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Apokatastasis in the Thought of Origen and Gregory of Nyssa

Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah appointed for you, that is, Jesus, who must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration (αποκαταστασις) that God announced long ago through his holy prophets. Acts 3:19-21 (NRSV)

In many quarters of the Church today sincere Christians are raising questions regarding the rationale behind decreeing eternal punishment for temporal mistakes, for consigning human souls to unending fire as the penalty for decisions made in a fleeting life upon the earth. Though most Christians acknowledge the infinite love and mercy of God, we are often stymied when we contemplate the apparent contradiction between the God of love and the God of justice. We have been taught that there are eternal consequences for our actions and that the day is coming when the trees that produce no fruit will be chopped down and cast into the fire (Matthew 7:19). If God is just, we are prone to ask, how can unrepentant sinners share in the gift of eternal life in the Kingdom? The idea of sharing heaven with the likes of Adolph Hitler, the child molester down the street, or in some extreme cases even the folks from the other political party is repugnant to many who feel that salvation is attained by following a certain teaching or by participating in a defined set of sacraments. But for a growing number of questioning voices in the Western Church the idea of eternal punishment seems simply unworthy of God.

The question of a universal restoration of all Creation is nothing new. Both Clement and Origen of Alexandria, as well as the Cappadocians, Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa, wrote theological reflections that explore the topic of apokatastasis, a Greek word translated variously as restitution or restoration, which is associated with the ideas of personal and cosmic salvation (apokatastasis). What follows is an overview of some of the primary sources available to us from Origen and Gregory of Nyssa. Taking into account the historical circumstances that prompted these men to write on these questions, we will examine their thoughts and explore how they might aid in our contemporary discussion. While these early Church Fathers both discussed hell as a reality, both saw it as a temporary state for purification and correction rather than an eternal punishment.

Origen has produced the largest body of extant works that touch on the subject of universal reconciliation and his name has gained notoriety in debates over eschatology and the final state of humanity. He lived in a crucial period when Gnostic theologians were actively involved in debates shaping Christianity (Moore 34). It was against this backdrop that Origen began his work On First Principles as an answer to the systems that the Gnostics proposed.

Origen’s thought was influenced by a Greek philosophical education in the Platonic tradition. In this way his idea of a universal restoration of the ideal first state of Creation resembles models from Stoic philosophy and its doctrine of eternal recurrence (Moore 63). We find Origen’s own formulation in On First Principles I.VI.2:

"For the end is always like the beginning: as therefore there is one end of all things, so as there is one end of many things, so from one beginning arise many differences and varieties, which in their turn are restored, through God’s goodness, through their subjection to Christ and their unity with the Holy Spirit, to one end which is like the beginning" (53).

While this theme can be traced back to the pre-Socractic philosopher Heraclitus (Moore 63) – who first formulated a cosmology in which an orderly universe is created from fire and the Logos, or universal reason which orders the relationships within that universe ("Heracleitus") – Origen’s account of apokatastasis differs from those preceding it in that he ascribes an active role for the second and third persons of the Trinity in this process. And as John Sachs points out, "as much as Origen may have been sympathetic to and influenced by [Neo-Platonic] and Stoic cosmologies, his theology is rooted in the Scripture" (621). As such the basis for Origen’s model in which the end is like the beginning is found in 1 Corinthians 15:23 28 where the Apostle Paul claims that in the end, death will be vanquished as the final enemy of God and all things will be made subject to Jesus Christ (Commentary on John, Book 1 120) and Ephesians 4:13 where all are brought together in unity of the faith and recognition of the Son of God.

While discussing what this universal restoration might look like, Origen enters the territory that Henri Crouzel refers to as "research theology," in which he speculates on questions of whether the devil and other fallen angels will also be restored or whether there may be an unending series of falls from a perfect Creation and then restoration (205). It was these particular aspects of Origen’s work that would be stripped from their original context and anathematized.

Origen describes a creation based on a Neo-Platonic model which has multiple orders of existence through which fallen souls might pass, being instructed by angels and higher beings, until at last those who have fallen might return to the original state (On First Principles 57). Speculations such as these, with Origen’s emphasis on punishments that must be endured at each order until passing to the next highest level (57) may have formed the precursor for the doctrine of Purgatory.

One of the most interesting characteristics of Origen’s doctrine is that punishment is seen as remedial and of a limited nature. Inflicting pain for its own sake is beneath God’s character and this belief shaped the way in which Origen would deal with the punishment of sinners. In On First Principles II.X.3 we find a discussion that begins with an explanation of the judgment of "outer darkness" found in the scriptures in which the possibility is raised that the darkness is not to be taken literally, but rather is a metaphor for the ignorance experienced by those who have been separated from all reason and intelligence. But the end of this paragraph is the most interesting. Here Origen makes the declaration:

There is a resurrection of the dead, and there is punishment, but not everlasting. For when the body is punished the soul is gradually purified, and so is restored to its ancient rank. For all wicked men, and for daemons, too, shall be restored to their former rank" (Origen, On First Principles 146).[1]

The idea of punishment as a corrective leading to salvation is also found in other passages from Origen’s works. In "Homily 12 on Jeremiah," we find a discussion in which the blessed will be gathered together after death in "a certain church of the firstborn registered in heaven, where Mount Zion and the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God, are located" (Origen 183). However, the text continues by saying that sinners "must taste something bitter, being under God’s careful management, so that, having been corrected, [they] may be saved" (Origen, Homily 12 on Jeremiah 183). Again, the idea of punishment as a corrective rather than simply being punitive appears in the text:

"Just as you do not punish a servant or a slave whom you punish simply out of a desire to torture, but so that, by means of his distress, he may change, so God also punishes, by making them suffer distress, those who have been changed by reason and have not been healed" (Origen, Homily 12 on Jeremiah 183).

Origen’s insistence on punishment as a corrective is in direct response to accusations raised by Marcionite and Gnostic heretics of his time who accused God of cruelty and injustice (Sachs 625-626). By lifting voices from the scriptures that suggest that punishment is neither eternal nor without hope of providing correction, Origen hopes to show that the God of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament are not so divergent in character, but rather are one and the same and that God’s nature is good and loving.

Though God’s will is the complete restoration of the Creation, Origen insists that God also places high value on the free will of created beings. For this reason also, punishment is seen as corrective rather than coercive. Origen claims, unlike the Stoic vision of fire (a metaphor for the supreme element) that will eventually violently engulf all things when perfection is restored, that God will wait until all of humanity will submit of its own will (Origen, Contra Celsus VII.72). Because of the dialectical tension that results between an omnipotent God and the exercise of free will, Origen’s idea of apokatastasis is termed a hope rather than a firm doctrine. As Crouzel notes, "certainty about a universal apocastasis would be in contradiction to the authenticity of the free will with which God had endowed humankind" (265). Because human free will is an integral part of creation, Origen further speculated that repeated falls and returns to the original state were possible (Sachs 633).

In the Western Church Origen’s legacy is tainted by the so-called Origenist controversies of the fifth and sixth centuries. With his speculative ideas about the pre-existence of souls, the salvation of the devil and demons and his references to spiritual bodies which humans would one day inhabit, it was easy for later theologians to either misunderstand the nuances of his work or simply reject some of them as unorthodox. The Fifth Ecumenical Council passed a list of 15 anathemas against what they perceived as Origen’s heresies and ordered that his writings either destroyed or corrected. Emperor Justinian declared nine of his own anathemas against Origen, the final of which reads:

"If anyone says or thinks that the punishment of demons and of impious men is only temporary, and will one day have an end, and that a restoration (αποκαταστασις) will take place of demons and of impious men, let him be anathema" (Justinian).

It has been noted that the anathema pronounced against Origen has very little to do with his actual beliefs and more to do with the political climate at the time of the pronouncements. The Arian controversy had found new life in Origen’s writings, thus pulling his works into a fight that Origen himself had never foreseen during his own lifetime.[2]  His guilt by association led to misunderstandings and charges that he was no longer alive to answer, leaving him branded a heretic for many years.

Another early theologian, but one whose works were not condemned as heresy by the Fifth Ecumenical Council, was Gregory of Nyssa. By removing himself from some of the more speculative discourse offered by Origen, such as the preexistence of souls, a pre-creation fall, purely immaterial resurrection and the idea that the apokatastasis could be undone and repeated if created beings chose yet again to sin, Gregory was able to explore the idea of a universal reconciliation without drawing the ire of the Councils or the emperor.

An interesting innovation in Gregory’s teaching tied to his concept of universal salvation is his doctrine on the image of God in man. Gregory held that humans are created in the image of God which includes intellect and free will, but when we turned away from God we were given a garment of skin – not a physical body, but the elements that we hold in common with animals:

"sexual union, conception, childbirth, dirt, nursing, food, excrement, the gradual growth of the body towards maturity, adulthood, old age, sickness and death" (Gregory, From Glory to Glory: texts from Gregory of Nyssa’s mystical writings 11).

In the Catechetical Oration Gregory asserts that the garment of skin is what is destroyed when the fallen nature is sifted and the human returns to communion with God" (13).

In describing the purification of the soul in preparation for reconciliation with the Divine, Gregory calls up the image of the refiner’s fire as is used in Malachi’s description of the purification of the Levites:

"When a baser material is mixed with gold, the refiners of gold make the foreign and worthless element to disappear by consuming it with fire, and so restore the more precious material to its natural brightness. The severance, indeed, is not brought about without difficulty, seeing that time is needed for the fire, with its destructive power, to cause the spurious metal to disappear; yet this melting away of that element, whose presence in it impairs the beauty of the gold, is a kind of cure applied to the latter. In like manner, when death, corruption, darkness, and all the other products of vice had attached themselves to the nature of the author of evil, the approach of the Divine power, acting like fire, effects the disappearance of the element which was contrary to nature, and, by thus purging it, benefits the nature, even though the sifting process proves painful. Hence even the adversary himself would not dispute the justice and salutary effect of that which was done, if he possibly might perceive the benefit bestowed on him (The Catechetical Oration of St. Gregory of Nyssa 82).

Gregory’s writings also include passages that point to a purification and restoration that takes place after death in individuals who die before they have been cleansed of sin:

"For [God], the one goal is this, the perfection of the universe through each man individually, the fulfillment of our nature. Some of us are purged of evil in this life, some are cured of it through fire in the after-life, some have not had the experience of good and evil in life here. God proposes for everyone a participation in the goods in Himself which Scripture says: ‘eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the minds of man’ [1 Corinthians 2:9]. In my opinion, this is nothing else than existing in God Himself, since the good which is beyond hearing and seeing and the heart would be the very thing which is superior to the universe. The different degrees of virtue or vice in our life will be revealed in our participating more quickly or more slowly in the blessedness we hope for. The extent of the healing will depend on the amount of evil present in each person. The healing of the soul will be purification from evil and this cannot be accomplished without suffering, as was shown in our previous discussion." (Gregory, On the Soul and the Resurrection 267-268).

Gregory’s theology appears to be inclusive of all of humanity; however, he nuances his declaration of universal restoration by pointing out that although all will share in the divine essence, how quickly this will occur will depend on our spiritual state at the time of our death and our will to actively participate in the process of purgation, if required, in the afterlife.

Bringing his work to a close, Gregory gives the final example of a farmer has planted a field. The crop has been corrupted by weeds and thorns that have grown up alongside the seed. As a result, the nutrition of the crop is diverted to the unwanted weeds, stunting the growth of the plants. To remedy the situation, the farmer must remove the weeds and thorns from the crop, casting them away to be burned.

"After he has pulled out every bastard and alien growth and burned it, then, the plants will be well nourished and come to fruition as the result of much care. After a long period of time, they will assume again the form which they received from God in the beginning" (Gregory, On the Soul and the Resurrection 271).

Gregory continues his analogy by constructing a dualism whereby he states that those who are not on the side of good (symbolized by the good plants) must automatically be on the side of evil (damaged, corrupted, weak). They cannot immediately enter into relationship with God and are required to take a different path:

"The passions of the soul resulting from evil are hard to drive out since they are mixed with it and have grown with it and become one with it. However, once such souls have been purified by fire and sanctified, the other qualities will enter into them in place of the evil ones, namely, incorruptibility, life, honor, grace, glory, power, and whatever else we conjecture to be discerned in God and that image of Him which is human nature" (Gregory, On the Soul and the Resurrection 272).

Here again we find the idea of purification through a remedial punishment that eventually ends as the perfected creature is rejoined to God.

John Sachs points out that in Gregory’s world the idea of returning to an ideal state of good was found in the philosophy of the Stoics and also in Plotinus. For the former this was simply a return of all things to their origins while for the latter the idea was one of emanations from the Divine oneness returning to the source as their longing for the Divine oneness directs them back (Sachs 633). Gregory differs from these philosophies by emphasizing that human nature is "commingled" with the Divine nature and is inspired with the desire to be at one with God (Gregory, The Catechetical Oration of St. Gregory of Nyssa 35).

Having examined two of the voices from the past that have addressed the issues of punishment after death and the hope of universal salvation, we must now ask whether they are relevant to the current debate within the Church. While Gregory of Nyssa may be less than familiar to many involved in the discussion, Origen has become the equivalent of an ancient poster boy for the idea of universal salvation. However, Origen’s original concerns are not at issue in our own time. On First Principles was written as a rebuttal to Gnostic philosophies of his day – threats that are no longer considered a great danger by the majority of Christians. Where the relevance to our conversation occurs is perhaps in the reactions seen in the Origenist crisis. Emperor Justinian’s decrees of anathema against the idea that punishment might be other than eternal still reaches to the heart of the debate in the Church today. On the one side, there are those who cannot reconcile the loving nature of God with eternal torture in hell. On the other, there are those who, either by what they’ve been taught or through their own sense of quid pro quo justice cannot grasp forgiveness and restoration for those who do not fit their religious framework.

Gregory’s writings provided a corrective to certain Stoic and Neo-Platonist ideas of his time. While the cosmologies espoused by his contemporaries are no longer in style in our age, there may be some similarity. Current scientific thought also describes a universe which began from a single source and continues to move outward as the result of a huge release of energy that is scattering matter to the outer regions of an unimaginable void. This same theory claims that one day the cosmos will reach a point at which it will cease to expand, collapsing in on itself until all things return to a single point of origin of infinite density. Though the technical details of emanations and particles don’t sound the same, the visual image tends to match very closely the ideas of earlier philosophers. But what these various theories do share in common is a soulless march of inevitability that ends in the deconstruction of all things, whether by conflagration or gravitational forces. What Gregory’s writings provided in his own day they may still provide now: a voice that assures us of God’s final victory over evil and a return to union with a loving, all-powerful Creator. Rather than emanations that are somehow inferior copies of the Source or random occurrences in a sea of eternal chaos, Gregory assures us that we bear the image of the Creator and are called to ultimately return to a shared life of communion with the Source of all good. It is this last point that both Gregory and Origen may still breathe into our conversation today.

Returning to the tension between God’s love and God’s justice with which we began our exploration, these authors remind us that punishment for punishment’s sake seems inconsistent with the character of a God of love. Though perhaps their metaphors of purification by fire may still appear more violent than what some folks are looking for, perhaps they are a step in the right direction, suggesting hope that the times of trials will cease and that through a remedial process the Creation will one day again be reconciled with the Creator. As Sachs points out, both Origen and Gregory at times had "rather traditional things to say about eschatological punishment. But what really motivated them was an even stronger conviction about the infinity and incomprehensibility of God’s goodness and mercy, revealed and bestowed in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ" (640). This is perhaps their greatest contribution to the Church today, for by giving us a glimpse of the unfathomable love of God, they urge us to put away our own culturally bound absolutes and dare to imagine that the goodness of God can overcome the darkness and restore a sense of belonging and fellowship to us all.

[1]  While this passage appears in the Greek text, it was removed from the Latin translation that Rufinus prepared in Origen’s defence during the Origenist controversy.  That passage instead reads, "Let these remarks, which we have made at this point, to preserve the order of our discourse, in the fewest possible words, suffice for the present" (Origen, On First Principles, removing all reference to the restoration of demons or sinners.

[2]  See Crouzel for a fascinating explanation of the shift in spelling from Origen’s own time to the time of the translation of his works by Jerome and Rufinus, which fueled the controversy over Christ’s nature and whether he was created or generated.


Works Cited

"apokatastasis." A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Ed. Frederick William Danker. 3rd Edition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000. 112.

Crouzel, Henri. Origen. Trans. A. S. Worrall. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1989.

Gregory of Nyssa. The Catechetical Oration of St. Gregory of Nyssa. Trans. J. H. Srawley. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1917.

—. From Glory to Glory: texts from Gregory of Nyssa’s mystical writings. Ed. Jean Daniélou. Trans. Herbert Musurillo. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1961.

—. "On the Soul and the Resurrection." Saint Gregory of Nyssa: ascetical works. Ed. Roy Joseph Deferrari. Trans. Virginia Woods Callahan. Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1967. 193-272.

"Heracleitus." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica 2007 Ultimate Reference Suite. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 2008.

Emperor Justinian. The Anathematisms of the Emperor Justinian Against Origen. 1 June 2005. 12 December 2007 .

Moore, Edward. Origen of Alexandria and St. Maximus the Confessor: an analysis and critical evaluation of their eschatalogical doctrines. Boca Raton, FL: Dissertation.com, 2005.

Origen. "Commentary on John, Book 1." Trigg, Joseph W. Origen. New York: Routledge, 1998. 103-149.

—. Contra Celsus. 2007. 12 December 2007 .

—. "Homily 12 on Jeremiah." Trigg, Joseph W. Origen. Trans. Joseph W. Trigg. New York: Routledge, 1998. 179-192.

—. On First Principles. Ed. G. W. Butterworth. New York: Harper & Row, 1966.

Sachs, John R. "Apocatastasis in Patristic Theology." Theological Studies 54 (1993): 617-640.


Description of Assignment

What issues are you or your congregation facing?  Have historical Christians thought about this before?  Write a paper of approximately 10-12 pages briefly describing a situation encountered in the contemporary church and analyzing two historical instances, from the period 100-1300 CE, asking the same question of each.  The essay should include your own reflection on how historical understanding is a resource for the present understanding, progress, or resolution of the issue.

2 Responses to Apokatastasis in the Thought of Origen and Gregory of Nyssa

  • In the thought of Origen and Gregory of Nyssa I can now truly Rejoice in the Lord my God Who gave Himself up for the sins of the world.

    Christian Universalism makes a lot of sense backed by the Scriptures themselves. Praise be to Lord our God whose mercies endure forever.

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