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.
Or at least, to the extent evil exists, it’s only through the absence of good. He compares evil to blindness, in that blindness is merely the absent of sight.
Evil in some way arises from within. It has its origen in the will, when the soul withdraws from the good.For as sight is an activity in nature and blindness is a privation of natural activity, so virtue is in this way opposed to vice. For the origin of evil is not otherwise to be conceived than as the absence of virtue (6.5).
Evil was born, Gregory argues, when Satan closed his eyes to goodness and turned to envy and pride, jealous of the special stature with which God had created humanity. He then schemed to corrupt God’s creation, which he of course succeeded in doing.
God then set to work restoring humanity to himself. And he chose to incarnate himself in human form to do it. Why?
If, then, the love of man is a proper mark of the divine nature, here is the explanation you are looking for, here is the reason for God’s presence among men. Our nature was sick and needed a doctor. Man had fallen and needed someone to raise him up. He who had lost life needed someone to restore it. He who had ceased to participate in the good needed someone to bring him back to it. He who was shut up in darkness needed the presence of light. The prisoner was looking for someone to ransom him, the captive for someone to take his part. He who was under the yoke of slavery was looking for someone to set him free (10.15).
Gregory then advocates a ransom theory of atonement – that Jesus’ death ransomed humanity from the mastery of Satan.
What, then, would he exchange for the one in his power, if not something clearly superior and better? Thus, by getting the better part of the bargain, he might the more satisfy his pride.
Thus Jesus performed miracles, on the one hand proving his divinity to his followers in the future but on the other making himself a more enticing ransom for Satan, who would be willing to relinquish his hold on the rest of humanity if he could capture the one turning the world upside down in Palestine.
When the enemy saw such power, he recognized in Christ a bargain which offered him more than he held. For this reason he chose him as the ransom for those he had shut up in death’s prison (12.23).
But Satan couldn’t know that Jesus was in fact God, which is why Jesus came cloaked in the humble garb of humanity. “When he saw this power softly reflected more and more through the miracles, he reckoned that what he saw was to be desired rather than feared.” With Jesus’ death, humanity was released from its grip, and with his resurrection, death was banished once and for all.
Needless to say, this opens God up to accusations of deceit. Did he trick Satan by making him think Jesus was a human rather than God himself? In one sense, Gregory acknowledges, yes, he did. But here’s where Gregory expresses a truly novel concept:
He who first deceived man by the bait of pleasure is himself deceived by the camouflage of human nature. But the purpose of the action changes it into something good. For the one practiced deceit to ruin our nature; but the other, being at one just and good and wise, made use of a deceitful device to save the one who had been ruined. And by so doing, he had benefited, not only the one who had perished, but also the one who had brought us to ruin. For when death came into contact with life, darkness with light, corruption with incorruption, the worse of these things disappeared into a state of nonexistence, to the profit of him who was freed from these evils.
The purification process can therefore begin, not just for humanity – but for the one who enslaved it in the first place. In other words, Gregory argues, when the Bible talks about all things being restored, it really means it. Even the fallen angel will be restored.
When, over a long period of time, [evil] has been removed and those now lying in sin have been restored to their original state, all creation will join in united thanksgiving, both those whose purification involved punishment and those who never needed purification at all (13.26).
So how does God distinguish those who need purification from those who don’t? Gregory’s answer is baptism.
Those who in their lifetime here have already been purified by baptism will be restored to a state akin to this [new life]. … But those, on the other hand, who had become inured to passion, and to whom nothing had been applied to cleanse the stain … must necessarily find their proper place. Now just as the appropriate place for debased gold is the furnace, so the evil mingled with these natures must be melted away so that, after long ages, they may be restored to God in their purity (18.35).
There’s plenty to question and quibble over. You might not believe Satan can be redeemed, or you might not believe he exists. You might disagree with the necessity of hell to purify the unbaptized. You might have all sorts of problems with the ransom theory of atonement as Gregory describes it.
But all of his theories are based on his overriding assumption about God: that he is loving and wise and just.
God creates humanity, Gregory writes, “not by any necessity” but “out of abundant love,” and his motives are similar in his desire to restore us. Indeed, I think Gregory would find quite disturbing modern notions of penal substitutionary atonement, in which God’s core attributes must be angry and vengeful.
It is universally agreed that we should believe the Divine to be not only powerful, but also just and good and wise and everything else that suggests excellence. … What is good is not truly such unless it is associated with justice, wisdom and power. For what is unjust and stupid and impotent is not good. Power, too, if it is separated from justice and wisdom, cannot be classed as virtue. Rather it is a brutal and tyrannical form of power. … We seek above all, in the case of God, signs of his goodness (12.20).
One need not believe in universal reconciliation, but we would do well to keep in mind Gregory’s admonition. Does eternal torment in hell comport with the notion of a good, wise and just God. About 1,600 years ago, some of the greatest theological minds the world has ever seen said no.