When first presented with the universalist hope, many Orthodox and Roman Catholics immediately invoke the authority of the Fifth Ecumenical Council (553), citing the fifteen anti-Origenist anathemas: “Apokatastasis has been dogmatically defined by the Church as heresy—see canon 1 … case closed.” Over the past two centuries, however, historians have seriously questioned whether these anathemas were ever officially promulgated by II Constantinople. The council was convened by the Emperor Justinian for the express purpose of condemning the Three Chapters. Not only does Justinian not mention the apokatastasis debate in his letter to the council bishops, but the Acts of the council neither cite the fifteen anathemas nor record any discussion of them. Hence when church historian Norman P. Tanner edited his collection of the Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils in 1990, he did not include the anti-Origenist denunciations, offering the following explanation: “Our edition does not include the text of the anathemas against Origen since recent studies have shown that these anathemas cannot be attributed to this council” (I:106).
Who then wrote the anathemas and when? Over the past century different hypotheses have been advanced, but historians appear to have settled on the following scenario, first proposed by Wilhelm Diekamp in 1899 and more recently advanced by Richard Price: the Emperor Justinian and his theological advisors composed the anathemas and then submitted them to the bishops for “approval” before the council formally convened on 5 May 553. We do not know how long before the council this meeting took place (hours? days? weeks? months?) nor who attended nor whether there was any actual discussion of the anathemas. One thing is clear—the Emperor wanted the anathemas cloaked with conciliar authority. A decade earlier he had denounced apokatastasis in an epistle to Patriarch Menas. Regardless of the origin of the 15 anathemas, we may confidently affirm that the Fifth Ecumenical Council did not formally publish them. The burden of historical proof now lies with those who maintain that the Council Fathers officially and authoritatively promulgated the anti-Origenist anathemas.
But let’s hypothetically assume that the Council did publish the fifteen anathemas. There would still remain the challenge of interpretation. Not all universalisms are the same. Just as there are both heretical and orthodox construals of, say, the atonement or the Incarnation, so there are heretical and orthodox construals of the universalist hope. The apokatastasis advanced by St Gregory of Nyssa, for example, differs in critical ways from the sixth-century theories against which the anathemas were directed. The latter appear to have belonged to an esoteric metaphysical system set loose from the Scriptures, as even a cursory reading reveals. The chasm between the two is enormous. Scholar Augustine Casiday suggests that we need to think of the anti-Origenist anathemas as the rejection of this system as a whole, each anathema denouncing one of its particulars (private email correspondence). Met Kallistos Ware made a similar point in 1998:
There is, however, considerable doubt whether these fifteen anathemas were in fact formally approved by the Fifth Ecumenical Council. They may have been endorsed by a lesser council, meeting in the early months of 553 shortly before the main council was convened, in which case they lack full ecumenical authority; yet, even so, the Fathers of the Fifth Council were well aware of these fifteen anathemas and had no intention of revoking or modifying them. Apart from that, however, the precise wording of the first anathema deserves to be carefully noted. It does not speak only about apocatastasis but links together two aspects of Origen’s theology: first, his speculations about the beginning, that is to say, about the preexistence of souls and the precosmic fall; second, his teaching about the end, about universal salvation and the ultimate reconciliation of all things. Origen’s eschatology is seen as following directly from his protology, and both are rejected together. …
Now, as we have noted, the first of the fifteen anti-Origenist anathemas is directed not simply against Origen’s teaching concerning universal reconciliation, but against his total understanding of salvation history—against his theory of preexistent souls, of a precosmic fall and a final apocatastasis—seen as a single and undivided whole. Suppose, however, that we separate his eschatology from his protology; suppose that we abandon all speculations about the realm of eternal logikoi; suppose that we simply adhere to the standard Christian view whereby there is no preexistence of the soul, but each new person comes into being as an integral unity of soul and body, at or shortly after the moment of the conception of the embryo within the mother’s womb. In this way we could advance a doctrine of universal salvation—affirming this, not as a logical certainty (indeed, Origen never did that), but as a heartfelt aspiration, a visionary hope—which would avoid the circularity of Origen’s view and so would escape the condemnation of the anti-Origenist anathemas. (“Dare We Hope for the Salvation of All,” in The Inner Kingdom, pp. 199-200)
Many scholars would now question Ware’s identification of the views of Origen with the views of the 6th-century Origenists. The renowned patristics scholar Brian E. Daly, for example, asserts that the denounced theses “represent a radicalized Evagrian Christology and cosmology, and a doctrine of apokatastasis that went far beyond the hopes of Origen or Gregory of Nyssa. They envisage not only a spherical, ethereal risen body, but the complete abolition of material reality in the world to come, and the ultimate absorption of all created spirits into an undifferentiated unity with the divine Logos, so that even the humanity and the Kingdom of Christ will come to an end” (The Hope of the Early Church, p. 190).
But Ware’s key point stands: the sixth century condemnation of apokatastasis does not apply to construals similar to those of St Gregory of Nyssa or St Isaac the Syrian. Consider the first anathema: “If anyone advocates the mythical pre-existence of souls and the monstrous restoration that follows from this, let him be anathema.” Note the intrinsic connection between the pre-existence of souls and the universal restoration: the latter necessarily flows from the former, as further explained in anathema fourteen, which speaks of the eschatological annihilation of hypostases and bodies and the restoration to a state of pure spirit, akin to the original state of pre-existence. But neither Gregory and Isaac advocate the pre-existence of souls. Their construals of the universalist hope are grounded solely upon God’s infinite love and the power of purgative suffering to bring enlightenment to the damned. The 15 anathemas, therefore, do not touch the biblical universalism of St Gregory of Nyssa, St Isaac the Syrian, or more recent exponents, such as Sergius Bulgakov and Hans Urs von Balthasar. As J. W. Hanson writes in his classic, but dated, survey of the Fathers of the first five centuries: “The theory here condemned is not that of universal salvation, but the ‘fabulous pre-existence of souls, and the monstrous restitution that results from it'” (Universalism, p. 285).
We simply cannot take a dogmatic definition or conciliar anathema and make it apply to whatever views we dislike. We must interpret it within its historical, cultural, and theological context. Not to do so would be a kind of conciliar fundamentalism, akin to someone who rips a commandment from the book of Leviticus and then insists that it remains obligatory upon Gentile Christians today. Similar hermeneutical considerations obtain when evaluating the dogmatic authority and application of the eleventh-century Byzantine condemnation of the eccentric views John Italus, repeated in the 1583 version of the Synodikon. The historical exegesis of dogmatic statements is essential to our constructive employment of these statements in our theological reflection and is mandatory for the proper distinguishment of orthodoxy and heresy.
In her monograph The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis, Ilaria Ramelli argues that Justinian’s anathemas do not in fact touch the authentic teaching of Origen:
The so-called “condemnation of Origen” by “the Church” in the sixth century probably never occurred proper, and even if it occurred it did so only as a result of a long series of misunderstandings, when the anthropological, eschatological, and psychological questions were no longer felt as open to investigation—as Origen and still Nazianzen considered them—, but dogmatically established. The aforementioned condemnation was in fact a condemnation, not at all of Origen, but rather of a late and exasperated form of Origenism; moreover, it was mainly wanted by emperor Justinian—or better his counsellors, given that he was not a theologian—and only partially, or even not at all, ratified by ecclesiastical representatives.
This “condemnation” was triggered by the development of a radical kind of Origenism in the first half of the sixth century, especially in Palestine, in the monasteries of St. Saba, the “Great Laura” and “New Laura.” … Justinian received reports about the Origenistic doctrines and promoted a condemnation of this kind of Origenism, which he mistook for Origen’s own doctrine, at first in 543 CE.
The Council that is usually cited as that which “condemned Origen” is the fifth ecumenical council, the second Constantinopolitan Council, in 553 CE. … The anathemas, fifteen in number, were already prepared before the opening of the council. Here, Origen is considered to be the inspirer of the so-called Isochristoi. This was the position of the Sabaite opponents of Origen, summarised by Cyril of Scythopolis who maintained that the Council issued a definitive anathema against Origen, Theodore, Evagrius, and Didymus concerning the preexistence of souls and apokatastasis, thus ratifying Sabas’ position (V. Sab. 90). One of these previously formulated anathemas, which only waited to be ratified by the Council, was against the apokatastasis doctrine: “If anyone supports the monstrous doctrine of apokatastasis [τὴν τερατώδη ἀποκατάστασιν], be it anathema.” Other anathemas concern the “pre-existence of souls,” their union with bodies only after their fall, and the denial of the resurrection of the body. These doctrines have nothing to do with Origen; in fact, Origen is not the object of any authentic anathema. And Vigilius’s documents, which were finally emanated by a council that was not wanted by him, most remarkably do not even contain Origen’s name. (pp. 724-726, 736-737; also see John R. Sachs, “Apocatastasis in Patristic Theology“)
Ramelli demonstrates that Emperor Justinian and his theological advisors misunderstood and misrepresented the authentic views of Origen on universal reconciliation, ensoulment, the resurrection body, and a host of other subjects; but the damage was done. Origen was named a heresiarch and his theology identified with the bizarre views of his sixth century “disciples.” However we judge their dogmatic status, the anti-Origenist anathemas should not interpreted as condemning the universalist views of Origen himself, much less those of the revered bishop of Nyssa, whom the Seventh Ecumenical Council described as “the Father of Fathers.”
The universalist hope is, of course, a minority view within Orthodoxy, but being a minority view does not make it heretical. The fact that Orthodox bishops and priests have long taught a doctrine of eternal perdition does not mean that the matter is definitively closed; it does not mean that the Church may not reexamine its popular teaching in light of Holy Scripture and the witness of the Fathers. Sergius Bulgakov describes the dogmatic status of the doctrine of everlasting hell:
The Church has not yet established a single universally obligatory dogmatic definition in the domain of eschatology, if we do not count the brief testimony of the Nicaeno-Constantinopolitan Creed concerning the second coming (“He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and His kingdom will have no end”), as well as concerning the resurrection of the dead and the life of the future age. These dogmas of the faith, attested to by the Creed and based on the express promises of the Lord, have not, all the same, been developed by theology. They are considered to be self-evident for the dogmatic consciousness, although that is not, in reality, the case. All the rest, referring to various aspects of eschatology, has not been defined dogmatically; it is an object of dogmatic doctrine that has yet to undergo free theological investigation.
If it is maintained that the absence of an ecclesial definition is compensated by the existence of a firm ecclesial tradition, patristic and other, one must call such an assertion inaccurate or even completely erroneous. Aside from the fact that this tradition is insufficient and disparate, the most important thing here is the absence of a single tradition. Instead, we have at least two completely different variants: on the one hand, a doctrine originating in Origen and stabilized in the teaching of St. Gregory of Nyssa and his tacit and open followers; and, on the other hand, a widespread doctrine that has had many adherents but none equal in power of theological thought to those mentioned above. (Perhaps in this group we can put Augustine, the greatest teacher of the Western Church, but the originality of his worldview sets him apart in general, especially for Eastern theology.) As regards both particular patristic doctrines and the systematization of biblical texts, an inquiry that would precede dogmatization has yet to be carried out.
Given such a situation, it would be erroneous to maintain that the dogmatic doctrine expounded in the scholastic manuals represents the authoritative and obligatory dogmas of the Church, and to demand subordination to them as such. In response to such a demand it is necessary to established decisively and definitively that this is an exaggeration and a misunderstanding. The doctrine expounded in the manuals can by no means be accepted without inquiry and verification. It only expresses the opinion of the majority, corresponding to the current status of theological thought on this subject, not more. Characteristic of a specific period of the past, this doctrine is losing its authority more and more at the present time and at the very least requires revision. There is insufficient justification to accept theological opinions as the dogmatic definitions of the Church, especially when these opinions are proper to only one type of thought. Eschatological theology remains open to inquiry even at the present time. (The Bride of the Lamb, pp. 379-380)
We now arrive at the most “accursed” question of eschatology, that of the eternal torments of sinners. Those who understand eternity as temporal infinity (i.e., theologians of all confessions) attempt to affirm the infinite, or “eternity,” of the torments of hell in all manner of ways—apologetically, patristically, exegetically. They attempt to prove the justice of the infinite duration of punishment even for temporal sins and the conformity of this punishment with God’s wisdom and love. A whole theodicy of eternal torments is thus constructed. Of the great mass of judgments of this kind, of special interest are the opinions of Origen and especially St. Gregory of Nyssa, who are virtually the only ecclesiastical writers (besides Augustine with his rigorism) who made questions of eschatology an object of special inquiry. The Church has not issued a precise determination on this issue, although the doctrine of scholastic theology attempts to pass itself off as such a determination. But, actually, this doctrine only expresses the “opinion” of one of the two tendencies that have opposed each other and continue to oppose each other in theology. Even the definitions that condemn Origenism, which previously had been attributed to the fifth ecumenical council, have been shown by recent historical inquiry not to originate in this council. Even if they had so originated, they would still require interpretation and very careful commentary. (p. 482)
Met Hilarion Alfeyev categorically asserts: “There is also an Orthodox understanding of the apokatastasis, as well as a notion of the non-eternity of hell. Neither has ever been condemned by the Church and both are deeply rooted in the experience of the Paschal mystery of Christ’s victory over the powers of darkness” (The Mystery of Faith, p. 271*). Paul Evdokimov concurs:
The general view of eternal torment is only a textbook opinion, simplistic theology (of the penitential sort) which neglects the depth of texts such as John 3.17 and 12.47. Can we really believe that, alongside the eternity of the Kingdom of God, God has provided another eternity of hell? Surely, this would amount to a failure in the divine plan, even a partial victory of evil? Now, St Paul, in 1 Cor. 15.55, states quite the opposite. St Augustine did indeed oppose the more generous interpretations of the tender mercies of God, but that was out of a concern to avoid libertinism and sentimentality; besides, fear would not only be useless in pedagogical argument today, but would make Christianity dangerously like Islam. A healthy trembling before holy things keeps the world from becoming bland, but real fear is driven out by perfect love (1 John 4.18). …
The Fifth Ecumenical Council did not occupy itself with the duration of the torments of hell. The Emperor Justinian (who for a while resembled Jonah, who was righteously angry because the wicked escaped punishment) presented his personal teaching to the Patriarch Menas in 543. The Patriarch used it to elaborate some arguments against neo-Origenism. Pope Vigilius confirmed them. By mistake, they have been attributed to the Fifth Ecumenical Council itself, but the teaching was only a personal opinion, and the contradictory teaching of St Gregory of Nyssa has never been condemned. The question remains open, the answer depending perhaps on human charity. St Anthony’s explanation is one of the most profound: apocatastasis, the salvation of all, is not a doctrine, but a prayer for the salvation of all except me, for whom alone hell exists. (Orthodoxy, p. 338)
One might claim, I suppose, that it really doesn’t matter whether the Fifth Ecumenical Council formally approved the anti-Origenist anathemas. The Church subsequently came to believe that it had, and that’s what really counts. Consider the declaration of the Quinisext Synod in 692:
Also we recognize as inspired by the Spirit the pious voices of the one hundred and sixty-five God-bearing fathers who assembled in this imperial city in the time of our Emperor Justinian of blessed memory, and we teach them to those who come after us; for these synodically anathematized and execrated Theodore of Mopsuestia (the teacher of Nestorius), and Origen, and Didymus, and Evagrius, all of whom reintroduced feigned Greek myths, and brought back again the circlings of certain bodies and souls, and deranged turnings [or transmigrations] to the wanderings or dreamings of their minds, and impiously insulting the resurrection of the dead. (Canon 1)
Though it does not explicitly mention apokatastasis, the canon arguably evidences the then-held belief that the fifteen anathemas were promulgated by II Constantinople. One might then maintain that when subsequent ecumenical councils confirmed II Constantinople as ecumenical, they implicitly confirmed the fifteen anathemas.
Perhaps we might call this the “as if” theory of dogmatic reception: the Church has received the anti-Origienist anathemas as if they had been officially promulgated by an ecumenical council and as if they comprehended within their condemnation the universalist views of Origen, St Gregory Nyssen, and St Isaac the Syrian. Rejection of apokatastasis, after all, has been the popular teaching of both the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches for well over a millennium. Doesn’t that qualify as ecumenical dogma, even if initially based upon a historical blunder? If we believe hard and long enough that an ecumenical council has dogmatically condemned all forms of universal salvation, then surely it must have. “Fifty million Frenchmen can’t be wrong,” as the saying goes. But while one might expect an old-school Roman Catholic to argue in such a fashion, no doubt invoking papal authority and the infallibility of the ordinary magisterium, it seems odd for an Eastern Christian to take this route. It presumes a magisterial authoritarianism alien to the Orthodox spirit, as if the Church could or would impose universally binding dogmatic formulations apart from consideration of their content and theological grounding. Even many Roman Catholic theologians now reject such a legalistic approach to dogma:
The notion that there could be doctrines immune to historical limitations and capable of being imposed by the sheer weight of extrinsic authority reflects the nonhistorical and juridical type of thinking prevalent in the Church of the Counter Reformation. The roots of this mentality may be traced to Greek intellectualism and Roman legalism. More proximately, the absolutistic view of dogma reflects the characteristics of Catholic theology in a rationalistic era. To ward off naturalistic rationalism, orthodox theology adopted a supernaturalistic rationalism in which revelation was conceived as a divinely imparted system of universal and timeless truths entrusted to the Church as teacher. (Avery Dulles, “Dogma as an Ecumenical Problem,” Theological Studies 29.3 : 400; also see Francis Sullivan, Creative Fidelity)
Unlike their Roman Catholic counterparts, contemporary Orthodox theologians have hardly begun to address the prerequisites of doctrinal irreformability or the hermeneutics of dogma (Bulgakov’s “Dogma and Dogmatic Theology” being a notable exception). Hence we probably should not be surprised when internet apologists, parish priests, and even respected theologians who should know better dismiss the hope of universal salvation with the mere wave of a dogmatic hand. “The Fifth Ecumenical Council settled that long ago,” some tell us. “The Synodikon has infallibly anathematized the universalist hope,” others pontificate. But dogma is too important to be so superficially treated. And the universalist hope is too important to be so cavalierly and hastily dismissed.
* In his recent book Doctrine and Teaching of the Orthodox Church, Met Hilarion appears to have moved toward a more traditional view of eternal damnation. He repeatedly appeals to the (alleged) dogmatic rejection of apokatastasis by the Fifth Ecumenical Council. This uncritical invocation of a questionable anathema severely undermines his presentation. Surely a theologian of Hilarion’s caliber is well aware of the historical debate regarding the attribution of the 15 anathemas to II Constantinople, yet he makes no reference to this debate. Hilarion also assumes that the anathema against apokatastasis accurately speaks to the authentic views of Origen, nor does he convincingly explain why the Council Fathers, if they intended to anathematize all forms of apokatastasis, did not include St Gregory of Nyssa’s name among the condemned. I am at a loss to explain the Metropolitan’s poor scholarship at this point.
(This article is a revised and expanded version of an article published here on Eclectic Orthodoxy on 26 January 2015)