Tyre. An ancient city, a major port long ago, along the Phoenician coast. Tyre was the birthplace of a rare purple dye used to color the garments of kings. The secret ingredient to the purple dye was the blood of worms.
That was then; now it is called Lebanon.
Tyre had a church, once upon a time: Cathedral of Mar Tuma, which, in translation, is the Cathedral of Saint Thomas. According to tradition, the Cathedral was built around the time Jesus Christ suffered crucifixion. Destroyed in 1291 by the Mamluk invasion of the city, all that remains of the cathedral are some splendid ruins. Next to the cathedral was a necropolis. Not much left of it either.
In 253, behind the altar inside the cathedral, a sepulchre was placed. In it rested the body of a sixty-nine-year-old Catholic priest. Anyway, that’s what Eusebius says, and Jerome, and they should know. Some, though, say the sixty-nine-year-old priest died and was buried at Caesarea Maritima.
The priest, while alive, was il castrato, that is, he had castrated himself “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” His motivation for such a shocking act of fleshly mortification was his literal interpretation of Jesus’ words, “For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.”
Such excess is overcompensation at the very least, and theomania at worst. But it is indicative of this priest, for his entire life consisted of overcompensation of one kind or another. He castrated himself for the kingdom of heaven, yet his interpretation of grace, and its function, earned him infamy and excommunication.
He was certainly the baddest of the religious bad boys.
His name was Origenes Admantios. Origen. And it was he who, pushing the envelope of the idea of human free will as far as it would go, found the idea of an unending Hell unbelievable.
For a while, he even entertained the notion of reincarnation, although in the end he could not bind himself to it philosophically. It just didn’t line up with Scripture, this method of ascending or descending the hierarchy of being called reincarnation by most, and metempsychosis by the philosophers.
Instead, Origen anticipated, all human beings would in due course choose to repent. Aristotle came up with something similar. In Aristotle’s eschatology, which means ‘how things will turn out in the end, finally, when all is said and done,’ everyone receives salvation at the end because the Prime Mover’s grace is “wide.” Of course, this negates the concept of a perpetual Hell where sinners suffer forever.
And this kind of thing was expected from Aristotle because he was a pagan philosopher, not a Christian. But Origen, well, he should know better than to buy into this junk.
This kind of thinking, this idea of universal redemption is called apocatastasis, which is a fancy word for ‘restoration,’ and is used in astronomy to mean the return of a planet to the same position after an orbital revolution. Fancy theological words are nothing more than an attempt at job security by the clergy.
Other Christian thinkers who believed in universal salvation included: Ambrose, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus.
This kind of thinking was a slap in the face to the Church, whose position on this matter would later be clarified by Saint Augustine, the great Bishop of Hippo, who is today nicknamed that ‘restless heart.’
Saint Augustine, in his proof of a permanent Hell, stressed the beauty of creation, and by inference, the beauty of the Creator; also original sin and its effects on mankind and, vaguely, a kind of contrast effect instituted by God. It’s difficult to understand because it’s couched in theological terminology, which rests on obscure concepts. Which means it’s pretty much mumbo-jumbo.
In essence, Saint Augustine declared that a perfect God could not create anything less than perfect and everlasting. Thus, Hell must be perfect by design: the perfect place to punish sinners, and the perfect complement to Heaven (this is where the vague contrast effect comes in), to God’s righteousness and that of his angels and his elect.
Augustine, too, was a recovering heretic. And there’s nothing worse than a reformed heretic. He’d been a Manichean for a while. Manicheaism is a religious philosophy based on dualism, which is the constant battle between good (light, God, the soul) and evil (darkness, Satan, the body). Kind of like The Force in George Lucas’ Star Wars movies: dark side of the force versus the good side of the force.
The problem with Manicheaism is this: it makes Satan equal to God. In other words, there are two gods: one good, one evil and they are struggling to determine who will prove victorious. Kind of like a heavenly gang war for turf. And the idea came into being because the religious thinkers could not come to grip with the notion that God created Satan, and then Satan fell and, in effect, created evil. That sounds, in a round about way, like God is ultimately responsible for evil. And that’s a no-no.
So some guy named Manes came up with the idea of light versus dark, his way of explaining all the confusion.
This kind of thinking — that in the end everybody will repent — got Origen into lots of trouble with the Church. In fact, Origen was excommunicated for his belief. And not just once, but on five separate occasions, with a total of fifteen charges of anathema, which means to ‘curse’ or ‘damn.’ Origen was damned to eternal flames in the eternal Hell in which he did not believe in the years of our Lord 543, 553, 680, 787, and 869.
The idea of Hell has fascinated and sickened mankind for centuries. The notion of such an awful finality, one which goes on and on and on without end, just doesn’t sit right with most people. Not even with the Church, because in 1253 the Church formally published the doctrine of Purgatory. And this was nothing more or less than an attempt to amend the scary finality of Hell.
Shades of Virgil and Plato! The word purgatorium did not even exist before the 12th century. Although, admittedly, the venerable Bede’s seventh century Drythelm, an example of what is called ‘vision literature,’ sets forth a very similar idea of a purgatory or temporary place of suffering.
The Roman Catholic concept of Purgatory found its likeness, according to some, in the Hebrew Abraham’s Bosom. This pectoral intermediate state was, supposedly, a state of limbo, a kind of waiting area. Others, though, equated Purgatory with refrigerium, ‘the place of refreshment.’
And heresy of all heresies, the Church, making even Origen look like a champion of the status quo, named the Virgin Mary the ‘Queen of Purgatory’.
The idea of Hell is universal. Indeed, the Vikings called their version of eternal torment Niflheim, whose location was cited as being in the far north, beneath the roots of Yggdrasil, the ‘Tree of the World’. The Vikings even went so far as to cite a counterpart to the Christian Great Gulf Fixed; theirs was called ‘the great void Ginnungagap,’ or ‘Muspell.’ The Viking heaven, of course, was Valhalla. Entrance into Niflheim was across the Gjallarbru, ‘the Echoing Bridge.’
As recently as the 1970’s, rock guitarist Robin Trower released his record entitled Bridge of Sighs, a direct reference to the bridge going into Valhalla.
And most interesting, the Christian Armageddon is rivaled in the Norse equivalent of Ragnarok, the final battle of the gods and giants. Sounds a little like Manicheaism, doesn’t it?
Hindu, Buddhist and Zoroastrian hells exist, too. However, in each instance cycles of incarnation can result in advancement. So if you can mind your p’s and q’s in your next life, you can work your way out of these hells.
In all these instances, Purgatory, or its like, was the place where behavior modification took place. And once that was accomplished, Paradise or Heaven, or its like might be achieved.
Origen, then, like Haywire Mac in his song, sang of a place where everyone will eventually find happiness, plenitude and pleasure: The Big Rock Candy Mountain. Only Origen called it Heaven. And as the rover, Origen, too, tried to recruit others to his vision of a heavenly Cocagne. And in the end, they damned him for eternity to a place — Hell — that Origen believed he would get out of, because of the ‘wideness’ as Aristotle put it, of the grace of God.
Origen believed that in the end, the end is the same for all.
And I, for one, hope he is right. For anyone who castrates himself for the sake of the kingdom of heaven has already done his time in Hell.