Flesh and Fire: Reincarnation and Universal Salvation in the Early Church

March 19, 2019
Flesh and Fire: Reincarnation and Universal Salvation in the Early Church
Professor Charles Stang. Photo: Justin Knight

Charles Stang, director of the Center for the Study of World Religions and Professor of Early Christian Thought, delivered the first Price Lecture of 2019 at Trinity Church Boston on March 10, 2019.


First of all, I’d like to thank Bill, Patrick, and Rita, and the entire Trinity community for the opportunity to be with you this afternoon and to share my passion for early Christian thought. It’s a great honor to give one of this year’s Price lectures.

I’d like to begin my talk with the image on your handout. It is a modern icon, by an iconographer named Eileen McGuckin. There are no ancient icons of Origen because he was declared a heretic in the sixth century, almost exactly 300 years after his death, and the orthodox church does not generally preserve icons of heretics. The fact that a modern orthodox iconographer has chosen to paint or “write” an icon of Origen suggests that there are others, like me, who would like to see him rehabilitated in the church. I will return to the circumstances that led to his condemnation later, but right now I want to draw your attention to a fantastic irony embedded in the icon. You will notice that Origen is preaching from a pulpit, from a scroll that reads, “attend above all else to the reading of the scriptures.” Below him bent in pious attention to his words, are a crowd of characters, including in the first row, right to left, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory Thaumaturgus or the “Wonder-Worker,” Melania the Elder, Maximus the Confessor, and Gregory of Nyssa. Behind them are rows of other mothers and fathers of the early church, from both the Greek and Latin traditions.

If these names are unknown to you, suffice to say they are the men and women whom the tradition remembers as the architects and defenders of Christian orthodoxy, the authors and advocates of the Christian councils and creeds. Collectively they are “the saints” and we can read their names from the saintly halos around each of their heads. Notice, however, that Origen has no halo: he is not a saint. The icon captures the historical irony that this heretic taught the saints. These saints were avid readers of Origen, in some cases even anthologizing or translating his work for wider audiences. What does this mean for the ongoing relationship of orthodoxy and heresy? What does it mean that the architects of orthodoxy drunk deep from the well of a man whose views were subsequently regarded as beyond the pale? Is his influence still felt in the tradition as if it were an underground river, a source of sustenance just beneath the orthodox surface? And is it time to bring that source to the surface?


Origen was born in Alexandria in the late second century to Christian parents who gave him a pagan name: Ôrigenês, “child of Horus,” the falcon-headed sky god of the Egyptian pantheon. His was a life bookended by persecution: his father killed for his faith when Origen was only sixteen years old; Origen himself died from tortures suffered under the persecution of the emperor Decius in the year 253 or 254. His tormenters wanted him to yield so that they would have a prominent apostate with which to embarrass the church. That he did not yield, or die in their custody, but expired only later from his wounds meant that he was not, strictly speaking, like his father, a “martyr”—a witness to his faith unto death. He was only a “confessor.” Ironically, had he died a martyr, he probably would never have been condemned as a heretic, because martyrdom tended to inoculate someone from the suspicion of heresy. If you died for the faith, this reasoning went, then you must have been held the right belief, orthodoxia.

Between these violent bookends, Origen led a life of learning. Nicknamed “Adamantius,” he was the first “man of steel”—although it is perhaps better to think of the etymology of this title, adamas or “untameable,” for there is indeed something wild and untamed about his thinking. He was a scholar, a teacher, and a daring thinker.

As my title suggests, I will be speaking about reincarnation and universal salvation in Origen’s theology. But in order to understand what he says or suggests about reincarnation, we need to know what he says about incarnation, both our own incarnation and Christ’s. And in order to appreciate what Origen says about incarnation we must first enter the landscape of his mind, and it is in many ways alien territory. A good place to begin is the Book of Genesis, and its first two chapters. Origen was not the first ancient reader to notice that Genesis seemed to have two creation stories, not one: in the first, God creates the world and all that is in it, including humankind, over the course of six days; in the second, God creates Adam “from the dust of the ground,” then Eve from Adam’s rib, and then the two of them run afoul of a serpent in the garden and are banished by God from this Eden. Origen noticed that the two verbs used to describe the creation of humankind in each story were different. In the first story, we read that “God made (epoiêsen) the human, according to divine image he made (epoiêsen) it” (Genesis 1:27). God “made”—Epoiêsen from poiein, “to make”—from whence we get “poetry.” In the second story, we read that “God formed (eplasen) the human, dust from the earth, and breathed into his face a breath of life, and the man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7). God “formed”—Eplasen from plassein, “to form” or “to mold”—from whence we get “plastic.”

Certain that every detail and difference in the Scriptures is significant, Origen insisted that these two verbs, and these two stories, tell us of two distinct creations. Origen says that God first made us as minds—the Greek word for mind is nous, but in Greek this word is not so much a faculty of cognition (as we think of mind) as it is a faculty of contemplation, intuition, and receptivity. Origen equates the mind with the spirit (pneuma), the highest element in the tripartite division of spirit, soul, and body. For Origen, the sole purpose of the original mind-spirits was to contemplate their creator. Something distracted them, however, some movement within themselves, some force eating away at their powers of attention. All of the them, except one, turned away from God to varying degrees, and God formed these fallen minds into angels, humans, and demons depending on the degree of their distraction. Around them all he formed a world in which to house them, to heal them, to restore them. If we were once God’s own poems, we have now become like living plastics, stiff and rigid and enduring over many lifetimes.

So, we were first made as minds, and as minds we were made in the image of God, imago dei. And since, as the scriptures tell us, “God is a consuming fire” (Deut. 4:24, 9:3; Heb. 12:29), minds were made in the image of this fire. In fact, they were made to be like irons in the great fire of God: as long as they were plunged into the fire, they were aflame. But just like irons, when they were removed from God’s fire, they cooled and became evermore solid and slow. This cooling is our mythological descent into souls and bodies, the fall into flesh.

For Origen, all of this is by God’s design. Our fall into flesh is in fact our opportunity for rehabilitation. The original fiery mind moved quickly, too quickly, and so it was easily distracted. The descent into this world slows the mind down, now encumbered by a soul and a body, and trains it over many, many lifetimes to pay steadier attention. Whenever we successfully pay steady attention to anything, this or that, we inch closer to contemplation, and we blaze just a little brighter.

This rehabilitation, by the way, is something we share with our sibling minds, the angels and demons. They too were fiery minds; they too have fallen. Angels help us along the way, and demons hinder us—just like siblings (I’ve got six of them, so I know). The transformation from flesh to fire must be free, Origen thought, and thus it will take a long, long time: many, many lifetimes, and perhaps successive worlds. In order for God to be “all in all,” as the apostle Paul promises, Origen insisted that all the fallen minds must eventually be restored. He believed the apostle Peter foretold of this when he spoke in the Acts of the Apostles 3:21 of a “restoration of all things” (apokatastasis pantôn). Origen took Peter at his word: all things, all the fallen minds, including Satan, must be restored—in other words, he insisted on universal salvation, but worked out across many lifetimes and successive worlds—in other words, reincarnation. In the end, the apokatastasis, the last to be saved will be Satan. “Satan” is simply the name we give to the mind that fell furthest, the mind most stubbornly entrenched in sin and ignorance.

Not everyone in his day, or since, has appreciated Origen’s insistence on universal salvation, that God will not cease until all the fallen minds are gathered once again around their creator. If pressed, Origen will even acknowledge that, strictly speaking, “Satan” will never be saved, because by the time that fallen mind we now call “Satan” is slowly and painfully rehabilitated, it will no longer bear the name “Satan.” If it is fully restored, that soul, like any other, will bear the name “Christ.” Clever as it is, this move has never seemed to satisfy those critics who are certain that God intends eternal torment for the damned.

Two models of incarnation: ‘husk and kernel’ and ‘states of matter’
So, flesh and fire: these are, in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the walls between which the human being swings. Our core identity, as it were, is fire; our accreted identity is flesh. And somehow the fall from fire to flesh helps rehabilitate and restore ourselves. But how? How does our core identity as minds—an identity we share, by the way, with demons and angels—how does our core identity relate to our accreted identity, that is, to the souls and bodies that are part of our human condition here and now? Are these two identities fully distinct? And if so, what does the core identity have to gain, what does it have to learn, from the accreted identity? What is the good, in other words, of our having souls and bodies?

There are many ways to answer this question, but I wish to offer two models, both of which can be found in Origen’s own writings. The first model we might call the ‘kernel and husk’ model, or indeed, the ‘core and accretion’ model. According to this line of thinking, the human, like the demon and the angel, was first created as a naked nous, a mind whose sole aim was to contemplate its creator. When this mind fell, however, and was given a new place in the order of creation, it was given a soul and a body to enable its new life. The soul and the body are like the husk of a kernel, or the accretions on a mineral core. Imagine a Russian doll, where the largest doll is your body, in which is neatly nestled your soul, and in which is nestled you soul. This model for understanding the relationship between spirit, soul, and body makes some intuitive sense: we can imagine the mind needing to take on layers of clothing in order to inhabit its new world, or it acquiring accretions of soul and body as it descends into this world. But this model also raises certain crucial questions. If the mind is distinct from its encasements, how do these encasements help the mind learn and grow? How do soul and body help the spirit’s slow rehabilitation? And even if we could explain how soul and body somehow help rehabilitate the spirit, still we would run into the question of whether, in the final apokatastasis or “restoration of all things,” the soul and the body would simply fall away, as the mind is returned to its rightful nakedness before God. What would such a model, for example, mean for the doctrine of the resurrection of the body? I will return that question near the end of my lecture.

The second model we might call the ‘spectrum’ model, or as I prefer, ‘states of matter.’ The defining image in On First Principles is that of fire. As said, Origen suggests that the unfallen mind was like an iron in the fire of God: “receiving the fire throughout all its pores and veins and becoming wholly fire, provided that the fire is never removed from it and it itself is not separated from the fire.” But of course, with The Fall, the iron was separated from the fire, and it cooled. Here Origen famously muses about the etymology of the word for soul, psyche [handout]:

As God therefore is fire, and the angels a flame of fire (Exod. 3:2), and the saints are all aglow with the Spirit (Rom. 12:11), so, on the contrary, those who have fallen away from the love of God are undoubtedly said to have cooled in their love for him and to have become cold … If, then, those things which are holy are termed fire and light and aglow, while those which are contrary are termed cold, and if the love of sinners is said to grow cold, it must be asked whether perhaps even the word ‘soul’ (which in Greek is ψυχή) is so called from a cooling down from a more divine or better condition, and has been transplanted, that is, it is seen to have cooled down from that natural and divine warmth, and therefore to have been placed in its present position with its present designation … From all these things, this appears to be shown, that the intellect, falling away from its status or dignity, was made or named soul; and if restored and corrected, it returns to being an intellect.

On this model, we are not minds encased in souls and bodies; neither cores with accretions nor kernels with husks. Rather, our souls and our bodies are simply our fiery minds in different ‘states of matter.’ Just as water exists as solid, liquid, and gas, so too do we. As in physics, where the main difference between states of matter is the density of the particles, so too with the Fall we descend into density. We began as God’s poetry and have descended into plasticity. And if body, soul, and spirit are on this material spectrum, then it is easier to understand how the spirit might learn something about itself and its world by sojourning in cooler and denser states, namely in soul and in body.

I have already quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson was hardly an ardent Origenist. As far as I know, he mentioned Origen only once, and in passing, in an essay on Plutarch. But, appropriately enough, in his essay “The Poet,” Emerson identifies these two models of incarnation in his own way. According to the first, he says [handout], “[w]e were put into our bodies, as fire is put into a pan, to be carried about; but there is no accurate adjustment between the spirit and the organ, much less the latter the germination of the former.” The problem that attends this first model is this: if we imagine ourselves as fire put into a pan or a lamp, then we are left wondering what analogy exists between the fire and the form that holds and sustains it. If we persist of thinking of them as distinct, we are left so bewildered by the question of whether an “accurate adjustment” can obtain between the two that we rarely ask the deeper question: whether the form might itself be the outgrowth of the fire, whether the body might be the spirit in a different state of matter. This second model is in fact precisely what Emerson goes on to endorse: “[in fact] we are not pans and barrows, nor even porters of the fire and torch-bearers, but children of the fire, made of it, and only the same divinity transmuted, and at two or three removes, when we know least about it.” To my mind, Emerson has captured Origen’s view perfectly. We are children of fire, which is to say that we are children of God. At our best, we are at one remove: irons in the fire of God, in Origen’s words, “becoming wholly fire.” At our worst, we are at two or three removes: fire cooled into soul, soul cooled into body. We are, in Emerson’s words, “divinity transmuted” and the degree of our remove is indexed to our knowledge, both of ourselves and of God.

One of the consequences of this second incarnational model is this: our slow rehabilitation and restoration, which will take place over many lifetimes and in successive worlds, is not a process of shedding the body or the soul, but rather of transforming them both, or as Emerson put it, transmuting them. The goal, then, is not escape, but transformation. All flesh must once again become fire.

For Origen, “Christ” is the name we give to that single mind that did not falter in its loving attention to God its maker, the one mind whose fiery ardor did not cool. The fact that Origen places Christ on this side of the distinction between creature and creator is no small matter. For Origen, insofar as Christ is a created mind, he is the same as his sibling minds, who eventually become angels, humans, and demons. Origen is clear as day about this; he insists, “it cannot be doubted that the nature of [Christ’s] soul was the same as all others.” In the beginning, we were all as Christ is—in rapt and loving attention of God our creator. You could say, then, that before our fall, we were all Christs.

We know what happened to us—we cooled; fire became flesh; we descended into denser states of matter. But what is the good of this descent? How does this cooling serve to help us return to our former fiery selves? If our original sin was some primordial lapse in our attention, some movement within us that broke our rapt contemplation, and if God’s punishment must also be a remedy, then our descent into souls and bodies must somehow serve to train our faculty of attention, our powers of contemplation. But how could acquiring souls and bodies help train our minds? The soul is what gives a naked mind the power of sense perception in this world. But what good is sense perception in training the mind for contemplation, when the senses present only a vast array of distractions, of things other than God to attend to? And imagine the challenges of embodiment in the ancient world. Even if you manage to stave off death until a ripe old age, embodiment presents a series of distractions from the life of the mind: childbirth, the burdens of parenting, disease, famine, never mind war and, for Christians such as Origen, state persecution. How could embodiment be imagined as somehow the remedy for wayward minds?

My suspicion is that the answer lay close to what I said earlier about states of matter, namely that the descent from higher to lower states of matter has to do with density. The mind becomes denser, heavier, as it cools into a soul and a body. The density of our current condition is a remedy because it trains our minds to attend to God while burdened with our own new weight. It is as if our minds before the fall were like birds: aloft and fast as lightning; but instead of holding formation around their source, they began to flit this way and that, looking for sustenance elsewhere, in vain. When God ordained their descent, God did not strip them of their wings, as happens to the hapless souls in Plato’s famous dialogue, the Phaedrus. Instead, their wings acquired more and more weight, and perhaps so much weight they forget that they were made to fly. But they must learn to fly again, even with their newly burdened wings. Perhaps our souls and bodies, then, are the new weight of our wings. And wings that take flight even when so burdened are wings that more likely to stay aloft and steady in their formation.

Let me explore this idea a bit more by turning to the question of Christ’s own incarnation. We know why we were incarnated: according to Origen, we deserved it, and it serves as a slow therapy for our wayward minds. But the mind of Christ did not deserve incarnation—he is the only one who did not. He descends to our condition not out of any just deserts, but out of sheer love for us, his siblings—what Paul calls philanthropia (Tit. 3:4). Christ’s sojourn among us serves as a model of how a mind can maintain its unbroken contemplation of its creator, and can do so while being weighted down with a soul and a body. And the very soul and body Christ took on were especially weighted down—oppressed, you might say—as a first-century Jew under Roman occupation, among a long-suffering people waiting for rescue. So, even with these burdened wings, Christ was able to stay aloft.

And yet what of the crucifixion? What further challenge to contemplation could be imagined than dying on a cross? Origen says very little about Christ’s crucifixion in On First Principles, but what he does say is quite revealing. He explains that “the aid of the Author and Creator himself was required, which restores the discipline, which had been corrupted and profaned, of obeying to the one and of ruling to the other.” Those who had been given rule had corrupted that rule. And naturally those who were ruled were not keen to obey those rulers. This doesn’t mean, however, that Christ took on flesh so as to teach Romans how to be better rulers, and Jews better subjects. This worldly political conflict was just the latest and lowest instance of a cosmic conflict among created minds, who were not able to obey God’s command because they were not able to rule over their own unruly passions. Minds were created with free will, but with this freedom they rebelled, that is, they freely chose to obey their own will rather than God’s, and in failing to rule over their own wayward will, they disobeyed. Their fall prompted a self-perpetuating miasma of disobedience and misrule—and into this miasma Christ descended in the flesh. How did his death on the cross transform this state of affairs? Origen writes [handout], “[T]herefore the only-begotten Son of God, who was the Word and the Wisdom of the Father, when he was with the Father in that glory which he had before the world was (John 17:5), emptied himself and taking the form of a servant became obedient even unto death (Phil. 2:7-8), that he might teach obedience to those who could not otherwise than by obedience obtain salvation.” Our salvation consists in our obedience, and our obedience requires self-rule. But if we could not obey God before we had the further burdens of soul and body, what makes us think we can learn to obey God now? According to Origen, Christ on the cross is a model of obedience for us because he shows us that a mind can be beset by all the pain and suffering that accompany a soul and a body—psychological fear and physical torment, for example—and still maintain obedient attention to God. The lesson seems to be: if someone can obey and attend even on the cross, then you know that you can obey and attend to God even amidst the distractions of soul and body. Jesus on the cross taught us that one can be afflicted in the flesh and still be aflame.

Another way to understand Origen’s conviction that incarnation is a remedy for wayward minds is to frame the question in terms of time. If different states of matter are defined by their relative density, we might wonder whether we descend into a denser experience of time. If the naked mind is like a flitting bird, then perhaps the weight of soul and body is a means of slowing the mind down, forcing it to move in and through thicker time, as it were. Perhaps our rehabilitation must be long, not only because our rebellious wills resist the therapy of embodiment (which they will of course), but because the therapy itself must be slow. Origen explores this dimension of our embodied rehabilitation when he wrestles with the fact that God is said to have hardened Pharaoh’s heart. The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart presents Origen with two related dilemmas. First, and most obviously, it appears that in hardening Pharaoh’s heart God violates his free will. Origen dismisses this quickly enough by insisting that God did no such thing: God is like the rain that falls on different soil; rich soil will teem with abundant life, whereas poor soil will bring forth only nestles and weeds. Pharaoh’s heart is poor soil, and so God’s rain only serves to bring forth the evil that is already latent in it. But this leads to the second, and more interesting, dilemma. Why did God allow, even encourage, Pharaoh to sink further into his own sinful miasma? Why did God abandon Pharaoh to his own vice, and not entice him to virtue sooner, as we would expect God to do?

The answer has to do with time. Origen explains that when it comes to “the immortality of the soul and the limitless age,” we should not expect, nor even want, that God’s help will come quickly. It is better, he says, that we are brought to salvation slowly, and only after many trials and tribulations. Like a fever that must run its course before it breaks, our sinful and wayward ways must be allowed to play themselves out, even if, perhaps especially if, we suffer along the way. If a soul receives succor too quickly, it is likely to lose it again. A more permanent health is reserved for those who “have patience to receive over a longer period the cultivation that accords with nature.” Why? Because long suffering slowly eats away at our mind’s pride. Until that pride is breached, the mind will not recognize its own weakness, and it so will not hear the saving word of God. Like waves on a shore, time will eventually erode our proud resistance to God’s grace. If the healing comes too soon, it may serve only to entrench the pride that must be rooted out over successive lifetimes and worlds. As Origen says, “For God deals with souls not with reference, let me say, to the fifty years of the present life, but with reference to the limitless age.” If we wish to attain to the eternity of the limitless age, in the apokatastasis, we must train ourselves in this temporality, a denser time in which soul and body serve to slow the mind so that it’s pride can be breached, and grace can find an opening.

“Attend above all to the reading of the scriptures”
Allow me to take a slightly different approach to the slow rehabilitation of the mind. Recall that the scroll in Origen’s hands in the icon reads, “attend above all to the reading of the scriptures.” It is no exaggeration to say that Origen spent his life reading, teaching, and preaching. What survives of his enormous corpus is mostly scriptural commentaries and homilies. Reading the scriptures was no pastime for Origen. To read the scriptures was to be slowly restored, to inch closer to the apokatastasis. He insisted that just as we are made up of body, soul, and spirit, so is scripture: the body of scripture is its literal meaning; the soul and the spirit are its deeper meanings. Clunky applications of Origen’s interpretive lens tend to try to identify three discrete meanings: a bodily, a soulful, and a spiritual. But Origen insisted that some passages in scripture have no bodily sense, no literal meaning. Since the scriptures are not really authored by humans but by the Holy Spirit, every detail—every word, phrase, and seeming infelicity—has spiritual meaning.

The saving significance of the scriptures lies in these spiritual meanings, and, crucially, there is no end to them, at least no end until the end of all ends, the “restoration of all things.” Until then, there is no end to our understanding of the scriptures, and so no end to our reading and rereading the scriptures. The literal meaning of the scriptures is like a smooth surface over which we glide. We read along, and then suddenly we trip over an oddity, an infelicity, or an absurdity in the narrative. If we are lucky, we do not regain our footing, but we fall flat on our faces, and we examine up close whatever it was that broke our stride. But when we do so, we see that the bulging crack reveals an infinite depth beneath our feet, an abyss of meaning over which we have been skating with false confidence. For Origen, to read the scriptures is to be initiated into that abyss.

His understanding of the saving significance of the scriptures is a piece with his view of incarnation. Christ is the only unfallen mind, and as such Christ is fully open to the Word of God: he receives it as any mind was created to do. The Gospel of John says of God’s Word, “he was in the beginning with God; all things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” All of creation, then, is in, of, and through God’s Word; all of creation is Worded. And the Word made flesh, Jesus of Nazareth, the mind we name “Christ,” taught us then and teaches us now how to read that worded world. We read creation for signs of God’s providence, which is also working in and around us to restore us. And we read the scriptures, the two testaments, old and new. For Origen, they provide all that we will ever need to know, and they heal every spiritual ailment from which we will ever suffer.

Christ has taught us to read the scriptures, and by his coming has transformed the whole of scripture into gospel or “good news.” But even this gospel is but a “shadow of the mysteries of Christ.” Lest we come to worship the words on the page as we would a false god, Origen directs our eyes to the gospel in order to direct them beyond the gospel, or to another gospel. If our gospel is the text whose words we can read on a page, then there is another “spiritual” or “eternal” gospel always on the horizon of our reading. He writes, “our task is to change the sensible gospel into the spiritual gospel.” The task is to transform the bodily sense to the spiritual sense, the flesh of the word to the fire of the word. We can set each letter of the book aflame. The gospel of fire always exists out in front of us, leading us through many dark nights, like Moses’ fiery pillar in the desert. As we follow it, as we change the word’s flesh to fire, so too are we changed.

“The end is like the beginning” and the resurrection of the body
Let’s return to our central themes of reincarnation and universal salvation. And let’s return to Christ, the mind all aflame with God’s fire. This was what was meant for all minds. When, in the end, minds are restored, they will be restored as Christs—even Satan, which is the name we give to the mind who fell furthest, will be restored to his proper place as a Christ.

But Origen insists that the final restoration, the end that will end all ends, “is always like the beginning.” Prima facie, this is not a difficult point to grasp: in the end, we will be as we were in the beginning, fiery minds whose souls and bodies have once again become absorbed into the original state of mind-matter. The crucial point, however, is that the end is not exactly the same as the beginning; the end is like the beginning. So, if it is like the beginning, what is the same, and what is different? Again, it is easier to answer the former: what is the same? We were naked minds, and we will be again. What makes the end different is that the naked minds will not fall again. And that can only be the case if we are somehow permanently changed by the long drama of having souls and bodies across lifetimes and worlds. If minds are not permanently changed, then they will fall again. Whatever happens to minds, then, through their descent into denser states of time and matter, it must fundamentally transform them. The remedy and rehabilitation do not amount to a restoration of the same, but rather to a restoration of the like. And the end that is like the beginning must be an improvement on the beginning, because it will be stable in a way the beginning was not. I cannot be the first to be reminded of these lines from T.S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding,” the fourth and final of his Four Quartets [handout]:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;

In the apokatastasis, then, the minds will “know the place for the first time.” They will have learned something, something they could not have learned were it not for their sinful rebellion and long, painful rehabilitation. They will pass through that “unknown, unremembered gate,” the very gate through which they passed on their way out of the garden, a gate, we are told in Genesis 3:24, that is guarded by an angel with a flaming, circling sword. Armed with the knowledge they will have gained along the way, the minds will pass unharmed through this final trial by fire, because they will once again have become all flame and will regard the sword as a sign of welcome. The final lines of Eliot’s “Little Gidding” say this better than I can:

And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

Eliot may have Julian of Norwich’s apokatastasis more in mind than Origen’s when he says that “all shall be well,” but his final lines on flames and fire make it seem as if he were reading straight out of On First Principles: in Origen’s words, the restored mind “receiv[es] the fire throughout all its pores and veins and becom[es] wholly fire.” Collectively, the minds will form, in Eliot’s words, a “crowned knot of fire” around the brow of God.

Origen understood the apostle Peter to be the one who clearly announced the apokatastasis panton in Acts 3:21, but it is the fifteenth chapter of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians that serves as the centerpiece of his doctrine of universal salvation. In 15:28 Paul writes, “When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things under him, that God may be all in all.” That final phrase, “that God may be all in all,” serves as shorthand for the apokatastasis in Origen’s writings. And in On First Principles, he offers an interpretation of what it might mean [handout]:

I reckon that this expression, where God is said to be all in all (1 Cor. 15:28), also means that he is all in each individual person. And he will be all in each individual in such a way that everything which the rational mind, when cleansed from all the dregs of vice and utterly swept clean of every cloud of wickedness, can sense of understand or think will be all God; it will no longer sense anything else apart from God; it will think God, see God, hold God; God will be the mode and measure of its every movement; and thus God will be all to it.

In other words, God will be all that the deified mind sees, thinks, and holds. And when all the deified minds are so full, God will be all in all.

This description of the deified mind, however, immediately raises for Origen the question of whether this is a condition that can be had in a body. The answer would seem to be ‘no,’ because a deified mind would have reabsorbed its cooler and denser states, that is, its soul and its body, as it returned to its fiery nature. The answer would seem to be ‘no’ because in the apokatastasis all flesh will have become fire. But of course Origen cannot let it rest there, not least because of the fifteenth chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians, where the apostle speaks of the soma pneumatikon, “the spiritual body” (e.g. 1 Cor 15:44).

Could it be then that the deified mind has, not a body like ours, but a spiritual body, a body which could be deified along with the mind? This seems to suggest that the mind, once freed of its body here—call it its flesh—can then acquire its proper body, its spiritual body, in the apokatastasis. The question of incarnation is one Origen explores throughout On First Principles, and it can justly be regarded as one of, if not the, abiding questions of this text. Perhaps it is foolish of me to try to raise this question near the conclusion of this essay. But I have to raise it, because everything I have said so far depends on our answer to the question of the body. I confess that I take as bedrock Origen’s claim that “a bodiless life will rightly be considered only of the Trinity.” If we take this claim seriously, only the three divine persons are without a body. It means that when God first created, when God first made minds to receive his fiery nature, he made them with bodies. Later, of course, he would form souls and what we have been calling bodies in the second creation. But, nevertheless, there was once a primordial body, a spiritual body. I think we mislead ourselves, though, if we speak of the first minds as having been made along with spiritual bodies, because that suggests that God made two things: minds and spiritual bodies. Whereas I think it is closer to the truth to say that, for Origen, the minds are the spiritual bodies. In other words, God has only and ever made one thing: call that one thing whatever as you like—mind, spirit, or spiritual body. It is the one primordial matter that God created ex nihilo. In its original state, it was capable of receiving God’s fire, of being all flame. But this single mind-matter was also differentiated, individuated, and each individual was given free will. And with this free will, the many minds differentiated themselves even further, beyond mere numerical individuation: only one remained as it was made to do; others turned away and their mind-matter was formed into a diverse array of souls and bodies. This diverse array served as the means of their rehabilitation, as we have already discussed.

I promised to return to the question of the resurrection of the body. Origen was often suspected of undermining this doctrine, even though he clearly and unequivocally affirms it. One can easily see why he fell under such suspicion: if souls and bodies will eventually be reabsorbed into mind, then how can we confess a final resurrection of the body? But with the help of the apostle Paul, Origen turns this suspicion inside out, or on its head. The thing you are accustomed to calling your body, he suggests, is only a cooler and denser declension of your true body. If you want to imagine what your true body is, your spiritual body, made of the same mind-matter as every other body, then observe the difference between the seed you plant in the ground, and what grows from the soil. Your true body is as different from its current form as the flowering plant is from the humble seed. Origen not only confesses the resurrection of the body, but along the way transforms what we think the body is. The resurrection of the body coincides with the restoration of all things; or to put that in Greek, the anastasis coincides with the apokatastasis.

I know that Origen’s interpretation of the resurrection of the body is controversial, and almost certainly heretical from the perspective of subsequent orthodoxy. With every passing year, however, I care less about controversy, and even less about Origen’s orthodoxy. In that spirit, I wish to make one final suggestion. In the end, I suggest, Origen wants us to think of God as having created only one thing, a kind of primordial mind-matter, which was to serve as the receptacle of his fire. In Eliot’s words, this was to be a crowning “knot of fire” for the mind of God. In the end that is like the beginning, in the apokatastasis, these fiery minds, all deified, will once again become spiritual bodies. It is only a half-step further, perhaps less, to imagine Origen saying that God has made for himself a body: us. We are God’s body. The drama of the minds’ fall and restoration, led by their sibling Christ, is also the drama of the descent, dissolution and eventual resurrection of God’s own body, of which we are each an essential and inalienable part. According to Origen, God is quite literally enticing us to restore to God God’s own body. Until then, God is in some sense unmade, deformed even, not yet “all in all.” From flesh to fire: our successive reincarnations are in the service of our eventual collective restoration; and our restoration, our resurrection, is quite literally, and nothing less than, God’s final reincarnation.

Origen today, and tomorrow
It’s time to wrap this up. Let me deliver on some earlier promises. First, Origen’s condemnation: he was condemned in a sixth-century ecumenical council during a time when the Byzantine emperor was desperately trying to unify his empire, fractured by theological debates about the nature and person of the Incarnate Christ. Why did Origen became a target 300 years after his death? In short, there was a small monastic movement that found inspiration in his writings, and preached universal salvation in which all fallen minds, including Satan’s, would be saved, and restored as equals of Christs. While that sort of imagination was licit in the third century, before the empire began actively policing the boundaries of orthodoxy, it was no longer permissible in the time of the sixth century, characterized as it was by anxious orthodoxy and political upheaval. The emperor Justinian essentially condoned the condemnation of Origen as a means of appeasing a faction that did not appreciate his daring interpretation of the resurrection of the body, nor his insistence on universal salvation. Among other things, bishops worried that preaching universal salvation would undermine people’s piety: if they weren’t motivated by fear of judgment and eternal torment, so the reasoning went, they would grow slack in their faith. Despite the condemnation, Christians in the East and West continued to read Origen, and his influence continued to spread. One can plausibly speak of a subterranean Origenism in the history of Christianity, an underground river that occasionally surfaces.

It has been slowly surfacing since the early twentieth century, when a group of Roman Catholic theologians led the charge of resuscitating Origen, in part by making his writings available to a wider audience again. But overcoming a conciliar condemnation is no easy thing, and so in many circles he is still dismissed as a heretic, a warning to those who are prone to speculation and imaginative flights. (Because of course God apparently wants to limit your imagination.)

Nevertheless, interest in Origen persists, and even grows. I began this afternoon with Eileen McGuckin’s icon as evidence of that growing interest, and as a sophisticated commentary on the irony of Origen’s influence and infamy. For several years I served as a tutor of sorts to our late and beloved bishop Tom Shaw. In the last years of his life, he read the entirety of Origen’s On First Principles, and I can say he was quite absorbed in it, and took consolation, as I do, in Origen’s faith in our eventual restoration. I have been approached to support efforts to rehabilitate Origen in the Episcopal Church, through resolutions at General Convention.

All this begs the question, however: what does Origen have to offer us today? I have tried to give you a taste of that in the last hour, but let me close with an attempt at summary. With Origen, we enter a Christian imaginary where every detail of our incarnation—where and how we become flesh, and with whom—every detail is an opportunity for progress toward rehabilitation. Our individual rehabilitation is imagined as a single step in a long and communal choreography of universal salvation, the restoration of all things, human and non-human, including our siblings, the angels and the demons. With Origen, we come to understand our body not as the antagonistic encasement of our spirit, but as the spirit longing to be once again an iron in the fire of God. He teaches us to see ourselves reflected on the page of the scriptures as if in a mirror: just as letters long to be spirit, so flesh longs to burn. To free the letter from the literal is to free ourselves from the flesh. And to stare into the mirror of the scriptures is to stare at a mise en abyme, two mirrors placed opposite each other, producing what seems to be an endless series of reflections. There will be an end to our many reincarnations, and our many, ever deeper, readings of the scriptures, but thankfully—I would say mercifully—that end is not yet in sight. What does Origen offer us today? Time, and longing: time in which to long.