Following the death of the Apostles and other disciples who knew Jesus and had witnessed his resurrection, many false teachers arose who rejected their clear testimony. Some false teachers introduced erroneous ideas which were contrary to the first-hand testimony of the earlier Apostles and disciples. Faced with this challenge, Christian leaders during the second and third centuries vigorously defended the bodily resurrection. It should be noted that these early Christians maintained that although our bodies would be changed to an immortal state when we are resurrected, our individual identities would remain intact. Unless otherwise noted, all references cited are from the English translation of The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 10 vols., translated and edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986).
Let none of you say that this very flesh will not be judged nor rise again. Consider ye in what state ye were saved in, in what ye received sight …. For just as you were called in the flesh, you will also come to be judged in the flesh. As Christ the Lord who saved us, though he was first a Spirit, became flesh, and thus called us, so shall we also receive the reward in this flesh. (2 Clement 9, in 7:519).
We expect to receive again our own bodies. (Justin Martyr, First Apology 18, in 1:169).
[Souls do not] transmigrate into other bodies (Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 5, in 1:197).
For even if any one is laboring under a defect of body, yet if he is an observer or the doctrines delivered by Him, He shall raise him up at His second advent perfectly sound. He has made him immortal, incorruptible, and free from grief. (Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 69, in 1:233).
But, in truth, He has even called the flesh to the resurrection and promises to it everlasting life …. Why did He rise in the flesh in which He suffered, unless to show the resurrection of the flesh? (Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 8-9, in 1:297-298).
[Simon Magus had a woman companion named Helena who] passed in succession from one female body to another, as from vessel to vessel. She was, for example, that Helen on whose account the Trojan war was undertaken …. Thus she, passing from body to body, and suffering insults in every one of them, at last became a common prostitute; and she it was that was meant by the lost sheep (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1:23, in 1:348).
They [some Gnostic teachers] deem it necessary, therefore, that by means of transmigration from body to body, souls should have experience of every kind of life as well as every kind of action (unless, indeed, by a single incarnation, one may be able to prevent any need of others …. In order that, as their writings express it, their souls, having made trial of every kind of life, may, at their departure, not be wanting in any particular. It is necessary to insist upon this, lest, on account of some one thing being still wanting to their deliverance, they should be compelled once more to become incarnate …. He must pass from body to body, until he has experience of every kind of action which can be practiced in this world, and when nothing is longer wanting to him, then his liberated soul should soar upwards to that God who is above the angels … In this way also all souls are saved, whether by their own which, guarding against all delay, participate in all sorts of actions during one incarnation, or those, again, who, by passing from body to body, are set free, on fulfilling and accomplishing what is requisite in every form of life into which they are sent, so that at length they shall no longer be [shut up] in the body (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1:25, in 1:351).
All those who have been enrolled for life [eternal] shall rise again, having their own bodies, and having their own souls, and their own spirits, in which they had pleased God. Those, on the other hand, who are worthy of punishment, shall go away into it, they too having their own souls and their own bodies. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 33:5, in 1:411).
We have not entertained a vain belief in the resurrection of the body. But although it is dissolved at the appointed time, because of the primeval disobedience, it is placed, as it were, in the crucible of the earth, to be recast again; not then as this corruptible [body], but pure, and no longer subject to decay: so that to each body its own souls shall be restored (Irenaeus, Fragments 12, in 1:570).
However, it is not for you alone (Simon), that the transmigration philosophy has fabricated this story. Carpocrates also makes equally good use of it …. The transmigration of human souls, therefore, into any kind of heterogeneous bodies, he thought by all means indispensable, whenever any depravity whatever had not been fully perpetrated in the early stage of life’s passage. Evil deeds (one may be sure) appertain to life. Moreover, as often as the soul has fallen short as a defaulter in sin, it has to be recalled to existence, until it “pays the utmost farther,” thrust out from time to time into the prison of the body (Tertullian, A Treatise on the Soul 35, in 3:216).
I apprehend that heretics of this school seize with special avidity the example of Elias, whom they assume to have been so reproduced in John (the Baptist) as to make our Lord’s statement sponsor for their theory of transmigration, when he said, “Elias is come already, and they knew him not;” and again, in another passage, “And if ye will receive it, this is Elias, which was for to come.” Well, then, was it really in a Pythagorean sense that the Jews approached John with the inquiry, “Art thou Elias?” and not rather in the sense of the divine prediction, “Behold, I will send you Elijah” the Tishbite? The fact, however, is that their metempsychosis, or transmigration theory, signifies the recall of the soul which had died long before, and its return to some other body. But Elias is to come again, not after quitting life (in the way of dying), but after his translation (or removal without dying); not for the purpose of being restored to the body, from which he had not departed, but for the purpose of revisiting the world from which he was translated; not by way of resuming life which he had laid aside, but of fulfilling prophecy,--really and truly the same man, both in respect of his name and designation, as well as of his unchanged humanity. How, therefore, could John be Elias? You have your answer in the angel’s announcement: “And he shall go before the people,” says he, “in the spirit and power of Elias”—not (observe) in his soul and his body. These substances are, in fact, the natural property of each individual; whilst “the spirit and power” are bestowed as external gifts by the grace of God, and so may be transferred to another person according to the purpose and will of the Almighty, as was anciently the case with respect to the spirit of Moses (Tertullian, A Treatise on the Soul 35, in 3:216-217).
Assuredly, as the reason why restoration takes place at all is the appointed judgment, every man must needs come forth the very same who had once existed, that he may receive at God’s hands a judgment, whether of good desert or the opposite (Tertullian, Apology 48, in 3:53).
[In the resurrection] thy former substance must return to thee, the matter and the memory of the very same human being …. There would be no grounds for judgment without the presentation of the very person to whom the sufferings of judgment were due. (Tertullian, The Soul’s Testimony 4, in 3:177).
Now, we are not permitted to suppose that God is either unjust or idle. Unjust (however He would be) were He to exclude from reward the flesh which is associated with good works; and idle, were He to exempt it from punishment, when it has been an accomplice in evil deeds (Tertullian, On the Resurrection of the Flesh 15, in 3:555).
The very same flesh which was once sown in death will bear fruit in resurrection-life, the same in essence, only more full and perfect; not another, although reappearing in another form. For it will receive in itself the grace and adornment that God shall be pleased to spread over it, according to its merits. (Tertullian, On the Resurrection of the Flesh 52, in 3:585).
This, for a dead man to be raised again, amounts to nothing short of his being restored to his entire condition …. God is quite able to remake what He once made. (Tertullian, On the Resurrection of the Flesh 57, in 3:590).
Thus far, then, on the subject of Hades, in which the souls of all are detained until the time which God has determined; and then He will accomplish the resurrection of all, not by transferring souls into other bodies, but by raising the bodies themselves …. It [the body] is not raised the same thing as it is now, but pure and no longer corruptible. And to every body its own proper soul will be given again; and the soul, being endued again with it, shall not be grieved, but shall rejoice together with it, abiding itself pure with it also pure. And as it now sojourns with it in the world righteously, and finds it in nothing now a traitor, it will receive it again (the body) with great joy. (Hippolytus, Against Plato, 2, in 5:222).
If they [the heretics] also admit that there is a resurrection of the dead, let them answer this, What is that which died? Was it not a body? It is of the body, then, that there will be a resurrection. (Origen, De Principiis, 2:10, in 4:293).
“I died” (Rom. 7:10), he (Paul) says, meaning, since sin was imputed to me. But Basilides does not notice that this has to be understood of the natural Law, and he relates the apostolic word to preposterous and impious fables, and tries to base on this apostolic word the doctrine of reincarnation, that is, the doctrine that the soul keeps passing from body to body (Origen, In Rom 5:1, in Gnosis: A Selection of Gnostic Texts, 2 vols., Werner Foerster, ed. and trans. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972, 1:78).
The statement “God recompenses the disobedient unto the third and fourth generation” is understood by the followers of Basilides as referring to the (re-) incarnations (Clement of Alexandria, Excerpta ex Theodoto, in Gnosis: A Selection of Gnostic Texts, 1:226).
A law of resurrection is established in that Christ was raised up in the substance of the body as an example for the rest. (Novatian, Concerning the Trinity, 10, in 5:620).
For Almighty God Himself will raise us up through our Lord Jesus Christ, according to his infallible promise, and grant us a resurrection with all those who have slept from the beginning of the world; and we shall then be such as we now are in our present form, without any defect or corruption. For we shall rise incorruptible: whether we die at sea, or are scattered on the earth, or are torn to pieces by wild beasts and birds< he will raise us by His own power (Apostolic Constitutions 5:7, in 7:439).
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