Sowing And Reaping In Gethsemane
In the closing hours of His life, Jesus also propounded the law of sowing and reaping. “One of them which were with Jesus stretched out his hand, and drew his sword, and struck a servant of the high priest’s, and smote off his ear. Then said Jesus unto him, Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.”38 Multitudes of people have lived by violence and themselves died quiet deaths-most of them unrepentant. Yet the Lord said they also would die by the sword. Has God then been “mocked”? Have they somehow escaped His law? Yes, they have, if there is no rebirth. But according to the foregoing Jewish authorities there indeed is rebirth, which is God’s way of ensuring that “the wheels of divine justice may grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly fine.”
Jesus Reveals Past Lives
A further reference by our Lord to rebirth is found in His words to the great multitude shortly after He had miraculously fed them. Some of the crowd asked Him: “What sign showest thou then, that we may see, and believe thee? what dost thou work? Our fathers did eat manna in the desert; as it is written, He gave them bread from heaven to eat. Then Jesus said unto them, Verily verily, I say unto you, Moses gave you not that bread from heaven; but My Father giveth you the true bread from heaven.”39 Notice that the Lord does not say “Moses gave your fathers not that bread from heaven,” but instead: “Moses gave you not that bread from heaven,” thereby indicating that those very persons who were challenging Him had been with Moses in the desert. There, too, they had constantly challenged Moses and been unbelieving, and here with Jesus they continued the pattern. They were in fact the very persons to whom Moses had said: “The Lord your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your midst, from your brethren. Him you shall hear.”40 Again, see how Moses does not say “your children,” but instead says “you,” indicating that it would be those very ones to whom he was speaking that should see and hear the Messiah.
Reincarnation Means Responsibility
From all the foregoing we can draw the incontrovertible understanding that the individual soul, being endowed with free, creative will according to the divine image, must also shoulder the responsibility for that will-the responsibility being in the form of the irrevocable law: “Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” The law is that we must receive back whatever we sow, not just a “suitable” punishment. This is reinforced by God’s own words already cited when He told Noah, “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed.” Retribution must be in the form of experiencing exactly what we have done to others-no substitute. For the Lord Jesus was not just putting forth a social directive when He said, “All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.”41 He was simply restating the Law that whatever you do to others will in turn be done to you. And since “he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap,” rebirth is an absolute necessity, to provide us the flesh in which to reap what we have sown.
This is why Solomon said: “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us.”42 Solomon does not say “the same type of thing that hath been,” but “the thing” itself is to reappear on the earth. From these words we learn several things: (1) It is the things and people of the past that will reappear on earth again as the future things and people. (2) It is the past actions which determine what the future actions will be, through the momentum of the law of sowing and reaping, or, more accurately, the past actions are continued as the future deeds. That is, the theft of today is the continuation of the theft committed in the past. Today’s murder is the “reaping” of a murder “sown” long ago. (3) Nothing, including the people, are here for the first time and “new” on the earth. None of us can claim that the earth life is something “new” for us. Rather, in the ages before this life it has already been known to us.
Rabbi Hillel Speaks
Looking back momentarily to point (2), we find a most graphic stating of that principle in the Daily Prayer Book, edited by Philip Birnbaum.43 In the second chapter of the section entitled: Ethics of the Fathers, the seventh section gives an incident from the life of Hillel, perhaps the greatest Rabbi in Jewish history, and a contemporary of Jesus: “He [Hillel] saw a skull floating on the surface of the water. He said to it: Because you drowned others, others have drowned you; and those who have drowned you shall themselves be drowned.”
Is There An End To Reincarnation?
Will there ever be an end to this? Yes, for “he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting”44 in those “everlasting habitations,”45 the “place for you” prepared by Christ Himself,46 regarding which He promised: “Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out,”47 “neither can they die any more: for they are equal unto the angels; and are the children of God, being the children of the resurrection,”48 for “the last enemy that shall be destroyed is death,”49 “for this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”50
“Resurrection”-The End of Reincarnation
A careful study of the relevant scriptures will reveal that the term “resurrection” indicates the state of freedom from rebirth and its corollary, death, and the ascension to Paradise from which Adam and Eve originally fell. In the Creed, we find the expression: “the resurrection of the dead,” the “dead” being those subject to the law of sowing and reaping, of birth and death, who were helplessly caught in the wheels of that relentless Law until Christ opened the way to freedom, to “resurrection” from the state of continual rebirth, and the return and restoration to Paradise. “To him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God.”51
From Genesis To Revelation: Reincarnation
In the Holy Scriptures, from Genesis to Revelation, the theme of reincarnation runs like a thread, binding together the two Testaments, and announcing the new Law of Grace and Freedom.
Early Christian Writers
Now let us turn to early Christian writers-some of them Saints and Fathers of the Church-and see their testimony on the subject of rebirth. I will give the dates of their lives, so you can see in what era of the Church they lived.
Saint Clement of Alexandria (150-220)
“We were in being long before the foundation of the world; we existed in the eye of God, for it is our destiny to live in Him….Not for the first time does He pity us in our wanderings, He pitied us from the very beginning….Philolaus, the Pythagorean, taught that the soul was flung into the body as a punishment for the misdeeds it had committed, and his opinion was confirmed by the most ancient of the prophets.”52
“Is it not more in conformity with reason that every soul for certain mysterious reasons (I speak now according to the opinion of Pythagoras and Plato and Empedicles, whom Celsus frequently names) is introduced into a body, and introduced according to its deserts and former actions?…
“Is it not rational that souls should be introduced into bodies, in accordance with their merits and previous deeds, and that those who have used their bodies in doing the utmost possible good should have a right to bodies endowed with qualities superior to the bodies of others?…
“The soul, which is immaterial and invisible in its nature, exists in no material place without having a body suited to the nature of that place. Accordingly, it at one time puts off one body, which was necessary before, but which is no longer adequate in its changed state, and it exchanges it for a second” (Contra Celsum).
“The soul has neither beginning nor end….Every soul comes into this world strengthened by the victories or weakened by the defeats of its previous life. Its place in this world as a vessel appointed to honor or dishonor is determined by its previous merits or demerits. Its work in this world determines its place in the world which is to follow this….
“The hope of freedom is entertained by the whole of creation-of being liberated from the corruption of slavery-when the sons of God, who either fell away or were scattered abroad, shall be gathered into one, and when they shall have fulfilled their duties in this world” (De Prinicpiis).
Origen is a controversial figure. The Emperor Justinian wanted him declared a heretic three hundred years after his death, and even had the acts of the Fifth Ecumenical Council falsified to accomplish this. Therefore, those who dislike Origen’s theology bring forth the objection that he was not “orthodox.” To refute this contention we need only turn to Saint Rufinus (345-410), whose holiness is recognized by both Eastern and Western churches. Not only did he insist that Origen was orthodox, he even made translations of Origen’s works into Latin. In the preface to his translation of the just-quoted De Principiis, Saint Rufinus remarks that he has omitted anything that might at all be controversial. In other words, everything in his translation was acceptable to any Christian reader of his day, without exception. So let us look at three passages from this translation of Saint Rufinus which bears his attestation of orthodoxy:
(1) In Malachi and Romans are found the words: “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated,” which were spoken by God before their births; and also the ruling in Genesis that Esau should have to serve Jacob, though Jacob was younger. Like the words in Genesis about the visitation of the fathers’ iniquities on the children, these words seem greatly unjust. But in the light of reincarnation they are seen differently. And here is what Origen had to say about it (please keep in mind that this and other quotations that follow are from the Latin translation of Saint Rufinus and therefore contain nothing that was offensive to the Christians of that day):
“As, therefore, when the scriptures are examined with much diligence in regard to Esau and Jacob, it is found that there is ‘no unrighteousness with God’53 in its being said of them, before they were born or had done anything, in this life of course, that ‘the elder should serve the younger,’ so also it is found that there is no unrighteousness in the fact that Jacob supplanted his brother even in the womb, provided we believe that by reason of his merits in some previous life Jacob had deserved to be loved by God to such an extent as to be worthy of being preferred to his brother.”54
(2) “For perhaps, just as those who depart from this world by the common death of all, are distributed according to their deeds and merits, as a result of the judgment, some going to a place which is called the ‘lower world,’ others to ‘Abraham’s bosom’ and to the various positions and dwelling-places in it; so the inhabitants of the region above, when they ‘die’ there, if one may so speak, descend from those upper places to this lower world.
“For the other lower world, to which are conveyed the souls of those who die on earth, is called by scripture, I believe on account of this distinction, ‘the lower Hades,’ as it says in the Psalms, ‘And Thou hast delivered my soul from the lower Hades.’ Each of those, therefore, who descend into the earth, is destined in accordance with his merits or with the position which he had held above to be born in a particular place or nation, or in a particular walk of life, or with particular infirmities, or to be the offspring of religious parents or the reverse, so that it happens occasionally that an Israelite falls among the Scythians and a poor Egyptian is conveyed to Judea….For in that case souls that are born on this earth of ours would either come from the lower world again to a higher place and assume a human body, in consequence of their desire for better things, or else would descend to us from better places. And so, too, those places which are above in the firmament may be occupied by some souls who have advanced from our seats to better things,….”55
(3) “The third order of rational creatures is composed of those spirits who are judged fit by God to replenish the human race. These are the souls of men, some of whom, in consequence of their progress, we see taken up into the order of angels, those, namely, who have been made ‘sons of God’ or ‘sons of the resurrection;’56 or those who forsaking the darkness have loved the light and have been made ‘sons of the light;’57 or those who, after winning every fight and being changed into ‘men of peace,’ become ‘sons of peace’58 and ‘sons of God;’59 or those who, by mortifying their members which are upon the earth60 and rising superior not only to their bodily nature but even to the wavering and fragile movements of the soul itself, have ‘joined themselves to the Lord,’61 being made wholly spiritual, so as to be always ‘one spirit’ with Him, judging each individual thing in company with Him, until they reach the point when they become perfect ‘spiritual men’ and ‘judge all things,’ because their mind is illuminated in all holiness through the word and wisdom of God, while they themselves are utterly incapable of being judged by any man.”62
Saint Gregory of Nyssa (257-332)
“It is absolutely necessary that the soul should be healed and purified, and if this does not take place during its life on earth it must be accomplished in future lives” (Great Catechism).
In Saint Gregory’s Life of his sister, Saint Macrina, whom he always referred to as “the teacher,” he recorded that before her birth their mother, Saint Emmelia, “fell asleep and seemed to be carrying in her hands that which was still in her womb. And some one in form and raiment more splendid than a human being appeared and addressed the child she was carrying by the name of Thecla, that Thecla, I mean, who is so famous among the virgins. After doing this and testifying to it three times, he departed from her sight.” Thus it was understood by her family that Saint Macrina was the reincarnation of the martyr, Saint Thecla, the greatest of Saint Paul’s disciples. Because of this, all the family privately called her Thecla, though her public name was Macrina.
“We die many times, and often do we rise from the dead” (Adversus Gentes).
Chalcidius (Third Century)
“Souls who have failed to unite themselves with God, are compelled by the law of destiny to begin a new kind of life, entirely different from their former, until they repent of their sins.”
Nemesius, Bishop of Emesa (Fourth Century)
“Moses does not say that the soul was created at that moment at which it was put into the body, nor would it be reasonable to suppose it….That the soul is not thus mortal and that man’s destiny is not bounded by his present life is shown by the fact that the wisest of the Greeks believe in the transmigration of souls and that souls attain different grades according to the life they have lived” (De Natura Hominis).
Saint Jerome (340-420)
“The doctrine of transmigration has been secretly taught from ancient times to small numbers of people, as a traditional truth which was not to be divulged” (Epistola ad Demetriadem).
Saint Sulpitius Severus (363-420)63
“As to Nero,…it was he who first began a persecution [of Christians]; and I am not sure but he will be the last also to carry it on, if, indeed, we admit, as many are inclined to believe, that he will yet appear immediately before the coming of Antichrist.”64
“[Nero is] to be sent forth again near the end of the world, in order that he may practice the mystery of iniquity.”65>
This is most interesting. The thirteenth chapter of the book of Revelation is devoted to the subject of the Antichrist, or “Beast.” The eighteenth verse says: “Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is Six hundred threescore and six.”
The ancient commentaries on the book of Revelation are unanimous in saying that Nero is the “man of sin,” the “beast.” Students of those texts naturally assume that the early writers were wrong since Nero is long dead. But in the light of these words of Saint Sulpitius it is evident that they had a future incarnation of Nero in mind. So those commentaries are indirect evidence that the first Christians believed quite definitely in reincarnation.
Saint Augustine (354-430)
“The message of Plato, the purest and most luminous of all in philosophy, has at last scattered the darkness of error, and now shines forth mainly in Plotinus, a Platonist so like his master that one would think they lived together, or rather-since so long a period of time separates them-that Plato is born again in Plotinus” (Contra Academicos).
“Say, Lord, to me…say, did my infancy succeed another age of mine that died before it? Was it that which I spent within my mother’s womb?…and what before that life again, O God my joy, was I anywhere or in any body?” (Confessions).
Synesius, Bishop of Ptolemais (370-430)
“Philosophy speaks of souls being prepared by a course of transmigrations….When first it comes down to earth, it [the soul] embarks on this animal spirit as on a boat, and through it is brought into contact with matter….The soul which did not quickly return to the heavenly region from which it was sent down to earth had to go through many lives of wandering” (Treatise On Dreams).
Saint Brigid of Kildare (525)
In his book Round Ireland in Low Gear, Eric Newby records that at this present day among the Catholics of Ireland there is a tradition that Saint Brigid in her previous life was the one who led the Virgin Mary to the place where she was purified at Bethlehem after the birth of Jesus.
Reincarnation A Common Belief
From these examples we can see that in the Apostolic Age and later, until Christianity was reshaped to suit the religio-political ideas of the Byzantine Emperors (who on occasion called themselves Vicars of Christ) and their political appointees whose “conversion” to Christianity was anything but sincere, reincarnation was so common as to be a truism among Christians.
In our inquiry it is the testimony of orthodox Judaism, ancient Christianity, and the Bible that is sufficient to answer our question: May a Christian believe in reincarnation?
Those who are interested in the witness of later Christian theologians and thinkers will find it most rewarding to look into the three books by Head and Cranston: Reincarnation: An East-West Anthology; Reincarnation in World Thought; and Reincarnation: The Phoenix Fire Mystery. There will be found statements of belief by such eminent Christians as Jacob Boehme, William Law, Henry Ward Beecher, Philips Brooks, Nicolas Berdyaev, Paul Tillich, Leslie Weatherhead, and Albert Schweitzer-plus many more.
In summation: considering all of the foregoing material, we can positively conclude that Christians indeed have believed and may believe in reincarnation.
Perhaps even must believe.
Further Reading on Reincarnation:
- The Necessity for Reincarnation — A remarkable article on various scientific, moral, and historical aspects of reincarnation by Annie Besant (1847 – 1933), a renowned speaker and writer, and president of the Madras Theosophical society.
- Esoteric Christian Insights Into Reincarnation
38) Matthew 26:51,52 [Go back]
39) John 6:30-32 [Go back]
40) Deuteronomy 18:15 [Go back]
41) Matthew 7:12 [Go back]
42) Ecclesiastes 1:9,10 [Go back]
43) Hebrew Publishing Company, New York [Go back]
44) Galatians 6:8 [Go back]
45) Luke 16:9 [Go back]
46) John 14:2,3 [Go back]
47) Revelation 3:12 [Go back]
48) Luke 20:36 [Go back]
49) I Corinthians 15:26 [Go back]
50) I Corinthians 15:53-55 [Go back]
51) Revelation 2:7 [Go back]
52) Stromata, vol. 3, p. 433 [Go back]
53) Romans 9:14 [Go back]
54) De Principiis, II,9,7 [Go back]
55) De Principiis, book 4, chapter 3 [Go back]
56) Luke 20:36; Rom. 8:14 [Go back]
57) Luke 16:8 [Go back]
58) Matthew 5:9; Luke 10:6 [Go back]
59) John 1:12 [Go back]
60) Colossians 3:5 [Go back]
61) II Corinthians 6:17 [Go back]
62) II Corinthians 11:15. De Principiis, I,8,4 [Go back]
63) Saint Sulpitius Severus was the chief disciple of Saint Martin of Tours, the first person to be canonized that was not a martyr. [Go back]
64) Sacred History, Chapter 28 [Go back]
65) Sacred History, Chapter 29 [Go back]