|Moments in Time|
Issue Date: March 25, 2005
Origen of Alexandria
By GARY MACY
Of all the great theologians that Christianity has produced, few rival the brilliant exegete and scholar Origen of Alexandria (c. 184-c. 254). His life alone was amazing. As a young man, he tried to join his father as a martyr and was only prevented from doing so because his mother hid his clothes and he was ashamed to turn himself in nude. According to some sources, he later castrated himself, following literally the words of Matthew 19:12. He died after prolonged torture during the persecution of Decius, denying the emperor the satisfaction of breaking Christianitys most renowned scholar.
Origen excelled at scripture and, for instance, created the wonderful Hexapla, a Bible with parallel columns of Hebrew and different Greek translations. And he did this at a time when all books had to be hand-copied! As one might imagine, his theological speculations were -- and remain -- enticing, and, as one might also imagine, they got him into trouble both during his lifetime and after his death.
Origen was torn by two great insights in his theology. On one hand, God was eternally merciful and forgiving, and on the other hand, free will could never be taken away. The physical world, as Origen pictured it, was a place of training and mortification that a gracious God had created to allow fallen spirits to become embodied and slowly win their way back to God at their own pace and using their own free will. However, since free will was eternal, even those spirits who returned to God could, as least theoretically, turn from God and return to earth for more training. In effect, this would be a form of Christian reincarnation. Further, since God is eternally merciful, even those in hell (even Satan, in fact) could, theoretically, turn back to God and be saved. God always offers salvation and always respects free will even in heaven and hell. Origens theology never gained widespread acceptance, but the ever-gracious God Origen describes seems more attractive than the vengeful God of the rapture.
Gary Macy is a theology professor at the University of San Diego.
National Catholic Reporter, March 25, 2005
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