Reincarnation Beliefs of the Church fathers...Maybe not

A view has been widely circulated that the early Christians, including Church Fathers, believed in reincarnation. I have read claims to the effect that Origen taught reincarnation, and even that Jerome upheld the doctrine. Often these claims (on the internet) are not sourced at all. Sometimes they are indirectly sourced by reference to various secondary sources. In all too few cases, a specific reference is given to one or more letters of the Church Fathers; but upon examining the primary document more closely, the claim of a pro-reincarnation position appears to have been overstated. Here is an interesting discussion from

 "It is true that Jerome, a leading church father in the early fifth century, argued that Origen held to reincarnation. Writing in a letter to Avitus about 409 or 410, Jerome accused Origen of holding to the "transmigration of souls," including the idea that both angelic and human spirits "may in punishment for great negligence or folly be transformed into brutes," that is, be reincarnated as animals.(Jerome, Letter CXXIV, To Avitus, 4, 15.) However, in this same letter Jerome admits that Origen qualified his statements on the subject:

 'Then, lest he should be held guilty of maintaining with Pythagoras the transmigration of souls, he winds up the wicked reasoning with which he has wounded his reader by saying: "I must not be taken to make dogmas of these things; they are only thrown out as conjectures to show that they are not altogether overlooked.' (Ibid. 4.)

 Since Jerome's criticism of Origen is based on Origen's earlier writings (particularly "On First Principles," written between 212 and 215), and in his later writings Origen explicitly rejected transmigration of souls, and since even Jerome admits that Origen wished to stop short of maintaining that doctrine, we may safely conclude that Origen did not teach reincarnation." [My emphasis.]

The point about Origen stopping short of embracing reincarnation during his early career can be verified here:

The point about the later Origen definitely rejecting reincarnation can be backed up here:

Moreover, the sources provided at the latter can be checked. For example, in Origen's own words:

 "Nay, if we should cure those who have fallen into the folly of believing in the transmigration of souls through the teaching of physicians, who will have it that the rational nature descends sometimes into all kinds of irrational animals, and sometimes into that state of being which is incapable of using the imagination, why should we not improve the souls of our subjects by means of a doctrine which does not teach that a state of insensibility or irrationalism is produced in the wicked instead of punishment, but which shows that the labours and chastisements inflicted upon the wicked by God are a kind of medicines leading to conversion?" [My emphasis.] (Against Celsus, 3.75)

Thus far, then, it does not appear to be true that Origen positively promulgated reincarnation. At best it may be said that early in his life he ENTERTAINED it, yet without accepting it, and then went on to explicitly REJECT it later on.

I find my research into this topic to be somewhat disillusioning. It reminds me of the rumor/claim that Einstein kept a copy of the Secret Doctrine by his bedside. Joe Fulton looked into this matter and could not verify it. Wouldn't it be better for proponents of reincarnation to cite well-grounded evidence instead of hearsay? Unless there is solid, primary source evidence that early Christians, or in particular, Church Fathers, really did believe in reincarnation, wouldn't it be better to avoid spreading the rumor (or "urban myth") that they did?

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Comment by Nicholas Weeks on January 7, 2011 at 2:55pm
From another source, Pt Loma theosophist I think, Millikan at Cal Tech had some of students read the SD for jolting their minds - just like Einstein used it.  "Jack Brown" may be a pseudonymn.
Comment by Kirk W Walker on January 7, 2011 at 2:33pm
Both Erica and Jerry mentioned Origen. Regarding transmigration (a specific version of reincarnation), in his Commentary on Matthew Book I, Origen writes:

"But now according to our ability let us make investigation also into the things that are stored up in it. In this place it does not appear to me that by Elijah the soul is spoken of, lest I should fall into the dogma of transmigration, which is foreign to the church of God, and not handed down by the Apostles, nor anywhere set forth in the Scriptures…"

Immediately after this, he presents A SYSTEMATIC ANTI-TRANSMIGRATION ARGUMENT!

At the same time, as noted by Erica, Origen argued for the preexistence of the soul in order to explain the justice of why different persons are born in different conditions:

"To all which instances, those who maintain that everything in the world is under the administration of Divine Providence (as is also our own belief), can, as it appears to me, give no other answer, so as to show that no shadow of injustice rests upon the divine government, than by holding that there were certain causes of prior existence, in consequence of which the souls, before their birth in the body, contracted a certain amount of guilt in their sensitive nature, or in their movements, on account of which they have been judged worthy by Divine Providence of being placed in this condition. For a soul is always in possession of free-will, as well when it is in the body as when it is without it; and freedom of will is always directed either to good or evil. Nor can any rational and sentient being, i.e., a mind or soul, exist without some movement either good or bad. And it is probable that these movements furnish grounds for merit even before they do anything in this world; so that on account of these merits or grounds they are, immediately on their birth, and even before it, so to speak, assorted by Divine Providence for the endurance either of good or evil."

Preexistence, though, seems to refer to a discarnate state in the company of God and does not necessarily imply that souls move from one corporeal body to another. It is hard to understand his views, but Origen seems to have posited a series of falls, or quasi-reincarnations, in which the soul takes on successive subtle bodies. (If someone knows more about this, please offer some illumination.) These successive falls MAY PERHAPS BE TERMED REINCARNATION, but it is not reincarnation as commonly discussed in the present day. (But, hey, maybe its good enough.)

Aside from transmigration, which permits reincarnation into animal forms, there is the idea of metempsychosis, which, if I'm not mistaken, restricts reincarnation to human forms (and would be identical to some current reincarnation beliefs). However, it is difficult to find proof that Origen accepted metempsychosis.

As I said in an earlier posting, it is frustrating that the juiciest Origen references lack precise reference locations. Even worse, the most decisively pro-reincarnation Origen QUOTATIONS that I have found LACK REFERENCES ALTOGETHER.

In spite of the foregoing, I am willing to allow for the possibility, which many have alleged, that Origen's corpus as we have it has been extensively redacted and censored. It's even conceivable that some of his anti-reincarnation statements are later interpolations. (Perhaps Jerry was hinting at this.)— I don't know if this is provable.—Nevertheless, I still would like to see any VERIFIABLE extant Origen quotes that definitively support reincarnation (of the kind we usually think about). Without them, the claim that Origen taught reincarnation in the way that most people nowadays conceive of it is at most a suspicion.
Comment by Kirk W Walker on January 7, 2011 at 12:35pm
Nicholas, I have to refer you to Joe Fulton's research which appeared in last year:
Comment by Nicholas Weeks on January 6, 2011 at 11:10pm


Einstein did keep a copy of the SD on his desk, as this article says:

Comment by Jerry Hejka-Ekins on January 6, 2011 at 8:28pm

Kirk, thank you for your thoughtful reply. I think we are pretty much on the same page about broadening the question to include the ancient Gnostic sects as Christian. After all, the mainstream Christians who now make the definitions, descend from the line of Christianity which was under the protection of the Roman Emperors. They achieved their privileged position by  having the power to exclude, persecute and sometimes exterminate those who thought differently. Perhaps Elaine Pagels is right when she concludes that the Romanized Christianity ultimately prevailed because it was in a position to out organize the others. To say that the Gnostics were never Christians would be (I think) comparable to saying that Galileo never established the Sun as the center of our system, because he had renounced those discoveries after being shown the instruments of torture.  


Origin of Alexandria (185-254) was mentioned earlier in this discussion as one whose early writings indicated a belief in transmigration. He might work as an example of what we lost in the process of uniting Church doctrine under Roman tradition. Following Clement, he became the head of the Catechetical School in Alexandria. For years I have been seeking, with no avail, a comprehensive record of what this school taught, but with little success. I've come to accept that what I had hoped to find was long ago lost, thanks to over three centuries of the Church's purging of not only Pagan records, but also of their own earliest history. However, it is clear to me that Origin followed the pagan Hellenistic custom of allegorical interpretation. Some religion scholars still argue against or try to ignore the idea of an allegorical school, or argue that it was of no importance. However, more recently, Peter Struck's Birth of a Symbol, using newly recovered classical documents from Egyptian trash heaps, has done a lot to show that the influence of the allegorical approach was indeed a major stream in Greek thinking, and consequently in Alexandria too. Accordingly, Origin's knowledge of Greek classical Philosophy and his inclination to allegorical interpretation, is, to me, an indication that this school was the source of a for more universal and sophisticated kind of Christianity than the one we ultimately inherited. If it were not for Christianity's adaptation to Roman provincial thought and literalism, today's Christianity may still have had a belief in some form of reincarnation, a Christ as a spiritual principle, and might have looked more like a Greek mystery school (not to be confused with the debauched Roman versions of the same).  


At this point, my interest has moved towards a wish to reconstruct the evolution of Christianity from the first century to the beginning of the fifth.  We already know in general terms that Greek-Roman  Stoicism was absorbed into Christianity by the fourth century.  I have reason to suspect that elements of the Greek Mysteries also found their way into Christian during its earliest days of development. I offer as a enticing hint, the mosaic of Jesus-Apollo found in the ruins of the first Constantine Church, now beneath St. Peter's in the Vatican.  But this is an exploration into a history that no longer has a paper trail.  

Comment by Nicholas Weeks on December 31, 2010 at 5:50pm

Joe, "The Buddhists, as far as I am aware of did not have a school which taught a many-worlds theory."

Not so, Buddha taught countless realms or worlds or planes.

Comment by Kirk W Walker on December 28, 2010 at 7:59am
Thanks, Jerry. Maybe this is a way to look at the controversy. Contemporary so-called mainstream, theologically conservative, Trinitarian Christians (i.e., the vast majority of self-described Christians) say, "Bah, humbug; the Church (us) has never held to reincarnation." As long as thus one limits oneself to this narrowly circumscribed tradition, they appear to be correct. However, if we expand the question as you suggest and ask whether in the milieu of self-described Christians at some early stage of Christian history there were Christians who accepted some version of reincarnation, then, again as you say, the answer appears to be, yes.

What causes confusion on one side of this issue is that the mainstream Christians apparently adopt the view that the heretics are not REAL Christians, so they feel they are justified in saying that Christians A SIMPLICITER have historically never accepted reincarnation. A relevant consideration here is that the process of defining what orthodoxy consists in, and what views are to be considered heretical, is constitutive of what is now known as mainstream Christianity. However, it seems narrow minded of them to insist that THEY ALONE are the Christians. Arguably, any self-described Christian and (so that it is not entirely a linguistic designation) who regards Christ as very important in their worldview--regardless of how they conceive of Christ, and regardless of what sorts of "heretical" beliefs they have--should be permitted the appellation, "Christian." Mainstream Christianity by virtue of numbers and influence might reasonably be ceded the privilege of defining what Christian ORTHODOXY is, but not what Christianity ITSELF is.

Confusion is caused on the other side as well when it is claimed that the Church used to accept, or at least tolerate, reincarnation. When this allegation is made it lumps together historic, theologically orthodox Christianity with various factions which, by virtue of orthodox Christianity's self-definition, could never be part of itself. It would be more accurate to say something like: "In the past, as well as the present, there are self-described Christians who accept reincarnation. Such a view is, of course, not part of present-day Christian orthodoxy. Moreover, it has never been part of Christian orthodoxy ever since such an orthodoxy defined itself."
Comment by Martin Euser on December 28, 2010 at 7:54am
Comment by Martin Euser on December 28, 2010 at 7:46am

@Jerry: found this at Wikipedia (

Some early Christian Gnostic sects professed reincarnation. The Sethians and followers of Valentinus believed in it.[40] The followers of Bardaisan of Mesopotamia, a sect of the 2nd century deemed heretical by the Catholic Church, drew upon Chaldean astrology, to which Bardaisan's son Harmonius, educated in Athens, added Greek ideas including a sort of metempsychosis. Another such teacher was Basilides (132–? CE/AD), known to us through the criticisms of Irenaeus and the work of Clement of Alexandria. (see also Neoplatonism and Gnosticism and Buddhism and Gnosticism)


There are more webpages to research. Will have a short look at them.

Comment by Jerry Hejka-Ekins on December 27, 2010 at 11:17pm
About a century ago, G.R.S. Mead explored the same question, found nothing, and held out the same challenge--where is the evidence that reincarnation was taught in the early church?  He receive no clear and satisfactory answers from his readers and came to much the same conclusion as you have. However, given our vastly broadened understanding concerning the beginnings and development of primitive Christianity, I  would broaden the question to: Was reincarnation held as a belief by any pre-Nicaean Christian groups, whose writings were not preserved in the canonized collection of writings of the pre-Nicene fathers?  Basically I'm asking whether any of those early Christian groups  who were later labeled "heretical" and called "Gnostics"  held to a belief in reincarnation (from human to human) or transmigration (from human to bruit etc.).  Since most of the Gnostic texts we now have only became available in translation over the last forty years, Mead was not in a very good position to explore this aspect of the question.  With the Nag Hammadi texts available and the prospect of more to come, we are now in a position to re-open this question.  One further comment: I did note upon reading through Vermes translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls, that the Essene community did believe in reincarnation. Though the Essene community was Jewish, Eusebius (wrongly) believed them to be the first Christians. This little fact is quite suggestive to me--especially since the story of Jesus' conversation with the Pharisee make it clear that this Biblical version of Jesus was indeed familiar with the concept--though he did not divert from his point about baptism in order to address or explore this question.  One further thought: HPB was quite clear that the Syrian Christian tradition and texts preserve an older form of Christianity. She is not saying the Syrian texts are necessarily older, but that the tradition they carried into the present is older.  Another hint, perhaps?

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