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 Michael A. Williams on December 27, 2010 at 10:16pm
Agreed, Martin, and it looks like we're on the same page with this. I did use some hyperbole to make a point. No sense in belaboring it.
Comment by Martin Euser on December 27, 2010 at 7:41pm

@Michael: qualities can never be put into words very well, since experience itself is not on the verbal level.

Many of today's philosophers have messed up big time, agreed.

Yet, even theosophy and theosophers  have to get their act together, communicate well and cannot leave concepts vaguely defined. That only contributes to confusion.

Comment by Nicholas Weeks on December 27, 2010 at 5:59pm


Rebirth was not only taught by Buddha, but he confirmed the truth of it during his Bodhi Tree experience when he became a full Buddha.  He saw his countless past lives in detail as well as those of other beings and the karmic results they (and he) dealt with.

There are not now and never were any Buddhists who denied the truth of rebirths for many lifetimes.  Of course some modern Western converts have felt the need to innovate and ignore or deny rebirth - but they have tossed aside a critical element of Buddha's path - so are following a personal path - but not Buddha's. 

Comment by Kirk W Walker on December 27, 2010 at 5:14pm
I'm not knowledgeable about Buddhism. The Britannica says "Buddhism takes as its goal the escape from suffering and from the cycle of rebirth." I'm assuming that rebirth = reincarnation. Are there schools of Buddhism that deny samsara?
Comment by Kirk W Walker on December 27, 2010 at 3:08pm
I agree that we won't be able to decisively settle here the question of the reality or unreality of reincarnation. But I have a question about Buddhism. I had always thought that Buddhists believed in reincarnation (in some sense). Are there Buddhists who don't accept it? if so, what distinguishes their viewpoint from an ordinary materialistic conception. Mind you, I'm specifically referring to what anti-reincarnation Buddhism (if such exists) has to say about non-enlightened persons.
Comment by Michael A. Williams on December 27, 2010 at 1:56pm

Reincarnation is certainly a contentious issue, even in the metaphysical/spiritual arena. It's not going to be settled here, nor any place else, any time soon. There's plenty of info out there for people to do their own investigation, meditation and reflection on it and come to terms with it in their own way.


It was pointed out that it's important to watch out for "wishful" thinking on this matter. That's true, and it cuts several ways. Subconscious feelings and motives can ascribed to any viewpoint. There are those that abhor any notion of reincarnation and hope to slip into a "black nothingness." the "void," the "quantum field" after death. Others have hopes of doing into other dimensions and parallel worlds of various sorts. Still others claim "not to know," but they have a subconscious, as everyone does. It's a slippery slop when pointing out possible subconscious motives in others.


Defining terms is important for communication, but it seems that modern philosophy has run itself into a cul-de-sac with an emphasis on linguistics and deconstruction. And this seems to have infected Metaphysics to a great degree. Carried to its extreme, we end up with a paralyzing skeptical nihilism, unable to even get out of bed in the morning. Hyper-analyzing and deconstructing every detail, one finds "to get" implies motion, and what is motion? There may be no motion, thus moving is an illusion. And "who" is initiating to try to move? Is the "monad"? The "soul"? The "mind"? And how to we define each of these "entities"? And what is an "entity"? So, if a person actually lived out their extreme deconstructive skepticism moment to moment, they'd be non functional on every level.


Einstein himself said that reading modern philosophy was like trying to chew and swallow cardboard.  I liken it, and much of metaphysics, to having a great meal in front of one's self, having on a piece of paper the chemical formulas for all the ingredients on the plate, and then chewing and swallowing the paper. Thus, never getting the enjoyment and direct experience of the meal(life) itself.


A "blind faith" that hyper-intellectual analysis will lead to a grand "gnosis" may be ill founded also. A balanced approach is needed, in my view, involving not only intellect, but intuition and higher faculties. The definitions of "soul," "immortality," "eternity" and so forth, will never be completely agreed upon intellectually, but that does not imply they don't exist, nor that we can't directly experience them.



Comment by Martin Euser on December 27, 2010 at 5:58am

"An eternal entity has no cause, therefore its existence is unintelligible"

These are all diffuse notions. What is an entity? What is existence? And perhaps the worst of all: what is eternal? For the Greeks, afaik, "eternal" pertains to a cycle of manifestation. Related to the Aeon or Aion (which is a Being or a God). The Christians made eternal to mean "infinite duration", thus twisting old notions into a lot of nonsense. "Eternal burning in Hell". Yeah, right, maybe for the Christians, not for the pagans.

As to reincarnation, this is bound to produce different interpretations. What reincarnates? Monad/soul/mind? Which monad or soul or mind. And how does it work? There are of course theosophical theories/teachings about this, but these would need a better definition of terms.

And then..we have also metempsychosis, palingenesis, and what have you all. Not that simple, with terms and concepts often poorly defined.

The concept of time is a mess too. What exactly does it mean? Is it a flow or flux of particles? Event related? Interaction related? There are several theories about that too..

More than enough to keep many philosophers busy for a lifetime (or more).


Comment by Michael A. Williams on December 26, 2010 at 10:28pm

Thanks, Kirk, for posing this question, as I've heard and read this assertion over the years and wondered how true it was. And thanks, Erica, for showing that it is true that certain sects of early Christianity did believe in some form of reincarnation. How they came about this belief would be very pertinent to know.


Thanks, Paul, for pointing out that HPB herself had an explanation for reincarnation, and it differed from Emma Harding Britten's. Perhaps you could inform us, in another forum, what the difference is exactly. And, you're right, there are a number of views on the subject in the Hermetic tradition in the past and present.


Joe, I find the statement by the Buddha helpful, but problematic also. For instance, there can be a lively debate that will never end over what constitutes 'specious reasoning." Also, it would seem that the very statement itself has to be thrown out because it's from "a monk's(Buddha) contemplation" and would now be considered to be part of the "Buddhist tradition" and "scriptures." Sort of a "double bind" there, wouldn't you agree.


This may be a little off subject, but since you opened the door, Joe, I'll walk through it. You've stated that you're a Buddhist, as well as a Theosopher, but of what school? Certainly not Tibetan Buddhism, for they a whole linage based on the reincarnation of the Dali Lama, as one example. So, they honor reincarnation, but as a reincarnation of "tendencies," not a "personality," as I understand it. How would you reconcile this with your "anti-reincarnation" views? Does your Buddhist School disagree with the Tibetan School?


You're right, Joe, about the relevancy of the "many worlds" or "parallel universes" theory(gaining more acceptance), for it would account for why some people's memories of past lives can't be verified by historic evidence, while others can. They took place in a parallel universe. It could be that the some of the early Christians were mystics, and not just scholars, and had a direct experience of this.

Comment by Kirk W Walker on December 26, 2010 at 8:39pm
Thanks for the replies. Yes, Erica, you are right that certain Gnostics accepted reincarnation. The problem is that "on the internet" there is a wide mixture of both true and false claims. It can be confusing as well as misleading.

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