Gregory of Nyssa, On the Soul and the Resurrection

Gregory of Nyssa

Gregory of Nyssa

From Anthony Thiselton:

Gregory of Nyssa (c. 330–395) was the younger brother of Basil of Caesarea, and one of the three great Cappadocian Fathers. He passionately defended the Nicene concept of the Holy Trinity. Before he became bishop of Nyssa, he was a solitary ascetic who had also spent time as a rhetorician. He became bishop at Basil’s urging, but was temporarily exiled under the Arian emperor Valens. The “Nicene” emperor Theodosius restored him in 380, and commissioned him to propagate Nicene orthodoxy. His original and creative works included On “Not Three Gods,” On the Trinity, On the Holy Spirit, and Against Eunomius. He insisted that “three,” when applied to the Trinity, was not a numerical term. He also argued that every act of creation and redemption is performed cojointly by the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In Christology he famously used the term Theotokos to urge that Jesus was truly human, not to suggest a special status for the Virgin Mary. (Anthony C. Thiselton, “Gregory of Nyssa,” The Thiselton Companion to Christian Theology [Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015], 394–395).

From T.A. Noble:

Gregory is more faithful to the orthodox tradition than Origen, yet he clearly teaches *universalism, a redemption and restoration of the whole creation (including the devil). Those not purified in this life will be purified by fire after death. Gregory’s originality is seen particularly in his doctrine of the *atonement and of the *Eucharist. He explains the atonement in terms of the paying of the ransom (the life of Christ) to Satan (see *Redemption), who took it ‘like a greedy fish’ swallowing ‘bait’, not realizing that the Godhead was concealed within the flesh ‘like a fishhook’. This grotesque imagery, together with any idea of a ransom being paid to the devil, has generally been rejected by the church. The merits of Gregory’s theory lay in its objective and cosmic view of the atonement and in the way in which he linked it to the divine attributes of goodness, power, justice and wisdom. His doctrine of the Eucharist arises from his understanding of the physical aspect of salvation in the *resurrection of the body. He taught that *salvation was communicated to the body through the Eucharist. The bread and wine became the elements of the body of Christ through the words of consecration, so that as we receive them our bodies share in divine immortality.
Gregory is also noted for his influential *mystical writings in which he traces three stages in the ascent of the soul from apatheia, freedom from passion, through gnōsis, mystical knowledge in which the senses are left behind, to theōria, the highest stage of contemplation in which (since a created soul cannot see God) one passes into the limitless ascent into the divine darkness. (T. A. Noble, “Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335–95),” ed. Martin Davie et al., New Dictionary of Theology: Historical and Systematic [London; Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press; InterVarsity Press, 2016], 380).

On the Soul and Resurrection [OSR]

The Argument

SOURCE: Gregory of Nyssa, “On the Soul and the Resurrection,” in Gregory of Nyssa: Dogmatic Treatises, Etc., ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. William Moore, vol. 5, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1893), 428–429.

“Argument” quoted in its entirety, formatted with bullet points, emphasis added.

  • THE mind, in times of bereavement, craves a certainty gained by reasoning as to the existence of the soul after death.
    • First, then: Virtue will be impossible, if deprived of the life of eternity, her only advantage.
    • But this is a moral argument. The case calls for speculative and scientific treatment.
    • How is the objection that the nature of the soul, as of real things, is material, to be met?
    • Thus; the truth of this doctrine would involve the truth of Atheism; whereas Atheism is refuted by the fact of the wise order that reigns in the world. In other words, the spirituality of God cannot be denied: and this proves the possibility of spiritual or immaterial existence: and therefore, that of the soul.
  • But is God, then, the same thing as the soul?
    • No: but man is “a little world in himself;” and we may with the same right conclude from this Microcosm to the actual existence of an immaterial soul, as from the phenomena of the world to the reality of God’s existence.
  • A Definition of the soul is then given, for the sake of clearness in the succeeding discussion. It is a created, living, intellectual being, with the power, as long as it is provided with organs, of sensuous perception. For “the mind sees,” not the eye; take, for instance, the meaning of the phases of the moon.

  • The objection that the “organic machine” of the body produces all thought is met by the instance of the water-organ. Such machines, if thought were really an attribute of matter, ought to build themselves spontaneously: whereas they are a direct proof of an invisible thinking power in man. A work of Art means mind: there is a thing perceived, and a thing not perceived.
  • But still, what is this thing not perceived? If it has no sensible quality whatever—Where is it?
    • The answer is, that the same question might be asked about the Deity (Whose existence is not denied).
  • Then the Mind and the Deity are identical?
    • Not so: in its substantial existence, as separable from matter, the soul is like God; but this likeness does not extend to sameness; it resembles God as a copy the original.
    • As being “simple and uncompounded” the soul survives the dissolution of the composite body, whose scattered elements it will continue to accompany, as if watching over its property till the Resurrection, when it will clothe itself in them anew.
  • The soul was defined “an intellectual being.” But anger and desire are not of the body either. Are there, then, two or three souls?
    • Answer. Anger and desire do not belong to the essence of the soul, but are only among its varying states; they are not originally part of ourselves, and we can and must rid ourselves of them, and bring them, as long as they continue to mark our community with the brute creation, into the service of the good. They are the “tares” of the heart, while they serve any other purpose.
  • But where will the soul “accompany its elements”?
    • Hades is not a particular spot; it means the Invisible; those passages in the Bible in which the regions under the earth are alluded to are explained as allegorical, although the partizans of the opposite interpretation need not be combated.
  • But how will the soul know the scattered elements of the once familiar form?
    • This is answered by two illustrations (not analogies).
    • The skill of the painter, the force that has united numerous colours to form a single tint, will, if (by some miracle) that actual tint was to fall back into those various colours, be cognizant of each one of these last, e. g. the tone and size of the drop of gold, of red, &c.; and could at will recombine them.
    • The owner of a cup of clay would know its fragments (by their shape) amidst a mass of fragments of clay vessels of other shapes, or even if they were plunged again into their native clay. So the soul knows its elements amidst their “kindred dust”; or when each one has flitted back to its own primeval source on the confines of the Universe.
  • But how does this harmonize with the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus?
    • The bodies of both were in the grave: and so all that is said of them is in a spiritual sense. But the soul can suffer still, being cognizant, not only of the elements of the whole body, but of those that formed each member, e. g. the tongue. By the relations of the Rich Man are meant the impressions made on his soul by the things of flesh and blood.
  • But if we must have no emotions in the next world, how shall there be virtue, and how shall there be love of God? For anger, we saw, contributed to the one, desire to the other.

    • We shall be like God so far that we shall always contemplate the Beautiful in Him. Now, God, in contemplating Himself, has no desire and hope, no regret and memory. The moment of fruition is always present, and so His Love is perfect, without the need of any emotion. So will it be with us. God draws “that which belongs to Him” to this blessed passionlessness; and in this very drawing consists the torment of a passion-laden soul. Severe and long-continued pains in eternity are thus decreed to sinners, not because God hates them, nor for the sake alone of punishing them; but “because what belongs to God must at any cost be preserved for Him.” The degree of pain which must be endured by each one is necessarily proportioned to the measure of the wickedness.
    • God will thus be “all in all”; yet the loved one’s form will then be woven, though into a more ethereal texture, of the same elements as before. (This is not Nirvana.)
  • Here the doctrine of the Resurrection is touched. The Christian Resurrection and that of the heathen philosophies coincide in that the soul is reclothed from some elements of the Universe.

  • But there are fatal objections to the latter under its two forms:
    • Transmigration pure and simple;
    • The Platonic Soul-rotation.
  • The first 1. Obliterates the distinction between the mineral or vegetable, and the spiritual, world. 2. Makes it a sin to eat and drink.
  • Both 3. Confuse the moral choice. 4. Make heaven the cradle of vice, and earth of virtue. 5. Contradict the truth that they assume, that there is no change in heaven. 6. Attribute every birth to a vice, and therefore are either Atheist or Manichæan. 7. Make a life a chapter of accidents. 8. Contradict facts of moral character.
  • God is the cause of our life, both in body and soul.
  • But when and how does the soul come into existence?
    • The how we can never know.
    • There are objections to seeking the material for any created thing either in God, or outside God. But we may regard the whole Creation as the realized thoughts of God. (Anticipation of Malebranche.)
    • The when may be determined. Objections to the existence of soul before body have been given above. But soul is necessary to life, and the embryo lives.
    • Therefore soul is not born after body. So body and soul are born together.
  • As to the number of souls, Humanity itself is a thought of God not yet completed, as these continual additions prove. When it is completed, this “progress of Humanity” will cease, by there being no more births: and no births, no deaths.
  • Before answering objections to the Scriptural doctrine of the Resurrection, the passages that contain it are mentioned: especially Psalm 118:27 (LXX.).
  • The various objections to it, to the Purgatory to follow, and to the Judgment, are then stated; especially that
    • A man is not the same being (physically) two days together. Which phase of him, then, is to rise again, be tortured (if need be), and judged?
  • They are all answered by a Definition of the Resurrection, i.e. the restoration of man to his original state. In that, there is neither age nor infancy; and the “coats of skins” are laid aside.
  • When the process of purification has been completed, the better attributes of the soul appear—imperishability, life, honour, grace, glory, power, and, in short, all that belongs to human nature as the image of Deity.


Here is a quote from OSR that seems to indicate Nyssen’s belief in apocatastasis.

That, said the Teacher, is my meaning; and also that the agony will be measured by the amount of evil there is in each individual. For it would not be reasonable to think that the man who has remained so long as we have supposed in evil known to be forbidden, and the man who has fallen only into moderate sins, should be tortured to the same amount in the judgment upon their vicious habit; but according to the quantity of material will be the longer or shorter time that that agonizing flame will be burning; that is, as long as there is fuel to feed it. In the case of the man who has acquired a heavy weight of material, the consuming fire must necessarily be very searching; but where that which the fire has to feed upon has spread less far, there the penetrating fierceness of the punishment is mitigated, so far as the subject itself, in the amount of its evil, is diminished. In any and every case evil must be removed out of existence, so that, as we said above, the absolutely non-existent should cease to be at all. Since it is not in its nature that evil should exist outside the will, does it not follow that when it shall be that every will rests in God, evil will be reduced to complete annihilation, owing to no receptacle being left for it? (NPNF 2.5, 451).


We certainly believe, both because of the prevailing opinion, and still more of Scripture teaching, that there exists another world of beings besides, divested of such bodies as ours are, who are opposed to that which is good and are capable of hurting the lives of men, having by an act of will lapsed from the nobler view, and by this revolt from goodness personified in themselves the contrary principle; and this world is what, some say, the Apostle adds to the number of the “things under the earth,” signifying in that passage that when evil shall have been some day annihilated in the long revolutions of the ages, nothing shall be left outside the world of goodness, but that even from those evil spirits4 shall rise in harmony the confession of Christ’s Lordship. (NPNF 2.5, 444)

And also:

If, that is, God will be “in all” existing things, evil, plainly, will not then be amongst them; for if any one was to assume that it did exist then, how will the belief that God will be “in all” be kept intact? (NPNF 2.5, 452).

And yet, as the editors of NPNF 2.5 note:

Nevertheless passages have been adduced from Gregory’s writings in which the language of Scripture as to future punishment is used without any modification, or hint of this universal salvation. In the treatise, De Pauperibus Amandis, II. p. 240, he says of the last judgment that God will give to each his due; repose eternal to those who have exercised pity and a holy life; but the eternal punishment of fire for the harsh and unmerciful: and addressing the rich who have made a bad use of their riches, he says, ‘Who will extinguish the flames ready to devour you and engulf you? Who will stop the gnawings of a worm that never dies?’ Cf. also Orat. 3, de Beatitudinibus, I. p. 788: contra Usuarios, II. p. 233: though the hortatory character of these treatises makes them less important as witnesses. (William Moore and Henry Austin Wilson, “The Life and Writings of Gregory of Nyssa,” NPNF 2.5, 16).