Universalism: Universal Salvation and Reconciliation

Universalism, also known as universal salvation or universal reconciliation, is gaining popularity today, especially with the release of Love Wins by Rob Bell.

This page is created from an email I sent in answer to a question from someone who knows more than me. I have more familiarity with the early church fathers than he does, so he asked me to comment on universalism from that perspective.

In fact, he asked me specifically to comment on the claims of this page.

I created the email as I was going through the page. That will make it a little less organized, but a lot more pleasant to read.

You can read this page without opening David J. Wright's paper, but if you're really wanting to research this, to firm it up in your mind, you may want to read his article first, then read the rest of this page. If you click the link to his page, it will open in a new window or tab, and you can just use it as reference if you prefer.

On the linked page, you have to scroll down a bit to get past the announcements.

Initial Reaction to the Page

The scholarship is pretty bad. References are lacking for everything. He gives names but not books or chapters. I think it is likely that he did not do this research himself, but is copying someone else's list of passages.

Worse, nothing is in context. Almost every passage he quotes, as you'll see as we go further, does not mean what he says it means.

For example, I was stunned to read his very first example of a "quote":

The unknown author describes God as one who always was, is, and will be, wrathless. He describes the ‘eternal’ (aeonian) fire as chastising not ‘without an end,’ but ‘up to an end’.

I've read the anonymous Letter to Diognetus at least five or six times, and I've never noticed anything that hinted of universalism. Here are the actual passages he's referencing:

God ... who made all things, and assigned them their several positions, proved himself not merely a friend of mankind, but also patient. Yes, he was always of such a character, still is, and will ever be kind and good, free from wrath, true, and the only one who is good. (ch. 8)
You will condemn the deceit and error of the world when you know what it is to live truly in heaven; when you despise what is esteemed to be death here; when you fear what is truly death, which is reserved for those who shall be condemned to the eternal fire. It will afflict to the end those that are committed to it. Then you will admire those who, for righteousness’ sake, endure the fire that is but for a moment, and will consider them happy when you understand that fire. (ch. 10)

Read those for yourself. If you happened along those passages, would you think, "Wow, God has no wrath ... ever. Therefore, even though he throws people in eternal fire, which only lasts ages, he was never angry with them because that would be wrath. Not only that, but they are afflicted to the end, so obviously that means the eternal fire is going to stop."

I'm being sarcastic. No one would interpret those passages that way, which is why I never noticed any universalism in the Letter to Diognetus.

That is a problem. If you pull passages out of context, or if you are just depending on the ignorance of your reader, then you are a con artist, not a teacher. When you do that with God's Word, you will arouse the wrath of God.

Could "to the end" in the Letter of Diognetus imply annihilation?

One caveat here: I have seen arguments from Scripture that people thrown into the lake of fire as described in Revelation 20:15 are destroyed there, that they really experience a second death and are not tormented eternally. I have heard those arguments from evangelicals, not just Jehovah's Witnesses.

I think those arguments are strong, though not conclusive. However, I am convinced that there is no historical support for such an interpretation. The second century church not only interpreted eternal as being eternal, not "long but temporary," but they applied eternal to the punishment, not just to the fire.

Justin Martyr, for example, said:

He shall come from heaven with glory, accompanied by His angelic host, when also He shall raise the bodies of all men who have lived, and shall clothe those of the worthy with immortality, and shall send those of the wicked, endued with eternal sensibility, into everlasting fire with the wicked devils. (First Apology 52)

As I said, I like the arguments for annihilationism, but if that is what Jesus and the apostles meant to communicate by what they said, then they failed miserably. Universalism made its appearance in the third century with Origen, but annihilationism cannot be found anywhere in the early centuries of the church.

Eternal Is Not Eternal

David Wright is correct in saying that "eternal" (spelled aionian in Greek, not aeonian) does not always mean eternal. Literally, it means "age-lasting," but often it's repeated (aionos ton aionon) to give the idea of "ages and ages" (literally "age of the ages"). You'll see aionos ton aionon translated in your Bible as "forever and ever."

However, he is incorrect in applying temporarily so freely to the idea of eternal fire. Maybe αινι&omecron;σ means "long but temporary" in that context, but it also might not. It might mean eternal as in without end.

Think about it. If the eternal fire is not eternal, then what about the eternal life that both Scripture and the early Christians contrast with eternal fire?

Does Mr. Wright also want to say that eternal life is not eternal?

The early Christians regularly equated the terms "immortality" and "eternal life," and it would not be hard to find passages where they talk about immortality meaning a life than never ends.

Marcellus of Ancyra (Probably)

Wright's paper references Marcellus of Ancyra in this way:

It is interesting to note that The Bishop of Ancyra, writing in the sixth century, who probably had access to writings that have since disappeared, asserts the universality of a restitution teaching before and after ORIGEN.

Yeah, that is interesting. It's especially interesting without a reference or even a name. That way, no one can actually examine your claim.

The person with the most recourse to writings that have disappeared, Eusebius of Caesarea, says nothing at all of universal "restitution," salvation, or redemption before Origen.

I am going to assume that Wright means Marcellus, a fourth century bishop of Ancyra who did indeed promot universalism. Ancyra is modern Ankara, in Turkey, and would have been an area influenced by Origen and those who promoted Origen's teaching.

There is a reason that David Wright specifically mentions Origen here, and we should cover that to get a background.

Origen

Origen was undoubtedly a universalist. He believed that everyone would eventually be saved after a long time, perhaps ages, of punishment. This is acknowledged by everyone, so I won't go look up references.

Origen was incredibly influential in the middle East. He was trained in Alexandria, then later became bishop of Caeserea (a long and interesting story). He was a prolific writer, and his teachings and commentaries were widely read throughout the Middle East and Asia Minor.

As a result, starting about AD 240, any references to universalism from that part of the world are likely the result of Origen's influence. This would include Dionysius and Gregory Thaumaturga, bishops of Alexandria, and the Cappadocian fathers (Gregory Nazianus, Basil, and the other Gregory of Nyssa, Basil's brother), who were influential in the Middle East .

Generally, I don't specifically examine claims that those men, or men like Marcellus believed in universal redemption. Origen influenced them, and it would be no surprise that these bishops afterward would also promote universalism.

However, even if important bishops were influenced by Origen, this does not make his universalism any less novel, nor any more scriptural.

If we can establish that the only people who believe in universal salvation are those influenced by Origen, a man I greatly respect and one of my favorite figures of Christian history, but nonetheless a third-century man, then we can conclude that universalism is a product of Origen's great intellect, but not a teaching of the apostles.

The Marcellus of Ancyra claim by David Wright is probably misleading, though. While it is apparently true, based on a quote from Eusebius—who opposed him because he was also a Sabellian ("Jesus only")—that Marcellus was indeed a universalist. However, there's seems to be nowhere that indicates Marcellus said anything about universalism being taught before Origen.

It appears that we have none of his writings, just Eusebius' book opposing him (Against Marcellus).

The Context of These Quotes

Wright wrote:

>One more point I need to make is that these extracts are just the tip of an iceberg of early church writings on these subjects. Many pages could have been filled with long expositions and exegesis written by several of these fathers. My intent here is to just give a taster – perhaps even an eye-opener as to early Christian beliefs on these issues.
>

Herein lies my greatest objection to David Wright's paper.

Many pages could be filled with long expositions and exegesis written by several of these fathers. However, if he included those long expositions, rather than just "a taster," he would not be able to imply the conclusions he implies.

You'll see how true this is as we go along. On every one of these quotes, it is just a matter of explaining the belief that underlies these fathers' quotes or of expanding the quotes to include their explanation.

Theophilus

He quotes Theophilus as saying:

And God shewed great kindness to man, in this, that He did not suffer him to continue being in sin for ever; but, as it were, by a kind of banishment, cast him out of Paradise, in order that, having by punishment expiated, within an appointed time, the sin, and having been disciplined, he should afterwards be recalled.

I didn't look this up. I'm sure he did say this. However, the context is clearly Adam to Christ, not the eternal kingdom. The punishment to man, being cast out of paradise, was not forever. Now, in Christ, paradise is offered again to us.

On the subject of eternity, here's what Theophilus said:

But to the unbelieving and despisers, who obey not the truth, but are obedient to unrighteousness, when they shall have been filled with adulteries, fornications, filthiness, covetousness, and unlawful idolatries, there shall be anger and wrath, tribulation and anguish, and at the very end everlasting fire shall possess such men. Since you said, "Show me your God," this is my God, and I counsel you to fear him and to trust him.

That is the very last sentence of book 1 of To Autolycus.

To publicize the first quote while ignoring the second is the product either of ignorance—in which case this man shouldn't be writing on the subject—or dishonesty unworthy of a Christian.

Clement of Alexandria

It would make sense that Clement of Alexandria taught universalism, since he was Origen's teacher while Origen was in Alexandria.

It appears he did not, however.

I have read a lot of Clement's writings, but not all of them. In what I have read, I don't remember anything resembling universalist teaching, but I don't have any catalogued quotes right now from him on the subject. However, I found this with a quick search for "fire":

Look to the threatening! Look to the exhortation! Look to the punishment! Why ... should we any longer change grace into wrath, and not receive the word with open ears and entertain God as a guest in pure spirits? For great is the grace of His promise, "if today we hear His voice." ...
   For the today signifies eternity. ...
   Rightly, then, to those that have believed and obey, grace will superabound, while with those that have been unbelieving, and err in heart, and have not known the Lord’s ways ... God is incensed, and those he threatens. (Exhortation to the Heathen 9)

The context of these passages comes from the page before, where he writes:

Oh, the prodigious folly of being ashamed of the Lord! He offers freedom, you flee into bondage; he bestows salvation, you sink down into destruction; he confers everlasting life, you wait for punishment and prefer the fire which the Lord "has prepared for the devil and his angels." (ibid.)

I found the following with a search for "punishment." These searches were all in Clement's writings, contained in the last half of Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 2:

And you know not that, of all truths, this is the truest, that the good and godly shall obtain the good reward, inasmuch as they held goodness in high esteem. An the other hand, the wicked shall receive appropriate punishment.
   For the author of evil, torment has been prepared; and so the prophet Zecharias threatens him: "He that has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you ..." What an infatuated desire, then, for voluntary death is this, rooted in men’s minds! Why do they flee to this fatal brand, with which they shall be burned, when it is within their power to live nobly according to God ... ?" For God bestows life freely; but evil custom, after our departure from this world, brings on the sinner unavailing remorse with punishment. (Exhortation to the Heathen 10)(

David Wright presents a much different picture of Clement of Alexandria. In this case the problem is not the immediate context of the quotes, but the general context. Apparently, Wright does not know the beliefs of the early churches on the afterlife.

He quotes Clement in this way:

But needful correction, by the goodness of the great overseeing Judge, through (by means of) the attendant angels, through various prior judgments, through the final judgment, compels even those who have become still more callous to repent.

This sounds convincing. However, the entire passage (Miscellanies VII:2) leading up to it concerns God's attempts to convince Gentiles and Jews alike to repent on this earth, so that they are without excuse when they are judged. The sentence above ends the discussion as a conclusion.

In context. the sentence is saying that the law, the ministry of angels, judgments that have happened in the past, and the threat of a final judgment where the disobedient will receive death—all of these ought to cause the callous on this earth to repent.

Let me give you a series of quotes, which include all of Wright's quotes, that lead up to the one I just referenced.

Wright's quote and these that follow are all from Miscellanies VII:1 & 2

And that He whom we call Saviour and Lord is the Son of God, the prophetic Scriptures explicitly prove. So the Lord of all, of Greeks and of Barbarians, persuades those who are willing. ...
For he is Saviour, not of some but not of others. But in proportion to the adaptation possessed by each, he has bestowed his goodness both to Greeks and barbarians, even to those of them that were predestined, and in due time called, the faithful and elect. Nor can he who called all equally, and assigned special honors to those who have believed in a specially excellent way, ever envy any.
And 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. He is the Lord of those who have not believed until, being enabled to confess him, they obtain the peculiar and appropriate boon which comes by Him.

This particular quote could be taken to say that everyone will be enabled to confess him after death and punishment, but there is no context for this. We're about to get to the part that talks about God making every effort to save every man while in this world.

Therefore, the Savior can never be a hater of man. He is the one who because of his exceeding love for human flesh did not despise its susceptibility to suffering, but invested Himself with it and came for the common salvation of men; for the faith of those who have chosen it is common. Nay more, He will never neglect His own work, because man alone of all the other living creatures was in his creation endowed with a conception of God.
   Those, then, who choose to belong to him are those who are perfected through faith.

At this point there is a lot of talk about the Word of God being a great administrator of the universe and a little about the angels, too, who Clement says care for man and are devoted to our salvation.

For this was the law from the first, that virtue should be the object of voluntary choice. Wherefore also the commandments, according to the Law, and before the Law, not given to the upright (for the law is not appointed for a righteous man) ordained that the one who chose them should receive eternal life and the blessed prize.
   Therefore the Lord, drawing the commandments—both the first which he gave [the Law] and the second [Jesus' new law]—from one fountain, neither allowed those who were before the law to be without law, nor permitted those who were unacquainted with the principles of the barbarian philosophy to be without restraint. He wrapped up unbelief until the Advent [coming of Christ] by furnishing the one with the commandments and the other with philosophy. Because of this everyone who does not believe is without excuse. For by a different process of advancement, both Greek and barbarian, he leads to the perfection which is by faith.

This last paragraph is where he puts everything in context. This is talking about the fact that God gave a shot at salvation, even devoted himself to doing everything except making their choice for them, to both Greek and Barbarian. Everyone is without excuse.

This puts a little different context, doesn't it, on:

But needful correction, by the goodness of the great overseeing Judge, through (by means of) the attendant angels, through various prior judgments, through the final judgment, compels even those who have become still more callous to repent.

All of these things are provided to correct man on this earth, so that if one perishes it is his fault alone, Jesus having done, with the collaboration of the angels and the love of the Father, everything possible to bring even the most callous to repentance.

Origen

Origen is the next person quoted by David Wright. We shall skip over him because Origen did indeed believe and teach universal salvation, a novelty in his time.

Eusebius of Caesarea

This Eusebius is the historian, noted for writing Ecclesiastical History in AD 323.

Wright quotes him as supporting universalism because of the following passages:

Christ will therefore subject to Himself everything (the universe), and this saving subjection it is right to regard as similar to that, according to which the Son Himself shall be subjected unto Him, Who subjected to Himself all things ... But after the close of everything, He will not dwell in a few, but in all those who are then worthy of the kingdom of heaven. So then shall come to pass, (God being) all in all, when He inhabits as His people ALL.

The capitalization of "ALL" has to come from David Wright himself, though he does not acknowledge it.

The problem with this quote, which I was unable to find, is that it doesn't back up Wright's claim that Eusebius taught universalism. The passage says, "He will not dwell in a few, but in all those who are then worthy of the kingdom of heaven."

The next sentence ("when he inhabits as his people all") cannot contradict the one before. The one before says that God will dwell in those who are worthy of the kingdom of heaven. This sentence states that he will inhabit "his people all." It is saying the exact same thing. God will inhabit all his people, who are all who are worthy of the kingdom of heaven.

Let me say something about translations here. David Wright quotes this as "his people ALL," capitalizing the "all" and leaving at the end, where it sounds very odd to English speakers.

Translations are subject to the translator. Word order in one language does not always translate to the same word order in another language, especially when that language is loose and free as English is.

Greek word order (and Eusebius wrote in Greek) puts the most important parts of a sentence towards the front of the sentence. Thus, the "all" is the least important part of the sentence, if indeed the "all" is at the end in Greek.

I say that to say that last sentence could just as easily, and probably better, have been translated, "When he inhabits all his people."

I'm guessing a bit here, but since there are no references, there is no way to check on that last sentence. Either way, this passage has Eusebius saying that God will dwell in those who are worthy of his kingdom, not in everyone.

Wright also quotes Eusebius as saying:

As the apostle, when he said all shall be subjected to the Son, did not mean union of essence, but obedience ... which all give Him as the Saviour and King of all. In the same way His subjection to the Father means nothing else than the ... voluntary subjection which He is to give God the Father, when He has made all worthy of His paternal Godhead.

Methodius

St. METHODS that Wright references is Methodius, not Methods, and his quotes don't mean what Wright implies they mean.

Wright quotes Methodius (calling him by the wrong name) as saying:

For it is impossible for an image under the hands of the original artist to be lost, even if it be melted down again.

and:

Man, after having been formed for God’s worship ... cannot return to discord and corruption.

Wright doesn't tell you, but both these sentences come from The Discourse on the Resurrection (I:VI). Methodius is defending the idea of a resurrection by saying that God can gather the raw materials of a corpse even after it has decomposed, then reconstruct it again into a perfect physical body.

This is not promising universal reconciliation; it is a defense of the resurrection of the human body. Similar defenses are made throughout the early Christian writings. Athenagoras, for example, in the mid-second century has a writing called The Resurrection of the Dead, which makes a similar argument.

On the subject of eternal judgment, which happens after the resurrection, Methodius has other things to say ...

It is far better for me to die than to betray my nuptials to you, O mad for women, and so to suffer the eternal justice of God in fiery vengeance. Save me now, O Christ, from these evils. (The Banquet of the Ten Virgins; "Arete"; Thekla 16)

Other than this, I can't find anywhere that Methodius touches on universalism.

spacer

Search Christian-History.org

Custom Search
Christian Theology Top Site

The Early Church History Newsletter

Delivered monthly.

Back issues available.

Email

Name


Don't worry -- your e-mail address is totally secure.
I promise to use it only to send you the Early Church History Newsletter.