I’m speed-reading through some works by the church fathers for an upcoming short course called Patristic and Medieval Theology, and in the early going it’s very Eastern-oriented: Origen, Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, Basil of Ceasarea. They’re all Greek-speaking Christians from the eastern half of the Roman world – Alexandria and Asia Minor.
Origen is probably the most famous of those names. Based in Alexandria, Egypt, his notions of asceticism and spirituality were hugely influential, and he’s considered one of the – if not the – most brilliant theologian before Augustine, who came around about 200 years later. He’s also famously odd, not only thanks to his idea that humanity could, through ascetic practice, achieve perfection (and thus transcend the physical body into some sort of spiritual state) in this life, but also because he’s essentially Christianity’s first outspoken universalist, arguing that eventually all things would be restored to God.
I say Christianity’s first outspoken universalist, but of course, one could argue that in fact that title belongs to Luke or Paul of Tarsus; after all, they’re the ones who use the language of all things being restored (Acts 3:21) and every knee bowing and every tongue confessing. Nevertheless, Origen, writing around 200 C.E., gets credit for first explicating a full-on concept of universal reconciliation.
He wasn’t alone, however. Gregory of Nyssa, himself no slouch intellectually, followed Origen’s footsteps around 380 C.E. In his Address on Religious Instruction (also known as The Great Catechism), Gregory put forth the notion of universal reconciliation as part of his theory of atonement.
Gregory’s notions of atonement, judgment and reconciliation all stem from this formulation of evil: It doesn’t exist.