I am hesitant to place much emphasis upon church history, as it merely reflects the opinions and traditions of men. God has clearly revealed His plan to save all mankind in the Bible, His revelation to mankind. Still, to dispel the notion that the majority within the church have always taught the doctrine of eternal torment, it is important to review some lesser known lessons from church history.
Many within the early church (first few centuries) believed God was in the process of saving all mankind. Some of this history is hard to find, since those who opposed “orthodoxy” in the first few centuries were persecuted and often killed, and their writings destroyed. But there are books available if one looks deeper than those found in Christian bookstores. I recommend you begin with some of the following.
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“The Ancient History of Universalism” by Hosea Ballou
“The Greek Word Aion-Aionios” by Hanson
“Restitution of All Things” by Jukes
“Universal Reconciliation” by Phillips
“Christ Triumphant” by Allin
“The Modern History of Universalism” by Whittemore
“Is Hell Eternal?” by Pridgeon
Without getting too lengthy, I would like to share a few items of interest. I would be happy to send a more complete writeup with some additional quotes to any who request them from me at bob@GraceEvangel.org
The fact is, most average people in the first few centuries A.D., and many (if not most) of the “Church Fathers” (leaders within the church) believed in the ultimate salvation of all. Many of them quoted directly from God’s Word in establishing this universalistic position.
For the first 500 years of Christianity not one creed hinted at eternal torment, and not one denied universal restoration, despite the fact that Universalism was very openly taught by many within the church. And during the first five centuries the first four General Councils were held at Nice, Constantinople, Ephesus and Chalcedon. Even though Universalism was widely and openly taught, there is no condemnation of the doctrine. No one thought it proper or necessary to include a statement concerning endless punishment in the articles of the faith.
Following are some of the church leaders who believed and taught concerning the salvation of all mankind.
IRENAEUS: 130 - 200 A.D . He did not believe that evil would last forever.
CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA: 150 - 220 A.D. An illustrious writer, with much to say about Universalism. The learned and orthodox Daille says, “It is manifest, throughout his works, that Clemens thought all the punishments that God inflicts upon men, are salutary, and executed by him only for the purpose of instruction and reformation.”
THEOPHILUS: 169 – 181 A.D.
ORIGEN: 185 - 254 A.D. Many examples from his writings show that “aionian” did not mean “endless” during the time that he wrote. In “Of Principles” he wrote: “The end and consummation of the world will take place, when all shall be subjected to punishments proportioned to their several sins; and how long each one shall suffer, in order to receive his deserts, God only knows. But we suppose that the goodness of God, through Christ, will certainly restore all creatures into one final state; his very enemies being overcome and subdued.”
GREGORY THAUMATURGUS: 220 - 250 A.D . One of the most eminent bishops of his time.
AFTER ORIGEN’S DEATH
From 254 to 390 A.D. no evidence is found to imply that Origen’s Universalism created any controversy within the church, even though his writings were scrutinized and were often attacked in other subject matters. Between 370 and 383 A.D. Universalism seems to have been, at least for a time, the belief of a majority of the most eminent orthodox church fathers in the East. Gregory Nyssen, Didymus, and Jerome advocated Universalism, while Gregory Nazianzen vacillated between this doctrine and the doctrine of endless punishment. In this era it appears that the majority of early Christians believed that all mankind, through Christ, would be ultimately restored.
EUSEBIUS OF CAESAREA: 265 – 340 A.D. Bishop of Caesarea in Palestine and friend of Constantine.
MARCELLUS OF ANCYRA: 315 A.D. “For what else do the words mean, ‘Until the times of restitution’ (Acts 3:21) but that the Apostle designed to point out that time, in which all things partake of that perfect restoration.”
DIDYMUS – ROUGHLY 300 TO 390 A.D. “Mankind, being reclaimed from their sins ... are to be subjected to Christ in the fullness of the dispensation instituted for the salvation of all.”
GREGORY NYSSEN (GREGORY OF NYSSA): 332 - 398 A.D. A respected bishop and theologian who taught frequently on the matter of Universalism. Yet Gregory was always well respected, and considered to be very orthodox. Gregory was always viewed as one of the most influential leaders of orthodoxy, and he was not condemned for his very blatant views concerning Universalism during his lifetime.
HILLARY: 354 A.D. Bishop of Poictiers, considered one of the champions of orthodoxy: “The whole human race, who are one, are the one lost sheep, which is destined to be found by the Good Shepherd.” As for giving Christ the ends of the earth as His possession, Hillary insists this refers to a universal dominion which is summed up in Paul’s words, “That every knee of things in heaven, and earth, and under the earth, are to bend in Jesus’ name.”
THE FIRST CENSURE AGAINST UNIVERSALISM
It was not until 394 A.D. that we find the first censure, on record, of Universalism. But at this point the censure is not against the salvation of all mankind, but opposes only the salvation of the devil.
JEROME: 340 – 420 A.D . Began by supporting the view of a restoration from hell. In one instance he referred to the fire of Gehenna as “purifying.” Under growing pressure, Jerome changed his position and began to deny the salvation of the devil and of the damned. But even with his new position, he did not appear to consider Universalism one of the significant errors of Origen.
TITUS: 340 – 370 A.D. Bishop of Bostra, was referred to by Jerome as “one of the most important church writers of his time.” Titus wrote: The “abyss of hell is, indeed, the place of torment; but it is not eternal, nor did it exist in the original constitution of nature. It was made afterwards, as a remedy for sinners, that it might cure them. And the punishments are holy, as they are remedial and salutary in their effect upon transgressors; for they are inflicted, not to preserve them in their wickedness, but to make them cease from their wickedness.”
JOHN CASSIAN: 360 – 435 A.D.
DIODORE: 370 – 390 A.D. Bishop of Tarsus and of Jerusalem. “For the wicked are punished, 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, having no end awaits them ... the penalties to be inflicted for their many and grave crimes are very far surpassed by the magnitude of the mercy to be shewed them. The resurrection, therefore is regarded as a blessing not only to the good but also to the evil.”
GREGORY OF NAZIANZUS: 370 A.D . President of the second great Ecumenical Council, he was considered the most learned bishop in one of the most learned ages of the Church. Perhaps the foremost man in the entire Church during his day, Gregory raised no objection to the teaching of Universalism, and there is reason to contend that he himself held this belief. He taught that when Christ descended into hades, He liberated all the souls there in prison, not just some of them.
RUFINUS: 390 A.D. Clearly taught that the future punishment of the wicked was to be temporary.
THEODORET THE BLESSED: 393 – 466 A.D. Bishop of Cyrrhus, or Cyprus, in Syria, and a historian. He wrote that as all men became mortal through Adam, “so shall the whole nature of mankind (all men) follow the Lord Christ, and be made partaker of the Resurrection.”… “For the Lord, the lover of men, torments us only to cure us, that He may put a stop to the course of our iniquity.”
CONDEMNATION OF UNIVERSALISM: AUGUSTINE: 354 - 430 A.D.
When a disturbance over various theological issues arose at Tarraco (Spain), two of the bishops called upon Augustine in Africa. Augustine immediately wrote a small book, “Against the Priscillianists and Origenists,” opposing Universalism and asserting eternal punishment. In this book Augustine maintained that the original word translated “everlasting” always meant “endless,” but later he was forced to abandon this stance, claiming that the word only sometimes meant “endless.” Augustine’s opinions carried great weight within the church, especially in the West. Because of his influence, and because of the ignorance of both Greek and Hebrew for most men in the years to follow, the doctrine of universal reconciliation became silenced until its revival in the 16th century, and the doctrine of an endless torment became the norm within the orthodox church. Augustine became the father of the present orthodox system.
It would seem that the more learned a Christian was in the original languages, the more likely he or she was to see the doctrine of the restitution of all things. Augustine, who said he hated the Greek language and who read only the Latin Vulgate translation, began to incline toward the
doctrine of eternal torment. The Greek “aion” which meant “age” was translated into the Latin Vulgate as “aeternum” (eternal) and “seculum.” This continues to corrupt our English translations even today. The Latin church separated themselves from the original languages and began to teach what the pagan religions had taught for centuries ... eternal torment.
CYRIL OF ALEXANDRIA: 412 A.D. Frequently taught that every soul would be freed from hades by Christ.
THEODORUS (THEODORE): 380 TO 429 A.D . Bishop of Mopsuestia, was an eminent orthodox father in the Eastern church, and a voluminous writer.
MAXIMUS OF TURIN: 422 A.D. Appears from his extant writings to teach the liberation of all souls from hades, and that the purpose of death is to correct the sinner.
PETER CHRYSOLOGUS: 435 A.D. Bishop of Ravenna, said in a sermon on the Good Shepherd that the lost sheep represents: “...the whole human race lost in Adam,” and that Christ “followed the one, seeks the one in order that in the one he may restore all.”
GENNADIUS: 458 A.D.
BARSUDAILI (HIEROTHEUS): END OF 5TH CENTURY . An Abbot of Edessa, taught Universalism under the name “Hierotheus.” He asserted the eventual end of all penalties, and their purifying character. Even the fallen spirits are to receive mercy, and all things are to be restored, so that God may be All in all.
THE FIFTH GENERAL COUNCIL: 553 A.D.
Under the watchful eye of Emperor Justinian, the Fifth General Council was opened in Constantinople with 151 bishops present from the Greek and African churches. During the course of the meeting, Justinian sent a message exhorting the bishops to examine the doctrine of “the impious Origen,” and to condemn him and his followers. Included in the actions of the council: “Whoever says or thinks that the torments of the demons and of impious men are temporal, so that they will, at length, come to an end, or whoever holds a restoration either of the demons or of the impious, let him be anathema.” This decree fixed the orthodox faith to the present day.
MARTIN LUTHER: 1483 – 1546. You may be surprised to find that the following words are attributed to the well known reformer, Martin Luther: “God forbid that I should limit the time of acquiring faith to the present life. In the depth of the Divine mercy there may be opportunity to win it in the future.
DANIEL DEFOE: 1660 – 1731. Author of “Robinson Crusoe” was throughout his life an “orthodox nonconformist.” His belief in the ultimate reconciliation of all is expressed in an interchange between Crusoe and Friday concerning the Devil, when Friday concludes, “So you, I, Devil, all wicked, all preserve, repent, God pardon all.”
WILLIAM LAW: 1686 – 1761. Author of the classic “A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life,” came to his belief in universal reconciliation in the latter part of his life.
GEORGE STONEHOUSE: 1714 – 1793. A staunch Universalist, was a member of the well known “Holy Club” led by John and Charles Wesley, and which also included George Whitfield. Between 1729 and 1735 the doctrine of Universalism was debated with great interest by the club. It is interesting is that Stonehouse was never expelled from the group, and Wesley never found it necessary to officially address the arguments raised publicly by Stonehouse.
THOMAS NEWTON: 1761. Nominated Bishop of Bristol in 1761, and was well respected as a man of learning and virtue.
JOHN HENDERSON: 1757 – 1788. By the age of twelve, Henderson was teaching Latin and Greek in Lady Huntington’s college in Wales. He eventually became fluent in Persian, Arabic, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Saxon, French, Spanish, Italian and German. Henderson wrote: “If a parent send children into a wood wherein grow poisonous berries, and certainly knows they will eat of them, it is of no importance in the consideration of common sense, that he cautions, forbids, forewarns, or that they having free will may avoid the poison. Who will not accuse him of their death in sending them into circumstances where he fore-knew it would happen? God fore-knows every thing – to his knowledge every thing is certain.”
GEORGE MACDONALD: 1824 – 1905. A Scottish preacher, poet and novelist; referred to by C.S. Lewis as his “master.” His beliefs in Universalism are found throughout his writings.
HANNAH WHITALL SMITH: 1832 – 1911. Best known for her classic “The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life” (1883), Hannah Whitall Smith also wrote a lesser known spiritual autobiography entitled “The Unselfishness of God and How I Discovered It.” Originally published in 1903 by the Fleming H. Revell Company, this book has been republished more recently by Littlebrook Publishing in Princeton NJ. But in republishing the work, this more recent version has omitted eight chapters, including references made to Smith’s belief in universal reconciliation.
HANNAH HURNARD: 1905 – 1990 . Author of the best selling “Hind’s Feet on High Places” and “Mountains of Spices.”
WILLIAM BARCLAY: 1907 – 1978. Devoted his entire life to the study of Scripture. Few, if any, knew the Greek language as well as Barclay. In his autobiography entitled “A Spiritual Autobiography,” Barclay writes: “But in one thing I would go beyond strict orthodoxy – I am a convinced universalist. I believe that in the end all men will be gathered into the love of God.”
As we can see, a belief in “Biblical Universalism” has been prevelent throughout the history of the church. It has merely been set aside by revisionist history, and the destruction of many early writings. Still, if one is willing to look for these lesser-known writings, they can be found.