The School of Alexandria: Origen
Clement’s pupil and successor of the school of Alexandria was Origen (c. 184 – c. 253) who is considered to be “the most important theologian and biblical scholar of the early Greek church” (Chadwick, 2017). Nevertheless, perhaps upon hearing the name Origen, you are tempted to dismiss all of his thoughts as unorthodox. I know that I had heard, prior to my research, that Origen was a heretic and I therefore did not read any of his work or learn anything about his life. I had simply accepted the hearsay uncritically. Someone (I don’t even recall who it was or in what context it occurred), had told me that Origen and his view of universal restoration were heretical, and this association prevented me from investigating further. Fear of being misled, it seems, is the tool that is used to prevent well-meaning Christians from engaging their brains in honest research. Nevertheless, at a critical point in my faith, I recalled that I had heard of this “heretic” named Origen who believed that all would eventually be saved. I wondered how he came to this conclusion and if it really was unscriptural, so I Googled him. Interestingly, in that first search I did not actually end up investigating Origen at all but rather ended up on a different website that presented many scriptural reasons for the salvation of all people. I decided that I needed to do my due diligence, like the Bereans in Acts, to see if what the author was saying was actually true and biblical. It was, and that is why I’ve been spending countless hours investigating and many mornings reading and writing before going to work. The good news really compels you to want to share it.
But enough of my story. Was Origen actually a heretic? If not, how was he branded as one?
As a matter of first importance, it must be noted that Origen was not viewed as a heretic during his lifetime (or in the proximal centuries that followed), but rather was highly respected and had tremendous influence.
Jerome (347-420 AD), who is considered one of the four “Great Church Fathers” of the Western Church says the following about Origen:
Who is there, who does not also know that he was so assiduous in the study of Holy Scriptures, that contrary to the spirit of his time, and of his people, he learned the Hebrew language, and taking the Septuagint translation, he gathered the other translations also in a single work … And besides these, a fifth, sixth, and seventh translation, which we also have from his library, he sought out with great diligence, and compared with other editions. And since I have given a list of his works, … I pass this by now, not failing however, to make mention of his immortal genius, how that he understood dialectics, as well as geometry, arithmetic, music, grammar, and rhetoric, and taught all the schools of philosophers, in such wise that he had also diligent students in secular literature, and lectured to them daily, and the crowds which flocked to him were marvelous. These, he received in the hope that through the instrumentality of this secular literature, he might establish them in the faith of Christ. (De Viris Illustribus)
Jerome makes it quite clear that he and many others held Origen in high esteem. This is, in fact, taken for granted and is why Jerome asks rhetorically “Who is there, who does not know…?” of Origen’s impressive accomplishments and knowledge of Scripture. One major accomplishment to which Jerome refers is the Hexapla, a comparison of various translations of the entire Old Testament side by side. This required Origen to learn Hebrew, with the intent of comparing the various translations to the original Hebrew text. Obviously, this had to be done by hand and required incredible learning and diligence in Scripture study. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica , “the entire work took 20 years to complete and may have filled 7,000 pages.”
His knowledge in all areas impressed his own generation and future generations so much that Jerome praises his “immortal genius.” Jerome also makes it clear that he used this genius to spread and defend the Christian faith. This assessment is corroborated by modern scholarship. According to John Anthony McGuckin, Origen’s primary aim in his study of so many areas of knowledge, including Greek philosophy, was to enable him to better defend and explain the Christian faith:
The tradition of the faith was something Origen set himself to maintain and defend. For him, that meant not only a complete christocentric, or soteriological, focus in all his thought patterns, but more precisely, that the plan of cosmic meaning was given to the inspired commentator primarily in the text and subtext of the sacred books…The exegesis of the Scriptures was all-important for him and made Origen’s whole eclectic philosophical stand, however much it might be indebted to the Hellenists, entirely and unarguably a Christian and biblicist enterprise. (2004)
To paraphrase McGuckin’s statements:
1. Origen was determined to maintain and defend the Christian faith.
2. Because of this, he focused on the person of Christ and his role as Savior (which reminds me of the apostle Paul who said in 1 Corinthians 2:2 “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”)
3. Origen obtained his understandings from the Scriptures.
4. Origen’s views, though influenced by Greek culture to an extent, were “entirely and unarguably” Christian, and based on the Biblical texts.
Returning closer to the time of Origen’s life, we find further praise and evidence that he was viewed with the highest respect. Eusebius of Caesarea, who lived from approximately 260 to 340 AD, is widely known as the father of church history since his ten-book work Ecclesiastical History is the first known work on the subject. In this very work, Eusebius devotes a large portion of Book VI to Origen, with almost all of his writing being laudatory. It is clear that Eusebius highly esteemed the man, and that he was far from being alone in his deep admiration.
He tells of Origen’s Christian upbringing and unwavering dedication to the faith from a very young age, describing his zeal for God in no uncertain terms. Living during a time of severe persecution, Origen experienced the martyrdom of his father before the age of 17 and would have possibly been martyred himself at this time if his mother had not hidden his clothes to prevent him from leaving the house. After this, while teaching at the catechetical school, “the persecution burned against him, so that the whole city could no longer contain him; but he removed from house to house and was driven in every direction because of the multitude who attended upon the divine instruction which he gave. For his life also exhibited right and admirable conduct according to the practice of genuine philosophy. For they say that his manner of life was as his doctrine, and his doctrine as his life. Therefore, by the divine Power working with him he aroused a great many to his own zeal” (Ecclesiastical History, Book VI, chapters 2 and 3).
Eusebius further describes how the church of Origen’s time viewed him in Chapter 8 of Ecclesiastical History, confirming once again that he was greatly esteemed: “The bishops of Cesarea and Jerusalem, who were especially notable and distinguished among the bishops of Palestine, considering Origen worthy in the highest degree of the honor, ordained him a presbyter. Thereupon his fame increased greatly, and his name became renowned everywhere, and he obtained no small reputation for virtue and wisdom.”
Eusebius also gives us insight into how Origen’s name began to be tarnished. He tells, for example, of a man who wrote against the church and who sought to disparage the Scriptures named Porphyry. This man “being unable in any way to find a base accusation against the doctrines, for lack of arguments turns to reviling and calumniating their interpreters, attempting especially to slander Origen, whom he says he knew in his youth. But truly, without knowing it, he commends the man; telling the truth about him in some cases where he could not do otherwise; but uttering falsehoods where he thinks he will not be detected” (Ecclesiastical History, Book VI, chapter 19). Thus, Eusebius makes it clear that there were those who were willing to slander Origen’s name dishonestly in order to attack the church, even in those early days. Eusebius implies that the motivation for denigrating Origen sometimes was simply jealousy. He describes Demetrius as an example of this. As bishop of Alexandria he initially commended Origen but after “seeing that he was prospering, and becoming great and distinguished among all men” he was “overcome by human weakness” and “accused him bitterly” (Ecclesiastical History , Book VI, chapter 8).
In spite of these attempts at defamation, we see that Origen was certainly one of the most, if not the most, respected Christian teachers of his time. In his Panegyric on Origen, Saint Gregory Thaumaturgus says the following of listening to Origen teach:
For he did not aim merely at getting round us by any kind of reasoning; but his desire was, with a benignant, and affectionate, and most benevolent mind, to save us, and make us partakers in the blessings that flow from philosophy, and most especially also in those other gifts which the Deity has bestowed on him above most men, or, as we may perhaps say, above all men of our own time. I mean the power that teaches us piety, the word of salvation … And thus, like some spark lighting upon our inmost soul, love was kindled and burst into flame within us — a love at once to the Holy Word, the most lovely object of all, who attracts all irresistibly toward Himself by His unutterable beauty, and to this man, His friend and advocate. And being most mightily smitten by this love, I was persuaded to give up all those objects or pursuits which seem to us befitting, and among others even my boasted jurisprudence — yea, my very fatherland and friends, both those who were present with me then, and those from whom I had parted. And in my estimation there arose but one object dear and worth desire — to wit, philosophy, and that master of philosophy, this inspired man. (Oration and Panegyric Addressed to Origen , Argument 6)
This is exceptionally rare and high praise from a student about his teacher. Gregory makes it clear that Origen’s aim in teaching philosophy and all other forms of knowledge was to lead his students to Christ and His salvation. His success is described poetically as a fire of love for Christ (whom Gregory describes as the Holy Word) that “burst into flame” within his pupils. For Gregory this flame inspired him to give up all else in the pursuit of knowing and understanding God, of loving Him with all his mind through study. Gregory loved, as 1 John 4:19 says, because God “first loved us,” and he was inspired to understand this love and the “unutterable beauty” of the Savior through Origen’s thoughtful exposition of Scripture and through his character. As he describes elsewhere in this same work, Origen not only preached the good news, but lived his life as a demonstration of it.
Centuries later, Origen’s character was still revered as an example of Christian virtue, even by those who disagreed with aspects of his theology. Johann Lorenz von Mosheim (1694-1755 AD), was a German Lutheran theologian and church historian “who founded the pragmatic school of church historians, which insisted on objective, critical treatment of original sources” (Encyclopaedia Brittanica ). Mosheim says the following of Origen:
Origen possessed every excellence that can adorn the Christian character; uncommon piety, from his very childhood; astonishing devotedness to that most holy religion which he professed; unequalled perseverance in labors and toils for the advancement of the Christian cause; untiring zeal for the church, and for the extension of Christianity; an elevation of soul which placed him above all ordinary desires or fears; a most permanent contempt of wealth, honors, pleasures, and of death itself; the purest trust in the Lord Jesus, for whose sake, when he was old and oppressed with ills of every kind, he patiently and perseveringly endured the severest sufferings. It is not strange, therefore, that he was held in so high estimation, both while he lived and after death. Certainly if any man deserves to stand first in the catalogue of saints and martyrs, and to be annually held up as an example to Christians, this is the man: for, except the apostles of Jesus Christ and their companions, I know of no one, among all those enrolled and honored as saints, who excelled him in holiness and virtue. (Mosheim 1868)
Mosheim’s praise is not an unusual assessment of Origen’s character, reputation, and influence. Instead, such an understanding is ubiquitous amongst informed church historians. Consider the following from George Sarris, in which he cites volume 23 of the massive scholarly work Ante-Nicene Christian Library:
The editors of the classic, multi-volume set of the writings of the Early Church fathers from AD 100-325 said of Origen, “The character of Origen is singularly pure and noble; for his moral qualities are as remarkable as his intellectual gifts. The history of the church records the names of few whose patience and meekness under unmerited suffering were more conspicuous than his. “. . . To him belongs the rare honor of convincing heretics of their errors, and of leading them back to the church – a result that must have been due as much to the gentleness and earnestness of his Christian character, as to the prodigious learning, marvelous acuteness, and logical power, which entitle him to be regarded as the greatest of the Fathers.” (Sarris, pp. 49-50, citing Roberts and Donaldson )
The famous church historian Philip Schaff gives a similarly adulatory description:
Origen was the greatest scholar of his age, and the most gifted, most industrious, and most cultivated of all the ante-Nicene fathers. Even heathens and heretics admired or feared his brilliant talent and vast learning. His knowledge embraced all departments of the philology, philosophy, and theology of his day. With this he united profound and fertile thought, keen penetration, and glowing imagination. As a true divine, he consecrated all his studies by prayer, and turned them, according to his best convictions, to the service of truth and piety.
…He was a guide from the heathen philosophy and the heretical Gnosis to the Christian faith. He exerted an immeasurable influence in stimulating the development of the catholic theology and forming the great Nicene fathers, Athanasius, Basil, the two Gregories, Hilary, and Ambrose, who consequently, in spite of all his deviations, set great value on his services. (Schaff 1910 )
Schaff continues later in this same work to express his admiration for Origen and his endurance of persecution for Christ:
It is impossible to deny a respectful sympathy, veneration and gratitude to this extraordinary man, who, with all his brilliant talents and a best [sic] of enthusiastic friends and admirers, was driven from his country, stripped of his sacred office, excommunicated from a part of the church, then thrown into a dungeon, loaded with chains, racked by torture, doomed to drag his aged frame and dislocated limbs in pain and poverty, and long after his death to have his memory branded, his name anathematized, and his salvation denied; but who nevertheless did more than all his enemies combined to advance the cause of sacred learning, to refute and convert heathens and heretics, and to make the church respected in the eyes of the world. (Schaff 1910 )
Let’s now recap some of the main ideas about Origen, as described by the various historians, theologians, and saints quoted thus far:
1. Origen’s Christian character, even under unjust persecution and torture, was impeccable.
2. Origen’s influence on Christian thought and Christian leaders was tremendous.
3. Origen advanced the cause of Christ more than anyone else (and especially more than his enemies according to Schaff) in his time by a large margin.
4. Origen was successful at convincing heretics of their errors and leading them back to faith in Christ.
5. Origen was an extraordinarily intelligent, diligent student of scripture and a phenomenal teacher and evangelist.
I will leave it to you to evaluate whether condemning him as a heretic without reading any of his work is justified. But before you make your decision on this matter, let’s consider briefly how he came to be regarded as a false teacher in the first place. We will spend more time on these circumstances later, but for now let’s consider the words of Beecher on the subject:
Two great facts stand out on the page of ecclesiastical history: One, that the first system of Christian theology was composed and issued by Origen in the year 230 after Christ, of which a fundamental and essential element was the doctrine of the universal restoration of all fallen beings to their original holiness, and union with God.
The second is, that, after the lapse of a little more than three centuries, in the year 544, this doctrine was for the first time condemned and anathematized as heretical. This was done, not in a general council, but in a local council called by the Patriarch Mennas at Constantinople, by the order of Justinian.
During all this long interval, the opinions of Origen and his various writings were an element of power in the whole Christian world. For a long time he stood high as the greatest luminary of the Christian world. He gave an impulse to the leading spirits of subsequent ages, and was honored by them as their greatest benefactor. At last, after all his pupils were dead, in the remote age of Justinian he was anathematized as a heretic of the worst kind. The same also was done with respect to Theodore of Mopsuestia, of the Antiochian school, who held the doctrine of universal restitution on a different basis. This, too, was done long after he was dead, in the year 553. From and after this point the doctrine of future eternal punishment reigned with undisputed sway during the Middle Ages that preceded the Reformation. ( Beecher 1878 )
This is a rather cogent summary of the condemnation of Origen by a future generation, in spite of his extraordinary contributions to Christian thought. It was done primarily as a result of imperial decree by Justinian rather than by the church leadership itself. In addition, much of what was anathematized about Origen’s teachings was not actually his:
As a firm supporter of endless punishment, Justinian pushed hard for the Church to issue a series of judgments against what he called Origenist teachings about restoration. But the judgments weren’t actually against what Origen wrote and supported. They were against a “radicalized . . . doctrine of [restoration] that went far beyond the hopes of Origen or Gregory of Nyssa.” (Sarris p. 47, citing Daley p. 190)
This seems to be one of the key misunderstandings of those who are uninformed about Origen. Much of what was deemed heretical was not what he actually taught or wrote. Even today people spread rumors about Origen’s teachings, suggesting, for example, that he taught reincarnation, which he did not. Since I do not want to deviate too much from the purpose of this writing, I will not go into detail explaining how this rumor started or why it is false. If, however, you are interested in researching this further, here are some sites that do a pretty good job setting things straight: site 1 and site 2.
At this point, I think an analogy would be helpful to understanding the circumstances surrounding Origen’s fall from favor. Imagine a highly respected Church leader of our day, perhaps Billy Graham. Now imagine that in about 300 years from now, the president of the United States decides that he does not like Billy Graham. Picture further, that there are a bunch of people claiming to follow Billy Graham’s teachings but that they are saying a bunch of things that he never taught. Now, imagine that in this dystopian future the president has unquestioned dictatorial power, and that he forces church leaders to curse the name of Billy Graham and call him a heretic. To refuse would lead to banishment and loss of position. Since many of the church leaders do not really want to curse Billy Graham, they decide to anathematize some of the doctrines claimed by his “followers” without attaching Billy Graham’s name to the document. The president then burns Graham’s works and centuries later churchgoers assume that Billy Graham was a false teacher and a heretic of the worst sort, and avoid investigating him at all, with the threat of unending punishment looming over them as a threat so they won’t get too curious and find out what he really said.
That scenario is basically what happened to Origen.
The point of all of this is not to claim that everything that Origen wrote was accurate and true. I would not claim this for any theologian. Since Origen was incredibly prolific (estimates of the number of his works range from 2,000 to 6,000), it is inevitable that he made some speculative errors that went beyond the biblical text. Origen himself is aware that he speculates and makes it clear that he is doing so, saying that “these subjects, indeed, are treated by us with great solicitude and caution, in the manner rather of an investigation and discussion, than in that of fixed and certain decision…on the present occasion our exercise is to be conducted, as we best may, in the style of a disputation rather than of strict definition” (De Principiis, Book I, Chapter 6). Nevertheless, these speculations were the efforts of a diligent, committed mind intent on understanding and sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with people in a way that was persuasive and understandable within their cultural context. They were certainly not the speculations of a heretic intent on harming the church; instead they were attempts to make faith understandable to his audience. Indeed, one of the most prevalent criticisms of Origen is that he utilized Plato’s ideas excessively. But how could he reach the Greek mind without understanding and utilizing the type of philosophy that dominated it? Besides, most Christians still cherish Platonic concepts, like the innate immortality of the soul, that are not really found in the Bible. Should we anathematize all of these Christians as well? What about all of those who speculate on the nature of heaven, or hell, or the love of God, and in making an effort to understand the Bible better, go beyond it? It seems all pastors, teachers, and theologians would have to be declared heretics, unless they avoid exposition altogether and simply read the biblical text verbatim to their audiences.
Now, you may be wondering why we spent so much time on Origen’s character, influence, and motives. The simple answer is that the smear campaign against him was so effective that many people would not consider his thoughts seriously if we did not first debunk the myths and rumors surrounding him. Hopefully, now we can see, as so many scholars have seen, that “there is much reason to justify Jerome’s first judgment that Origen was the greatest teacher of the early church after the Apostles” (Chadwick, 2017). With this understanding, let us now consider his words on the scope of salvation and the purpose of judgment.
Origen, like his predecessor Clement, natively spoke Greek. It is important to remember this as we consider his interpretations of Scriptures: he was reading them in his own tongue at a time near that of the apostles. With this in mind, let’s consider how he understands 1 Corinthians 15:28, which says “When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all.”
I am of opinion that the expression, by which God is said to be all in all, means that He is all in each individual person. Now He will be all in each individual in this way: when all which any rational understanding, cleansed from the dregs of every sort of vice, and with every cloud of wickedness completely swept away, can either feel, or understand, or think, will be wholly God; and when it will no longer behold or retain anything else than God, but when God will be the measure and standard of all its movements; and thus God will be all, for there will no longer be any distinction of good and evil, seeing evil nowhere exists; for God is all things, and to Him no evil is near: nor will there be any longer a desire to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, on the part of him who is always in the possession of good, and to whom God is all. So then, when the end has been restored to the beginning, and the termination of things compared with their commencement, that condition of things will be re-established in which rational nature was placed, when it had no need to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; so that when all feeling of wickedness has been removed, and the individual has been purified and cleansed, He who alone is the one good God becomes to him all, and that not in the case of a few individuals, or of a considerable number, but He Himself is all in all. And when death shall no longer anywhere exist, nor the sting of death, nor any evil at all, then verily God will be all in all. (De Principiis, Book 3, Chapter 6, section 3)
Origen’s view on the phrase “all in all” is most reasonable. Prior to my research into the scope of salvation, this phrase held little sensible meaning for me. I remember singing a worship song that said “my all in all” and thinking that the phrase was simply odd and rather meaningless. The reason, I think, for this most remarkable phrase becoming gibberish to me is that my former worldview prevented me from seeing its clear meaning. Contemplating this phrase after being freed from this unreasonable paradigm, however, I came to the same conclusion as Origen: that God will be everything to everyone. In other words, he will so permeate our beings with his love and goodness that we will desire nothing else but the treasure of knowing Him. This will be true for everyone. That is why there are two “alls” in the phrase “all in all.” He will be all (everything) that we know or desire as all evil will be completely destroyed, in all (everyone). This is the true end game of the gospel, not a dichotomous reality of permanent misery and wickedness for most, and unending bliss for a few. Instead God will eradicate evil by completely healing every individual to the point that they all fully understand and love Him. He becomes, in each person’s soul, all to them.
This understanding of God’s ultimate purpose is discussed by Origen on multiple occasions. Consider the following:
An end or consummation would seem to be an indication of the perfection and completion of things … 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. For thus says holy Scripture, The Lord said to My Lord, Sit at My right hand, until I make Your enemies Your footstool. And if the meaning of the prophet's language here be less clear, we may ascertain it from the Apostle Paul, who speaks more openly, thus: For Christ must reign until He has put all enemies under His feet. But if even that unreserved declaration of the apostle do not sufficiently inform us what is meant by enemies being placed under His feet, listen to what he says in the following words, For all things must be put under Him. 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. For the name subjection, by which we are subject to Christ, indicates that the salvation which proceeds from Him belongs to His subjects, agreeably to the declaration of David, Shall not my soul be subject unto God? From Him comes my salvation. (De Principiis , Book I, chapter 6, section 1)
Notice that Origen is basing his reasoning on several Bible passages. He references Psalm 110:1/ Matthew 22:44, 1 Corinthians 15:25-28, and Psalm 62 (the Septuagint version*). Origen’s understanding of the meaning of subjection as willing obedience is based on Scripture. It is the same subjection that we strive for as believers, the same subjection that all saints have strived for, and the same subjection that king David considers to be an obvious aim for himself (to submit to the God who is his salvation). It is quite apparent that Origen is correct in asserting this to be the meaning of “subjection.” In order to demonstrate this truth, we simply need to read 1 Corinthians 15:28 in context: “When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all.” Notice that all things are subjected to the Son, and then the Son himself is subjected to the Father. Is this subjection of the Son to the Father unwilling? How then, can anyone be justified in claiming that the subjection of all to Christ is forced, unwilling subjection? The immediate context clearly prohibits such an interpretation as the very same word is used to describe both.
Origen sees this state of subjection as it is described as pertaining to all individuals, even to God’s enemies, because of God’s goodness. This is indeed how he conquers his enemies: by making them friends and loyal subjects. As he states elsewhere, the destruction of God’s enemy means that “its mind and hostile will, which came not from God, but from itself, are to be destroyed. Its destruction, therefore, will not be its non-existence, but its ceasing to be an enemy…” (De Principiis , Book 3, Chapter 6, Section 5). The reason for this ability of God to change and redeem even his enemies is His sovereignty over all, “for nothing is impossible to the Omnipotent, nor is anything incapable of restoration to its Creator” (Ibid). As Christ himself stated, “with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).
Origen furthermore anchors his hope for universal reconciliation (known in the Greek as apokatastasis/ἀποκατάστασις) in the resurrection. In contrast to those who believe in complete destruction of human flesh by death such that “it retains no relic at all of its former substance,” Origen says this:
We, however, who believe in its resurrection, understand that a change only has been produced by death, but that its substance certainly remains; and that by the will of its Creator, and at the time appointed, it will be restored to life; and that a second time a change will take place in it, so that what at first was flesh (formed) out of earthly soil, and was afterwards dissolved by death, and again reduced to dust and ashes (For dust you are, it is said, and to dust shall you return), will be again raised from the earth, and shall after this, according to the merits of the indwelling soul, advance to the glory of a spiritual body.
Into this condition, then, we are to suppose that all this bodily substance of ours will be brought, when all things shall be re-established in a state of unity, and when God shall be all in all. And this result must be understood as being brought about, not suddenly, but slowly and gradually, seeing that the 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 also may be destroyed, and no longer be an enemy. When, therefore, all rational souls shall have been restored to a condition of this kind, then the nature of this body of ours will undergo a change into the glory of a spiritual body.
Again, Origen is basing his understanding on multiple passages of Scripture and a right understanding of the Greek words aion and aionios as relating to ages (it, of course, makes sense that he would have the right understanding of these words as a native speaker of koine Greek near to the time of the writings of the New Testament). For example, his understanding of the transformation from a natural body to a spiritual body comes directly from 1 Corinthians 15:42-44:
So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.
For Origen, the resurrection of the dead could not possibly be a resurrection to eternal conscious torment. Such an idea flies in the face of many biblical passages that make it quite clear that the subjection described in 1 Corinthians 15 is also unity, as he references above (from Ephesians 1) and reconciliation (see Colossians 1 and 2 Corinthians 5). This being said, Origen also understands the biblical picture that judgment still occurs, but that said judgment is a process of amendment and correction that takes place over ages until all are reconciled to God and He becomes all in all.
Regarding this process by which God righteously judges and refines, Origen utilizes the biblical symbol of fire. One example of this can be seen in Origen’s writing against the philosopher Celsus who was accusing the Christian God of cruelty and “coming down like a torturer bearing fire.” To correct Celsus’ misconception, address his mocking accusation, and explain the biblical meaning of the symbol of fire, Origen says the following:
The divine word says that our God is a consuming fire, and that He draws rivers of fire before Him; nay, that He even enters in as a refiner's fire, and as a fuller's herb, to purify His own people. But when He is said to be a consuming fire, we inquire what are the things which are appropriate to be consumed by God. And we assert that they are wickedness, and the works which result from it, and which, being figuratively called wood, hay, stubble, God consumes as a fire... For (the Scripture) says: The fire will try each man's work of what sort it is. If any man's work abide which he has built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man's work be burned, he shall suffer loss. But what work can be spoken of in these words as being burned, save all that results from wickedness? Therefore our God is a consuming fire in the sense in which we have taken the word; and thus He enters in as a refiner's fire, to refine the rational nature, which has been filled with the lead of wickedness, and to free it from the other impure materials, which adulterate the natural gold or silver, so to speak, of the soul. And, in like manner, rivers of fire are said to be before God, who will thoroughly cleanse away the evil which is intermingled throughout the whole soul. But these remarks are sufficient in answer to the assertion, that thus they were made to give expression to the erroneous opinion that God will come down bearing fire like a torturer. (Contra Celsum, Book IV, Chapter 13)
Again, we see Origen’s understanding of the symbol of fire being informed by the biblical text. He cites many of the same passages that I cited earlier here (feel free to check them out again by clicking the link). It is important to notice that Origen’s motivation here is to defend the Christian faith and the very character of God, by offering a biblically sound and consistent interpretation of the symbol of fire. Curiously, many theologians after Origen seem to have forgotten that torturing human beings is actually a bad thing and try to defend the idea that God is justified in being a torturer, rather than using the many references to fire as a purifying agent in Scripture to prove that He is not. Even Celsus, who was working diligently to attack Christianity, was too in touch with conscience and human decency to make such an error; his very premise in attacking Christianity is based on the basic understanding that purposeless torture is wrong.
Some modern theologians do recognize this moral problem but still cling to the “eternal conscious torment” view. But these men, who rightly wish to absolve God of the accusation of being a torturer, neglect to consider the biblical symbolism. Instead, they assert (with no biblical support) that people choose to separate themselves from God forever in hell. I would challenge those who claim this view to find one biblical reference in which fire symbolizes separation. I doubt that any will be found, especially because fire cannot reasonably symbolize separation (the idea makes no sense).
Origen, on the other hand, studied the Bible with incredible diligence and saw the consistent biblical theme of fire as purifying. This is why he describes God as a consuming fire burning away wickedness from the soul, as a refiner of metals removes lead from gold. This is also why he understands that God’s fire will test each man’s work and burn away the wood, hay, and stubble. It is truly because of Origen’s biblical knowledge that he comes to the conclusion that the fire of judgment is purposeful and results in the ultimate restoration of the sinner to a right relationship with God.
Due of this understanding, Origen, like Clement before him, also compares God’s corrective punishments to the curative measures of a physician.
There are also many other things which escape our notice, and are known to Him alone who is the physician of our souls. For if, on account of those bad effects which we bring upon ourselves by eating and drinking, we deem it necessary for the health of the body to make use of some unpleasant and painful drug, sometimes even, if the nature of the disease demand, requiring the severe process of the amputating knife; and if the virulence of the disease shall transcend even these remedies, the evil has at last to be burned out by fire; how much more is it to be understood that God our Physician, desiring to remove the defects of our souls, which they had contracted from their different sins and crimes, should employ penal measures of this sort, and should apply even, in addition, the punishment of fire to those who have lost their soundness of mind! Pictures of this method of procedure are found also in the holy Scriptures. In the book of Deuteronomy, the divine word threatens sinners with the punishments of fevers, and colds, and jaundice, and with the pains of feebleness of vision, and alienation of mind and paralysis, and blindness, and weakness of the reins. If any one, then, at his leisure gather together out of the whole of Scripture all the enumerations of diseases which in the threatenings addressed to sinners are called by the names of bodily maladies, he will find that either the vices of souls, or their punishments, are figuratively indicated by them. To understand now, that in the same way in which physicians apply remedies to the sick, in order that by careful treatment they may recover their health, God so deals towards those who have lapsed and fallen into sin, is proved by this, that the cup of God's fury is ordered, through the agency of the prophet Jeremiah, to be offered to all nations, that they may drink it, and be in a state of madness, and vomit it forth. In doing which, He threatens them, saying, that if any one refuse to drink, he shall not be cleansed. By which certainly it is understood that the fury of God's vengeance is profitable for the purgation of souls. That the punishment, also, which is said to be applied by fire, is understood to be applied with the object of healing, is taught by Isaiah, who speaks thus of Israel: The Lord will wash away the filth of the sons or daughters of Zion, and shall purge away the blood from the midst of them by the spirit of judgment, and the spirit of burning. Of the Chaldeans he thus speaks: You have the coals of fire; sit upon them: they will be to you a help. And in other passages he says, The Lord will sanctify in a burning fire and in the prophecies of Malachi he says, The Lord sitting will blow, and purify, and will pour forth the cleansed sons of Judah. (De Principiis , Book II, chapter 10, section 6)
Once again, Origen bases his understanding of God’s role as the great physician of human souls on numerous Scripture passages. His understanding of fire as a tool used by God to heal us of the sickness of sin is also clearly based on the Bible. It is highly doubtful that many people in all of history have been more familiar with the Scriptures than Origen, who spent his entire life studying them with incredible diligence. Perhaps it is worth considering that his understanding of the role of fire and punishment as disciplinary and healing might actually be correct. A man of impeccable Christian character and unmatched intellect who labored meticulously and successfully to spread the Christian faith through reason (not force), and who suffered persecution and tortures for it, should not be flippantly written off as a heretic. Instead, it would be wise to consider his interpretation of the scope of God’s salvation and His purposes in judgment, since they are clearly based on a rich understanding of God’s goodness and power as described in the Bible itself.
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Citations and Notes
Beecher, Edward. History of Opinions on the Scriptural Doctrine of Retribution. Chapter 21. D. Appleton, 1878, http://www.tentmaker.org/books/Retribution/retribution21.htm .
Chadwick, Henry. “Origen.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 14 June 2017, www.britannica.com/biography/Origen .
Daley, Brian. The Hope of the Early Church: A Handbook of Patristic Eschatology, www.preteristarchive.com/Books/pdf/1991_daley_hope-of-the-early-church.pdf .
Gregory Thaumaturgus. Oration and Panegyric Addressed to Origen. Translated by S.D.F. Salmond. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 6. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0604.htm .
Jerome. De Viris Illustribus (On Illustrious Men). Translated by Ernest Cushing Richardson. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 3. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1892.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/2708.htm
McGuckin, John Anthony. The Westminster Handbook to Origen. Westminster John Knox Press, 2004, pages 18-19. books.google.com/books?id=riEdrWEDFq0C&pg=PA18&lpg=PA18&dq=theodore panegyric&source=bl&ots=jWmpJXYRL-&sig=IKQ19VQJg1-ojC2W2vLEfNLWOh8&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi4puOFuZ7bAhVgJDQIHQ9kB4AQ6AEIPjAE#v=onepage&q=theodore panegyric&f=false . Also available on Wikipedia and cited elsewhere.
Note: Here is a short biography about the author: “John Anthony McGuckin is Anne Marie and Bent Emil Nielsen Professor in Late Antique and Byzantine Christian History at Union Theological Seminary in New York City and Professor of Byzantine Christian Studies at Columbia University. A Priest of the Orthodox Church, he was formerly Reader in Patristic and Byzantine Theology at the University of Leeds, England. He is the author of numerous books of historical theology and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society of Great Britain.” Source: https://books.google.com/books?id=riEdrWEDFq0C&dq=theodore+panegyric&source=gbs_navlinks_s
Mosheim, Johann Lorenz, et al. Historical Commentaries on the State of Christianity during the First Three Hundred and Twenty-Five Years from the Christian Era: Being a Translation of "The Commentaries on the Affairs of the Christians before the Time of Constantine the Great," . Trow & Smith Book Manufacturing Co., 1868, play.google.com/books/reader?id=1XVbAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&output=reader&hl=en&pg=GBS.PA149 . see page 149 of volume 2.
Note: Mosheim lived from 1694-1755, so the date given is the date of the publication of this translation of his original work (not the date of its composition).
Origen. Contra Celsum (Against Celsus), Book VI. Translated by Frederick Crombie. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 4. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/04164.htm
Roberts, Alexander, DD, and Donaldson, James, LLD, Ante-Nicene Christian Library, Volume. XXIII, Origen Contra Celsum , T & T /Clark, Edinburgh, 1872, p. xxxii. https://archive.org/stream/AnteNiceneChristianLibraryV23#page/n39/mode/2up/search/the+character+of+origen
Sarris, George W. Heaven's Doors: Wider Than You Ever Believed! (p. 216). GWS Publishing. Kindle Edition.