Origen of Alexandria and apokatastasis: Some Notes on the Development of a Noble Notion

Origen of Alexandria (185-254 C.E.) was the greatest humanist theologian of the early Patristic era. He was active during a period of great intellectual confusion among Christians, when Gnosticism was the dominant intellectual force, and nascent orthodoxy was struggling to find a voice. Origen held a firm conviction that not a single rational being will be lost to the darkness of ignorance and sin. Even the most recalcitrant sinner, he argued, will eventually attain salvation. The fire of punishment is not an instrument of eternal torment, but of divine instruction and correction. Since the soul is essentially rational, it will eventually be convinced of the truth of the divine pedagogy. When this conviction arises, salvation and deification will follow. The word used to describe this universal salvation was apokatastasis, "restoration of all things."

This term occurs in only a single New Testament passage;[1] its provenance is not intrinsically Christian or even Jewish, but Hellenistic, and bound up with the cosmology and anthropology of the era - a system of belief which Origen, in his day, was obliged to undermine in the interest of Christian teaching. Before examining the apokatastasis doctrine in the works of Origen, we would do well to look back to the Hellenistic antecedents, which are to be found among the Stoic philosophers, Greco-Egyptian astrologers, the Hermetic school, and Gnostics.

I. Pre-Christian Ideas Concerning apokatastasis

The earliest philosophical occurrence of the term apokatastasis is to be found in Empedocles, where it refers to the eternal relation of Love and Strife in the maintenance of the cosmic order. [2] The term also occurs in the pseudo-Platonic treatise Axiochus in reference to the "revolutions of the stars." [3] But this is a later, Hellenistic-era work, not from Plato's pen, and therefore representative of later conceptions.

The first truly conceptual use of this term is to be found in the writings - now only fragmentary - of the early Stoic thinkers, particularly Chrysippus, who had a special attachment to Babylonian astronomy, with its theory of cosmic cycles and eternal recurrence. [4] Already in Plato, however, we find a notion of distinct cosmic cycles or ages; [5] but a rigorous idea of eternal recurrence, involving a notion of cosmic culmination and reconstitution, was articulated for the first time by the Stoics.


The Stoic idea was based upon an astronomical doctrine according to which the return (apokatastasis) of the planets to their proper "celestial signs" initiates the conflagration (ekpurôsis), which is the reduction of the entire cosmos to its primal element (fire), after which follows the rebirth of all existing things. [6] This destruction and rebirth is connected effectively with the divine logos that guides the cosmos and preserves it in stability (katastasis). "Universal reason," according to the Stoics, eventually "dries up everything" and absorbs and contains all unique expressions of be(com)ing. [7]

According to the Stoics, there is no room for autonomous expression outside the closed system of the cosmos. Each human being, they argued, receives his or her station in life from the divine logos, and a virtuous life consists in merely accepting one's allotted station. The cosmic principle or power responsible for such allotment was identified by the Stoics as heimarmenê ("fate" or "destiny"). It is right and proper for human beings to remain in harmony with this power, they argued, since it stems from divine reason (logos). When the human being attempts to strive against heimarmenê, this "fate" is then experienced as anankê (constraint or necessity). [8]

There were three important responses to this highly influential doctrine in the Hellenistic era: astrology, and the Hermetic and Gnostic schools (which were influenced heavily by astrological theories).


While Hellenistic astrology likely developed in a common milieu with Hermeticism and Gnosticism (i.e., in Hellenized Egypt), the former discipline did not develop along the excessively mystical, mythical, and esoteric lines as the latter schools. When Hellenistic astrologers discussed apokatastasis, it was usually in terms of an intra-cosmic process of planetary recurrence and "counter-recurrence" (antapokatastasis), [9] and did not refer to any supra-cosmic event, as did Gnostic and Christian soteriology.

The Hellenistic astrologers adhered to the Stoic model of the universe, and busied themselves with, among other things, calculating the time of the conflagration (ekpurôsis). It was generally agreed that the apokatastasis would occur when all planets aligned in Cancer - this was the signal for the ekpurôsis. Conversely, the alignment of all planets in Capricorn (the sign opposite Cancer) announced the antapokatastasis or "counter-recurrence," which signaled destruction by flood. [10] This general schema was adopted by both Hermeticists and Gnostics, who gave it an anthropological and soteriological frame of reference.

The idea that the world has been, and will again be, subjected to chastisement by flood, followed by fire, is found in the Hermetic Asclepius, a treatise also included - in partial and slightly altered form - in the Nag Hammadi collection of Gnostic texts. While the astrologers were virtually silent regarding the reason or purpose for the conflagration, the Hermetic and Gnostic thinkers were clear in their opinion that this event was directly connected to humanity's wayward existence.

The Hermetic School

The writings comprising the Corpus Hermeticum, produced at different times and by different authors, do not always agree on certain points of doctrine. Yet one dominant theme is the loss of human personality and individuality during the salvific event. [11] In C.H. X.16-18, we encounter a description of the purification of the soul and its donning of a fiery body, in which mind is able to act as the controlling faculty - a task not possible when mind is contained by an earthly body. "For earth cannot bear fire; the whole thing burns even from a little spark; this is why water has spread all around the earth guarding like a fence or a wall against the burning of the fire." [12] Connecting this passage with Greek astrological conceptions, we may say that the Hermetic writer(s) equated apokatastasis with the soul's rupturous departure from the cosmic order, and antapokatastasis with the maintenance of that order.

While the Hermetic writings do contain some "anti-cosmic" passages, the dominant attitude toward the cosmos is one of qualified veneration, realizing that the greatest glory is invisible and intellectual, rather than sensible, but also admitting that the visible cosmos is the best of all possible worlds. [13] The Gnostics, however, refused to grant even this respect to the visible, material cosmos.


Unlike the Hermetic writers, who believed this cosmos to be an abode of passions and vices that may be overcome with effort, the Gnostics considered the cosmic realm to be a place of enslavement and exile, controlled by an ignorant ruler and his vicious minions, whom the Gnostics identified loosely with the stars and planets.

At first glance, the Gnostic position may seem completely contrary to the Hellenistic spirit, which received its motto from Plato, who declared that humanity exists for the sake of the cosmos, and not the cosmos for the sake of humanity. [14] Yet if one looks deeper, one will realize that the Gnostics simply took Stoicism, astral piety, and sundry other aspects of Hellenistic syncretism, and brought them to a logical - or perhaps illogical - conclusion. This is not to say that the Gnostics were mere eclectics - they most certainly had original ideas of their own, which informed their interpretations of various doctrines. It must also be noted that Gnosticism produced the first great Christian theologians - Basilides, Valentinus, and Ptolemy - who were actively teaching and philosophizing at a time when orthodoxy was still in its infancy. I will now briefly examine apokatastasis in the context of Christian Gnosticism, which will lead us into Origen.


Basilides (fl. ca. 132-135 C.E.) was heavily influenced by Stoicism and, according to St. Irenaeus, by a certain esoteric brand of Hellenistic astrology. [15] Two versions of his system have come down to us, one preserved by St. Irenaeus, which is rather too simplistic to be authentic, considering that Basilides was famed as a highly original and provocative teacher. [16] The other version is preserved by St. Hippolytus, [17] and contains a highly original account of the apokatastasis, in which the post-restoration maintenance of cosmic order is described as depending upon lower existents' forgetfulness of the higher realm, to which only the "elect" can ascend. For according to Basilides, beings perish when they attempt to transgress the boundaries of their nature. The purpose of the forgetfulness is to prevent naturally inferior beings from striving for a station beyond their nature, and to avoid the suffering attendant upon such improper striving. As J.W. Trigg has remarked: "Basilides' understanding of the meaning of suffering and his recoil from attributing retributive punishment to God provided Origen with a possible inspiration." [18]

The evidence for Basilides' system is scant, since his own words survive only in a few fragments preserved by later writers. According to Origen, Basilides held a doctrine of reincarnation that was identical to the Pythagorean belief that human souls may take on the bodies of animals in future lives. [19] It is possible that Basilides believed in multiple restorations of the cosmos, in a manner akin to the Stoic doctrine of periodic conflagrations. In the absence of sufficient evidence, however, it is impossible to say more about his doctrine.


The Gnostic Ptolemy (fl. ca. 136-152? C.E.) was a pupil of Valentinus (ca. 100-175 C.E.), and the greatest systematizer among the Christian Gnostics. A complete account of his system is preserved in St. Irenaeus.20 Concerning the apokatastasis, Ptolemy taught that all matter will be destroyed in a final conflagration. The "spiritual" beings - i.e., the Gnostics who are 'saved by nature' - will be taken up into the invisible, immaterial plêrôma or "fullness," while the merely "animate" or "psychic" beings (those possessing soul but not spirit, including the Demiurge, whom the Gnostics identified as Yahweh) will remain outside the plêrôma in a place called the "midpoint," since it is half-way between the blessed fullness and oblivion.

At this point in the tradition, we have arrived at a notion of complete subjugation of the person to an over-arching cosmic or supra-cosmic process. No longer does the individual life bear meaning in relation to the cosmos, for the cosmos has been denuded of all positive characteristics. In Stoicism, a certain degree of human-divine partnership was admitted; in astrology the cosmic mind was approached by one full of questions, and the human element was maintained; even in Hermeticism, the cosmos served as a proving ground for human intellectual endeavor. But in Gnosticism, all notions of human freedom and autonomy were abandoned in favor of a radical essentialism. Either one was saved by nature or not - no human decision made in the face of Being made any difference. The universe, so argued the Gnostics, belongs to the "elect"; the dark basement of animality belongs to the merely animate or "psychic," who were considered "just" but not "good."

Origen, who fully understood the meaning and intentionality of the tradition which I have elucidated ever-so-briefly here, responded with an assertion that was truly revolutionary. In the absence of human freedom, neither the cosmos nor even God hold any meaning for humanity.

II. The Theologian of Free Will: Origen of Alexandria

Henri Crouzel, in his seminal work on Origen, describes the Alexandrian as "the theologian par excellence of free will." [21] This is indeed a valid assessment; however, we must be very clear on what "free will" meant for Origen, as his understanding of that concept was quite different from our own.

When we speak of "free will" we are often merely referring to the absence of any restrictions on our ability to make decisions. Immanuel Kant, in the third chapter of his Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785), made the distinction between negative and positive freedom. The former simply means the absence of coercion or outside interference in the decision-making process; the latter means the active, self-regulative, informed decision of a rational being. [22] Neither of these 'modes' of freedom, now so common in popular conception, has a place in Origen's doctrine.

Origen's own idea is perhaps more closely approximated by Jean-Paul Sartre's reflections on freedom, in which he articulates the "paradox of freedom: there is freedom only in a situation, and there is a situation only through freedom." And Origen might have added that God created not an essence, but a situation - a situation necessarily involving, nay requiring, freedom. [23] Sartre concurs: "Human freedom precedes essence in man and makes it possible." [24] We will find, as we examine Origen's thought, that he believed God's creation of souls to have been a creation not of essences, but of possibilities.

While Origen believed that the essence of each soul is derived from that soul's free and autonomous activity, [25] he also believed that the soul is not alone. Unlike Kant, who saw freedom only in the absence of any outside influence, Origen recognized the influence of God as the key to true freedom - as opposed to a strictly self-reliant freedom, the faulty exercise of which leads only to slavery. The guard against such a perversion of freedom, and a lapse into its opposite, according to Origen, is divine providence (pronoia). [26]

The Role of Providence in the Maintenance of Freedom

Origen did not understand freedom as the ability to destroy oneself. His doctrine of apokatastasis was based upon this firm conviction. He believed that the soul 'chooses' (or lapses into) the absence of Good only through ignorance, and not through active malignancy. [27] Yet ignorance is not, according to Origen, simply a result of lack of education - it is the symptom of the obtrusion of non-existence upon our being-with-God. This 'non-existence' is complacency, boredom, stasis: a relinquishing of one's energeia to the inertia of existence. [28] Existence is a source of meaning and knowledge only when it is engaged. [29] We engage existence, according to Origen, only by attending to the principle of reason that established this existence as the locus of possibility for a free and autonomous soul. [30]

Origen believed that the results of human free will were foreseen by God, and utilized by Him for the purpose of leading humanity's engagement with existence to the best possible conclusion. God's "foreknowledge" (prognôsis), Origen insists, is not the cause of events occurring in this world, but simply the recognition of these events as they relate either to the Good or to non-existence. [31]

Yet Origen recognizes the fact that God has a plan for humanity - a plan involving the establishment of ultimate freedom. This ultimate freedom is a freedom in which the possibility of freedom's negation is not present. [32] Origen could not rationalize the standard Christian idea that certain souls will inevitably fail to achieve salvation, and be plunged into eternal torment. If God created all souls equally, with freedom and reason, how could He possibly abandon these souls to the negation of that original possibility for perfection?

Origen, following a standard philosophical conception extending back to Plato, believed that the absence of reason (logos) is slavery. [33] The one who has abandoned reason may believe he or she is free, but the opposite, in fact, is the case: such a being is enslaved to ignorance without knowing it. Only the divine dialectic, which both Plato and Plotinus called the greatest tool of philosophy, [34] could lead such a soul out of the darkness of ignorance back toward the light of freedom and knowledge. Unlike Plato, however, Origen did not conceive of knowledge in the sense of an all-encompassing object of rapt, ecstatic contemplation. Rather, for Origen, knowledge was understood in a dynamic sense: as a process of ever-increasing capacity to delve into and grasp the divine concepts upon which the creation is founded. [35] This is true freedom: to remain in a constant state of growth, of upward motion toward God. Providence is the pedagogical power that leads us along this path of freedom. Since this freedom involves perpetual motion, if you will, it also implies the possibility for another fall - at least theoretically. [36] This is one of the main difficulties in Origen's 'un-systematic' theology, for it leads to the implication that the Incarnation may have been in vain. This problem is removed, however, when we consider carefully what justice and love meant for Origen, and how these two seemingly exclusive concepts were united in his doctrine of salvific paideia.

The Dialectic of Love and Justice

We have seen how Providence, for Origen, is not coercive, but instructive. This idea serves as the basis for his doctrine of apokatastasis, insofar as Origen declares that all souls will eventually be brought freely - i.e., of their own accord - into communion with God, to be held there not by compulsion, but by love. [37]

Certain contemporaries of Origen could not accept this idea - such as the followers of Marcion of Sinope (fl. ca. 144-160 C.E.) - and posited a rather artificial distinction between a "good" or loving God, and a "just" God. Origen easily, if somewhat sophistically, refuted this assertion:

If justice is a different thing from goodness, then, since evil is the opposite of good, and injustice of justice, injustice will doubtless be something else than an evil; and as, in your [i.e., the Marcionites] opinion, the just man is not good, so neither will the unjust man be wicked; and again, as the good man is not just, so the wicked man also will not be unjust. [38]

However, the crux of Origen's argument resides not in such logical niceties, but in his conviction that justice (dikê) is paideutic, not retributive.

The argument of contemporary theologians against Origen's doctrine is not much different than that of the Marcionites. In a recent article, Matthew C. Steenberg writes:

[T]he doctrine of Universal Salvation [apokatastasis] cannot be faithfully paired with the more patristic notions of free will or final judgement, even though Origen energetically defends both, for he described 'judgement' solely as a tool for teaching, and thus removed from it any real sense of justice. He exaggerated the love of God to a degree that downplayed His righteousness: two features which the Church has been insistent to bring together in its teachings, rather than to separate. [39]

The problem with Steenberg's conclusion is that he does not bother to offer a rigorous definition of justice - unless, of course, he is implying that justice = retribution (which I cannot accept).

The Greek term dikê is best defined as "right conduct toward others in which one gives them what is proper." [40] Yet what is "proper" to someone is not given by nature, but by convention (to borrow the old Sophistic distinction). Our situation in the world, not some over-arching (or fundamental) ideal of conduct, determines our relationship toward others. As Origen has stated clearly, in a very 'existential' passage of the De Principiis:

[T]he language of the apostle does not assert that to will evil is of God, or to will good is of Him (and similarly with respect to doing better and worse); but that to will in a general way, and to run in a general way, (are from Him). [41]

In other words, as Sartre declared, "it is therefore our freedom which constitutes the limits which it will subsequently encounter." [42]

These limits of freedom, as Thomas Hobbes has explained, are products of a "covenant" - i.e., of agreements drawn up between individuals, yet determined and ratified, as it were, by some higher "coercive Power." This "Power," according to Hobbes, is not concerned with human action toward itself, but rather with a human being's relation to his or her fellows. Like Anaximander, who saw justice only in terms of mutual relations, and not in relation to the transcendent source of all, the apeiron, [43] Hobbes saw justice as a product of mutual trust based upon a covenantal ideal:

[W]here no Covenant hath preceded, there hath no Right been transferred, and every man has right to every thing; and consequently, no action can be Unjust. But when a Covenant is made, then to break it is Unjust: And the definition of INJUSTICE, is no other than the not performance of Covenant. [44]

According to Origen, we have entered into a covenant of mutual love with God. The terms of this covenant are simple: strive for the divine Eros that eventually leads the soul to absolute freedom in knowledge, and God will aid that soul according to its degree of enthusiasm. However, if the soul turns away from this striving, God will simply refuse to aid the soul, and whatever befalls the soul will not be from God, but rather from the soul's own lack of insight.

If providence, then, is our guide along the path of freedom, justice is the principle governing the concrete situations that we encounter - through the exercise of our freedom - as we proceed toward God (or not). These concrete situations, while resulting from our own free choices, are nevertheless part of God's plan for governing the universe. This does not mean that God pre-ordained all things, with the result that human freedom is an illusion. Rather:

among all the things God foreordains in accordance with what He has seen concerning each deed of our freedom, there has been foreordained according to merit for each motion of our freedom what will meet it from providence and still cohere with the chain of future events. And so, God's foreknowledge is not the cause of everything that will come to be, even of our freedom when we are made active by our own impulse. For even if we entertain the supposition that God does not know what will come to be, we do not for this reason lose the power of acting in different ways and of willing certain things. But if God takes the order for the governance of the universe from His foreknowledge, then all the more is our individual freedom useful for the ordering of the world. [45]

To put this in a simple formula, we may say that humanity's pre-existent freedom, rather than God's overarching logos, is responsible for the state of the cosmos. This is human-divine co-operation par excellence - and therefore the highest expression of Love.

Pedagogy not Punishment: Origen's Doctrine of Multiple Ages

Origen's interpretation of the biblical phrase "foundation of the world" [46] hinged upon the Greek term translated as "foundation," katabolê, which also meant "to cast downwards." Following the latter meaning, Origen declared that the material cosmos is the result of a fall from a primordial state of blessedness shared equally by all rational beings or 'minds'. [47] As each mind grew apart from God, it began to grow cold (psukhesthai) and became a soul (psukhê). [48] The blessed angels are those minds that have remained closest to God, followed closely by the stars and planets. Human beings and the malignant demons are the ones who have fallen the farthest. Origen did not believe that the fall was an intra-cosmic event; rather, he held that the cosmos is the result of this primordial fall.

Joseph W. Trigg has aptly remarked that "[t]he fall, for Origen, did not impair an already existing material world but brought it into existence. The material world for him is God's provision for rational creatures who have failed to abide with God." [49] Rather than being a prison in which souls are unjustly contained, as the Gnostics insisted, or a mere shadow or image of the pure intelligible realm, as the Platonists believed, the cosmos, for Origen, is a realm distinctly tailored to (and by) the existential situation of free rational beings. However, far from being a neutral realm, the cosmos is a tool - the most powerful tool - of divine pedagogy; and although cosmic existence does not negate human freedom, Origen makes it quite clear that the operative will in the cosmos is not that of the various rational beings dwelling therein, but of God.

Yet Origen does admit, as we have seen, that the freedom of rational beings precludes any type of predestination. God does not compel beings to respond to His will; He gradually instructs these rational beings in the truth that eventually "forces itself upon us." [50] The beauty of Origen's theory is that this truth is not forced upon us in a direct and violent manner, but is gradually revealed to us as an intelligible (or rational) as well as an existential verity. The unity of 'thought' (logos endiathetos) and 'expression' (logos prophorikos), for Origen, is not a supra-essential, static unity, but a unification that is the result of a long process of becoming. As in later Neo-Platonic triadic systems (such as that of Proclus) where Being, as Hegel remarked, is not a "principle or purely abstract moment" but a "concrete form" or 'subsistent result' of a process of becoming or expression, [51] Origen's system locates Being at the pinnacle of rational striving.

But this pinnacle is not a point of staticity or repose; it is the flowering of the intellect, an emergence from bondage. The desire to persist in existence as a self-constitutive finite being is the source of the binding that blinds us to our full potential. Such blindness does not, according to Origen, result in our eternal damnation; instead, it issues forth (in) other ages (aiônes) in which we again receive the epistrophic call, with the accompanying 'custom-crafted' exigencies that serve as our paideutic partners.

These ages are not programmatically bestowed upon us as though they were divine curricula. Origen never loses sight of the principle of co-operation between humanity and divinity. Just as there are many different levels of souls - i.e., differing degrees according to the amount of 'cooling off' that took place after the initial falling-away (katabolê) - so there are many ages, each one offering an opportunity for gradual "perfection" and understanding:

[T]he process of amendment and correction will take place imperceptibly in the individual instances during the lapse of countless and unmeasured ages, some outstripping others, and tending by a swifter course towards perfection, while others again follow close at hand, and some again a long way behind; and thus, through the numerous and uncounted orders of progressive beings who are being reconciled to God from a state of enmity, the last enemy is finally reached, who is called death, so that he may also be destroyed, and no longer be an enemy. [52]

This is the stage of the "all in all," when becoming is completed and the pure possibility of freedom-in-being emerges for the first time, as an existential possibility.

The Restoration of All Things

As we have already seen, Origen held a doctrine of the pre-existence of souls with God in a primordial state of purity preceding the fall. It is possible, however not conclusive, that Origen conceived of the Church as the concrete and exemplary restoration of this originary unity of souls. [53] In this final section of my paper, I will argue that Origen did indeed conceive of the earthly Church as the temporal restoration of the original 'cosmic' Church that existed before the fall.

The Gnostic Tripartite Tractate, which certain scholars have suggested contains Origenistic elements, includes a section explaining the nature of the Church and its relation to the Son. [54] While the general structure of the Gnostic text bears some similarity to Origen's speculative primal cosmology, it differs in one important regard: the former excludes the 'material' (hulikos) beings from eternal salvation, while Origen finds a place for all beings, even ignorant sinners, in the "all in all."

In contradistinction to the Gnostics, Origen refused to categorize human beings on the basis of perceived spiritual traits. Although a Platonist, Origen was less a philosopher of Being than of Becoming. Like Empedocles and especially Anaximander, Origen recognized truth in motion, in process, and not in the static repose of 'being-t/here' (Da-sein). [55] For this reason, Origen was able to find an essential place in the salvific schema even for those who - whether willingly, knowingly, or not - remain outside the Church. As Origen explains, these existents are neither "vessels of wrath" nor "vessels of mercy," but vessels of usefulness, perhaps, or for some other mysterious function known only to God. [56] He even goes so far as to insist that the polygamist will find a place in God's mansion, provided he "calls on the name of the Lord," though he must not hope to be "crowned in glory." [57]

We may easily recognize, in such a sentiment, the firm belief that no life is wasted, that no existence is for naught. This is, at first glance, a humanistic, ethical sentiment, and not necessarily worthy of full theological merit. However, when we examine carefully Origen's writings, we notice a very clear and precise program consisting of a theoretical reconciliation of what was, what is, and what shall be. The fact that Origen did not place the burden of universal salvation solely on the shoulders of God, but found a crucial place for human freedom and informed endeavor, shows that he was attuned to the existential nuances of human-divine co-operation. It is important to note that these 'nuances' are the result of human endeavor, and not of divine fiat or error. The terms of our existence here in the cosmos are our own; we do not dwell in a divinely-ordained arena of possibility.

These points being considered, we must remark that Origen, for all his humanistic, free-will pronunciamentoes, nevertheless recognized God and His primordiality as the locus of equiprimordiality (between divine economy and human existence) in which the human soul first took wing. In other words, the human souls that pre-existed with God differed from Him only in their status as created beings, while God is eternal and uncreated. This is an ontological state in which both God and humanity are implicated.

In Book 1, chapter 4 of the De Principiis, Origen clearly states the ontological and cosmological underpinnings of his theory of apokatastasis.

[T]he end is always like the beginning: and, therefore, as there is one end to all things, so ought we to understand that there was one beginning; and as there is one end to many things, so there spring from one beginning many differences and varieties, which again, through the goodness of God, and by subjection to Christ, and through the unity of the Holy Spirit, are recalled to one end, which is like unto the beginning. [58]

The intention of this passage is clearly not ethical or humanistic, but cosmological. It belongs to a distinctly Middle Platonic school of theory, heavily informed by Stoic conceptions. So in the last analysis, the question arises whether or not Origen was bending Christian doctrine to fit into his already adopted Platonic framework. This is a perennial question in Origen scholarship, and one not easily answered, especially in the confines of this short paper. However, I think Origen's adoption of Platonic and Stoic conceptions is not gratuitous, but rather based upon an ethical foundation in his thought that guided all of his speculations. Further, I believe that did he not adopt these ideas as much as he adapted them to his own unique program.

The Gnostics, we must recall, made heavy use of Stoic and Platonic ideas as well, yet Origen found their conclusions to be odious. Particularly offensive to Origen was the idea that certain human beings are destined for destruction. According to the Gnostics, these were the beings who were not granted the special gift of gnôsis. Only those possessing this gift were said to be members of the cosmic Church. While Origen did indeed hold a rather Gnostic-style (or 'essentialist') view of the collective pre-existence of souls, he differed in that he did not view this existence as static and complete in itself, but rather as an open opportunity for education in the mysteries of God. When these souls fell, according to Origen, they did not foil God's plan for a paideia that would result in perfect likenesses of Himself; the fall simply caused God to go to 'plan B,' as it were - i.e., the gradual and sometimes even painful instruction of souls over the course of countless ages, until these souls finally accepted the truth and returned to a state of intimate union with and likeness to God.

In all of this, Origen's focus was less upon individual souls than it was on the collectivity of souls comprising the Church which, for him (as for the biblical writers in general) is understood as the "body of Christ." As Verbrugge has explained, Origen insisted upon the necessity for unity among believers, since a believer who falls away or lapses into error can negatively effect the entire body of the Church. [59] However, this idea, far from turning Origen into an intolerant inquisitor, actually inspired him (in my opinion) to ever greater levels of tolerance - a development which led him to flirt with heresy, and which contributed to his later condemnation during the Origenist crisis of the fifth century.

Prompted by his idea of the pre-existence of souls, I believe that Origen came to view the mission of the earthly, temporal Church in terms of a gathering up of all lost, fallen souls into a unity resembling that which subsisted primordially. The apokatastasis, then, is perhaps best understood as the culmination of such a process of gathering souls together in a unity of faith. Origen provides a clear explanation of his thinking on this point:

Now what he [St. Paul] said, 'the redemption of our body,' I think points to the body of the Church as a whole, as he says elsewhere, 'But you are the body of Christ and members individually.' So then, the Apostle is hoping that the whole body of the Church will be redeemed, and he does not consider it possible for the things that are perfect to be given to the individual members unless the entire body has been gathered unto one. [60]

I believe we are correct to interpret this last line as a reference to the apokatastasis. Since Origen, as we have seen, places human souls at a level of equiprimordiality with the godhead, it follows that he would view the Church, the "body of Christ," as the locus of renewal of this primal unity. Moreover (and this is the most radical aspect of Origen's theory) the salvation of believers is contingent upon the eventual conviction and acceptance of the Christian faith by those outside the Church!


In the final analysis we see that Origen's concern was not for the freedom of the individual as an independent entity, but for the freedom that results in unity. As John D. Zizioulas has aptly put it, the freedom that results in division (diairesis) is only an illusory freedom, since it binds us to the necessity of maintaining our own unique stance apart from our fellows. True freedom, according to Zizioulas, is that which permits us to maintain our uniqueness through difference (diaphora), for it is only through the maintenance of our unique identity that we can truly enter into communion with others. This is the unity of the true Church. [61]

Origen, in a similar fashion, saw division as the great enemy of salvation. He was not comfortable with branding any being as 'lost' or 'beyond hope'. Instead, he saw such souls as not only engaged in a long, slow process of education, but also as eminently useful for the Church, since these souls would be the future beneficiaries of the divine theology that Origen held so dear.


[1] Acts 3:20-21.

[2] Empedocles, fragment 16, in Diels, Kranz, ed., Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker (Berlin: Weidmann 1951).

[3] Ps.-Plato, Axiochus 370b, tr. J.P. Hershbell, in J.M. Cooper, ed., Plato: Complete Works (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing 1997).

[4] Cf. Franz Cumont (1921), Astrology and Religion Among the Greeks and Romans (Montana: Kessinger Publishing Company, reprint), pp. 30-31, 56.

[5] Plato, Statesman 269c-274e.

[6] Chrysippus, Fragmenta Logica et Physica 625.1-15, in von Arnim, ed., Stoicorum Veterum Fragmenta (Leipzig: Teubner 1903).

[7] Arius Didymus, Fragmenta 37; Long and Sedley, tr., ed., The Hellenistic Philosophers (New York: Cambridge University Press 1987), p. 309.

[8] Cf. Rudolph Bultmann, Primitive Christianity in its Contemporary Setting, tr. Rev. R.H. Fuller (Cleveland: The World Publishing Company 1956), p. 148.

[9] Vettius Valens 57.5, in W. Kroll, ed., Vettii Valentis Anthologiarum Libri (Berlin: Weidmann 1908, 1973); cp. Dorotheus of Sidon, Fragmenta Graeca 380.14, in D. Pingree, ed. Dorothei Sidonii Carmen Astrologicum (Leipzig: Teubner 1976).

[10] Cf. B.P. Copenhaver, tr., ed., Hermetica (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1992), p. 168.

[11] Cf. Corpus Hermeticum VIII.4, IX.5-6, X.6, etc.

[12] C.H. X.18, tr. Copenhaver.

[13] Cf. for example, C.H. VI.4, and cp. V.3-9.

[14] Plato, Laws 903c.

[15] St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies 1.24.7; B. Layton, tr., ed., The Gnostic Scriptures (New York: Doubleday 1987), p. 425.

[16] Cf. W. Barnstone, ed., The Other Bible (New York: Harper Collins 1984), p. 626.

[17] St. Hippolytus, Refutatio Omnium Haeresium 7.20.1-7.27.13, in M. Marcovich, ed., Patristische Texte und Studien 25 (Berlin: De Gruyter 1986).

[18] Joseph Wilson Trigg, Origen: The Bible and Philosophy in the Third-century Church (Atlanta: John Knox Press 1983), p. 41.

[19] Basilides, "Fragment F," in Layton, Gnostic Scriptures, p. 439.

[20] St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1.1.1-1.8.5; Layton, pp. 276-302.

[21] H. Crouzel, Origen: The Life and Thought of the First Great Theologian, tr. A.S. Worrall (T.&T. Clark Ltd. 1989), p. 195.

[22] This is a necessarily brief and therefore inadequate description of Kant's doctrine, which is rather more complex; but it does convey the general sense of what Kant states with much greater precision and at far greater length.

[23] Cf. Origen, De Principiis 2.9.2-7, 3.3.5.

[24] J.-P. Sartre, Being and Nothingness, in R.C. Solomon, ed., Phenomenology and Existentialism (New York: Harper and Row 1972), p. 465.

[25] De Prin. 3.1.6.

[26] De Oratione 5.2-3, in Origenes Werke, vol. 1; Die Griechlischen Christlichen Schriftseller 3, P. Koetschau, ed. (Leipzig: Hinrichs 1899). [Hereafter this series will be abbreviated GCS]

[27] De Prin. 1.4.1; however, for an alternate view (with which I disagree) see L. Hennessey, "The Place of Saints and Sinners After Death," in C. Kannengiesser and W.L. Petersen, eds., Origen of Alexandria: His World and His Legacy (Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press 1988), p. 310, and note 46.

[28] Commentary on John 2.3.

[29] De Prin. 3.1.19.

[30] Comm. John 1.24-28.

[31] Origen, De Orat. 6.3.1-15.

[32] De Prin. 3.5.4.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Plato, Republic 533c-d; Plotinus, Enneades 1.3.5-6.

[35] Origen, Commentary on the Song of Songs: Prologue, tr. R.P. Lawson, in Quasten and Plumpe, ed., Ancient Christian Writers, vol. 26 (Ramsey, NJ: Newman Press 1956), p. 45.

[36] Cf. Jerome, Epistles 124.3,13; cp. Origen, Commentary on Romans 5.10.13.

[37] Commentary on Romans 5.10.15.

[38] De Prin. 2.5.3, tr. Rev. F. Crombie, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company 1979, reprint), p. 208. [Hereafter this series will be abbreviated ANF]

[39] Matthew C. Steenberg, "Origen and the Final Restoration: A Question of Heresy." (c)2001 Monachos.net.

[40] G. Kittel, ed., G.W. Bromiley, tr., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company 1964), p. 180.

[41] De Prin. 3.1.19, tr. Crombie, ANF 4.323 (Greek version).

[42] J.-P. Sartre, Being and Nothingness, in Solomon, ed., p. 462.

[43] Cf. Edward Moore, "De-Mything the Logos: Anaximander's Apeiron and the Incarnation," in Quodlibet Online Journal of Christian Theology and Philosophy (Volume 4 Number 1, Winter 2002).

[44] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Part 1, ch. 15, p. 71, ed. C.B. Macpherson (Harmondsworth: Pelican Books 1968), p. 202.

[45] Origen, "On Prayer" [De Oratione], tr. R.A. Greer, in Origen: An Exhortation to Martyrdom, Prayer and Selected Works (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press 1979), p. 94.

[46] Cf., in the New Testament: Mt 13:35; Lk 11:50; Jn 17:24; Eph 1:4; Heb 4:3; 1 Pet 1:20; Rev 13:8.

[47] De Prin. 3.5.4-5.

[48] De Prin. 2.8.4. Origen was not above using puns and word-plays to make a point.

[49] J.W. Trigg, Origen: The Bible and Philosophy in the Third-century Church, p. 109.

[50] De Oratione 6.2, tr. Greer.

[51] G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy, vol. 2, tr. E.S. Haldane and F.H. Simson (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press; Bison Books 1995), p. 435.

[52] De Prin. 3.6.6, tr. Crombie, ANF 4.347.

[53] Cf. Verlyn Verbrugge, "Origen's Ecclesiology and the Biblical Metaphor of the Church as the Body of Christ," in Kannengiesser, Petersen, ed., Origen of Alexandria: His World and Legacy, p. 278.

[54] J.M. Robinson, ed., The Nag Hammadi Library (Leiden: E.J. Brill 1978), p. 58; The Tripartite Tractate 57:10-59f.

[55] Da-sein: according to Martin Heidegger, our primordial mode of being-in-the-world which gives the world to us only through the mediation of a "mood" (Stimmung). Since every mood is an alteration to brute Da-sein, in the last analysis, only becoming truly "holds sway." Cf. Heidegger, Being and Time, tr. J. Stambaugh (Albany: State University of New York Press 1996), pp. 126-131 {Sein und Zeit I.v, 134-140}.

[56] Origen, In Jeremiam 20.3. GCS 6.

[57] Homiliae in Lucam 17. GCS 49.

[58] ANF 4.260.

[59] V. Verbrugge, "Origen's Ecclesiology," in Kannengiesser, Petersen, ed., Origen of Alexandria: His World and Legacy, p. 281-283.

[60] Commentary on Romans 7.5.10, tr. T.P. Scheck, in The Fathers of the Church, vol. 104 (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press 2002), p. 77.

[61] John Zizioulas, Communion and Otherness (Orthodox Peace Fellowship "Occasional Paper" no. 19): http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/jim_forest/Met-john.htm

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