Question: Did the early Christian fathers express a belief in a pre-mortal life?

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Question: Did the early Christian fathers express a belief in a pre-mortal life?

Many scholars (both LDS and non-LDS) find strong evidence for a belief in premortal life in the writings and teachings of the early Christian fathers

It is certainly true that the LDS are not the only people to believe in a premortal life. In fact, many scholars (both LDS and non-LDS) find strong evidence for a belief in premortal life in the writings and teachings of the early Christian fathers. While these teachings may have been dropped from the rote canon of the church, there is little doubt that they were understood and espoused from the earliest recorded times.

For instance, Clement of Alexandria, commenting on the scriptural passage in Jeremiah 1:5 (which is also addressed more fully in the next section), generalized the doctrine as having universal application. He wrote:

"…the Logos is not to be despised as something new, for even in Jeremiah the Lord says, 'Say not "I am too young," for before I formed thee in the womb I knew thee, and before thou camest forth from thy mother I sanctified thee.' It is possible that in speaking these things the prophet is referring to us, as being known to God as faithful before the foundation of the world."[1]

Another church father that spoke directly to the idea of a premortal existence was Origen of Alexandria (ca. AD 185–254). Writing in the third century, he stated a belief that differences evident among men on earth were attributable to differences in rank and glory attained by those men as premortal angels. According to Origen, God could not be viewed as "no respecter of persons" without such a premortal existence. In fact, if the differences of men on earth were not related in some way to our premortal condition, then God could be viewed as arbitrary, capricious, and unjust. Origen felt that just as there would a judgment after this life, that a sort of judgment had already taken place based on our premortal merit, with the result being the station to which we were appointed in this life. As an example of this concept supported in the Bible, Origen referred to the Old Testament story of Jacob being preferred over Esau. Why was this so? According to Origen, because "we believe that he was even then chosen by God because of merits acquired before this life."[2]

Belief in a premortal life was not confined to various early church fathers. In the course of his writings the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus wrote about the beliefs of the Essenes. He reported they believed "that the souls are immortal, and continue for ever." He further related that the Essenes believed that the souls of men "are united to their bodies as in prisons" and that when the spirits are set free they are "released from a long bondage" and ascend heavenward with great rejoicing.[3]Josephus' description of Essene doctrine has surely taken on greater validity in light of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran. Together these records provide primary evidence that contemporaries of Christ and the apostles believed in a premortal life—a belief that is validated by the Bible itself, as discussed in the following section.

These historical citations are just the tip of the iceberg. Serious students of the topic can find additional information that verifies that ancient Christians and Jews understood and accepted the concept of premortal existence. While knowing that the concept has historical roots does not prove the concept to be true, it certainly counteracts the fallacious claim that the teachings of the LDS on the topic are new, heretical, or dangerous.

Notes

  1. Clement of Alexandria, in Patrologiae… Graeca, 8:321, as cited by Hugh W. Nibley, The World and the Prophets, 3rd edition, (Vol. 3 of Collected Works of Hugh Nibley), edited by John W. Welch, Gary P. Gillum, and Don E. Norton (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company; Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1987), 228.
  2. Origen, Peri Archon, in Patrologiae… Graeca 9:230–231, as cited by Hugh W. Nibley, The World and the Prophets, 3rd edition, (Vol. 3 of Collected Works of Hugh Nibley), edited by John W. Welch, Gary P. Gillum, and Don E. Norton (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company; Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1987), 230. It is not the purpose here to debate or justify Origen's belief in a judgment before coming to Earth. Instead, this evidence is presented in substantiation of the historical acceptability—indeed, the historical teaching—of the concept of premortal life.
  3. Wars of the Jews, Chapter VIII, 11. translated by William Whiston, A.M., in The Complete Works of Josephus (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1981), 478.