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A letter to L, in response to several claims L made to me during a telephone conversation…
Reincarnation and Catholicism
"Has reincarnation ever been endorsed in the doctrine of the Catholic Church?"
Origen(Origenes Adamantius, c. 185-254)
Origen, in around 203 A.D., succeeded Clement of Alexandria as headmaster of the prestigious Catechetical School of Alexandria. A prolific writer and Christian apologist, Origen was strongly influenced by his study of pagan philosophy, having attended lectures by the philosopher Ammonius Saccas, founder of the school of Neoplatonism. Adopting a severe asceticism, he castrated himself in an extreme interpretation of Matthew 19:12.(1)
Around 212, while traveling in Palestine, Origen accepted an invitation to preach in several local churches: despite the fact that he was a layman.(2) This met with the disapproval of his own bishop, who ordered him to return to Alexandria. In 230, while again traveling in Palestine, he was ordained a priest by his friend Alexander, Bishop of Jerusalem —again, without the authorization of Origen's own bishop. When Bishop St. Demetrius of Alexandria learned of Origen's ordination, he vehemently disapproved and held two synods resulting in actions against Origen: he was removed from his position as president of the Catechetical School; he was exiled from Alexandria; he was degraded from the priesthood because his ordination had been irregular.(3) Finding refuge in Palestine, he opened another school whose fame eventually surpassed even that of the Catechetical School of Alexandria. Here he strengthened his reputation through his voluminous writings and instruction.
Renowned as an eminent Christian intellectual, in 250 he was imprisoned and tortured during the fierce persecution waged against the Christians by Emperor Decius. Refusing to renounce his faith in Christ he was finally released in 251, after the death of Decius. His health ruined, he died at Tyre in 254.
There is clear evidence Origen was at odds with legitimate Church authority, with the result that he was deposed from his powerful teaching position and banished from his city of residence. The earliest signs of disapproval by his bishop, St. Demetrius of Alexandria, suggest that Origen's teachings, while influential, caused controversy even with his closest superior in the episcopacy.
Platonism and Christianity
Plato's last writing, Laws, states:
"May I do to others as I would that they should do to me."(4)
In harmony with this ideal is the commandment of Jesus Christ:
"So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets." Matthew 7:12 RSV
Clearly there are elements of Platonic thought that are consistent with Christianity. It is important to note that an overlap of certain ideas among philosophies in no way suggests that the two systems will agree on all points of doctrine. Christianity directly conflicts with various teachings of Plato, and to this extent the two systems are irreconcilable.
Origen, a student of pre-Christian philosophy and influenced by the expert Neoplatonist, Ammonius Saccas, not surprisingly availed himself of various Neoplatonic theories in the development of his Christian theology. Drawing ideas from a system ultimately inconsistent with the teachings of Christ, and widely considered peerless among Christian intellectuals of his time, there existed a real danger that Origen would sooner or later introduce erroneous pagan concepts into his important but unproven Christian theology. Certainly he had no guarantee such errors would not occur. Neither should we expect that even if such errors had caused immediate controversy that the issues raised could be decided immediately and authoritatively.
"Pre-existentianism, which was proposed by Plato, and which in the early Christian era was accepted by Origen and individual members of his disciples (Didymus of Alexandria, Evagrius Ponticus, Nemesius of Emesa), as well as by the Priscillianists, teaches that souls exist even before their connection with the bodies—according to Plato and Origen, from all eternity—and are exiled in bodies, as a punishment for moral defect. This doctrine was rejected by a Synod at Constantinople (543) against the Origenists, and by a Synod at Braga (561) against the Priscillianists... The Fathers, with very few exceptions, are opponents of the doctrine of pre-existence upheld by Origen."(5)
The concept of reincarnation had a place in Platonic philosophy. In Laws, Plato asserts:
"And seeing that a soul, in its successive conjunction first with one body and then with another, runs the whole gamut of change through its own action or that of some other soul, no labor is left for the mover of the pieces but this—to shift the character that is becoming better to a better place, and that which is growing worse to a worser, each according to its due, that each may meet with its proper doom."(6)
"Origen was accused by St. Jerome and others of certain heretical tendencies. Others defended him, however, and the majority of the Eastern bishops considered him a defender of the faith. His name nevertheless became attached to a doctrinal system, Origenism, incorporating various unorthodox elements of his teaching. Widely read in the years after his death, Origen attracted many adherents who propagated some of his more extreme theories, ultimately causing the Origenist controversy of the fourth century. The chief enemy of Origenism was St. Jerome, who helped secure the condemnation of Origen's radical teachings by Pope Anastasius I in 400."(7)
A subsequent condemnation was made at the Fifth General Council in 553 (Constantinople II, Pope Vigilius), in reference to certain writings in which Origen supported heretical doctrines such as the pre-existence of souls and the final salvation of all men.(8)
Man is not a soul which experiences a cycle of "embodiments", or natural births and deaths. He lives once, dies once, and then his eternal destiny is determined by God's judgement:
Just as it is appointed that men die once, and after death be judged, so Christ was offered up once to take away the sins of many... Hebrews 9:27 NAB
Plato and the School of Origen taught that "the body is a burden and hindrance to the soul, its prison and grave."(9) In opposition to this, the Fourth Lateran Council and the Vatican Council formally defined that man consists of two essential parts —a material body and a spiritual soul.(10)
The Origenists "explained humanity's inclination to evil by a pre-corporeal fall through sin." This teaching contradicts the apostolic doctrine of Original Sin.(11)
Origenism holds that "Christ's human soul pre-existed, and already before the Incarnation was united with the Divine Logos." This teaching contradicts Divine Revelation and the apostolic doctrine that "The Hypostatic Union of Christ's human nature with the Divine Logos took place at the moment of conception."(12)
Origen denied the eternity of hell's punishments. This belief was based on the Platonic opinion that all punishment has as its purpose the improvement of the delinquent. Origen's position contradicts the teaching of Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church that "The punishment of Hell lasts for all eternity."(13)
There are many Scriptural evidences that prove the eternal nature of hell's punishments. Here are just a few:
"If your hand or your foot is your undoing, cut it off and throw it from you! Better to enter life maimed or crippled than be thrown with two hands or two feet into endless fire." Matthew 18:8 NAB
"Then he will say to those on his left: 'Out of my sight, you condemned, into that everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels!'... These will go off to eternal punishment and the just to eternal life." Matthew 25:41,46 NAB
"If your eye is your downfall, tear it out! Better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to be thrown with both eyes into Gehenna, where 'the worm dies not and the fire is never extinguished.'" Mark 9:47-48 NAB
Such as these will suffer the penalty of eternal ruin apart from the presence of the Lord and the glory of his might..." 2 Thessalonians 1:9 NAB
A third angel followed the others and said in a loud voice: 'If anyone worships the beast or its image, or accepts its mark on his forehead or hand, he too will drink the wine of God's wrath, poured full strength in the cup of his anger. He will be tormented in burning sulphur before the holy angels and before the Lamb, and the smoke of their torment shall rise forever and ever. There shall be no relief day or night for those who worship the beast or its image or accept the mark of its name.' Revelation 14:9-11 NAB
"The material identity of the body after the resurrection with the body which was on earth was disputed by Origen... The Fathers of the time of Origen teach unanimously that 'This flesh will rise again and be judged' and that 'we shall receive our reward in this flesh.'"(14)
Despite the historical and theological value of many of Origen's writings, the Catholic Church has officially condemned a number of his teachings as incompatible with the authentic faith that Christ entrusted to the ministry of the Apostles and their successors. In particular, his doctrine of reincarnation, which can be traced to his strong Neoplatonic sympathies, is absolutely incompatible with the revelation of the Old Testament, the message of Christ as recorded in the New Testament, and the full Gospel message as preserved by the Apostles and their successors.
Therefore, reincarnation is not a doctrine supported in any book of the Bible or in the official decisions of any Pope or General Council of the Catholic Church. In fact, there are numerous ancient theologians of renown equal to or greater than that of Origen who clearly and unequivocally refuted various errors of the Origenist theology: e.g. St. Jerome(15), St. Augustine of Hippo, St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Justin Martyr, and others(16).
The few prominent Christians who have embraced certain of these errors—most notably, Origen, but also St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Dydimus of Alexandria— were officially and repeatedly declared to have held heretical views on these issues. The seriousness of such dissent from true Christian doctrine is seen in the severity with which Origen's errors were disproved and condemned in subsequent centuries.
The fact that a few early, prominent, Catholics —even canonized saints— are known to have believed in reincarnation is not evidence that the Catholic Church officially taught the belief and that later the 'doctrine was changed'! Rather, the official denunciation of these heretical positions is evidence that the beliefs were decisively found to be completely alien to the authentic Christian faith.
Reincarnation clearly is an impossibility even if one considers only the teachings of Jesus Christ recorded in the New Testament: His teachings on the Resurrection of the body, death, heaven, hell, and other topics devastate any attempt to defend reincarnation. In the earliest years of the Church's existence such a doctrine was indefensible even if evidence was restricted to the accepted canon of Scripture. As years passed and the teachings and implications Christianity were better understood and more fully expressed, the developing body of theology provided a richer resource for evaluating the trustworthiness of theological theories. At the time of Origen and in the centuries afterward there was abundant evidence that reincarnation had no place in Divine Revelation.
In summary, the Catholic Church has never officially embraced a doctrine of reincarnation, but vigorously opposed and condemned the error soon after it began to disturb the Church.
Here I have presented some historical information and analysis based on information I was able to find at home in a limited time. I'm sure my skills as a historian are very amateurish and not without fault. I'm also confident that there is far more detailed historical evidence readily available from good encyclopedias and other sources. I would expect that after looking at my footnotes you may reasonably observe that one would naturally expect sources of a clearly Catholic nature to defend the Catholic position.
Okay, fair enough. But this doesn't invalidate my argument. Events in history either happened or they didn't. If I am relying on fictional events fabricated by faulty sources, or real events presented in a distorted manner, please produce some evidence to make your point. Wild assertions or "theological spitballs" will be completely useless to us, and so if you catch me making them, I'm sure you'll flag me. Likewise, I won't hesitate to call a spitball a spitball, and with me undocumented assertions or irrelevant flailings don't hold any water. I'll be so bold as to boast that the authentic Christian faith can stand up to the most meticulous examination.
Supernatural faith, as you wisely pointed out, can not be confined within the limits of logic. On the other hand, Christianity involves real historical events, and its historical dimension and its theological consequences can be evaluated with evidence and reason. The Gospel of Jesus Christ has concrete consequences: some things are definitely true and some definitely are not. It is some of these things that we can test with natural reason and the evidence of Divine Revelation.
I'm not afraid of any persuasive evidence you can produce to deflate my arguments. I want to improve my understanding, and if I'm wrong about important things, I would be humbled but sincerely grateful for any correction that stands up to a fair scrutiny and brings me closer to the truth.
L, you made a few assertions to which I felt I had to respond:
•' The early Church Fathers endorsed the doctrine of reincarnation.'
• 'The Catholic Church taught reincarnation as authentic doctrine for several centuries.'
• 'The Church later reversed its position on reincarnation, and in so doing demonstrated its fallibility.'
I believe I have provided evidence and a reasonable case that refute your assertions.
The ball is in your court and the heavenly host are holding their breath!
27 August 1995
(2)Encyclopedia of Catholic History. p. 605.
(3)Fr. John Laux, Church History. p. 69. TAN Books and Publishers, Rockford, IL. 1989.
(4)E. Hamilton and H. Cairns, ed., The Collected Dialogues of Plato. p. 1225. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ. 1973.
(5)Dr. Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma. p. 99.
(6)E. Hamilton and H. Cairns, ed., The Collected Dialogues of Plato. p. 1459. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ. 1973.
(7)Encyclopedia of Catholic History. p. 605.
(8)Church History. p. 69.
(9)Dr. Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma. p. 96. TAN Books and Publishers, Rockford, IL. 1974.
(10)Dr. Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma. p. 96.
(11)Dr. Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma. p. 107.
(12)Dr. Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma. p. 150.
(13)Dr. Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma. p. 481.
(14)Dr. Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma. p. 490.
(15)Encyclopedia of Catholic History. p. 606.
(16)Dr. Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma. p. 482.