bodies of beasts or of various other living creatures? (. . .) For what is so like a marvel as to believe that men could have been changed into the forms of beasts? How much greater a marvel, however, would it be that the soul which rules man should take on itself the nature of a beast so opposed to that of man, and being capable of reason should be able to pass over to an irrational animal, than that the form of the body should have been changed?" (page 127).
Nemesius of Emasa (Fourth-Fifth Century A.D.)
Nemesius was an early Syrian bishop who was one of the first to come close to the modern discipline of psychology. He probably wrote at the end of the fourth century. According to the Encyclopedia of Reincarnation and Karma, “Nemesius apparently accepted the soul’s existence prior to embodiment, but the attempts that have been made to claim him as a supporter of reincarnation are very questionable.” His one surviving work, On The Nature of Man, is a kind of medical text book mixed with his thoughts on classical philosophy and Christian theology. In the first Chapter, he actually criticizes Plato’s idea that the body is merely instrumental to the soul. He “implies that [the soul] preexists the body but not in the manner of the Platonic myth.” Though his education was obviously indebted to the culture of the ancient Greeks, it’s hard to argue that he therefore automatically believed in reincarnation.
The Church Council held in 553 was the Second Council of Constantinople (also called the Fifth Ecumenical Council). This Council had more to do with defeating the heresy of Nestorianism (along with Monophysitism) than it did with supposedly banning reincarnation from the Church. Whilst it did officially declare the preexistence of souls heretical, this was a lesser concern for the Council. Since the doctrine of reincarnation relies upon the idea that souls preexist, it could technically be argued that reincarnation was indirectly condemned at this Council. However, it wasn’t addressed directly for good reason: reincarnation was never a core Christian belief, and nobody was particularly concerned about it at the time.
Even today, the Catechism of the Catholic Church barely mentions reincarnation (in Part One, Section Two, Chapter Three, Article 11 [#1013], there is a brief paragraph about death, and it concludes by stating that there is no reincarnation after death). For Catholics, it is so obviously not a Christian belief that you can’t even find it in the Catechism’s topical index.
Jerome was a scholarly monk and secretary to Pope Damasus. Some have taken Jerome’s admiration for Origen’s scholarly achievements, and Origen’s great influence on Jerome, to mean that Jerome actually agreed with all of Origen’s thinking. If Jerome was a supporter of the heresy that came to be known as ‘Origenism,’ then surely he must have believed in reincarnation—or so the argument goes.
The problem with this line of reasoning (as we have seen) is that Origen cannot be shown to have actually believed in or taught reincarnation. Another huge problem with this argument is that Jerome, who translated some of Origen’s work from Greek into Latin, and who even helped found a monastery based on Origen’s teachings, was in the later part of his life actually part of the plot to condemn Origen as a heretic. Moreover, Origen was primarily condemned by Jerome for believing in the soul’s preexistence, and not because he believed in the transmigration of souls. (See also the Encyclopedia of Reincarnation and Karma, pages 125-6).
John Chrystostom, sometimes claimed as a believer in reincarnation, was an early Bishop of Constantinople. He made a lot of powerful enemies. He was implicated in the Origen controversy after providing hospitality to some fleeing Egyptian monks who followed Origen’s teachings, but he refused to take holy communion with them, and he was certainly no Origenist himself. That he was opposed to the doctrine of reincarnation is clear from his writings:
“As for doctrines on the soul, there is nothing excessively shameful that they [the disciples of Plato and Pythagoras] have left unsaid, asserting that the souls of men become flies and gnats and bushes and that God himself is a [similar] soul.” (Homilies on the Gospel of St. John, Homily II, part 3).
“At one time he says that the soul is of the substance of God; at another, after having exalted it thus immoderately and impiously, he exceeds again in a different way, and treats it with insult, making it pass into swine and asses and other animals of yet less esteem than these.” (Homilies on the Gospel of St. John, Homily II, part 6).
There is no evidence that the reincarnation doctrine was at any time believed by the majority of Christians. This is simply because it weakens or contradicts too many key Christian concepts. For example, a belief in reincarnation (which entails punishments and rewards over many lifetimes) makes Christ’s sacrificial death (to pay for the sins of humanity), along with the idea of a final judgment for sin at the end of time, redundant. It also arguably weakens compassion for the suffering of others (who, according to the doctrine of reincarnation, are just getting what they deserve) and the motivation to fight social injustice (if people are born into poverty, and end up diseased or disadvantaged, that’s just a manifestation of karma). Regardless of whether or not Christians actually live by the stated principles of their religion, their religion nonetheless teaches them key beliefs and principles which a belief in reincarnation would either disable or detract from.
The Christians who believed in reincarnation were typically members of Gnostic sects. The Gnostics seemed to draw on Neoplatonic ideas (which have their origins in pre-Christian Greek philosophy) and infuse them into the Christian story. Some examples of these kinds of sects were the Valentinians, the Basilidians, the Carpocratians, and, more recently, the Cathars. In modern times, religious syncretists (for example, Theosophists) have tried to blend Christianity with Hindu and Buddhist teachings (including reincarnation), but such attempts are of course drawing upon influences even more obviously external to Christianity. In other words, reincarnation was never original to the Christian tradition of the early Church Fathers, and the doctrine clearly preceded the Christian religion.
Justin Martyr (100-165 A.D.)
Many writing in support of reincarnation as a Christian belief say Justin Martyr believed in and taught the doctrine. This seems to be supported in chapter four of this very early Church Father’s Dialogue With Trypho:
Trypho: “Tell me, however, this: Does the soul see [God] so long as it is in the body, or after it has been removed from it?”
Justin: “So long as it is in the form of a man, it is possible for it,” I continue, “to attain to this by means of the mind; but especially when it has been set free from the body, and being apart by itself, it gets possession of that which it was wont continually and wholly to love.”
Trypho: “Does it remember this, then, when it is again in the man?”
Justin: “It does not appear to me so,” I said.
Trypho: “What, then, is the advantage to those who have seen? or what has he who has seen more than he who has not seen, unless he remembers this fact, that he has seen?”
Justin: “I cannot tell,” I answered.
Trypho: “And what do those suffer who are judged to be unworthy of this spectacle?” said he.
Justin: “They are imprisoned in the bodies of certain wild beasts, and this is their punishment.”
A quick reading of the context, however, shows that Justin was here reassessing the Platonic philosophy he was originally educated in prior to his conversion to Christianity. Trypho ends this section of the dialogue by concluding that souls do not transmigrate as the Greek philosophers claim, because it would be illogical for them to do so. Justin Martyr agrees with him.
Francis of Assisi is sometimes mentioned by people who want to believe the Christianity and reincarnation conspiracy theory. However, whenever St. Francis is mentioned in such a context, a direct source is never given. This is because you can read through all of St. Francis’ writings (he didn’t write too much) and see that there is nothing there to suggest he ever believed in and taught the doctrine of reincarnation.
On the contrary, St. Francis was clearly devoted to the Church of his day despite its many faults. He lived in strict obedience to its laws, even if his style of living and worshipping God was unusual and perhaps eccentric. Although people tend to think of him as a kind but radical sort of hippy, he was completely devout when it came to Catholicism. His monastic rule is one of the strictest ever formulated, and obedience to Christ and His Church (along with chastity and poverty) is one of its three primary demands.
Given his values, it would have been extremely unlikely that St. Francis ever believed in reincarnation. Again, although it’s technically possible that the Church has deliberately suppressed St. Francis’ belief in reincarnation, this remains speculation. The rumor has perhaps come about because of St. Francis’s supposed miraculous ability to charm animals: the love the saint reportedly showed for all living creatures might have been tied at some point to the reincarnationist idea that animals have souls and that they can be reborn as human beings. Pythagoras—the Ancient philosopher who is known to have believed in reincarnation—is said to have interacted with animals in a similar way, as is the Buddha. Francis’ radical poverty may also have been inspired by the example of the Cathar movement (the Cathars did believe in reincarnation), but again, it doesn’t follow that he believed and taught reincarnation himself.
Copyright HTR Williams 2015