Apocatastasis – The Ancient Christian Idea That Won’t Die

I was reading a meditation by Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM, a noted contemporary Christian mystic. One line caught my particular attention. He said, “God is calling everyone and everything to God’s self (Gen. 8:16-17, Eph. 1:9-10, Col. 1:15-20, Acts 3:21, 1 Tim. 2:4, John 3:17).”

Rohr’s quote above holds within it the possibility of a form of universal restoration or return of the entire created universe to God.  This is an ancient idea in Christianity, albeit a controversial one.  We can summarize the whole controversy in one Greek word:  ἀποκατάστᾰσις , [transliterated as apocatastasis] meaning restoration, re-establishment.

The concept of “restore” or “re-establish” is found in the Old Testament in the Hebrew verb שׁוּב (shuwb/shuv) and is used when referring to “restoring” of the fortunes of Job.  It is also used in the sense of “rescue” or “return” of captives, and in the “restoration” of Jerusalem.  In terms of shuwb as apocatastasis, Malachi 4:6 is the only use of the verb form of apocatastasis in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament, ca. 250 – 100 BC; also abbreviated “LXX”). It reads:

“He will turn (restore –apokatastesei) the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of the children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.” (NRSV and LXX)

The word apocatastasis only appears once in the New Testament, in Acts 3:21. After healing a beggar, Peter speaks to the astonished onlookers. In his sermon, Peter places Jesus in a very Jewish context as the fulfilment of the Old Covenant, saying:

“[Jesus] whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring (apokatastaseos) all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago.”

The idea of apocatastasis is supported further in the New Testament by the writer of 1 Timothy who declares that it is God’s will that all men should be saved (cf., 1 Timothy 2:4).

The concept of apocatastasis is also found in many writings of the early Church Fathers.  In early Christian theological usage, apocatastasis meant the ultimate restoration of all things to their original state, which early exponents believed would still entail a purgatorial or cathartic, cleansing state.  The meaning of the word was still very flexible during that time.  For example, Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 – c. 215) generally uses the term apocatastasis to refer to the “restoration” of the mature, or “gnostic”, Christians, rather than that of the universe or of all Christians, but with universal implications.  The position of Origen (186–284) is disputed, with works as recent as the New Westminster Dictionary of Church History presenting him as speculating that the apocatastasis would involve universal salvation.  Most historians today would recognize a distinction between Origen’s own teachings (or at least those that have survived) and the theological positions of later “Origenists” (a later school of theological thought based on his teachings). A form of apocatastasis is also attributed to two sainted Cappadocian Fathers of the fourth century; both Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus discussed it without reaching a decision.

Theological discourse continued until by the mid-6th century apocatastasis had virtually become a technical term referring, as it usually does today, to a specifically Origenistic doctrine of universal salvation.  An Anathema (a formal curse by an ecumenical council of the Church, excommunicating a person or denouncing a doctrine) against apocatastasis, or more accurately, against the belief that hell is not eternal, was formally submitted to the Fifth Ecumenical Council of Constantinople (AD 553). Despite support from the Roman Emperor, the Anathema against apocatastasis is not one of the Anathemas spoken against Origen by the fifth council.

As late as the 7th century, Maximus the Confessor (580-662) outlined God’s plan for “universal” salvation alongside warnings of everlasting punishment for the wicked. Maximus was very clear that the “telos”, the ultimate end, was a mystery.

So, why does the concept of Apocatastasis persist down to this day, in men like Roman Catholic Fr. Richard Rohr and Orthodox Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, in spite of the Western institutional church’s absolute obsession with the concept and threat of eternal hell, damnation, and torment? To me, it’s quite simple. The idea of apocatastasis persists because it appeals to an enlightened heart.

The universe was created “good”.  It is God’s will that all men should be saved.  God is love.  Love is patient, kind, is not irritable or resentful, bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things; Love never ends.  Greater is He (the Son, the Logos, the Word) that is immanent in the spirit of all created beings, than he (Satan, evil) who is in the world.   Deep in my heart, I believe that ultimately, in some future age, in the end (telos), God (Love) wins. (Gen. 1:31, 1 Tim. 2:4, 1 John 4:8, 1 Cor. 13, 1 John 4:4).

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