Apokatastasis (alternately apocatastasis from Greek: ἀποκατάστασις; literally, "restoration" or "return") is the teaching that everyone will, in the end, be saved. It looks toward the ultimate reconciliation of good and evil; all creatures endowed with reason, angels and humans, will eventually come to a harmony in God's kingdom. It is based on, among other things, St. Peter's speech in Acts 3.21 ("Christ Jesus who must remain in heaven until the time of the final restoration of all things χρόνων ἀποκαταστάσεως πάντων") and St. Paul's letter to Timothy in which he says that it is God's will that all men should be saved (1 Timothy 2.4).
For Origen, this explicitly included the devil. In effect, apocatastasis denies the final reality of hell, and interprets all Biblical references to the "fires of hell" not as an eternal punishment, but a tool of divine teaching and correction, akin to purgatory. The implication is that hell exists to separate good from evil in the soul.
Among Catholics in the twentieth-century, this doctrine was reinvigorated especially by Hans Urs von Balthasar, who, in his book Dare We Hope 'That All Men Be Saved? (1988), expressed a qualified version of apocatastasis in which we may "hope" that all will be saved. Keeping in mind the conciliar condemnation of Origen, Orthodox theologians who tend towards universalism (the belief that all will be saved) usually argue that all may be saved.
St. Augustine wrote the following about Origen:
- "I am aware that I now have to engage in a debate, devoid of rancor, those compassionate Christians who refuse to believe that the punishment of hell will be everlasting either in the case of all those men whom the completely just Judge accounts deserving of that chastisement, or at least in the case of some of them; they hold that they are to be set free after fixed limits of time have been passed, the periods being longer or shorter in proportion to the magnitude offences. On this subject the most compassionate of all was Origen who believed that the Devil himself and his angels will be rescued from their torments and brought into the company of the holy angels, after the more severe and more lasting chastisements appropriate to their deserts. But the Church has rejected Origen's teaching, and not without good reason, on account of this opinion and a number of others...
- "Very different, however, is the error, promoted by tenderness of heart and human compassion, of those who suppose that the miseries of those condemned by that judgement will be temporal, whereas the felicity of all men, who are released after a shorter or longer period, will be everlasting. Now if this opinion is good and true, just because it is compassionate, then it will be the better and the truer the more compassionate it is. Then let the fountain of compassion be deepened and enlarged until it extends as far as the evil angels, who must be set free, although, of course, after many ages, and ages of any length that can be imagined! ...For all that, his error would manifestly surpass all errors in its perversity, its wrong-headed contradiction of the express words of God, by the same margin as, in his own estimation, his belief surpasses all other opinions in its clemency."
- — St. Augustine of Hippo, City of God 21.17 (trans. Bettenson)
Gregory of Nyssa
- St. Varsanofios the Great, criticizing the doctrine of apocatastasis, when asked about St. Gregory's opinion, has answered: "do not think that people, though also saints, could completely understand all depths of God... Even if a saint speaks about such opinions, you will not find that he confirmed the words as though had the statement from above, but that they resulted from the doctrine of his former teachers, and he, trusting their knowledge of them, did not inquire of God whether it was true."citation needed
- St. Herman of Constantinople has also expressed a negative opinion of the doctrine, but he supposes that the works of St. Gregory have been damaged by Origenists: "those who liked that absurd idea, as if for demons and for people who will be subjected to eternal punishment, is possible to expect the discontinuance... they have taken his clean and sensible works and have added the dark and disastrous poison of Origen's nonsense."citation needed
- St. Mark of Ephesus, after citing St. Gregory, exclaims: "Are we wrong when we do not believe those words of St. Gregory of Nyssa, considering them forgeries, or, even if they are original, to not accept as contradictory to Scripture and to the general dogma?"citation needed
- St. Maximus the Confessor, rejecting an Origenistic interpretation of apocatastasis, considered that St. Gregory used this term "in sense of restoration of cognitive forces of the man in that condition of the correct relation to truth."citation needed
- St. Photius the Great has expressed the Church's general interpretation in one phrase: "that in works of St. Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa, where restoration is mentioned, it is not accepted by the Church."citation needed
The Church reaction to Origenism
The anathemas of the local Council of Constantinople in 453, which is understood by most commentators to be confirmed by the Fifth Ecumenical Council in 553, posthumously excommunicated Origen and anyone following specific points of his teachings. These anathemas condemned his protology of pre-existent souls and his eschatology of universal restoration of all things "which follows from" his protology1:
- If anyone asserts the fabulous pre-existence of souls, and shall assert the monstrous restoration which follows from it: let him be anathema. (First anathema against Origen)
- If anyone shall say that all reasonable beings will one day be united in one, when the hypostases as well as the numbers and the bodies shall have disappeared, and that the knowledge of the world to come will carry with it the ruin of the worlds, and the rejection of bodies as also the abolition of [all] names, and that there shall be finally an identity of the γνῶσις and of the hypostasis; moreover, that in this pretended apocatastasis, spirits only will continue to exist, as it was in the feigned pre-existence: let him be anathema. (Fourteenth anathema against Origen)2
The decisions of ecumenical councils have universal authority in the Orthodox Church. Only doctrinal definitions have the force of dogma. Local councils only have authority within specific geographic limits.
Known proponents of either a qualified or unqualified doctrine of apocatastasis within the Orthodox Church include:
- Nikolai Berdyaev
- Archpriest Sergius Bulgakov
- Paul Evdokimov
- St Sophrony (Sakharov)
- Archimandrite Lazarus (Moore)
- Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) of Diokleia
- David Bentley Hart
Some prominent twentieth century non-Orthodox theologians who advocated this include:
- Hans Urs von Balthasar
- Richard John Neuhaus - Fr. Neuhaus follows von Balthasar's position which rejects any explicit doctrine that damnation is not a possibility. For his explanation, see FT0108.
- F. W. Farrar
- C. S. Lewis - at least, this claim is asserted in a dissertation entitled "All Will Be Well"
Other articles of interest
- The Population of Hell by Avery Cardinal Dulles, First Things133 (May 2003): 36-41
- Will all be saved? - Richard J. Neuhaus, First Things 115 (August/September 2001): 77-104.
- The Inflated Reputation of Hans Urs von Balthasar New Oxford Review, March 2000.
- Is Hell Closed Up & Boarded Over? - by David Watt, New Oxford Review, Feb. 1999.
- On Hope, Heaven and Hell - by Nick Jr. Healy, The University Concourse, Volume II, Issue 9. May 6, 1997.
- Von Balthasar and Salvation - by James T. O'Connor, Homiletic & Pastoral Review, July 1989.
- Adventures in New Testament Greek: Apocatastasis - a poem by Scott Cairns, Philokalia: New and Selected Poems, Zoo Press, March 1, 2002.