Tuesday, 17 July 2007


‘Simon’, whoever he is, has sent us a comment on our post ‘Orthodox Monasticism 25 – Sts Barsanuphios and John on Evagrius’:

Dear Brother,

Can you please explain how we should understand these verses, in the light of the answers given in this post, regarding apokatastasis (the restoration of all things):

Matt. 17:11 And Jesus answered and said unto them. Elias truly shall first come, and restore all things.


Acts 3:19 Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord;

Acts 3:20 And he shall send Jesus Christ, which before was preached unto you:

Acts 3:21 Whom the heaven must receive until the times of restitution of all things, which God hath spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets since the world began.

There is one other passage that Simon could have brought forward:

Acts 1:6 Coming together, they asked him saying: ‘Lord, will you at this time restore the Kingdom to Israel?’

Acts 1:7 He, however, said to them: ‘It is not for you to know times and seasons which the Father has placed under his own authority,

Acts 1:8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and all of Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.’ (Our translation.)

There are two grammatically related words involved: apokatastasis and apokathistemi. The first is a noun and the second is a verb. In Greek they are ποκατάστασις and ποκαθίστημι. These are ordinary Greek words used in daily talk, even today. The noun’s basic meaning is: ‘restoration, re-establishment, return’. The verb’s basic meaning is: ‘re-establish, restore, reinstate’. These are the words used in the original of the above Scripture passages, the one where we see a noun in bold type, the other where we see a verb. ‘All things’ is merely the Greek for ‘everything’.

The words themselves don’t mean much. So what’s the fuss?

In the first Scripture passage that Simon has brought forth, there is a reference to the role of the Prophet Elias (Elijah) in the coming of the Messiah. This is based on a prophecy of the Old Testament. The disciples are asking Jesus about the fulfilment of that messianic prophecy. Since Jesus is the Messiah, this is obviously relevant. The disciples say that according to the scholars of the Law, before the Messiah comes Elias must first come. Jesus answers that indeed Elias comes before the Messiah to restore all things in fulfilment of the messianic prophecy. He continues that Elias has already come and they—the rulers of the people—have done whatever they wanted with him; and moreover, the Son of Man will suffer from them in the same way. Then the passage finishes: ‘Then the disciples understood that he spoke to them of John the Baptist.’

Hence, here, St John the Baptist, the meaning of whose mission is treated in more depth by St John the Evangelist in his Gospel, restores all things: he prepares the Jewish people for the ministry of Jesus the Messiah. While the prophecy is messianic, it is not eschatological in the sense that Sts Barsanuphios and John are discussing the Origenist doctrine of the apokatastasis, which we will discuss below.

The next text that Simon puts forward is from Acts 3. Here, it is not a matter of preparation for the earthly ministry of Jesus, as in the case of the Prophet Elias, but of the Second Coming. It should be understood unequivocally that Sts Barsanuphios and John are not disputing the dogma of the Second Coming of Christ. After all, that is part of the Nicene Creed—not to mention the Bible! They are disputing a particular interpretation of the dogma of the Second Coming put forward first by Origen, then by Didymus the Blind and finally by Evagrius Ponticus, the same Evagrius whose ascetical doctrines we have been discussing.

In the case of the passage of Acts that we ourselves brought forward (Acts 1:6 ff.), it is a case of the Apostles’ having a rather crude understanding of the Second Coming as the restoration of a human Kingdom to Israel. They have not yet understood the deeper spiritual meaning of Christ’s messianic ministry.

The basic elements of the Origenist doctrine of the apokatastasis as encountered by St Barsanuphios’ interlocutor are outlined in Question 600. This Origenist doctrine can be summarized as follows:

In the beginning there was only God. Then God the Father created the minds. These minds are all the creatures with consciousness (mind) that ever were or ever will be. They include all the creatures we now know as angels, men or demons. In the beginning these minds were all equal and they all participated without distinction in the contemplation of God. But in a ‘movement’ initiated by the mind that would become the Devil, all the minds but one participated in an act of negligence, essentially turning themselves away from the contemplation of God. The one mind that did not participate in the ‘movement’ was the mind that would become the Christ. The mind that would become the Christ was a created mind that remained united to God the Word without disturbance while all the other minds fell.

God the Father gave the judgement of all the other minds over to the created mind called the Christ. Based on each mind’s negligence, in his judgement the Christ created for each mind a body and a world: thus some minds had less negligence and became angels; some had moderate negligence and became men; some had more negligence and became demons. Thus also the angelic, human and demonic worlds.

Now part of this system is that through a very complex cycle of rebirth the minds through their own free will and application to virtue, and with the help of the Providence of God, can improve themselves so as to be born in their next lifetime in a higher state. In the broad view, over many, many lifetimes, there are minds that are ascending and minds that are descending. These include angels, men and demons. That is why St Barsanuphios in Question 600 spends so much time saying things like: ‘Don’t be deceived: here we work; there we receive our reward.’ And, ‘What angel have you ever heard of making progress through his own application?’

There will eventually be the Second Coming of Christ, and things will change: the good will get better and the bad will be punished—but not forever. For through the help of Christ, after they have been purified, the bad—the demons, the bad men and so on—will return with all the others to the pristine state of the group of naked minds (without bodies and without worlds) contemplating God just like things were in the beginning. Hence the use of the term ‘apokatastasis’: the minds will be restored to their original state. It can be seen that just as the Second Coming of Christ is eschatological, so the ‘apokatastasis’ is eschatological—but it’s not the same eschatology.

Read St Barsanuphios’ answer in Question 600 again to see in sharper relief the system as he is describing it.

This doctrine was condemned by the Fifth Ecumenical Synod in 553. The Anathemas (condemnations) of the Synod concerning Origenism contain a rather good outline of the system that they are condemning and they are well worth reading.

Here are two translations of the Anathemas:

Anathemas of the Fifth Ecumenical Synod in the Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers series (CCEL).

Anathemas of the Fifth Ecumenical Synod translated by Fr Theophanes (Constantine).

We will continue to discuss the historical framework of this matter in the next few posts. But first, in the next post we will provide more translations of answers by Sts Barsanuphios and John to questions about this matter.


  1. Dear Brother,

    Thank you very much for your clarification - as I look forward to the further articles you mentioned. I am enjoying your series on Evagrius very much, they are very helpful to me.
    Regarding apokatastasis, as a rough approximation, I see at least two elements that ought to be addressed somewhat separately. (i) the pre-existence of souls: I suppose the contention lies in what one understands by soul - was Adam, before his fall, wholly material? The fact that he was given "coats of skin" after his prevarication suggests not, in which case could he be said to have been a soul (mind?) that pre-existed his bodily form? (ii) the eternity of hell: how does that sit with God's infinite mercy? If man can reconcile through life-long efforts, can't demons do the same even if it takes longer than a human life? And if one demon can regain his place in God's mercy, can't they all? Does the eternity of hell not last only as long as the demons refuse God? It may be all theoretical, but I wouldn't want to deny even the demons' free will.
    Lastly, I would like to point out that the doctrine of apokatastasis doesn't imply many rebirths in the sense of reincarnations, but rather the possibility of infinite migration towards God (c.f. St Gregory of Nyssa).

    The anathemas typically list the contentious theories and declare them anathema, with no explanation. This is where I ask you for guidance, as to explain why those anathemas were pronounced. I understand that there can be a fear that people would stop making the effort if they thought that they would end up going to Paradise sooner or later whatever they did, but those are simply fear politics that have little relevance to us today.

    As an aside, Origen and Evagrius were condemned, but not St Gregory of Nyssa. Does that reflect an evolution of the Churches' point of view or is it due to differences in St Gregory's doctrines?

    I realise that these questions call for long answers, but I would be very grateful if you could address them bit by bit in the next few articles you mentioned.

    Thank you so much for your time and patience.

    Simon, just a layman.

  2. We will address these issues as best we can in the next few articles after the promised additional Barsanuphios translations. These are questions 604 - 607. In question 604, the next question, the issue of St Gregory of Nyssa is raised. The material for translation is a little lengthy, so please be patient.

    Orthodox Monk

  3. Father,

    A few thoughts if I may:

    Evagrius was not condemned at the Fifth Council - there is no such document belonging to the council itself. It is "hearsay" at best from Cyril of Scythopolis or perhaps part of Cyril's rhetorical strategy in defense of his monastic heroes (who had been associated with adherents of Theodore of Mopsuestia and were thus opposed by "the Origenists" (see D. Hombergen, "The Second Origenist Controversy" in the Studia Anselmiana series).

    Also the 15 anathemas belong to a letter written by Justinian the Great circulated among the Bishops in Constantinople awaiting the convocation of the Fifth Council - it was never part of the Council and does not belong to its decisions. The only anathema directed at Origen or Origenism is the 11th anathema where Origen's name appears at the end of a traditional list of heretics of a Christological category. But even this is a disputed fact - and no absolute agreement exists whether or not Origen's name was added by the Council or by later (anti-Origenist) copyists.

    After all the Sicth Ec. Council discovered all kinds of fraudulent additions to the acts of the Fifth Council and anathematized the ones responsible for it. The sixth Council did not investigate the question concerning Origen because it's concern was christological (monothelitism, monoenergism) but it is not at all implausible Origen's name is a latter addition to seal the fate of "Origenism" after the Fifth Council.

    To conclude this message: Neither Origen nor Evagrius taught the kind of doctrine condemned in the 15 anathemas of Justinian this much is clear from the work of Fr. John Behr ("The Way to Nicea") and Mark Edwards ("Origen against Plato") together with that of Frs. Gabriel Bunge, Jeremy Driscoll and Luke Dysinger. Whatever kind of Origenism is being condemned in the 15 anathemas is way beyond both Origen and Evagrius and without question heretical indeed.

    My two cents ...

    Fr. Dn. Gregory

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    Orthodox Monk