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Answering Universalism with Solid History
February 04, 2017
This is a great example of the importance of knowing early church teachings. Someone teaching universalism—that everyone will eventually go to heaven—claimed that 4 out of 6 major theological schools among the early Christians taught universalism. They also tried to claim that eternal punishment was popularized by Augustine. I was able to respond by referencing just a couple early Christian facts.
First, I have a page on Christian-history.org where I have been collecting quotes by the eternal Christians on hell. Appropriately, it is called Quotes about Hell, and it can be found at https://www.christian-history.org/hell-quotes.html. It makes it clear that the churches of the apostles were teaching eternal punishment long before Augustine, who did not become a bishop until 396, centuries after the quotes I give on that page.
Second, and this is something we all can learn about. The early churches each had their own "rule of faith," which conveyed some very basic beliefs. These rules of faith were learned at baptism and were very similar from church to church. Around AD 185, a missionary who planted and led several churches in Gaul (modern France), wrote a long book against the gnostic heretics. In it, he argues that the best evidence that the Christian churches accurately represent the teachings of Jesus and thus the true commands of God is that all over the world they hold the same beliefs. This could not have happened any other way, he argues, than that each of the churches had held to the same truth by passing it down from one set of leaders to the next, carefully preserving the truth taught to them by the apostles.
This missionary, named Irenaeus, said that a traveler would find the churches all teaching the one truth, the one faith, from Germany to the middle East to Africa. He had reason to know. He had been raised up as a Christian in the church of Smyrna, in what is now modern Turkey. His teacher was a man named Polycarp who had been appointed to his position as head elder (bishop) by the apostle John. Irenaeus was an old man when he wrote his book, and he had been an advisor to the bishops or Rome. In fact, his book was sent to Rome to help prevent Christians there from defecting to the gnostics. The gnostics worst teachings were often kept undercover. Irenaeus exposed them.
The benefit to us is that Irenaeus gave a long "rule of faith" that he said was believed by churches all over the world. It reads like this:
"The church, though dispersed throughout the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, earth, and the sea and everything in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations, the advents, the birth from a virgin, the suffering, the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and his appearance from heaven in the glory of the Father to gather all things into one and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that every knee should bow—of things in heaven, things in earth, and things under the earth—and that every tongue should confess to him, and that he should execute just judgment towards everyone; that he may send spiritual wickednesses and the angels who transgressed and became apostates together with the ungodly, unrighteous, wicked, and profane among men into everlasting fire, but may, in the exercise of his grace, confer immortality on the righteous, holy, and those who have kept his commandments and persevered in his love—some from the beginning of their course and others from their repentance—and may surround them with everlasting glory." (Against Heresies I:10:1)
That reference I wrote tells you that the quote is found in Irenaeus' book, Against Heresies, and that it is in Book 1, chapter 10, and paragraph 1. That book is available online, but it is really long. Maybe a better one is the much shorter Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, which can also be found online.
Irenaeus thought that everlasting fire was taught all over the world a good 200 years before Augustine became a bishop, and he had good reason to know since he had interacted with churches from Asia Minor (Smyrna) to Rome to Gaul.
The truth is that universalism was developed in the church of Alexandria by Clement of Alexandria and Origen. I am not convinced that Clement of Alexandria taught universalism, but it is certain that Origen did.
We can know that the teaching of Origen on this subject did not take root despite his very strong influence on the eastern churches because the descendants of those churches, the various branches of the Orthodox, do not hold universalism as one of their teachings.
You can read more about the "rule of faith" at Christian-history.org.
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