Augustine vs. Origen

Why Christian Universalists Should Abandon Standard Western Theology

By Eric Stetson — September 2006

(Note: This is an abridged version of an article originally published in The Christian Universalist Connection newsletter.)

Standard Western theology is based primarily on the ideas of Augustine (354-430), who emphasized the concept of “original sin” and the need for belief in Jesus Christ as the only escape from damnation by an angry God. The Augustinian system was further expounded and taken to its logical conclusion by Martin Luther, John Calvin, and other Reformation thinkers, who taught that intellectual assent to Christian doctrine is what saves people from hell. Faith alone is what saves us, they said — specifically, faith in the cross of Christ and its atoning power which wipes away the stain of our sin.

Many Christian Universalists today teach exactly the same thing, except they say that people will get as many opportunities as they need to assent to the Lordship of Christ and his sacrificial act of vicarious atonement. In the afterlife, if a person has not become a Christian while they lived on earth, they will stay in hell until they experience a “post-mortem conversion” to Christianity. Whoopee! Just say the magic words, “Jesus is Lord,” and you can finally escape the flames.

Friends, let me be clear; I believe this theological paradigm is ridiculous, and it is not what we should be teaching. …

The Augustinian/Lutheran/Reformed system of theology has been losing support within Christianity for a long time. Many Christians have come to the conclusion that “salvation by grace through faith alone” just doesn’t make sense, if God is a God of love rather than anger and caprice. Starting from the premise that God is angry at us and wants to punish us from the moment we are born, but that He has been nice enough to allow us an exemption if we come to believe in the correct religion, is an idea that can only be supported by fundamentalists. Most people will never support it, because their heart rejects it as a matter of course. They feel in their heart that God should be better than that.

Fortunately, Christian Universalists do not need to stick to the old-fashioned Protestant theology that most Christians no longer believe in and that non-Christians generally laugh at. Instead, we can ground our belief in universal salvation on a theological system that predates Luther, and predates even the father of all Western theology, Augustine. We need only turn to Origen of Alexandria, who was the greatest Christian thinker in the ancient world.

Origen (185-254) came up with a way of understanding Christianity that is completely different from Augustine and Luther and all the rest of the Western tradition. And his ideas were accepted in his own time by a large portion of the Christian community.

Instead of starting from the premise of an angry God itching to punish us for our “original sin,” Origen began with the idea that humans are sinners because we have left our Father’s house, as did the Prodigal Son. We have ended up here on earth, an uncomfortable world much like the pigsty where the Prodigal found himself hungry and wallowing in shame. Our goal is to get back to where we started: with God in His home, which is our true home. Jesus Christ was sent to earth to show us how we can do that, by following a path of righteousness as he demonstrated for us, and allowing God to transform us into His image. We are all the children of God, created in His image originally, but our true image has been tarnished to reflect the “man of sin” (Adam) rather than the “divine man” (Christ). God wants us to follow Christ so that we can become more divine, so that we can grow up into the station of mature sons of God, as Christ already is and as we were always meant to be.

Instead of starting from the premise of an angry God itching to punish us for our “original sin,” Origen began with the idea that humans are sinners because we have left our Father’s house, as did the Prodigal Son.

One of the key differences of the Origenist theological system compared to the Augustinian is that it is based on the idea that God loves us as His offspring, rather than tolerating us as mere creatures. Augustine saw the Deity-human relationship much as a man who whips a disobedient horse, and who might decide to send it to the slaughterhouse if after a certain time it still did not obey his commands. In sharp contrast, Origen saw the relationship as a Father who patiently disciplines a son, with the irrevocable purpose of raising him up into maturity.

Another important difference is that intellectual belief in Christ is not the focus in Origen’s system. A person might believe Jesus is Lord and that he died on the cross and rose from the dead, but still find himself in a hellish condition in the afterlife because he did not strive to purge himself of sin and rise toward perfection by actively following the Way of Christ. On the other hand, a person who never intellectually assented to Christian teachings about Christ but who lived according to Christ’s example would be coming through hell and emerging into the heaven of reunion with the divine. The so-called Christian who had all the correct theological beliefs but did not actually follow in Christ’s Way would be very surprised to see lots of fellow “Christians” in hell, and would look up in dismay at saintly Hindus, Buddhists, and non-religious people who got out of hell much sooner.

Origen saw hell as a purgatorial process, gradually refining us like silver and gold in a fire, cleansing us of the dross that has accumulated within us and prevented us from shining with the divine light to our full potential. This process could happen both in this life on earth and in whatever types of existence may come hereafter. It would end not with some intellectual assent that “Christ is Lord,” but with the total transformation of the person into Christ’s divine image. This idea was called theosis, which means divinization. Only when all beings have been thoroughly transformed from sinful to holy, after long ages of purgatorial “fire” (tests and trials) annihilating all thoughts, inclinations, natures, and deeds that are in opposition to God, will the grand goal of creation be finally realized: apokatastasis, the reconciliation of all things.

Frankly, Origen’s interpretation of Christianity has more in common with the ideas of Greek and Eastern philosophy than it does with the ideas later promoted by Augustine, Luther, and Calvin. I believe the Origenist theological system is the one that Christian Universalists today should be teaching. Instead of trying to insert a belief in universal salvation into Western, Roman-based theology that never included it, we need to throw out the “standard” way of viewing God (angry); man (only a creature); life (one chance to find the correct beliefs, or else); Christ (if he hadn’t died on the cross, God would have to torment us forever), and Christianity (the religious doctrines that get us out of hell).

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