Our second excursion into the thoughts and writings of Origen may best be summarised by the following extract from Hosea Ballou’s book, entitled “The Ancient History of Universalism.” This book was first published in 1828, but more recently re-printed by the “Saviour of All Fellowship.”
Origen, having accomplished his business in Greece, returned to Alexandria, finished the first five books of his Commentaries on St. John, those onthe Lamentations, on some of the Psalms, and on part of Genesis, and published them, A. D. 230, together with his work entitled Stromata, and his book Of Principles. These were, perhaps, his first publications. From the last mentioned work, we have already seen that, in connexion with Universalism, he held the doctrine of Pre-existence.
His opinion was, that in the past ages of eternity, God created, at once, all the rational minds which have ever existed, whether of angels or men, gave them the same nature and the same powers, and placed them all in one celestial state. Accordingly they were all, at first, exactly alike in rank, capacity and character. But as they all had perfect freedom of will, they did not long continue in this state of equality; for while some improved themselves more or less, others degenerated proportionally, till an infinite diversity of character and condition began to take place among them. In consequence of this, the Almighty at length formed the material Universe out of pre-existent matter, and appointed those spirits to different ranks and conditions in it, according to their respective deserts; elevating some to the angelic order, consigning others to the infernal abodes as demons, and sending the intermediate class, as occasion might require, into human bodies. Origen supposed also that the Sun, Moon and Stars were animated by certain spirits who had attained to great moral splendor, dignity and power, and who might, with justice, claim those bright and glorious spheres as their own appropriate bodies.
As all these intelligent beings, whatever their character and station, still retain their original freedom of will, and are therefore capable of returning from their former transgressions, of forfeiting their honors, or of rising to still higher degrees of excellence, their present conditions are not only the allotments of retributive justice for the past, but are also states of discipline adapted to reclaim the degenerate, and to encourage the virtuous. To this end, indeed, are all the appointments of providence, and all the administrations of the divine government, constantly directed; and justice itself steadily pursues the same gracious design, in all its severe but salutary inflictions.
Such are the views we may gather from Origen’s books Of Principles, and his other works published at this period. [End of quote]
By referring to these ancient ideas, we may see the great diversity of understanding on the subject of pre-existence. Although they all adhered to it, their opinions as to the pre-existent conditions were very different. Today, we are no nearer a full understanding of the early state, and perhaps we shall never be able to quantify it, simply because we have had to pass through the “vale of forgetfulness” on coming to the earth.
However, as this series has progressed, it has been possible to see that, quite apart from the general state of forgetfulness, God has actually written within us certain mental abilities that enable us to recover something of the past. We shall see more of this when looking at Plato’s works, with his theory of “recollection.”