Apocatastasis (Gr., apokatastasis; Lat., restitutio in pristinum statum, restoration to the original condition), a name given in the history of theology to the doctrine which teaches that a time will come when all free creatures shall share in the grace of salvation; in a special way, the devils and lost souls.
This doctrine was explicitly taught by St. Gregory of Nyssa, and in more than one passage. It first occurs in his “De anima et resurrectione” (P.G., XLVI, cols. 100, 101), where, in speaking of the punishment by fire assigned to souls after death, he compares it to the process whereby gold is refined in a furnace, through being separated from the dross with which it is alloyed. The punishment by fire is not, therefore, an end in itself, but is ameliorative; the very reason of its infliction is to separate the good from the evil in the soul. The process, moreover, is a painful one; the sharpness and duration of the pain are in proportion to the evil of which each soul is guilty; the flame lasts so long as there is any evil left to destroy. A time, then, will come, when all evil shall cease to be since it has no existence of its own apart from the free will, in which it inheres; when every free will shall be turned to God, shall be in God, and evil shall no more have wherein to exist. Thus, St. Gregory of Nyssa continues, shall the word of St. Paul be fulfilled: Deus erit omnia in omnibus (I Cor., xv, 28), which means that evil shall, ultimately, have an end, since, if God be all in all, there is no longer any place for evil (cols. 104, 105; cf. col. 152). St. Gregory recurs to the same thought of the final annihilation of evil, in his “Oratio catechetica”, ch. xxvi; the same comparison of fire which purges gold of its impurities is to be found there; so also shall the power of God purge nature of that which is preternatural, namely, of evil. Such purification will be painful, as is a surgical operation, but the restoration will ultimately be complete. And, when this restoration shall have been accomplished (e eis to archaion apokatastasis ton nun en kakia kelmenon), all creation shall give thanks to God, both the souls which have had no need of purification, and those that shall have needed it. Not only man, however, shall be set free from evil, but the devil, also, by whom evil entered into the world (ton te anthropan tes kakias eleutheron, kai auton ton tes kakias eureten iomenos) P.G., XLV, col. 69.) The same teaching is to be found in the “De mortuis” (ibid., col. 536). Bardenhewer justly observes (“Patrologie”, Freiburg, 1901, p. 266) that St. Gregory says elsewhere no less concerning the eternity of the fire, and of the punishment of the lost, but that the Saint himself understood this eternity as a period of very long duration, yet one which has a limit. Compare with this “Contra Usurarios” (XLV[, col. 436), where the suffering of the lost is spoken of as eternal, aionia, and “Orat. Catechet.”, XXVI (XLV, col. 69), where evil is annihilated after a long period of time, makrais periodois. These verbal contradictions explain why the defenders of orthodoxy should have thought that St. Gregory of Nyssa‘s writings had been tampered with by heretics. St. Germanus of Constantinople, writing in the eighth century, went so far as to say that those who held that the devils and lost souls would one day be set free had dared “to instil into the pure and most healthful spring of his [Gregory’s] writings the black and dangerous poison of the error of Origen, and to cunningly attribute this foolish heresy to a man famous alike for his virtue and his learning” (quoted by Photius, Bibl. Cod., 223; P.G., CIII, col. 1105). Tillemont, “Memoires pour l’histoire ecclesiastique” (Paris, 1703), IX, p. 602, inclines to the opinion that St. Germanus had good grounds for what he said. We must, however, admit, with Bardenhewer (loc. cit.) that the explanation given by St. Germanus of Constantinople cannot hold. This was, also, the opinion of Petavius, “Theolog. dogmat.” (Antwerp, 1700), III, “De Angelis”, 109-111.
The doctrine of the apokatastasis is not, indeed, peculiar to St. Gregory of Nyssa, but is taken from Origen, who seems at times reluctant to decide concerning the question of the eternity of punishment. Tixeront has well said that in his “De principiis” (I, vi, 3) Origen does not venture to assert that all the evil angels shall sooner or later return to God (P.G., XI, col. 168, 169); while in his “Comment. in Rom.”, VIII, 9 (P.G., XIV, col. 1185), he states that Lucifer, unlike the Jews, will not be converted, even at the end of time. Elsewhere, on the other hand, and as a rule, Origen teaches the apokatastasis, the final restoration of all intelligent creatures to friendship with God. Tixeront writes thus concerning the matter: “Not all shall enjoy the same happiness, for in the Father’s house there are many mansions, but all shall attain to it. If Scripture sometimes seems to speak of the punishment of the wicked as eternal, this is in order to terrify sinners, to lead them back into the right way, and it is always possible, with attention, to discover the true meaning of these texts. It must, however, always be accepted as a principle that God does not chasten except to amend, and that the sole end of His greatest anger is the amelioration of the guilty. As the doctor uses fire and steel in certain deep-seated diseases, so God does but use the fire of hell to heal the impenitent sinner. All souls, all intelligent beings that have gone astray, shall, therefore, be restored sooner or later to God‘s friendship. The evolution will be long, incalculably long in some cases, but a time will come when God shall be all in all. Death, the last enemy, shall be destroyed, the body shall be made spiritual, the world of matter shall be transformed, and there shall be, in the universe, only peace and unity” [Tixeront, Histoire des dogmes, (Paris, 1905), I, 304, 305]. The palmary text of Origen should be referred to “De principiis”, III, 6, 6; (P.G., XI, col. 338-340). For Origen’s teaching and the passages wherein it is expressed consult Huet, “Origeniana”, II, qu. 11, n. 16 (republished in P.G., XVII, col. 1023-26) and Petavius, “Theol. dogmat., De Angelis”, 107-109; also Harnack [” Dogmengeschichte” (Freiburg, 1894), I, 645, 646], who connects the teaching of Origen on this point with that of Clement of Alexandria. Tixeront also writes very aptly concerning this matter: “Clement allows that sinful souls shall be sanctified after death by a spiritual fire, and that the wicked shall, likewise, be punished by fire. Will their chastisement be eternal? It would not seem so. In the Stromata, VII, 2 (P.G., IX, col. 416), the punishment of which Clement speaks, and which succeeds the final judgment, constrains the wicked to repent. In chapter xvi (col. 541) the author lays down the principle that God does not punish, but corrects; that is to say that all chastisement on His part is remedial. If Origen be supposed to have started from this principle in order to arrive at the apokatastasis—and Gregory of Nyssa as well—”it is extremely probable that Clement of Alexandria understood it in the same sense” (Histoire des dogmes, I, 277). Origen, however, does not seem to have regarded the doctrine of the apokatastasis as one meant to be preached to all, it being enough for the generality of the faithful to know that sinners will be punished. (Contra Celsum, VI, 26 in P.G., XI, col. 1332.)
The doctrine, then, was first taught by Origen, and by Clement of Alexandria, and was an influence in their Christianity due to Platonism, as Petavius has plainly shown (Theol. dogmat. De Angelis, 106), following St. Augustine “De civitate Dei”, XXI, 13. Compare Janet, “La philosophic de Platon” (Paris, 1869), I, 603. It is evident, moreover, that the doctrine involves a purely natural scheme of divine justice and of redemption. (Plato, Republic, X, 614b.) It was through Origen that the Platonist doctrine of the apokatastasis passed to St. Gregory of Nyssa, and simultaneously to St. Jerome, at least during the time that St. Jerome was an Origenist. It is certain, however, that St. Jerome understands it only of the baptized: “In restitutione omnium, quando corpus totius ecclesiae nunc dispersum atque laceratum, verus medicus Christus Jesus sanaturus advenerit, unusquisque secundum mensuram fidei et cognitionis Filii Dei… swum recipiet locum et incipiet id esse quod fuerat” (Comment. in Eph., iv, 16; P.G., XXVI, col. 503). Everywhere else St. Jerome teaches that the punishment of the devils and of the impious, that is of those who have not come to the Faith, shall be eternal. (See Petavius, Theol. dogmat. De Angelis, 111, 112.) The “Ambrosiaster” on the other hand seems to have extended the benefits of redemption to the devils, (In Eph., iii, 10; P.L., XVII, col. 382), yet the interpretation of the “Ambrosiaster” on this point is not devoid of difficulty. [See Petavius, p. 111; also, Turmel, Histoire de la theologie positive, depuis l’origine, etc. (Paris, 1904) 187.]
From the moment, however, that anti-Origenism prevailed, the doctrine of the apokatastasis was definitely abandoned. St. Augustine protests more strongly than any other writer against an error so contrary to the doctrine of the necessity of grace. See, especially, his “De gestis Pelagii”, I; “In Origene dignissime detestatur Ecclesia, quod et iam illi quos Dominus dicit eterno supplicio puniendos, et ipse diabolus et angeli eius, post tempus licet prolixum purgati liberabuntur a poems, et sanctis cum Deo regnantibus societate beatitudinis adharebunt.” Augustine here alludes to the sentence pronounced against Pelagius by the Council of Diospolis, in 415 (P.L., XLIV, col. 325). He moreover recurs to the subject in many passages of his writings, and in Book XXI “De Civitate Dei” sets himself earnestly to prove the eternity of punishment as against the Platonist and Origenist error concerning its intrinsically purgatorial character. We note, further, that the doctrine of the apokatastasis was held in the East not only by St. Gregory of Nyssa, but also by St. Gregory of Nazianzus as well; “De seipso”, 566 (P.G., XXXVII, col. 1010), but the latter, though he asks the question, finally decides neither for nor against it, but rather leaves the answer to God. Kostlin, in the “Realencyklopadie für protestantische Theologie” (Leipzig, 1896), I, 617, art. “Apokatastasis”, names Diodorus of Tarsus and Theodore of Mopsuestia as having also held the doctrine of apokatastasis, but cites no passage in support of his statement. In any case, the doctrine was formally condemned in the first of the famous anathemas pronounced at the Council of Constantinople in 543; Harduin, Coll. Conc., III, 284:- Ei tis ten teratodn apokatastasis presbeuei, anathema esto. [See, also, Justinian, Liber adversus Originem, anathemas 7 and 9 (P.G., LXXXVI, col. 989).] The doctrine was thenceforth looked on as heterodox by the Church.
It was destined, nevertheless, to be revived in the works of ecclesiastical writers, and it would be interesting to verify Kostlin’s and Bardenhewer’s statement that it is to be traced in Bar Sudaili, Dionysius the Areopagite, Maximus the Confessor, Scotus Erigena, and Amalric of Bena. It reappears at the Reformation in the writings of Denk (d. 1527), and Harnack has not hesitated to assert that nearly all the Reformers were apocatastasists at heart, and that it accounts for their aversion to the traditional teaching concerning the sacraments (Dogmengeschichte, III, 661). The doctrine of apokatastasis viewed as a belief in a universal salvation is found among the Anabaptists, the Moravian Brethren, the Christadelphians, among rationalistic Protestants, and finally among the professed Universalists. It has been held, also, by such philosophic Protestants as Schleiermacher, and by a few theologians, Farrar, for instance, in England, Eckstein and Pfister in Germany, Matter in France. Consult Kostlin, art. cit., and Gretillut, “Expose de theologie systematique” (Paris, 1890), IV, 603.