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Did We Exist Before We Were Born?

Yesterday I started explaining how the influential early Christian theologian Origen believed that at the end of time, all souls — including the most wicked to have ever lived, even the demons and the devil — will be saved.  To make better sense of why this happens at the end, it’s important to understand what Origen thought happened at the beginning — where souls came from in the first place

In the first book of his theological work On First Principles, Origen explains how all sentient beings originally came into existence.   He argues that in eternity past, before the world was created, God created an enormous number of souls, whose purpose was to contemplate and adore him forever.   True adoration, of course, requires freedom of the will: beings need to choose to adore God if their worship is a true honor.  That means all souls must also have had the capacity to choose not to worship God, that is, to do evil.  None of these created souls was inherently evil, however, and none – not even the soul that was to become the devil — “was incapable of good” (On First Principles 1.8.1-3).

As it happened, virtually all the souls failed in their task.  There was only one, in fact, who …

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Did Early Christians Believe in Reincarnation?
Does Everyone Get Saved in the End?



  1. Avatar
    Beninbuda  January 8, 2019

    There is a mystical teaching that of the two who were crucified along with Jesus, one transformed his intense suffering on the cross into divine compassion and love.

    It was this man whom Jesus said would be with him in Paradise. Whereas, the second victim, did not use his suffering, and died with cynicism and negativity.

    Esoterically, this story of the two men the cross was used to illustrate how the right use of suffering in any given moment of one’s life is capable of awakening the soul.

    “In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye…the dead (a sleeping soul) shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.”

  2. NulliusInVerba
    NulliusInVerba  January 8, 2019

    One might wonder why “all rational souls” “will be transformed into spiritual bodies”. At that crux, any vestige of the natural world (i.e. the concept of a body, albeit spiritual) would seem superfluous. The soul by itself should be sufficient for contemplation and adoration. But then, I can’t hold a candle to Origen.

  3. Avatar
    FireBrand  January 8, 2019

    Can you suggest any books that can help make sense of the biblical Satan? I think modern Christianity believes in almost a kind of dualism that isn’t supported by the Bible. Will your new book touch on this?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 9, 2019

      Nothing comes to mind. A broader study would be Elaine Pagels, The Origins of Satan. I won’t be dealing with this in my book, but in several others I’ve argued that Satan originated with the radical dualism that came to be embraced by Jewish apocalypticists a couple of hundred years before JEsus (where God was come to be believed to have a personal enemy, the Devil)

    • Avatar
      webattorney  January 11, 2019

      Certainly, Satan was the fallen hero of Milton’s Paradise Lost.

    • Avatar
      chadbeast  January 14, 2019

      There is a book called “The Old Enemy” by Neil Forsyth that may be of interest on this. The Elaine Pagels book (The Origin on Satan) is also excellent.

  4. epicurus
    epicurus  January 8, 2019

    Back on my evangelical days I would have said that if suffering can purge us of the sin that taints us, why did Jesus need to die on the cross for our sins.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 9, 2019

      Me too!

    • Avatar
      kqn  January 9, 2019

      I was raised a Jehovah’s Witness (no longer, thank God, so to speak). I think they taught that there’s sin you’re born with, inherited from Adam, and that’s the sin Jesus died for. And there’s accumulated sin that you acquire by choices in this life. Choosing the correct religion (i.e. theirs) and living a repentant life according their interpretation of scripture, forgives your accumulated sin so that, along with faith in Christ, you’re permitted to enter paradise with ALL sin forgiven. (at least that’s what I would have told an evangelical at the door, with proof texts in hand.)

      I’m really out of my league in this blog so I don’t plan to post much. This particular discussion of God’s methods of purging evil, so that all will worship Him as He originally planned, just reminds me of Mark Twain’s condemning words in the last chapter of his The Mysterious Stranger, “and finally, with altogether divine obtuseness, invites this poor, abused slave to worship him! …”

    • kadmiral
      kadmiral  January 10, 2019

      Silly evangelicals, because forgiveness of sins and purging one of sins are two different things.

  5. Avatar
    rborges  January 8, 2019

    Is the idea or reincarnation explicit in Origen’s works?

  6. Avatar
    fishician  January 8, 2019

    Here’s something I never heard explained during my time in various churches: if Satan and his followers turned from God, what is to stop people who go to heaven doing so as well? Will sin be an option in heaven? If not, if worshiping and being true to God is the only possibility, then will people in heaven truly have free will? If there is not free will, how can there be love or adoration? If God can arrange a situation in which all will want to love Him without falling, why didn’t He do that in the first place? If we leave our sinful or temptable selves behind, are we even the same person in heaven? The whole concept seems to raise a lot of philosophical problems. (Also, I looked into your UNC seminar in February and see that is is sold out. Congratulations!)

    • Bart
      Bart  January 9, 2019

      Yes indeed! It’s a huge problem. Usually it’s argued that at point people will be so convinced of the goodness and superiority of God that they will naturally use their free will to stay true to him….

      • Avatar
        hoshor  January 9, 2019

        Apparently “Adam” and “Eve” were not so convinced in the Garden of Eden!

  7. Avatar
    Apocryphile  January 8, 2019

    This idea of the fall of souls or a fallen creation I’m sure has an extensive scholarly literature dealing with it. Origen’s ideas here are very much in tune with Gnostic beliefs that the purpose of (at least human) existence is to recognize where we came from and to return to our source (i.e. God). It’s fascinating to read about Origen’s ideas on the apokatastasis, and how he works Christ into his cosmogony. Do you think Origen influenced later Gnostic groups, was influenced by them, or were these ideas just “in the air” since Plato and his analogy of the cave?

    (Talk about a cliffhanger! – can’t wait for your next post!)

    • Bart
      Bart  January 9, 2019

      Origen was writing after the Gnostic groups had already propounding their views. He is explicitly and strongly anti-gnostic, but some readers have noted some interesting similarities as well.

  8. Avatar
    Eric  January 8, 2019

    Well, his system has one thing going for it — it handles theodicy quite elegantly. and I can see why he may have flirted with reincarnation — it actually makes his system more rational (after all, what’s the point of purging for one day as a mayfly and getting the rest done in some kind of spiritual torture chamber of endless ages? That is, what would be the point of the earthly existence?

  9. Avatar
    godspell  January 8, 2019

    As you already know, this sounds very reminiscent of pagan philosophy from this era, which of course Origen would have studied, perhaps with Ammonius Saccas, who taught Plotinus, among others.

    We tend to forget that philosophy, like other intellectual endeavors, isn’t just a lot of great names that we learn in school, but a chain of thought, often stretching across centuries, across cultures, across disciplinary boundaries, encompassing a wide variety of people, most of whom are known only to specialists today, if they are known at all. (Thankfully, Wikipedia knows all, since I just took an introduction to philosophy class in college, but at least I know what to Google).

    Whoever Origen studied with, he was trying to put an intellectual gloss on Christian thought by combining it with the ideas of the Greek thinkers, and particularly those whose ideas were elaborations of Platonic thought. Which means Platonic ideals–the notion that everything we see in the world around us is an imperfect reflection of some perfect original form in some otherworldly realm of existence. Instead of God, these philosophers would talk of Demiurges, or Unmoved Movers. Or ‘The One.’

    Origen’s treatment of the idea is different, has to be, since it has to link up with both the Old and New Testament writings. He’s a bridge between different worlds of thought, and this makes his ideas fascinating, but problematic.

    This isn’t really what Jesus taught, because Jesus didn’t know from Plato, let alone Plotinus. Jesus was influenced almost entirely by Jewish religious thought (sorry, Mythers, but it’s true), and his take on it was highly innovative and insightful. But of course, it’s based on the premise that the world was going to be transformed in the lifetimes of those hearing him, and it wasn’t, so (Origen thinks) he must have meant something else. Maybe he meant that the world and the souls within it would be transformed over time, gradually pulled back to God, the source of all love and light.

    One thing we must recognize is that Christianity didn’t originate the concept of the soul (probably some hunter-gatherer shaman did). The Greeks had thought long and hard about this subject, and this was a vital meeting point between the disciplines. There is part of us that is mortal, and part of us that isn’t.

  10. Avatar
    Judith  January 8, 2019


  11. Avatar
    nichael  January 8, 2019

    (A great subject line to be greeted by on my birthday…)

    …but, even if this was Origen, you just gotta ask, where in heaven’s name did these guys come up with this stuff? It’s almost enough to make the logical twists and turns of modern folks like the pre/postmillennarian dispensationalists sound like paradigms of cool, calm logic.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 9, 2019

      Alternative explanatons of reality always sound bizarre and crazy to outsiders. Imagine trying to explain the Big Bang to a twelfth-century scientist. He’d think you were *nuts*

      • Avatar
        nichael  January 9, 2019

        Touché. 😉

      • Avatar
        Eric  January 10, 2019

        Or as some comedian once put it, “Is it weirder than worshiping the 2000-year old ghost of a Jewish carpenter?”

        No offence intended to anyone, I view that as a philosophical koan.

        • Avatar
          godspell  January 13, 2019

          Technically inaccurate (he’s not technically a ghost, Joseph wasn’t technically a carpenter, and it’s not quite 2000 years since he died), but still funny.

          Christianity is not just about worshiping Jesus. Yes, it often gets reduced to that, but that’s wrong. Jesus himself would say it was wrong.

          You can spend all your life praying to Jesus and be damned. You can never say a single prayer and be saved. That’s how Jesus saw it. It’s about how you live, more than anything else. The prayers may help focus some people on that, just as meditation may help Buddhists live in accordance with their beliefs, but it’s a means to an end, in both cases.

          It is the nature of all belief systems, theistic or secular, to be distorted as they are spread. And then to become fodder for comedians. Who are, you know, pretty bizarre themselve at times. Looking at you, Louis C.K. What the hell, man?

    • Avatar
      AstaKask  January 9, 2019

      I don’t think it’s much more absurd than teaching that if someone moves really fast, you will measure him as being 5′ tall and that person will measure himself as being 6′ tall.

  12. Avatar
    brenmcg  January 8, 2019

    I think the Origen’s unorthodoxy is really philosophical rather than theological.

    His philosophical understanding of humanity is the eternal soul, so in order to conform to theological orthodoxy and have Christ truly become man he must posit a soul which has never departed from God and which can allow for the union of God and man.

    Origen then remains Christologically orthodox.

    • Robert
      Robert  January 9, 2019

      I’m not so sure Origen would pass muster as christologically orthodox. Christ came into existence first as a created soul capable of doing evil but who nonetheless became fused with God. Assuming Bart has faithfully represented Origen’s views here, does that really seem like Christian orthodoxy to you?

      • Bart
        Bart  January 11, 2019

        He didn’t pass the later standards of orthodoxy, but in his own day, he was himself the standard! Not easy being a trailblazer….

      • Avatar
        godspell  January 11, 2019

        There really is no such thing as Christian orthodoxy, if by that you mean a belief held to by all Christians in all places, other than “That Jesus was a heckuva guy!”

        And so he was!

        • Bart
          Bart  January 13, 2019

          Normally that isn’t what orthodoxy means; it means the form of Christianity that is doctrinally correct. (Which obviously has problems of its own!)

      • Avatar
        brenmcg  January 13, 2019

        Robert *Assuming Bart has faithfully represented Origen’s views here, does that really seem like Christian orthodoxy to you?*

        Origen wrote that the word and wisdom of god are the son and that they are eternally generated by the father. That what belongs to the nature of deity is common to the Father and the Son. That the nature of the deity in christ is one thing and the human nature he assumed is another. And that while made a man remained the God which He was.

        This is pure Nicene orthodoxy.

        The question of what human nature is and what it means for christ to become human is a philosophical one; Origen took a Platonic view. But you cant have an unorthodox philosophical view – only theological views can be unorthodox.

        • Bart
          Bart  January 13, 2019

          Origen had a subordinationist Christology, which would not fit in with Nicene orthodoxy.

          • Avatar
            brenmcg  January 13, 2019

            I don’t think subordinationism is very well defined. There are elements of subordinationism in nicene orthodoxy but which is different to the subordinationism of Arius.
            That Origen believed the son to be eternally generated shows he would have been on the orthodox side at Nicea

          • Bart
            Bart  January 14, 2019

            Really? What do you see as subordinationist about Nicene orthodoxy? The whole point is that the Son is equal with the Father and in fact of the very same substance. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the “Origenist controversy” that began in the 390s? It was precisely over his orthodoxy, by hyper-Nicene theologians.

          • Avatar
            brenmcg  January 14, 2019

            Eusebius was a subordinationist but signed the creed.

            Nicene orthodoxy allows for the subordination in authority of the son to the father, but professes equality in devine nature. The son sits at the right hand of the father and carries out the will of the father, but his devine nature is eternally generated, the son is not created.

            If subordinationism is defined as subordination of nature, a la Arius, that the son a created being and whos divinity is bestowed by the father, then Origen is not a subordinationist.
            But if the definition of subordinationism is extended to include Origen’s theology then Nicene orthodoxy is subordinationist too.

            Origen’s name unfairly became a byword for heresy – it was used for political as much as theological conflicts.

          • Bart
            Bart  January 15, 2019

            If you want to read up on Nicene orthodoxy, an excellent place to start is with the books by Lewis Ayres.

        • Robert
          Robert  January 13, 2019

          brenmcg: “I think the Origen’s unorthodoxy is really philosophical rather than theological. … But you cant have an unorthodox philosophical view – only theological views can be unorthodox.”

          “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

          Unless and until Origen is reincarnated, and I’m not holding my breath, we may never know for sure if he was/is/will be more or less orthodox according to all the various definitions that people come up with for orthodoxy and various heresies. Heck, some people’s definitions of (un)orthodoxy change from one day to the next! Many would indeed consider some philosophical views to be heretical. For example, an eternal universe is oftentimes seen as heretical, contradicting creatio ex nihilo, while others even interpret Gen 1,1-3 as implying creatio ex materia.

          • Avatar
            brenmcg  January 14, 2019

            Yes you can never be sure people like origen or paul say would have accepted the nicene creed but I think you can show their writings were always consistent with it and inconsistent with Arianism.

          • Bart
            Bart  January 15, 2019

            That was precisely the point of debate, and it’s fairly easy to show that both Origen and Paul (appealed to by Arians and everyone else), could easily lead to *any* of the christological positions advocated in the fourth century.

          • Avatar
            brenmcg  January 16, 2019

            It would be easy for either side to appeal to certain passages for justification but if the defining charachteristic of arianism is that there was a time when christ did not exist then its easy to show Origen couldnt have been a supporter of it.

          • Bart
            Bart  January 17, 2019

            I think you may be looking at it backwards. YOu can’t ask if a 3rd century father agreed with a 4th century view, only if a 4th century father agreed with a 3rd century view. That’s because Origen would not have approved of *any* of the positions taken by Nicene theologians. They were after his time and involved developments he had not particiapted in that generated views he didn’t have. But virtaully all these views can be traced back to Origen, as derivations from one stream or another of his though.

          • Avatar
            brenmcg  January 17, 2019

            Yes there may have been many issues at Nicea that Origen never expressed an opinion on but of those he had expressed his opinion he was always on the side of Nicean orthodoxy – especially on the defining creed of Arianism; that there existed a time before the son was begotten. Origen was staunchly anti-Arian on this point.

  13. Avatar
    hankgillette  January 9, 2019

    What does it say about an omnipotent and omniscient god that he is so desperate for praise that he creates beings just to hear them tell him how great he is?

    Most of us consider humans who are desperate for praise to be rather pathetic.

  14. Avatar
    toejam  January 9, 2019

    Totally off topic… But here goes: I’ve been reading a lot this week on the ‘Erastus Debate’ – that is, whether the “Erastus, treasurer of the city” of Romans 16:23 is the same “Erastus” whose name was found on an inscription in 1929 in Corinth – its “Erastus” being honored for his donation to support the construction of a pathway “for his appointment to the role of chief financial officer”. The points of connection are numerous – both have the same rare name, both share an association with the city of Corinth, both have a position as some sort of city financial manager, and both date to the Roman era (Paul’s epistle c.60CE, the inscription c.27BCE – 220CE, with, as I understand it, most “comparable examples” not extending beyond c.138CE). On face value, connection these two seems quite natural to me. However the debate seems to be centered around whether Paul’s Greek term ‘oikonomos’ (treasurer) can be considered synonymous enough with the Latin term ‘aedile’ (chief financial officer), and whether archaeological stratigraphy might suggest the inscription exceeds the conceivable lifespan of Paul’s Erastus (c.100CE).

    I’d love to hear your thoughts on this! Where do you lean on the question?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 9, 2019

      I”ve never spent much time looking into it, but have pretty much alwasy thought they were the same person; too many coincidences otherwise. But I have no horse in that race!

  15. Avatar
    WLFobe  January 9, 2019

    What are the current doctrines on these two topics? I know that Luther believed that souls slept until the resurrection (and thus could not suffer, making purgatory moot). And Calvin disagreed. But I don’t know the current doctrines.

    And I don’t know about any of the current doctrines concerning the origin of souls.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 11, 2019

      I don’t think there’s only one set of views — it depends which denomination/theologian/Christian you ask!

  16. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  January 10, 2019

    Wow! I am impressed by the completeness of Origen’s systematic theology. On the other hand, he, like many others through the ages, seems to be embellishing and/or inventing his own Christianity. To get all of this theology from one sentence by Paul is quite a stretch, but, in my humble opinion, people do that with Paul all the time.

    I love the analogy of iron becoming one with the fire.

  17. JulieGraff
    JulieGraff  January 10, 2019

    “It is not more surprising to be born twice than once; everything in nature is resurrection.”


    Mr. Ehrman, I sent you a private message regarding this topic, as it is a private matter. Just a head’s up as I dont know how your private messages are worked out.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 11, 2019

      I read all the emails I get everyday, but because there are so many of them, I usually can’t respond. In part that’s because I put so much time in to responding here on the blog. So that would be your best bet, I’m afraid!

    • JulieGraff
      JulieGraff  January 11, 2019

      Thank you for your answer Mr. Ehrman

      Yes, I can understand the challenges and discernments in answering www correspondence!

      (to be a bit more specific, I wrote in your “sending a message fields” on your contact page, I did not send an email)

      In the message I requested if I could send you pictures (as I am aware of the problems of receiving unwanted files).

      Also, I totally respect the fact that your work is history based. But as I mentioned in the message, I believe that the mindset of the researcher has some bearings on the research, so respecting your work, and seeing that your work is moving in the direction of the afterlife and scriptures, that is one of the reasons I feel compelled to share the information I have with you.

      I will completely understand if you do not have the time, or the inclination to reply.

      The pictures I want to send to you is about what I have lived regarding reincarnation. It is not just some blablabla, or beliefs, and or belief systems …. It is something that you will be able to see with your own eyes.

      This is regarding people that where working in the field of psychoanalysis and were famous. It seams I was one of them. So you can imagine that not pondering, not trying to understand, to analyse what I was given, and what I am about to share, is like asking a dog not to bark!

      I’ve been doing so privately for the last ten years! And I have been doing so at the same time as I studied scriptures… as I was very much made aware that it is no bullshit: G.od does lower the proud!

      All this showed me that there is a very much loving Source in charge of this world, and It doesn’t accept any bullshit!

      These last 10 years were not easy, as I have made many friends in the catholic church, priests included, and they do not believe in reincarnation, and because of that I was at some times shuned from some groups, but I am greatfull that they do work on leting people know that G.od is Loving, and Just! (even though we don’t see eye to eye on some other stuff!)

      In a couple of days I’ll send you an email with the pictures. My username will be in the address so you’ll know the files are safe.

  18. Avatar
    webattorney  January 11, 2019

    I was wondering one day whether my soul (if I have one) existed before I was born and before I gained consciousness of things including myself. Or was my soul formed with my birth and will die with my physical death? If so, what good is the soul?

    Essentially, I realized not only do I not know where I am going, but I have no idea how I came to be (aside from the fact that I was born and my brain and consciousness formed.)

  19. Avatar
    hankgillette  January 12, 2019

    “But after many, many ages, all will eventually return to God, of their own free will, purged completely of their sins.”

    Reminds me of “The beatings will continue until morale improves.”

  20. Avatar
    chadbeast  January 14, 2019

    The soul that worships God must do so out of its own free will for the adulation to be real and significant. That horror and torture is the consequence of not freely choosing to adore God returns to the original problem of what, exactly, constitutes the free choice to worship. Torture as punishment or torture as natural consequence of failing to make the choice to worship and adore is an intellectual distinction of little value to the tortured. “Love me or I will torture you until you do”, the best this can produce is Stockholm Syndrome.

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