The Argument over Reincarnation in Early Christianity

Abstract

It is believed that in 553 A.D. during the Second Council of Constantinople the idea of reincarnation was found to have no place in the Christian Church. Although reincarnation was not officially rejected at this council, those early Church Fathers who were accused of teaching the idea of reincarnation had their works banned. 553 A.D. did mark the end of the debate on reincarnation within the Christian community. Observing the fact that reincarnation is not a doctrine typically taught within Christianity today one might assume that this council was called to settle an argument about reincarnation and its supplemental ideas between Christians and non-Christians. This was not the case. Although the idea of reincarnation was rejected by the Christian Church as a doctrine because it was believed to contradict the doctrine of corporeal resurrection and undermine the need for Christ's redemptive sacrifices, it was a belief held by many early Christian theologians such as Valentinus and Basilides of Alexandria. However, many Christian theologians in the first several centuries of Christianity, such as Saint Justin Martyr, did not believe in, or teach about reincarnation. There were also those early Church Fathers, like Origen of Alexandria, who were conflicted by the idea, and this internal conflict has been observed throughout their writings. To better understand how some of the early Church Fathers could teach reincarnation and still consider themselves Christian, it is imperative to understand where their belief in reincarnation came from.             Many of the early Christian theologians who believed in the idea of reincarnation were taught their religious beliefs at, or near Alexandria, Egypt; these are theologians including Basilides, Valentinus and Origen. Christian and non-Christians alike that were living in or near Alexandria were still greatly influenced by the ideas of Plato. Plato is well-known for his writings in science and philosophy. Plato also saw himself as a spiritual man and had many ideas on religion and theology.[1] First and foremost, Plato believed in reincarnation. He taught that human souls had previously existed in a perfect world and there enjoyed the presence of God. Somehow these souls committed some sin and fell from God's presence and were placed into physical bodies on Earth as a punishment. The purpose of life is to correct the soul's initial mistake and to return to God. This could only be done through the attainment of knowledge, and since God is omnipotent Plato believed it ridiculous to assume that one's soul could gain enough knowledge to return to God in one lifetime.[2] Based upon Plato's belief that the human body was a prison of punishment and that souls were on earth to gain a level of knowledge that would take more than one lifetime to learn, we can see why he believed in reincarnation. Plato's writings are dated between 430-347 B.C., well before Christ's ministry, so Plato had no known opinions on the mission or reality of Jesus Christ. Theologians who lived after Plato and studied from his teachings would run into conflict as they tried to align their newly acquired Christian beliefs with the Platonic ideas that they had already come to accept. These men would eventually be referred to today as Christian Platonists. [1] Head, Joseph and Cranston, S.L., Reincarnation in World Thought: A Living Study of Reincarnation in All Ages; Including Selections from the World's Religions, Philosophies and Science, and Great Thinkers of the Past and Present. (New York: Julian Press, 1967) 195-198. [2] Cranston and Head, World Thought, 198-201.
Published
2011-12-27
How to Cite
. The Argument over Reincarnation in Early Christianity. Utah Historical Review, [S.l.], v. 1, dec. 2011. ISSN 2374-1570. Available at: <http://epubs.utah.edu/index.php/historia/article/view/578>. Date accessed: 27 may 2019.