The exhilarating recognition that the human may have a kinship with the gods occurs in the oldest religious texts known.
In Atrahasis, a Mesopotamian narrative from ca. 1700 BC, we find a creation story that defines the first human as a divine/mortal hybrid, a composite mix of earthly clay and the spirit of a god. One scholar has noted that in this story, there is an apparent unease among the gods that the creation might recognize its divine origin and desire to return to his place among them. Western history records multiple versions of this tension between divine nature and mortal limitations, between heavenly origins and dangerous presumption about human possibilities.
The fall of Icharus, of Lucifer and myriad angels, the tragedy of Eden, the Faustian yearning for transcendence, can all be read as the playing out of this millennia-long contest between simple return to origins, on the one hand, and “vaulting ambition” and the path to perdition on the other. The human spirit is often invoked as that which distinguishes mortals from other varieties in the created order of things, and makes him nearer the gods than all other beings. But this spark of divinity in the human breast that beckons to a heavenly home, is also portrayed as a temptation to hubris, to step beyond our assigned link in the Great Chain of Being, and incur divine displeasure or even wrath.
The temptation, and the fear, conjured by visions of deification span time and culture and religion. In ancient Greek myth, Arachne challenges Athena to a weaving contest. She is punished not for losing, but because she wins. In Ovid’s version of the tale, Athena could not help confess Arachne’s artistry (she “inwardly approved” the product) but was “passionately moved with envy” to punish her. She beats her with a shuttle and turns her into a spider.
On the other side of the gender divide, the satyr Marsyas challenges Apollo to a flute playing contest. For his presumption, he is skinned alive, before he plays a note. Niobe, Icharus, Phaeton, and a dozen more characters similarly suffer the repercussions of hybris, which is usually defined as pride, but in these cases would more accurately be construed as the attempt to transcend ones human station and ascend to the ranks of divinity.
The Bible and Godlike Aspirations
Three biblical myths are principally concerned with the motif of godlike aspirations. In mythic order, first is the fall of Lucifer. The text is from Isaiah, and refers most immediately to Nebuchadnezzar: “How you are fallen from heaven…. You said in your heart, I will ascend to heaven; above the stars of God I will set my throne on high… I will make myself like the Most High. But you are brought down to Sheol , to the depths of the Pit.” (Isa. 14:12-15). Commentators from Origen and Jerome to Augustine saw the passage as a clear allusion to Lucifer. Jerome summed up the moral most simply: “Lucifer fell from heaven because he wanted to be like God.”
Augustine finds a close parallel between this mini morality tale of god-like ambition, and the fall of Adam. Both Lucifer and Adam, he wrote in his Explanations of the Psalms, were “robbers,” for seizing what did not belong to them. Humankind, specifically, “wanted to make a grab at divinity.”
The third instance of our theme is the Tower of Babel. The story is briefly told:
And the whole earth had one language, and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar, and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly. . . . Then they said, “Come, let us build a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves.”
That is the Revised Standard Version. The King James translation is significant in its difference, as it makes the episode more evocative of Adam’s sin.
“And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name…” (Gen 11).
The subtle shift from a visual description (with its top in the heavens) to an aspirational description (“whose top may reach unto heaven”) is potent. It emphasizes the hubris of the action. It is a slight but powerfully illuminating difference, as it may suggest a quickness on the translators’ part to project their own fear and trembling, rather than God’s, onto the project of acquiring the divine nature.
Why Christianity Turns against Preeistence
To understand why Christianity turns against preexistence, we need to turn back to those early creation myths. For the Babylonians, it appears that intimations of a celestial origin suggest a celestial destiny; a birth among the gods implies a return to the abode and status of the gods. This is why the divine council wished to keep that origin a secret from their human creation. In Christianity as well heavenly preexistence suggests theosis or deification, and the lessons of Babel and of Eden tainted the idea of theosis with echoes of primordial blasphemy. That is why preexistence had to go.
The idea of premortal existence seems to have infiltrated Christian thought from at least two sources, Hebraic and Platonic. By the first Christian centuries, it was largely Neoplatonic versions that influenced the Church Fathers. Students of philosophy today are fully aware of the prevalence of preexistence motifs in Plato. They appear in several dialogues: Meno, Phaedo, Phaedrus, Republic, Symposium, Timaeus. Yet, rather surprisingly, the emphatic Platonic teaching about theosis (“God-becoming,” or what Mormons call exalation) is seldom noted.
David Sedley has remarked that, if you asked any well-educated citizen of antiquity “to name the official moral goal, or telos, of each major current philosophical system . . . [y]ou will hear that Plato’s is . . . ‘becoming like god so far as is possible.’” And yet, Sedley marvels, this ideal of becoming like God, though it was “universally accepted in antiquity as the official Platonic goal, does not even appear in the index to any modern study of Plato.”51 The ideas is simply too unpalatable, or too foreign, to most of Plato’s Christian readers.
Implicit in several of Plato’s dialogues, the ideal is most explicitly stated in Theaetetus, where Socrates tells Theodorus, “a man should make all haste to escape from earth to heaven, and escape means becoming as like God as possible.” Not only is this idea of theosis central to Platonic philosophy, it is inextricably connected in his thought with pre-mortal origins. To intuitively recognize our premortal origins, as Plato suggests we all do, is to remember a time “when souls had wings,” and be drawn back to those heights.
Neoplatonism: Re-ascending to Claim Inheritance
The same is true of the philosophical school called Neoplatonism that developed a few centuries later. Plotinus had asked, “What could be more fitting than that we, living in this world, should become like to its ruler?”29 If we were birthed in the realms of the gods, we can hardly expect, as eternal beings, to suffer corruption or demise.
We must re-ascend to claim our inheritance. That is why this concept of theosis, also called theopoesis or deification, according to Aharon Lichtenstein, “became one of the dominant themes of the Platonic and Neo-Platonic traditions.” And these beliefs in preexistence and theosis would increasingly be linked, to the eventual detriment of both, in the subsequent thought of early Christians.
Objection to Doctrine of Preexistence
Tertullian (160-220) was one of the first Christian Fathers to react strongly against the doctrine of preexistence, and he gave as his reason this very connection between the idea of an eternal past and a divine future: “For when we acknowledge that the soul originates in the breath of God,” he writes in Treatise on the Soul, “it follows that we attribute a beginning to it. This Plato, indeed, refuses to assign to it, for he will have the soul to be unborn and unmade.”73 The problem with such a scenario is not that a soul’s eternal nature is philosophically implausible. It is, rather, the implications of such a conception for Tertullian’s ideas concerning God’s supreme divinity and absolute sovereignty. Plato, he writes, has conceded to the soul
so large an amount of divine quality as to put it on a par with God. He makes it unborn, which single attribute I might apply as a sufficient attestation of its perfect divinity; he then adds that the soul is immortal, incorruptible, incorporeal—since he believed God to be the same—invisible, incapable of delineation, uniform, supreme, rational, and intellectual. What more could he attribute to the soul, if he wanted to call it God? We, however, who allow no appendage to God (in the sense of equality), by this very fact reckon the soul as very far below God: for we suppose it to be born.74
This statement may be the most emphatic—and ultimately the most influential—objection to the doctrine of preexistence in the early church, and it emphasizes the central objection to the idea: the blurring or eliminating altogether of the creature/creator divide.
For a while, preexistence nonetheless continued to hold sway, and among some Christians, so did theosis. Origen (185-254), for example, argued that if humans preexisted like Christ, it was logical to assume they could be deified like Christ. Origen was also the author of the most explicit linkage between preexistence and theosis, when he argued that we can look to the future to divine the past, “for the end is always like the beginning.” So any origin among the God’s guarantees a return to that place and rank.
And that is a main reason why, in the early church, belief in preexistence had to go. Because it suggested a kinship with our God that was an invitation to become fully like him. Hence, the church pronounced against both ideas in the sixth century. Still, the intimations of immortality that extend in both directions would never be entirely extinguished.