Saint Origen of Alexandria

Biography1

Origen2 was born in the mid 180s in Alexandria, Egypt. His father was an upper class professor of literature and a committed Christian, who raised Origen in the faith and taught him to memorise scripture passages every day.

When Origen was in his late teens, there was a violent persecution throughout the Roman empire put in motion by the Emperor Severus. During this time Origen’s father was imprisoned and eventually executed via beheading. Origen was zealous for martyrdom and desired to turn himself in to the persecuting authorities, but his mother prevented him from doing so by hiding all of his clothes at the crucial moment, thus preventing him from leaving his house and turning himself in.

At the age of 18, Origen found work as a catechist at the Alexandrian Catechetical school. This was a means by which he could support his family, who were in need of a new breadwinner seeing as his father had been executed. Origen’s routine at this time consisted of spending the daylight hours teaching, and then staying up late into the night writing theological works. At this period of his life he refused to drink alcohol and refused to eat meat.3

Around this time Origen managed to convert a wealthy man named Ambrose to the faith. Ambrose showed his gratitude to Origen by supplying him with funding and all the material resources required to live out his academic vocation.

Apart from teaching, Origen was also a student and it is reported by Eusebius that he studied under another renowned church father, Clement of Alexandria. Origen also studied at the various other philosophical schools in Alexandria, giving him both wide and deep exposure to the broader tradition of Hellenistic thought.

Tradition holds that Origen castrated himself sometime during this youthful Alexandrian period. This was on account of his holding to a literal interpretation of Matthew 19:12. There is an ongoing dispute among historians as to whether this actually happened, and one alternative theory is that the story was concocted by his enemies as a false rumour in order to tarnish his reputation and get him into trouble with the Roman authorities.

In his 20s, Origen travelled around Asia Minor and the Mediterranean, including visits to Rome and Arabia. During this time he had a tense relationship with Demetrius, the bishop of Alexandria, who had jurisdiction over him. At a certain point on his travels, Origen was illicitly ordained a priest by one of the bishops at Caesarea, which worsened the tension between Origen and Demetrius. Origen opted to remain in Caesarea rather than return to Alexandria. Meanwhile Demetrius started to actively oppose Origen by spreading rumours and generating scandal and outrage towards Origen’s more speculative ideas (such as apokatastasis). However ultimately the attempt to tarnish Origen’s name was unsuccessful, and during his stay in Caesarea, he acquired a reputation as the premier Christian theologian of the day.

Origen continued teaching up until 250, when the Decian persecution occurred. Origen was captured and his captors brutally tormented him in an attempt to force him to renounce his faith. Origen endured the torture for two years without succumbing to the temptation to apostatise. He lived out the short remainder of his life severely crippled, finally dying at the age of 69.

Major Works and Key Themes

According to Epiphanius, Origen wrote around 6000 treatises and other works, while St Jerome gives a more modest estimate which puts the number around 2000.4 Unfortunately the majority of his literary corpus has been lost, but nevertheless what remains extant is substantial. He wrote commentaries on all of the scriptural books, as well as numerous homilies and letters dealing with theological themes. Arguably the most important of his writings that we still possess today is Περι Αρχων (On First Principles)5, which is a (relatively) short systematic theology touching upon every important theological point, including protology, christology, anthropology, pure theology, eschatology, soteriology and so on.

Origen’s teachings constitute a single systematic theology which can only be understood as a unified whole; while he did cover the whole territory and have something to say about all the different areas of Christian theology, attempting to divide his theology into separate and isolated domains risks misrepresenting him. However, there are three key themes which today stand out as unique in his thinking and writings: Pre-existence, Samsara and Apokatastasis, and these three are intimately intertwined with each other.

Samsara is a sanskrit word which names the foundational philosophical concept underlying all Indian and eastern philosophy, theology, and religion. In terms of importance and centrality to Indian thought, it occupies a place and prestige akin to that which Tawhid6 holds in Islam and to which the Trinity holds in Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Samsara also features in the wings of the western tradition, with some of the Greek philosophers holding to it, and it also featured for a time in the Christian tradition via Origen and those whom he influenced.

Common to all conceptions of samsara is the idea that nature, reality, existence and history are essentially cyclical.7 However beyond this broad definition, different schools differ significantly on the details. As a point of comparison, the Indian (and ancient Greek) schools8 broadly teach that a human may live through their life, and then on the basis of the karma9 they have accrued at their point of death, the human person may be reborn as one of either: another human, an animal, a plant, an inanimate object such as a rock a god10 or even an angel or demon.11 Generally this rebirth is understood to occur at some subsequent point on the same historical timeline as the previous life12. In this way a soul (or “empty being” in the case of Buddhism) may live many distinct and loosely connected lives one after another, sometimes living as a human, sometimes as an animal, sometimes as a plant. During one life the soul may reside within the body of a beautiful Chinese woman, the next life it may make its home in the body of an evil African dictator.13 The only thing linking different lives together is that the actions undertaken in a previous life will at some point produce an (positive or negative) effect in one or another of the subsequent lives.

In contrast, Origen’s account of samsara firmly denies the transmigration of souls as just described.14 Origen’s version of samsara is more analogous to the movie “Groundhog Day.”15 Rather than being reborn “as some other person”, Origen maintained that a person is resurrected as the same person they were in their previous life, with the same body, same parents, same cultural and historical context and so on. The Stoic school of Greek philosophy also affirmed this, however where the Stoics believed in an infinitely repeating cycle which plays out exactly the same in every detail every time,16 Origen firmly held to a doctrine of free will,17 which implies that every cycle will be different as it is affected by the choices that persons make during their many lifetimes. Just as in Groundhog day, the purpose of living the same life over and over again is in order to be spiritually educated and one day “get it right”, thus breaking out of the cycle of death and rebirth, and finally arriving permanently in the heavenly eschaton.18

In Indian thought samsara is without beginning or end; the cycle of life, death and rebirth has been going on for all eternity and it will continue to go on forever. Whereas in Origen’s account of samsara the history of the cosmos has a beginning and an end; the cycle of life, death and rebirth began with the fall of mankind at the beginning (αρχη) of history19, and it will come to an end (τελος) once all persons have achieved salvation and arrived safely in the eschaton20. Origen’s claim is that the beginning is the same as the end: Just as all persons existed in happiness and harmony in the beginning, so too all persons will exist in happiness and harmony in the end.21 So whereas in Indian construals of the doctrine, samsara is unbounded and infinite, in Origen’s understanding samsara is bounded by the fall as the beginning of the cycle and the restoration at the end of the cycle.22

This brings us to Origen’s teaching of pre-existence. This is the most misunderstood23 and controversial aspect of his teaching, and was historically a major cause of his condemnation at the fifth ecumenical council24 and his subsequent loss of reputation and standing in the church – a reputation which he has only recently begun to recapitulate.25

Origen is commonly criticised as teaching that souls pre-exist their bodies26, which is nonsensical according to Aristotelian and Thomistic construals of the soul as “the form of the body”. However when analysed closely, one discovers that Origen actually teaches the pre-existence of whole persons, including both soul and body27. Following St Paul, Origen teaches that there is both a samsaric physical body and a resurrected spiritual body.

Οὕτως καὶ ἡ ἀνάστασις τῶν νεκρῶν. σπείρεται ἐν φθορᾷ, ἐγείρεται ἐν ἀφθαρσίᾳ· σπείρεται ἐν ἀτιμίᾳ, ἐγείρεται ἐν δόξῃ· σπείρεται ἐν ἀσθενείᾳ, ἐγείρεται ἐν δυνάμει· σπείρεται σῶμα ψυχικόν, ἐγείρεται σῶμα πνευματικόν. Εἰ ἔστιν σῶμα ψυχικόν, ἔστιν καὶ πνευματικόν. οὕτως καὶ γέγραπται· Ἐγένετο ὁ πρῶτος ἄνθρωπος Ἀδὰμ εἰς ψυχὴν ζῶσαν· ὁ ἔσχατος Ἀδὰμ εἰς πνεῦμα ζῳοποιοῦν. ἀλλ’ οὐ πρῶτον τὸ πνευματικὸν ἀλλὰ τὸ ψυχικόν, ἔπειτα τὸ πνευματικόν. ὁ πρῶτος ἄνθρωπος ἐκ γῆς χοϊκός, ὁ δεύτερος ἄνθρωπος ἐξ οὐρανοῦ. οἷος ὁ χοϊκός, τοιοῦτοι καὶ οἱ χοϊκοί, καὶ οἷος ὁ ἐπουράνιος, τοιοῦτοι καὶ οἱ ἐπουράνιοι· καὶ καθὼς ἐφορέσαμεν τὴν εἰκόνα τοῦ χοϊκοῦ, φορέσομεν καὶ τὴν εἰκόνα τοῦ ἐπουρανίου. Τοῦτο δέ φημι, ἀδελφοί, ὅτι σὰρξ καὶ αἷμα βασιλείαν θεοῦ κληρονομῆσαι οὐ δύναται, οὐδὲ ἡ φθορὰ τὴν ἀφθαρσίαν κληρονομεῖ.28

So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual which is first but the physical, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven. I tell you this, brethren: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.29

However Origen is more explicit than St Paul in that he teaches that the resurrected, spiritual body and soul which are raised up at the end of samsara are literally the same body and soul which existed in the garden of Eden at the beginning of samsara30. Origen teaches that there is continuity of identity between our physical bodies and souls and our spiritual body and soul31, however our physical bodies only exist during our pilgrimage through samsara, so in the resurrection to eternal life at the end of samsara we will have no more need of these physical bodies and will exist with only our spiritual bodies.

Origen explains that the fundamental difference between the spiritual body/soul and the physical body/soul is that the physical body/soul exists temporally and therefore undergoes change, whereas the spiritual body/soul represents the sum of all of a persons’ physical bodies, but existing as an eternal, immutable and immortal unity. St Gregory of Nyssa later developed this theme to its’ logical conclusion: it is not just a single body that experiences resurrection, but a whole stream of bodies32 (embryo, baby, toddler, child, adult, old man and everything in between).33 Furthermore, because the resurrected spiritual body and soul are eternal, they must necessarily be without beginning or end, and this logically implies that they pre-exist the physical body and soul.

Origen understood samsara to be divisible into discrete ages or worlds.34 Every cycle of samsara ends with Christ returning as judge, weighing up everyone’s sins and virtues, and then annihilating the cosmos and starting the whole cycle again from the beginning. However in the next age/world, the sins and virtues of people during their life in the previous age “come back” to them in a way superficially similar to Indian construals of karma. Those who abused their freedom and were lazy and sinful in the last age are punished in the next, while those who were virtuous are rewarded.35

As previously mentioned, Origen believed that samsara would come to an end. After a long succession of ages, eventually we will arrive at “the age of the ages”, or “the final age”.36 This refers to the apokatastasic eschaton, which is the eternal age standing at the backward and forward horizons of samsara. Immediately prior to the inauguration of this final age, there will be the final judgement. However the outcome of this final judgement is known in advance: all will pass the judgement because by this point, after many (perhaps uncountable) ages, all will have been freely refined in the samsaric fire of death and rebirth to the point where no sin remains to weigh people down and keep them trapped in the cycle.37 At this point there is no more need for further ages, because all people will have freely been baptised, accepted Christ, chosen God, trusted in the Gospel and so on, and therefore all people without exception or distinction will be admitted back to everlasting bliss in the heavenly eschaton where the whole story started in the first place.

Influence on Later Doctrinal Developments

Origen’s impact on both Catholicism specifically and Christianity more broadly has been incredibly vast and multifaceted. It is not possible to exhaustively survey his influence in a paper as short as this. However, one key theme in his thinking that has been vitally influential in development of doctrine in the church is that of the Trinity.

Origen’s Trinitarian theology was neatly integrated into his systematic theology as a whole, however it was sufficiently generic that it was able to be cited in favour of the positions put forward by all parties in the Christological debates that rocked the church in subsequent years. Just as everyone was seemingly able to deploy the New Testament in defence of their own positions, so too Arians and Monarchists, Trinitarians and Subordinationists all equally found support for their views in Origen’s writings.

As they forged what came to be accepted as the central Trinitarian dogma, both Athanasius and the Cappadocian fathers (Gregory Nyssa, Gregory Nazianzen, Basil of Caesarea) all heavily relied on the doctrinal foundations and theological path which Origen had already blazed ahead of them. Similarly, Arius and various other heretics leaned on Origen as they constructed their unorthodox theological frameworks.

The fact that Origen contributed so intimately to the cause of the heretics came to overshadow the fact that he had equally well contributed to the foundations of orthodoxy, and by the time of the fifth ecumenical council he was considered by the authorities of the church to be a heretic himself. He was posthumously condemned, as well as his teachings, however by this point the doctrine of the Trinity had been so thoroughly developed and was so deeply integrated into the liturgy and consciousness of the church that it (thankfully) was not to be stomped out. Unfortunately this did not hold for many of his other beautiful teachings, (such as apokatastasis) and it remains an ongoing task today to recover these forgotten aspects of Origen’s thinking in a manner that is compatible with and palatable to the orthodoxy of the present day.

Bibliography

Eusebius, The History of the Church, trans. G. A. Williamson, Camberwell: Penguin Books Australia, 1989. Amazon

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

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/

Lapidge, Michael. “Stoic Cosmology.” In The Stoics, edited by John M. Rish, 180-184. Cambridge University Press, 1978.

McGuckin, John Anthony. “The Westminster Handbook to Origen”. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004

“Mountains and Waters Discourse by Eihei Dogen”, https://terebess.hu/zen/dogen/KS-Tanahashi.html#sansuia

Ramelli, Ilaria L.E. “’Preexistence of Souls’? The αρχη and τελος of Rational Creatures in Origen and Some Origenians,” Studia Patristica, no. 56 (2013): 167-226

Swami, Jayadvaita. “Vanity Karma: Ecclesiastes, the Bhagavad-gita, and the meaning of life”, United States: The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 2015

Appendix

The difference between more mainstream/common accounts of samsara and the account of samsara as articulated in the theology of Origen and his theological successors can be illustrated with a mathematical analogy. The Indian account of samsara is analogous to an irregular sign wave stretching backwards and forwards infinitely in both directions on the x-axis, representing time. The amplitude of the wave represents the sum total of the souls karma at any given point in time. Sometimes the karma is negative, sometimes it is positive, and this corresponds to the degree of suffering and pleasure the soul experiences as it moves through its’ many lives. There is no limit to how high the wave can go and no limit to how low it can go, which illustrates that infinite punishments and rewards are possible. There are certain points along the curve which are marked out at roughly (but not exactly) regular intervals. These points represent the transition from one life to another life. The fact that these points never overlap with each other illustrates the fact that there is fundamentally no continuity of identity between rebirths (ie, a soul can be a dog in one life, a flower in the next, a demigod in the following life, a human after that, and so on). The fact that the curve is continuous, indicates that the continuity between births is nothing more than that the reward and punishment which flows from karma picks up in the next life exactly where the last life left off.

The Origenistic account of samsara is better illustrated by a path traced by a conical pendulum around the origin of a Cartesian plane. As in the Indian analogy, the x-axis represents time. When the pendulum is moving above the x-axis this represents time spent alive and while it is below the x-axis this represents time spent dead. The higher the pendulum goes on the y-axis, the more perfect and virtuous the soul is and the longer is the life that it leads. The fact that the pendulum eventually reaches a maximum height on the y-axis and begins to swing back towards the x-axis represents the effect of sin as a dampener on our lives, and how sin drags us back down to death. When the pendulum crosses the x-axis, this represents the death of the soul (and thus the end of the age). The pendulum will then continue to curve around and move “backwards in time” towards where it started. As it moves below the x-axis, this corresponds to time spent in the “intermediate state” (heaven, hell, purgatory, limbo, sheol or what have you). Eventually it crosses the x-axis again, very close to where it begun the circuit last time, corresponding to the recreation of the age and the “resurrection” of the same person in a very similar state and condition to that which it experienced in the last cycle/age. In this model, it is possible for the pendulum to swing such that it traces out a circle with an infinite radius. This would work out to be a line which just keeps travelling vertically, which would correspond to a sinless existence and “eternal life”, effectively breaking the cycle by transforming the path of the pendulum into one that is linear. In a similar way it is also possible for the pendulum to swing such that it traces a horizontal line below the x-axis. This would correspond to traditional notions of “everlasting damnation”.

1My primary source while writing this section was Eusebius, “The History of the Church”

2David 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.

3Area for future research: Does the fact that he was a teetotaller in any way reflect on the liturgy of the time? This is especially curious considering that – with very few known exceptions throughout history – the Eucharist has involved alcoholic wine being consumed by a celebrant (at minimum), with the congregation often participating too.

4John Anthony McGuckin, The Westminster Handbook to Origen, (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 26

5But alas, we only have a “complete” version in the form of a dubious Latin translation by one of his later admirers, Rufinus

6The absolute oneness and unity of God

7A Jewish Hare Krishna devotee has written a wonderful commentary on the book of Ecclesiastes in which he powerfully makes the case that the cyclical nature of reality is a core teaching of the book. See Jayadvaita Swami, Vanity Karma: Ecclesiastes, the Bhagavad-gita, and the meaning of life (United States: The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 2015)

8These broadly being Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism

9A loose working definition of karma being “the running total of your good (virtuous/meritorious) and evil (sinful) works”

10“god” here with a lowercase G to indicate the idea of anthropomorphic “gods” as are encountered in the various and colourful mythologies of world religions throughout history, as opposed to the more philosophical/theological idea of the one true God which sophisticated theologians across all religious traditions love to speculate on.

11Curiously, according to certain schools of Buddhism, it’s even possible to be reborn as a mountain, an ocean or an entire forest. See “Mountains and Waters Discourse by Eihei Dogen”, https://terebess.hu/zen/dogen/KS-Tanahashi.html#sansuia

12Some thinkers speculate on the idea of being reborn “backwards” in time, or even into alternate or fictional realities. In this way one might be reborn as Hitler, Jesus, the Buddha, Zeus, Thor. The more mainstream understanding limits the rebirth phenomenon such that it occurs “in step” with the movement of time and excludes the possibility of being reborn in fictional worlds.

13This phenomenon of a soul jumping from one physical body to another completely unrelated body is refereed to as “transmigration” (μετεμψυχωσις).

14Ilaria L.E. Ramelli, “’Preexistence of Souls’? The αρχη and τελος of Rational Creatures in Origen and Some Origenians,”, Studia Patristica, no. 56 (2013): 168

15For those unfamiliar with the film, the premise is that a cynical bastard of a man (played by Bill Murray) finds himself trapped in a time loop, where he is forced to live the same day over and over again until he “gets it right” by becoming a better person to such an extent that he is able to live a perfect day and thus earn the right to exit the cycle.

16Michael Lapidge, “Stoic Cosmology,” in The Stoics, ed. John M. Rish (Cambridge University Press, 1978), 180-184

17Ramelli, “Preexistence of Souls”, 181

18Ramelli, “Preexistence of Souls”, 192

19As described in Genesis 1-3

20Ramelli, “Preexistence of Souls”, 192. This is the “final restoration”: αποκαταστασις

21Ramelli, “Preexistence of Souls”, 192

22The difference between the Indian and Origenistic accounts of samsara can be illustrated with a locus analagy. Indian samsara is cyclical in a similar sense to the way in which a sign wave is cyclical: the soul oscillates between local minima and maxima (representing good and bad rebirths), and the locus point is forever moving forward along the axis (which represents time) towards infinity and never going backwards. In comparison, Origenistic samsara is cyclical in a similar fashion to the way in which a conical pendulum exhibits cyclical behaviour: a projection onto a plane of the path traced by the pendulum will reveal it to approximate a circle: the pendulum is always returning to pass close by to the point where it began (representing the transition between the end of one age and the beginning of the next). For the benefit of those rare, blessed, holy and worthy souls to whom God has sovereignly elected to bestow the ultimate gift, the highest grace and the most supreme virtue of a mathematical mind, an appendix has been appended to the end of this paper wherein these magnificent and illustrious readers – if they are interested in seeing how far the analogy can be pushed – are welcome to explore further. Those who take up the offer are most certainly predestined to beatitude, for there is no surer guarantee of salvation than the ability to understand this author’s eclectic mathematical analogies deployed in the attempt to illustrate obscure theological heresies.

23Ramelli, “Preexistence of Souls”, 167-226

24More accurately, his pseudo-condemnation. For a comprehensive discussion and analysis of the controversy, see Alvin 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/

25Hart, “Saint Origen”

26Ramelli, “Preexistence of Souls”, 168

27Ramelli, “Preexistence of Souls”, 170

281 Cor 15:42-50 (SBLGNT)

291 Cor 15:42-50 (RSVCE, mildly edited to conform with Australian English spelling standards)

30Ramelli, “Preexistence of Souls”, 172

31Ramelli, “Preexistence of Souls”, 178

32Ramelli, “Preexistence of Souls”, 200

33Incidentally, this may relate to why the glorified Christ still had holes in his hands after his resurrection: It may be argued that the resurrected Christ chose to return to earth in a body that retained the marks of his passion, presumably so that the disciples would recognise him and appreciate the cosmic weight of what had just occurred. However seeing as Christs entire stream of bodies from infancy to adult-hood was resurrected, he could have appeared to the disciples as a young man, as a baby, as a wise old man who had lived 1000 years, or potentially even as a glorified Jesus who hadn’t even ever been crucified in the first place. Entertaining this last possibility may indicate a solution to the mystery of why the disciples sometimes did not immediately recognise their risen Lord; namely, in those particular appearances where he was not instantly recognised he was appearing without his wounds, while in other resurrection appearances, he chose to retain them.

34αεον” in Greek, “saecula” in Latin.

35All of this lines up straightforwardly with scriptural talk of “reward and punishment in the next life”. To cite just one scriptural example, the parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25.

36In Latin the phrase used is “in saecula saeculorum”; in English, “world without end”.

37Ramelli, “Preexistence of Souls”, 192

St Maximus the Confessor and Apokatastasis

St Maximus the confessor draws a distinction between the “wanting” of God and the “willing” of God. Importantly, this maps directly onto the “wanting” of the soul and the “willing” of the soul. This is very important for understanding how universal Salvation is compatible with the popular understanding of free will.

The Willing and Wanting of God

God wants to save everyone: According to Catholics this is indisputable and fundamental. Because God is love, how could he ever want to damn someone? However, just because God wants something doesn’t mean he wills it. Wanting is a desire, whereas willing is an active manifestation of an intention, aimed at the satisfaction of a desire.

So on the one hand, God loves us all and wants to save us all. However, we abuse our freedom, and therefore God wills to punish us. The analogy of the father and the child helps to make sense of this.

A good father never wants to punish his child. So too, God never wants to punish us. However, the father sometimes feels compelled to punish his child, so as to “teach the child a lesson”. This should be both a corrective and a retributive punishment – which is to say, the punishment should be fitting and in proportion to the crime, but the punishment should also be aimed at educating and correcting the child and encouraging him to return to the right path.

Now, all of us have sinned, and therefore even though God wants to save us all, his will is compelled by his perfection of justice to condemn all mankind to damnation in Hell (Samsara). So there’s two things happening here: there is the Apokatastasis (Universal Salvation), in which both God’s willing and God’s wanting are in perfect harmony, and then there is the Massa Damnata, in which God’s willing is out of sync with God’s wanting: In the Apokatastasis, God both wants and wills all to be saved, and so all are saved. Whereas in the Massa Damnata, God wants to save everyone, and he does not want to punish anyone, but his will is compelled by his perfect justice to punish us all.

The summary with respect to God is that God always wants to save us all, however because all of us sin, he wills to damn us all.

The Willing and Wanting of The Soul

The analysis of willing and wanting with respect to God maps directly onto the willing and wanting of the Soul.

Every soul wants and desires God, and every action that a soul undertakes is aimed at trying to move that soul towards God. However due to our limited perspective, we often make mistakes, due to lack of prayer and mindfulness of what is right and wrong in any given situation. With our will we make choices which we think will satisfy our wanting, but often we are mistaken and our choice has the opposite effect.

In this way, with our wanting, we always seek after God, but with our willing we often fall short of God and find ourselves deeper in the darkness.

Synergism and Predestination

Now, the doctrine of synergism states that there is a perfect harmony between the wanting of the soul and the wanting of God, as well as – startlingly – perfect accord between the willing of the soul and the willing of God. That is to say, the soul always wants God, and God always wants the soul.

However when the willing of the soul is not directed towards that which will truly satisfy it’s wanting, then so too the willing of God will not be in accord with that which truly satisfies his wanting. Both God and the soul always want the soul to move towards God, but sometimes the soul wills to move away from God, and whenever it does this, God accordingly wills to move away from the soul.

In this way when someone sins they have failed to act correctly and have chosen wrongly. The result is an explosion of justice from God in the form of an increase of retributive punishment. And so when we reject God, we are punished, but the key thing is that this is not the punishment of a king towards a slave; it is instead the punishment of a father towards a son.

As such, God’s justice is a merciful justice: it aims at the salvation of the sinner. But God’s justice is also a retributive justice: his punishment always fits the crime.

Lets take things to the extremes: When the soul definitively rejects God (and St Maximus firmly maintains – along with popular catholic tradition – that this is possible), God’s justice responds with definitive rejection of the soul.

According to Paul in his letter to the Romans, all of us have definitively rejected God and we all continue and persist in this rejection. And so all of us have tasted Hell. In a sense, St Augustine was right about the massa damnata: all of us will be damned forever.

But there’s a rubber band effect in play here. It is just because all of us are damned, that all of us will be saved; the punishment of Hell (Samsara) is the very means by which God educates us to be able to make the right choices. Sometimes it takes total damnation of a soul; it requires a soul to hit rock bottom, in order for that soul to finally realise the truth of his situation and repent.

So even if a soul ends up in Hell by means of it’s own mistaken willing, that soul still desires to be in heaven by it’s infallible wanting. Everlasting damnation is the educative means by which God will bring that soul back to heaven.

If a soul ends up in Hell, that soul’s wanting and willing are out of sync. They are willing the wrong things in an attempt to satisfy their wanting. Similarly with God; when a soul ends up in Hell, God does not want the soul to be in hell, but he does will that the soul be in Hell.

In summary, the willing of the soul is directed towards the satisfaction of the wanting of the soul. So too, the willing of God is directed towards the satisfaction of the wanting of God.

The implication of this is that everything God wills, ultimately has the purpose of satisfying his wanting. So if God wills that someone be everlastingly and eternally damned forever and ever, then in a most mysterious way this act of will has the purpose of satisfying God’s want to save that soul. In other words, everlasting and eternal damnation is sometimes exactly what it takes in order for the soul to ultimately get what it wants, and also for God to ultimately get what he wants.

Conclusion – God or Hell: Which is More Eternal?

St Gregory of Nyssa – who was a firm universalist – pondered these ideas, and speculated that for most souls the stay in Hell would be a temporary one, but for some souls (for example perhaps Satan and/or Judas) their damnation will be so complete that their purification will “extend into infinity”.

But he also remembered that “God is infinitely more infinite than infinity and eternally more eternal than eternity”, and so he had the wisdom to ask “What happens after forever?” and his answer was αποκαταστασις; the final and universal rest of all souls in paradise . Those who find themselves stuck in Hell forever will finally begin to repent after a forever has elapsed. For the forever of Hell cannot compare to the forever of God. Hell may very well feel like forever to a soul who is stuck there, but to God, the punishments of Hell do not last even as long as the blink of an eye.

In this way, we have both the massa damnata and the Universal Salvation shown to be compatible with each other. Everyone will be damned for all eternity, and everyone will be saved for all eternity, and the key to understanding how this can be, is St Maximus’ distinction between willing and wanting.

Footnote

Just as the Catholics are correct to insist that “God loves everyone and desires to save all without exception”, so too, the Calvinists are correct to insist that “God is just and actively wills to send sinners to Hell”: When a soul finds itself stuck in the torments of Hell, this is because God wills it, but not because he wants it.

David Bentley Hart – That All Shall Be Saved

I’ve just read the recently released book length essay by David Bentley Hart concerning Universal Salvation – “That All Shall Be Saved”. I was pleasantly surprised to be struck with some insights regarding theodicy and the mystery of evil, which now seem completely obvious to me despite being elusive up to this point. Here they are in dot point form

  1. Contrary to popular educated Christian opinion, evil does have an identifiable reality and substance and essence; evil is not merely an illusion. The experience of pain is the essence and substance of evil. In this way, evil is a real and true component of the fabric of reality – and we are all intimately familiar with it – even if it is understood to be a privation and purely negative, parasitical phenomenon. For example when someone is tortured, both the act and the outcome are evil (although even in the case of a torture the intention is good, as in the case of torturing someone to obtain information which would prevent a destructive act of terrorism).
  2. God does not sovereignly determine evil acts and outcomes. He merely sovereignly permits them. The one single thing that God sovereignly determines is the glorious eschaton and a creation which is constructed in such a way that it infallibly arrives at this eschaton – this is the essence of predestination. The intermediate details are almost entirely determined by us and our autonomous agency (ie, free will) – putting aside direct and divine miraculous intervention.
  3. God does not control all things, but he does create all things. Everything that happens happens because God sustains it in existence and creates it – including our autonomous “free” choices. However God is not a puppet master; nothing is caused by God in the same sense that a puppeteer pulls strings to animate his puppet, or in the same sense that I cause a billiard ball to move by striking it. (For more on this point, search for “Double Agency” and “Synergism” and “The Causal Joint”)
  4. Evil is not part of God’s plan and God’s original design had no evil in it. If it were up to God, there would be no evil. God neither desired nor ordained the Holocaust, he merely permitted it. The holocaust is not an integral component of God’s plan, and he still would bring about the glorious apokatastasis even if the holocaust had never happened.
  5. Our freedom means that the possibility of evil is necessary, but the actuality of evil is not essential. In other words rapes, murders, tsunamis and genocides are not crucial components of God’s plan to bring us to the eschaton, even though rapes, murders and tsunamis are accounted for in that plan. In other words, God has built contingencies into evil, such that it always rubber-bands back to good, in both a temporary and ultimate sense, but his plan does not require evil in order for him to achieve his purposes.
  6. God does not play dice; he knew all possible outcomes of his act of creation before he created – to speak analogically – and yet he went ahead and created anyway. He arranged creation such that everything works together to bring about the glorious eschaton, regardless of whether evil occurs or not. This implies that regardless of how much or how little evil we commit, all things are predestined to the happy ending of the eschaton. To put it in a catchy sound bite, freedom pertains to history while sovereignty pertains to eschatology.
  7. It will not do to complain that the one true gospel of universal salvation renders all action meaningless, “so we may as well eat, drink, have sex and be merry, because it will all be ok in the end anyway regardless of how we behave”. This attitude is completely delusional. Evil is not a step towards the eschaton, it is always a step away from it. For this reason, so long as we remain in our sins, the eschaton is prevented from being actualised. You can’t “sin and still be saved”: So long as you go on sinning, the promised eschaton is prevented from being realised. However, God has created reality in such a way that eventually everyone will infallibly be enlightened as to the truth of things and cease from sinning.
  8. There are two relevant conceptions of Hell to entertain.
    • The first is where someone else holds us in the flames against our will (for example in the case of rape or torture) for sadistic ends. For example the Calvinist god (ie, Satan) wants to demonstrate his attributes and glory, so he damns people to hell and derives selfish glory from their tortures and takes sadistic pleasure in their pain, and all the while they are screaming for mercy and trying to escape. In this first conception, we are in Hell because someone has abducted us and carried us there and held us against our will. To escape from this damnation, some third party has to come and defeat the monstrous prison master and trample the gates of Hell, allowing everyone to escape to freedom. (cf, early “ransom” theories of atonement)
    • The second conception of Hell is where no one is actively holding us in the flames but our very own selves. In this second conception, to remain in the fire could only be due to slavery to ignorance and insanity. However unlike the first conception of Hell, in this conception we do retain our agency and autonomy and dignity, despite being enslaved to the powers of darkness and delusion. Under this second schema we retain the ability to make mistakes and learn from them, and as the ages go by it is inevitable that we will eventually make all the possible mistakes and learn all the possible lessons, and therefore eventually arrive at a state of being wherein we always make the right choices; it is only at this point that we truly can be said to be “free”, “liberated” and “saved”. In this second conception, the process of salvation is less of a “prisonbreak” and more of an education.
  9. People always seek God in everything that they do, it’s just that sometimes (often) they do it in entirely the wrong way. Even the sadistic rapist is not primarily trying to inflict harm on his victim; he is merely seeking pleasure, which is itself a good thing, but unfortunately in this case the pleasure is coming at the expense of the pain of a second person, and this pain is an evil thing. As such, the ultimate sin is to seek retribution: “You hurt me, so I will hurt you”, which only leads to “I hurt you, so you are going to hurt me” and this continues in a vicious circle forever, condemning all of us to an everlasting Hell. The only way to break free from this samsaric cycle of vengeance inflicted and vengeance suffered is to adopt an attitude of mercy, grace and true justice, which involves striving for love and unconditional forgiveness, rather than clinging on to a disordered desire for revenge and “justice”.
  10. It should be recognised that even the desire for revenge and retributive “justice” is in actual fact a desire for God, but it is a fundamentally disordered desire because it has conflated seeking heaven for oneself with inflicting Hell on someone else, and this will in actual fact only serve to perpetuate the current situation – which is a seemingly endless circle of evil, pain and suffering; something of a massa damnata. Retributive justice can only serve to postpone the glorious apokatastasis that we all ultimately crave. However at the point where everyone understands that always and unconditionally seeking the good for the other is the key to true happiness – rather than seeking revenge – the eschaton will have finally been inaugurated. Cue the second coming. Cue the final resurrection. Cue the glorification of Satan and his demons. God is finally all in all, and the glory is infinite and the rejoicing never ends. All are in love and love is in all, and all the evils we had suffered were worth enduring after all. Thanks be to God

Jesus Prays For the Salvation of the Damned

(Click here for printable word doc version: Parable of the Gracious king)

I found the following lying around at my local bus stop. It touched me so I’ve decided to type it up and put it online for all to see. Does anyone know who the author is? Or where it comes from? I’m unaware of any Gospel which contains this story.

Study 15: The Parable of the Gracious King

21 At that time on the sabbath Jesus was teaching the multitudes outside the entrance to the synagogue, and a tax collector approached him and said, 22 “Teacher, my father[a] entered death as an unrepentant sinner with blasphemies on his lips – According to the law and the prophets he is doomed to everlasting punishment forever, and I will not meet him ever again. What hope is there for me in this kingdom[b] that you preach?”

23 Jesus immediately took pity on the man, cast his eyes to heaven, and prayed: 24 “My good father, witness the misery of your children who remain wandering in the darkness. 25 Give them hope. Bring all people into your kingdom, especially those in most need of thy mercy; those who did not believe, who did not repent, who died without the law and the scriptures, and who rejected you unto the eternal destruction of the age.”

26 The pharisees began to murmur amongst themselves, saying to each other 27 “It is clearly written that not all will share in the glory of the resurrection[c]. By what authority does he dare contradict the scriptures and our traditions by praying in this way?” 28 And Jesus immediately perceived the idolatry[d] reigning in their hearts, and he begun to speak unto them a parable:

29 There once was a king who sent out a decree into all the towns and villages of his kingdom and of the neighboring kingdoms saying, 30 “In order that I might demonstrate my graciousness, I decree that on the 40th day of the year, all must come to my palace, and assemble before me and make their petitions, 31 and they may ask me for anything, and I promise that I will give it to them, whatever it is that they may ask.”

32 And so on the 40th day of the year, all the people of the world assembled in the court of the king, and one by one they began to bring their petitions before him. 33 A fisherman approached the throne and said, “My good lord, my fishing net is broken, and I do not have enough money to afford a new one”. 34 The king said, “I will pay for you to have a new fishing net, the finest fishing net in the kingdom.” and the man departed from his presence rejoicing. 35 A baker approached the throne and said, “My good lord, we fell short in the wheat harvest this year, and do not have enough wheat to bake bread”. 36 The king responded, “Be not afraid, I myself will provide you all the wheat you require from the stocks of my own royal storehouses”. 37 After this, a town fool from a neighboring kingdom approached the throne and said 38 “My sweet and gracious lord, I want to have a palace, and a castle, and fields, and livestock, and a kingdom of my own, and more servants and wives and slaves than Solomon possessed at the height of his glory.” 39 The advisors of the king rose from their seats and angrily shouted 40 “Cease this outrageous insolence! By what heights of arrogance do you dare to insult our king like this? 41 Depart from the presence of the Lord and never return!” 42 But the king rose and rebuked his advisors, saying: 43 “Do not condemn this man, for he has done no wrong. Behold: This is the first man who has truly made me feel like a king. 44 I tell you this day, I will give him all that he has asked out of my own infinite abundance, wealth and possessions.”

45 And Jesus asked the crowd: “Who do you think glorified the king more? The fisherman, the baker, or the fool? 46 I tell you, the kingdom of heaven has no limits, 47 and if you desire to worship your gracious father in heaven, you should ask him for all things, fully convinced that he is able and willing to give them to you, 48 even things that seem impossible and outrageous[e], and even the good things that he has clearly told you that he will not do. 49 There is no limit to the generosity[f] of God.” 50 The crowd’s eyes were opened, and they marveled at these good words, but the pharisees continued to murmur, and continued plotting as to how they might entrap Jesus and kill him.

Footnotes

[a] Some authorities “my son” [b] Some add “of God” [c] Some add “and of heaven”, others “and of the life of the age” [d] Some add “of scripture”, others “of Tradition and the Church”, others “of the fathers and the teachers” [e] Some add “and the salvation of those in Gehenna” [f] Some add “and mercy”

Study 15: Discussion questions

  1. Who can you relate to most in this passage of scripture?
    1. Are you like the pharisees and the king’s advisors? Are you convinced that you know the truth of scripture and that the people you disagree with do not? Do you abuse the scary parts of the bible by ripping them out of their context in the light of the supreme and total victory of the cross and resurrection? Do you employ the scary Hell passages of scripture to argue against and crush the pure hope and simple faith of the people around you?
    2. Are you like the tax collector? Are you someone who is searching for hope and assurance on behalf of those whom you love (and other people who most definitely died in unbelief and unrepentance)? Do you only find condemnation and despair in the pages of scripture, the preaching of your ministers, and the counsel of your church family?
    3. Are you like the baker and the fisherman? Are you weak in faith and too nervous to ask God for what you really want? Is your vision of heaven smaller than the vision of heaven God has proclaimed in the scriptures (related question: what exactly IS that vision? Cf. Romans 11:32)? Do you only ask God for little things, and not have the confidence to ask him for the big things (such as the salvation of the entire world?)
    4. Are you like the fool? Do you pray to God asking him for everything, regardless of how outlandish it may seem?
    5. Are you like the king? Do you overflow with mercy and grace to all those around you?
    6. Are you like Jesus? Do you offer confident assurance of hope for the damned to those around you who have lost loved ones to unbelief and an unrepentant death? Do you pray for the salvation of all people – including those who are in Hell, being fully convinced that God is able and willing to save such people?
  2. What is the most outlandish thing that you would like to pray for? Are you praying for it? If not, why not? How does your answer reflect the strength of your faith in God’s promises, especially considering that God both commands us to pray and promises us that he will answer our prayer by giving us whatever it is that we ask for or something even better?
  3. Have you ever prayed for the salvation of Judas? Have you ever prayed for the salvation of those in Hell? Have you ever prayed for the salvation of Satan and his demons? Do you believe that God is able and willing to bring about such an astonishing and amazing salvation of his entire creation and everything in it?
  4. Have you been idolizing the bible, like the pharisees in this scripture? Have you forgotten that the entire creation is good, and that God therefore speaks through everything? Including sermons, songs, music, liturgy, other believers, and even unbelievers and the scriptures of other religions? Have you ever asked yourself why you only respect the authority of the bible, and never humble yourself to listen openly to other voices?

Study 15: Next steps

  1. Pray for the salvation of the damned and those in Hell, and anyone who you think might be rejected by God, definitively excluded from his kingdom and beyond redemption.
  2. Familiarize yourself with the wisdom, theology and doctrine of other denominations and variations of Christianity, recognizing that the spirit moves in them as well.
  3. Consider sincerely investigating other religions, worldviews and philosophies. Remember that humble one-to-one interfaith discussion is the most effective way to evangelize!
  4. If this passage has touched you or made you grow in faith in any way whatsoever, consider holding on to this study and sharing it with people around you, rather than throwing it out.

(Click here for printable word doc version: Parable of the Gracious king)