• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

Universal Salvation or Perpetual Hell? Apokatastasis: The Ultimate Reunion

Updated: Feb 10

Referring to restoration, reintegration and reconstitution, Apokatastasis is the restoration of all creation to its proper place in fellowship with God. It is a doctrine which antedates Origen as evidenced by the language the theologian used himself. The Christian doctrine should be distinguished from its Stoic variants, which were necessitarian and involved an eternal cycle of fall-restoration.

Origen criticised the Stoical take on the basis that it denied human freedom. The Christian doctrine is grounded not in a philosophy of history and nature but in the scriptures and apostolic testimony. Drawing from passages such as Acts 3:21, 1 Cor 15:22-28, Bardaisan, Clement, Origen, Didymus, Sts Anthony, Pamphilus, Methodius, Macrina, Gregory of Nyssa, Evagrius, Diodore of Tarsus, Theodore of Mopsuestia, John of Jerusalem, Rufinus, Jerome, Augustine (at least initially), Cassian, Isaac of Nineveh, John of Dalyatha, Ps. Dionysius, Maximus the Confessor, John the Scot Eriugena and many others, it claims to be grounded primarily in the Bible.[1]

Of course, the Bible describes the punishments of judgment as “aionia” but as Ilaria Ramelli points out in The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis: A Critical Assessment (2013), this does not mean “eternal” unless used in reference to God. The word aidios unqualifiedly refers to the eternal, but the Bible does not use it to describe the punishments of the age. A stronger translation, Ramelli offers, is that the punishment at the judgment will be “otherworldly,” “of the age to come” or “next worldly.” A point that seems to receive philological confirmation in a passage of Origen in which he speaks of “life after aionios life.”

Similarly, the Bible uses the word kolasis to describe the punishment of the age to come. Aristotle distinguished kolasis from timoria, the latter referring to punishment inflicted in the interest of the person who inflicts it, the former to a correction in the interest of the sufferer. This was a distinction observed by theologians such as Clement of Alexandria who affirmed that God does not timoreitai (punish for retribution) but does kolazei (correct sinners for their own sakes).

For Origen, apokatastasis meant theosis, a deification of creatures as they participate in God. This will be God’s final victory, when “God will be all in all” (1 Cor 15:28) and they enjoy the good fellowship of the Trinity in the knowledge of truth. Though all rational creatures have freedom i.e. to fall, Christ’s work was sufficiently powerful to bring them to choose salvation in him. Sinners will be saved following their conversion, not automatically while they are still evil; the devil will be saved qua archangel but not qua devil, death, enemy.

Another important passage is “love never fails” (1 Cor 13:8) and so those who love God will freely cling to him for eternity. Backed by the conviction that people will freely be saved because they will be convinced of the true nature of good: evil is never chosen as evil but because it is mistaken for a good, it is an error of judgment. The torments of hell are the ways God forces a soul to confront its illness; it frames Christ as physician – and no being is incurable to Christ the Doctor.

Origen recognised the risk in disclosing the doctrine of universal salvation to the public insofar as the simple-minded might perceive it as a carte blanche license to sin. Still, his view remained that God’s punishments were curative and educative rather than geared to destruction and oblivion – even if these vices are chosen by the fallen; in other words, to fall is not enough, one cannot fall beyond God, beyond our createdness, beyond the point where the futility of evil forces us to pivot.

Perhaps the most valid criticisms of the doctrine stem from the idea that God fails to identify where irresistible manipulation ends and compulsion begins. The best response is that God gives freedom to fall but one of evil’s main characteristics is its futility. This futility leads to a sense of disgust that manifests as voluntary repentance (to turn around). God can be “blamed” for this only in the sense that he is the architect of reality and of Man (created ad imaginem Dei).

It was a theme taken up by greats such as Athanasius of Alexandria who stated that it would be unfitting and unworthy of God’s goodness to allow his creations to be destroyed, whether of its own fault or through the deception of demons (De Incarnatione 6). But also by the masses too. Augustine, for instance, claimed many Christians embraced the doctrine immo quam plurimi (indeed, the vast majority).

Despite this, almost all reference to apokatastasis is immediately sunk by claims that the doctrine shared in the fate of Origen’s condemnation at the fifth ecumenical council. This condemnation did not touch on Origen, however. Instead, it attacked a late, exasperated caricature of the theologian (a contemporary parallel might be if internet Nietzschians were condemned as anti-semitic, racist etc. and future generations thought that Nietzsche was responsible for the stupidity of his disciples).[2] Moreover, the condemnation was a request by the Emperor Justinian and ratified by only a few ecclesiastics. In short, Origen was not the object of any authentic anathema and other proponents of apokatastasis (such as Gregory of Nyssa and the Cappadocians) were never condemned.

[1] Theophilus, for instance, refers to the return of the human race to a state of moral transformation and freedom from evil, which will subsequently pacify the animal kingdom as well cf. Isa 11:6-9.

[2] For instance, Justinian’s’ letter to Menas was full of refutations of doctrines ascribed to Origen but were not affirmed by the thinker himself.