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Members of what is commonly called the "New Age" movement often claim that early Christians believed in reincarnation. Shirley MacLaine, an avid New Age disciple, recalls being taught: "The theory of reincarnation is recorded in the Bible. But the proper interpretations were struck from it during an ecumenical council meeting of the Catholic Church in Constantinople sometime around A.D. 553, called the Council of Nicaea [sic]" (Out on a Limb, 234ñ35).
Historical facts provide no basis for this claim. In fact, there was no Council of Nicaea in A.D. 553. Further, the two ecumenical councils of Nicaea (A.D. 325 and A.D. 787) took place in the city of Nicaea (hence their names)óand neither dealt with reincarnation. What did take place in A.D. 553 was the Second Ecumenical Council of Constantinople. But records from this Council show that it, too, did not address the subject of reincarnation. None of the early councils did.
The closest the Second Council of Constantinople came to addressing reincarnation was, in one sentence, to condemn Origen, an early Church writer who believed souls exist in heaven before coming to earth to be born. New Agers confuse this belief in the preexistence of the soul with reincarnation and claim that Origen was a reincarnationist. Actually, he was one of the most prolific early writers against reincarnation! Because he is so continually misrepresented by New Agers, we have included a number of his quotes below, along with passages from other sources, all of which date from before A.D. 553, when the doctrine of reincarnation was supposedly "taken out of the Bible."
"We may undermine [the Hellenistsí] doctrine as to transmigration from body to body by this factóthat souls remember nothing whatever of the events which took place in their previous states of existence. For if they were sent forth with this object, that they should have experience of every kind of action, they must of necessity retain a remembrance of those things which have been previously accomplished, that they might fill up those in which they were still deficient, and not by always hovering, without intermission, through the same pursuits, spend their labor wretchedly in vain. . . . With reference to these objections, Plato . . . attempted no kind of proof, but simply replied dogmatically that when souls enter into this life they are caused to drink of oblivion by that demon who watches their entrance, before they effect an entrance into the bodies. It escaped him that he fell into another, greater perplexity. For if the cup of oblivion, after it has been drunk, can obliterate the memory of all the deeds that have been done, how, O Plato, do you obtain the knowledge of this fact . . . ?" (St. Iranius, Against Heresies 2:33:1ñ2 [A.D. 189]).
"(Scripture says) ëAnd they asked him, "What then? Are you Elijah?" and he said, "I am not"í (John 1:21). No one can fail to remember in this connection what Jesus says of John: ëIf you will receive it, this is Elijah, who is to comeí (Matt. 11:14). How then does John come to say to those who ask him, ëAre you Elijah?íóëI am notí? . . . One might say that John did not know that he was Elijah. This will be the explanation of those who find in our passage a support for their doctrine of reincarnation, as if the soul clothed itself in a fresh body and did not quite remember its former lives. . . . However, a churchman, who repudiates the doctrine of reincarnation as a false one and does not admit that the soul of John was ever Elijah, may appeal to the above-quoted words of the angel, and point out that it is not the soul of Elijah that is spoken of at Johnís birth, but the spirit and power of Elijah" (Origen, Commentary on John 6:7, A.D. 229).