ORIGEN (c. 185-254)


 The Breviary of Martin of AragonRoth 2529, 15th c, fol. 369


Already formatted: [1] THERAPEUTIC PUNISHMENT: De Princ. Bk 2, 10.6-8;    [2] GOD ALL IN ALL: De Princ.Bk 3, 6.6;    [3] WHAT SINNERS NEED to KNOW:  CCels6.26

Chapter 5: A school for souls: Alexandrian eschatology and its critics pp. 46-59


Without a doubt the most controversial figure in the development of early Christian eschatology - and one of the thinkers who most influenced its development as an integral part of Christian theological reflection - was Origen (d. 253/54). Although his exact relationship to Clement, personal as well as theological, remains unclear, Origen was certainly steeped in the same rich mixture of religious intensity and classical learning that characterized both Jewish and Christian Alexandria. But while Clement generally tried to present the eschatological hopes of the second-century Church in a way that would harmonize with the cosmology and the ethical ideals of enlightened Greeks, Origen’s approach, here as everywhere in his theological enterprise, was more complex. An ambitious and prodigiously learned student of both Christian Scripture and Greek philosophy, a speculative thinker as well as a preacher and catechist, Origen was always concerned - in his eschatology as in all his theological thought - to be both a bearer and an imaginative interpreter of Christian tradition: a man of critical intelligence, unafraid of bold speculation, but also a man of the Church. He was not a systematic theologian by later standards; yet there is unquestionably a shape to his way of interpreting Christian tradition, including its eschatology, [p.47] that remains coherent despite many variations in detail, style and emphasis, and many suggestions that are frankly tentative and incomplete.

With only a touch of anachronism, ore might characterize Origen’s eschatological thought as an attempt to de-mythologize the accepted apocalyptic tradition of the Scriptures and popular Christian belief in a constructive, reverent and pastorally fruitful way. While affirming the Church’s traditional “rule of faith” as the norm of belief (for instance, in the preface to De Principiis), Origen is also aware of the broad field for free speculation outside its boundaries, and of the responsibility of the intelligent believer to struggle for clearer understanding. He is always in search of a “deeper” meaning in biblical texts and in the categories of traditional doctrine, which will be applicable to the day-to-day spiritual and ethical life of Christian believers. As a result of this pastoral concern, Origen tends, even more than Irenaeus or Clement, to emphasize the continuity between the present Christian life and its eschatological τέλος or goal, to assume that eschatological statements must have a present as well as a future relevance, and to see the fundamental historical pattern of all creation — cosmic and individual — as one of free, yet providentially guided growth towards union with God.

Origen’s underlying attitude towards the accepted eschatological tradition of his day is perhaps best observed in his handling of apocalyptic passages in the New Testament. In commenting on the cataclysmic signs predicted by Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels for the end of the world, he first puts forward what he considers plausible narrative interpretations for these cosmic events, explanations in historical or natural terms that he realizes are important for the “little ones in Christ.” He then attempts a “moral” or spiritual interpretation, however, for those capable of more substantial religious thought.’

Origen’s longest discussion of this synoptic apocalyptic material comes in the Cοmmentαriοrum Series in Μatthαeum 32-60. Here he is careful to explain the literal sense of Matt 24.3-44 as modestly as possible, pointing to the “false prophets” and persecutions of his own time, and to the accepted view that the world’s resources were being depleted (36-37; cf. Cyprian’s theme of the senectus mundi), as indications that “the end of the world” was, in fact, a dimension of contemporary life. For the “more advanced,” however, Origen offers a parallel, allegorical line of interpretation of the passage in terms of the personal spiritual growth of the serious, devout student of the Bible. So one can speak of another “second coming of Christ,” in which he becomes present to the souls of those viri perfecti who can understand his divine beauty;8 “to this second coming is joined the end of this world in the one who reaches maturity” (32). The famine that precedes Christ’s coming, in this spiritual sense, is the Christian’s hunger for a deeper [48] meaning beneath the surface of Scripture (37); the plagues are the “noxious harangues” of Gnostics and heretics (38); the persecutions are the false doctrines of teachers who pervert Christian truth (39). The “abomination of desolation, standing in the holy place” is any false interpretation of Scripture (40-42 ); indeed, the Antichrist himself is a symbol for all spurious Christian doctrine and virtue ( 3; see esp. GCS 11.62.15-73).9 The clouds on which the triumphant Christ appears are the writings of the “apostles and prophets” (50), the “heavens” are the books in which sacred truth is found (51), and the final trumpet is the gospel proclaimed throughout the world (52).

The few extant passages in which Origen comments on the Apocalypse of John — a work generally avoided by Greek commentators until the sixth century — also offer sober, literal interpretations of the book’s dramatic imagery in terms of known historical events; but Origen’s interest is centered, appropriately enough, on the work’s Christology rather than on the content of its predictions of the future.10 Similarly, he is scornful towards those millenarians who, in his opinion, interpret the scriptural prophecies of the eschatological Jerusalem “in a Jewish sense,” by taking them to imply an extended period of idealized earthly beatitude (Princ 2.11.2; Comm in Matt 17.35). Clearly the most important part of the Church’s traditional images of the future, for Origen, is what they cari tell us, in a symbolic way, about the individual Christian’s growth towards salvation.

For this reason, Origen’s chapter “On the Consummation of the World” in the De Principiis stresses that “this should not be understood to happen suddenly, but gradually and by steps, as the endless and enormous ages slip by, and the process of improvement and correction advances by degrees in different individuals” (Princ 3.6.6; cf. 3.6.9). The process of eschatological fulfillment has already begun, but is by no means complete; the Church experiences a tension, not only between present and future, but also between the salvation of the individual saint and that of the whole body of Christ. So, in explaining the meaning of the Kingdom of God, Origen likes to stress that God’s rule is already a reality in those who obey his word (Or 25.1). One might also call the virtues, taken together, the Kingdom of heaven, since each of them is a “key” to that Kingdom, and Christ, who is the revealer of all divine knowledge and virtue, has brought the Kingdom near to us (Comm in Matt 12.14). On the other hand, the Kingdom cannot reach its full realization until this God-given order of knowledge and virtue has reached perfection in each human being (Or 2 5.2 ). The blessings of this life are only a “shadow of the good things to come,” as the Epistle to the Hebrews reminds us (Hebr 10.1: Hom in Num 28.3).

Ultimately, the Kingdom of God is “the assembly of the firstborn and of the unspotted members of the Church that has no spot or blemish” (Hom in Luc 17): it is a [49] collective reality, which is now achieved in individuals to varying degrees, but which will only be fulfilled at the end of human history. So the joy of Christ and his apostles in the Kingdom is not yet full, as long as I remain in sin; ... they are waiting until’ they can partake in their joy(Hom in Lev 7.2.8: GCS 6.374.20f.; 377.16f.).   [[constant self-transcendence until all are united into God]]

The heart of this “joy” of the Kingdom, in Origen’s view, is the contemplation of God as ultimate truth and beauty. This is apparent, he argues in his essay “On the Promises” in De Principiis 2.1 I, from the human mind’s “proper and natural yearning to know the truth of God and to recognize the causes of things. We did not receive this yearning from God in order that it remain unfulfilled, let alone incapable of fulfillment” (2.1 1.4). So the heavenly banquet promised in the Scriptures (e.g., Prov 9,1-5) is to be understood as “the contemplation and understanding of God,” according to “the measures that are appropriate and suited to this nature, which is created” (2.1 1.7). “There shall be one activity,” Origen writes in the Commentary on John, “for those who have come to be with God (πρὸς Θεόν) through the Word who is with him: to apprehend God (κατανοεῖν τὸν Θεόν)” (Jo 1.16.92). “Then,” he argues later in the same work, “one will see the Father and the things of the Father for oneself, just as the Son does, no longer merely recognizing in the image the reality of the one whose image it is. And I think this will be the endὸ τελοs), when the Son hands over the Kingdom to God his Father, and when Gοd becomes all in all” (Jo 20.7.47f.).

Because of the limitations of the human mind and the incomprehensibility of God, such knowledge will never be complete, Origen observes in Homily 17 on Numbers. We can never speak of our knowledge of Gοd as coming to rest, “reaching home.” Those who “follow the way of God’s wisdom” should think of themselves, rather, as living in “tents,” with which they always walk and always move on, and the farther they go, so much more does the road still to walk grow tong and stretch out endlessly... For it never happens that a mind, enkindled by the spark of knowledge, can come to quiet repose; it is always called to move on, from the good to the better and from the better to still higher things” (Hom in Num 17.4: GCS 7.160.11-26). ‘ `I must progress beyond this world,” Origen adds some lines later, to be able to see what these tents’ are, which the Lord has made” (ibid., 162.10-12). Here Origen sketches out a picture of the eschatological contemplation of God as constant spiritual movement and growth, a view which Gregory of Nyssa will later develop into his own theory of beatitude as eternal self-transcendence or ἐπέκτασις.

Just as there are many different “places” in the earthly Promised Land, Origen believes that in the heavenly places themselves Jesus our Lord will establish each person in this or that part of heaven to dwell, not without regard for his merits” (Him in Num 28.3; GCS 7.284.2-4). Yet the reality of [50] beatitude is for Origen, above all, the fulfillment of the whole Church’s growth as the Body of Christ, and the union of that eschatological body in joy and glory will be even greater than its present unity (Jo 10.36.236-38). The whole eschatological Church will know God as the Son now knows him, “so that all, in the knowledge of the Father, will be formed literally into a [single] son” (J* 1.16.92). This knowledge, which is truly a “mingling and union” with God in love (Jo 19.4.24), is for Origen the key to understanding Paul’s promise that “God will be all in all” (I Cor 15.28): God will ultimately be the totally satisfying object of every mind’s activity, “the measure of every motion,” and so the personal, immediate basis for the unity of creation (Princ 3.6.3: cf. Jerome, Ep 124 ud Avitum 9f.).

One of the most debated points in Origen’s eschatology has been his understanding of the Christian hope for resurrection. In the preface to the De Principiis, Origen includes among the doctrines that are “defined in the preaching of the Church” both the belief that “the soul has its own substance and life,” which continues after death in order to experience immediate reward or punishment for its actions, and the expectation that “there will cone the time of the resurrection of the dead” (praef. 5). Later in the same work, he argues forcefully that belief in resurrection only has meaning if it refers to our own individual bodies, existing in some recognizable form (aliquo habitu: Princ 2.10.1-2). On the other hand, he is equally concerned to stress Paul’s teaching, as expressed in I Cor 1 5.3 5-50, that the body which will rise will be a “spiritual” body, utterly different in form (habitus) from its present state (Princ 2.10.2). He vigorously denies Celsus’ charge that Christians simply expect the reconstitution of their present material bodies (Cels 5.18-23), and shows nothing but contempt for overly materialistic conceptions of the risen life: our hope is not one of worms, nor does our soul desire a body that has rotted ...” (ibid., 5.19).11

Origen realizes that the form and constitution of the risen body is both a difficult issue to discuss with clarity and a highly sensitive one, because of the Church’s concern to defend the importance of the body against Gnostic mythification and because of the practical relevance of the subject to the lives of “the multitude” (Cels 5.19). As part of his explanation of Christian hope for personal resurrection, he develops his insistence on the immortality of the spiritual and intellectual soul. This doctrine, taken by itself, sounded third-century Greek Christian ears dangerously close to Celsus’ brand of philosophical paganism. So Origen is quick, in his Dialogue with Heracleides, to add qualifications to his admission that he teaches such a doctrine and to show that immortality, in the sense of personal continuity, is required by the Christian expectation of a just retribution after death (24f.). In the final chapter of De Principiis (4.4.9ς.), he also argues positively for the immortality of the soul, by insistiτιg it would be “impious” to hold that a substance which is capax dei, like the human mind, should be able to perish utterly. Arid in the Connnentary on Matthew (17.29), he remarks frankly that “a person who rejects the resurrection of the dead as it is believed in the Church, even though he is mistaken in rejecting it, has not simply ‘hoped in Christ for this life only’ [see I Cor 1 5. r 9],” provided he holds at least that the soul “lives and survives”: for the soul “does not receive this body [in the resurrection], but one of an ethereal, superior kind.” Clearly, for Origen the real conflict is not between a hope in resurrection and a belief in the immortality of the soul, but between the materialistic, popular conception of risen life current among Christians of his day and a more spiritual one.’12

When he comes to give a positive explanation of the qualities of the risen body, Origen is understandably tentative. For him, as for anyone sympathetic to the Platonic tradition, the body and its material world are only a “shadow” cast by the more substantial reality of the spirit (De irat 17.1). Yet he argues, in the De Principiis, that only Cod is utterly incorporeal. and that every living creature, although essentially spiritual, needs some kind of body to “support its life and contain its movements” (2.2.1f.; cf. 3.6.1; prae_j. 9f.). Bodies, however, exist with a wide range of characteristics, suited to the environment in which their souls find themselves (Cels 7.32; Frad on Psalm 15 [PG 12.1093c1 1-1096x3]). So the soul admitted to the contemplation of God will need a very different kind of body for the “purer, ethereal and heavenly regions” from that which it bears on earth (Cels 7.32).” A further implication is that the risen bodies of sinners destined for punishment will also be different from those of people who have been “purified in this life” and rise to be united with God (Print 2.10.2). The former will manifest the “darkness of ignorance” which now characterizes their minds (ibid., 2.10.8), while the latter will be so much “like the angels” in radiance and refinement that their owners can be said to have become angels (Comm in Matt 17.30; Hom in Lev 9.11).

The principle of continuity between present and future forms of the human body is clearly the soul, which acts throughout life as an “inherent principle of intelligibility (insita ratio)”; like the λόyος Σ1ΕΡΜατικός of Stoic theory, it holds the body together, gives it recognizable form, and will actively reassemble it at the resurrection (Print 2.10.3). In this sense. it is more correct to say — as Scripture does — that the incorruptible soul “clothes” the body with its own permanence than that the body, as the garment of the soul, is itself made immortal (Print 2.3.2; cf. Jo 13.61 [591.429-31; Cels 7.32). Our new form of bodily existence at the resurrection will be the “spiritual body” of i Cor ι 5 (Prine 2.2.2): a transfiguration of the present material body, free of the features that suit it only for life in this material world, and “subtle, pure and resplendent ... as the rational creature’s situation demands and as its merits suggest” (Print 3.6.4).14 [52] Origen’s most thorough discussion of the physical characteristics of the risen body, at least in his extant works, is found in a long fragment of his Commentary on Psalm 1.5 (LXX: “Therefore the impious will not rise in the judgment”), quoted by Methodius in his own De Resurrectione 1.20-24 and preserved in Greek by Epiphanius (Panarion 64), along with a large section of Methodius’ work. Origen begins by rejecting the notion, which he ascribes to the “simpler members of the faithful,” that our bodies will rise again “in their whole substance (ο σιa),” just as they now are. Against such an idea, he raises the standard philosophical criticisms, already familiar from the apologetic replies marshaled against them by Athenagoras and Tertullian. Will these risen bodies include even the blood, even the hair and other bodily parts, which they have lost during life? What will become of human flesh eaten by carnivorous birds and animals, when those animals are in turn eaten by other humans - to whom will such flesh belong? Such questions, justified in themselves, show the “depth of silliness” in a purely material understanding of the risen body (20). Yet Origen complains that his opponents merely answer — as Athenagoras and Tertullian did — that “everything is possible with God,” and offer as proof of their interpretation a literal reading of such scriptural passages as Ezekiel 37 (the raising of the valley of bones), Matt 8.12 (in Gehenna there will be the “gnashing of teeth”), Matt 10.28 (“fear him who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna”), and Rom 8.1 1 (“he will give life to your mortal bodies”) (21). The skilled exegete, he implies, must do better.

Origen begins to explain his own conception of the risen body by remarking that in handing on “the tradition of the ancients” we must “be careful not to fall into the silliness of impoverished thoughts, which are both impossible and unworthy of God” (22). The key to his explanation is his insistence — also borrowed from Stoic science — that the body, of itself, is like a ‘‘river,” constantly in flux; its underlying materiality (πρ ον ύ ΤοκειΜΕνον) is constantly being assimilated and discharged, so that its matter is never the same for two days in a row. Despite this fluidity of matter, individuals do remain the same riot only in their interior life or soul (Ψυχή) but also in the unique form (είáοs), imposed by the soul, that shapes arid integrates the material body. This is the reason why Peter and Paul remain recognizable —still bearing the scars of childhood, for example, into old age — even though their actual flesh is constantly changing.

It is this €iδοs of the body which is again produced by the soul at the resurrection, and which builds for itself a new body, better in every way than the present one, yet recognizable as the same corporeal individual. The risen body’s characteristics will be different from those of the present one, Origen explains, because the soul always forms for itself a body suited to its physical environment. Just as we would doubtless have gills if we lived in



A school for souls

water, so “those who are going to inherit the Kingdom of heaven.. . will necessarily make use of spiritual bodies. But the form of the former body will

not disappear, even f its style changes to become more glorious ...”(22).

Origen then replies to the scriptural arguments of his opponents in some detail (23-24), insisting that “not everything should be understood according to the literal text (κατά τι κeιμeνον)” (24). The “bones” of Ezekiel 37 clearly refer to Israel, in its hope of restoration. Arid the “gnashing of teeth” in Matt 8.12 must be understood as the soul’s faculty of assimilating knowledge, since the risen body, which will no longer need food, will certainly not have teeth (24). Origen concludes the discussion by likening the eιδοςΡ of the body to the dynamic principle in any living organism, the creative form that the Stoics called its “intelligible seed-structure” (σiερjλα-τικóςΡ λοyοςΡ). Just as this vital principle in a grain of wheat makes growth possible, by interacting with the various kinds of material around the seed, so the form of our own bodies will create our materiality anew in the resurrection. Scripture, however, makes it clear “that the underlying materiality (τρώτον ÛΤοκΕιΜΕνον) of our present body - taken as a particular set of material particles — “does not rise” (24).

It is unclear whether or not Origen sees the glorified body as an integral part of final human fulfillment, or simply as a penultimate stage, to be realized before all the redeemed are united with the incorporeal God, who in the end will become “all in all.” Several passages in the De Principiis — all in Rufinus’ admittedly favorable translation of the work — assert that some kind of body, however “spiritual” in quality, is an irreducible part of created existence: e.g., 1.6.4; 2.3.2f.; 3.6.5. Less favorable translations of some of these same passages (2.3.2f.; 3.6.1) by Jerome, however, as well as hostile allusions by Theophilus of Alexandria and by Origen’s sixth-century critics,’ S portray Origen as teaching that all bodily existence will eventually pass away. Even in Rufinus’ translation of De Principiis 2.3.7, Origen offers three hypotheses “about the end of all things and the ultimate beatitude”: it will be either a totally incorporeal state, or a state of ethereal and spiritualized corporeality, or else a state of such stability and balance that corporeality, as we know it, will lose its labile character and come to rest in a part of the universe beyond all motion. Origen expressly leaves it to his reader to judge which of these interpretations of the resurrection seems to accord best with a reasonable faith. Other passages in the work, however, as well as the passages from his Treatise on the Resurrection and sources quoted by Pamphilus (Apo! pro On gene 1.7: PG τ 7.5y4Α6-601Β2), suggest his own sympathies lay with the third hypothesis.16

Two final remarks must be made about Origen’s doctrine of the resurrection. First, he is riot content to consider the resurrections exclusively as a promise for the future, but sees it, too, as already anticipated ‘ `in part” in the




life of the baptized Christian (Jo 1.27 [2 5] 18 1f.; Comm on Rom, Greek fr. 29: ITS 13 [1912] 363). This experience of the power of the resurrection in grace is the “first resurrection” mentioned in Apocalypse 20, the “baptism iii water and the Holy Spirit” that will deliver the faithful from a “baptism of fire” at the “second” resurrection (Hom in Jer 1.3).” Secondly, Origen stresses that the final resurrection will be the eschatological fulfillment of the whole Church, rather than simply the salvation of individual believers. In this perspective, distinctions between society and individual became blurred. After the resurrection, the faithful will radiate divine light as a single sun (Comm in Matt 10.3); they will be built into a single temple (Cels 8.[9f.), and all invidious diversity among individuals will come to an end (Print 3.6.4). “The temple will be created, the body raised on the third day,” he writes in the Coimnentary on John, “after the day of evil which has now begun in it, and the day of consummation to follow. For the third day will begin in the new heaven and the new earth, when these bones, the whole house of Israel, are wakened on the great day of the Lord, and death is conquered. So the resurrection of Christ from his suffering on the cross, which has already occurred, contains a symbol of the resurrection of the whole body of Christ” (10.35 [20].229).

Origen’s view of the “interim” state between death and resurrection resembles Clement’s revised reading of older Christian traditions. The soul does not remain near the body after death, as some pagans thought, but goes to a place reserved for “souls unclothed by bodies” (Jo 28.6 [5)•44; Cels 2.43; Diai Her 23). In some places, Origen repeats the popular dual conception of Hades, familiar to us from Tertullian, in which there is both a place of comfort for the just (the “bosom of Abraham”) and a place of anticipatory punishment for sinners (so apparently Print 4.3.10). Before the death of Christ, all the dead waited for salvation in such an underworld (cf. Homily on the Witch of Endor [I Sam 28.8ff.]).’8 It is unclear, however, what Origen imagines Hades to be in the present age; so he suggests, in other passages, that the souls of the just go directly to Paradise at death, to be with Christ” (Hom in Lk, fr. 253; Dial Her 23) and to share immediately in the contemplation of truth that is beatitude (Mart 47).

Ina fragment of an unknown work - possibly the Treatise on the Resurrection - quoted by Methodius (De Res 3.17) and referred to also by Photius (Bibl 234: ed. R. Henry V [Paris 1967] ιο5f.), Origen seems to suggest that the soul in Hades possesses a subtle, wraithlike body, of the same share as its former earthly one, as a “vehicle” (öχημα) for its continuing activity. Similarly, he explains the appearance of ghosts in the world “by the fact that the soul is subsisting in what is called a luminous body” (Cels 2.60; cf. the fragment quoted by Procopius of Gaza, Catenι on Genesis 321 [PG 87.2211 which may be from Origen, referring to a ‘ `subtle” and “sparkling” [55] body of Adam before the fall). This notion of an “astral” body or “body of light,” borne by souls when outside the material parameters of this world, is familiar from Νeορlatοnisrn and fits well with Origen’s supposition that only God is truly incοrρorea1.19

Wherever they are, the souls of the just, in Origen’s view, still take an active interest in the living (Comm in Matt 15.35; Jo 13.58 [57] 403). By their prayers at the heavenly a[tar, the martyrs — and indeed all the just who have died — intercede for the living and help Christ in his work of purifying them (Mart 30, 38; Hom in 1m” 24.1; Hom in Cant 3 [GCS 8.191.12-15]). The “former fathers,” who are now with the Lord, “have their promised reward and are at rest,” he writes in one of the Homilies on Joshua; “still even now they fight and are involved in the struggle for those who serve under Jesus” (16.5).

Another controversial aspect of Origen’s eschatology, arid one on which his own thought is not entirely clear, is the subject of the nature and duration of punishment after death.20 In many passages, particularly in his homiletic works, he refers to the need for divine punishment of sinners (so Him in Jer 12.5) and paints the prospect of “eternal fire” in thoroughly traditional terms (e.g., ibid., 19 [18].1 5; Him in Lev 14.4). The existence of this “fire of Gehenna” is taught by both Scripture and “the preaching of the Church” (Prine praef, 5; 2.10. i); it is invisible. burning the invisible parts of our natures (Comm Ser in Matt 72), and may well give heat without producing light (Hom in Ex é 3.4). Those condemned to this fire will become companions of the devil, who will continually accuse them of their sins (Hom in Lev 3.4; cf. Comm Ser in Matt 72). Origen even speaks approvingly, in ΗοmiΙies on Ezekiel 4.8, of the “common understanding” that this punishment is final, in contrast with the “foolishness of some,” who believe that anyone can be saved from Gehenna by the prayers of holy intercessors.

In several passages, however, Origen cautiously introduces modifications in this traditional doctrine of eternal punishment. One such modification is his tendency towards a “moral” or psychological explanation of the fire of hell. In De Principiis 2.10.4, for instance, he asserts that “every sinner himself lights the flames of his owri fire, and is net immersed in some fire that was lit by another or existed before him.” This fire is the “fever” within him that results from the unhealthy imbalance of his passions, and its pain is the consequent accusation of a troubled conscience (ibid., 5-6; cf. Comm in Rom 7.5 ).21 It is a fire wholly of the sinner’s owri making (Hom 3 in Ezek 7; Hom in Lev 8.8).

Secondly, and more important, Origen at least raises serious questions about the eternity of the punishment of sinners. In the Commentary on John (28.8 [7].63-66), for instance, he declares himself unsure whether those who are “bound arid cast into outer darkness” will remain there forever, or [56] will someday be released; “it does not seem safe to me to pass judgment,” he remarks, “since I have no knowledge at all, especially since nothing is written [i.e., in Scripture] on the subject.” Origen is careful to point out, in several places, that Scripture designates “eternal fire” expressly “for the devil and his angels,” as if implying that it is not meant for human souls (so Hong in Jos 14.2; cf. ibid., 8.5 ). And “eternal” (áßþõLïò), as he uses it, seems to refer to long but limited periods of time or “ages” (aÉþv€s), rather than to eternity in the Augustinian sense of timeless existence, or even to endless duration.22

Origen is aware that the issue of the eternity of punishment is a sensitive one, because of the enormous importance of the “deterrent” of eternal fire in shaping the ordinary Christian’s moral behavior (Hom in Jer 12.4; 19 [18].15; 20 [19].4). Indeed, he writes in one passage, “to communicate these things (i.e., speculations on Gehenna) openly and at length, by ink and pen and parchment, seems to me incautious” (Comm Ser in Matt 1 6). Yet he is convinced, like Clement, that “all the torments of a good God are designed for the benefit of those who endure them” (Hum l in Ezek 3); this medicinal, corrective character has been concealed from “those who are still ‘little ones’ with respect to their spiritual age” (ibid.), but must nevertheless be acknowledged at times in order to refute the “heretical” Gnostic picture of a cruel and judging God (ibid.; Him in Jer 20 [19].3).

In fact, Origen insists, all souls need to be purified by “fire” from the “lead” intermingled with their natural “gold,” in order to be saved (Hom in Ex 6.4; cf. Hom in Num 25.6).23 In the human creature, this fire will torture both soul and body, “not without great suffering” (Comm Ser in Matt 2ï; cf. Jo 13.23.138; Hom in Jer 20 [19].8); the degree and duration of suffering for those confined in it will vary, depending on their guilt (Him in Jer 19 [18].15; Comm in Prov, fr. [in Pamphilus, Apologia: PG 17.615nΙ0—ότ6aιτ). This is the “wise fire,” the “debtor’s prison,” which God has established for sinful humans as a benefaction, to cleanse them from the evils committed in their error” (Or 29.15). It is the “baptism of fire” destined for those not previously cleansed by a “baptism in the Holy Spirit” (Hom in Ezek 1.13; Hom in Jer 1.3; 2.3; Hom in Luc 24); it is the “fiery sword” of the cherub stationed at the gate of Paradise (Hom in Ezek 5.1; Mart 36; Comm in C’Ιmt 3 [GCS 8.238.23-29]).24

This process of purification seems to include, for Origen, not only the negative experience of detachment from the passions and the effects of sin, but also a positive growth in knowledge and wisdom, as a preparation for the eternal vision of God (Prine 3.6.9). So he suggests, in the De Principals, that a long period of instruction will intervene, for human souls, between death and resurrection — that they will be sent to a “school for souls,” situated somewhere “in the heavenly regions” (2.1 1.6-7), where they will [57] learn from the angels (cf. Comm Ser in Matt 5 1) “the explanation fir all that happens on earth” (Prim 2.11.5), the meaning of difficult passages in Scripture (ibid.), the nature of the heavenly powers (ibid.), and ultimately the plan (ratio) behind all the “movements” of the created universe (2.11.6). This schola aninmarunm is what the Bible calls “Paradise” or “the Heavenly Jerusalem” (2.1 1.3,6); what souls will learn there will be simply a propae-deutic for a more mystical knowledge, aimed at preparing them “to receive the things that the Son will teach,” when they have been finally united with him (Comm Ser in Matt 51).

Behind this conviction that all punishment is ultimately medicinal and educational stands — in Origeri’s thought as in Clement’s — the equally strong conviction that all human souls will ultimately be saved, and will be united to God forever in loving contemplation. For Origen, universal salvation is an indispensable part of the “end” promised by Paul in I Cor 15.24-28, when Christ will destroy all his enemies, even death, and hand over all things in “subjection” to his Father, who will be “all in all.”25 Evil then will totally come to an end (Jo 1.16.91), and “all Israel will be saved” (Hom in Jos 8.5; Comm in Rom 8.9; Princ 2.3.7).

Origen sorrietimes refers to this final state of universal salvation by the term & οκα στασιs, “restoration,” which he suggests is already a familiar concept to his readers (Jo 1.16.91). Although the word seems simply to have meant the “attainment” or “realization” of a goal in most second-century Christian works, Origer’ clearly understands it to have a retrospective as well as a prospective dimension: to meari not merely human fulfillment, but the re-establishment of an original harrnony and unity in creation (so, e.g., Hom in Jer 14.18).26 Behind this conception of the eschaton is the assumption, expressed several times in De Principiis, that the end is always like the beginning” (1.6.2; cf. 3.6. τ, 3), that human fulfillment is really the restoration of the soul to a unity with God that it possessed before its fall and embodiment. The context of these passages, however, suggests that Origen regarded this as an attractive theological hypothesis rather than a sure doctrine, arid that his concern was more to develop a theory of human origins, based on the Church’s eschatological hope and compatible with God’s goodness arid with human freedom, than it was to canonize a cyclic view of history (so Princ 3.6. τ ). 27 Although Origen seems to have regarded the reincarnation of souls and the existence of at least some other, future worlds as a theoretical possibility (Conan” Ser in Matt 96; Princ 2.3.1-2), he also seems to have assumed that salvation ultimately means the permanent stability of rational creatures in loving union with God (Dial Her 27; Jo 10.42 [26]. 295; Hom in I Kg 1.4). An endless cycle of alternating falls and redemptions is almost certainly foreign to his thought.28

Α further dimension of Origen’s belief in universal salvation that scandalized [58] many ancient authors was the suggestion, implied in at least some passages of his works, that it would include even Satan and the other evil spirits. So he stresses, in the Commentary on John (32.3.291.), that Christ’s final triumph will mean an end to all “struggle” against the “principalities, powers and virtues (cf. Princ 3.6.5). In De Principiis 1.6.2 he emphasizes that “all beings who, from that single beginning, have been moved, each by their own motion, through various stages allotted them for their deserts,” will ultimately be restored to unity with God through subjection to Christ (see also Comm in Rom 5.É0 [PG 14.1053Αs3B7]; 9.41 [ibid., 1243c4-1244Α15]). In other passages, however, he speaks of the “destruction” of the demonic powers in “eternal fire” (Hom in Jos 8.5; 14.2), hinting that the devil, by his long career of deception, may have become a “liar by nature” and so have condemned himself to destruction (Jo 20.21 [19]. 174; cf. Comm iii Rom 8.9 [PG 14.1185s8f.]; “as for him who is said to have fallen from heaven, not even at the end of the ages will a conversion take place”).

In his apologetic “Letter to Friends in Alexandria,” written at the time of his expulsion by Bishop Demetrius in 231, Origen strongly denies that he ever taught the redemption of the devils, accusing his enemies of adulterating his writings (cf. Jerome, tipo1 adv Ruf 2.18f.; Rufinus, De Adult Libr Orig [PG ΐ 7.624Α2-625Α2]).29 In De Principiis 1.6.3 (Rufinus’ translation), he leaves the question open to his readers’ judgment, insisting that, in any case, nothing will disrupt the final unity and harmony of God’s creation. This uncertainty in the extant texts of his works may well mean that Origen himself remained undecided on the subject. He was sharply attacked for his leniency towards the devil, however, both in his own time and in later centuries.’°

Throughout his discussion of all these aspects of the Christian hope, Origen shows himself remarkably consistent, not only in his doctrinal concerns, but also in his conception of the theologian’s task. His aim is to give an explanation of the meaning of Scripture and Church tradition that is both true to those sources and intellectually responsible in terms of the science and philosophy of his own day (Prine. i. praef. 2-10). Equally opposed to contemptuous pagans like Celsus, to Gnostics who made light of the Church’s public teaching and to fundamentalists within the Christian community, Origen was, perhaps, the first fully professional Christian thinker. He was not afraid to offer his own imaginative opinions, on subjects for which tradition gave no clear guidelines to Christian teaching; yet he remained, in his intentions at least, the faithful exegete of the preached word, reverently trying to integrate each detail of the community’s tradition into the wider context of a unified biblical faith and spirituality. His optimistic, deeply religious way of interpreting the eschatological images of that tradition would arouse violent contradiction from the more literal- [59] minded, and enthusiastic support from those of a more mystical bent, both in the East and in the West, for centuries to come. For Origen himself, eschatology was simply part of a larger picture: the grace-filled finality of the mystery of growth towards God that is already the heart of Christian faith arid practice. It was not simply bold theological speculation, but reflection on a more practical, everyday hope: “what we think to be the blessed end with God in Christ, who is the Logos, wisdom, and every virtue, which will be the experience of those who have lived purely and blamelessly, and have recovered their undivided and unbroken love for the God of the universe - [an end] which will be bestowed by God’s gift” (Gels 3.81),




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