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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.
[As of January 2019 the link to the page I am answering no longer works. You can get an idea of what the page was about by my quotes of it below. Further, this page has a lot of good citations from the early Christians on universal salvation.]
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":
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:
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.
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 aionios 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? Saying that "eternal life" is not eternal would be an attach on the deity of our Lord Jesus, because he is clearly equated with eternal life in 1 John 1:1-4.
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.
Wright's paper references Marcellus of Ancyra in this way:
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 (not sixth) 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 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).
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.
He quotes Theophilus as saying:
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:
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.
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":
The context of these passages comes from the page before, where he writes:
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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 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.
This Eusebius is the historian, noted for writing Ecclesiastical History in AD 323.
Wright quotes him as supporting universalism because of the following passages:
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:
2019 edit: I am not sure why I did not comment on this quote back when I wrote this page. I can't find such a quote from Eusebius. This is probably because Wright pulled these quotes from Eusebius' book against Marcellus of Ancyra. An English translation of that book was published in 2017 and costs about $45. If this page did not already show that Wright's scholarship was dishonest, I might buy it to find these quotes. It's not enough a priority right now to spend that much money to address just one quote when all the others I addressed were not correct.
I should point out that I acknowledge Marcellus of Ancyra above as a fourth-century universalist influenced by Origen. The fact that Eusebius wrote a book against him should say something about Eusebius' opinion of universalism. To be fair, though, I should point out that his Against Marcellus primarily addresses Marcellus' belief in Sabellianism.
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:
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 ...
Other than this, I can't find anywhere that Methodius touches on universalism.
My newest book, Rome's Audacious Claim, was released December 1!