Ancient Fathers on Reincarnation

Fr. George Maximov

In view of the high prevalence of the idea of “transmigration of souls” in modern society, it seems useful to pay attention to what our saints and other Orthodox authors wrote about it. Many ancient saints of the Church were familiar with the idea of reincarnation and gave it a quite specific assessment.

Thus, St. Epiphanius of Cyprus in his heresiological work “Panarion” mentions among the heresies of Hellenic philosophers that “Pythagoras … allowed the migration of souls from one body to another, even to the bodies of animals and wild beasts … Plato … also allowed the migration of souls into the bodies, even those of the beasts”.

Blessed Theodoritus of Cyrus writes, “Pythagoras fantasized about the migration of souls, saying that they pass not only into the bodies of the speechless animals, but also into plants. The same fable was followed by Plato. Manes and the impious cohort of the so-called Gnostics took it to claim that it was a kind of punishment… But the Church of the pious is disgusted by these and similar fables and, following the words of God, believes that the bodies will be resurrected, the souls will be judged with the bodies, those who lived viciously will be tormented, and those who cared about virtues will be rewarded “.

Many Holy Fathers mentioned the idea of the transmigration of souls and always condemned it as a delusion incompatible with the Christian faith. One can remember here, in particular, St. John Chrysostom, who wrote, “As for the soul, the pagan philosophers left the most disgraceful doctrine about it; they said that the human souls become flies, mosquitoes, trees; they claimed that God himself is a soul, and fantasized many other absurdities … There is nothing surprising in Plato, except this one thing … If you cleanse this philosopher’s opinions from rhetorical embellishments, you will see a lot of abominations, especially when he philosophizes about the soul, both glorifying it and humiliating it without measure … Sometimes he says that the soul is related to the divine being; and sometimes, having exalted it so excessively and so wickedly, insults it to the other extreme by introducing it into pigs and donkeys and other animals, even worse ones.”

We see a similar attitude in other saints, in particular St. Irenaeus of Lyon, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Cyril of Alexandria, Blessed Jerome of Stridon and St. Gregory Palamas.

Finally, the doctrine of reincarnation was condemned by the Orthodox Church at the Council of Constantinople in 1076. The third paragraph of its decree read:

“Those who accept the reincarnation of human souls … and as a result, reject the resurrection, the trial and the final reward for life – anathema”.


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