Christian belief of reincarnation
Type of Spiritual Experience
A description of the experience
Reincarnation in America: A Brief Historical Overview - Lee Irwin ID
Religious Studies Department, College of Charleston, 66 George Street, Charleston, SC 29424, USA;
Origen’s concept of preexistent soul marks the beginning of a long history of contestation within Christian theologies that rejected orthodox after-life theories of heaven and hell in Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant teachings in favor of a theory of rebirth.
Even though Origen’s theory of the preexistent soul was pronounced anathema by the Fifth Ecumenical
Council (553 CE), diverse Christian groups have continued to teach reincarnation into the present day
(Givens 2010, pp. 94–96).
Foremost among those groups influenced by reincarnation theory were a variety of early Gnostic
Christian groups (Layton 1987; Logan 1996; Pearson 2007), as well as more mainstream groups such
as the Paulicians (fl. 850), the Bulgarian Bogomils (c. 1050), and the French Cathars (c. 1225), all of
whom taught reincarnation for those who did not successfully escape the fallen, sinful world through
dedicated, ascetic, devotional practices (Irwin 2017).
Against this background of resistant Christian theologies, texts traditions that explicitly taught metempsychosis continued to circulate in monastic communities and secular libraries, specifically, the Pistis Sophia, the Kore Kosmou, the Asclepius, and the collected texts of the Corpus Hermeticum.
The Pistis Sophia (c. 275 CE), the most explicit Christian text, describes the soul as led, through a series of stages, into the upper cosmos and taken before the Virgin of Light who, seeing it as a sinful soul, determined the bodily form it would take in its next life. The soul was then given over to the receiving spirits who induced forgetfulness and cast it into a certain type of physical body “worthy of the sins it has committed”...............................
Giordano Bruno (d. 1600) also wrote constructively on reincarnation as a necessary process for soul development through many incarnations. Bruno’s theory is complex and based in “fateful justice” for each soul in a search of a more empowered sense of human personhood through a positive relationship with universal soul. Thus, there is only creative ongoing process, no final judgment. Bruno was burned at the stake by the Catholic Inquisition for his refusal to reject these ideas (Mendoza 1995).
During this same period, Jewish Kabbalah was popularized and the theory of gilgul neshamot
(revolution or cycles of soul) became increasingly well-known among Christian and Jewish esotericists
(Ogren 2009). Many Jewish renaissance writers expostulated on the theme of gilgul or rebirth, perhaps
the most influential being a work by Hayyim Vital (d. 1620), a student of Isaac Luria, entitled Sha'ar ha
Gilgulim (“Gate of Cyclical Return”).
This very long and complex work offers a detailed description of soul cycles embedded in a cosmological theory of reincarnation (Wexelman 1999). Christians, influenced by Jewish Kabbalah and the theory of gilgul, also created works and text compilations in the form of Christian cabala, in which “soul revolution” was amalgamated to theories of resurrection such that the soul would reincarnate until the time the Final Judgment (Karr 2010).
By the 17th Century, ideas of soul revolution in England and Europe were accessible and disseminated among Christian and Jewish esoteric theorists (Ogren 2009).
The most pronounced example is found in the first book-length work in English on reincarnation,
articulated by the German esotericist Franciscus Mercurius van Helmont (d. 1698) while visiting
England (Coudert 1999). Van Helmont was a Christian cabalist and a proponent of an emergent new
anthropology arguing in favor of the necessity of “soul revolution” (reincarnation) as inseparable
from human “progress” ................. George Keith attended meetings to discuss Kabbalah with Lord Conway
and his wife, Lady Anne Conway, at their estate where van Helmont was the visiting physician for
In turn, Keith assembled the discussion notes into a single volume, attributed to van
Helmont, entitled Two Hundred Queries Moderately Propounded Concerning the Doctrine of the Revolution
of Humane Souls, and Its Conformity to the Truths of Christianity (1684).
This is the earliest book-length volume on reincarnation in English (Irwin 2017, pp. 122–24) and consists of specific questions, each answered to show the rational legitimacy of the theory of reincarnation (and the irrational nature of belief in an eternal hell or heaven). George Keith subsequently became the person responsible for the transition of reincarnation theory to America in the 1690s where he wrote and published a pamphlet defending his views.