1. PRIMARY TEXTS
De Principiis Book 2, 10.6-8
 GOD ALL IN ALL: De Principiis Book 3, 6.6
 WHAT SINNERS NEED to KNOW: Contra Celsum 6.26
2. SECONDARY TEXTS
“Dare Believe ...”God,
[full and associated texts]
TURNING now from Scripture to tradition, let us look first at the author who, more than anyone else in Christian history, has been associated with [p.198] the universalist standpoint, Origen of Alexandria. He is someone who, over the centuries, has been greatly commended and greatly reviled, in almost equal measure. He is praised, for instance, by his fellow Alexandrian Didymus the Blind, who calls him “the chief teacher of the Church after the Apostles.” “Who would not rather be wrong with Origen than right with anyone else?” exclaims St Vincent of Lerins. A striking but typical expression of the opposite point of view is to be found in a story told of St Pachomius, the founder of cenobitic monasticism in Egypt. While conversing one day with some visiting monks, Pachomius was puzzled because he noticed an “exceedingly nasty smell,” for which-he could find no explanation. Suddenly he discovered the reason for the odor: the visitors were Origenists. “Behold, I testify to you before God,” he admonished them, “that everyone who reads Origen and accepts his writings will go down to the depth of hell. The inheritance of all such persons is the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth... Take all the works of Origen that are in your possession, and throw them into the river.” Alas! All too many have heeded Pachomius’ advice, burning and destroying what Origen wrote, with the result that several of his chief works survive only in translation, not in the original Greek. This is true in particular of the treatise On First Principles, where Origen expounds most fully his teaching about the end of the world. Here we have to rely largely on the Latin version (not always accurate) made by Rufinus.
Origen, to his credit, displays a humility not always apparent in his leading critics, Jerome and Justinian. Again and again in his treatment of the deeper issues of theology, Origen bows his head in reverent wonder before the divine mystery. Not for one moment does he imagine that he has all the answers. This humility is evident in particular when he speaks about the Last Things and the future hope. “These are matters hard and difficult to understand,” he writes. “...We need to speak about them with [p.199] great fear and caution, discussing and investigating rather than laying down fixed and certain conclusions.” 
Yet, humble or not, Origen was condemned as a heretic and anathematized at the time of the Fifth Ecumenical Council, held at Constantinople under the Emperor Justinian in 553. The first of the fifteen anathemas directed against him states: “If anyone maintains the mythical preexistence of souls, and the monstrous apocatastasis that follows from this, let him be anathema.” This seems entirely explicit and definite: belief in a final “restoration” (apocatastasis) of all things and all persons—belief in universal salvation, not excluding that of the devil—has apparently been ruled out as heretical in a formal decision by what is for the Orthodox Church the highest visible authority in matters of doctrine, an Ecumenical Council.
There is, however, considerable doubt whether these fifteen anathemas were in fact formally approved by the Fifth Ecumenical Council. They may have been endorsed by a lesser council, meeting in the early months of 553 shortly before the main council was convened, in which case they lack full ecumenical authority; yet, even so, the Fathers of the Fifth Council were well aware of these fifteen anathemas and had no intention of revoking or modifying them. Apart from that, however, the precise wording of the first anathema deserves to be carefully noted. It does not speak only about apocatastasis but links together two aspects of Origen’s theology: first, his speculations about the beginning, that is to say, about [p.200] the preexistence of souls and the precosmic fall; second, his teaching about the end, about universal salvation and the ultimate reconciliation of all things. Origen’s eschatology is seen as following directly from his protology, and both are rejected together.
That the first of the fifteen anathemas should condemn protology and eschatology in the same sentence is entirely understandable, for in Origen’s thinking the two form an integral unity. At the beginning, so he believed, there was a realm of logikoi or rational intellects (noes) existing prior to the creation of the material world as minds without a body. Originally all these logikoi were joined in perfect union with the Creator Logos. Then followed the precosmic fall. With the exception of one logikos (which became the human soul of Christ), all the other logikoi turned away from the Logos and became, depending on the gravity of their deviation, either angels or human beings or demons. In each case they were given bodies appropriate to the seriousness of their fall: light-weight and ethereal in the case of angels; dark and hideous in the case of demons; intermediate in the case of human beings. At the end, so Origen maintained, this process of fragmentation will be reversed. All alike, whether angels, human beings, or demons, will be restored to unity with the Logos; the primal harmony of the total creation will be reinstated, and once more “God will be all in all” (1 Cor 15:28). Origen’s view is in this way circular in character: the end will be as the beginning.
Now, as we have noted, the first of the fifteen anti-Origenist anathemas is directed not simply against Origen’s teaching concerning universal reconciliation, but against his total understanding of salvation history—against his theory of preexistent souls, of a precosmic fall and a final apocatastasis—seen as a single and undivided whole. Suppose, however, that we separate his eschatology from his protology; suppose that we abandon all speculations about the realm of eternal logikoi; suppose that we simply adhere to the standard Christian view whereby there is no preexistence of the soul, but each new person comes into being as an integral unity of soul and body, at or shortly after the moment of the conception of the embryo within the mother’s womb. In this way we could advance a doctrine of universal salvation—affirming this, not as a logical certainty (indeed, Origen never did that), but as a heartfelt aspiration, a visionary hope—which would avoid the circularity of Origen’s view andso would escape the condemnation of the anti-Origenist anathemas. We shall return to this possibility in a moment when considering St Gregory of Nyssa, but let us first explore further Origen’s reasons for affirming a final apocatastasis.
It is often claimed that belief in universal salvation, because it considers the eventual triumph of divine love to be inevitable, fails to properly allow for our liberty of choice. This is an objection to which Origen is consistently sensitive. However confident his hope that God’s love will in the end prevail, he is careful never to undermine the vital significance of human free will. While affirming that “God is love,” he does not lose sight of the correlative principle, “Human beings are free.” Thus, when speaking of the subjection of all things to Christ, and of Christ to the Father (1 Cor 15:28), he observes: “This subjection will be accomplished in accordance with various assured methods and disciplines and times; yet it should not be thought that there is some necessity which compels all things into subjection, or that the whole world will be subdued by force to God.” Origen is altogether definite here: there is no compulsion, no force. If God’s love is finally victorious, this will be because it is freely and willingly accepted by the whole of rational creation. Origen’s apocatastasis is not simply a deduction from some abstract system; it is a hope.
Here we touch upon a difficulty that is frequently felt not only in connection with the final reconciliation at the end of the world but also throughout our Christian experience in this present life. It is tempting to regard divine grace and human freedom as twο contrasting principles, the one excluding the other; and as a result we often assume that the stronger the action of grace, the more restricted is the exercise of our human freedom. But is this not a false dilemma? In the words of John A. T. Robinson:
Everyone may point to instances in which he has been constrained to thankful response by the overmastering power of love. And yet, under this strange compulsion, has anyone ever felt his freedom infringed or his personality violated? Is it not precisely at these moments that he becomes conscious, perhaps only for a fleeting space, of being himself in a way he never knew before, of attaining a fullness and integration of life which is inextricably bound up with the decision drawn from him by anther’s love? Moreover, this is true however [p.201] strong be the constraint laid upon him: or, rather, it is truer the stronger it is. Under the constraint of the love of God in Christ this sense of self-fulfillment is at its maximum. The testimony of generations is that here, as nowhere else, service is perfect freedom.
Surely this is true par excellence of the victory of God’s love in the age to come. The power that is victorious is the power of loving compassion, and so it is a victory that does not overrule but enhances our human freedom.
Origen’s caution is evident in particular when he refers to the salvation of the devil and his angels. He makes it abundantly clear that he regards this not as a certainty but as a pοssibility. In his Commentary on John he does no more than pose a question: “Since human beings can display repentance and turn from unbelief to faith, shall we shrink back from asserting something similar about the angelic powers?” In his treatise On Prayer, Origen limits himself to saying that God has a plan for the devil in the age to come, but we have at present no idea what this plan may be: “God will make arrangements for him, I know not how” In the work On First Principles, the matter is left to the judgment of the reader:
Whether certain of those orders, which are under the leadership of the devil and are obedient to his wickedness, can at some point in future ages be converted to goodness, inasmuch as there still exists in them the power of free will; or whether the evil has become so permanent and deep-rooted that it has become through habit part of their nature: let my reader decide this for himself.
Here Origen suggests twο possibilities: either the demons still possess the power of free will, or else they have reached the point of no return, after which repentance is impossible. But he expresses no judgment; both possibilities are left open.
This raises an interesting question, which I once put to a Greek archbishop at the beginning of a four-hour car journey, in the hope that it would help us while away the time. If it is possible that the devil, who must surely be a very lonely and unhappy person, may eventually repent [p.203] and be saved, why do we never pray for him? To my disappointment (for I could not at the moment think of other topics of conversation), the archbishop settled the matter with a sharp and brief rejoinder: “Mind your own business.” He was right. So far as we humans are concerned, the devil is always our adversary; we should not enter into any kind of negotiations with him, whether by praying for him or in other ways. His salvation is quite simply none of our business. But the devil has also his own relationship with God, as we learn from the prologue of the book of Job, when Satan makes his appearance in the heavenly court among the other “sons of God” (Jοb 1:6-2:7). We are, however, altogether ignorant of the precise nature of this relationship, and it is futile to pry into it. Yet, even though it is not for us to pray for the devil, we have no right to assume that he is totally and irrevocably excluded from the scope of God’s merry. We do not know In Wittgenstein’s words, Wovon man nicht reden kann, darüber muß man schweigen.
The strongest point in Origen’s case for universalism is his analysis of punishment. We may summarize his view by distinguishing three primary reasons that have been advanced tο justify the infliction of punishment.
First, there is the retributive argument. Those who have done evil, it is claimed, themselves deserve to suffer in proportion to the evil that they have done. Only so will the demands of justice be fulfilled: “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (Ex 21:24). But in the Sermon on the Mount Christ explicitly rejects this principle (Mt 5:38). If we humans are forbidden by Christ to exact retribution in this way from our fellow humans, how much more should we refrain from attributing vindictive and retributive behavior to God. It is blasphemous to assert that the Holy Trinity is vengeful. In any case, it seems contrary to justice that God should inflict an infinite punishment in requital for what is only a finite amount of wrongdoing.
The second line of argument insists upon the need for a deterrent. It is only the prospect of hell-fire, it is said, that holds us back from evil-doing. But why then, it may be asked, do we need an unending, everlasting punishment to act as an effective deterrent? Would it not be sufficient to [p.203] threaten prospective malefactors with a period of painful separation from God that is exceedingly prolonged, yet not infinite? In any case, it is only too obvious, especially in our own day, that the threat of hell-fire is almost totally ineffective as a deterrent. If in our preaching of the Christian faith we hope to have any significant influence on others, then what we need is not a negative but a positive strategy: let us abandon ugly threats, and attempt rather to evoke people’s sense of wonder and their capacity for love.
There remains the reformative understanding of punishment, which Origen considered to be the only view that is morally acceptable. Punishment, if it is to possess moral value, has to be not merely retaliatory or dissuasive but remedial. When parents inflict punishment on their children, or the state on criminals, their aim should always be to heal those whom they punish and to change them for the better. And such, according to Origen, is precisely the purpose of the punishments inflicted upon us by God; He acts always as “our physician.” A doctor may sometimes be obliged to employ extreme measures which cause agony to his patients. (This was particularly so before the use of anesthetics.) He may cauterize a wound or amputate a limb. But this is always done with a positive end in view, so as to bring about the patient’s eventual recovery and restoration to health. So it is with God, the physician of our souls. He may inflict suffering upon us, both in this life and after our death; but always He does this out of tender love and with a positive purpose, so as to cleanse us from our sins, to purge and heal us. In Origen’s words, “The fury of God’s vengeance avails to the purging of our souls.”
Now, if we adopt this, reformative and therapeutic view of punishment—and this is the only reason for inflicting punishment that can worthily be attributed to God—then surely such punishment should not be unending. If the aim of punishment is to heal, then once the healing has been accomplished there is no need for the punishment to continue. If, however, the punishment is supposed to be everlasting, it is difficult to see how it can have any remedial or educative purpose. In a never-ending hell there is no escape and therefore no healing, and so the infliction of punishment in such a hell is pointless and immoral. This third understanding of punishment, therefore, is incompatible with the notion of perpetual [p.205] torment in hell; it requires us, rather, to think in terms of some kind of purgatory after death. But in that case this purgatory should be envisaged as a house of healing, not a torture chamber; as a hospital, not a prison. Here, in his grand vision of God as the cosmic physician, Origen is at his most convincing.
[full and associated texts]
The doctrine of the apokatastasis is [not, indeed, peculiar to St. Gregory of Nyssa, but is] taken from Origen, who seems at times reluctant to decide concerning the question of the eternity of punishment. Tixeront has well said that in his “De principiis” (I, vi, 3) Origen does not venture to assert that all the evil angels shall sooner or later return to God (P.G., XI, col. 168, 169); while in his “Comment. in Rom.”, VIII, 9 (P.G., XIV, col. 1185), he states that Lucifer, unlike the Jews, will not be converted, even at the end of time. Elsewhere, on the other hand, and as a rule, Origen teaches the apokatastasis, the final restoration of all intelligent creatures to friendship with God. Tixeront writes thus concerning the matter:
“Not all shall enjoy the same happiness, for in the Father’s house there are many mansions, but all shall attain to it. If Scripture sometimes seems to speak of the punishment of the wicked as eternal, this is in order to terrify sinners, to lead them back into the right way, and it is always possible, with attention, to discover the true meaning of these texts. It must, however, always be accepted as a principle that God does not chasten except to amend, and that the sole end of His greatest anger is the amelioration of the guilty. As the doctor uses fire and steel in certain deep-seated diseases, so God does but use the fire of hell to heal the impenitent sinner. All souls, all impenitent beings that have gone astray, shall, therefore, be restored sooner or later to God’s friendship. The evolution will be long, incalculably long in some cases, but a time will come when God shall be all in all. Death, the last enemy, shall be destroyed, the body shall be made spiritual, the world of matter shall be transformed, and there shall be, in the universe, only peace and unity” [Tixeront, Histoire des dogmes, (Paris, 1905), I, 304, 305].
The primary text of Origen should be
referred to “De principiis”, III, 6, 6;
(P.G. XI, col. 338- 340). For
Origen’s teaching and the passages wherein it is expressed consult Huet, “Origeniana”,
II, qu. 11, n. 16
(republished in P.G., XVII, col. 1023-26); and Petavius,
“Theol. dogmat., De Angelis”, 107-109; also Harnack
(Freiburg, 1894), I, 645, 646], who connects the teaching of Origen on this
point with that of Clement of Alexandria. Tixeront also writes very aptly
concerning this matter: “Clement allows that sinful souls shall be sanctified
after death by a spiritual fire, and that the wicked shall, likewise, be
punished by fire. Will their chastisement be eternal? It would not seem so. In
the Stromata, VII, 2
(P.G., IX, col. 416), the punishment of which Clement
speaks, and which succeeds the final judgment, constrains the wicked to repent.
In chapter xvi
the author lays down the principle that God does not
punish, but corrects; that is to say that all chastisement on His part is
remedial. If Origen be supposed to have started from this principle in order to
arrive at the apokatastasis--and Gregory of Nyssa as well--it is
extremely probable that Clement of Alexandria understood it in the same sense”
(Histoire des dogmes, I,
277). Origen, however, does not seem to have regarded
the doctrine of the apokatastasis as one meant to be preached to all, it
being enough for the generality of the faithful to know that sinners will be
(Contra Celsum, VI, 26 in P.G., XI, col. 1332.)
doctrine, then, was first taught by Origen, and by Clement of Alexandria, and
was an influence in their Christianity due to Platonism, as Petavius has plainly
(Theol. dogmat. De Angelis,
106), following St. Augustine “De Civitate
Dei”, XXI, 13. Compare Janet, “La philosophie de Platon”
603. It is evident, moreover, that the doctrine involves a purely natural scheme
of divine justice and of redemption.
(Plato, Republic, X, 614b.)
This Webpage was created for a workshop held at Saint Andrew's Abbey, Valyermo, California in 2001