A Universalist’s Response to “Exposing Universalism” by James B. De Young
For years I was aware of some passages which clearly seemed to speak of a universal restoration of all, but I discounted Universalism, since I had been taught that it was only a recent belief held by a few Liberals. Since I have a high view of Scripture, that was enough to deter me from any serious consideration of the possibility that Jesus would actually successfully fulfill His mission to save the whole world.
However, as I became aware of an ever-increasing number of passages which clearly seemed to teach the final salvation of all, I was emboldened to do some serious investigation outside of the traditional box. I was wonderfully surprised to discover that the majority of the Early Greek Church Fathers held to the apocatastasis or the universal restoration of all, up until Augustine in the 5th century.
When I was in seminary I studied Church history. In this ultra-conservative seminary, the historian Philip Schaff was considered to be the last word on matters of Church history. While he makes it clear that he was not himself a Universalist, he nevertheless states in no uncertain terms that the belief in the final restoration of all was the majority position in the Early Church. He says:
“In the first five or six centuries of Christianity there were six known theological schools, of which four (Alexandria… Antioch, Caesarea, and Edessa or Nisibis) were Universalist, one (Ephesus) accepted conditional immortality; one (Carthage or Rome) taught endless punishment of the wicked. Other theological schools are mentioned as founded by Universalists, but their actual doctrine on this subject is unknown.” [i]
“Under the instruction of these great teachers [Clement, Origen, Gregory, and Theodore of Mopsuestia] many other theologians believed in universal salvation; and indeed the whole Eastern Church until after AD 500 was inclined to it.” [ii]
It is hard for Traditionalists to discount such a respected authority on the history of the Church. Yet he clearly concedes that Universalism was the prevailing belief during that time. Indeed, if only the Romanized school of Carthage taught eternal torment, then who can reasonably insist that the majority position of that time was that of eternal torment?
J.W. Hanson, who made an in-depth study of the writings of the early Church fathers which he extensively documents in his book: “Universalism The Prevailing Doctrine Of The Christian Church During Its First Five Hundred Years,” comes to the same conclusion as Schaff. He says:
“The school in Northern Africa (Carthage) favored the doctrine of endless punishment; that in Asia Minor annihilation. The two in Alexandria and Caesarea were Universalistic of the school of Origen; those at Antioch and Edessa were Universalistic of the school of Theodore of Mopsuestia and Diodore of Tarsus.” [iii]
Typical of Traditionalists, De Young seems to be in denial concerning these informed witnesses when he says:
“The claim made by many universalists that universalism was the position of four out of six schools of theology in the early church needs to be clarified as well. In truth this is not the case. p.107
However, he avoids any mention of, or quote from, the historian Philip Schaff, and nowhere in his book does he demonstrate why it is not the case. In order to stamp out Universalism the Roman church destroyed all the writings of the Early Church Fathers they could find affirming the universal restoration, and to this day the defenders of everlasting punishment likewise seek to suppress or discount their writings. But even our most notable Church historians, who were not themselves Universalists, concede that it was the majority view in the Early Church. The Church historian Johann Gieseler says of that time:
“The belief in the inalienable capacity of improvement in all rational beings, and the limited duration of future punishment, was so general, even in the West (Carthage and Rome), and among the opponents of Origen, that, even if it may not be said to have arisen without the influence of Origen’s school, it had become entirely independent of his system.” [iv]
Even Saint Augustine, (AD 354 to AD 430) who popularized the doctrine of everlasting torment, acknowledged that a great number of his colleagues held to the doctrine of universal restoration. He said:
“There are very many in our day who, though not denying the Holy Scriptures, do not believe in endless torments.” [v]
“And now I see I must have a gentle disputation with certain tender hearts of our own religion, who are unwilling to believe that everlasting punishment will be inflicted, either on all those whom the just Judge shall condemn to the pains of hell, or even on some of them, but who think that after certain periods of time, longer or shorter according to the proportion of their crimes, they shall be delivered out of that state.” [vi]
What do the early Church Fathers say about the apocatastasis or universal restoration of all? Since what remained of the great library of Alexandria was finally destroyed by Pope Theophilus, the 23rd pope of Alexandria, who sought to wipe out Origenism, destroying most of Origen’s works as well as the works of other Universalists, and because the Church of the Dark Ages subsequently destroyed all materials deemed to be heretical, very few writings of the early Church Fathers remain today.
In addition to that, many of those who believed in universal restoration in that epoch practiced what they called “reserve,” only sharing this teaching among those whom they considered mature and therefore less apt to convert the grace of God into a license for immorality. They often justified this practice of reserve by passages such as 1Corintians 2:6,7 which says: “However, we speak wisdom among those who are mature… we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages for our glory.” Origen said:
“all that might be said on this theme is not expedient to explain now, or to all. For the masses need no further teaching on account of those who hardly through the fear of eternal punishment restrain their recklessness.” [vii]
“But we must still remember that the Apostle would have this text accounted as a secret, so that the faithful and perfect may keep their perceptions of it as one of God's secrets in silence among themselves, and not divulge it everywhere to the imperfect and those less capable of receiving it.” [viii]
Due to the practice of reserve on the part of some, their references to universal restoration are not very abundant in their writings. Some of their public sermons do not make any mention of it or at best only make a few indirect references to that doctrine.
Nevertheless, in spite of the above-mentioned reasons, there are references to universal restoration which are sufficiently clear and abundant so as to establish that they believed in the restoration of all. Below are some quotes from the most prominent fathers of the early Church which, for obvious reasons go without mention in De Young’s book. While few of their writings survived the purges of Romanism, those which did speak for themselves, so I will simply quote those which I consider to be the clearest without comment.
Clement of Alexandria AD 150 to AD 215.
“The Lord, he says, is a propitiation, ‘not for our sins only,' that is, of the faithful, ‘but also for the whole world.’ Therefore He indeed saves all universally; but some as converted by punishments, others by voluntary submission, thus obtaining the honor and dignity, that ‘to Him every knee shall bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth,’ that is angels, and men, and souls who departed this life before His coming into the world.” [ix]
“If in this life there are so many ways for purification and repentance, how much more should there be after death! The purification of souls, when separated from the body, will be easier. We can set no limits to the agency of the Redeemer; to redeem, to rescue, to discipline, is his work, and so will he continue to operate after this life.” [x]
“Punishment is, in its operation, like medicine; it dissolves the hard heart, purges away the filth of uncleanness, and reduces the swellings of pride and haughtiness; thus restoring its subject to a sound and healthful state.” [xi]
“God's punishments are saving and disciplinary leading to conversion…and especially since souls, although darkened by passions, when released from their bodies, are able to perceive more clearly because of their being no longer obstructed by the paltry flesh.” [xii]
Origen AD 184 to AD 254.
“But our belief is that the Word shall prevail over the entire rational creation, and change every soul into his own perfection; in which will choose what he desires, and obtain what he chooses. For although, in the diseases and wounds of the body, there are some which no medical skill can cure, yet we hold that in the mind there is no evil so strong that it may not be overcome by the Supreme Word and God. For stronger than all the evils in the soul is the Word, and the healing power that dwells in him; and this healing he applies, according to the will of God, to every man. The consummation of all things is the destruction of evil…” [xiii]
“But he that despises the purification of the word of God and the doctrine of the Gospel only keeps himself for dreadful and penal purifications afterward; that so the fire of hell may purge him in torments whom neither apostolical doctrine nor gospel preaching has cleansed, according to that which is written of being “purified by fire.” But how long this purification which is wrought out by penal fire shall endure, or for how many periods or ages it shall torment sinners, He only knows to whom all judgment is committed by the Father.” [xiv]
Theofilus of Antioch AD 186.
“And God showed great kindness to man, in this, that He did not suffer him to continue being in sin forever; 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. Wherefore also, when man had been formed in this world, it is mystically written in Genesis, as if he had been twice placed in Paradise; so that the one was fulfilled after the resurrection and judgment. Nay further, just as a vessel, when on being fashioned it has some flaw, is remolded or re-made, that it may become new and entire; so also it happens to man by death. For he is broken up by force, that in the resurrection he may be found whole, I mean spotless, and righteous, and immortal.” [xv]
Irenaeus AD 182.
“Wherefore also He drove him out of Paradise, and removed him far from the tree of life, not because He wanted to deprive him of the tree of life, as some dare to assert, but because He pitied him, (and desired) that he should not continue always a sinner, and that the sin which surrounded him should not be immortal, and the evil interminable and irremediable.” [xvi]
Ambrose of Milan AD 340 to AD 397.
Commenting on Ephesians 1 Ambrose says the following: “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 … Every being, then, in the heavens and on earth, while it learns the knowledge of Christ, is being restored to that which it was created,” [xvii]
In his commentary on 1Corintios 15:27 he says: “When every creature learns that Christ is its head, and that Christ’s head is God the Father, then God is all in all; that is to say, that every creature should believe alike, that with one voice every tongue of things in Heaven and earth and under the earth, should confess that there is one God from Whom are all things.” [xviii]
“It is necessary that all should be proved by fire, whosoever they are that desire to return to Paradise. For not in vain is it written, that, when Adam and Eve were expelled from Paradise, God placed at the outlet a flaming sword which turned every way. All therefore must pass through these fires, whether it be that Evangelist John whom the Lord so loved . . . or Peter, who received the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” [xix]
“Our Savior has appointed two kinds of resurrection, in accordance with which John says, in the Apocalypse, ‘Blessed is he that hath part in the first resurrection’; for such come to grace without the judgment. As for those who do not come to the first, but are reserved until the second resurrection, these shall be burnt, until they fulfill their appointed times, between the first and the second resurrection; or, if they should not have fulfilled them then, they shall remain still longer in punishment.” [xx]
Gregory of Nyssa AD 330 to AD 394.
“Wherefore that at the same time liberty of free-will should be left to nature and yet the evil be purged away, the wisdom of God discovered this plan, to suffer man to do what he would, that having tasted the evil which he desired, and learning by experience for what wretchedness he had bartered away the blessings he had, he might of his own will hasten back with desire to the first blessedness, . . . either being purged in this life through prayer and discipline, or after his departure hence through the furnace of cleansing fire.” [xxi]
“For it is needful that evil should someday be wholly and absolutely removed out of the circle of being. For inasmuch as it is not in the nature of evil to exist without the will, when every will comes to be in God, will not evil go on to absolute extinction, by reason of there being no receptacle of it left?” [xxii]
“the One who both delivers man from evil, and who heals the inventor of evil himself.” [xxiii]
“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 … Now the body of Christ, as I have often said, is the whole of humanity. And again he writes, Everything shall be subdued to Christ, and they shall be subdued by a full knowledge of Him, and by a remodeling. … Now God will be all in all at the time of restitution.” [xxiv]
Gregory Nazianzen AD 328 to AD 389.
“These, if they will, may go our way, which indeed is Christ's; but if not, let them go their own way. In another place perhaps they shall be baptized with fire, that last baptism, which is not only very painful, but enduring also; which eats up, as if it were hay, all defiled matter, and consumes all vanity and vice.” [xxv]
“For all things shall be subject to Him, and all things shall acknowledge His empire; and when God shall be all in all, those who now excite discords by revolts, having been quite pacified, shall praise God in peaceful concord.” [xxvi]
Marcellus of Ancyra AD 315 to Ad 374.
“For what else do the words mean, ‘until the times of the restitution’ (Acts, iii: 21), but that the apostle designed to point out that time in which all things partake of that perfect restoration?” [xxvii]
Theodore of Mopsuestia AD 359 to AD 429.
“The wicked who have committed evil the whole period of their lives shall be punished till they learn that, by continuing in sin, they only continue in misery. And when, by this means, they shall have been brought to fear God, and to regard him with good will, they shall obtain the enjoyment of his grace. For he never would have said, ‘until thou hast paid the uttermost farthing,’ unless we can be released from suffering after having suffered adequately for sin; nor would he have said, 'he shall be beaten with many stripes,' and again, ‘he shall be beaten with few stripes,’ unless the punishment to be endured for sin will have an end.” [xxviii]
Titus of Bostra AD 338 to AD 378.
“The very abyss of torment is indeed the place of chastisement, but it is not eternal (aionioti) nor did it exist in the original constitution of nature. It was 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 on transgressors; for they are inflicted, not to preserve them in their wickedness, but to make them cease from their wickedness. The anguish of their suffering compels them to break off their vices…. If death were an evil, blame would rightfully fall on him who appointed it.” [xxix]
Ambrose of Milan AD 340 to AD 397.
“What then hinders our believing that he who is beaten small as the dust is not annihilated, but is changed for the better; so that, instead of an earthly man, he is made a spiritual man, and our believing that he who is destroyed, is so destroyed that all taint is removed, and there remains but what is pure and clean? And in God's saying of the adversaries of Jerusalem, 'They shall be as though they were not," you are to understand they shall exist substantially, and as converted, but shall not exist as enemies…. God gave death, not as a penalty, but as a remedy; death was given for a remedy as the end of evils…How shall the sinner exist in the future, seeing the place of sin cannot be of long continuance?” [xxx]
Marius Victorinus AD 300.
On 1Corinthians 15:28, he says: “All things shall be rendered spiritual at the consummation of the world. At the consummation all things shall be one… Therefore all things converted to him shall become one, i.e., spiritual; through the Son all things shall be made one, for all things are by him, for all things that exist are one, though they be different. For the body of the entire universe is not like a mere heap, which becomes a body, only by the contact of its particles; but it is a body chiefly in its several parts being closely and mutually bound together--it forms a continuous chain. For the chain is this, God: Jesus: the Spirit: the intellect: the soul: the angelic host: and lastly, all subordinate bodily existences.” [xxxi]
On Ephesians 1:4: “The mystery was completed by the Savior in order that, perfection having been completed throughout all things, and in all things by Christ, all universally should be made one through Christ and in Christ…. And because he (Christ) is the life, he is that by whom all things have been made, for all things cleansed by him return into eternal life.” [xxxii]
Jerome AD 347 to AD 420.
“Your enemies, O God, shall perish,…every man who has been Your enemy shall hereafter be made Your friend; the man shall not perish, the enemy shall perish.” [xxxiii]
“In the restitution of all things when Christ the true physician shall have come to heal the body of the universal church… every one… shall receive his proper place…. What I mean is, the fallen angel will begin to be that which he was created, and man who has been expelled from Paradise will be once more restored to the tilling of Paradise…. These things then will take place universally.” [xxxiv]
“Most persons regard the story of Jonah as teaching the ultimate forgiveness of all rational creatures, even the devil.” [xxxv]
“The apostate angels, and the prince of this world, and Lucifer, the morning star, though now ungovernable, licentiously wandering about, and plunging themselves into the depths of sin, shall in the end, embrace the happy dominion of Christ and his saints…. No rational creature before God will perish forever.” [xxxvi]
“Israel and all heretics, because they had the works of Sodom and Gomorrah, are overthrown like Sodom and Gomorrah, that they may be set free like a brand snatched from the burning. And this is the meaning of the prophet's words, ‘Sodom shall be restored as of old,’ that he who by his vice is as an inhabitant of Sodom, after the works of Sodom have been burnt in him, may be restored to his ancient state.” [xxxvii]
Theodore the Blessed AD 387 to AD 458.
Regarding Ephesians 1:23, Theodore wrote: “In the present life God is in all, for his nature is without limits, but is not all in all. But in the coming life, when mortality is at an end and immortality granted, and sin has no longer any place, God will be all in all. For the Lord, who loves man, punishes medicinally, that he may check the course of impiety.” [xxxviii]
Theodore Olympiodorus AD 495 to AD 570.
“Do not suppose that the soul is punished for endless eons. The soul is not punished to gratify the revenge of the divinity, but for the sake of healing. The soul is punished for an eonian period (aionios) calling its life and its allotted period of punishment its eon.” [xxxix]
These are just some of the quotes from the Early Greek Church Fathers which survived. You will never find them quoted in De Young’s book or for that matter any book defending the doctrine of eternal torment, since it is a strong testimony against the historicity of their doctrine within the Church.
Also, it should be noted that Universalism was never condemned by any legitimate Church council. The Roman Emperor Justinian condemned Universalism for the first time in Constantinople in 544 A.D. saying: “If anyone says or holds that the punishment of demons and impious men is temporary, and that it will have an end at some time, that is to say, that there is a restoration of demons or impious men, he is accursed.” However, the Latin Church refused to convene with him or recognize it. He tried again and failed in A.D. 553. Sadly, today the Traditional Church condemns what even the Church in decline, entering into the Dark Ages, refused to condemn.
For a more in-depth consideration of the testimony of the Early Church, I recommend my book “The Triumph of Mercy” or for an even more exhaustive study you may wish to read J.W. Hanson’s, “Universalism The Prevailing Doctrine Of The Christian Church During Its First Five Hundred Years.”
[i] Schaff, Phillip, The New Chaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge – Vol 12, Baker Book House, 1950
[ii] Philip Schaff, The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge. Vol XII, p.96.
[iii] J.W. Hanson D.D., Universalism The Prevailing Doctrine Of The Christian Church During Its First Five Hundred Years pp. 174,175
[iv] Gieseler, Ecclesiastical History, vol. 1. para. 82.
[v] Enchiridion, Chapter 112
[vi] The City of God, Book XXI, Chapter 17
[vii] Origen, Quoted in Hanson, John Wesley, Universalism: The Prevailing Doctrine of the Christian Church During Its
First Vive Hundred Years, 1899. p. 56.
[viii] Origin, Commentary In Epist. Ad Rom. lib viii. cap. xi.
[ix] Clement de Alexandria, Comentary of 1John Adumbrat. in Ep. I Johan., printed at the end of his Treatise, Quis dives salvetur, p.1009, Potter´s Edit.
[x] Clement of Alexandria, Strom. lib. vi. cap. 6m p. 763, Ed. Potter.
[xi] Clement of Alexandria, Paedagogus 1.8 as cited in Thayors Léxicon.
[xii] Clement of Alexandria, Hanson, John Wesley, Universalism: The Prevailing Doctrine of the Christian Church During Its First Five Hundred Years. p. 117
[xiii] Origin, Contra Selsum 8.72.
[xiv] Origin, Commentary In Epist. Ad Rom. lib viii. cap. xi.
[xvi] Iranio, Contr. Hoer. lib. iii. c. 23, para. 6.
[xvii] Allin, Universalism Asserted, p. 133.
[xviii] Allin, Universalism Asserted, p. 133.
[xix] Ambrose, in Psalm i. para. 54, p. 763, Ed. Paris. 1686.
[xx] Psalm . i. para. 54, p. 763, Ed. Paris. 1686
[xxi] Gregorio de Niza, Orat. pro Mortuis, ad. fin. p. 634, Ed. Paris. 1638.
[xxii] Gregorio de Niza, Dial. de Anima et Resurrect. tom.iii. p. 227, Ed. Paris. 1638
[xxiii] Gregorio de Niza, Catechetical Oraciones, Cap. 26.
[xxiv] Gregorio de Niza, Catechetical Oraciones, (36)
[xxv] Gregorio, el Nazianceno, Orat. xxix. par.19, p.690. Ed. Paris 1778
[xxvi] Basil the Great (c. 329 – c. 379) Commentary on Isaiah
Crowder, John (2013-09-28). Cosmos Reborn : Happy Theology on the New Creation (Kindle Locations 3788-3789). Sons of Thunder Ministries & Publications - Digital version by Ten10 Ebooks. Kindle Edition.
[xxvii] Marcelo de Anicra, Hanson, John Wesley, Universalism: The Prevailing Doctrine of the Christian Church During the First Five Hundred Years, Universalist Publishing House, Boston, 1899, p. 244
[xxviii] Gregorio el Nazianceno, Assemani Bib. Orient. Tom. iii.
[xxix] Tito de Bostra, Tillemont, p.
[xxx] Ambrosio de Milán, Hanson, pp. 245,246
[xxxi] Marius Victurinas, Hanson, p. 249
[xxxii] Marius Victurinas, Hanson, p. 249
[xxxiii] Jerome. In Ps. xcii. 9.22
[xxxiv] Allin, Universalism Asserted, p. 134.
[xxxv] Jerome. In Ps. xcii. 9.22
[xxxvi] Jerome. In Ps. xcii. 9.22
[xxxvii] J.W. HANSON, D. D. Universalism The Prevailing Doctrine Of The Christian Church During Its First Five Hundred Years. http://www.tentmaker.org/books/
[xxxviii] Teodoro el Bendecido, Hanson, p.254.