Sunday, May 15, 2011

Universalism, Annihilationism, And The Early Church

I've addressed the early church's view of Hell in previous posts on this blog, but I think some recent developments warrant a return to the subject. I recently read a post by Paul Helm about universalism in the early church. He makes some good points, but doesn't go into much depth. Last month, Victor Reppert linked to an article claiming that universalism was the majority view in the earliest centuries of church history. That article makes a lot of misleading claims, some of which I'll address below. Before I do that, however, I want to summarize my own position on this issue.

I agree with Charles Spurgeon that it seems likely that a majority of humans will be redeemed, but I reject universalism. I believe in a Hell of conscious, eternal punishment. I think non-universalism was taught by the apostles and was the majority view of the earliest patristic Christians. But I think universalism was advocated by some heretics and a minority of mainstream Christians during the patristic era. I wouldn't claim that it's a modern doctrine or one only held by individuals who were out of fellowship with the mainstream of Christianity. I consider universalism a highly significant error, but not a foundational one. I see no reason to think that belief in universalism makes a person a non-Christian. However, in some contexts it can imply other things that do suggest that a person is unregenerate. We would have to ask questions such as how long an individual who believes in universalism supposedly has been a Christian, how much he knows about the Bible, whether he rejects the authority of Jesus and other Biblical figures or thinks his universalism is consistent with what they taught, etc. I consider universalism a highly significant error that warrants a large amount of separation from those who advocate the position, but I don't think that a person's belief in the concept is enough, by itself, to tell us that the person isn't a Christian.

The article Victor Reppert linked claims that "Origen, who was the first to really systematize Christianity was a universalist. Even though he was later said to have committed many errors for which he was condemned, Universalism was never among them." We’re told that "Universal salvation was the prevailing doctrine in Christendom as long as Greek, the language of the New Testament, was the language of Christendom." And, "With the exception of the arguments of Augustine (A.D. 420), there is not an argument known to have been framed against Universalism for at least four hundred years after Christ, by any of the ancient fathers." Furthermore, "it had been advocated in every century by the principal scholars and most revered saints" In addition, "All ecclesiastical historians and the best Biblical critics and scholars agree to the prevalence of Universalism in the earlier centuries." And, "The first theological school in Christendom, that in Alexandria, taught Universalism for more than two hundred years." I could give more examples, but those are sufficient to give you an idea of the general thrust of the article and some of the claims it makes.

My own reading of the fathers has led me to radically different conclusions. And my impression is that there's a consensus of modern scholarship supporting the view that universalism was a minority position during the earliest centuries of church history. See my article here, which I wrote a few years ago, in which I discuss some of the early patristic sources and cite some modern scholarship on the issue. The article focuses on annihilationism, but much of what I wrote there is relevant to universalism as well. Since then, other sources I've read have led me to the same conclusion. See, for example, Eric Osborn's discussion of Irenaeus' view of Hell (Irenaeus Of Lyons [New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005], pp. 137-138) and Tertullian's view (Tertullian: First Theologian Of The West [New York, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003], pp. 218-219). Everett Ferguson writes, regarding the earliest centuries:

"Apart from Origen, who entertained the possibility of universal salvation after a period of purification and education of souls in the afterlife, those who spoke to the subject understood an ultimate division of humanity in heaven or hell." (Church History Volume 1: From Christ To Pre-Reformation [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2005], p. 159)

I've read similar comments many times from many sources, and I've seen those assessments corroborated over and over again in my own reading of the fathers. But the patristic era spans several centuries and a lot of authors, and they wrote many thousands of pages of material. There's much I haven't read, and I could be wrong about some of what I have read. My sense, though, is that it's highly unlikely that universalism was ever more than a minority position in the earliest centuries of church history. And that minority seems to have been even smaller in the ante-Nicene era than it was later. Augustine and other later sources didn't make universalism a minority position. Rather, it was already a minority position, and they were disturbed that it was a growing minority.

Some early non-Christian sources attribute belief in a Hell of conscious, eternal punishment to Christians in general. I'm not aware of any early non-Christian source who suggests that universalism or annihilationism was the mainstream view. Celsus criticizes Christians for their belief in "eternal punishments" and compares the Christian view to what’s found in other religions (cited in Origen, Against Celsus, 8:48). Caecilius writes, "Deceived by this error, they [Christians] promise to themselves, as being good, a blessed and perpetual life after their death; to others, as being unrighteous, eternal punishment." (cited in Minucius Felix, Octavius, 11) Notice that there are no qualifiers, such as "potentially eternal punishment", and the eternal punishment is paralleled to the eternal life. The Christian response to Caecilius in section 35 of the same document involves a defense of the eternality of the punishment and refers to the conscious suffering involved. Not only do Caecilius' comments suggest that he has something other than universalism or annihilationism in mind, but so does the Christian response. Later, Augustine cites an objection to the alleged disproportionality of "eternal punishment" (Letter 102:22), an objection apparently derived from Porphyry.

Robert Wilken notes that a common objection to Christianity was that God had neglected those who are unevangelized in this life, that no provision had been made for their salvation (The Christians As The Romans Saw Them [New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1984], p. 181). He attributes forms of such an objection to Celsus, Porphyry, and Julian the Apostate. If most Christians thought that there would be opportunity to convert after death or that all would go to Heaven without any such conversion, why did the objection Wilken refers to become so popular and so prominent?

Why are alleged references to universalism in the early sources so few in number and so difficult to discern where they allegedly exist? Let's assume that men like Polycarp, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus were universalists. Is it likely that they would repeatedly refer to "fire that burns forever", "eternal punishment", what "will" happen to the unrighteous, etc., yet never accompany those comments with references to universalism? Or would they refer to universalism, but only do so in such a subtle way, so that the large majority of readers, including the large majority of scholars, have misunderstood them? Is it likely that so many patristic sources would so often seem to be saying something other than what they meant?

That brings us to Origen. He expressed belief in universalism hesitantly and inconsistently, yet we're able to discern that he did sometimes advocate the concept. Why is there such a lack of evidence for universalism in other early sources?

And why was Origen so hesitant and inconsistent in his universalism? Elizabeth Dively Lauro comments:

"For example, when responding in an apologetic letter to Alexandrians who voted to expel him under Bishop Demetrius in 231, Origen denied teaching Satan's sure salvation, which suggests he was aware that his preferred tendency to envisage a universally affirmed salvation was at conflict with the received ecclesial tradition of his day….A modified universalism was clearly Origen's fundamental soteriological belief, and though he manifested several internal doubts and qualifications in his exposition, probably because the common opinion of the church of his day was against him on many aspects of the idea, he nevertheless presents a coherent theological narrative, though one that was not wholly consistent at every instance, and that gave his friends and critics in later ages room for further controversy on the subject (see Origenist Crises)." (in John McGuckin, ed., The Westminster Handbook To Origen [Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004], pp. 212, 214)

Notice that she not only refers to the minority status of Origen's view and his hesitations and inconsistencies in expressing it, but also refers to actions taken in his lifetime to correct him. Universalism seems to have been one of the issues he was criticized for in his day. That criticism didn't arise later. Rather, it was one of the issues he had to address in his response to the Alexandrians. John McGuckin summarizes:

"Even in his lifetime he [Origen] stirred a storm of resistance for suggesting Satan could be saved and that hell was not necessarily everlasting, and he seems to have backed away from the idea as he grew older (Commentary on John 28.8.61-66). Gregory of Nyssa moderated the idea…After Gregory the idea was sidelined and never commanded a wide acceptance in the church even before it was formally condemned in the sixth-century Origenist controversy." (The Westminster Handbook To Patristic Theology [Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004], p. 21)


  1. Jason,

    Thank you for putting this together.

  2. Hi Jason.

    You said, "I agree with Charles Spurgeon that it seems likely that a majority of humans will be redeemed, but I reject universalism. I believe in a Hell of conscious, eternal punishment."

    May I ask why you think that the majority of humans will be redeemed?


    In Him,


  3. Hi Joe,

    I might start a thread on that subject someday, when I have more time for it. I'll just mention one line of evidence at this point.

    One of the reasons why I believe that a majority of people will be saved is that I believe in universal infant salvation. I believe that life begins at conception, so individuals who die around the time of conception or later in infancy would be included among those saved. That would include those who die in spontaneous and induced abortions. That's a large percentage of people. And I think God extends the same grace to at least some children beyond infancy.

    This subject of how many people will be saved was discussed to some extent in a thread a couple of years ago. You might want to read the comments section as well, since some relevant resources are cited there.