αποκαταστασις: ευαγγελιον! Universal Salvation: Good news! The Forgotten Essence of the Gospel

Doctrinal Definition

Literally, the word apokatastasis means “restitution” or “restoration”. There are many different construals of the doctrine of apokatastasis, some being closer to the orthodoxy that we recognise today (eg, St Gregory of Nyssa) and some being much more alien and exotic (eg, the fantastical theology of St Origen1). This paper cannot hope to comprehensively cover all the different varieties and nuances of Apokatastasis that are extant in the tradition.

Merriam-Webster provides the following minimal working definition of Apokatastasis:

The doctrine of the final restoration of all sinful beings to God and to the state of blessedness2

A more fleshed out definition – to which I will be adhering for the purpose of this paper – would be:

That by his incarnation, sinless life, passion, crucifixion and resurrection, Christ achieved complete and entire victory over Hell, Death, Sin, Evil, Satan and Suffering, such that they no longer have any power to enslave or damn anyone, and therefore all souls will be saved.

Scriptural Support

The idea of apokatastasis permeates throughout scripture and can be discovered at the level of both systematic analysis and low-level proof texting. A plenitude of scriptures could be cited, but I will limit myself to Paul’s letters, particularly Romans, 1 Corinthians and Phillipians.

In Romans 1-8, the broad argument of Paul is that all of mankind exists in a state of total depravity, as the result of original sin. This is most clearly expressed in chapter three which reads as follows:

None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands, no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside, together they have gone wrong;
no one does good, not even one.”3

In chapter five, Paul balances this picture of total depravity with a Christocentric universal salvation. He claims that just as in Adam all die and suffer damnation, so too in Christ all are made alive, justified and saved.

Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned— sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.

But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for the many. And the free gift is not like the effect of that one man’s sin. For the judgement following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. If, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.

Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men. For as by one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience the many will be justified. Law came in, to increase the trespass; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.4

Note that the RSVCE (and many other English translations) renders “the many” without the definite article, thus slightly taking the edge off of the universalising thrust of Paul’s argument as written in the original Koine. I have slightly modified the translation to include articles where they are usually dropped, so as to better bring out Paul’s universalism.

In Chapter eight, Paul talks about the certain and infallible assurance of salvation that comes with faith in Christ’s apokatastasis:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.5

In Chapter 9, Paul raises the question “If Christ has saved everyone, then why are the Jews rejecting him?”

I am speaking the truth in Christ, I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen by race. They are Israelites, and to them belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed for ever. Amen.6

After three chapters of painful reflections, Paul reaffirms the theology which he had already sketched out in chapter 5: All of the Jews will indeed be saved, but every individual gentile must be saved first in order to make Israel jealous:

Lest you be wise in your own conceits, I want you to understand this mystery, brethren: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full totality; every individual Gentile has come in, and so all Israel will be saved; as it is written7

During the painful reflections of chapters 9-11, Paul poses an important, relevant and disturbing hypothetical: “Do we worship the sort of God who creates some people for salvation and other people for damnation?”:

What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the vessels of wrath made for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for the vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory?8

Many people don’t notice that Paul is asking a question here, and wrongly believe that he is providing an actual description of the character and temperament of God. However by the time we get to chapter 11, Paul has answered his hypothetical question in the negative, by reaffirming the foundational universalist theology he had already sketched out in chapter 5. All are simultaneously vessels of wrath and vessels of mercy:

For God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all.9

Paul’s doctrine of apokatastasis also crops up in 1 Corinthians 15, in the letters conclusion wherein Paul is aiming to concisely summarise the entire gospel. He claims that the whole creation and everything in it will eventually be ruled over by Christ, and finally God will permeate everything:

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. “For God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “All things are put in subjection under him,” it is plain that he is excepted who put all things under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things under him, that God may be all in all.10

In Phillipians 2, Paul again outlines his vision of apokatastasis:

Have this mind among yourselves, which was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should freely bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue lovingly confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.11

The word Paul uses for “confess” is ἐξομολογήσηται, which has the connotation of a confession which is made “freely” and “lovingly”. There’s no sense of anyone being forced or coerced to confess that Christ is Lord in this passage. Christ is not being portrayed as a violent and tyrannical king who forces his subjects to bow down to him. The people who are bowing their knees and confessing Christ as lord are doing it freely and lovingly here. Paul is once again outlining a vision of the Apokatastasis.

Patristic Support

Throughout the 2000 years of Catholic and Orthodox tradition, there have always been three competing eschatological traditions: Universalist, Infernalist, and Annihilationist. Russian Orthodox priest Fr Sergius Bulgakov – a dogmatic theologian, patristics scholar, and a firm believer in apokatastasis – offers the following reflection:

The Church has not yet established a single universally obligatory dogmatic definition in the domain of eschatology, if we do not count the brief testimony of the Nicaeno-Constantinopolitan Creed concerning the second coming (“He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and His kingdom will have no end”), as well as concerning the resurrection of the dead and the life of the future age. These dogmas of the faith, attested to by the Creed and based on the express promises of the Lord, have not, all the same, been developed by theology. They are considered to be self-evident for the dogmatic consciousness, although that is not, in reality, the case. All the rest, referring to various aspects of eschatology, has not been defined dogmatically; it is an object of dogmatic doctrine that has yet to undergo free theological investigation.

If it is maintained that the absence of an ecclesial definition is compensated by the existence of a firm ecclesial tradition, patristic and other, one must call such an assertion inaccurate or even completely erroneous. Aside from the fact that this tradition is insufficient and disparate, the most important thing here is the absence of a single tradition. Instead, we have at least two completely different variants: on the one hand, a doctrine originating in Origen and stabilized in the teaching of St. Gregory of Nyssa and his tacit and open followers; and, on the other hand, a widespread doctrine that has had many adherents but none equal in power of theological thought to those mentioned above. (Perhaps in this group we can put Augustine, the greatest teacher of the Western Church, but the originality of his worldview sets him apart in general, especially for Eastern theology.) As regards both particular patristic doctrines and the systematization of biblical texts, an inquiry that would precede dogmatization has yet to be carried out.

Given such a situation, it would be erroneous to maintain that the dogmatic doctrine expounded in the scholastic manuals represents the authoritative and obligatory dogmas of the Church, and to demand subordination to them as such. In response to such a demand it is necessary to established decisively and definitively that this is an exaggeration and a misunderstanding. The doctrine expounded in the manuals can by no means be accepted without inquiry and verification. It only expresses the opinion of the majority, corresponding to the current status of theological thought on this subject, not more. Characteristic of a specific period of the past, this doctrine is losing its authority more and more at the present time and at the very least requires revision. There is insufficient justification to accept theological opinions as the dogmatic definitions of the Church, especially when these opinions are proper to only one type of thought. Eschatological theology remains open to inquiry even at the present time.12

Eastern Orthodox author and theologian Brad Jersak – another firm adherent to the Gospel of apokatastasis – has this to say:

Our obsessive attempts to harmonize the Scriptures into artificially coherent, stackable propositions—as if they required us to contend for their reliability or authority—actually do violence to their richness.13

Eclectic Eastern Orthodox priest Fr Alvin Kimel adds the following comment:

One finds within the Bible specific texts that may be reasonably interpreted to support each of the three major construals of eschatological destiny—infernalist, annihilationist, and universalist. Perhaps we need to hear all three voices.14

Catholic patristics scholar Ilaria Rameli offers the following outline of church fathers who were favourable towards the doctrine of apokatastasis:

The main Patristic supporters of the apokatastasis theory, such as Bardaisan, Clement, Origin, Didymus, St. Anthony, St. Pamphilus Martyr, Methodius, St. Macrina, St. Gregory of Nyssa (and probably the two other Cappadocians), St. Evagrius Ponticus, Diodore of Tarsus, Theodore of Mopsuestia, St. John of Jerusalem, Rufinus, St. Jerome and St. Augustine (at least initially) … Cassian, St. Issac of Nineveh, St. John of Dalyatha, Ps. Dionysius the Areopagite, probably St. Maximus the Confessor, up to John the Scot Eriugena, and many others, grounded their Christian doctrine of apokatastasis first of all in the Bible. 15

Dogmatic Standing

There is a common misconception among Catholic and Orthodox Christians that Apokatastasis has been dogmatically condemned by the church. This misunderstanding is encountered at all levels of the hierarchy: there are those who deny the doctrine on the basis of ecclesial authority among priests, bishops, laypeople and theologians.

When first presented with the universalist hope, many Orthodox and Roman Catholics immediately invoke the authority of the Fifth Ecumenical Council (A.D. 553), citing the fifteen anti-Origenist anathemas: “Apokatastasis has been dogmatically defined by the Church as heresy—see canon 1 … case closed.”16

Father Kimel of Eclectic Orthodoxy outlines why this is a mistaken assumption. In summary, the scholarly consensus is that the anathemas against Origenism and apokatastasis were not actually promulgated by the council17, which raises questions as to their dogmatic status. Do they still carry full dogmatic weight if they were not really approved by the bishops of the council? Are they magisterially authoritative purely on the basis that later tradition received them as if the canons had really been promulgated? Fr Kimel calls this the as if approach to fundamental theology:

The following passage from the life of St Sabbas was read to the assembly by Cosmas: “At the fifth holy General Council held at Constantinople, Origen and Theodore of Mopsuestia, together with the speculations of Evagrius and Didymus concerning the pre-existence and restitution of all things, were all subjected to one common and Catholic anathema all the four Patriarchs being present and consistent thereto.” Hence it is clear that by A.D. 787 the wider Church had accepted the attribution of the fifteen anathemas to the Second Council of Constantinople.

Perhaps we might call this the “as if” theory of dogmatic reception: the Church has received the anti-Origienist anathemas as if they had been officially promulgated by an ecumenical council and as if they condemned the universalist views of Origen, St Gregory Nyssen, and St Isaac the Syrian. Rejection of apokatastasis, after all, has been the standard teaching of Latin and Eastern Christianity for almost a millennium and a half. Doesn’t that qualify as ecumenical dogma, even if initially based upon a historical blunder? If we believe hard and long enough that an ecumenical council has dogmatically condemned all forms of universal salvation, then surely it must have. “Fifty million Frenchmen can’t be wrong,” as the saying goes.18

This mindset is quite common among Catholic and Orthodox Christians: “We all believe that apokatastasis is heresy because we have always believed it to have been condemned, regardless of whether or not it actually was”. Father Kimel questions this attitude and firmly rebukes it:

How and when does a doctrinal teaching achieve irreformable dogmatic status? Does it need to be formally defined by an ecumenical council? How long does it take for a doctrine to be properly received, and what are the criteria for reception? May the Church revisit either a dogmatic definition or a long-standing doctrine for compelling theological, historical, and pastoral reasons? Ask Orthodox theologians these and other related questions and one will received multiple, and often contradictory, answers. Hence we should not be surprised when internet apologists, parish priests, and even respected theologians who should know better dismiss the hope of universal salvation with the mere wave of a dogmatic hand. “The Fifth Ecumenical Council settled that long ago,” some tell us. “The Synodikon has infallibly anathematized the universalist hope,” others pontificate. But dogma is too important to be so superficially treated. And the universalist hope is too important to be so cavalierly and hastily dismissed. Substantive and important arguments have been raised against the traditional doctrine of everlasting damnation. They can only be addressed head-on, not dismissed by lazy appeals to authority. And if these arguments should prove compelling, then the question of apokatastasis must also be reopened, for nothing less than the gospel of Jesus Christ is at stake. 19

However, someone may hear all of this and be emotionally committed to the idea that the council really did condemn apokatastasis. They would dismiss all of this historical criticism of the tradition as disrespectful and blasphemous sophistry. “We believe what we have received, and we have received the anathemas of this council. These anathemas cannot be questioned by historical criticism. Science cannot trump tradition”. Fr Kimel responds:

Catholic Christendom came to believe that the fifteen anti-Origenist anathemas had been promulgated by the Fifth Ecumenical Council (for a brief summary of the evidence, see Green, pp. 42-46).

Let us therefore assume that the council did officially publish them. There still remains—and this is the crucial issue—the challenge of interpretation and application. Not all universalisms are the same. Just as there are both heretical and orthodox construals of, say, the atonement or the Incarnation, so there are heretical and orthodox construals of the larger hope. The apokatastasis advanced by St Gregory of Nyssa, for example, differs in decisive ways from the sixth-century theories against which the anathemas were directed. The latter appear to have belonged to an esoteric metaphysical system cut loose from the Scriptures, as even a cursory reading reveals. The chasm between the two is enormous.20

Even if the council did condemn apokatastasis, this does not give one the authority and power to silence those who remain in favour of the idea.

We simply cannot take a dogmatic definition or conciliar anathema and make it apply to whatever views we disapprove. We must interpret it within its historical, cultural, and theological context. Not to do so would be a kind of conciliar fundamentalism, akin to someone who rips a commandment from the book of Leviticus and then insists that it remains obligatory upon Gentile Christians today.21

Hermeneutics is unavoidable, and everyone has an individual responsibility to engage with it, especially theologians. While we must respect the authority of the magisterium and the tradition, we nevertheless have a responsibility to engage in interpretation of the deposit of faith independently. We cannot offload our responsibility for wrestling with the truth to the church or the bible: the church can guide us, but ultimately we also have the responsibility to do it for ourselves.

Conclusion

Apokatastasis is a beautiful and life-giving doctrine, and once all is said and done, the gospel can’t really be said to be “good news” without it. While a certain construal of Apokatastasis may have been condemned at the fifth ecumenical council, the doctrine of Apokatastasis per se remains a legitimate expression of Orthodox and Catholic faith. Let us respond to apokatastasis as St Paul responds; with rapture and doxology:

For God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all. O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory for ever. Amen.22

Bibliography

Bulgakov, Sergius. The Bride of the Lamb. Grand Rapids, MI, United States: William B Eerdmans, 2001

Hart, David B. “Saint Origen,” First Things, October 2015. https://www.firstthings.com/article/2015/10/saint-origen

Jersak, Bradley. Her Gates Will Never Be Shut: Hell, Hope, and the New Jerusalem. Eugene, United States: Wipf & Stock, 2005

Kimel, Alvin F. “Readings in Universalism” Eclectic Orthodoxy (blog). WordPress.com, May 15, 2015 https://afkimel.wordpress.com/essential-readings-on-universalism/

Kimel, Alvin F. “Apocatastasis: The Heresy That Never Was” Eclectic Orthodoxy (blog). WordPress.com, October 29, 2019. https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2019/10/29/apocatastasis-the-heresy-that-maybe-never-was/

Rameli, Ilaria. The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis : A Critical Assessment from the New Testament to Eriugena. Leiden, Netherlands: BRILL, 2013

1David B. Hart, “Saint Origen,” First Things, October 2015. https://www.firstthings.com/article/2015/10/saint-origen, While not being officially recognised as a saint by either the Catholic or Eastern Orthodox churches, Saint Origen was infallibly and dogmatically canonised on the heavenly and magisterial authority of the glorious and omniscient theologian, Dr David Bentley Hart, in the October 2015 edition of First Things.

2Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, s.v. “apocatastasis,” accessed May 19, 2020, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/apocatastasis.

3Rom 3:10-12 (RSVCE)

4Rom 5:12-21 (RSVCE, slightly altered)

5Rom 8:35,38-39 (RSVCE)

6Rom 9:1-5 (RSVCE)

7Rom 11:25-26 (RSVCE, slightly altered)

8Rom 9:22-23 (RSVCE)

9Rom 11:32 (RSVCE)

101 Cor 15:20-28 (RSVCE, slightly altered)

11Phil 2:5-11 (RSVCE, slightly altered)

12Sergius Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb (Grand Rapids, MI, United States: William B Eerdmans, 2001), 379-380

13Bradley Jersak. Her Gates Will Never Be Shut (Eugene, United States: Wipf & Stock, 2005)

14Alvin F. Kimel. “Readings in Universalism” Eclectic Orthodoxy (blog). WordPress.com, May 15, 2015. https://afkimel.wordpress.com/essential-readings-on-universalism/

15Ilaria Rameli, The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis (Leiden, Netherlands: BRILL, 2013),

This is not an exhaustive list; there are a multitude of other church fathers who can be cited in favour of the doctrine. Refer to the book for a comprehensive survey of the entire patristic tradition

16Alvin F. Kimel. “Apocatastasis: The Heresy That Never Was” Eclectic Orthodoxy (blog). WordPress.com, October 29, 2019. https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2019/10/29/apocatastasis-the-heresy-that-maybe-never-was/

17Kimel, “Heresy That Never Was”

18Kimel, “Heresy That Never Was”

19Kimel, “Heresy That Never Was”

20Kimel, “Heresy That Never Was”

21Kimel, “Heresy That Never Was”

22Rom 11:32-36 (RSVCE)

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