She notes that he was a supporter and defender both of Origen and of certain of Origen's followers, including Palladius, Theognostus, and St. Anthony. She further demonstrates that Athanasius absorbed a range of theological and exegetical insights from Origen.
Consequently, one should perhaps not be surprised if it turned out that Origen's universalism was also taken on board by the great Anti-Arian saint. And so it appears. Ramelli surveys a range of texts in which Athanasius sees:
- Christ's incarnation as having a salvific effect on all humanity
- Christ death for all as resulting in the salvation of all
- That what God has called into existence should not perish (on the grounds that then God's work for it would be in vain)
For instance, [all refs in the book]
Flesh was taken up by the Logos to liberate all humans and resurrect all of them from the dead and ransom all of them from sin.
The Logos became a human being for the sake of our salvation . . . in order to set free all beings in himself, to lead the cosmos to the Father and to pacify all beings in himself, in heaven and on earth.
. . . in himself he has liberated humanity from sin, completely and entirely, and has vivified it from the state of death . . .
he delivered his own body to death on behalf of all . . . in order bring again to incorruptibility the human beings now doomed to corruption
That corruption may disappear from all forever, thanks to the resurrection. . . . He has paid for all, in death, all that was owed. . . . He set right their neglectfulness, having rectified all human things by means of his power.
Creatures, which are his work, should not be reduced to nothing by the deception of the devil.
[Christ], who through his own power has restored the whole human nature.
He handed his own body to death for the sake of all . . . in order to drive back to incorruptibility . . . human beings.
[Christ] has redeemed from death and liberated from hell all humanity.
He died for all . . . to abolish death with his blood . . . he has gained the whole humanity.
the totality of the people has entered, so that every human be saved.
He offered the sacrifice for all.
Our Saviour's death has liberated the world. By his wounds all of us have been healed.
[In the cross there is] salvation of all humans in all places
I am most certainly not an Athanasius scholar, but it certainly looks universalist! And given his Origenist sympathies, we'd need some good reasons to think it was not.
Now Athanasius did speak of the eschatological punishment of aionial fire. Presumably this is why people assume that he could not have been a universalist. However, Ramelli argues that Athanasius' use of this concept follows that of Origen. In other words, she argues that he makes a clear distinction between aidios (eternal) and aionios (age-long, or belonging to an age). Thus, future punishment is never spoken of as aidios (eternal), but only ever as aionios (belonging to the age to come).
She further shows that—like Clement, Origen, and others—Athanasius had a notion of corrective punishment in the age to come. After citing the threat of eternal fire he reveals that its aim is "that these may revive, and those may correct themselves." Those who have been cursed by the Lord can have his mercy and will be inserted anew once they have abandoned their incredulity.
If Athanasius was indeed a universalist, this is not insignificant. It is easy in some quarters to dismiss Origen (often on the basis of misunderstanding him), but one cannot so easily dismiss Athanasius, the great defender of Nicene orthodoxy and the arch-opponent of Arius. If Ramelli is right, then universalism was not as marginal and fringe as it is sometimes claimed.