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|The Recognition of
Universal Reconciliation - Part 1
||August 6, 2002
By Ernest L. Martin, December 1982, edited by David Sielaff,
NOTE: This is part 1 of a three-part Breaking News. Part 2 shall be presented in 5 days. It will consist of a portion of the large amount of evidence in the early Christian period regarding the wide-spread belief in Universal Reconciliation.
There is a legitimate question that many people ask concerning the reliability of any biblical doctrine—and this especially applies to that concerning a salvation of all humanity to Christ. It is this: If the doctrine is clear in the Bible, did later Christians believe it—particularly those in the first few centuries after Christ? The answer concerning universal salvation is a resounding YES! It was common knowledge among many Christian scholars of the early centuries that the teaching represented the bedrock of Christian belief. This survey shows that universal reconciliation was recognized and accepted by many in the centuries after Christ!
The doctrine of a universal world reconciliation to Christ is plainly revealed in the Bible. There are many sections of Scripture which are devoted solely to this matter, and if people would simply believe what they read (instead of inserting into the text their own theological conceptions and their desire to perpetuate traditionalism), there would hardly appear a doubt about the fact of the biblical teaching. Especially is this so if people correctly apply the factor of grace in every aspect of man’s salvation to God. The biblical teaching of grace demands a universal salvation in Christ when it is understood fully. The New Testament shows grace in salvation (without any works by man), and that salvation has its commencement in Christ, is sustained by Christ, and that it will be completed by the exclusive power of Christ (Romans 11:36).
The apostle Paul taught in the clearest terms that our salvation (and that of all in the world) was given to us before the world’s foundation (2 Timothy 1:9). What was given as a gift before birth will not be taken away by works in this life (1 Corinthians 3:15; 5:5). Yet most Christians assume that each human being must partially (or wholly) provide “works” for his salvation. This is not true! Salvation comes to all through the agency of grace, and grace is something that is the antithesis of work. It is God’s gift, without human works (Romans 11:5–6).
The fact is, Christ performed all the works necessary to obtain our salvation for us. [See our article "The Way of Salvation in the Christian Gospel" for a clear explanation of this matter.] And, since Christ accomplished his work of salvation for all of the human race, it follows that all will obtain their salvation given before the world’s foundation (2 Corinthians 5:19; 2 Timothy 2:4–6; 1 John 2:2). That is the simple New Testament teaching!
And, really, many Christian leaders presently believe that Christ will redeem the totality of the world to himself one day. Not long ago I talked to a Presbyterian minister with impeccable theological credentials from one of the Ivy League universities and he informed me that a full 95% of ministers he knew personally believed in a universal salvation by Christ—though most held the belief secretly, since it was not generally accepted by the denomination. I have not the slightest doubt that the percentage would be high in other denominations as well. Anything less than this would be incompatible with the love and attitude demonstrated by Christ for the world that He created (John 3:16–17).
True enough, God exercises judgments upon evildoers (and these can be severe), but these disciplines are temporary and corrective in nature. Yet how inconsistent the traditional interpretations are! It is normally believed that when people die they immediately receive their judgments by going to heaven or to hell (or to a purgatory). But the Bible teaches no such thing! Man was created mortal and must remain in the grave until the resurrection of the just and the unjust (Acts 24:15). There is no one alive (doing works, devices, expressing knowledge or wisdom) in the grave (Ecclesiastes 9:10). Of all humans who have ever lived, only Christ presently has immortality (1 Timothy 6:16). As for mankind, the apostle Paul said all of us are mortal, and must await the resurrection from the dead at Christ’s second advent in order to have a restored life (1 Corinthians 15:53–54). Man is not immortal because it is possible to destroy both soul and body (Matthew 10:28).
The only hope that mankind possesses for a future life is to become resurrected from the dead—and note that the New Testament teaches that it is a resurrection from the DEAD, not from a living existence either in heaven, purgatory, or hell! Indeed, even Christ himself was dead for three days as a result of the crucifixion. His spirit (breath or life-principle) returned to God in heaven, while Christ himself remained in the grave for that three day period.
[ In no way should it be conceived that Jesus went, as some disembodied spirit, to preach among angelic spirits imprisoned in the depths of the earth. People should read closely 1 Peter 3:18–19. Peter said that Christ was first quickened (made alive once again from the dead) and then (and only then) did he preach to the spirits in prison. ]The fact is, for a resurrection from the dead to take place (that the Bible teaches), the individuals in their graves must first be dead—not alive in heavenly bliss or in a fiery torment!
The inconsistency of the traditional opinion is self-evident. It is normally taught that at death humans go immediately to heaven, purgatory, or hell. And then, for some unknown reason, they must be “re-united” with their dead bodies that will be resurrected from the dust. Modern interpreters must resort to this “gaining life” in a double sense, because the New Testament is specific about the need for our bodies to be resurrected from the dead at Christ’s second advent. But how can we be resurrected from the
dead, if we are already alive in heaven or hell? No one can explain this need. And no wonder! The doctrine is not biblical. It is to satisfy Plato’s doctrine of the Immortality of the Soul. Yet, people who have died are still in their graves awaiting a resurrection of the just and the unjust (Acts 24:15). And that includes all the righteous people of the past—such as King David (who is prophesied to have a glorious existence in the resurrection).
Even Christ said: “No man hath ascended up to heaven” (John 3:13).
“Men and brethren, let me freely speak unto you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his sepulcher is with us to this day ... for David is NOT ascended into heaven.”
• Acts 2:29, 34
But why mention these matters about the state of the dead in an article concerning universal salvation? There is a good reason, because the Bible makes it clear in no uncertain terms that all the dead will one day receive a call from Christ and come forth from their graves!
The point that needs to be made is the fact that all will participate in the resurrection. There will be no granting of rewards or punishments (or corrective actions by God) until the resurrections occur, and all are standing alive before the judgment seat of Christ (Romans 14:10).
“Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in the which ALL that are in their graves shall hear his voice, and shall come forth; they that have done good unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of judgment.”
• John 5:28–29
And what will be the final result of this procedure placed into motion by God? It means that all intelligent beings throughout the universe will finally worship God and openly (and freely, on their own volitions) come to the place of confessing Christ as Lord and Savior.
And, in this confession by all intelligent beings on earth and throughout the universe, it should be understood that this will finally result in a spontaneous adoration for Christ, and for the salvation He provides for all. One should note that the word “confess” (or its cognates), as used in the Old and New Testaments, is always within a context of free expression (non-coercion) by those performing the “confessing.” Indeed, even the apostle Paul said no individual is able to sincerely confess that Jesus is Lord without being prompted by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3). More than that, Paul went on to say in Philippians 2:13 (after having stated that all in the universe will one day confess and worship Christ),
“That at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow, of things in heaven [throughout the universe], and things in earth [all earth beings], and things under the earth [angelic beings confined to Tartars]; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, TO THE GLORY of God the Father.”
• Philippians 2:10–11
These scriptures are powerful ones to show that God will provide “the will” for all creatures to accept Christ. All things are destined to become like God (1 Corinthians 15:28).
“For it is God which worketh in you both TO WILL and TO DO [perform] of HIS good pleasure.”
Part 2, of "The Recognition of Universal Reconciliation shows how Universal Reconciliation was understood by early Christians will be presented in a few days. It is the second part of this three-part article. Look for it.
“For of him, and through him, and to him are ALL THINGS: to whom be glory for ever.”
• Romans 11:36“That in the dispensation of the fullness of times he might gather together in one ALL THINGS in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him.”
• Ephesians 1:10“And having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile ALL THINGS to himself; by him, I say, whether they be things in heaven [the totality of the universe], or things in earth [all upon or under the earth].”
• Colossians 1:20“For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that THE WORLD through him might be saved.”
• John 3:17
Ernest L. Martin
|The Recognition of
Universal Reconciliation - Part
||August 12, 2002
Read carefully this extended but beautiful passage by Gregory,
By Ernest L. Martin, December 1982, edited by David Sielaff,
NOTE: This is part 2 of a three-part Breaking News. Part 3
shall be presented in 5 days. It will consist of additional information
indicating how wide-spread the understanding and belief of Universal
Reconciliation was in Christianity even to the 5th century B.C.E.
Universal Reconciliation Understood by Early Christians
The truth that a salvation in Christ awaits all was the prime message of
Christianity as revealed in the New Testament. But what about the people who
followed on after the deaths of the apostles? Did they maintain this fundamental
doctrinal belief? The answer is a decided YES. Among several important Christian
scholars and theologians over the following four hundred years, universal
salvation was publicly advocated and taught. First note the remarks of Iranaeus,
the Bishop of Lyons (c.130 to 200 C.E.)
“Wherefore also He drove him out of Paradise, and
removed him far from the tree of life, not because He envied him the tree of
life, ... but because He pitied him [and did
not desire], that he should continue a sinner for ever, nor that the sin
which surrounded him should be immortal, and evil interminable and
irremediable. But He set a bound to his [state of] sin,
by interposing death, and thus causing sin to cease, putting an end to it by
the dissolution of the flesh, which should take place in the earth, so that
man, ceasing at length to live to sin, and dying to it, might begin to live to
Note also the remarks of Clement of Alexandria (c.190 C.E.). There can
be no doubt of his understanding that all in the universe will one day obtain
their salvation in Christ which was given before the world’s foundation.
• Against Heretics, Book III,
“How is He Savior and Lord, if not the Savior and
Lord of all? But He is the Savior of those who have believed, because of their
wishing to know, and the Lord of those who have not believed, till being
enabled to confess Him, they obtain the peculiar ... boon which comes by Him
... For all things are arranged with a view to the salvation of the universe
by the Lord of the universe, both generally and particularly.”
• The Stromata, or Miscellanies, Book
vii, chapter 2
[Quoting 1 Timothy 4:10] “To
speak comprehensively, all benefit appertaining to life, in its highest
reason, proceeding from the Sovereign God, the Father who is over all,
consummated by the Son, who also on this account ‘is Savior of all men,’
says the apostle, ‘but especially of those who believe.’”
• The Stromata, or Miscellanies, Book
vi, chapter 17
“Christ’s only work is the salvation of mankind.”
• The Stromata, or Miscellanies, Book
Let us now look at the linguist and scholar Origen (c.210 C.E.). All historians
know he was an avowed believer in universal salvation for the human race and all
intelligent beings in the universe.
“When the Son is said to be subject to the Father,
the perfect restoration of the whole creation is signified, so also,
when the enemies are said to be subjected to the Son of God, the salvation of
the conquered and the restoration of the lost is in that understood to
We also have the witness of Victorinus (360 C.E.),
• De prin. iii.5
“But those who have been removed from their primal
state of blessedness [innocence]
have not been removed irrecoverably, but ... being remolded by salutary
discipline and principles, they may recover themselves, and be restored to
their condition of happiness.”
• De prin.
“Christ will regenerate all things, as he
created all things. By the life that is in Him, all things will be
cleansed and return into age-lasting life. Christ is to subject all things
to Himself. When this shall have been accomplished, God will be all things,
because all things will be full of God.”
There was also Hilary, known as “the leading theologian of his day” (X.LeBachelet,
St. Hilarie DTC. 6.2413–60).
• Adv.Arium Lib.
i & iii
“This seemed good to God to manifest in Christ the
mystery of His will, namely, that He should be merciful to all who had
strayed, whether in heaven or in earth (fallen angels and mankind). Every
being, then, is being restored to the place in which he was created, by
learning the knowledge of Christ.”
Even Titus, the Bishop of Bostra in 364 C.E. professed an explicit
universalism in salvation. He showed that the fire of hell is really remedial.
• In Eph.
[ Because some came to believe the erroneous doctrine of the Immortality of the
Soul—which the Bible does not support— some invented what is called
“Purgatory.” There is, however, not a word in the Bible about such a
transient place after death for the cleansing of errors. Yet the punishment of
the wicked is intended to be corrective. The word for “punishment” in
Matthew 25:46 is kolasis which in Greek literature means correction. ]
This was understood by early Christians. Titus, Bishop of Bostra, knew that the
biblical teaching of “hell” signified a place of correction and discipline,
which did not last for eternity!
“The very pit itself is a place of torments and of
torments and of punishments, but is not eternal. It was made that it
might be a medicine and yield help to those who sin. Sacred are the
stripes which are remedies and helps to those who have strayed.”
Gregory of Nyssa (380 C.E.) was one who proclaimed a universal redemption in
Christ for all creatures within the entirety of the universe. Quoting
Philippians 2:10 where Paul said every knee would one day bow and every tongue
confess the Lordship of Christ to the glory of God, Gregory comments,
• Lib. i, ch.xxxii
“In this passage is signified, that when evil has
been obliterated in the long circuits of the ages, nothing shall be left
outside the limits of good; but even from them [all
creatures made by God] shall be unanimously
uttered the confession of the Lordship of Christ.”
• De an.et.resurrect.
“For it is evident that God will, in truth, be ‘in
all’ then when there shall be no evil seen in anything. ... When every
created being is at harmony with itself and every tongue shall confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord; when every creature shall have been made one body,
then shall the body of Christ be subject to the Father. ... Now the body of
Christ, as I have said often before, is the whole of humanity. ... When
it says that God’s enemies shall be subjected to God, this is meant that the
power of evil shall be taken away, and they who, on account of their
disobedience were called God’s enemies, shall by subjection be made God’s
friends. When, then, all who were once God’s enemies, shall have been made
His footstool (because they will then receive in themselves the divine
imprint), when death shall have been destroyed; in the subjection of all,
which is not servile humility, but immortality and Christ is said by the apostle
Paul to be made subject to God.”
• Orat. in I Cor. xv.28
“Hence, another meaning of subjection is understood by
Paul as opposite to the common one. The exposition of the term 'subjection' as
used here does not mean the forceful, necessary subjection of enemies as is
commonly meant; while on the other hand, salvation is clearly interpreted by
subjection. ... Paul mentions this in his Epistle to the Romans: ‘For if we
have been enemies, we have been reconciled to God’ [Rom
5.10]. Here Paul calls subjection reconciliation, one term indicating
salvation by another word. For as salvation is brought near to us by subjection,
Paul says in another place, ‘Being reconciled, we shall be saved in this
life’ [Rom 5.10]. Therefore, Paul says that such enemies are to be
subjected to God and the Father; death no longer is to have authority. This is
shown by Paul saying, ‘Death will be destroyed,’ a clear statement that the
power of evil will be utterly removed: persons are called enemies of God by
disobedience, while those who have become the Lord's friends are persuaded by
Paul saying, ‘We are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by
us: Be reconciled to God’ [2Cor 6.20]. ...
When all enemies have become God's footstool, they [the
enemies] will receive a trace of divinity in
themselves. Once death has been destroyed — for if there are no persons who
will die, not even death would exist — then we will be subjected to him; but
this is not understood by some sort of servile humility. Our subjection,
however, consists of a kingdom, incorruptibility and blessedness living in us;
this is Paul's meaning of being subjected to God. Christ perfects his good in us
by himself, and effects in us what is pleasing to him. According to our limited
understanding of Paul's great wisdom which we received, we have only understood
part of it.
• Orat. in I Cor. xv.28
About the same time lived Diodorus of Tarsus. He was equally assured the
Scripture taught the universal reconciliation of all to Christ—and that it
would be accomplished through the power of Jesus Christ.
“For the wicked there are punishments, not
perpetual, but they are to be tormented for a certain brief period according
to the amount of malice in their works. They shall therefore suffer punishment
for a short space, but immortal blessedness without end awaits them. The
resurrection, therefore, is to be regarded as a blessing not only to the good
but also to the evil.”
Then there was Theodore of Mopsuestia (a contemporary of Diodorus), who was
the leader of the Christian university of Antioch. He was called by those who
knew him as “the Master of the East because of his theological eminence.”
His remarks are very pertinent.
• De aecon.
“That in the world to come, those who have done
evil all their life long, will be made worthy of the sweetness of the Divine
bounty. For never would Christ have said ‘Until thou hast paid the uttermost
farthing,’ unless it were possible for us to be cleansed when we have paid
our debts. ... Who is so great a fool as to think that so great a blessing [eternal
life in Christ] can be to those who let arise [in their hearts]
the occasion of endless torment.”
In other words, endless torment was to Theodore incompatible with the
And most important to the issue is Jerome (c.400 C.E.). The reason for this is
because he was a translator of the Hebrew and Greek testaments into the common
Latin of the time. He was fully aware of all the original words involving a
so-called “eternal” damnation that some translators today render as endless
and unrelenting torments, but Jerome taught the redemption of all!
“Christ will, in the ages to come, show not to one,
but to the whole number of rational creatures His glory, and the riches
of His grace, by means of us [Christians].
The saints are to reign over the fallen angels, and the prince of this world,
even to them will be brought blessing.”
And importantly, look at Jerome’s comment on Galatians 5:20,
• In Eph. ii.7
“In the restitution of all things, when the true
physician, Jesus Christ, shall have come to heal the body of the Church, every
one shall receive his proper place. What I mean is, the fallen angel will
begin to be that [of his original state] which
he was created, and man (who was expelled from Paradise) will be once
more restored to the tilling of Paradise. These things then will take
• In Eph. iv.
“With God no rational creature perishes
eternally. ... For God pities His creatures, and will not suffer those
whom He himself has formed to perish eternally, who are sustained by
His breath and spirit.”
• In Isa. lvii.6
Much more could be cited from early theologians (most of whom could read
original biblical Greek as you do a newspaper). Yet this should suffice. It
abundantly shows that the biblical teaching of a universal reconciliation to
Christ (for all rational creatures) was not forgotten by those who came after
the apostles. After all, they simply read what the Bible said. Admittedly, it is
recognized that some, like Jerome, were not always consistent in this (and
other) doctrines. It depended on the audience he wanted to reach. The teaching
called “double doctrine” was looked on as a legitimate form of teaching from
the time of Plato to Jerome—and it is even in vogue today among some people.
The concept of “double doctrine” involved teaching those initiated into the
greater secrets the fullness of any doctrine, while to others traditional
teachings were often perpetuated. Some early Christians felt justified in using
this method because Christ taught the general masses in parables, but to His
intimate disciples He told them the full truth (Luke 8:10)—and in a language
they could understand. With the apostle Paul, however, Christ revealed to him
(and others) the full teaching of the Mystery (the great secret hidden from the
foundation of the world) (Ephesians 3:3–11). Since the time of that great
disclosure, called the Mystery, it is no longer necessary to teach in any
“double doctrine” fashion—using figures and terms to mean something else.
We do not teach in parables or symbolic language. However, the teaching of
universal salvation is so all-inclusive that no symbolic teaching can ever
exceed (or limit) its sense!
And one thing is certain. The final revelation of God, which Christ commissioned
his disciples to instruct mankind, includes the fact that all personalities in
the universe will come to a salvation experience in Christ. And the early
scholars of Christian persuasion which we mentioned above, also understood it.
The teaching of a total salvation to all is incapable of being limited by any
parabolic illustrations concerning hell or judgments.
Still, we do need a full explanation of what happens after death for all classes
of people on earth today—as well as a knowledge of the ultimate fate of the
angelic creatures. The Bible has some answers which may surprise some people!
What we want to provide are not some “way-out” suppositions that have no
biblical basis, but clear teachings from the Bible. The Bible is becoming
plainer all the time. And there is much more to be discovered, which can be made
simple and understandable to the ordinary person. But, in regard to mankind’s
destiny, the Bible is plain. Christ has already provided a universal salvation
For additional reading see
• Brian E. Daley’s The Hope of the Early Church: A Handbook of Patristic
Eschatology (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1991)
• J.W. Hanson, Universalism, the Prevailing Doctrine of the Christian
Church during its First Five Hundred Years (Boston and Chicago: Universalist
Publishing House, 1899).
Ernest L. Martin
|The Recognition of
Universal Reconciliation - Part 3
||August 12, 2002
By Ernest L. Martin, December 1982, edited by David Sielaff,
NOTE: This is part 3 of a three-part Breaking News. This NEW part 3
supplements the other two parts written by Dr. Ernest Martin in 1982. This
section provides new information about the extent of belief in universal
reconciliation in the Early Church and post-Nicene Church era. A
bibliography for this section is at the end.
Belief in Universal Reconciliation was widespread in the early centuries of the
Christian church. While it is impossible to provide statistics as to the extent
of the belief, interesting information can be obtained from those writers who
discussed the topic in various ways.
Augustus Neander wrote regarding universal reconciliation,
“The doctrine of eternal punishment continued, ...
to be dominant in the creed of the church. Yet, in the Oriental church, ...
there was greater freedom and latitude of development, many respectible
church-teachers still stood forth without injuring their reputation for
orthodoxy, as advocates of the opposite doctrine.”
• Neander, General History,
Origen (c.185 C.E.) strongly believed in and promoted universal
reconciliation, yet he was widely honored by later church leaders. Basil (the
“Great,” bishop of Caesarea) and Gregory of Nazianzus (bishop of
Constantinople), were close students of, promoted and published Origen’s
works in the 4th century throughout the Roman Empire (Young, From Nicaea to
Chacedon, pp. 94, 100). Socrates, the historian, writing about c.439 C.E.
noted that “The fame of Origen was very great and
widespread throughout the whole world at that time” (Socrates,
“Ecclesiastical History” 4:26).
Basil’s brother, Gregory of Nyssa (bishop of Nyssa), was even stronger in
his promotion of universal reconciliation than Origen. He never received any
hint of “official” criticism for those beliefs. Neander says that the
Cappadocian Fathers (Basil, Gregory of Nissa and Gregory of Nazianzus),
“... were all trained under the influence of Origen.
He prompted them to the study of classical antiquity, to make use of their
classical culture for the development of Christian doctrine, and led them to
greater freedom of thought and moderation in controversies.”
• Neander, General History,
To sum up their views of universal reconciliation, Gregory of Nyssa held
strongly to the view, Gregory of Nazianzus was favorable to the concept, but
noncommittal, and Basil of Caesarea was opposed to the view, but not
antagonistic to it (Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, p.483). Gregory of
Nyssa’s strongest statements on universal reconciliation were published in 380
C.E., shortly after his brother Basil’s death in 379 C.E., but also before
Gregory’s participation in the Council at Constantinople in 381 C.E. No
objections to his beliefs were made at the council or in any of his
Rufinus and Jerome were monastics, historians, theologians and translators of
Greek texts into Latin. They operated competing scriptoriums, the ancient
equivalent of publishing houses. In their writings, both acknowledge that for
several years they were instructed personally by Gregory of Nyssa at
Constantinople (see “Rufinus Apology in Defense of Himself,” 1:42, and
Jerome “The Letters of St. Jerome,” #50, and “Against Jovianus,” 1:13).
Clearly both knew about Gregory’s beliefs in universal reconciliation, because
Gregory’s views were well-publicized. In none of their correspondence, which
was extensive, was there any condemnation by Rufinus or Jerome against believers
in universal reconciliation.
Gregory of Nazianzus
This church leader wrote a very mild statement about those who held a view
different than his own belief, which was that the fire of judgment,
“... is eternal for the wicked. For all these
belong to the destroying power; though some may prefer even in this place to
take a more merciful view of this fire, worthily of Him that chastises.”
• Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration on
Baptism, NPNF, p.373
Why then was not the understanding of universal reconciliation more strongly
stated? One reason was given by Origen himself (responding to a critic of
Christianity) in Against Celsus. Origen believed that proclaiming
universal reconciliation to the unconverted might be dangerous for them. It
should be presented guardedly. He writes about the purification of sinners,
which was a part of Origin’s view of universal reconciliation,
“But the remarks which might be made on this topic
are neither to be made at all, ... [but] for the sake of those who are
with difficulty restrained, even by fear of eternal [aeternum] punishment,
from plunging into any degree of wickedness, and into the flood of evils which
result from sin.”
• Origen, Against Celsus, 6:26
When we come to Jerome (as Dr. Martin indicated in Part 2 of this article), he
says some seemingly contradictory things. Rufinus, Jerome’s former friend and
rival in the faith, directly accuses Jerome of believing Origen’s doctrines
and specifically in universal reconciliation, at least in Jerome’s early works
(“Rufinus’ Apology, p. 431). Both men translated Origen’s works
Like Origen, Jerome too felt that belief in universal reconciliation should not
be promoted. Concerning the judgment, Jerome writes, in his Commentary on
Isaiah (Book 18, cap. 66),
“All of which nevertheless they allow should not
now be openly told to those with whom fear yet acts as a motive,
and who may be kept from sinning by the terror of punishment. But this
question we ought to leave to the wisdom of God alone, whose judgments as well
as mercies are by weight and measure, and who, well knows whom and how long,
He ought to judge.”
• Jerome, Commentary on Isaiah,
Book 18, cap. 66
Although this vaguely hints at an end to punishment, Jerome himself admits,
“I know that most persons understand by the
story of Nineveh and its king, the ultimate forgiveness of the devil and all
The best evidence of the full extent of belief in universal reconciliation can
be determined by a question put to Basil of Ceasarea. The question was part of
Basil’s Rules which became the basis of monastic rules of order even to the
present day. Basil was a hermit but a great organizer. The full body of
instructions he left for fellow monks was called the Rule of St. Basil. Within
these instructions there were questions and answers. One question regarding
eternal torment was,
• Jerome, Commentary on Jonah
“If one man shall be beaten with many, another
with few stripes, how do some say there is no end of punishment?
[Basil answers] “... this comes also from
the devil’s plots that many men ... assign to themselves an end of
punishment in order that they may sin more boldly.”
• Basil of Caesarea, The Ascetic
Works of St. Basil, pp.329-30
The “many men” (tous pollus ton anthropon) in Greek has a definite
article before the adjective “many.” This means the translation is “the
many men” or “most men.” Such is the understanding of Kelley in
Early Christian Doctrines, p.483 and Texeront in History of Dogmas, p.197.
A long-lasting dispute within the church called by historians the Origenist
Controversy (“Origenism,” in Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church)
began around the year 394 C.E. Several church leaders confronted Jerome, Rufinus,
John (the Bishop of Jerusalem) and others, accusing them with promoting
Origen’s “heresies.” The controversy originally centered around Origen’s
doctrine of the salvation of Satan, not on universal reconciliation of all men.
In Christian Alexandria the dispute broke out into riots breaking out between
rival factions. According to Charles Bigg, even then the issue was not universal
“Even Epiphanius [Bishop of Salamis] and
Theolphilus [Bishop of Alexandria] , the
fierce antagonists of Originism, appear to have regarded this particular
article with indifference, except insofar as it embraced fallen angels.”
• Bigg, The Christian Platonists
of Alexandria, p.274
Augustine (354-430 C.E.)
A contemporary who conducted an extensive and tempestuous
correspondence with Jerome, Augustine did not believe in universal
reconciliation. His views are clear on eternal torment of hell, but his
discussions in opposition to universal reconciliation are most interesting.
Augustine had only an “amicable controversy” with
those who “decline to believe” in an
eternal hell and believed that the wicked “shall be
delivered after a fixed term of punishment.” Augustine, writing
in 421 C.E., specifically explains that Origen was not to be condemned about
his beliefs regarding mankind, but only for his beliefs regarding the
salvation of Satan and his angels,
“I must now, I see, enter the lists of amicable
controversy with those tender-hearted Christians who decline to believe
that any, or that all of those whom the infallibly just Judge may pronounce
worthy of the punishment of hell, shall suffer eternally, and who suppose that
they shall be delivered after a fixed term of punishment, longer or
shorter according to the amount of each man's sin. In respect of this matter,
Origen was even more indulgent; for he believed that even the devil himself
and his angels, ... Very different, however, is the error we speak of, which
is dictated by the tenderness of these Christians who suppose that the
sufferings of those who are condemned in the judgment will be temporary,
while the blessedness of all who are sooner or later set free will be
• Augustine, The City of God, Book
21, Ch 17
Later in c.428-429 Augustine wrote about Origen’s beliefs,
“But there are other teachings of this Origen which
the Catholic Church does not accept at all. On these matters she does not
accuse him unwarrantedly, and cannot herself be deceived by his defenders.
Specifically they are teachings on purgation, liberation and the return of all
rational creation to the same trials after a long interval. Now what Catholic
Christian, ... would not shrink in horror from what Origen calls the purgation
of evils? According to him, even they who die in infancy, crime, sacrilege and
the greatest possible impiety, and at last even the devil himself and his
angels, though after very long periods of time, will be purged, liberated and
restored to the Kingdom of God and of light. ... In my City of God I
have argued most carefully in the matter of this senseless blasphemy against
the philosophers from whom Origen derived these teachings.”
• Cited in Muller, “The De
Haerebesibus of St. Augustine,” pp.83-85
It is important to understand what Augustine was saying:
(1) The tender-hearted Christians are not not to be blamed, but they are merely
(2) Augustine does not accuse.
(3) He argues “carefully” with them.
(4) The blasphemy was on the part of the philosophers.
Augustine mentions six views of “mercyism” (misericordes) believed in by the
laity of the churches in his part of the world. They differed from Augustine’s
own views. Two of the six views were,
“(1) All men would be saved after hell, (2) Prayers
of the saints would obtain salvation for everyone at the last Judgment,
without any passage through hell.”
• LeGoff, The Birth of Purgatory,
These passages from Augustine indicate that the belief in universal
reconciliation was widespread in the Latin African churches of the early 5th
century as well as the eastern Greek churches of Alexandria, Palestine, Asia
Minor and Antioch. Augustine even says,
“... some, indeed very many ... say they do
not believe it [eternal torment] shall be so; not, indeed, that they
directly oppose themselves to Holy Scripture.”
• Augustine, “The Enchiridion,”
ch. 112, p.273
“Universalists” in the Schaff Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious
Knowledge, 1912, gives another measure of the extent of belief in universal
“In the first five or six centuries of Christianity
there were six known theological schools, of which four (Alexandria, Antioch,
Caesarea and Edessa) were Universalist, one (Ephesus) accepted conditional
immortality; one (Carthage or Rome) taught endless punishment of the
There was no condemnation of universal reconciliation by the early church. In
fact the absence of criticism on the topic is deafening. The obvious answer was
that the belief was so widespread no one wanted to criticize such a widely-held
Second, the as the statements of Origen, Jerome and Augustine demonstrate, there
was a system of “double teaching” where one set of teachings was presented
to the mature in the deeper things of God and another set of teachings for the
immature. Many believers and church leaders believed in universal reconciliation
but did not preach or teach it. Those who taught it did not preach it to new
Finally we have the combined testimony, however tenuous, from Basil (that “the
many men” or “most men”),
from Jerome (“most persons”) and from
Augustine (“very many”) that universal
reconciliation was widely held during much of the late 2nd through the 4th
centuries. This belief was likely held to strongly from the 1st and 2nd
centuries also. Historian Charles Bigg notes that the belief in universal
reconciliation was widely diffused throughout the monestaries of Egypt and
Palestine during these same centuries (Bigg, Christian Platonists, p.293).
The concept of “mercyism” with its varying degrees of salvation for
different classes was strongly in the beliefs of the common people as evidenced
by Augustine’s handling the subject with great care.
In Augustine’s western church the doctrine of purgatory gradually displaced
the teachings of “mercyism” and the biblical teaching of universal
reconciliation while allowing for the terrors of hell to keep the common people
in line. One of the factors in this displacement was the publishing of
Origen’s teachings with the portions about universal reconciliation edited
out. Jerome wrote to Hilary the Confessor,
“We are both at one in this that while we have
rendered all that is useful, we have cut away all that was harmful. Let him
read our versions for himself.”
The teaching of eternal torment had a value, even for those who may have
believed in universal reconciliation—that of hindering sin of unbelievers and
new believers by means of threat of punishment. NOT teaching universal
reconciliation may have been reasoned in this manner, “If universal
reconciliation is fact, then telling people otherwise will do no harm. If it is
not true, then all who believe it may sin without repenting and be in danger of
eternal torment, and we also who are pastors would be liable.” Such a cynical
view would indicate little faith in God to change lives.
• Jerome, “Works of Jerome,”
Letter 134, p.179
Belief in universal reconciliation was found extensively throughout early church
history. It was held by prominent Fathers of the Church who considered the
doctrine dangerous to unconverted outside, and new believers inside the church.
Those who did not believe in universal reconciliation did acknowledge its
widespread acceptance, and they did not look harshly on those who advocated. No
one called the other a “heretic” for believing the holding the belief.
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Ernest L. Martin