Origen’s ἀποκατάστασις: The Question of Satanic Salvation

In this post I will explicate and critically assess Origen’s soteriological views, with a particular focus on his universalism, and the question of whether his understanding of ἀποκατάστασις (apocatastasis) really did entail that even the devil will be saved. It will be argued that Origen’s view of ἀποκατάστασις, once viewed through the lens of his understanding of his doctrine of free will, may not, in fact, entail a universalism which is far-reaching enough to include even the devil himself. Although there has emerged an academic consensus that Origen’s view does involve Satan’s salvation, I submit (and here argued) that whether or not the Devil is saved, for Origen, is to be regarded as a matter of legitimate academic controversy.

It is no exaggeration to say that Origen was perhaps the most highly revered and most innovative of Christian theologians during the whole of the ante-Nicene period. St. Vincent of Lerins, writing in the fifth century, in his Commonitory, notes:

“My belief is, that among many instances of this sort of trial which might be produced, there is not one to be compared with that of Origen, in whom there were many things so excellent, so unique, so admirable, that antecedently any one would readily deem that implicit faith was to be placed all his assertions.”[1]

St. Jerome allegedly said of him that he was “the greatest master of the church after the Apostles.”[2] Yet, the image of Origen as it exists in the religious imagination of Christians is a mixed one, with Martin Luther questioning “whether he was not “doomed to endless torment” for his impiety,”[3] and, of course, Theophilus of Alexandria condemning Origenism in the fifth century at the Synod of Alexandria.[4]

Although the Church did officially offer condemnations of ‘Origenism’ centuries after Origen had passed away, these condemnations do not strictly translate into condemnations of Origen himself, or even a condemnation of Origen’s own beliefs and teachings. The condemnation of a theologian’s teachings does not always entail that the theologian should be regarded as a heretic, as the famous example of St. Thomas Aquinas illustrates. After all, St. Thomas argued against the immaculate conception,[5] and the immaculate conception is today regarded as De Fide by Roman Catholics, but nobody concludes from this that St. Thomas is a heretic. Likewise the implication that condemnations of Origenism, even if they did properly identify views attributable to Origen himself, entail that Origen is a heretic simply can’t go through so easily.

Moreover, there are at least two reasons to be suspicious of the inference from ‘Origenism’ being heretical, to Origen’s being heretical. First, Origen’s name came to be associated with a number of movements and beliefs which Origen would not have identified or associated himself with. For example, the “Arians [had] claimed Origen for their party, followed by the Pelagians and the Nestorians,”[6] and this association of ‘Origenism’ with condemnable views (in the eyes of the Catholic establishment) led to the condemnation of what had become ‘Origenism.’ Origenism, in this way, had departed significantly from Origen himself, being hijacked by those parading themselves as his pupils, but whose views found no solid foundation in his writings.

The second reason this inference should be regarded with skepticism is that, for the most part the matters of which Origen treats had not yet been, in any manifest way, settled by ecclesiastical authority, and Origen may have offered some of his more eyebrow-raising suggestions as merely theologically permissible speculations. Thus, Origen may have put forward his most controversial ideas as mere speculative hypotheses, to be rejected if the authority of the Church should say otherwise. Scholars now widely acknowledge that much of Origen’s work suggests views which were “not intended by Origen to be any more than speculation.”[7] As Lisa R. Holliday rightly observes:

“Here, Origen offered his views on topics about which the church did not have clearly established doctrines. Working within these parameters, Origen speculated about such things as bodily resurrection, the fall, and methods of biblical interpretation. His aims were not to provide definitive answers, but to offer alternatives and possibilities.”[8]

If this is the right way to read Origen’s more provocative and innovative theses, then Origen can be acquitted entirely of the charge of heresy.

Nevertheless, there are elements in Origen’s thinking which give the appearance of being out of step with orthodox theology, such as when he says of baptism that “not all those who are baptized in water are forthwith bathed in the Holy Spirit.”[9] Although he clearly did have a sacramental view of Baptism (and even of Holy Orders), it is not difficult to see why his writings would have been “controversial, even during his own lifetime.”[10] The question of whether, or to what extent, these issues were considered to be settled matters of faith shall have to be left aside, to be investigated elsewhere,[11] in order to allow the focus of the present paper to be on his most controversial doctrine; namely, the doctrine of ἀποκατάστασις.

Without a doubt, one of the most fascinating elements of Origen’s thinking is put on display in his doctrine of ἀποκατάστασις, which provides a view of soteriology, eschatology, and freedom. For Origen, “the apocatastasis is both an eschatological and a soteriological event.”[12] By this doctrine Origen is usually understood to imply the universal salvation of all souls, including the Devil’s, and a subscription to a cyclical view of time (or, at least, history) with indefinitely many future ‘falls’ from grace and returns/redemptions of all souls. Origen suggests that “an end or consummation would seem to be an indication of the perfection and completion of things.”[13] He elaborates as follows:

“The end of the world, then, and the final consummation, will take place when every one shall be subjected to punishment for his sins; a time which God alone knows, when He will bestow on each one what he deserves. We think, indeed, that the goodness of God, through His Christ, may recall all His creatures to one end, even His enemies being conquered and subdued… What, then, is this “putting under” by which all things must be made subject to Christ? I am of opinion that it is this very subjection by which we also wish to be subject to Him, by which the apostles also were subject, and all the saints who have been followers of Christ.”[14]

Although universalism has been classically rejected by Christian theology, the official condemnation of the doctrine occurring “during the Second Council of Constantinople – the Fifth General Council of the Church- which Justinian convened in the year 553 [AD],”[15] it has come back in vogue in recent times. John Hick, for instance, has developed what he has called an Irenaean theodicy[16] (which may owe more to Origen than to Irenaeus), and although Origen doesn’t present the doctrine of ἀποκατάστασις as a theodicy, there is a possible rapprochement to Origen in Hick’s programme. Hans Urs von Balthasar has developed and defended an ‘existential’ universalism,[17] and figures in the emergent church, like Rob Bell, have jumped onto the new universalist bandwagon.[18] This trend makes a careful examination of Origen’s theology all the more pertinent for contemporary theology.

Origen’s doctrine, of course, does not proceed from a theological or ideological vacuum. Indeed, there are some passages in scripture which catalyze, if not foreshadow or justify, the development of this doctrine, such as Acts 3:21, which mentions “the time of universal restoration [ἀποκατάστασις] that God announced long ago through his holy prophets.”[19] Although “Origen’s was the name destined to be associated with “apocatastasis””[20] the doctrine, including “Satan’s possible restoration to grace… begins properly with St. Clement of Alexandria.”[21] In fact, Origen is far from the only figure to have (allegedly) entertained the speculative belief in universal salvation, as it was apparently shared by Didymus of Alexandria, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and even St. John Chrysostom.[22] Origen, it would seem, was not alone.

The scholar Ilaria L.E. Ramelli has also suggested that the roots of this doctrine can be found among many early Christian apocryphal writings with which Origen had some familiarity, including the so-called Apocalypses of Peter and Elijah, the Life of Adam and Eve, the Sibylline Oracles, and the Epistula Apostolorum.[23] Some of these texts may have even been considered, by Origen, to be either inspired or at least authoritative.[24]  The Apocalypse of Peter, in particular, contains an interesting passage which goes as follows:

“I shall grant to my summoned and elect all those whom they ask me to remove from punishment … And I shall grant them a beautiful baptism in salvation… in the Acherusian Lake, which is said to be in the Elysian valley, a sharing of justice and justification with my saints…”[25]

Thus the theological roots for the doctrine of ἀποκατάστασις were already present in sources with which Origen was familiar and likely considered authoritative.

There is no question that the impetus was there for Origen to develop a doctrine of ἀποκατάστασις, but the question of whether Origen really believed or affirmed, even as a matter of speculation, that the Devil would also be redeemed is not so easily answered. Origen’s eschatological and soteriological framework seems to require it because it entails both that the Devil be capable of repentance, and that ‘every knee will bow,’ and God will become ‘all in all.’

At the same time, some scholars have insisted that Origen, who “mentions the devil mostly in passing, with little elaboration,”[26] would have indignantly protested against the charge that his doctrine bound him to the conclusion that the Devil would be saved;

“… there can be no question about whether or not Origen intended to propose salvation for the devil: he himself said that such a claim was madness. [Rufinus, Adult 6,8-14 (SC 464)].”[27]

How can one make sense of Origen’s (alleged) denial of Satan’s salvation in light of the premise of ἀποκατάστασις as he outlines it?

In order to establish to what extent Origen actually adopted the doctrine of ἀποκατάστασις as applied to Satan, one needs to turn to Origen’s writings themselves. The most important writing left by Origen which gives insight into his thinking on this questions is his infamous work Περί αρχών (pronounced Peri Archon), sometimes also referred to by its Latin title De Principiis, (both of which translate to ‘on first principles’). Some brief preliminary notes about the problems involved with interpreting this text should be mentioned.

The text itself has been transmitted down to us primarily through Rufinus of Aquileia’s Latin translation, and not in the original Greek. Furthermore, Rufinus not only “admittedly altered the text,”[28] possibly in an attempt to “make [Origen] more palatable to Latin theologians,”[29] (an observation which has led most scholars to presume that his insistence that Origen never taught ‘satanic-salvation’ is nothing short of a brazen lie) but also “made many subtle changes”[30] and “overlooked the technical terminology that Origen employed.”[31] The overall effect has not only been to obscure the text’s clarity on finer soteriological and eschatological points, but to fuel the suspicion that the text as we have received it presents “potential inconsistencies.”[32] Thus;

“(De principis), the work in which he deals with “apocatastasis,” survives largely in the inadequate translation of Rufinus of Aquileia, who elected to alter a number of Origen’s controversial views in an attempt to make him more palatable to Latin theologians.”[33]

Perhaps the most significant problem, however, is that Origen never makes an explicit and unambiguous statement about the salvation of the devil. Furthermore, De Principiis, is also riddled with ambiguities and lends itself easily to alternative interpretations. Prior to the sixth chapter of Book I, where he fleshes out his doctrine of ἀποκατάστασις in some detail (as has already been seen), he also says things which, on their face, seem to contradict universalism. For instance;

“It is recorded that God spoke thus, as of undeserving men and sinners: “My Spirit shall not abide with those men for ever, because they are flesh.” By which, it is clearly shown that the Spirit of God is taken away from all who are unworthy…”[34]

and;

“will take up His dwelling, not in all men, nor in those who are flesh, but in those whose land has been renewed.” [35]

In order to evaluate the consistency of Origen’s position, it is necessary to explore, briefly, Origen’s view of freedom. Although he is writing against a backdrop of multiple and evolving philosophical traditions ranging from Stoicism to Aristotelianism, Origen actually develops a philosophically novel account of freedom. This account begins with the distinction of two key philosophical terms; first αὐτεξούσιον, which is, for Origen, “an imperfect reflection of God’s power,”[36] and signifies merely the innate, raw ability to choose arbitrarily, and second ἐφʹ ᾑμῖν, which is “an extension of αὐτεξούσιον”[37] and signifies the power to move oneself toward an end (whether good or evil) in response to choosing to (αὐτεξούσιον).

Although one can never lose one’s αὐτεξούσιον, one’s ἐφʹ ᾑμῖν can be helped or hindered with respect to its ability to recognize and move one toward the good on the basis of a habitual acquisition of virtues and/or vices. As one chooses to act in a morally virtuous way, one’s αὐτεξούσιον with respect to the good remains the same, but one’s ἐφʹ ᾑμῖν changes. In short, αὐτεξούσιον refers to the ability to choose in principle, and ἐφʹ ᾑμῖν refers to the ability to act in fact (or, alternatively, it refers to the facility with which one can act virtuously). Thus “Origen’s view of volition is a process: man has the power (αὐτεξούσιον) to choose actions based on whether they are virtuous or not and [then] act accordingly (ἐφʹ ᾑμῖν).”[38]

It is with this two-tiered view of freedom in mind that one can, despite the accusations that his system either entails or allows for the salvation of the devil, make sense of Origen’s protestations to the contrary. Origen, in fact, draws a parallel between Satan and Christ;

“In the PArch there are two instances of souls that are unique in that they do not follow the cycle of progression and regression, but remain in a fixed position. The souls of Christ and Satan, though polar opposites, do not fit into the schema Origen establishes for all other beings.”[39]

Although the Devil is looked upon as evil, and perhaps even the most evil thing in all creation, it is worth noting that, like Augustine after him, Origen maintains that “evil, in and of itself, does not have a substantial reality… [and] Origen defines it as the absence of good.”[40] The devil, therefore, is clearly not essentially or substantially evil, on Origen’s view, but is evil by reason of his own exercise of free will. Since all souls (i.e., intellectual beings) pre-exist their (re-)incarnation, and, on Origen’s view, have a freedom of the will, some have inevitably turned further away from God than others, and the intellects which fell furthest from God are “powers, demons and lastly, the devil.”[41] In fact, Origen maintains that to claim that Satan is evil by his very nature, and acts according to the compulsion of his essence qua evil being, would “remove the responsibility for evil.”[42] Satan could not, therefore, be justly punished at all, or held in contempt of any kind, and these conclusions were rejected by Origen.

If Satan was not evil by nature, however, then it seems as though Satan would have to have αὐτεξούσιον in principle. This is probably the right way to understand how Origen intended to qualify the belief that Satan could be redeemed. In fact, Origen draws an analogy from Christ himself, whom he says has “the ability [to sin], but not the desire to choose evil.”[43] Just as Christ had the αὐτεξούσιον to sin, but did not have the ἐφʹ ᾑμῖν to sin, so Origen may have thought that Satan had the αὐτεξούσιον to humble himself before God and accept redemption, but did not and would not in fact have the ἐφʹ ᾑμῖν to do so. Thus, one can see clearly how to make sense of Origen’s claims that he did not accept Satan’s salvation in fact, and yet accepted Satan’s possible salvation. How, though, could this be made consistent with Origen’s blanket statement that God will be all in all? I think the most plausible answer has to be that the way in which God brings Satan into subjugation to himself is qualitatively different, for Origen, than the way God brings any other being into subjugation.

How plausible is this reading of Origen? There is already reason for being suspicious of Rufinus’ protestations against the accusation that Origen taught the salvation of the devil, given his treatment of Origen’s works and his motivation for making Origen palatable. However, this suspicion cannot definitively settle the matter of whether Origen did, or did not, believe in the Devil’s redemption. I can imagine somebody suggesting that, since Origen’s predecessor (as leader of the Catechetical school of Alexandria) Clement of Alexandria believed in the salvation of the devil, Origen plausibly did as well, but it is a mistake to put it past Origen to be original and innovative. It is entirely possible that Origen was introduced to the doctrine through the influence of Clement, but that he then transformed it in an interesting way. Moreover, considering the lack of clear textual evidence committing Origen to the Devil’s salvation, and some of his comments (which preclude the salvation of Christ, for instance – for one cannot be saved if one is never lost) mentioned earlier, it should be regarded as an open question whether Origen really did believe in a universalism so far-reaching that it included the devil.

In conclusion, we have seen that although Origen’s doctrine of ἀποκατάστασις was developed in a milieu which may have encouraged and/or excused his application of universal salvation to Satan, his doctrine of free will, combined with the other considerations raised in this article, lend significant support to the hypothesis that he found a way to secure belief in the possibility of Satan’s salvation, but rejected its actuality. He could have made sense of this precisely by appealing to his categories of αὐτεξούσιον and ἐφʹ ᾑμῖν.

[1] St. Vincent of Lerins, “Commonitory,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 11. ed. by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. by C.A. Heurtley, (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1894.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3506.htm

[2] Fred Gladstone Bratton, “Origen, The First Christian Liberal,” in Journal of Bible and Religion (1940): 141.

[3] Fred Gladstone Bratton, “Origen, The First Christian Liberal,” in Journal of Bible and Religion (1940): 141.

[4] Chrysostom Baur, “Theophilus” in The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. 14. (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912), accessed 29 Jan. 2016 http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14625b.htm.

[5] (ST III, q.27, a.1-2).

[6] Fred Gladstone Bratton, “Origen, The First Christian Liberal,” in Journal of Bible and Religion (1940): 141.

[7] Celia E. Rabinowitz, “Personal and Cosmic Salvation in Origen,” in Vigiliae Christianae (1984): 319.

[8] Lisa R. Holliday, “Will Satan Be Saved? Reconsidering Origen’s Theory of Volition in Peri Archon.” Vigiliae Christianae 63, no. 1 (2009): 1.

[9] Homilies; on Numbers III:I. taken from Fred Gladstone Bratton, “Origen, The First Christian Liberal,” in Journal of Bible and Religion (1940): 140.

[10] Lisa R. Holliday, “Will Satan Be Saved? Reconsidering Origen’s Theory of Volition in Peri Archon.” Vigiliae Christianae 63, no. 1 (2009): 1.

[11] I wrote another paper examining Origen’s ecclesiology and how it connects with his distinction between settled matters of faith and matters which have been left open (where speculation is welcome and legitimate).

[12] Celia E. Rabinowitz, “Personal and Cosmic Salvation in Origen,” in Vigiliae Christianae (1984): 321.

[13] Origen, De Principiis, Ch. VI, Paragraph 1

[14] Origen, De Principiis, Ch. VI, Paragraph 1

[15] Constantinos A. Patrides, “The Salvation of Satan,” in Journal of the History of Ideas (1967): 469.

[16] Hick, John. “Evil and the God of Love.” (1966).

[17] Von Balthasar, Hans Urs. Dare We Hope: “that All Men be Saved”?; With, A Short Discourse on Hell. Ignatius Press, 1988.

[18] Bell, Rob. “Love Wins: A Book AboutHeaven, Hell, and the Fate ofEvery Person Who Ever Lived.” (2011).

[19] NRSV Acts 3:21

[20] Constantinos A. Patrides, “The Salvation of Satan,” in Journal of the History of Ideas (1967): 467.

[21] Constantinos A. Patrides, “The Salvation of Satan,” in Journal of the History of Ideas (1967): 467.

[22] Constantinos A. Patrides, “The Salvation of Satan,” in Journal of the History of Ideas (1967): 469-70.

[23] Ilaria L.E. Ramelli, “Origen, Bardaiṣan, and the Origin of Universal Salvation,” in Harvard Theological Review 102, no. 02 (2009): 136.

[24] Ilaria L.E. Ramelli, “Origen, Bardaiṣan, and the Origin of Universal Salvation,” in Harvard Theological Review 102, no. 02 (2009): 138-9.

[25] See Ilaria L.E. Ramelli, “Origen, Bardaiṣan, and the Origin of Universal Salvation,” in Harvard Theological Review 102, no. 02 (2009): 140.

[26] Lisa R. Holliday, “Will Satan Be Saved? Reconsidering Origen’s Theory of Volition in Peri Archon.” Vigiliae Christianae 63, no. 1 (2009): 3.

[27] Lisa R. Holliday, “Will Satan Be Saved? Reconsidering Origen’s Theory of Volition in Peri Archon.” Vigiliae Christianae 63, no. 1 (2009): 3.

[28] Lisa R. Holliday, “Will Satan Be Saved? Reconsidering Origen’s Theory of Volition in Peri Archon.” Vigiliae Christianae 63, no. 1 (2009): 4.

[29] Constantinos A. Patrides, “The Salvation of Satan,” in Journal of the History of Ideas (1967): 468.

[30] Lisa R. Holliday, “Will Satan Be Saved? Reconsidering Origen’s Theory of Volition in Peri Archon.” Vigiliae Christianae 63, no. 1 (2009): 4.

[31] Lisa R. Holliday, “Will Satan Be Saved? Reconsidering Origen’s Theory of Volition in Peri Archon.” Vigiliae Christianae 63, no. 1 (2009): 4.

[32] Lisa R. Holliday, “Will Satan Be Saved? Reconsidering Origen’s Theory of Volition in Peri Archon.” Vigiliae Christianae 63, no. 1 (2009): 4.

[33] Constantinos A. Patrides, “The Salvation of Satan,” in Journal of the History of Ideas (1967): 468.

[34] Origen, De Principiis, Book I, Ch. III, Paragraph 7.

[35] Origen, De Principiis, Book I, Ch. III, Paragraph 7.

[36] Lisa R. Holliday, “Will Satan Be Saved? Reconsidering Origen’s Theory of Volition in Peri Archon.” Vigiliae Christianae 63, no. 1 (2009): 13.

[37] Lisa R. Holliday, “Will Satan Be Saved? Reconsidering Origen’s Theory of Volition in Peri Archon.” Vigiliae Christianae 63, no. 1 (2009): 12.

[38] Lisa R. Holliday, “Will Satan Be Saved? Reconsidering Origen’s Theory of Volition in Peri Archon.” Vigiliae Christianae 63, no. 1 (2009): 14.

[39] Lisa R. Holliday, “Will Satan Be Saved? Reconsidering Origen’s Theory of Volition in Peri Archon.” Vigiliae Christianae 63, no. 1 (2009): 17.

[40] Lisa R. Holliday, “Will Satan Be Saved? Reconsidering Origen’s Theory of Volition in Peri Archon.” Vigiliae Christianae 63, no. 1 (2009): 16.

[41] Lisa R. Holliday, “Will Satan Be Saved? Reconsidering Origen’s Theory of Volition in Peri Archon.” Vigiliae Christianae 63, no. 1 (2009): 16.

[42] Lisa R. Holliday, “Will Satan Be Saved? Reconsidering Origen’s Theory of Volition in Peri Archon.” Vigiliae Christianae 63, no. 1 (2009): 16.

[43] Lisa R. Holliday, “Will Satan Be Saved? Reconsidering Origen’s Theory of Volition in Peri Archon.” Vigiliae Christianae 63, no. 1 (2009): 18.

Readings/Bibliography:

Bettis, Joseph Dabney. “A Critique of the Doctrine of Universal Salvation.” Religious Studies 6, no. 04 (1970): 329-344.

Bratton, Fred Gladstone. “Origen, The First Christian Liberal.” Journal of Bible and Religion (1940): 137-141.

Hick, John. “Freedom and the Irenaean Theodicy Again.” The Journal of Theological Studies (1970): 419-422.

Holliday, Lisa R. “Will Satan Be Saved? Reconsidering Origen’s Theory of Volition in Peri Archon.” Vigiliae Christianae 63, no. 1 (2009): 1-23.

Jackson, B. Darrell. “Sources of Origen’s doctrine of freedom.” Church History (1966): 13-23.

Patrides, Constantinos A. “The salvation of Satan.” Journal of the History of Ideas (1967): 467-478.

Ramelli, Ilaria L.E. “Origen, Bardaiṣan, and the origin of universal salvation.” Harvard Theological Review 102, no. 02 (2009): 135-168.

Rabinowitz, Celia E. “Personal and Cosmic Salvation in Origen.” Vigiliae Christianae (1984): 319-329.

Scott, Mark SM. “Suffering and Soul‐Making: Rethinking John Hick’s Theodicy.” The Journal of Religion 90, no. 3 (2010): 313-334.

Spinka, Matthew. “Berdyaev and Origen: A Comparison.” Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture 16, no. 01 (1947): 3-21.

Surlis, Paul. “Heaven, Hell and Zero Tolerance: Continuing the Discussion.” The Furrow (2004): 367-370.

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