Lately I have been reading Origen’s On First Principles to learn more about apokatastasis (literally, “restoration”), the Christian doctrine of universal salvation wherein all of creation will be restored to the flourishing and union with God that he originally planned. In some versions of it, not only all rational souls will be reconciled with God (as in Origen), but all of nature as well—not only will all humans be in heaven, but all animals and plants will be as well, for it will be a restoration of the entirety of God’s creation. While it has been a minority position within Christian history, patristics scholar Ilaria Ramelli has written the first systematic account of the history of this doctrine, and she makes a compelling case for its theological and philosophical soundness in an interview that distills the essence of her book. According to Ramelli, many prominent church fathers and philosophers supported some version of the apokatastasis, including Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Eriugena—even Augustine, in his earlier phase.

We can explore two questions in response to this: 1) what evidence supports the doctrine of apokatastasis? and 2) if the evidence is in favor of universal salvation as a theologically and philosophically sound position, why did it enjoy such disfavor as to have been designated as heresy for so many centuries? The second question deserves future study, and at this stage I will simply note something Ramelli says: Origen upheld apokatastasis, but acknowledged that occasionally there are some grievously immoral people whose souls are too corrupted to see the intrinsic goodness of a godly life, and who are so ignoble and selfish that they can only get on the right path by being told that eternal hell awaits them if they do not. Once on the path, the transformation entailed in the Christian way of life would eventually make the selfish believer cease to need the doctrine of hell, and they could more fully take their place among a community of people who embody the non-mercenary value of salvation.

The doctrine of hell therefore served an instrumental purpose within a very specific and relatively rare pastoral context, but it was never meant (by Origen) to have universal application or stand as immutable doctrine. According to Ramelli, ruling elites (such as emperor Justinian) saw how effective the idea of hell could be for getting unruly subjects to obey the state (as given authority by God), and pushed for the codification of hell as orthodoxy.[1] However, the verses that Origen makes heaviest use of to put forth the apokatastasis (from I Corinthians 15) imply that Christ intends to do away with all dominion, when eventually all things come to be “under”[2] him in the power of his self-sacrifice, mediating between creatures and Creator so that “God may be all in all” (I Corinthians 15:28).

It would therefore follow that the doctrine of hell is not only opposed to “modern sensibilities”—since Origen and numerous others in the past have already rejected it as incompatible with God’s infinite love and justice[3]—but hell is also implicated in an imperialist project antithetical to the radically egalitarian political implications of the imago Dei. As Origen sees it, being made in God’s image means that we have the potential for endless approximation of God’s nature, and the consummation of creation (or what we call “heaven”) consists precisely in this perpetual progress toward greater and greater union with God.[4]

Since all rational souls have this potential for godliness, and need God’s proactive help in realizing this currently diseased potential (grace), all souls will be restored in universal salvation—even Satan’s. The kingdom of God has no everlasting Enemy. If God is all-powerful, the full flowering of his omnibenevolent creative vision could not fail to come to pass, and thus all opposition to it will eventually cease—not through the annihilation of the ungodly, but through their eventual enlightenment and conversion to God’s cause.[5] The apokatastasis therefore points to a vision of a coming community that is radically inclusive, without the loss of individual identity. In fact, Origen sees a proliferation of different ways in which the Messiah will be present, going beyond the way that God is already omnipresent (“nothing can be empty of God”), to a blessedness wherein God “is said not only to be in all things but even to be all things.”[6] As Origen writes,

Now I myself think that when it is said that God is “all in all,” it means that he is also all things in each individual person. And he will be all things in each person in such a way that everything which the rational mind, when purified from the dregs of its vices and utterly cleared from every cloud of wickedness, can feel or understand or think will be all God and that the mind will no longer be conscious of anything besides or other than God, but will think God and see God and hold God and God will be the mode and measure of its every movement; and in this way God will be all to it. For there will no longer be any contrast of good and evil, since evil nowhere exists; for God, whom evil never approaches, is then all things to it; nor will one who is always in the good and to whom God is all things desire any longer to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gn 2:17).[7]

Far from a tedious monotony, where we all sit on clouds and pluck golden harps or become interchangeable with one another, heaven in Origen’s view is kaleidoscopic harmony, where individuality becomes divine and divinity becomes individualized, personal, intimate.

By way of conclusion, I think that Origen’s notion of apokatastasis raises a number of philosophical questions that have a claim on us even if we are not Christian. If one adheres to “the secularization thesis” (which is admittedly debatable), then non-religious philosophers are working with a set of concepts that are already framed through Christian doctrines, and without hell operating in that framework things could look very different today. The rough and inchoate questions that occur to me at the current moment can be put into three categories:

  • Political: How would political theology look if Origen’s universalism had come to enjoy official sanction as orthodoxy? If Carl Schmitt is right and political concepts of sovereignty are secularized religious concepts, then would a secular order in this alternate universe not define itself through an eternal Enemy whose presence justifies perpetual emergency powers? Would there be, as there is in Origen, an intrinsic appeal and meaning to political activity that has nothing to do with “things going all to hell”? Does the lack of an eternal Enemy have to mean the lack of difference and interaction, since Origen’s heaven obviates that dichotomy?
  • Metaphysical: As Ramelli nicely articulates in the aforementioned interview, Origen’s position is that we were not created for evil, and thus free will exists for goodness, in order to be good. This has its roots in Plato’s statement at Republic 505e: “Every soul desires the Good and does whatever it does for its sake.” The issue is that we are works in progress, and that it will take eternity to approximate the Goodness that is God; being made in God’s image means that we are equally free and furthermore meant to work for the freedom of others, and becoming like God is the eternal work of becoming free with others. As Middleton noted that the imago Dei is meant to exercise power with others rather than power over others, the political egalitarianism mentioned above is of a piece with the apokatastasis. We must therefore wonder whether it is possible to have the one without the other. Can we be consistently egalitarian without a metaphysical vision that is oriented toward Goodness as the telos of all existence?
  • Ecological: If God is already omnipresent in nature, and becomes “all in all” through an eternal process of unfolding and healing, does this allow us to think of nature as divine without at the same time fossilizing the current natural order as already perfect? Does this then make way for a more flexible ecological view that incorporates natural history as a history? Since Origen holds that in heaven God is increasingly present to every individual in every individuality, does this mean that individual animals and plants are no longer expendable for the sake of a grander totality? If the garden of Eden is “restored” in the apokatastasis, what sort of relationship with other natural beings are we to called to work toward? Are bodily practices intrinsically opposed to spiritual ones, or is the spirit’s work the increasing actualization of hidden potential within the body to manifest something ecstatic and ineffable, an inexhaustible Spirit?


[1] I have not yet read Giorgio Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory, but it seems as though it could be relevant to this issue.

[2] I Corinthians 15:28 uses the word “hypotage” to describe Christ putting all things under him. Some translations render it as “subjected” or “subdued,” which can easily mislead someone into thinking that Christ is to replicate in heavenly form the earthly sort of authoritarian dominion he is abolishing, which reads the text against itself.

[3] Eternal punishment implies an infinite amount of evil to be punished, something that would be impossible for a finite being to commit, especially if evil is privative as it is in this Platonic tradition.

[4] Origen, On First Principles, trans. G.W. Butterworth and ed. John C. Cavadini. Notre Dame, IN: Christian Classics. 2013., p. 321: “Now the fact that he said, “He made him in the image of God,” and was silent about the likeness, points to nothing else but this, that man received the honor of God’s image in his first creation, whereas the perfection of God’s likeness was reserved for him at the consummation.” As Cavadini notes, this harkens to Plato’s Theaetetus 176b, where Socrates says that the philosopher should become like god to the extent that is possible.

[5] Origen,, p. 327: “For the destruction of the last enemy must be understood in this way, not that its substance which was made by God shall perish, but that the hostile purpose and will which proceeded not from God but from itself will come to an end. It will be destroyed, therefore, not in the sense of ceasing to exist, but of being no longer an enemy and no longer death. For to the Almighty nothing is impossible (cf. Jb 42:2), nor is anything beyond the reach of cure by its Maker; for it was on this account that he made all things, that they might exist, and those things which were made in order to exist cannot cease to exist.”

[6] Origen,, p. 324.

[7] Origen,, p. 324.