Source:Nibley:CW03:Ch26:5:Premortal existence in early Church

Premortal existence in early Church

Beliefs related to pre-mortal existence in early Church

The early Christians thought of the yearnings of the soul for heaven specifically as an urge to return to a familiar home. Origen's reflections on the preexistence are enlightening in this connection.

Speaking of the differences in rank and glory among the angels, Origen writes: "I think therefore, according as it seems to me, that the preceding disputation has sufficiently shown that the ruler holds his principate and the other orders receive their authority not indiscriminately or by chance, but that each receives the rank and honor for which he has qualified by merit, though it is not for us to know or even ask just what the deeds were by which they worked themselves into their various ranks." Origen finds support for this theory in the scriptural teaching that "God is no respecter of persons, but rather," he adds, "dispenses all things in proportion to the merit and progress of the individual. Therefore we cannot allow that the angels hold their offices on any other basis than merit, nor that the Powers exercise any power to which they have not progressed, nor that they administer what are called thrones, that is, the power to judge and to rule, on any other grounds than merit, nor that there is any dominion which is unearned."11

Passing from angels to men, Origen sees the same universal system in operation. Why the vast diversity and inequality among the creatures of earth? he asks. "If it is arbitrary, the creator must be unjust. Let us not think that differences of birth and fortune are accidental, but rather distributed to each one according to his desserts." Why was Jacob preferred to Esau? He deserved to be, and so it must be with all other men and all other creatures. Jacob was preferred even in the womb, so "we believe that he was even then chosen by God because of merits acquired before this life."12 The "we believe" here is significant, for while Origen often gets himself into trouble as an incurable speculator, he is scrupulously and uniquely honest in stating at all times when an idea is his own, when he is guessing, when he is assuming a thing for the sake of argument, or when he is expressing a settled opinion. At the beginning of the first passage cited from him, for example, he said, "I think therefore, according as it seems to me, that the preceding disputation has sufficiently shown. . . ." Would that modern scholars were half so honest! When, therefore, Origen specifically says, "we believe," we can be sure that he is speaking (as is Justin Martyr by the same sign) not merely for himself, but for the early church.

Then Origen points out that the merited differences of fortune among men on earth are just like what we find among the angels—in each case the honors must have been deserved. But when and how? This leads him to an interesting speculation. There is no doubt at all that when the human race bids its final farewell to earthly life, there is going to be a judgment, in which to everyone will be assigned a future state of bliss or misery in accordance with his behavior during his earthly probation. So when we behold men already enjoying a great variety of privileges and pains, that is, of rewards and punishments (as they needs must do, if God is not arbitrary) on this earth, that strongly suggests that some sort of judgment has already taken place before we came here, and that our places here are assigned us as the result of what was awarded us there for work done in a preexistent state.13 Perhaps Origen has let his speculative temperament carry him too far here, but that the most important of all theologians next to Augustine could in all seriousness have proposed such things in the first half of the third century is very significant. It shows why the early church never had to wrestle with the agonizing problems of predestination by which alone the churchmen after Augustine tried to explain the facts of life, though it made God seem cruel and arbitrary.

We might go on from the preexistence to discuss the early Christian doctrine of the plurality of worlds (a thing abhorrent to the systems of the later churchmen), or the degrees of glory or eternal progeny. The prominence given these things in the early fragments is the more striking in view of the complete silence of the later church regarding them. We have here a body of doctrine unknown to all but a few. We are only just beginning to learn what the early Christians really talked about, and how they answered the great questions of life. It is all totally foreign to conventional Christianity, but perfectly familiar, I am sure, to most Latter-day Saints, though few if any of them have ever considered the ancients in this regard. This is another certificate of the genuineness of the restored gospel, and as time goes by, a steady stream of new discoveries is vindicating the prophets.[1]


  1. 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), Chapter 26, references silently removed—consult original for citations.