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    The Doctrine of Pre-Mortal Existence

    Is it True?
    Adapted from an Article by Eugene Seaich

    Serious scholarship widely acknowledges the doctrine of individual pre-existence to be a genuine, early Christian teaching [1].

    Even prior to Christianity, "the idea that certain things pre-exist in the mind of God or in heaven has a long history in the Biblical and early Jewish traditions" [2]. "According to the theory held by the ancient Jews and the whole of the Semitic nations, everything of real value that from time to time appears on earth is merely a transition from concealment to publicity" [3]. By the time of apocalyptic (ca. 200 BC to 200 AD) pre-existence had become a "commonplace" concept [4]; hence, "to affirm that the Jews in Christ's time did not believe in pre-existence is simply inaccurate" [5].

    "Knowledge of this history is essential for an understanding of the idea of pre-existence in the New Testament" [6], for the early Church shared the same teaching [7, and continued to do so until it was condemned by the Council of Constantinople in AD 553. Origen, the greatest of early Church theologians, declared that he still favoured the doctrine (De Principis I.7:4-5; III.5:4), as did Justin Martyr, Augustine, Cyril of Jerusalem, Pierus, John of Jerusalem, Rufinius, Nemesius, and the Western Church generally until the time of Gregory the Great [8].

    The Semites generally believed that the models for earthly things pre-exist in heaven [9], as, for example, the author of Exodus 25:9, who described the heavenly Tabernacle as a pattern for the Tent in the wilderness. The prophets likewise taught that the heavenly world contained in advance everything that was to appear on earth [10](see, for example, Ps.11:3-4 cp. Jer.25:30; Ps.139:8; 103:19; Isa.6; Jer.1; Ezek.1). Certain Babylonian tablets even went so far as to suggest that the souls of the first couple (which had the cuneiform sign for deity before their names) were derived from the blood of slain gods [11]indicating the heavenly pre-existence of the nephesh, or the "soul" (cp. Gen.9:4).

    Job 15:7 contains an early reference to the pre-existence of Adam, who was "created before the hills". Jeremiah 1:5 similarly speaks of the pre-existence of the prophet whom God "knew before he was formed in the womb" (cp. also Ps.139:15). Philo [12], and Josephus [13] show that this belief was still active in late Judaism, which in certain quarters held that the soul had an immortal existence before it was drawn into a body, whence it longs to return after death. Indeed, the doctrine of the soul's pre-existence remained basic to Judaism as late as the Talmudic era (2nd to 5th centuries), as numerous Talmudic and Amoraic writings show [14].

    The area of greatest contact between Jewish and Christian pre-existence doctrines was in the literature of the apocalyptic, which taught that the entire Community of Israel (later the Church) had a corporate pre-existence in heaven. This becomes the "pre-existent Church", or "Heavenly Jerusalem" of Gal.4:26, Rev.21:2, 4 Ezra 7:26, 2 Clem.14:1, the Shepherd of Hermas V.2.4:1, etc. [15], whose members were sent to earth as "colonists from heaven" (hence the NCCG use of "colonies" for congregations) to preoare for the establishment of God's kingdom [16].

    This heavenly corporeity was further characterised by the term "mystery", referring to the "hidden pre-existent things" [17], an expression which has recently been shown to derive from the Old Testament (OT) idea of the "Heavenly Council" (Heb. sowd) [18], which in turn became the "mystery" of the New Testament (NT) [19], or the revelation of God's "secrets", to which the prophets gained access when they were supernaturally "caught up" (2 Cor.12:2-4 cp. Amos 3:7; 1 Ki.22:19-22; Jer.23:18) [20].

    Man's derivation from this Heavenly Council (= the "pre-existent Church") was a frequent subject in apocalyptic literature, as, for example in 1 Enoch 62:7-8, which describes the Son of Man (Christ) together with the "Congregation of the Elect" before their sowing on earth; or in the Qumran "Hymn Scroll", which speaks of the pre-existent Community as "a Mystery ...a tree fed from a secret spring" (1QH 8:4-11), and a "congregation of thy Holy Ones" which "thou hast established from before eternity" (13:7-10). The early Christian Odes of Solomon (70-100 AD) also describe the pre-existent Church as a Community of "fruit-bearing trees", whose crown is "self-grown", and whose roots are "from an immortal land", watered by a "river of gladness" (Ode 11).

    This distinctive imagery, by the way, proves that the Nag Hammadi texts had their origins in the apocalyptic milieu of the Church, for we read in them the same description of man's origin from a "divine spring which is not diminished by the water that flows from it" [21], or the eternal "fountain issuing forth from God", which is the "root of those who are planted" [22], i.e. Israel/the Church.

    Yah'shua (Jesus) also referred to the mysterious heavenly sources when he declared, My kingdom is not of this world" (John 18:36), since it originated "out of the world...before the world was" (John 17:5-6). The disciples, too, "are not of the world, even as I am not of the world" (v.16), having been "chosen in Him before the foundation of the world" (2 Thess.2:13).

    This pre-existent choice is further spoken of in Romans 8:28-30, where God before creation "called those whom He predestined to conform to the image of His Son", proving that "the elect really existed when the choice was made" [23]. The fact that both the Elect and the Son were involved in this choice therefore shows that early Christians believed not only in the pre-existence of Christ (the Bridegroom) but in the pre-existence of the Church (the Bride), as well [24]; for these two entities "were identical with items that were believed, in the tradition from which they came, to have existed before the world" [25]. Man, in other words, possessed a real pre-existence, as did Christ, whose pre-mortal life "orthodoxy" (the true early Christians) has never attempted to reduce to a mere "thought" in the Father's "foreknowledge" as modern Christians are maintaining today.

    Man's "choosing in Christ" was very widely described as a pre-existent "espousal", prefiguring the "marriage of the Lamb" (Rev.19:7; Matt.22), or the union of Christ and the Church to become the "Body of Christ" (1 Cor.12:12-13; Eph.5:23-32). Of the Bridegroom and the Bride, 2 Clement wrote: "The male is Christ, and the female is the Church. And the Book of the Apostles plainly declare that the Church existed not now for the first time, but cometh from on high; for she was spiritual, as our Jesus was spiritual, but is manifested in ther last days that he might save us" (14:1-2). This image of the "pre-existant marriage of Christ and the Church" [26] appears to have been the result of combining the OT idea of Yahweh's marriage to Israel with the belief that Christ and the Church pre-existed together [27], creating an apt and beautiful symbol of their ante-mortal relationship, during which Christ was chosen and foreordained to become the future sacrifice of His brethren (1 Peter 1:19-20).

    Genuine pre-existance was also the primise upon which the disciples based their question about the blind man: "Master, who did sin, this man or his parents, that he was born blind? (John 9:2). In fact, so realistic was their conception of pre-existence that contemporary Jews described the very chambers (Heb. guf, araboth) in which these souls dwelled, awaiting their turn to descend into bodies [28]. The Genesis Rabbah even tells how Yahweh took counsel with such spirits before creating the world (Funks & Wagnall's New Standard Bible Dictionary (Philadelphia, 1936), p.306); and the Tanhuma Pekude records a conversation in which yahweh speaks to a soul about to enter a drop of semen, promising that its new life will be "better than the world in which thou hast lived hitherto" (R.M.Grant, The Early Christian Doctrine of God (Charlottesville, 1966), p.79).

    Early Christianity likewise continued to tell how the "chambers of souls" longed to deliver the spirits "entrusted to them from the beginning", just as the womb longs to "complete its anguish of labour" (4 Ezra 4:33-42; cp. Rev.6:9-11). Such writings add that a definite number of souls exist (cp. Dt.32:8; Acts 17:26), and that the coming of the Messiah will be delayed until all have had their chance to come to earth (4 Ezra 4:35-36; 2 Baruch 23:3-5; 2 Enoch 23:4-5; 49:2; Pistis Sophia 22).

    By comparing Christ's statement in Matthew about the coming of the "Son of Man" (Mt.24:34) with a similar statement in Pistis Sophia (22), one is forced to conclude that for many early Christians the "fulfillment of the number of souls" and the "passing of this generation" referred to the same thing, for the promised "shortening of days" (Mt.24:22; Pistis Sophia 22) depends in both cases upon it, and without it, "no flesh shall be saved". In short, the "number of souls" is what comprises the Father's "generation", i.e. the family og His pre-destined elect (Rom.8:29-30). Hammerton-Kelly also locates Christ's "mysterious divine origin" in this pre-existing family, the same family which is to become manifest in the last days (Mark 3:35). "Whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, and my sister, and mother" (op.cit., p.49), for those were already chosen before Creation (Eph.1:4; John 17:5-6), hence are able to recognise Christ's voice, and follow Him (John 10:4,27). This eschatologically pre-existent family is further identified in Revelation as the "New Jerusalem" descending out of heaven (Rev.21:2), made up of "12 tribes" of celestial Israel (v.12), to which one's adoptive lineage will belong (Gal.3:29).

    The fact that pre-existent souls have already been created spiritually, and are not "thoughts" in Yahweh's mind, is emphasised in works such as Joseph's Prayer [29], which says of certain individuals possessing "distinction greater than other souls": "I (Jacob) am an angel of God, and a primaeval spirit, thje first-born of all creation, and like me were baraham and Isaac created before any other words of God." The Shepherd of Hermas (perhaps the most widely read book in the entire Church from the 2nd to the 4th centuries) [30] likewise says of the pre-existent Church, "She was created before all things...for her sake was the world framed" (Vis.2.4:1). It was undoubtedly amongst such "invisible things" that Yahweh used to "go about" before creating "the things that are visible" (2 Enoch 24:4 cp. Heb.11:3).

    According to Matthew 13:33,38, the best of these souls were sown as "leaven" among the tares, i.e. as "children of the kingdom" in the "field of the world". There can be no question as to the exact meaning of these verses, for the oft-repeated theme was specifically explained by the early Church writers as "the scattering of souls into bodies" [31]. The Wisdom of Solomon (A Jewish book retained by the Chur4ch as her own scripture) [32] says that Solomon was one of the nobler of these souls before being sown in a physical form: "As a child, I was by nature well-endowed, and a good soulfell my lot, or rather, being good, I entered an undefiled body" (8:19-20). Eventually, the doctrine of the soul's descent into a body emerged as one of the leading themes in the newly-discovered Nag Hammadi library, found in Upper Egypt in 1946 [33]. There we read the following concerning pre-existence of the soul, said to be a genuine statement of the Saviour, taken from "a sayinsg collection...more primitive than the canonical gospels" [34]: "Blessed is he who was before he came into being" (Logion 17). The Gospel of Philip (ca. 140 AD) similarly remarks: "Blessed is he who is before he came into being. For he both was and shall be" (Saying 57).

    Since these souls came from another worls, they are only "passers-by" in the present one (Gospel of Thomas, Log.42). The Jewish writer Philo, had already described our existence in the world as a passage through "a foreign city, in which before birth we had no part, and in this city does but sojourn" (De Cherubim, 120); and the same theme now reappears in Hebres 11:11-16, where the Elect are referred to as "strangers" and "pilgrims", searching for their heavenly home (for, as 2:11 pointed out, their origin was in One, ex henos, God the Father). The Gospel of Thomas therefore enjoins the faithful to remain unattached to this world, like their Master, the "homeless Wisdom", who had "no where to lay His head" (Log.86; cp. Mt.8:20; Lk.9:29).

    Other Nag Hammadi texts - reflecting Christianity in Egypt during the early centuries of the Church -- tell us that the souls of the Elect are from "the great incorruptible race which has come forth through three worlds" (Gospel of the Egyptians 60:25-61:1). Together with their offspring, they "are from the Primaeval Father; from Above, out of imperishable Light, their souls are come" (Hypostasis of the Archons 96:19-22). "They came forth from the Father like children who are from a grown man" (Gospel of Truth 27:12-15). "Like the world, he begot them, and they existed spermatically before the ones whom He was to beget came into being" (Tripartite Tractate 60:34-37). It is this divine origin upon which their future glory depends, "For he who has no root has no fruit" (Gospel of Truth 28:16-21). Those who possess true knowledge (gnosis) of their mortal nature, though, are able to say with pride, "I am from the Pre-existent Father, and am a son of the Pre-existant One...(I go) to the place from which I have come; there I shall return" (1st Apocolypse of James 33:21-34:19). In short, the Nag Hammadi doctrine of pre-existence continued to teach in its own way the "original stance of transcendance central to the very beginnings of Christianity" (italics added) [35]. It was most certainly the doctrine of the primitive church (though somewhat evolved by the later Gnostics) and yet it is denied by orthodox divines in the face of all the scholarly evidence.

    Is the Doctrine of Human Pre-Existence Important?

    If the doctrine is true, it must be important, because ot presents a dimension of human existence that must affect the way we see God, Yah'shua/Jesus, life, the gospel and our probation, because Yah'shua/Jesus said: "I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by Me" (John 14:6, RSV). The doctrine cannot be a matter of tangential speculation because it lies at the heart of our raison d'être.


    • [1] Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, III:869-70; Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible (NY, 1963), ad loc; "Die altchristliche Idee einer präxistierden Kirche", Wißenschaft und Wahrheit 9, 13-22; Heinrich Schiller, Der Brief an die Epheser (Düsseldorf, 1957), p.49-50; Adolf von Harnack, History of Dogma (NY, 1961), I:318-331; &c. This is only a sample of growing literature documenting this early Christian belief.
    • [2] R.G.Hammerton-Kelley, Pre-existence, Wisdom and the Son of Man in the New Testament (Cambridge, 1973), p.15
    • [3] Harnack, op.cit., I:318
    • [4] Norman Perrin, op.cit. (in series of articles on the Godhead), p.168
    • [5] Hastings-Schribner, A Dictionary of the Bible (NY, 1903), IV:66
    • [6] Hamerton-Kelly, op.cit., p.15
    • [7] Jean Danielou, The Theology of Jewish Christianity, 4, and 262-310
    • [8] Hasting's Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, art. on pre-existence, p.239
    • [9] Albright, FSAC, 177; Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return (Princeton, 1954), p.7-9
    • [10] Hamerton-Kelly, op.cit., p.16
    • [11] Heidel, The Babylonian Genesis, p.67
    • [12] De Somniis I:22; De Cherubim, p.120
    • [13] Wars of the Jews, II.8:154
    • [14] Ferdinand Weber, Jüdische Theologie (Leipzig, 1897), p.212-228
    • [15] See Albert Schweizer, The Mysticism of the Apostle Paul (NY, 1968), p.102ff; 116; Jean Danielou, op.cit., 4, 262-301
    • [16] Interpreter's Bible, X:541
    • [17] Hammerton-Kelly, op.cit., p.9-10
    • [18] H. Wheeler Robinson, The Council of Yahweh, in Journal of Biblical Studies (1944); Albright, YGC, p.191-3
    • [19] Raymond E. Brown, The Semitic Background of the Term "Mystery" in the New Testament (Philadelphia, 1968)
    • [20] H. Wheeler Robinson , op.cit., note 18
    • [21] Tripartite Tractate 60:13-15
    • [22] Ibid., 66:17-18; Gospel of Truth 36:35-39
    • [23] Hammerton-Kelly, op.cit., p.154-5
    • [24] Ibid., p.152
    • [25] Ibid., p.152
    • [26] Danielou, op.cit., 302. See also pp.301-311, for his proof that this was a genuine teaching of the Primitive Church
    • [27] Hamerton-Helly, op.cit., 152
    • [28] See Abodah Zarah 5a; Yebamoth 62:1; Sifre 143b; Chagiga 12b
    • [29] In Origen's Commentary on John II:25
    • [30] The Ante-Nicene Fathers II:6
    • [31] Heracleon, Commentary on the Gospel of John 2 (in R.M.Grant, Second Century Christianity, London, 1957, p.39): Priscilian, Memoria Apostolarum (in Hennecke-Schneemelcher-Wilson, New Testament Apocrypha, Philadelphia, 1963, I:266). Priscillian unfortunately implies that the Sower (identified by Gnostics as the OT Creator) was careless or arbitrary in allowing some seed to fall on stony ground (Matt.12:4-7,20), for which reason his work was attacked in the 5ht century as heretical. But the basic premise that pre-existant souls were sown into bodies was taken for granted by all early commentators (see Origen's Against Celsus 5:29, which refers to the "doctrine of the entrance of souls into bodies" as a secret which should be protected by the Church)
    • [32] It is now part of the orthodox Apocrypha, which until recent times was included in most Catholic and Protestant Bibles
    • [33] Composed of some 50 separate books, this library was copied and bound in the 4th century, but contains individual tractates from as early as 140 AD
    • [34] James M. Robinson & Helmut Köster, Trajectories Through Early Christianity (Philadelphia, 1971), p.186
    • [35] The Nag Hammadi Library, 4. Compare also Albert Schweizer's definition of Jesus as the "high water mark of Jewish apocalyptic"

      This page was created on 19 February 2000
      Last updated on 19 February 2000

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