NOTE: This is part 2 of a three-part Breaking News. Part 3 consists of additional information indicating how wide-spread the understanding and belief of Universal Reconciliation was in Christianity even to the 5th century B.C.E.
Universal Reconciliation Understood by Early Christians
The truth that a salvation in Christ awaits all was the prime message of Christianity as revealed in the New Testament. But what about the people who followed on after the deaths of the apostles? Did they maintain this fundamental doctrinal belief? The answer is a decided YES. Among several important Christian scholars and theologians over the following four hundred years, universal salvation was publicly advocated and taught. First note the remarks of Iranaeus, the Bishop of Lyons (c.130 to 200 C.E.)
“Wherefore also He drove him out of Paradise, and removed him far from the tree of life, not because He envied him the tree of life, ... but because He pitied him [and did not desire], that he should continue a sinner for ever, nor that the sin which surrounded him should be immortal, and evil interminable and irremediable. But He set a bound to his [state of] sin, by interposing death, and thus causing sin to cease, putting an end to it by the dissolution of the flesh, which should take place in the earth, so that man, ceasing at length to live to sin, and dying to it, might begin to live to God.”
• Against Heretics, Book III, Chapter. 23.6
Note also the remarks of Clement of Alexandria (c.190 C.E.). There can be no doubt of his understanding that all in the universe will one day obtain their salvation in Christ which was given before the world’s foundation.
“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, and the Lord of those who have not believed, till being enabled to confess Him, they obtain the peculiar ... boon which comes by Him ... For all things are arranged with a view to the salvation of the universe by the Lord of the universe, both generally and particularly.”
• The Stromata, or Miscellanies, Book vii, chapter 2
[Quoting 1 Timothy 4:10] “To speak comprehensively, all benefit appertaining to life, in its highest reason, proceeding from the Sovereign God, the Father who is over all, consummated by the Son, who also on this account ‘is Savior of all men,’ says the apostle, ‘but especially of those who believe.’”
• The Stromata, or Miscellanies, Book vi, chapter 17
“Christ’s only work is the salvation of mankind.”
• The Stromata, or Miscellanies, Book ix
Let us now look at the linguist and scholar Origen (c.210 C.E.). All historians know he was an avowed believer in universal salvation for the human race and all intelligent beings in the universe.
“When the Son is said to be subject to the Father, the perfect restoration of the whole creation is signified, so also, when the enemies are said to be subjected to the Son of God, the salvation of the conquered and the restoration of the lost is in that understood to consist.”
• De prin. iii.5
“But those who have been removed from their primal state of blessedness [innocence] have not been removed irrecoverably, but ... being remolded by salutary discipline and principles, they may recover themselves, and be restored to their condition of happiness.”
• De prin. i.vi
We also have the witness of Victorinus (360 C.E.),
“Christ will regenerate all things, as he created all things. By the life that is in Him, all things will be cleansed and return into age-lasting life. Christ is to subject all things to Himself. When this shall have been accomplished, God will be all things, because all things will be full of God.”
• Adv.Arium Lib. i & iii
There was also Hilary, known as “the leading theologian of his day” (X.LeBachelet, St. Hilarie DTC. 6.2413–60).
“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 (fallen angels and mankind). Every being, then, is being restored to the place in which he was created, by learning the knowledge of Christ.”
• In Eph. iii.9–10
Even Titus, the Bishop of Bostra in 364 C.E. professed an explicit universalism in salvation. He showed that the fire of hell is really remedial.
[ Because some came to believe the erroneous doctrine of the Immortality of the Soul—which the Bible does not support— some invented what is called “Purgatory.” There is, however, not a word in the Bible about such a transient place after death for the cleansing of errors. Yet the punishment of the wicked is intended to be corrective. The word for “punishment” in Matthew 25:46 is kolasis which in Greek literature means correction. ]
This was understood by early Christians. Titus, Bishop of Bostra, knew that the biblical teaching of “hell” signified a place of correction and discipline, which did not last for eternity!
“The very pit itself is a place of torments and of torments and of punishments, but is not eternal. It was made that it might be a medicine and yield help to those who sin. Sacred are the stripes which are remedies and helps to those who have strayed.”
• Lib. i, ch.xxxii
Gregory of Nyssa (380 C.E.) was one who proclaimed a universal redemption in Christ for all creatures within the entirety of the universe. Quoting Philippians 2:10 where Paul said every knee would one day bow and every tongue confess the Lordship of Christ to the glory of God, Gregory comments,
“In this passage is signified, that when evil has been obliterated in the long circuits of the ages, nothing shall be left outside the limits of good; but even from them [all creatures made by God] shall be unanimously uttered the confession of the Lordship of Christ.”
• De an.et.resurrect.
“For it is evident that God will, in truth, be ‘in all’ then when there shall be no evil seen in anything. ... 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, then shall the body of Christ be subject to the Father. ... Now the body of Christ, as I have said often before, is the whole of humanity. ... When it says that God’s enemies shall be subjected to God, this is meant that the power of evil shall be taken away, and they who, on account of their disobedience were called God’s enemies, shall by subjection be made God’s friends. When, then, all who were once God’s enemies, shall have been made His footstool (because they will then receive in themselves the divine imprint), when death shall have been destroyed; in the subjection of all, which is not servile humility, but immortality and Christ is said by the apostle Paul to be made subject to God.”
• Orat. in I Cor. xv.28
Read carefully this extended but beautiful passage by Gregory,
“Hence, another meaning of subjection is understood by Paul as opposite to the common one. The exposition of the term 'subjection' as used here does not mean the forceful, necessary subjection of enemies as is commonly meant; while on the other hand, salvation is clearly interpreted by subjection. ... Paul mentions this in his Epistle to the Romans: ‘For if we have been enemies, we have been reconciled to God’ [Rom 5.10]. Here Paul calls subjection reconciliation, one term indicating salvation by another word. For as salvation is brought near to us by subjection, Paul says in another place, ‘Being reconciled, we shall be saved in this life’ [Rom 5.10]. Therefore, Paul says that such enemies are to be subjected to God and the Father; death no longer is to have authority. This is shown by Paul saying, ‘Death will be destroyed,’ a clear statement that the power of evil will be utterly removed: persons are called enemies of God by disobedience, while those who have become the Lord's friends are persuaded by Paul saying, ‘We are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: Be reconciled to God’ [2Cor 6.20]. ...
When all enemies have become God's footstool, they [the enemies] will receive a trace of divinity in themselves. Once death has been destroyed — for if there are no persons who will die, not even death would exist — then we will be subjected to him; but this is not understood by some sort of servile humility. Our subjection, however, consists of a kingdom, incorruptibility and blessedness living in us; this is Paul's meaning of being subjected to God. Christ perfects his good in us by himself, and effects in us what is pleasing to him. According to our limited understanding of Paul's great wisdom which we received, we have only understood part of it.
• Orat. in I Cor. xv.28
About the same time lived Diodorus of Tarsus. He was equally assured the Scripture taught the universal reconciliation of all to Christ—and that it would be accomplished through the power of Jesus Christ.
“For the wicked there are punishments, 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 without end awaits them. The resurrection, therefore, is to be regarded as a blessing not only to the good but also to the evil.”
• De aecon.
Then there was Theodore of Mopsuestia (a contemporary of Diodorus), who was the leader of the Christian university of Antioch. He was called by those who knew him as “the Master of the East because of his theological eminence.” His remarks are very pertinent.
“That in the world to come, those who have done evil all their life long, will be made worthy of the sweetness of the Divine bounty. For never would Christ have said ‘Until thou hast paid the uttermost farthing,’ unless it were possible for us to be cleansed when we have paid our debts. ... Who is so great a fool as to think that so great a blessing [eternal life in Christ] can be to those who let arise [in their hearts] the occasion of endless torment.”
• Frag. iv
In other words, endless torment was to Theodore incompatible with the Gospel.
And most important to the issue is Jerome (c.400 C.E.). The reason for this is because he was a translator of the Hebrew and Greek testaments into the common Latin of the time. He was fully aware of all the original words involving a so-called “eternal” damnation that some translators today render as endless and unrelenting torments, but Jerome taught the redemption of all!
“Christ will, in the ages to come, show not to one, but to the whole number of rational creatures His glory, and the riches of His grace, by means of us [Christians]. The saints are to reign over the fallen angels, and the prince of this world, even to them will be brought blessing.”
• In Eph. ii.7
“In the restitution of all things, when the true physician, Jesus Christ, shall have come to heal the body of the Church, every one shall receive his proper place. What I mean is, the fallen angel will begin to be that [of his original state] which he was created, and man (who was expelled from Paradise) will be once more restored to the tilling of Paradise. These things then will take place universally.”
• In Eph. iv. 16
And importantly, look at Jerome’s comment on Galatians 5:20,
“With God no rational creature perishes eternally. ... For God pities His creatures, and will not suffer those whom He himself has formed to perish eternally, who are sustained by His breath and spirit.”
• In Isa. lvii.6
Much more could be cited from early theologians (most of whom could read original biblical Greek as you do a newspaper). Yet this should suffice. It abundantly shows that the biblical teaching of a universal reconciliation to Christ (for all rational creatures) was not forgotten by those who came after the apostles. After all, they simply read what the Bible said. Admittedly, it is recognized that some, like Jerome, were not always consistent in this (and other) doctrines. It depended on the audience he wanted to reach. The teaching called “double doctrine” was looked on as a legitimate form of teaching from the time of Plato to Jerome—and it is even in vogue today among some people.
The concept of “double doctrine” involved teaching those initiated into the greater secrets the fullness of any doctrine, while to others traditional teachings were often perpetuated. Some early Christians felt justified in using this method because Christ taught the general masses in parables, but to His intimate disciples He told them the full truth (Luke 8:10)—and in a language they could understand. With the apostle Paul, however, Christ revealed to him (and others) the full teaching of the Mystery (the great secret hidden from the foundation of the world) (Ephesians 3:3–11). Since the time of that great disclosure, called the Mystery, it is no longer necessary to teach in any “double doctrine” fashion—using figures and terms to mean something else. We do not teach in parables or symbolic language. However, the teaching of universal salvation is so all-inclusive that no symbolic teaching can ever exceed (or limit) its sense!
And one thing is certain. The final revelation of God, which Christ commissioned his disciples to instruct mankind, includes the fact that all personalities in the universe will come to a salvation experience in Christ. And the early scholars of Christian persuasion which we mentioned above, also understood it. The teaching of a total salvation to all is incapable of being limited by any parabolic illustrations concerning hell or judgments.
Still, we do need a full explanation of what happens after death for all classes of people on earth today—as well as a knowledge of the ultimate fate of the angelic creatures. The Bible has some answers which may surprise some people! What we want to provide are not some “way-out” suppositions that have no biblical basis, but clear teachings from the Bible. The Bible is becoming plainer all the time. And there is much more to be discovered, which can be made simple and understandable to the ordinary person. But, in regard to mankind’s destiny, the Bible is plain. Christ has already provided a universal salvation for all!
For additional reading see
• Brian E. Daley’s The Hope of the Early Church: A Handbook of Patristic Eschatology (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1991)
• J.W. Hanson, Universalism, the Prevailing Doctrine of the Christian Church during its First Five Hundred Years (Boston and Chicago: Universalist Publishing House, 1899).
Ernest L. Martin