Christianity, the Soul and Reincarnation
This is the third in a series of replies to David Knott’s response to my article on the Big Bang. (There is no need to have read any of this to understand what follows, but for part 1, on the relevance of the Big Bang debate to Christianity, click here, and part 2, Reflections on Genesis chapter 1, click here.)
My interest, here and in the following article, is to discuss Knott’s statements about the soul and the creation of humans. He says: “The Biblical account of man’s creation implies the physical came first, then the spiritual”. As evidence he cites Genesis 2.7: “Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being”, then says: “The Hebrew word for ‘being’ here can also mean soul. I do not see here, or anywhere else in the Bible the notion of souls existing before their physical bodies”.
The doctrine that Knott is trying to deny here is that of pre-existence, and by implication reincarnation. My immediate response is that, if there is no evidence for pre-existence or reincarnation in the Bible, that would be a sad reflection on it for being so lacking. However, is what Knott says actually true? He is subscribing to the modern official Christian doctrine that the soul is born with the body. But how credible is this?
In what follows I will argue that early Christians believed in pre-existence and reincarnation, that there is evidence for this in the Bible, and that these ideas were declared a heresy as late as 553 CE. This was not done by the Church, rather by the Emperor Justinian while Pope Vigilius was in jail for protesting against a previous edict of Justinian, which suggests that the Pope was strongly opposed to the theology and beliefs of the Emperor.
Should we trust a Roman Emperor on questions of theology? It is his beliefs, however, that have been adopted by modern Christians, including David Knott. Some Christians even believe that reincarnation has never been part of their faith. What I think Knott is doing is trying to interpret the Bible in order to make it fit with this later theology. (I’ve discussed all this in much greater detail in previous articles, so here I’ll just summarise. For reincarnation in Christianity click here, and the events in 553 CE click here.)
When assessing the validity of any spiritual tradition or doctrine, an obvious question is, which sources should we trust if we want to arrive at the best understanding? It seems obvious to me that the most authoritative are going to be the earliest sources, the ones closest to the original inspiration. In the case of Christianity we find that several prominent early Church Fathers did believe in pre-existence and reincarnation, in line with just about every other spiritual tradition: Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Justin Martyr, Saint Gregory of Nyssa, Saint Jerome, Arnobius, Rufinus. (For details see the first earlier article.)
I would respond to David Knott’s claim that there is no evidence for pre-existence (and therefore reincarnation) in the Bible, that it depends how carefully you read it. Perhaps the clearest reference to reincarnation is Jesus’s identification of John the Baptist with the prophet Elijah (Matthew 11:14), and the crowd mistakenly believing that Jesus was (a reincarnation of?) Elijah (Mark 6:15). This is in the context of an Old Testament prophecy of the return of Elijah (Malachi 4:5), which could reasonably be interpreted to mean reincarnation. See also Matthew 16: 13–14: “(Jesus) asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets’ ” . It would seem that the Jews of the time believed in reincarnation.
Here is another interesting passage: “As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ ” (John 9.1). The disciples seem to be asking Jesus to choose between a worldview of reincarnation and karma, and the Old Testament teaching that the sins of the fathers would continue to the children of the third and fourth generations. They therefore clearly believe in the possibility that people pre-exist their birth, that it is possible to sin in some prenatal state, most obviously in a previous incarnation. (It should be noted, however, that Jesus’s reply says nothing which confirms this belief.)
Also interesting is a quotation from the book of Revelation: “Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out” (3: 12). If he shall go no more out, he has obviously been out before. This would seem to be a reference to the Buddhist doctrine of the Liberation from the Cycle of Death and Rebirth. (This is admittedly an early translation, and in later ones — e.g. NRSV — this suggestion is not so clear.)
It seems reasonable to conclude, therefore, that Jesus, his disciples, and members of the public at the time all believed in reincarnation, or at the very least were aware of it and considered it a possibility. That is the most obvious explanation for the above passages. Several of the prominent early Christian Fathers definitely believed in it.
On the subject of pre-existence rather than reincarnation, there are at least two highly suggestive passages. Solomon declares (Proverbs 8: 22–27) that: “Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth. When there were no depths I was brought forth… When he established the heavens, I was there…”. Even more convincing, since it is God himself speaking, is the following. The Lord addressed Jeremiah (1:4–5), saying : “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations”. It is hard to imagine a clearer biblical statement of pre-existence, and I do not understand how David Knott cannot have seen that, since he says that he has studied the Bible for many years.
There is therefore significant evidence that there was belief in pre-existence and reincarnation both in Old Testament times, and also around the time of Jesus, and then among the early Church Fathers. Yet all this was thrown overboard at the instigation of a Roman Emperor. Why would David Knott want to believe him rather than the Bible?
I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics, and astrology. All these articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here).