Dogman Bites Man

Reincarnation and the Early Christian Church

This excerpt from Chapter 14 of Children's Past Lives (Adults and Their Religions) outlines the history of reincarnation in the early Christian church. The primary source we used for this information was H.G.Wells' The Outline of History, plus tracts by Church historians.

The awesome charisma of Jesus Christ and his good-news ministry profoundly changed the lives of those who knew him and who followed soon after. The enthusiasm and spirit of the first Christians spread through the Middle East until what had begun as an inspired cult of Jews in dusty Judea grew to be a revolutionary religious movement pervading the whole Roman Empire. As the ideas spread, they percolated through the practices and theologies of existing religions and took on forms that Jesus would not have recognized—especially the institution of a formal priesthood to mediate between man and God. Throughout the first three centuries of the Christian era, there was no single Christian doctrine. Christian theology and doctrine— interpretations of Christ's teachings blended with ideas from other philosophies and religions— were hotly debated for at least three hundred years. Many of the tenets of the faith that Christians take for granted today were, during this long period of flux, simply one point of view among many.

It is a fact that some Christian sects and writers accepted reincarnation as an enhancement to the teachings of Christ. Origen, one of the heralded Fathers of the Church and described by Saint Gregory as "the Prince of Christian learning in the third century," wrote: "Every soul comes into this world strengthened by the victories and weakened by the defeats of its previous life."

So if reincarnation was an idea in currency with early Christians, why have all traces of it disappeared from the Christian religion we know today?

By the early fourth century, strong Christian factions were vying with each other for influence and power, while at the same time the Roman Empire was beginning to fall apart. In A.D. 325, in a move to renew the unity of the empire, the absolute dictator Emperor Constantine convened the leaders of the feuding Christian factions at the Council of Nicaea. He offered to throw his imperial power behind the Christians if they would settle their differences and agree on a single creed. Decisions made at this first council set the foundation for the Roman Catholic Church. (Soon after, the books of the Bible were fixed too.) For the sake of unity, all beliefs that conflicted with the new creed were banished; in the process the factions and writings that supported reincarnation were thrown out.

Then, with the applause and support of the Christian leaders, Constantine moved to eliminate competing religions, and to make his personal grip on the Empire even more absolute. The result of the marriage between church and imperial state was a new Church made in the image of the autocratic Roman Empire. This is why, according to some historians, the Church exalts unquestioned central authority, imposes a singular dogmatic creed on its followers, and works so hard to stamp out divergent ideas. This is important, because reincarnation fell outside the official creed.

Apparently some Christians continued to believe in reincarnation even after the Council of Nicaea, because in A.D. 553 the Church found the need to single out reincarnation and condemn it explicitly. At the Second Council of Constantinople the concept of reincarnation, bundled together with other ideas under the term "pre-existence of the soul", was decreed to be a crime worthy of excommunication and damnation ("anathema"):

If anyone assert the fabulous pre-existence of souls, and shall assert the monstrous restoration which follows from it: let him be anathema.

Why would the Church go to such lengths to discredit reincarnation? The implicit psychology of reincarnation may be the best explanation. A person who believes in reincarnation assumes responsibility for his own spiritual evolution through rebirth. He does not need priests, confessionals, and rituals to ward off damnation (all ideas, incidentally, that were not part of Jesus' teachings). He needs only to heed his own acts to himself and others. A belief in reincarnation eliminates the fear of eternal hell that the Church uses to discipline the flock. In other words, reincarnation directly undermines the authority and power of the dogmatic Church. No wonder reincarnation made the Defenders of the Faith so nervous.

Despite the decree of 553, belief in reincarnation persisted among the rank and file. It took another thousand years and much bloodshed to completely stamp out the idea. In the early thirteenth century, the Cathars, a devout and enlightened sect of Christians who believed in reincarnation, flourished in Italy and southern France. The pope launched a crusade to stop their heresy, a half million people were massacred whole villages at a time, and the Cathars were totally wiped out. This purging set the tone for the brutal Inquisition that began soon after. Not only was a belief in reincarnation cause for persecution, but so was belief in any metaphysical idea that fell outside the bounds of Church dogma.

The murderous efficiency of the Inquisition proved effective. The persecution by the institutional Church has scarred our collective psyche and surrounded us with an invisible fence dividing what is safe from what is dangerous to believe. Since then, people who harbor forbidden ideas have learned to keep their thoughts to themselves. Our cultural memory still carries the fear of reprisal for publicly associating with any occult practices, the use of psychic powers, or a belief in reincarnation.

Here it is, the source of the double standard. No wonder so many people today believe in reincarnation privately but are afraid that if they come out publicly, they will be attacked for being weird—the modern word for heresy. Maybe by understanding where this fear comes from we can negate its hold on us and turn off the invisible fence. So when our children speak of past lives, we can follow our hearts and not our fears—and believe them.

Copyright 1997 by Carol Bowman and Steve Bowman