This is Part 2 of a series working through “All Shall Be Well:” Explorations in Universal Salvation and Christian Theology, from Origen to Moltmann. See the intro here.
The most famous proponent of universal reconciliation in the early church was Origen of Alexandria (c.185-c.254) – which isn’t really saying much because, at least in the Protestant traditions where I was raised, Origen himself, never mind his teaching, isn’t that famous.
Although not the earliest overt universalist – that title belongs to the second century’s Clement of Alexandria, who doesn’t get a chapter in MacDonald’s book, or (he says with a wink) perhaps these first-century guys named Paul of Tarsus and Jesus of Nazareth – Origen’s role as the most prominent has made him influential.
Origen’s notion of restoration was condemned in 553 because of its connection to the pre-existence of souls, although Tom Greggs (professor of systematic theology at the University of Chester in the U.K.) in his essay notes that condemnations of Origen were really condemnations of Origenism, which took Origen’s views to extremes. Further, Greggs argues Origen did not view universal reconciliation merely through his misguided views about the soul, but found christological support, as well.
Some have suggested that Origen was not really a universalist, given his ambiguous, if not contradictory, statements in some works, especially those written for more pastoral reasons. “Yet the mapping of Christian theology offered in his systemic theology, along with certain comments offered in his commentaries, clearly suggests that Origen imagined an ultimate end in which all would be welll, and God’s final victory would be triumphant” (31).
So how does universal restoration work, according to Origen? In two distinct ways.
First, Origen saw a connection between the Greek words for soul (psuche) and cooling (psuchesthai) because he believed the preexistent soul communed closely with the divine fire of God, then cooled as it moved away and fell into the bodies of humans. The soul, however, does not lose its ability to be restored to that original closeness, and that eventual restoration is what Origen sees as universal.
Now obviously Origen is borrowing heavily from Platonic and Neoplatonic Greek influences. The soul, in this worldview, is the seat of reason – the thing that makes people rational – and consequently (in Origen’s words) “all rational beings are partakers of the word of God, and so have implanted in them some seeds, as it were, of wisdom and righteousness, which is Christ” (33).
“All rational beings participate variously in the Logos,” Greggs summarizes, and this participation is at least partly active. Through this active participation, humans have a role in the completion of their salvation. We’ll see in the next chapter how this idea is developed in Gregory of Nyssa’s universalism 50 years later, but Origen advances the idea that because God created all things through the power of Wisdom, and because Jesus is Wisdom personified, then all things participate in Christ – even if they don’t realize it.
Origen’s teaching on the universal participation of rationality in the fount of all reason (the Logos) is the condition for his teaching of apokatastasis. Since pre-existent souls have moved from their participation in the divine fire, for Origen, salvation takes place through a return and restoration of God’s perfect, creating will. … The pre-fallen condition is what is restored for human beings, and in this way God’s creating will and his redeeming will are innately connected. Salvation is seen ultimately as the “perfect restoration of the whole of creation” (34).
Biblically, Origen connects this view to 1 Corinthians 15:28: “But when all things have been brought under his control, then the Son himself will also be under the control of the one who gave him control over everything so that God may be all in all” (CEB).
Origen wrote in On First Principles, the first-ever Christian work of systematic theology, “When ‘God shall be all in all,’ they [all creatures, Greggs clarifies] also, since they are a part of all, may have God even in themselves, as he is in all things.”
This does not remove the possibility of hell, but rather than being a place of eternal retributive punishment, the sentence is temporary, as Greggs summarizes:
This punishment is not absolute, but is instead intended to reform the soul: Punishment is a mechanism of salvation, rather than the determination of condemnation. There is, therefore, no permanent hell in Origen’s thought, as Origen’s sense of God’s graciousness always allows for a further opportunity of reform in future ages. (35)
Yet there is also a second way in which Origen grounds his universalism: through the variety of the titles given to Jesus in the Bible. Those titles, Origen argues, give evidence to the way in which Christ – no less than Paul, who said he must be all things to all people to effect their salvation – appears to humanity in diverse ways that match the diverse experiences of the human race. Greggs writes:
This logic forms part of Origen’s doctrine of the epinoiai, or titles of Christ. The form of the Logos is varied depending on the ability of those to whom he directs his economy to receive him. Thus, for Origen, there is constancy in the divine form of the Logos, but variety in his revelation. … ‘We do not … all come to him in the same way, but each one “according to his own proper ability”‘ (36).
Origen seemed hesitant to preach universalism, although he clearly taught it in his more theological works, for fear of encouraging sin. As a result, he’s clear that the slow journey to perfection and restoration begins in this life – with the unspoken corollary that time in hell will be shortened based on actions taken here and now. “Origen is desirous that the future prospect of the universal salvation of Christ does not undermine a desire for the holy life in the present; indeed, it is through progress and holiness that the apokatastasis will take place. … Origen’s universalism is not one of cheap and easy grace” (44).
For Origen, universalism did not mean a free lunch now with eternal benefits later; God still calls all people to holiness – indeed, he calls them to begin the process of restoration right now.