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by Al Maxey

Issue #761 ------- December 20, 2018
The soul is born old and grows young.
Oscar Wilde [1854-1900]

Philosophy of Metempsychosis
The Disciples' Puzzling Question to Jesus
About Prior Existence and Prenatal Sin

There is a haunting phrase that appears in one of the poems of Margaret Widdemer (1884-1978), an American writer who won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1919. This phrase appears in her work titled The Factories: "Round my path they cry to me, little souls unborn." The Norwegian novelist Martha Ostenso (1900-1963) spoke similarly of "souls that were never born out of the land of IF" [The Unicorn and the Hippogriff]. Both these women, and countless others both before and after them, have pondered the origin, nature and destiny of that mysterious entity called "the soul." What exactly is it? Where does it come from? Where does it go? Is it even real? Those familiar with my own thinking and teaching know that I do not believe the Scriptures teach that man possesses an "immortal soul." There is no "spirit being" trapped inside our physical bodies that "flies away" at the point of physical death to some unseen realm. I have dealt with this extensively in my fourth book From Ruin to Resurrection. I also have other studies on this (debates, articles, classes, etc.) available on my Web Site. To better understand this current reflective study, however, I would urge the reader to take a few minutes to examine Reflections #32 ("What is Man? Body - Soul - Spirit").

In spite of my own convictions on this matter, most peoples of the world believe there is some "unseen presence" that dwells somewhere within our bodies. They regard it as our "true essence of being," and they further believe that it is immortal by nature. It can never die or be destroyed, not even by God, thus it must live on endlessly somewhere (whether in bliss or torment). Others feel strongly that this "immortal soul" has always existed, thus it not only will forever exist after the host body dies, but it had conscious being prior to being placed in that host body as well. Some religions teach these "souls" are reborn into new bodies when released by death from their present host, and that these rebirths are repeated over and over until such time as these recycled souls finally "get it right." Such words as "reincarnation," and such phrases as "the transmigration of souls," concepts which we have all heard, depict such systems of belief. Again, I do not believe the Bible teaches this, but there is no denying that many people do, and always have; nor can we deny the fact that even some of the people we meet within the pages of the Scriptures held similar confused views. Frankly, there has always been significant confusion among the peoples of the earth as to the nature of man and his eternal destiny, and yes, this confusion existed even within the hearts and minds of some of the disciples of Christ.

A perfect example of this is found in John 9, which is a lengthy narrative of our Lord's encounter with a poor beggar "blind from birth" whom Jesus healed, which is then followed by an accounting of the sad after-effects of that encounter and healing. It is a fascinating story, and one from which we may draw a good many spiritual and practical lessons. However, in this issue of my Reflections I want to narrow our focus to a question the disciples of Christ posed to Him when they first encountered this blind man. The narrative begins: "And as Jesus passed by, He saw a man blind from birth. And His disciples asked Him, 'Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he should be born blind?'" (John 9:1-2). There are several interesting observations to be made here. First, "of the six miracles of blindness recorded in the Gospels, this is the only case of blindness from birth" [Pulpit Commentary, vol. 17, pt. 2, p. 15]. There are two examples of lameness from birth (Acts 3:2; 14:8), but "this is the only example of congenital blindness being healed" [Dr. A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, e-Sword]. This, then, would have been something quite unusual for those who witnessed it. Many who were blind had been healed in the past, but no one who had been blind "from his/her mother's womb" had ever been healed. Even this man himself was somewhat astonished, and he later told the Pharisees, who had been questioning him, "Since the beginning of time it has never been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind" (John 9:32).

Second, "note where the emphasis lies in the question. It lies on the word 'born,' not on the word 'blind'" [Pulpit Commentary, vol. 17, pt. 2, p. 37]. The phrase "from birth," which the disciples used in their query to Jesus, is emphasized "because the question of the disciples turns on this point" [Dr. R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. John's Gospel, p. 674]. Many scholars feel these disciples who were with Jesus were not so much moved by compassion for this man, but rather were puzzled theologically by his predicament. "The interest of the disciples was prompted by theological curiosity rather than compassion. For them the blind man was an unsolved riddle rather than a sufferer to be relieved" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 9, p. 101]. Which leads us to the third observation: it was a fairly common belief among the Jews of that day that severe physical afflictions were inevitably caused by sin, either by the person afflicted or one very near and dear to him/her. Even the friends of Job sought to impress upon him the same point: he was being afflicted because of sin in his life, they reasoned, therefore he needed to confess that sin and repent. The fact that this man was "blind from birth" complicated this equation for these disciples. So they asked, "Who sinned? Was it this man or his parents?" (John 9:2).

Fourth, their question reveals their awareness of, and perhaps even acceptance of, a rather unusual belief: i.e., the notion among some segments of the Jewish population of the pre-existence of souls, and possibly even of metempsychosis or the transmigration of souls. These were well-known Greek philosophical terms at that time, for the Greeks, especially under the influence of such thinkers as Plato and Pythagoras, had largely accepted the doctrine of "immortal soulism," and that these souls enjoyed an everlasting life of their own both prior to the birth of their host body and after the death of that body. This thinking began to find its way into the theology of the Jews during the so-called Intertestamental Period of their history. By the time of Christ, many were aware of these doctrinal theories, and, of course, over the past two thousand years they have become widely incorporated into the theology of Christendom. My own writings over the years on this topic, with which many of you are familiar, have been intent upon exposing and eradicating this false teaching that arose largely from Greek philosophy rather than from divine revelation. Thankfully, more and more scholars are coming to this same conviction. "Recent theology has reached a wide consensus on the wholeness and unity of the human person, and hence regards as illegitimate the question of the soul's origin. Thus, the idea of the pre-existence of the soul finds little support in contemporary Christian theology" [The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 3, p. 953]. And yet, "the doctrine of the soul's pre-existence was held by some Christian sects: e.g., the first century Palestinian Mandeans, the second century Gnostics, and the third century Manichaeans. Under Platonic and Neo-Platonic influence, the view appeared in Justin Martyr and especially in Origen of Alexandria. Through Origen's influence, the doctrine gained wider acceptance, including Rufinus, John of Jerusalem, and the Priscillianists, but it was opposed by Methodius and Gregory of Nyssa. In subsequent history, the idea of the pre-existence of the soul had few Christian supporters. It never became part of a Christian creed or confession" [ibid, p. 952].

"Scripture does not present a single clear reference to the idea of the pre-existence of human souls" [ibid]. In fact, as I note in my above referenced in-depth study of the nature of man (body-soul-spirit) from a biblical perspective, man is a unified whole, not a series of separate living entities. It was not until after the Babylonian Captivity, and under Greek and Persian influences, that the Jews ever began to embrace such pagan notions. By the time of Christ, as John 9:2 illustrates, such notions were on the minds even of His own disciples. This confusion, then, led to their question. Yes, they reasoned, it could have been the sin of the parents that resulted in the blindness of their child (as a punishment to them). Yet, they wondered, could it also perhaps have been this man's OWN sin that led to him being BORN blind? There are three primary possibilities in view here: (1) This "yet to be born soul" was part of a vast "pool of souls," and God would draw from this pool and place souls in the bodies of pregnant women. This rebel soul sinned in some manner while waiting in this "soul pool." (2) This person had lived a previous life in a body, and it was because of sins in that prior body that he was now being punished in this new one. This gets into reincarnation. (3) This man, prior to his birth, committed sin in the womb. "Jewish thought regarding congenital defect as a punishment for sin, was inclined in such a case to explain it as having been committed in the womb, or in a previous existence, or by the parents. ... Such a concept appears in the rabbinical writings" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 9, p. 101-102]. As proof of the third option, the ancient Jewish scholars appealed to the case of Jacob and Esau in the womb of Rebekah. "The children struggled together within her" (Genesis 25:22). "And afterward his brother came forth with his hand holding on to Esau's heel, so his name was called Jacob" {i.e., one who supplants; who takes by the heel} (vs. 26). "Thus, the Jews insisted that self-will could be manifested in an unborn child" [Dr. H.A. Ironside, Addresses on the Gospel of John, p. 398]. After all, some would further reason, is it not true that "when Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby leaped in her womb" (Luke 1:41)?! If they can rejoice, they can also sin! Right?! Such was their logic.

It is generally acknowledged that "metempsychosis was held by some Jews" [Dr. W. Robertson Nicoll, The Expositor's Greek Testament, vol. 1, p. 782]. Even John Calvin attested to this, as did other theologians. Thus, the question of these disciples "seems to imply that they supposed even a natal defect might be the punishment of the individual's own sin" [ibid]. One of the Jewish apocryphal writings suggests this very thing, although asserting it from a positive rather than a negative perspective: "Being good, I came into a body undefiled" (The Book of Wisdom 8:20). The most common interpretation of this is that the unborn soul, or fetus, behaved itself and was thus rewarded with a healthy and sound physical body at birth. Quite clearly, to any who take the time to research the thinking of the people near to Christ in the first century, there were some very confused theological understandings, and it would be unusual if we didn't find these now and then within their comments. "There was much speculation in our Lord's time, and had been for some two centuries, on the mysterious questions of the soul's origin and destiny. Some, following Plato and Philo, believed in its eternal pre-existence. ... A few supported the Platonic speculation of metempsychosis (as did Josephus). The disciples of Jesus were aware of these discussions" [Dr. James Hastings, Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels, vol. 2, p. 668], and this was clearly in their minds as they posed the question to Jesus that day. Thus, "the disciples cannot help raising the inevitable theological question: Whose sin has caused this man's blindness?!" [Dr. Roger L. Fredrikson, The Communicator's Commentary: John, p. 168]. As John Wesley (1703-1791) noted in his commentary on John's Gospel, "They suppose (as many of the Jews did, though without any ground from Scripture) that he might have sinned in a pre-existent state, before he came into the world" [Explanatory Notes on the Whole Bible, e-Sword].

Such speculations about the nature of man, and his origins and destiny, have always existed, and they are no less abundant today than in the past. The terminology may be somewhat different today, but the teaching remains largely the same. It is not uncommon, for example, to read such notions as the "Cosmic Cradle" (i.e., the pool of souls) and a "Spirit-Child." These are terms associated with an anthropological theory known as the "Preconception Paradigm." All such speculations are certainly fascinating, and I admit that I enjoy delving into the thinking of other peoples and cultures, but such teaching has little to do with ultimate Truth. "The rabbinical casuists loved to split hairs on this problem" [Dr. A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, e-Sword], as do many biblical scholars today. For many it is a pleasant theological distraction. However, Jesus wasn't taking the bait that day in Jerusalem when His disciples asked Him their question about this man who was blind from birth. Jesus was simply "not interested in answering theological speculations" [Dr. Roger L. Fredrikson, The Communicator's Commentary: John, p. 168]. "Jesus does not attempt enlightenment on this wide and intricate subject, either here or elsewhere" [R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. John's Gospel, p. 676]. Oddly enough, Jesus did not speak out against this pagan notion, but merely instructed His disciples that neither the man nor his parents had sinned so as to cause Him to be born blind. Contrary to what some might think, Jesus did not go around debunking every Jewish or pagan myth that had arisen in their theology due to pagan influence. This could very easily have become a debilitating distraction. Instead, He informed them that "their major premise was false, and thus neither conclusion followed" [Guy N. Woods, The Gospel According to John, p. 184].

The major premise of these disciples, and of the Jews of that day, was that if a person was experiencing great difficulties and afflictions, then somebody quite obviously had sinned, and the former state was the direct result or consequence of the latter action. Jesus told His disciples that this was not a "sin matter" (cause and effect) at all. Neither this man nor his parents had caused this blindness from birth by his/their sin. "The answer of Jesus asserts that no such connection exists, and our Lord's words remain, even to this day, a warning against the spirit of judging other men's lives, and of tracing in the misfortunes and sorrow which they have to bear the results of individual sin or the proof of divine displeasure" [Dr. Charles Ellicott, Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 6, p. 458]. "The greatest sufferers are not therefore to be looked upon as the greatest sinners" [Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible, e-Sword]. Instead, this was just one of many opportunities for the glory of our God to be manifested in an act of compassion, mercy and love. Too often, like Job's friends, we seek to find the sin in other people's lives, then call them to account for that sin, and in the process we lay aside the very thing they need the most: a loving, caring, supportive companion. Like the disciples that day in Jerusalem, rather than feeling compassion for this man born blind, they were more interested in theological speculation. Satan is not only a master of disguise, but also a master at diversion: he seeks to divert the focus of our eyes from our heart to our intellect, thus approaching what we see with questions and doubts rather than mercy and compassion. There is nothing wrong with queries and theories; they have their place in our spiritual growth and development. But, may they never become the center of our focus. Let us seek to see others through the loving eyes of our Lord and Savior Jesus the Messiah. It is hard to go wrong when we see as He sees!


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Readers' Reflections

From a Reader in Alaska:

When I was an undergraduate (back in the 1970s), I recall a psychology theory named "spirit child." Have you heard of this? A brief search of the Internet found zero items on this. Al, you are such a great encouragement to me. Thank you for being you. We love you and Shelly.

From a Minister in Tennessee:

Brother Maxey, I cannot with mere words explain how much your materials have helped me to be who I'm supposed to be! As a Christian, I had felt enslaved; I was lacking in joy. It felt more like an academic contest where I would use God's Word to try and prove everyone else wrong, while trying to prove how right I was. And though I would feel I was right, at the same time I felt empty and joyless. With your help, I have come to the realization that I, along with my church community, am going to enjoy our freedom in Christ ... and, boy, have we!! We've added several new families, and our visitors keep coming back: they state that they haven't ever been to a "Church of Christ" that was actually loving and positive and encouraging. We've even had to remodel our building to add more seating! Thank You, Brother Maxey, for helping me to love and accept the real Jesus, and in so doing to relay that message to so many souls eager to enjoy and grow in the relationship that He wants us to have with Him. Love you, brother!!

From a Reader in Alaska:

Thanks for your encouragement over the years, Al. It has helped me to keep on keeping on, which I believe is how Jesus wants His imperfect followers to mature: i.e., continuing to fight their own spiritual fight as best they see fit and never giving up the faith "in Whom we have to do." They say the best way to learn to write is to actually write, and that's how you've encouraged me over the years via your responses to my periodic comments. Whether or not my own writing efforts ever produce anything worthy of publication, those efforts continue to occupy me and help me further refine my muddling grasp of the unknowable that is personal faith. It always boggles my mind how some think that finite humans can wrap their intellectual arms around an infinite divinity they call God, and further how they distill responsiveness down to whatever formula they propose, regardless of their religious affiliation. Somehow, anyone who doesn't realize that their faith is always a work-in-progress misses the point. An abundant life isn't about having doctrinal certainty nailed down, but rather ongoing progress toward full-fledged practice of what Jesus commanded, taught, and embodied while here. "Progressive realization of a worthy objective" is one definition of success from my old budget analyst days. Our own "journey to eternity" is more about direction than perfection! Along with the late Edward Fudge, you have been one of my best online encouragers, and that, my friend, I value more than you know! May your ministry continue to bless others as long as you're blessed with the faculties to continue.

From a Reader in New Jersey:

Your Reflections give us all much to munch on! We need this challenging! Politically correct churchianity is not only stupid, but it is unbiblical, unproductive, and actually detrimental to both believers and unbelievers alike. There are many times when it really feels like I know more, just from reading my Bible, than my teachers who have the formal training and degrees. One of my teachers recently said that she was "born a Baptist, lives as a Baptist, and will die a Baptist." And I'm not picking on the Baptists, for I find such "thinking" going on all across the board in all "brands" of Christian churches. It makes one wonder if Christ will find faith upon this earth when He returns! I personally decided to simply follow Christ and His Word years ago, and even if nobody else does the same, I still intend to continue following only HIM.

From a Reader in Arkansas:

If the disciples of Jesus Christ differed somewhat on their various understandings of the Gospel and/or the Way, what is our problem when we fight and divide today over differing opinions and practices? As Jesus, the WORD, said: Love God, Love Each Other! That is about as basic as you can get. Yet we continue to argue over so much unnecessary stuff (which we wrongfully regard as "necessary unto salvation"). Are we all so egotistical that we consider ourselves in possession of the right to act as judges and executioners of those around us whom we condemn? Just muttering, Al; just muttering! We who think ourselves wise, just may be the biggest fools of all.

From a Reader in Texas:

My dear brother, it has been a while since I last wrote you a note, but that's not to be taken as an indication of my lack of interest in what you write, nor of an absence of my brotherly love for you! Greetings, brother! My purpose in pecking out this note is not earth-shattering. Just that I was impressed with some of the "different" thoughts from different sources that you ran across in your research for your article "Unrighteous Mammon: Christ's Peculiar Pronouncement Within His Most Puzzling Parable" (Reflections #760). Very interesting, and very much appreciated by me. This prompted me to wonder if you have ever heard of the late Dr. Carlyle Marney (I'm sure you have), and to ask if you have heard the sermon he preached in the mid-70s during, or shortly after, the Watergate mess of the Nixon administration? He preached it, I believe, to a gathering of pastors and priests (Dr. Marney was a Southern Baptist), and I happen to think it was a masterpiece of thought regarding the lifestyles of these men. One of his most telling points was this: You cannot serve both God and Mammon. I have a recording of this sermon on my computer, and wish you could hear it. I believe the title is "As Fools Die." I also have a transcript of the sermon, and would be happy to mail you a copy if you would like to see it.

From a Reader in California:

I just read your article "Unrighteous Mammon" - yet another well-thought-out Reflections. I remember the very first time I read one of your Reflections: it was many years ago on my father's computer. Before reading it I thought: Okay, just another mainline Church of Christ preacher preaching to the preached at another sermon about baptism, the evils of denominationalism and instrumental music. Was I ever wrong! After just one article, I was captured hook, line and sinker!! I realized very quickly that your writing ministry was WAY more than just a dogmatic doctrinal "dog whistle." Rather, it is a thoughtful and thought-provoking series of essays designed to challenge the minds of seeking disciples who long for deeper spiritual understanding. Thanks again for this transformational ministry!!

From a Reader in Georgia:

I enjoyed my "cup of Al" this morning! You know, I think one of the biggest mistakes of well-intended people is to cower away from the responsible use of money. We were taught to fear wealth, rather than to master it. I once heard a preacher speak to the graduating class one Sunday, and he told them to do well, but to avoid trying to be successful in terms of money. I wanted to stand up and give the guy a piece of my mind. No! Go out and be the best you can be at something you are passionate about, and when you make a ton of money, then use it wisely! It's difficult to help the poor and needy when you are poor and needy! Quit letting the world dictate who we should be. Instead, do good and change the world. The book of Proverbs is another great source of wisdom regarding the use of our talents and assets.

From a Reader in Birmingham, England:

Dear Brother, I am writing to thank you for posting your following debate on the web: The Maxey-Thrasher Debate (The Eternal Destiny of the Wicked - Is it Perpetual Torment or Ultimate Extinction?). I have copied and pasted it into one document (.pdf) so that I can read it on an e-book. I trust this is okay with you. I came across your debate while doing a search on the Internet, for I recently have been concerned that eternal punishing appears disproportionate for even the very wicked, and most certainly for the vast majority of ignorant and godless people we know. Until I did some research, I had not realized that this matter had been contested and discussed within the church. Again, thank you!

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