Pre-existence: Did you exist before you were born?

by K.W. Leslie, 25 June

We Christians believe in Jesus’s incarnation—that Jesus wasn’t created, ’cause he’s God and has always existed. But he’s also human; at some point in time he became human. Before that point Moses could correctly say “God is not a man,” Nu 23.19 but after that point no he couldn’t. God’s a man now.

And every so often you’re gonna find some Christian who claims everybody existed before they were born. They won’t claim we’ve always existed, like God; they figure he created us at some point. Possibly at the beginning of creation. Then, one at a time, he sent all these pre-existing ghosts to earth to be embodied. Or incarnated, to use the Latin-based term.

Latter-day Saints actually believe this. They claim God makes these pre-babies in heaven, and billions and billions of ’em are sitting up there waiting to come to earth and be born Mormon. They call it premortality.

Now when you ask Mormons how God makes ’em: I’ve found their “elders” (which is what they call their kids who go door-to-door to share their version of the gospel) either get really quiet, and tell me I really oughta ask their bishop… or they blurt it right out, then quickly realize they really shouldn’t’ve done that. ’Cause Mormons believe God used to be human eons ago, and eventually became God. And back when he was human he got married, and got to take his wife to heaven with him… and they make babies like we make babies. Which usually raises a ton of new questions from both potential converts and skeptics, which is why the elders suddenly realize they really need their bishop there, to explain it in a way which doesn’t invoke outrage, mockery, and unbelief. Well, much outrage, mockery, and unbelief.

But LDS beliefs about prolific heavenly procreation aside, Christians who believe in pre-existence figure it just makes sense—to them anyway—that God created something of us before our parents and biology made our bodies. Because the scriptures say multiple times that God knew us before we were born—and how could this be true, unless we existed before we were born?

Fr’instance Jeremiah ben Hilkiah. Prolifers love to quote the following verse to prove a fetus is a person. And a fetus is a person, but this verse isn’t actually about that. Nor does it actually say that.

Jeremiah 1.4-5 NIV
4 The word of the LORD came to me, saying,
5 “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
before you were born I set you apart;
I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”

The LORD didn’t tell Jeremiah, “When I formed you in the womb,” but “Before I formed you in the womb.” Before Jeremiah was conceived. The Hebrew word בְּטֶ֨רֶם/be-terém isn’t one of those loose participles like the בְּ/be- prefix at the beginning of the word, which could mean “in, on, among, over, through, against; when, whenever,” as the Kohlenberger/Mounce Hebrew-Aramaic Dictionary defines it. Terém is an adverb meaning “not yet.” Jeremiah’s body was not yet made before the LORD fully knew who he was and determined he’d be God’s prophet.

So if God knew Jeremiah before he was born, it stands to reason Jeremiah existed before he was born. Right?

Nah. You probably figured this out right quick: God knew Jeremiah because he’s not limited by time. He’s currently present at every point in our entire eternal life. Simultaneously here right now, and 50 years from now, and centuries after we’ve been resurrected in Jesus’s kingdom, and trillions of years after that, and so on forever. And he’s present before we were ever “a gleam in your father’s eye,” as the creepy popular saying goes—knowing all that stuff about us before ever creating us. The LORD’s talking about his own infinite omnipresence-based all-knowingness, not/i> Jeremiah’s pre-existence.

But God’s state of filling time is a brain-bending idea. And we humans much prefer to adopt ideas which we can more easily grasp. Like the time-based idea Jeremiah musta existed before he was conceived and born. You know, like Jesus. Or like Mormons believe… minus 7,000,000,000 acts of heavenly coitus at least.

Christians who have dabbled in the idea.

There are very few new ideas in the universe, and pre-existence is one of ’em. Ancient Christians dabbled in the idea too. Origen of Alexandria suspected a person’s lifeforce wasn’t created at the same time as their body, but pre-existed—however briefly.

And now we have to ascertain whether those beings which in the course of the discussion we have discovered to possess life and reason, were endowed with a soul along with their bodies at the time mentioned in scripture, when “God made two great lights, the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night, and the stars also,” Ge 1.16 or whether their spirit was implanted in them, not at the creation of their bodies, but from without, after they had been already made. I, for my part, suspect that the spirit was implanted in them from without; but it will be worth while to prove this from scripture: for it will seem an easy matter to make the assertion on conjectural grounds, while it is more difficult to establish it by the testimony of scripture.

Origen, De Principiis 1.7.4.

Origen quoted a few proof texts to back his idea, and of course all of ’em suffer from the same deficiency as those who try to claim it’s what Jeremiah reveals. (And yeah, Origen quoted Jeremiah too.) He didn’t figure these passages were about foreknowledge; he figured they had to imply God created our essential being before making our physical body. They don’t. God’s foreknowledge is a far easier explanation.

Easier because there’s that obvious question of “So… what do these pre-existing people do while they’re waiting to be embodied?” Are they growing in any way?—gaining greater knowledge, gaining other qualities which oughta make humanity easier? (Or worse?) Are humans in some way born with pre-existing knowledge, and this is how we got it? Mormons believe we began our pre-existence by agreeing with the Heavenly Father’s plan to save humanity through Jesus… so does that mean we can believe, be justified, and get saved before we’re even born? Is this why John Calvin claimed some of us are born to be saved, and the rest not?

And easier because a number of the Christians who believe in pre-existence in fact believe in some form of reincarnation: Like Plato of Athens, they believe before we were born into this life, we lived some whole other life. Might’ve been a human life; might not have been. It’s one we can’t remember anymore, but we’re still suffering the consequences of our actions in it, ’cause karma apparently follows us from life to life. And if we bollix this life, Jesus might give us a shot at trying it again: Getting born again really means Jesus has us keep living life after life till our soul “gets it right,” as the Indigo Girls put it..

I realize some of you are balking at the idea of Christians who believe in reincarnation: That’s not at all what the scriptures teach. Yes I know; yes I agree with you. The Christians who believe in reincarnation have clearly not been reading the scriptures. They trust Jesus to save ’em, so he will; but they picked up some seriously false beliefs from their previously pagan lives, or think Christianity permits us the freedom to believe whatever we like. They’re new, and the Holy Spirit is still working on them… or they’re not new, but they’re resisting the Spirit’s efforts to teach ’em truth. Either way, let’s help point ’em in the right direction.

Pre-existent bodies.

Here’s a verse which might be used to imply God created our spirits after he created our bodies. Ready for it? Here ya go.

Genesis 2.7 NIV
Then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.

Believe it or not, up till the 20th century, Christians predominantly believed life began at birth, not conception, and based it on this verse.

I know; prolifers are gonna balk at that idea too, because it’s not at all how they think. It’s true though. Until the baby was out of the womb, Christians figured it couldn’t inhale “the breath of life,” which comes from God, and thereby become a living being. It helped them disconnect from the fact they knew little to nothing about what was going on inside that womb as a fetus developed, and helped ’em grieve when babies miscarried or were stillborn: Hey, the breath of life never entered the baby, so it’s not like there was an actual loss of life. It’s when people started using that attitude to justify abortion, that prolifers realized it might be a problematic belief, and ditched it. Rightly so.

But there are actually other verses which suggest we exist in some physical way before we’re born. Like how Levi ben Israel was in his great-grandfather Abraham’s testicles when Abraham (then called Abram) gave a tenth of Sodom’s plunder to King Melchizedek of Salem. Ge 14.18-20 Yeah, you only think I’m kidding:

Hebrews 7.4, 9-10 NIV
4 Just think how great [Melchizedek] was: Even the patriarch Abraham gave him a tenth of the plunder! […] 9 One might even say that Levi, who collects the tenth, paid the tenth through Abraham, 10 because when Melchizedek met Abraham, Levi was still in the body of his ancestor.

And this is why the Roman Catholics believe every sperm is sacred. Levi (well an eighth of Levi, including his Y-chromosome) was still inside Abraham when Abraham tithed to Melchizedek. The author of Hebrews didn’t say Levi’s spirit or lifeforce existed before his body did; she straight-up said his body existed, in the form of DNA in Abraham’s spermatozoon.

True, the author wasn’t trying to claim anything about pre-existence either way. She was simply trying to explain how Jesus is our head priest even though he’s not Levite: Melchizedek was no Levite either, but he’s still a totally valid priest of God Most High, and he predates Levi. She was trying to make other points. Us trying to pull pre-existence out of them, misses her point. Don’t you find it annoying when you’re trying to make a point, but the person you’re speaking with keeps getting sidetracked by little things you said which are ultimately irrelevant? That.

So the whole every-sperm-is-sacred idea is an unintended consequence, probably made by Christian youth pastors who didn’t know how else to corral horny boys. But I digress.

Pre-existence and posterity.

In the Old Testament we find a lot of passages wherein God makes promises to both a person and that person’s descendants. Abraham in particular, but we find these multi-generational promises made to Adam, Noah, Aaron, David, and various leaders and kings. The general concept is if God made a deal with a woman or man, he’s likewise made that deal with everyone descended from that woman or man.

But those descendants don’t yet exist, y’know. At least, from our time-grounded perspective: They’ve not been conceived, not been born, not even planned by couples who hope they might have kids someday. We recognize this is because God’s coming at these promises from his unlimited-by-time perspective: He’s already there, in the future, with the descendants, when he makes these promises to their ancestors. From his point of view everybody exists already.

The ancient Hebrews believed in the interconnectedness of life. That human life began not at conception, but when God created Adam and Eve. He put our DNA into the first humans, and that’s when we were created. When God said, “Let us make man in our image,” Ge 1.26 KJV that word the KJV renders “man” is אָדָ֛ם/adám, “humanity”: God made the species, not just an individual man named Adam, and Eve a little while later.

Genesis 1.26-30 NIV
26 Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
27 So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
29 Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. 30 And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.

We came to exist when they came to exist. We have the traits God blessed them with because we’re just as human. Their lifeforce passes down to us when we’re conceived and born, and our lifeforce passes down to our kids when we make ’em.

This interconnectedness of humanity definitely comes in handy when we talk about salvation: Yeah, Adam and Eve’s sin warped all their descendants, us included. But their descendant Christ Jesus un-warped everything, and can apply salvation backwards to them—and forwards to the rest of us. Because he’s human, and we’re human, and we’re all connected through our common humanity. So that’s kinda handy.

This idea God created humanity all together, does not negate the fact God knows each of us individually, loves each of us individually, and wants an individual, personal relationship with each of human. But for a lot of Christians, they don’t really like this idea… because it just doesn’t make us feel special enough. We’re snowflakes; we’re unique like our fingerprints; “God made you special and he loves you very much,” as they say in all the VeggieTales videos. To them, this idea of interconnectedness feels like God just mass-produced us in a batch. So what’s one spare human out of seven billion?

Hence the more common view: God did make us special. Each of us is a custom creation by God. When babies are conceived, it’s not just because Daddy and Mommy got frisky; it’s because God wanted that specific baby to be part of his universe, and made ’em right there. God planned us, God wants us, and that makes every last one of us special to him.

Where it gets ridiculous is when we start saying the same thing about every other life in creation. Does God create every sparrow special? Mt 10.31 Every bacterium?—they divide instead of conceive, but is God intimately involved in every act of cellular division, or did he intelligently program the DNA so it can wholly do it without him?

Yeah, pre-existence is heresy.

In the year 553, the ancient Christians convened the second Council of Constantinople to discuss various problems and heresies which were bothering Christians. Among them were some of Origen’s wackier ideas, which the bishops realized were too problematic to leave alone. Pre-existence was the very first one they addressed:

If anyone asserts the fabulous pre-existence of souls, and shall assert the monstrous restoration which follows from it: Let him be anathema.

Origen, Anathemas against Origen 1.

“Let him be anathema” is a direct quote of ἤτω ἀνάθεμα/íto anáthema or ἀνάθεμα ἔστω/anáthema ésto, which Paul wrote thrice in scripture. 1Co 16.22, Ga 1.8-9 It means “It must be banned,” although plenty of people will also (and gleefully) interpret it, “He must be damned.” Because it’s heresy. It’s so incorrect, so wrong, it’s gonna lead people away from Jesus and salvation.

So yeah, believing in pre-existence is heresy. It’s not just something we Christians can dabble in because it’s harmless: It’s not harmless. Y’notice religions which deal heavily in karmic thinking, like Hindus and Buddhists, are big on pre-existence and reincarnation. That’s not a loose connection. That’s the inevitable result of believing you existed before you were conceived and born. Because if you existed, you did stuff. Stuff you bring into life with you. Stuff with consequences. And notice these consequences always wind up affecting your salvation.

Back to the Mormons. They don’t just believe all those premortals are waiting for the Heavenly Father to make ’em some bodies to inhabit. They believe they made a bunch of life-altering decisions.

Throughout our premortal life, we developed our identity and increased our spiritual capabilities. Blessed with the gift of agency, we made important decisions, such as the decision to follow Heavenly Father’s plan. These decisions affected our life then and now. We grew in intelligence and learned to love the truth, and we prepared to come to the earth, where we could continue to progress. “Premortality.”

Mormons claim premortals got the choice to either follow Heavenly Father’s great plan of salvation, or not; and those who didn’t, along with their leader Satan, became evil spirits. So just by dint of being born, you were one of the premortals who chose salvation—so at some point in your existence you’re gonna get saved, ’cause Mormons also believe in universalism. (They hold a lot of unorthodox beliefs.) If you never, ever become Mormon, it’s okay; you’re still going to heaven, even if it won’t be the extra-special heaven devout Mormons get to go to.

You see the problem. Either it’s the pessimism of Hinduism, where unless we’re Brahmin we’re born with crappy karma and have to overcome it; or it’s the optimism of Mormonism, where everybody’s saved and going to heaven. Neither fully embraces the reality of Jesus, who does grace instead of karma, yet who still requires us to abide in him instead of taking him for granted. Those other routes lead us wrong.

Lastly pre-existence gives us the idea our immaterial parts are more important, more “us,” than our material parts. Historically, too many Christians have used this excuse to claim our bodies aren’t “the real me,” and the body’s actions therefore shouldn’t count. We’ll sin and claim “Well that was just my body sinning; that wasn’t me sinning. It wasn’t me having sex with the neighbor; not the real me.” Yes it was, because “the real me” has a body, same as Jesus has a body—and never sinned with that body, then blamed it on the body. It’s a ridiculous excuse, but no surprise, lots of Christians are fond of ridiculous excuses like that one.