NOTE: This is part 3 of a three-part Breaking News. This NEW part 3 supplements the other two parts written by Dr. Ernest Martin in 1982. This section provides new information about the extent of belief in universal reconciliation in the Early Church and post-Nicene Church era. A bibliography for this section is at the end.
Belief in Universal Reconciliation was widespread in the early centuries of the Christian church. While it is impossible to provide statistics as to the extent of the belief, interesting information can be obtained from those writers who discussed the topic in various ways.
Augustus Neander wrote regarding universal reconciliation,
“The doctrine of eternal punishment continued, ... to be dominant in the creed of the church. Yet, in the Oriental church, ... there was greater freedom and latitude of development, many respectable church-teachers still stood forth without injuring their reputation for orthodoxy, as advocates of the opposite doctrine.”
• Neander, General History, p. 737
Origen (c.185 C.E.) strongly believed in and promoted universal reconciliation, yet he was widely honored by later church leaders. Basil (the “Great,” bishop of Caesarea) and Gregory of Nazianzus (bishop of Constantinople), were close students of, promoted and published Origen’s works in the 4th century throughout the Roman Empire (Young, From Nicaea to Chacedon, pp. 94, 100). Socrates, the historian, writing about c.439 C.E. noted that “The fame of Origen was very great and widespread throughout the whole world at that time” (Socrates, “Ecclesiastical History” 4:26).
Basil’s brother, Gregory of Nyssa (bishop of Nyssa), was even stronger in his promotion of universal reconciliation than Origen. He never received any hint of “official” criticism for those beliefs. Neander says that the Cappadocian Fathers (Basil, Gregory of Nissa and Gregory of Nazianzus),
“... were all trained under the influence of Origen. He prompted them to the study of classical antiquity, to make use of their classical culture for the development of Christian doctrine, and led them to greater freedom of thought and moderation in controversies.”
• Neander, General History, p. 262
To sum up their views of universal reconciliation, Gregory of Nyssa held strongly to the view, Gregory of Nazianzus was favorable to the concept, but noncommittal, and Basil of Caesarea was opposed to the view, but not antagonistic to it (Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, p.483). Gregory of Nyssa’s strongest statements on universal reconciliation were published in 380 C.E., shortly after his brother Basil’s death in 379 C.E., but also before Gregory’s participation in the Council at Constantinople in 381 C.E. No objections to his beliefs were made at the council or in any of his contemporaries writings.
Rufinus and Jerome were monastics, historians, theologians and translators of Greek texts into Latin. They operated competing scriptoriums, the ancient equivalent of publishing houses. In their writings, both acknowledge that for several years they were instructed personally by Gregory of Nyssa at Constantinople (see “Rufinus Apology in Defense of Himself,” 1:42, and Jerome “The Letters of St. Jerome,” #50, and “Against Jovianus,” 1:13). Clearly both knew about Gregory’s beliefs in universal reconciliation, because Gregory’s views were well-publicized. In none of their correspondence, which was extensive, was there any condemnation by Rufinus or Jerome against believers in universal reconciliation.
This church leader wrote a very mild statement about those who held a view different than his own belief, which was that the fire of judgment,
“... is eternal for the wicked. For all these belong to the destroying power; though some may prefer even in this place to take a more merciful view of this fire, worthily of Him that chastises.”
• Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration on Baptism, NPNF, p. 373
Why then was not the understanding of universal reconciliation more strongly stated? One reason was given by Origen himself (responding to a critic of Christianity) in Against Celsus. Origen believed that proclaiming universal reconciliation to the unconverted might be dangerous for them. It should be presented guardedly. He writes about the purification of sinners, which was a part of Origin’s view of universal reconciliation,
“But the remarks which might be made on this topic are neither to be made at all, ... [but] for the sake of those who are with difficulty restrained, even by fear of eternal [aeternum] punishment, from plunging into any degree of wickedness, and into the flood of evils which result from sin.”
• Origen, Against Celsus, 6:26
When we come to Jerome (as Dr. Martin indicated in Part 2 of this article), he says some seemingly contradictory things. Rufinus, Jerome’s former friend and rival in the faith, directly accuses Jerome of believing Origen’s doctrines and specifically in universal reconciliation, at least in Jerome’s early works (“Rufinus’ Apology, p. 431). Both men translated Origen’s works into Latin.
Like Origen, Jerome too felt that belief in universal reconciliation should not be promoted. Concerning the judgment, Jerome writes, in his Commentary on Isaiah (Book 18, cap. 66),
“All of which nevertheless they allow should not now be openly told to those with whom fear yet acts as a motive, and who may be kept from sinning by the terror of punishment. But this question we ought to leave to the wisdom of God alone, whose judgments as well as mercies are by weight and measure, and who, well knows whom and how long, He ought to judge.”
• Jerome, Commentary on Isaiah, Book 18, cap. 66
Although this vaguely hints at an end to punishment, Jerome himself admits,
“I know that most persons understand by the story of Nineveh and its king, the ultimate forgiveness of the devil and all rational creatures.”
• Jerome, Commentary on Jonah
The best evidence of the full extent of belief in universal reconciliation can be determined by a question put to Basil of Ceasarea. The question was part of Basil’s Rules which became the basis of monastic rules of order even to the present day. Basil was a hermit but a great organizer. The full body of instructions he left for fellow monks was called the Rule of St. Basil. Within these instructions there were questions and answers. One question regarding eternal torment was,
“If one man shall be beaten with many, another with few stripes, how do some say there is no end of punishment? [Basil answers] “... this comes also from the devil’s plots that many men ... assign to themselves an end of punishment in order that they may sin more boldly.”
• Basil of Caesarea, The Ascetic Works of St. Basil, pp. 329-30
The “many men” (tous pollus ton anthropon) in Greek has a definite article before the adjective “many.” This means the translation is “the many men” or “most men.” Such is the understanding of Kelley in Early Christian Doctrines, p.483 and Texeront in History of Dogmas, p.197.
A long-lasting dispute within the church called by historians the Origenist Controversy (“Origenism,” in Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church) began around the year 394 C.E. Several church leaders confronted Jerome, Rufinus, John (the Bishop of Jerusalem) and others, accusing them with promoting Origen’s “heresies.” The controversy originally centered around Origen’s doctrine of the salvation of Satan, not on universal reconciliation of all men. In Christian Alexandria the dispute broke out into riots breaking out between rival factions. According to Charles Bigg, even then the issue was not universal reconciliation,
“Even Epiphanius [Bishop of Salamis] and Theolphilus [Bishop of Alexandria] , the fierce antagonists of Originism, appear to have regarded this particular article with indifference, except insofar as it embraced fallen angels.”
• Bigg, The Christian Platonists of Alexandria, p. 274
A contemporary who conducted an extensive and tempestuous correspondence with Jerome, Augustine did not believe in universal reconciliation. His views are clear on eternal torment of hell, but his discussions in opposition to universal reconciliation are most interesting. Augustine had only an “amicable controversy” with those who “decline to believe” in an eternal hell and believed that the wicked “shall be delivered after a fixed term of punishment.” Augustine, writing in 421 C.E., specifically explains that Origen was not to be condemned about his beliefs regarding mankind, but only for his beliefs regarding the salvation of Satan and his angels,
“I must now, I see, enter the lists of amicable controversy with those tender-hearted Christians who decline to believe that any, or that all of those whom the infallibly just Judge may pronounce worthy of the punishment of hell, shall suffer eternally, and who suppose that they shall be delivered after a fixed term of punishment, longer or shorter according to the amount of each man's sin. In respect of this matter, Origen was even more indulgent; for he believed that even the devil himself and his angels, ... Very different, however, is the error we speak of, which is dictated by the tenderness of these Christians who suppose that the sufferings of those who are condemned in the judgment will be temporary, while the blessedness of all who are sooner or later set free will be eternal.”
• Augustine, The City of God, Book 21, Ch 17
Later in c.428-429 Augustine wrote about Origen’s beliefs,
“But there are other teachings of this Origen which the Catholic Church does not accept at all. On these matters she does not accuse him unwarrantedly, and cannot herself be deceived by his defenders. Specifically they are teachings on purgation, liberation and the return of all rational creation to the same trials after a long interval. Now what Catholic Christian, ... would not shrink in horror from what Origen calls the purgation of evils? According to him, even they who die in infancy, crime, sacrilege and the greatest possible impiety, and at last even the devil himself and his angels, though after very long periods of time, will be purged, liberated and restored to the Kingdom of God and of light. ... In my City of God I have argued most carefully in the matter of this senseless blasphemy against the philosophers from whom Origen derived these teachings.”
• Cited in Muller, “The De Haerebesibus of St. Augustine,” pp. 83-85
It is important to understand what Augustine was saying:
(1) The tender-hearted Christians are not not to be blamed, but they are merely deceived.
(2) Augustine does not accuse.
(3) He argues “carefully” with them.
(4) The blasphemy was on the part of the philosophers.
Augustine mentions six views of “mercyism” (misericordes) believed in by the laity of the churches in his part of the world. They differed from Augustine’s own views. Two of the six views were,
“(1) All men would be saved after hell, (2) Prayers of the saints would obtain salvation for everyone at the last Judgment, without any passage through hell.”
• LeGoff, The Birth of Purgatory, pp. 68-69
These passages from Augustine indicate that the belief in universal reconciliation was widespread in the Latin African churches of the early 5th century as well as the eastern Greek churches of Alexandria, Palestine, Asia Minor and Antioch. Augustine even says,
“... some, indeed very many ... say they do not believe it [eternal torment] shall be so; not, indeed, that they directly oppose themselves to Holy Scripture.”
• Augustine, “The Enchiridion,” ch. 112, p. 273
“Universalists” in the Schaff Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, 1912, gives another measure of the extent of belief in universal reconciliation,
“In the first five or six centuries of Christianity there were six known theological schools, of which four (Alexandria, Antioch, Caesarea and Edessa) were Universalist, one (Ephesus) accepted conditional immortality; one (Carthage or Rome) taught endless punishment of the wicked.”
There was no condemnation of universal reconciliation by the early church. In fact the absence of criticism on the topic is deafening. The obvious answer was that the belief was so widespread no one wanted to criticize such a widely-held doctrine.
Second, the as the statements of Origen, Jerome and Augustine demonstrate, there was a system of “double teaching” where one set of teachings was presented to the mature in the deeper things of God and another set of teachings for the immature. Many believers and church leaders believed in universal reconciliation but did not preach or teach it. Those who taught it did not preach it to new believers.
Finally we have the combined testimony, however tenuous, from Basil (that “the many men” or “most men”), from Jerome (“most persons”) and from Augustine (“very many”) that universal reconciliation was widely held during much of the late 2nd through the 4th centuries. This belief was likely held to strongly from the 1st and 2nd centuries also. Historian Charles Bigg notes that the belief in universal reconciliation was widely diffused throughout the monestaries of Egypt and Palestine during these same centuries (Bigg, Christian Platonists, p.293). The concept of “mercyism” with its varying degrees of salvation for different classes was strongly in the beliefs of the common people as evidenced by Augustine’s handling the subject with great care.
In Augustine’s western church the doctrine of purgatory gradually displaced the teachings of “mercyism” and the biblical teaching of universal reconciliation while allowing for the terrors of hell to keep the common people in line. One of the factors in this displacement was the publishing of Origen’s teachings with the portions about universal reconciliation edited out. Jerome wrote to Hilary the Confessor,
“We are both at one in this that while we have rendered all that is useful, we have cut away all that was harmful. Let him read our versions for himself.”
• Jerome, “Works of Jerome,” Letter 134, p. 179
The teaching of eternal torment had a value, even for those who may have believed in universal reconciliation—that of hindering sin of unbelievers and new believers by means of threat of punishment. NOT teaching universal reconciliation may have been reasoned in this manner, “If universal reconciliation is fact, then telling people otherwise will do no harm. If it is not true, then all who believe it may sin without repenting and be in danger of eternal torment, and we also who are pastors would be liable.” Such a cynical view would indicate little faith in God to change lives.
Belief in universal reconciliation was found extensively throughout early church history. It was held by prominent Fathers of the Church who considered the doctrine dangerous to unconverted outside, and new believers inside the church.
Those who did not believe in universal reconciliation did acknowledge its widespread acceptance, and they did not look harshly on those who advocated. No one called the other a “heretic” for believing the holding the belief.
Augustine of Hippo, The City of Go., In Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church [NPNF], Series 1, vol. 2.
Augustine of Hippo. “The Enchiridion.” In Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church [NPNF], Series 2, vol. 3.
Augustine of Hippo. Cited in Ligouri G. Muller, ”The De Haerebesibus of St. Augustine: A Translation with Introduction and Commentary.” In Catholic University of America Patristic Studies, Vol. 90 (Washington D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1956).
Basil of Caesarea. The Ascetic Works of St. Basil, trans. by W.K.L. Clarke. In Translations of Christian Literature, Series 1, Greek Texts (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1925.
Bigg, Charles. The Christian Platonists of Alexandria: The Bampton Lectures, 1886 (Oxford: The Aarendon Press, 1886).
Gregory of Nazianzus. Oration on Baptism. In Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church [NPNF], Series 2, vol. 7.
Jerome. “Against Jovianus,” 1:13. In Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church [NPNF], Series 2, vol. 3, p.357.
Jerome. “The Letters of St. Jerome,” #50. In Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church [NPNF], Series 2, vol. 3, p.80.
Jerome. “The Letters of St. Jerome,” #134. In Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church [NPNF], Series 2, vol. 6, p.179.
Jerome, Commentary on Isaiah, Book 18, cap. 66.
Jerome, Commentary on Jonah.
Kelly, J.N.D. Early Christian Doctrines (New York: Harper & Row, 1978).
LeGoff, Jacques. The Birth of Purgatory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981).
Neander, Augustus. General History of the Christian Religion and Church. Vol. 2, 12th American edition, trans. by Joseph Torrey (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1871).
Origen. Against Celsus. In Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325, Volume 4.
“Origenism,” in Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 1974 edition. Rufinus.
“Rufinus’ Apology in Defense of Himself,” 1:42. In Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church [NPNF], Series 2, vol. 7.
Socrates. “Ecclesiastical History of Socrates Scholasticus.” In Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church [NPNF], Series 2, vol. 2.
Tixeront, Joseph. History of Dogmas. Vol. 2, reprint of 5th edition (Westminster MD: Christian Classics, 1984).
“Universalists.” In Schaff Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, 1912.
Young, Francis M. From Nicaea to Chalcedon: A Guide to the Literature and Its Background (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983).