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* The Question at Stake
Is Origen of Alexandria the inventor of the eschatological doctrine of apokatastasis--of the eventual return of all creatures to the Good, that is, God, and thus universal salvation? Certainly, he is one of its chief supporters in all of history, and he is, as far as we know, the first to have maintained it in a complete and coherent way, so that all of his philosophy of history, protology, and anthropology is oriented toward this telos. (1) There are, however, significant antecedents to his mature and articulate theorization, at least some of which he surely knew very well, and there is even a possible parallel. For this conception did not appear ex nihilo, but in a cultural context rich in suggestions and premises, and in a philosophical framework of lively discussions concerning fate, free will, theodicy, and the eternal destiny of rational creatures.
* Premises in Early Christian Apocrypha: Intercession, Postmortem Conversion, and Christ's Role
I shall argue that a few early Christian apocrypha (2) are extremely significant for understanding the background to Origen's concept of apokatastasis. The most important of these are above all the Apocalypse of Peter and the Sibylline Oracles, in addition to the Apocalypse of Elijah, the Epistula Apostolorum, and the Life of Adam and Eve. Some of these works were well known to both Origen and Clement of Alexandria (3) and were considered by them to be inspired writings. Thus, even though these texts do not present a full-blown theory of universal salvation, they are likely to have constituted a common ground and source of inspiration for the development of the doctrine of apokatastasis.
The Apocalypse of Peter (Apoc. Pet.), (4) which was probably read in a liturgical context, attests to the doctrine of the intercession of the blessed for the damned in the eschatological scene, a conception that returns, in almost identical terms, in the Apocalypse of Elijah and in the Epistula Apostolorum. The Apoc. Pet. seems to be particularly ancient, as its Christology is extremely archaic (5): It can be placed in an Alexandrian or Egyptian milieu, ca. 100-135 C.E., according to Muller. (6) According to Norelli, (7) it may represent an important oral tradition independent of those of the canonical Gospels. As Heinrich Weinel observed, the Jewish Antichrist who persecutes Christians mentioned in chapter 2 may be an allusion to Bar Kochba. (8) The dating of the Apocalypse to the Bar Kochba war is upheld by a number of scholars, (9) although not by all. (10) James supposed that the Apoc. Pet. might be as ancient as that of John. (11) In any case, the Apoc. Pet. is the earliest Christian document to describe the kingdoms of the other world with its attendant rewards and punishments. (12) Its terminology is specifically Judaic, and so is the use of "just" in reference to the good and the blessed, which comes as no surprise given the connection of this document to the tradition attached to Peter, who in Rome introduced Christianity ritu Iudaico according to Ambrosiaster. (13) The presence of this Petrine tradition in Egypt in an early period is also related to the Egyptian tradition of Mark, Peter's disciple and "interpreter" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. (14) An Egyptian origin of the Apoc. Pet. would explain: 1) the reference in it to Egyptian elements, above all the Egyptian cult of animals (e.g., cat and reptile idols); 2) the synthesis of Jewish and Orphic traditions (and, I would add, Platonic traditions, given the allusions to the Phaedo that I shall mention shortly), which, as Jan Bremmer posits, most likely took place in Alexandria; (15) 3) the mention of the angel Tartaroukhos, unattested in classical literature but occurring in a Cypriote and an Egyptian tablet; (16) 4) Clement of Alexandria's knowledge of the text shortly after its composition, and echoes of it in the Passio Perpetuae; (17) and 5) the presence of both Jewish and Hellenistic motifs, such as the use of the term "just" and allusions to Plato (18) respectively, which seems to me to point to Hellenistic Judaism (compare Philo) and to Alexandria in particular. Not only did Clement know the Apoc. Pet., but he also considered it an inspired writing, like those of the New Testament. For this reason he commented on it in his Hypotyposeis, as attested by Eusebius (Hist. eccl. 6.14.1), who states that in this work Clement commented on all the books of the New Testament, "without omitting ... the so-called Apocalypse of Peter." (19) It is probable that Origen too considered this document to be very authoritative.
Several elements in the Apoc. Pet. are relevant to our question and can be seen as premises of the doctrine of apokatastasis. One such element is Christ's descensus ad inferos, (20) which is well attested in "Petrine" texts such as 1 Pet 3:19-21--where Christ is said to have announced salvation even to the wicked who had perished in the flood and are a type ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) of the non-baptized--and the Gospel of Peter, datable to the second century like the Apoc. Pet. Another element is the emptying of Hades, related to the descensus; a third is the idea that spiritual development is always possible, even in the other world. (21) Most important, however, is the notion of the final salvation of sinners together with the blessed, so that, after a longer or shorter period of suffering in the afterlife, sinners too will be able to enjoy communion with God and the saints, thanks to their own conversion after death or to the intercession of the blessed on their behalf. Moreover, in Ecl. 48 Clement quotes a passage from the Apoc. Pet., ascribing it to Peter himself ("Peter in his Apocalypse says that ...") and at 41 he even quotes a section from this Apocalypse assigning it to "Scripture" ("Scripture says that ..."), just as Methodius, an author deeply influenced by Clement and Origen, did a century later in Symp. 2.6 ("It has been handed down to us in divinely inspired Scriptures that ..."). Since the passages corresponding to Clement's and Methodius's quotations are also found in the Ethiopic translation of the Apoc. Pet., which constitutes its widest recension, (22) we can conclude with certainty that they actually belong to the Apoc. Pet. (23)
In the Ethiopic text, Christ affirms that he personally baptizes and saves and endows with eternal life those for whom he is supplicated, even after their death, and he says that he will be happy to do so: "Then I shall give to those who belong to me, the elect and justified, the bath and the salvation for which they have implored me, in the Acherusian valley, called Elysian Fields, and I shall go and rejoice together with them. (24) 1 shall have the peoples enter my eternal Kingdom, and I shall do for them that which I and my heavenly Father had promised them." (25) The parallel Greek Rainer fragment, which is far more ancient than the Ethiopic version and dates to the third century, (26) runs as follows: "I shall grant to my summoned and elect all those whom they ask me to remove from punishment [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]]. And I shall grant them a beautiful baptism in salvation [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]] in the Acherusian Lake, which is said to be in the Elysian valley, a sharing of justice and justification with my saints [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]]. And I and my elect will go and rejoice together with the Patriarchs in my eternal Kingdom [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]], and with them I shall keep my promises, made by me and by my Father who is in heaven [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]]." (27) The Ethiopic text is secondary, and it is significant that precisely in the passage corresponding to the Rainer fragment it plainly underwent modifications, in all probability due to the fact that the reviser tried to eliminate the patent reference to the salvation of the damned (and, according to some scholars, even universal salvation). (28) However, these are all limited modifications, which did not prevent scholars from recognizing the original version even before the discovery of the Rainer fragment. (29) The mention of the Acherusian Lake as a place passing through which the sinners will obtain salvation in the afterworld is remarkable because, even in such an early text, it is a clear reference to Plato's Phaedo. In Phaedo 113D--which is, notably, included in Eusebius's lengthy quotation--the sinners are said to be purified in the Acherusian Lake, which frees them ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) through expiation; in the Rainer fragment, this very lake is present and functions in the very same way. (30)
The Ethiopic translation of the Apoc. Pet., being complete, helps us to place the valuable Rainer fragment in context. In chapter 12 the description of the sinners' torments ends with the river of fire creating a wheel which will "turn numberless times." Chapter 13 states that the just watch the punishment of the damned, which is described as "eternal," but the Greek Vorlage surely had the scriptural expression [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], indicating not an "eternal" punishment, but rather, one that lasts for an indefinite period in the world to come. (31) The conclusion of chapter 13, in fact, runs as follows: "The aionios punishment is for each one according to his or her deeds.... The angel Tartaroukhos will come and instruct them with punishment, telling them: 'You repent now that there is no time left for repentance, and you have no life left.' And they all will say: 'God's judgment is right. We have heard and known that his judgment is good, because we have paid each one according to his/her actions.'" The "aionios punishment" is the ultra-mundane punishment, not the eternal punishment, and its aim is therapeutic and pedagogical, a conception that is stressed in Clement, Origen, and Gregory of Nyssa. (32) Although some passages in the Apoc. Pet. speak of "eternal" punishment for the damned, in chapter 14 Jesus unequivocally announces their final salvation. There is no contradiction here, however, since behind the Ethiopic "eternal" stands the Greek [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], (33) which in the biblical lexicon signifies "eternal" only when it refers to God; otherwise it means "ancient," "remote," "enduring," "divine, heavenly" or "pertaining to the future world." (34) The adjective [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] for punishment and fire and future death, both in the Bible and in the Apoc. Pet., does not imply their absolute eternity and does not contradict the salvation of the damned expressed in chapter 14. Already at the beginning of Jesus' revelation to Peter (chs. 3-4), when Peter, worrying about the sinners' fate, says to Jesus: "O my Lord, please permit me to quote your own words concerning these sinners, namely, 'Better if they had never been created,'" Jesus immediately reminds him of God's mercy: "O Peter, why do you say that not having been created would have been better for them? It is you who oppose God in this way! But you certainly do not have more mercy than God has, who created them." If Peter pities the damned, but God is said to have even more mercy than Peter has, it is already possible to foresee an outcome of salvation. Immediately after this, Jesus, who is about to speak of the eschatological perspective, tells Peter, who is worrying about the damned, that "there is nothing that perishes for God, nothing that is impossible for him" (4.5). (35) In 5.8-9, infernal punishment is described through traditional images employed in the Gospels, such as the "fire that cannot be put out" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) and the "gnashing of teeth." These punishments are evidently not deemed to be opposed to the eventual salvation of the damned anticipated in chapters 3-4 and proclaimed in chapter 14, where it is asserted that Jesus will pull the damned out of the torments. This is all the more remarkable in that the Apoc. Pet. is a coherent text, endowed with a strong unity; (36) already at the beginning we find hints of the notion of the salvation of the damned.
The fundamental role of Jesus as Savior of the sinners is evident when he liberates them from the torments and plunges them into the Acherusian Lake. This is why as early as 3.5 he is called "the Savior" in the discussion concerning the ultimate fate of sinners. The cross that precedes him on his Parousia in 1.6 indicates the salvific power of Christ's sacrifice, which will be revealed only in the eschatological scene. This is thus not in sharp contrast with passages such as 6.6: "They will prepare for them a place where they will be punished 'eternally,' each one in conformity to his own sin," where the Greek had [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], "indefinitely, in the world to come"; 6.9: "They will be burnt together with them in the 'eternal' fire ... they will punish them 'eternally,'" where the underlying Greek was the New Testament expression [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], the fire of the world to come, which lasts indefinitely, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], and 7.8: "We didn't know that we were to come to the 'eternal' punishment," where the Greek Vorlage surely had [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], the only biblical phrase that corresponds--for there exists no [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (eternal punishment) in the Bible, no [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (eternal death), no [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (eternal fire). (37)
The Ethiopic translation of the Apoc. Pet. is found within the Ethiopic version of the Pseudo-Clementines, (38) in which a long dialogue between Peter and Jesus is entirely devoted to the problem of sinners' salvation (139rb-144rb). The result is the final salvation of sinners (39) after their torments. In this case, it is Jesus himself who intercedes for them, rather than the blessed. Peter asks Jesus to reveal to him the fate of the sinners on the last day and is upset at the thought of the second death (139rb-140ra). Jesus answers that sinners will not repent if they understand (140ra), that is, if they know that they will eventually be saved in any way. This is an idea that Origen, who read and knew the Apoc. Pet., would develop: he was convinced that awareness of universal salvation might facilitate sin, especially in morally immature persons who need to be motivated by fear in order to do good. (Origen expresses this concern several times and says that it is better to believe in eternal damnation and repent than not to believe in it and remain in sin. (40)) Peter intervenes as a defender, observing that he is the first sinner because he denied the Lord three times (140rab). Jesus replies that it will be up to the Father to grant mercy (140rb-140vb): "Because the mercy of my Father is like this: as the sun rises and the rain falls in the same way, so shall we have mercy and compassion for all of our creatures" (140rb). When Peter asks him to speak clearly, Jesus answers that upon his return he will destroy the devil and severely punish the sinners (140vb-141vb). Peter then expresses his concern about the "second death" consisting in other-worldly punishment for sinners (141 vb), but Jesus replies: "You will have no more mercy on the sinners than I do, for I was crucified because of the sinners, in order to obtain mercy for them by my Father." The Lord will have mercy upon them and will give each of them "life, glory, and kingdom without end," in that Jesus will intercede for them, but this ought to be kept secret, in order not to provoke sin (141vb-142bv). This was a real concern, which must have been felt also by those who believed in the ultimate salvation of all. (41)
Peter thanks Jesus for the explanation and says that he now can believe without doubting any more, after knowing that only Satan and the demons will descend to Sheol (143vb-144ra). Peter concludes by describing the various orders of saved humanity according to Paul's words in 1 Cor 15, on which Origen comments as well: "each one in his/her own order." This dialogue is reported by Peter to Clement with the recommendation to keep this mystery secret: truth concerning the ultimate salvation of the damned should not be communicated overtly, because this might encourage sin.
Thus, the Apoc. Pet. seems to have been a good basis for the doctrine of apokatastasis, even though it does not yet maintain it expressly, and it certainly was known to both Clement and Origen. Moreover, it stresses the indispensable role of Christ's sacrifice in the final restoration of the sinners, an important trait that will be emphasized by Origen, according to whom the apokatastasis is made possible by Christ's cross.
But the Apoc. Pet. is not the only ancient "apocryphal" text that contains such suggestions. Other texts, some of which depend on it, express a similar idea of intercession for the damned, which paves the way for their salvation. The Coptic Apocalypse of Elijah, a text that is related to Jewish apocalypticism (42) and likewise derives from the Egyptian region, dating to the second or third century C.E., includes a passage that bears a close resemblance to the conception expressed by the Rainer fragment. Here it is the just, already blessed, who intercede for sinners, (43) just as in a text of apostolic tradition which originated in Syria in the first decades of the second century, (44) the Epistula Apostolorum 40. (45) Another example is the second book of the Oracula Sibyllina, (46) which derives from the Apoc. Pet. and dates to the mid-second century. (The first two books of the Oracula are closely connected to one another and are Christian). (47) The Oracula are well known in early Patristics and are quoted by Justin, Clement, and Origen. (48) They contain a paraphrase of a long section of the Apoc. Pet. in Greek hexameters. Indeed, some editors include Oracula 2.190-338 as an appendix to the Apoc. Pet. (49)
The context of the relevant portion of the Oracula is eschatological. Soon after describing the terrible torments of the damned, which are abundantly represented in the Apoc. Pet. as well, the Oracula depict the dwelling place of the blessed. (50) Immediately after comes the relevant passage (2.330-38): "And to these pious persons immortal and omnipotent God will grant another gift: when they will ask him, he will grant them to save the human beings from the fierce fire, and from the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] gnashing of teeth, and will do so after having pulled them out of the imperishable flame and …