“And as it is appointed unto men once to die, and after this the judgement: So also Christ was offered once to exhaust the sins of many; the second time he shall appear without sin to them that expect him unto salvation” (Hebrews 9:27-28).
A friend of mine told me recently that he was told that belief in reincarnation is (or was) compatible with Catholic teaching, and that it is (or was) mentioned in the Bible. However, that nasty Church led by Emperor Constantine (wait, what now?) removed and reinterpreted references to reincarnation at the Council of Nicaea. I assured my friend that I’d tackle the issue in this article, but I have to admit, I’m finding it difficult to tackle with a straight face.
To elaborate a little on the claim, basically what is supposed to have happened is that every Christian allegedly believed in reincarnation, and it was taught in the Bible, but for some reason (that’s never made clear) Emperor Constantine (and his mother, St. Helena) didn’t like the idea, and so had it expunged from the Scriptures at the Council of Nicaea in AD 325. Later, in AD 553 at the Second Council of Constantinople, the Emperor Justinian had this earlier action ratified (and apparently went so far as to imprison the pope at the time, who was, of course, a staunch believer in reincarnation, in order that the emperor’s schemes would bear fruition. Apparently, if people reincarnate, then they won’t need the Church for salvation, and they won’t pay taxes to the emperor. So the Church better teach them about hell, instead, to maintain their power.
And once the Church officially disavowed any belief in reincarnation and deleted any mention of it in the Scriptures, Christians didn’t believe in reincarnation until Shirley Maclaine and friends came along to show us that the Bible does actually teach reincarnation.
Try not to let any facts get in the way. It’s bad karma, apparently.
Fact #1: Aside from having the nerve to insist that an ecumenical council be convoked and held at Nicaea, Constantine had no involvement in its proceedings.
Fact #2: The Council of Nicaea met to examine and decide on the Arian controversy, wherein the deacon Arius had been teaching that Jesus was not fully divine, but an elevated human, whereas the teaching of the Church since the Apostles had been that Jesus was fully God and fully Man. The Council upheld the orthodox position that Jesus was indeed divine, and enshrined that belief in the Nicene Creed. (As an aside, as stated above, Constantine had no involvement in the verdict, and was, as a matter of fact, a supported or Arius’ position!)
Fact #3: The Council of Nicaea didn’t touch on the question of reincarnation whatsoever. The Second Council of Constantinople in AD 553 didn’t either. It did, however, condemn a belief held by Origen, a theologian who lived in the third century (notably, that’s about 100 years before Constantine and the Council of Nicaea), who taught that our souls pre-existed our earthly life, rather than being created at the moment of our conception. However, even Origen did not teach reincarnation (and, in fact, in his writings he condemns the teaching himself, stating, “[O]thers, then, who are strangers to the doctrine of the Church, assume that souls pass from the bodies of men into the bodies of dogs, according to their varying degree of wickedness; but we . . . do not find this at all in the divine Scripture” (Commentary on Matthew, 11:17 [AD 248]).
Fact #4: Pope Vigilius was not arrested because he believed in reincarnation and the Emperor Justinian wanted to condemn it. He was arrested for resisting the emperor’s making edicts that condemned teachings of the Church whatsoever, as being an infringement of the State on the Church. Vigilius may not have been a great pope, but in this instance, he was in the right and behaved honourably. That said, his disagreement with Justinian wasn’t that he disagreed with the emperor’s desire to condemn a particular heresy (which, incidentally, had nothing to do with reincarnation), but simply with the emperor’s presumed right to do so.
Fact #5: It is simply not true to say that Christians believed in reincarnation until Emperor Constantine and his mother led a campaign of censorship, removing evidence of the teaching from the Bible. This is demonstrable from the writings of Early Church Fathers who lived and wrote earlier than AD 325 who condemn belief in reincarnation (a good sampling of quotations can be found here), as well as the fact that we still have in existence manuscript copies of the New Testament that themselves date to prior to the Council of Nicaea, and which have no trace of reincarnation in them.
To summarise, reincarnation is a doctrine that is foreign to the Gospel. We have but one life to live here, in which we can either live a life of love and service to God and to others, or a life of selfishness and vice, rejecting God’s grace. When we die, we will face Jesus in judgement, and either enter into our eternal reward with Him in Heaven (though perhaps after some purification in Purgatory) or we will be eternally separated from Him in Hell. The choice is ours, and we need to make it here and now, in this life.
“Death is the end of man’s earthly pilgrimage, of the time of grace and mercy which God offers him so as to work out his earthly life in keeping with the divine plan, and to decide his ultimate destiny. When “the single course of our earthly life” is completed, we shall not return to other earthly lives: “It is appointed for men to die once.” There is no “reincarnation” after death.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, §1013).
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