In the ongoing debate about universalism or the assertion that eventually everyone will be saved, proponents of universalism have often referred with an almost kind of hushed reverence to a volume written by Dr. Ilaria Ramelli, The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis: A Critical Assessment from the New Testament to Eriugena. Ms. Ramelli’s work runs to 912 pages, and I was anxious to read it for myself. Given that the hardcover is available through Amazon for $346 US, I decided to order it through my nearby university library, using their inter-library loan. When it finally arrived and I opened its pages, I was surprised. As it turns out, it is not so much a survey of church history as it is a look at Origen and his supporters. “Origen’s First Followers” runs from page 223 to page 277, which is followed by “Origen’s Apologists and Followers”, which runs from page 279 to page 658. The final chapter takes one “From Augustine to Eriugena”. Perhaps a better title for the book would have been “Origen and His Friends”. It is less a survey than an apologia, a tour de force, a vigorous attempt to rehabilitate someone who for all his gifts had been condemned by name at an Ecumenical Council. The title scarcely matters, I suppose, and I should be the last person in the world to object to a misleading book title. My surprise did not concern the title, but the contents. Allow me to quote several examples.
In her discussion on the lake of fire in Revelation 20:10, she notes that the lake is said to burn with “fire and sulphur” (or in more traditional language, “fire and brimstone”). She correctly notes that the reference to “fire and sulphur” brings us back to the fire sent from God upon the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19:24. She writes, “Sulphur is joined to fire both in the Sodom episode and in Revelation’s lake of fire. Like fire, and even more clearly than fire itself, this element points to purification. Given its purifying and healing properties, sulphur is used in medicine still nowadays, for instance as antiseptic, a fungicide and in mucolytics. This is a clue suggesting that the lake of fire will purify those who are cast into it, at least as for human sinners”.
Let us here note several things. The Book of Revelation does not distinguish between the devil and “human sinners”, dooming the former in the lake of fire while purifying the latter. Mention of human sinners here in 20:15 and previously in 14:9-11 threatened doom for those who “worship the beast and his image and receives a mark on his forehead or upon his hand” (14:9). It does not even hint that the lake of fire will purify them and then allow their release. Rather, “the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest day and night” (14:11). Also, sulphur was clearly combined with fire not because it is handy for use as an antiseptic or a fungicide, but because it burns. The ancients thought it represented the essence of combustion, because it so easily burst into flame. Neither in the Genesis text regarding Sodom nor in the Revelation text is the thought of purification even hinted at. God did not mean to purify the Sodomites, but to destroy them. As 2 Peter 2:6 observed, [God] condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to destruction by reducing them to ashes, having made them an example to those who would live ungodly thereafter”. Note: exemplary destruction, not purification. Ms. Ramelli here is grasping at straws.
Another example: in her lengthy discussion of Irenaeus, she does her best to present him as a man at least sympathetic to apokatastasis. She begins her discussion of him by quoting him as saying, “Christ will come at the end of the times in order to annul everything evil, and to reconcile again all beings, that there may be an end of all impurities”, which she pronounces as “one of the main tenets of the doctrine of apokatastasis”. She acknowledges that Irenaeus affirms that “Christ will send the wicked ‘into the fire of the world to come [αιωνιον]”, but then calls attention to the fact that Irenaeus did say the fire was αιδιος or unending, but only αιωνιον, age-long. Never mind that it is doubtful that Irenaeus would have seen much difference here between the two words. Here it is clear that he described the fire as αιωνιον not because he preferred it and chose it over the word αιδιος, but because the Greek text of the Gospel he was citing had the word αιωνιον. In the Gospel Irenaeus was quoting Christ spoke of “eternal/ αιωνιον fire”, and Irenaeus simply reproduced the wording. It is methodologically flawed to import into Irenaeus’ verbal distinctions he may not even have recognized.
But one may ask, “Then who did Irenaeus think was cast into the fire?” Ramelli opines, “Not human sinners, but only demons”. In her words: “Irenaeus speaks of the condemnation of those who do not believe and do not do God’s will, but he does not say that it is eternal; he seems to conceive only demons as enemies”. One must again return to the text and look again at what Irenaeus actually said. In his Against Heresies, Book 4,27,4, he writes, “As formerly the unrighteous, the idolaters, and fornicators perished, so also it is now; for both the Lord declares that such persons are sent into eternal fire, and the apostle says, ‘Do you not know that the unrighteous shall not inherit the Kingdom of God?’” There is no use evading Irenaeus’ plain meaning just because it is deemed uncongenial. Irenaeus believed and taught that the “enemies” cast into the fire included idolaters and fornicators—i.e. not demons, but men, “human sinners”.
At the end of her discussion of Irenaeus, Ramelli admits “Irenaeus does not formulate a doctrine of universal salvation, nor a theory of universal apokatastasis”. That is a little bit like saying, “Martin Luther did not formulate a doctrine of papal supremacy.” The fact is that Irenaeus taught the opposite of what that theory holds, and he taught it emphatically. Here again for Ramelli ideology dictates how ancient texts are read.
Again, in her handling of Clement of Alexandria, she cites his words where after inveighing at great length about the lethal danger of heresy, he says, “Would that these heretics would learn and be set right by these notes and turn to the sovereign God! But if, like the deaf serpents, they do not listen to the song called “new” may they be chastised by God and undergo paternal admonitions previous to the Judgment, until they become ashamed and repent and not rush through headlong unbelief and precipitate themselves into judgment” (from his Miscellanies, Book 7, chapter 16). It is apparent that Clement is thinking of chastisements occurring in this life, “previous to the Judgment”, before it is too late and they die in unbelief and so “precipitate themselves into judgment”. Yet in referring to this passage, Ramelli says, “Clement hopes that “the heretics” 1 will be converted by God, even after death”. Clement says no such thing, but clearly refers to a punishment leading to conversion before death, “previous to the Judgment”. Ramelli however insists on reading apokatasis into Clement’s text even when it is not there.
Another example: Ramelli offers St. Anthony the Great as an example of another ancient father holding to the doctrine of apokatastasis. Her evidence? “Origen’s thought had a large diffusion in the Egyptian desert”, and Anthony, in his extant letters, used philosophical language, and “theorised a ‘resurrection of the heart from the earth’ which is a spiritual resurrection and entails an allegorical exegesis of the resurrection that Origen applied”—and this, despite the fact that Anthony speaks explicitly of the eternal punishment of the wicked, and never even remotely suggests that they will be finally saved. In his Letter 2, for example, he writes: “Let this word be manifest in you, beloved; whosoever has not prepared his own amendment, nor toiled with all his strength, let such a one know that for him the coming of the Saviour will be unto judgment”. Or again, in Letter 3: “As for those who have prepared themselves to be set free through the coming of Jesus, over them I rejoice. But those who do business in the name of Jesus and do the will of their heart and their flesh—over such I lament…Know therefore that for such men the coming of Jesus becomes a great judgment.” These do not sound like the words of a man who believes in the ultimate restoration of everyone. Here again, in the absence of any real evidence Ramelli simply reads her favourite doctrine into a place that it is simply not there.
One final example: Bardaisan of Edessa (d. 222) is cited as an early example of one holding the doctrine of apokatastasis, heading a list of worthies which include Anthony, Gregory of Nyssa, Jerome, Cassian, and many others. It seems that she wants us to respect the thought of Bardaisan and regard him as, if not exactly a church father, as certainly frequenting the same club.
This is rather surprising, and is perhaps the reason why she begins her discussion of this controversial figure with the heading “Bardaisan of Edessan, Not a ‘Gnostic’”. She is driven to make this case because there were and are many who believe that he was a gnostic. In ancient times the Christian historian Sozomen regarded him as a heretic (Ecclesiastical History, 3.16). It is of course difficult now to sort out the precise details of someone that long dead. But from his extant writings, we can even now find things that look rather “off”. He thought for example that the sun, moon, and planets were living beings, under whose partial control God had placed the world. In this Book of the Laws of Countries Bardaisan wrote, God “gave the Guiding Signs their fixed order and gave all things the power due to each”. As one scholar comments, “By ‘Guiding Signs’ Barsaisan means the planets and the stars. Bardaisan’s own view of the relation of divine power to the that of the heavenly bodies and to human free will involves a nuanced delimitation of their respective domains…Bardaisan’s affirmation of fate…is the most striking element in his Christian system of thought” (Tim Hegedus, in his Necessity and Free Will in the Thought of Bardaisan of Edessa”).
A striking element indeed, and sufficiently striking, I submit, to jeopardize his inclusion in the list of ancient patristic worthies to which Ramelli would have him head the list. It looks as if acceptance or rejection of the doctrine of the apokatastasis functions for her as the canon within the canon for selecting who is a really worthwhile teacher. Perhaps that is why the doubtful Bardaisan is styled a “very learned Syrian Christian philosopher and theologian” while the earliest Apostolic Fathers are described merely as “The So-Called Apostolic Fathers”, since she admits that “In the group of writings stemming from the second century CE and collectively labelled ‘Apostolic Fathers’, the doctrine of apokatastasis as eschatological universal restoration appears to be missing.” I suggest that her praises of the “so-called apostolic fathers” would have been more fulsome had her favourite doctrine not appeared to have been missing.
Ultimately, it is not about the value or otherwise of single volume, even such a large door-stopper of a volume as The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis. It is rather about the value of Tradition for the huge rank of the file of the Church who will never earn a doctorate or attain to Ms. Ramelli’s considerable level of learning. The value of Tradition, as understood by the Orthodox, is that one does not have to be a scholar to know the truth. One does not require academic learning, wonderful as that is, but only humility. We believe that the truth has been given by Christ to His disciples and preserved in the Church, and that we access that truth by attending to the consensus of the Fathers. If anyone has the humility to bow one’s head to that Tradition, one can know the truth, even if one is an illiterate street sweeper incapable of reading or writing hefty tomes. Or, in the Lord’s own words, “I praise You, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and revealed them to babes. Yes, Father, for thus it was well-pleasing in Your sight” (Luke 10:21).