Monday, August 01, 2005

Reincarnation and the Church Fathers

In a recent thread on the NTRM boards, a poster asked about an alleged reference to reincarnation in the church father Gregory of Nyssa (erroneously identified by the poster as a "Roman Catholic Bishop"). I've seen the claim of patristic support for reincarnation from other sources as well, so I thought I'd address the issue here for those who would find it helpful.

Some of the fathers did hold unusual views of the history and future of the soul, such as the concept of the pre-existence of the soul and universalism. But the concept of reincarnation was contradicted and argued against early and often among the church fathers. As The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997) comments, "Belief in metempsychosis is fundamentally at variance with the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body." (p. 1077) If the church fathers or any other group believed in reincarnation, we would expect that belief to be reflected in many places and in many ways. It's the sort of belief that has a lot of ramifications in a lot of areas of life. Thus, if a person or group believed in reincarnation, it probably would leave many traces in a lot of contexts in their writings. Instead of seeing reincarnation reflected in the fathers, we see the concept repeatedly contradicted in a variety of ways.

Irenaeus (Against Heresies, 5:5:1, 5:31:2) and Hippolytus (Against Plato, on the Cause of the Universe, 1-2), for example, refer to all deceased believers being in a heavenly region of Hades, which is inconsistent with reincarnation (and contradicts Purgatory). Similarly, we find one father after another referring to unbelievers being in a place of punishment, criticizing groups that taught reincarnation or something similar to it, etc. The patristic scholar John McGuckin comments that "No significant Christian thinker ever adopted a theory remotely like reincarnation" (The Westminster Handbook to Patristic Theology [Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004], p. 290). McGuckin explains that the "no significant Christian thinker" includes Origen, despite attempts by Epiphanius, Jerome, and Augustine to attribute such beliefs to him. Origen refers to "the mythical doctrine of transmigration, according to which the soul falls down from the summit of heaven, and enters into the body of brute beasts" (Against Celsus, 1:20). And elsewhere he refers to the concept as "folly" and a "fable" (Against Celsus, 3:75, 5:49) and a "false dogma" (Commentary on Matthew, 10:20). He comments about "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" (Commentary on Matthew, 13:1). Gregory of Nyssa, the father quoted without citation in the post linked above, also repeatedly contradicted the concept of reincarnation. He referred to the concept of the pre-existence of the soul as a theory with "absurdities", one that will "overstep the bounds of truth", resulting in an "incoherent fable" (On the Making of Man, 28:2, 28:5).

Even if a father such as Origen or Gregory of Nyssa had advocated reincarnation, the authors of the Bible (Romans 9:11, Hebrews 9:27, etc.) and the large majority of the church fathers contradicted it. Some of the earliest fathers (Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, etc.) wrote directly against it, explicitly and repeatedly, in multiple contexts. Even when a Biblical author or church father isn't directly addressing the concept of reincarnation, he'll often make comments that are relevant to the subject. For example, the Biblical authors and some of the earliest church fathers (Clement of Rome, Polycarp, etc.) repeatedly refer to deceased Christians being in Heaven, not living another life by means of reincarnation. Naming one or two church fathers who supported reincarnation wouldn't do much to further its credibility when the evidence against it is so significant.