In my previous post I talked about how Origen’s view that souls existed before being born as humans related to his view that in the end, all things — including the most wicked beings in the universe — will convert and return to God: salvation for all! Also connected to this idea was Origen’s notion that after death people would be reborn to, in a sense, “give it another go.” Origen is our most famous Christian proponent of the idea of reincarnation.
Reincarnations – Before Origen
The idea of reincarnation had been floated for centuries before Origen. In ancient Greece, the great philosopher Pythagoras was widely believed to have been the first to perpetrate, or at least popularize the idea. Later it was allegedly held by such figures as Parmenides and Empedocles, the latter of whom had allegedly said “Before now I was a boy, and a maid, a bush and a bird, and a dumb fish leaping out of the sea.”
So too we find it in the Roman tradition, as when Virgil’s Aeneas visits the underworld and sees innumerable souls gathered around the River Lethe (Forgetfulness) before being sent back to earth in a “second body.” He doesn’t understand why anyone would want to leave paradise for the miseries of life, but he is told that “the wretches are not completely purged of all the taints, nor are they wholly freed of all the body’s plagues” and so that need to be “drilled in punishments” in order to “pay for their old offenses.” Only then can they “revisit the overarching world once more” by returning to bodies, to try again (Aeneid 6. 865-96).
It is often said today that reincarnation was widespread teaching in early Christianity as well.
But There’s Not a Lot of Evidence
In fact, the evidence for it is sparse. To be sure, later interpreters have detected possible traces of the idea already in the New Testament. When Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am,” they tell him that some say he is John the Baptist come back from the dead, or Elijah, or one of the prophets (Mark 8:27-28). This may not indicate that everyone has had a previous life, but it certainly shows that some people thought Jesus did. So too in the Gospel of John, the puzzled Jewish leaders ask John the Baptist: “Are you Elijah?” (John 1:21).
He denies it, but it’s interesting that they thought it was possible. And even more interesting, if less obvious, later in the same Gospel, Jesus passes by a man who was born blind, and his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this person or his parents, that he should be born blind?” (John 9:2). It’s a revealing question: if the man was born blind because of his own sin, obviously he had to have committed the sin before his birth. Voila. Reincarnation.