Why Was Origen Made A Heretic By The Church Despite Being One Of Its Most Devout Followers?

Christianity is, like any religion, a living and growing thing. Two millennia since Jesus Christ died, Christians are still wrestling with how to interpret his teachings, as well as other dogma in the book that was eventually compiled into the Christian Bible. The fact that there are multiple denominations and groups split by differing interpretations of scripture (for example, some churches practice infant baptism, others believers' baptism) shows that there is no one doctrine that all Christians can and do agree to.

In the early days of Christianity (and by that we mean its first few centuries), Christian teachers, thinkers, and devotees wrestled with how to interpret scripture and Christian teachings in light of the competing philosophies of the day — and in particular, Greek philosophy. As Christian History Institute notes, one Christian from those days was Origen, a believer so devout that he deliberately tried (and failed) to become a martyr. Unfortunately, a few centuries later, Christendom retroactively declared him a heretic, as The Guardian reports.

Origen's Devotion Was Bordering On Overzealous

Origen lived in a time and place (approximately 185-284 around the Mediterranean/Middle East, per Britannica) where being a Christian could mean torture and/or death, depending on the mood of the rulers at the time. Far from being keen to avoid it, Origen actually sought out martyrdom, and according to legend, his mother had to talk him out of turning himself in to the authorities. He got his wish (kind of) later in life, as he was indeed subject to torture, during which he steadfastly refused to renounce his faith. He was later set free, though he was denied his goal of dying for the faith. He instead died a few years later, according to Christianity Today, probably of ill health.

In addition to his desire to be martyred, history seems to suggest that he took matters into his own hands (so to speak) and castrated himself because he (seemingly falsely) believed the New Testament commanded him to. When he wasn't maiming himself or being persecuted, Origen did what a lot of Christians of his day did, which consisted largely of writing, teaching, preaching, copying manuscripts, and working his way through various church leadership roles.

Retroactive Heresy

Origen may have been one of the most influential, prolific (when it comes to writing), and devout Christians of his day, but two centuries after his death, Christendom retroactively declared him a heretic (note that "heretic" simply means one who adheres to unaccepted doctrine, according to Merriam-Webster and not anything more salacious). Specifically, according to The Guardian, the Second Council of Constantinople deemed him a heretic in 553, after Origen had been in his grave for a couple of centuries.

What was heretical about Origen's beliefs? To answer that question would require a deep dive into thick theological and philosophical weeds. To make a very long story very short, he tried to reconcile Christianity with the beliefs of Greek philosophers, such as the Platonists, and his conclusions were not accepted by later church leaders. Some of his heretical beliefs, listed by Christianity Today, include his belief that punishments in hell were temporary and not eternal, as National Geographic reports, and that even Satan could be saved. As Christianity Today describes it, he also "drastic(ally) misinterpreted Matthew 19:12 — "There are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven," the result of which was his self-castration, an act of devotion that Christendom tends to discourage.