Can God Be Too Good? Part 4 by Monte Wolverton
Historic Hopeful Universalists — They Dared to Hope
Many centuries ago, before Christian doctrine had become a political football, a few eminent Christian thinkers pondered the passages we
have just discussed—and exchanged their ideas openly.
The early church fathers—especially those active before the council of Nicea in 313—lived during a time of doctrinal flux and formation, when believers were grappling with major theological issues. When we look at the selected quotes presented here, we get a brief and surprising glimpse into what they were thinking about universal reconciliation.
Clement of Alexandria (c.150-c.215) was an early convert whose extensive classical Greek education contributed to his understanding and teaching
of Christianity. He led the Catechetical School of Alexandria, and participated in the long discussion about which books to include in the New Testament. Clement suggested that Christ was working to save everyone—even after death!
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.
Origen (c.184-c.253) was a disciple of Clement, and his successor as leader of the Catechetical School of Alexandria. His prolific biblical interpretation and philosophical theology contributed to the foundations of church doctrine. But nearly three centuries after his death he would be declared
anathema by the institutional church because it was alleged that some of his teachings were not orthodox. In particular, he suggested that God would ultimately restore all things (the Greek word apokatastasis, used only once in the Bible—see Acts 3:21) and reconcile all souls to himself.
Origen tells us:
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…. Many things are said obscurely in the prophecies on the total destruction of evil, and the restoration to righteousness of every soul…
Gregory of Nyssa (c.335-c.395) was Bishop of Nyssa (a town in what is now south-central Turkey). Along with the other Cappadocian Fathers (Basil the Great and Gregory of Nazianzus), he contributed significantly to the doctrine of the Trinity, and edited the revised Nicene Creed at the First Council of Constantinople. Influenced by the writings of Origen, he seemed to hope for the eventual salvation of all.
For it is evident that God will in truth be “in all” when there shall be no evil in existence, 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…. Participation in bliss awaits everyone.…the annihilation of evil, the restitution of all things, and the final restoration of evil men and evil spirits to the blessedness of union with God, so that he
may be “all in all,” embracing all things endowed with sense and reason.
Jerome (c.347-420) was a historian, theologian and priest from the city of Stridon (in present-day Slovenia). In addition to his prolific writings, he translated the entire Bible into Latin. In this quote Jerome seems to foresee a time when God would reconcile everyone to himself:
In the end and consummation of the universe all are to be restored into
their original harmonious state, and we all shall be made one body and be
united once more into a perfect man, and the prayer of our Savior shall be
fulfilled that all may be one.
Augustine of Hippo (354-430) was a philosopher, theologian and bishop in the city of Hippo in what is now northern Algeria. A firm believer in the grace of Christ, his ideas reinvigorated the Roman church, enabling it to survive the dissolution of the Western Roman Empire.
He is considered one of the most influential thinkers of Christianity. Yet he feared that earlier church fathers’ universalist leanings could lead believers to dangerous permissiveness. Partially because of this, Augustine firmly established and embellished the idea of a hell of endless torture (partly based on his misunderstanding of the context of the biblical Greek word later translated as “eternal” in most English Bibles).
Augustine emphasized that only some would be saved—and those only by God’s will. He even taught that unbaptized infants, because they had inherited original sin, would be subjected to eternal (albeit mild) punishment. He also allowed that lesser sinners would undergo temporary punishment in purgatory, until they were sufficiently cleansed of sin to enter heaven.
Such ideas appealed to leaders of the institutional church, especially in light of the waning power of the Roman Empire. It was time for the Roman church to fulfill its destiny as the Augustinian “City of God.” And let’s face it—threats of eternal torture make a far better tool for controlling the masses than nebulous visions of a loving God and universal reconciliation.
Augustine’s presumptions about eternal conscious torment generally won
the day in the Western Church, although the Eastern Church did not ultimately follow his teaching.
By the time of Justinian, Byzantine emperor from 527 to 565, the concept of
universal reconciliation had come to be regarded as non-orthodox. Justinian’s iron-fisted rule encompassed the church, where he sought to insure uniformity of doctrine and suppression of anything that looked like heresy.
Among his edicts was a posthumous condemnation of Origen and his views on universal reconciliation, following the Synod of Constantinople in 543. Ironically, although Gregory of Nyssa had taught something similar, his orthodoxy was never questioned.
In any case, the universalism that the early church fathers had discussed and considered was now anathema—forbidden by the institutional church. With few exceptions, the institutional Christian church to this day has effectively bowed to Justinian’s authority on the issue. Ultimate redemptionists have been on the fringe ever since.