I’m a big fan of Gregory of Nyssa, the bishop from Cappadocia (modern-day Turkey, more or less) who lived in the middle fourth century. For my Patristic and Medieval Theology class, I wrote a paper about Gregory’s universalism, which led me to this book, and therefore this series.
Gregory’s universalism was complete and total – when Gregory said that all of God’s creation would eventually be restored to him, he meant it, Satan, demons and all. In my paper, which I’ll post once I get the grade back, I argue Gregory’s expansive view of the goodness of God, which Gregory believed was the overarching divine characteristic against which all of God’s actions must be judged, required the belief in Satan’s salvation. Without it, either the evil to which Satan had turned was stronger than the inherent goodness Satan carried as part of God’s good creation – and therefore evil was stronger than God – or God’s deceit of Satan in the atonement was simply justice without mercy, and therefore not good. We’ll talk about that more when I post the paper later this summer.
Unfortunately, Steven R. Harmon touches very little on all of that in his chapter of “All Shall Be Well,” titled “The Subjection of All Things in Christ: The Christocentric Universalism of Gregory of Nyssa (331/340–c.395).”
Instead, as the title indicates, Harmon focuses on the role of Jesus in God’s plan to restore all things. He argues that such a role is somewhat hidden because Gregory talks so much about what God does in the reconciliation process.
First, Harmon summarizes Gregory’s view, which takes after Origen’s, but without the troublesome preexistence of souls bit that got Origen into so much trouble after his death. Gregory’s universalism stems from his interpretation of 1 Cor. 15:28, in which Paul says that, in the end, God will be “all in all,” and Phil. 2:10-11, in which Paul says every knee will bow and tongue confess the lordship of Christ. Further, Gregory saw these connected via the Septuagint translation of Psalm 61:2, which connects subjection to God with salvation. Thus, if all things are subjected to Christ when God is “all in all,” and if every knee bows and tongue confesses in expression of that subjection, and if subjection is salvation, then all things will be saved.
As Harmon notes, this depends on a view of evil – and evil’s power – that is decidedly different than we tend to have today. For Gregory, evil was a parasite; it had no independent existence except as the absence of good. He likened it multiple times to blindness, the absence of sight. Therefore, evil must be weaker than good and able to be purged from the souls of rational beings.
Harmon finds “three major themes” in Gregory’s universalism (54):
- “Every free will ultimately will rest in God.”
- “This means that evil will ultimately cease to exist, for evil ‘exists’ only through the exercise of the will, and when every will chooses God, evil can no longer be chosen.”
- “The means by which this will come about is a process of purifying punishment that will consume the accretions of evil on the soul until only the good is left.”
Harmon then goes to some lengths to find a role for Christ in this framework, but I confess I don’t understand why it’s so hard to find. All people are saved through Christ. So there you go. Jesus’ incarnation is the key piece that leads to the ultimate restoration.
Since all that is common to human nature is in need of redemption, it is necessary that the incarnate Word share in everything common to that nature – from birth to death – with the result that not only human nature as a whole but also the one who introduced human nature to evil in the first place is restored to the original state. (55)
A key part of Gregory’s system of beliefs is the “fishhook” atonement, a variation of the ransom model in which God tricks the devil by offering Jesus, whom Satan assumes to be a singularly remarkable human, in exchange for the rest of humanity, which Satan has imprisoned in the “house of death.” Satan doesn’t realize Jesus is actually divine (the fishhook hidden in the “bait” of humanity) and brings about his own destruction. Except not really destruction, per se, since the deceit has the effect of bringing about Satan’s salvation, as well.
Like Origen, the final piece is purgatory (though Gregory never calls it that), where the evils of the soul are burned away, until only the good is left to be restored to God.
Harmon’s conclusion is rather disappointing. Much could be said about Gregory’s beliefs – the paramount goodness of God, his notion that every piece of creation is imbued with some of that goodness, the importance of Satan’s salvation – but Harmon says none of that.
First, he delivers his summary of how Gregory views Jesus’ actions in the restoration (59):
- “Christ unites human nature as a whole with the divine nature and so raises the whole of human nature in the resurrection.”
- “Christ ransoms humanity from enslavement to evil and in doing so grants salvation even to the devil and the demons.”
- “Christ performs his healing work in applying the painful cure of purgatorial suffering to those who need it in order for God truly to be ‘all in all.’
First, Harmon agrees with Gregory insofar as he acknowledges the Bible does not preclude this strain of universalism, though Harmon does not believe it actually advocates for such an eschatology.
Second, Harmon does a great service by synthesizing the three major eschatological viewpoints, what he calls the “majority reading” (Tertullian and Augustine) of eternal conscious torment, the first “minority reading” (Justin Martyr, Arnobius) of annihilationism, and the second “minority reading” of universal restoration (Clement, Origen, Gregory). He does so by using the classic question of how Hitler could be saved:
If we may theorize that it is possible for God to save, say, Adolf Hitler (or any other fallen human being) – and “for God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26) – such a salvation would require the destruction of the evil person he had become in this earthly life (cf. Justin Martyr and Arnobius), the painful transformation of who he had willingly become into what God intended him to be (cf. Clement, Origen and Gregory), and the torment of knowing for eternity the tragedy of what was irrevocably lost in his refusal to participate in God’s salvation during this earthly life (cf. Tertullian and Augustine). (61)
This synthesis not only makes sense of these three traditions that have fought for the imaginations of Christians for 2,000 years – but it adequately covers the various biblical passages used to support each of them. Of course, it does in the end call for the universal salvation of all people, no matter how much pain and regret they suffer in the process, and as such would probably still be unacceptable to those for whom an eternal hell is a significant piece of their theology.
Finally, despite arriving at a conclusion I find quite helpful, it seems Harmon himself cannot quite bring himself fully on board.
“Those who find themselves attracted to Gregory’s hopeful eschatology must also consider Origen’s own reservations about making it the customary public teaching of the church,” he writes. “In this connection, there is much wisdom in the words of the 19th century Christian pietist Christian Gottlieb Barth: ‘Anyone who does not believe in the universal restoration is an ox, but anyone who teaches it is an ass.'”
The church is right to guard against a dogmatic universalism in light of its experience. Universal salvation as a foregone conclusion can lead, and has led, to indifference toward evangelistic endeavors and easy cultural accommodation rather than transformative engagement with culture. (63)
This is an old trope, one often raised against universalism – and one I myself have been guilty of raising. But it collapses on its own hollowness. After all, if the only reason to follow Jesus and obey his instruction to transform our culture is to avoid the threat of hell, how shallow must our belief truly be? As Robin Parry says in his video response to Rachel Held Evans’ readers: “Crap on a stick!”
Such an argument is also problematic because the modern American church, despite preaching long and loud about the threat of hell, seems chronically to suffer from “indifference toward evangelistic endeavors” and especially “easy cultural accommodation.” I haven’t noticed the notion of hell preventing many Christians from fully embracing the rat-race consumerism of our culture.
It seems like Harmon, though attracted to the idea of universalism, is unable to fully embrace it. “I will not be surprised,” he concludes, “if I discover in the resurrection that the God revealed in Jesus Christ has saved all people, but in the meantime we should not count on that” (63).
Of course, we cannot count on anything – including the very existence of “the God revealed in Jesus Christ” – but the more I study this question, the more I become convinced that if he exists, and I believe he does, the God of Jesus Christ will indeed carry out his expressed wishes to see all people restored to himself.