The Severity of Universal Salvation

For we must believe that God rules and arranges the universe by judgment at all times.

—Origen, De principiis 2.9.8

Among the most common objections to the idea of a universal salvation—the restoration of all things, as patristic theologians called it—is the thought that so reckless a doctrine of grace lacks any notion of eschatological judgment adequate to the utter depravity of human sin.[1] Essentially, it is a worry that the wicked among us will get a free pass. And it is a justified anxiety. Surely justice for wrongdoing is as inescapable a deduction of reason as it is a running theme throughout sacred scripture. The mistake, then, is not the commonsensical assumption that sin cannot go unpunished, but rather the presumption that classical Christian arguments in favor of a universal salvation lack a clear concept of judgment.


On the contrary, there is good reason to think that apokatastasis, the term of art for universal salvation in Origen of Alexandria and his heirs, entails a concept of judgment just as exacting, just as rigorous, and every bit as righteous as the sort of purely punitive punishment on offer in any version of the doctrine of eternal damnation. To make this case is both to defend the strong claim that all shall be saved and, just as importantly, to chasten those for whom this restoration is already a foregone conclusion. The ancient Christian teaching of the apokatastasis, in other words, is no romantic reverie; it should, quite literally, scare the hell out of you.


Consider Origen’s gloss on the “eternal fire” of which Jesus warns in Matthew 25:41. The Alexandrian exegete characteristically connects the mention of “fire” here to another place in scripture where the word also appears—in this case, Isaiah 50:11. “Walk in the light of your fire and in the flame which you have kindled for yourself,” says the prophet. Origen takes the intercanonical injunction as a clue to what kind of punishment Jesus promises. The eternal fire cannot be something that precedes the sinner himself, as if lit by someone else. Rather, it must be that “every sinner kindles for himself the flame of his own fire,” with his own sins providing the tinder.[2]


Origen, notice, describes an eschatological judgment fitted to—indeed, furnished by—the specific sins of individual souls. Unlike the indifferent inferno in which the massa damnata supposedly languish, punishment is here figured as a radically personal affair—which is, to my mind, just as terrifying a prospect for those of us who have already stockpiled enough sins to keep a fire burning for many ages to come.


But Origen develops the image further. Our sins are not only like straw fed to a roaring flame but like an excess of nasty germs ingested from eating filth which overrun the body and produce a broiling fever. Hallucinations accompany this fever, and the sickly sinner is forced to relive every wrong he or she has ever done as they bubble to the surface of perception. The mind, says Origen, “will see exposed before its eyes a kind of history of its evil deeds, of every foul and disgraceful act and all unholy conduct.” Thus, he concludes, the soul “becomes an accuser and witness against itself,” made to suffer a sickness of its own making.[3] One need only revisit any great work of tragedy to be reminded that suffering a fate fashioned by one’s own hands is far more painful than enduring the blows of a blind providence.


Nevertheless, the point here—as ever with Origen—is that, in its ownmost afflictions, the soul is actually given the chance to suffer a salvation decidedly not of its own making. Which is why, ultimately, affirmation of apokatastasis is never far from the ascetic impulse in his thought. Salvation, for Origen, is a gratuitous event to be sure, but it only ever happens alongside a willingness to die to oneself. The great irony, of course, is that the self to which one must die is only ever a shadow-self, an elaborate fiction we contrive to avoid recognizing our true identity hidden away in God’s wisdom from eternity. As he puts it later in the same text, riffing on the “cup of fury” mentioned in Jeremiah 25:15-16, it is as though God sets before “all nations” a poisoned cup, that “they may drink it and become mad and vomit,” thereby ridding themselves of the shadows they let masquerade as their souls (De prin. 2.10.6).[4] Salvation is purgation and vice versa.


There are many passages like this throughout Origen’s corpus—compiling a florilegium of them would be no less sobering than instructive—and they each point up a concept of judgment fundamentally ordered to freedom, and a concept of freedom finally ordered to beatitude. These are deductions that follow logically, for Origen, from the fact of logos itself made flesh, and no one followed him more consistently on this score than Gregory of Nyssa. For both, apokatastasis is a doctrine based not on liberal sentiment but on the nature of the God revealed in the person of Jesus Christ; it is for them, in other words, an inescapable conclusion of orthodox theology. Theirs are intricate and rigorous arguments, of which caricatures cannot do justice, and it would do little good to attempt a potted summary of them here. Besides, there are already several lengthy monographs on the topic, and at least one more on its way.[5] Suffice it to say, for now, that, as far as Origen and Gregory (and not only them) are concerned, any God whose goodness is finally outstripped by its opposite will turn out to be no God at all.


Instead, therefore, what I wish to attend—what I would like to tarry with a bit longer than we normally do when the topic of universal restoration is raised—is the unsung severity of the judgment that all shall be saved. And make no mistake: apokatastasis is a judgment. For if it is true that there is but one path for all, this will not simply happen to be the case by means of some dramatic tension, the resolution of which is not yet known. No, the restoration of all things, if real, cannot be the fortuitous outcome of a contingent state of affairs which could have been otherwise. Rather, the salvation of all will be so because God has willed it to be so, and therefore it will have always been so.


As both Origen and Gregory realized, this is primarily to say something about the God who saves and only secondarily about the precise scope of the salvation that God wills. It is, among other things, to say—as Gregory does in his short but breathtaking treatise on St. Paul’s puzzling remarks in 1 Cor 15:28 regarding the subjection of the Son, known to posterity as In Illud: Tunc et Ipse Filius—that, in the end, God must be all in all because there is nothing, let alone evil (which is less than nothing), which can finally stand over against God’s infinite goodness.[6] To outlast through longsuffering every attempt to outwit the realization of God’s kingdom—this is the true character of divine infinity.


Nonetheless, as Gregory shows, nowhere more clearly than in this same treatise, if divine infinity be not a pious abstraction—if, instead, the positive content of the Lord’s limitless beauty is, as he puts it, “the divine life pervading all things,” thus swallowing up death and decay—then the strictly theological claim on which the doctrine of apokatastasis rests must also be a judgment concerning creation. Which is only to say, apokatastasis is correlative to Christology. This is why, for instance, Gregory interprets Paul’s reference to the Son’s eschatological “subjection,” a statement potentially fraught with non-Nicene implications, as a claim about the full deliverance of the human body the Lord assumed as his own in Christ.


If “nothing is outside what is to be saved,” writes Gregory, this is because the body of Christ just is “the entire human nature into which he has been mixed,” with which he has been “mingled.” The Lord, therefore, “builds up his body by successive stages,” gradually incorporating the cosmos as God’s own flesh, before finally delivering up this body—his own—to the Father, in perfect obedience, just as he has done from all eternity.[7] As in Origen, so here in Gregory: salvation may be more but never less than subjection.


Before rushing headlong into doctrinal incredulity about all this, consider for a moment what it would really mean if Gregory were right. All, on this account, are called to the selfsame obedience the Son freely owes the Father, and this since the Son’s eternal relation to the Father itself contains the full realization of his perfect obedience in the whole of humanity. One may indeed object to, say, the christological implications of the speculative eschatologies Origen and Gregory sketch—and that would be well and good, for Christology is the heart of the matter—but it would be wrong, I think, to feign as though their arguments in favor of apokatastasis lacked a sufficient sense of justice.


It would, in other words, be little more than bad faith to presume patristic apologists for a universal salvation let the wicked off too easy. For the Christ of whom Origen and Gregory speak demands nothing less of sinful creatures than the perfection of their Father in heaven. Furthermore, the God of whom they speak refuses to bring this good work to completion among his sons and daughters without their full consent.


It should not require a theological treatise, much less the anxious methods of psychoanalysis, to recognize that the human will is capable of a seemingly endless charade of avoidance. Origen infamously entertained a seemingly endless proliferation of ages because he knew, presumably firsthand, that very often the soul would rather journey on with its false attachments than be transfigured. So, if he countenanced the idea of a God patient enough to make time for fallen creatures to willingly repent, it is because Origen knew, presumably firsthand, that there is no shortcut to reformed desire.


As the great Herbert McCabe, O.P. says, in a context quite different from Origen’s meditation on first principles, the bewildering process of coming to live rightly we call “morality” must be “a matter of enabling people to make good decisions which will be their own decisions.” Morality is about “learning to be free,” and “doing that in any depth,” warns McCabe, “has to take most of a lifetime.”[8] Origen would surely agree; only, he seems much less sanguine than McCabe (and not only McCabe) about what the soul can actually accomplish in the span of a single life. At any rate, regardless of one’s view on the cascade of ages to come, the point, again, is that it would be gravely mistaken to deduce from Origen’s commitment to universal salvation an overly optimistic view of human nature—quite the opposite, in fact.


If, though, one remains unconvinced that apokatastasis is not simply some hippyish reprieve for reprobates otherwise deserving of divine retribution, perhaps the best course of action is an examen-like inventory of one’s own sins. All of them: those of commission and omission; those committed against yourself and those against others; those you have done and those you will do; those you cannot help from doing and those in which you consciously persist; those personal vices to which you are obviously party and those systemic injustices with which you are unwittingly complicit; those of compromise and those done by committee . . .  


Bring all of these to mind. Envision drinking the LORD’s “cup of fury” and vomiting them up, as Origen puts it. Then imagine enduring the scorching flame those sins have ignited, and doing so until you are ready to repent of them—ready to repent not for the pain of being made to recall them, as though the fire was merely a punitive measure meant to goad a vague sense of remorse, but ready to take responsibility for the counterfeit corpse these specific sins have molded, and thus prepared to consign every last one of their ghastly sinews to the outer darkness before replacing them each in turn with ligaments worthy of shining raiment. It is simply presumptuous to assume shedding the shadow-self one has spent a lifetime shrouding around one’s soul is any less painful or punishing than serving an eternal sentence in an inferno not of one’s own making.


Of course, no one—ancient, modern, or in-between—has belied this particular presumption with greater force or sharper wit than George MacDonald. His whole corpus is practically one long refutation of the very idea of an eternal damnation—and this only because its principal theme is the Father’s indefatigable love for his children. (He would read his Origen, of course.) But it is the harrowing thirty-ninth chapter of Lilith: A Romance which offers the most vivid narration I have read of the Origenian account of eschatological judgment sketched above. Indeed, all I have said here might be but a far less elegant gloss on the word-picture MacDonald there limns.  


Lilith, queen of hell, has been captured at last, but not before slaying her own daughter. She is led to “the house of bitterness,” made so not by its tenant but by the prodigal sons and daughters for whom its lady sorrows. Mara, MacDonald’s Marian figura, receives Lilith into her home this night, and there the wicked queen is finally made to repent. Except this repentance, even if made under threat, is not coerced. When first asked to acknowledge her sins, Lilith cries out: “You may be able to torture me—I do not know, but you will not compel me to anything against my will!” To which Mara replies, “Such a compulsion would be without value. But there is a light that goes deeper than the will.”[9] The chapter at hand charts the painful, paradoxical process of voluntarily relinquishing one’s will to the endless glory whence it emanated; its description of how it might seem to die to one’s shadow-self amounts to something like a phenomenology of salvation.


Indeed, what makes MacDonald’s scene of redemption at once so beautiful and yet so thoroughly disquieting is that its resolution depends not at all on the intervention of a deus ex machina character but on the willing submission of the story’s central villain. Unsurprisingly, Lilith’s will does not easily bend. She is determined to keep the false self she has forged, refuses to regard herself as the good creature she was made to be; she will see neither who she is nor who she has become. When she does at last deign to look upon herself, Lilith’s resistance turns to resentment: she wishes to be unmade. But, Mara warns, indignation sheds “not the tears of repentance!” For “[s]elf-loathing is not sorrow,” even if “it is good, for it marks a step in the way home.”[10] Lilith is not saved until she acknowledges the goodness her sins have deprived, until she rights the wrongs her wayward will has wrought. Which proves the most painful metanoia yet. MacDonald figures Lilith’s final obstinance as inability (or is it, again, unwillingness?) to open a clinched fist. This, she does not do until she dies to her false self, until she passes through the outer darkness, into which her shadow-self vanishes like the nothingness it ever was. Then—and only then—does Mara, the Mother of Sorrows, lead Lilith to her father’s house, where she receives forgiveness.


Even so, this forgiveness is not the turning of a blind eye. For Mara’s father, Adam, at once the first and second, forgives Lilith as one whom her sins have wronged, one to whom her amends are owed—not, at any rate, as some judge impartial to her trespasses. “You have wronged him worst of the created,” remarks Mara, “therefore he best of the created can help you.”[11] With this, Mara reminds Lilith that her sins have prevented the flourishing of Adam’s offspring; that he is both most wronged and best able to help means he is both protoplast and redeemer, the former since he bears the tarnished imago and the latter since he restores this divine likeness to its original fullness. Nonetheless, by figuring the first and last man as the very same, MacDonald betrays a subtle understanding of human nature and its desecration (one not so different from Gregory of Nyssa’s, I would add). His insight, in short, is that sin always exceeds the borders of one’s own soul, that others are always made to bear the weight of even our most seemingly individual iniquities, and this because that which is truly personal, for MacDonald, is interpersonal.


If this be true of sin, how much more of salvation. Later in the story, when the narrator Mr. Vane, like Lilith, is made to confront himself, he describes how it seemed to revisit his sins: “Fully in every wrong lived the conscious I, confessing, abjuring, lamenting the deed, making atonement with each person I had injured, hurt, or offended.”[12] Redemption here requires the making one, again, of human relations sundered by the soul’s selfish regard. Which is to say, MacDonald adds to Origen’s inventory of evil deeds a social reckoning: the soul must not only relive its many crimes against fellow creatures but also reconcile with its countless counterparts, replace the graces it deprived them with services still owed. At every turn, MacDonald’s watchword: “Only good where evil was, is evil dead. An evil thing must live with its evil until it chooses to be good. That alone is the slaying of evil.” This, says Adam, under the aspect of the winsome Mr. Raven, is a path more toilsome than mere “annihilation,” but truer nonetheless.[13]


However convicting some us find this fairy tale, I have certainly no illusions it alone—or any of the similarly striking passages from Origen and Gregory for that matter—will convert the skeptics. And that is because I am not sure the real impediment to acknowledging the justice of apokatastasis is finally a matter of affect. Instead, I suspect the psychological presumption of which I spoke earlier is a metaphysical conviction, a hermeneutical prejudice that blocks recognition in this particular tract of the tradition instead of enabling understanding.[14]


It is a sometimes spoken but often tacit assumption that punishment, if it be truly just, must bear no final assurance of pardon; that, to render the same point in a slightly more metaphysical guise, negativity is not really possible in the presence of closure. These thoughts bar apokatastasis in some strands of Christian theology, ranging from the crudest forms of double predestination in certain Reformed circles to the rationalization of eternal damnation among those of a more Augustinian-Thomist stripe. But in almost every case, I would wager, pearl clutching at the supposed scandal of a universal salvation masks deeper attachment to a logic of grace in thrall to the chiaroscuro effect of exclusion.


Thus, despite the oft stated offense at universal salvation’s alleged injustice, we arrive, inexorably, at questions of speculative theology—which cannot, I would submit, be resolved simply by pointing out the pathos of an ultimately comic eschatology, however worthwhile that task may be. Settling these underlying objections to apokatastasis would require candid debate over theology’s first things themselves—God, world, and their identity in Jesus Christ, I mean. Getting clearer about these should allow us a better vantage on the last things. But that is only to say eschatology is neither a mere ornament placed atop a freestanding doctrinal edifice nor an opportunity to exercise epistemic humility, but rather the very substance of Christian faith. Of course, Origen knew this better than anyone.


Perhaps, then, it would be best to close with words from another one of his disciples:

Since as our Lord Jesus Christ is the beginning, middle, and end of all the ages past, present, and future, one could say that through the power of faith, “the end of the ages”—I mean that end which will be actualized by grace according to its proper form in the divinization of the worthy—“has already come upon us” (1 Cor 10:11).[15]

The end has already come, say Origen and his heirs; what is left is the difficult work of making ourselves worthy of it.

[1] Thanks to Justin Shaun Coyle and Jordan Daniel Wood, from whom learned more on the present topic in particular, than I could possibly confess here; they read a previous draft of this essay and offered characteristically insightful commentary.

[2] Origen, De principiis 2.10.4; ET: John Behr, Origen : On First Principles, Vol. 2 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 261.

[3] Ibid., 261.

[4] Ibid., 265.

[5] Cf. Morwenna Ludlow, Universal Salvation: Eschatology in the Thought of Gregory of Nyssa and Karl Rahner (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000); Ilaria L.E. Ramelli, The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis: A Critical Assessment from the New Testament to Eriugena, Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae 120 (Leiden: Brill, 2013); David Bentley Hart, That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, & Universal Salvation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019).

[6] See Rowan A. Greer’s lively translation in One Path for All: Gregory of Nyssa on the Christian Life and Human Destiny, ed. J. Warren Smith (Cambridge: James Clarke and Co., 2015), 118-132.

[7] Gregory of Nyssa, In Illud; Greer, 127.

[8] Herbert McCabe, O.P., God Still Matters, ed. Brian Davies, O.P. (London: Continuum, 2002), 198.

[9] George MacDonald, Lilith: A Romance (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1981), 200.

[10] Ibid., 203.

[11] Ibid., 207.

[12] Ibid., 231.

[13] Ibid., 153.

[14] “The problem of critique in hermeneutics, namely how to distinguish the true prejudices, by which we understand, from the false ones, by which we misunderstand.” Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 309.

[15] Maximus the Confessor, Ad Thal 22.6; ET: Fr. Maximos Constas, St Maximos the Confessor: On Difficulties in Sacred Scripture: The Responds to Thalassios, FOC 136 (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2018), 152.


Featured Image: Workshop of Master of the Biberach Holy Kinship, The Last Judgment, 1520; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0 (Avec l'aimable autorisation du Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon).


Taylor Ross

Taylor Ross is a Duke PhD student in the Early Christianity track of the Graduate Program in Religion. His research is situated at the intersections of patristic theology, idealisms ancient and modern, and the philosophy of language.

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