Academic journal article Theological Studies

Apocatastasis in Patristic Theology

Academic journal article Theological Studies

Apocatastasis in Patristic Theology

Article excerpt

Recently I surveyed in this journal the treatment of universal salvation and the problem of hell in current Catholic eschatoloy.(1) Virtually all theologians emphasize the universal scope of God's saving will and move beyond a view of divine justice which seems to separate it from and pit it against God's love and mercy. Many stress that while we believe that heaven is indeed (already) a reality, hell is, at most, a real possibility. After all, the Church which reverences the saints refuses to say that even one single person is or will be in hell.

These are significant and desperately needed corrections to the pessimistic and threatening exaggerations of much past theology and popular piety. Still, most Catholic theologians refuse to embrace a doctrine of universal salvation outright, not only because it would seem to have been condemned rather strongly and consistently by the magisterium but also because they believe that to do so would be tantamount to denying the reality of human freedom. Most admit and insist upon a fundamental tension or dialectic between the sovereignty of God's universally saving act and human freedom which must embrace it freely. Within the limits of Catholic "orthodoxy" what is encouraged by most is a strong and active hope that all will be saved.

To some, such a change in perspective may seem to be merely another example of modernity's relentless dilution of the gospel, a superficial optimism that refuses to acknowledge the power of evil in our world and our responsibility for it. In fact an ancient Christian instinct or sensibility for the power of divine grace, precisely in the face of the grim reality of human evil, lies at the heart of this "new" attitude. For reasons of space, I could only indicate this briefly in the previous article. In this one, therefore, I would like to turn, in some detail, to those patristic theologians who first grappled with these issues. I undertake the modest task of assembling some of those early voices and letting them speak. I shall focus on the two great Alexandrian theologians, Clement and Origen, and on the Cappadocians, Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa.


Although Origen counts as the chief representative of the doctrine of apocatastasis, in actuality it is Clement (d. between 211-216), Origen's predecessor at Alexandria, who first presents this doctrine, thereby providing a foundation for the thought of his famous successor.(2) In order to understand this particular teaching, it should be seen in the context of his view of the nature and purpose of divine punishment in general. Clement has no doubt that everyone will be judged by God according to his or her deeds, not only at a "great and final judgment" but apparently also at other "preliminary judgments."(3) The fate of unbelievers is compared to the chaff of wheat "which is driven from the face of the earth by the wind."(4) He speaks in a very traditional manner of the penalty of "external punishment by fire" which awaits those, for example, who fail in generosity and thereby neglect the needy who are the beloved of God.(5) And yet, in actuality, such punishing fire seems neither simply punitive nor eternal for Clement. It is not like the devouring fire of everyday life, meant to destroy the sinner, but a "discerning" or "rational flame" which serves to sanctify the sinful souls who must pass through it.(6)

According to Clement, God's absolute goodness implies that punishment can only have a pedagogical, purifying, and healing function, not only in this life, but after death as well. God does not take vengeance, for that would be simply to return evil for evil. But in loving providence God "chastens with a view to the good" of all, much as a father or teacher disciplines a child.(7) Clement speaks of two methods of correction, the "instructive" and the "punitive" or "disciplinary." God "corrects" for three reasons: that those corrected may become better than their former selves; that by their example, others may be deterred from sin; and that those who have been injured by another's sin may not be lightly despised and easily suffer further hurt at the hands of sinners. …

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