Apocatastasis?

Icon of the Last Judgement: note the bishops going to Hell (on the right)

Thanks to Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins, universalism is big news these days. Everyone and their dog is chiming in on universalism and Rob Bell. Including, it would seem, me.

Many of us seem to think that universalism is some sort of nineteenth-century liberal idea. In some of its manifestations it is, of course. In others, it is older, while in others it is newer. But the idea that everyone, somehow, gets saved in the end is old, and antiquity is no guarantee for whether an idea is mainstream or orthodox, as Kevin DeYoung points out in his review of Love Wins:

Universalism has been around a long time. But so has every other heresy. Arius rejected the full deity of Christ and many people followed him. This hardly makes Arianism part of the wide, diverse stream of Christian orthodoxy. Every point of Christian doctrine has been contested, but some have been deemed heterodox. Universalism, traditionally, was considered one of those points. True, many recent liberal theologians have argued for versions of universalism—and this is where Bell stands, not in the center of the historic Christian tradition.

My thoughts on the subject are primarily concerned with Origen at present.* Origen’s doctrine of ‘universalism’ is called apocatastasis. This is the belief that at the end of all things, all souls will be reunited with God. Origen does not rule out the possibility that among these souls we may find the Devil. No one is beyond the long arm of God’s great, saving grace for Origen.

David at Pious Fabrications points out that others whom we deem quite orthodox — Met. Kallistos and St. Gregory of Nyssa,** to take two big examples — believe in apocatastasis. It is not, then, this belief alone that gets one into a lot of hot, heretical water. In the blog post, David argues that the big difference between Origen and these others is the firmness of his belief on this point. Everyone is saved. Period. Kallistos et al, on the other hand, leave it open. Everyone is saved? It’s a question, a hope, but not stated as a dogma for all to believe. Thus, while the Church may condemn Gregory of Nyssa’s belief in apocatastasis, she will not condemn him.

I think there’s also the fact that Origen is one of the great Neoplatonists of the third century to consider. His system involves a type of salvation that the revelation does not present unto us — we are all restored to union with God as disembodied souls that do nothing but contemplate Him and have no distinctive individuality. Origen, then, is more than a case of damnation by punctuation. Origen has an entire system of cosmology, large portions of which are incompatible with Scripture. This is the ultimate cause of his anathematisation at the separate sessions led by Justinian and the bishops at the Second Council of Constantinople (Fifth Ecumenical) in 553.

Ultimately, the Church cannot affirm apocatastasis and other forms of universalism because either they  run counter to Scripture and are pieces of speculation or they involve bad hermeneutics. As DeYoung’s excessively long review, cited above, shows us, Love Wins involves bad hermeneutics.

Still, ought we not at least to hope for apocatastasis? Maybe, in the end, God will redeem everyone. No, it’s not in Scripture. What we find in Scripture regarding those who die outside of the Faith is varied and largely unpleasant. Nevertheless, to hope for the salvation of all is not an un-Christian hope, even if one finds the possibility unlikely, even if one thinks that it ought not to be preached loudly from pulpits or ensconced as dogma.

*George MacDonald will hopefully be the subject of a later post, if all goes according to plan.

**He lists all three Cappadocian Fathers, but I haven’t heard elsewhere of Sts. Basil and Gregory the Theologian believing this. Until I have corroborated it, I can’t print it.

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7 thoughts on “Apocatastasis?

  1. Acts 3:21 says “He must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.” the Greek word used in this text is…..Apokatastasis. Is it not misleading to say this idea is not biblical? What do you do with this piece of scripture?

    • Matt, the question revolves around the content of the word Apokatastasis; what does it mean for God to restore everything? If the biblical idea found here in Acts differs from the Origenist doctrine, then the idea is not biblical. I will get back to you on this…

  2. “No, it’s not in Scripture”- I just think this is an irresponsible way of writing and maybe that you need to clarify that while the theological concept may not be in the bible, however you come to that conclusion?, that it does somewhat feature in it. I am not even affirming the idea. Also, be careful how you use the words Apokatastasis and Apocatastasis, one has a literal meaning and the other serves as theological description.

    • If the theological concept is not in the Bible, even if the word features in it, then the concept cannot ‘somewhat’ feature in it. And if the theological concept is not in the Bible, then saying, ‘it’s not in Scripture,’ is not irresponsible. It is the theological concept we are discussing, not simply Greek words, and we probably both know that just because a word that means something in one place occurs in a text, this does not mean that it means the same thing in the present text.

      I am reminded of someone who said that, since aphiemi has an economic meaning in some places, then when Jesus uses it in Luke, he is challenging the current economic order and what he says has powerful economic overtones, even though the word can mean all sorts of things from divorce to disowning a son to simply removing something.

      Anyway, I defend what I said and how I said it unless I discover that the theological concept of apocatastas is actually in Scripture somewhere, and not as irresponsible writing.

  3. Clearly this is more than a Greek word and clearly it has to do with the idea of apocatastas, Acts 3:21 in English and in the Greek SEEMS to have to do with the idea. What have you said to prove otherwise…i’m not saying you are not capable of proving that it has no relevance…and I am not saying that it has relevance.

    But you have given no reason what so ever to discount it as a theological concept. Unlike the aphiemi example you use, I am not trying to make you believe anything. I just thought someone writing on this would be able to answer for this text. So are you going to, or are you just going to discount it? Just want an answer.

    • As I said in my first reply, I will most assuredly get back to you on the use of apokatastasis in Acts and whether or to what extent the theological idea there is part of the more Origenist concept that uses the Latinised spelling apocatastasis.

      The thrust of this post was to briefly introduce the Origenist concept which, at least as part of Origen’s overall system, is not ultimately rooted in Scripture but in Neo-Platonism. The question of what sort of restoration the Scriptures mean is an important one, because it may, to some extent, be part of the root of Origen’s theology — although the Origenist Platonic vision of exitusreditus, even if it includes a restoration, is not ultimately in line with Scripture; to demonstrate why Origenist doctrine is unscriptural involves laying out what precisely Origen means by the word, which would then be followed by a discussion of what Luke means by the word in Acts, and then we would consider the images of restoration in the Bible more broadly. From there, we could circle back to Origen and other advocates of either apocatastasis or universalism and see how near or far their teachings are to holy writ.

      Something like this I plan to do; since I have most definitely not set out all the evidence either in the post or the comments, then it is true to say that I have demonstrated fully that the concept is not in Scripture. I have not tried to as yet. The verdict, then, is still out on the accuracy of this post, although it’s research is not entirely thorough, given the fact that I have been busy studying other things and Origenism is just one of many, many side interests along the way.

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