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Early Christian Belief in a Pre-Mortal Existence
Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations. Jeremiah 1:5
The LDS church believes biblical scriptures such as Jeremiah 1:5, Job 38:4,7, and Ecclesiastes 12:7 show evidence of a pre-mortal life or premortal existence. Most Christians in Joseph Smith's day believed these type of verses spoke of a foreknowledge of God.
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, 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."
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."
When the belief in a premortal life disappeared from Christianity
In reference to the concept of premortal life, William de Arteaga stated:
"This question was hotly debated by Christians of late antiquity, and the faction of the Church which was bitterly opposed to preexistence gained the upper hand. By the sixth century belief in preexistence was declared heresy. All of this is quite astonishing in view of the clear and repeated biblical evidence for preexistence."
The event referred to in the sixth century was an edict by Pope Vigilius in AD 543 that rejected the doctrine of preexistence taught by Origen of Alexandria. Historical records indicate that the edict, called Anathemas Against Origen, was actually penned by the Roman emperor, Justinian, and signed by the pope and other bishops present at the Second Council of Constantinople. Tales of the relationships between early popes and Roman emperors make for great reading. The relationship between Pope Vigilius and Emperor Justinian is no exception. Many records indicate that the anathemas declared against Origen had their roots in political posturing regarding doctrines of the early church. Regardless, many scholars regard the papal edict in AD 543 as the reason that the concept of preexistence is generally considered extrabiblical today. It is clear from the record that before this time the concept was freely taught by many within the church.
Jewish beliefs in a preexistence
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.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.
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.
- Clement of Alexandria, in Patrologiae… Graeca, 8:321, as cited by Template:Nibley3 1
- Origen, Peri Archon, in Patrologiae… Graeca 9:230–231, as cited by Template:Nibley3 1 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.
- William de Arteaga, Past Life Visions: A Christian Exploration (New York: Seabury Press, 1983), 127, as quoted by Template:Book:Top:Life Before
- Justinian was not a nice man regarding those who disagreed with him theologically. One author reports the following concerning the emperor: "Savage penalties were more loudly advertised by the impatient autocracy of the emperors, to offset the irremediable venality and favoritism of their servants. The means of persecution available to the church thus had more of an edge. Especially so under Justinian (527–565). A brutally energetic, or energetically brutal, ruler enjoying a very long reign, he pursued the goal of religious uniformity as no one before him. … He did not see it as murder if the victims did not share his own beliefs. …Those he disagreed with he was likely to mutilate if he didn't behead or crucify them..." [[[:Template:Book:MacMullen:Christianity and Paganism]]]
- This Council, sometimes referred to as the Fifth Ecumenical Council, was held in AD 553. It was the council at which the anathemas, penned and signed some ten years earlier, were formally adopted. The official document labeled Origen's teachings heresy and forbid them being taught in the church.
- 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.