Is Pope Francis a Universalist?

The-Pope_2514251bMy Facebook feed has been lighting up the past 24 hours with links to this Huffington Post article capturing excerpts from Pope Francis’  Wednesday homily. The key quote, as translated by Vatican Radio:

The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone! … We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.

It’s unclear what exactly Francis means here, although one explanation certainly is that Francis is advocating universalism “Do good because in the end we will all meet one another there.” Another is inclusivism, a la the end to C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle, in which Francis essentially adopts Aslan’s statement that all good deeds are rendered in the name of Christ, regardless of whether the doer is a Christian. A final possibility, borne out by Reuters’ translation of the comments – “Just do good, and we’ll find a meeting point.” – is more traditional, that Francis is discussing the universal availability of the atonement, which not everyone ultimately will accept.

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Gregory of Nyssa and the Salvation of Satan

220px-Gregory_of_NyssaI’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.

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