The vast majority of early church fathers believed that hell is a place of eternal conscious torment. But unfortunately, there were several who believed in universal salvation. This has led many universalists to greatly overstate their case by claiming that universalism was the prevailing belief of the early church. While universalism was always a minority position among the church fathers, I would like to summarize their teachings here to serve as a reminder that there is no such thing as a universal consent of the fathers on Christian doctrine except when it comes to the foundational truths of the life of Christ. The writings of the early church fathers are filled with strange beliefs and this should give us pause when someone claims that a doctrine is true because some church father said so.
Universalism makes a mockery of Jesus’ warning in Matthew 5:29-30:
“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.”
But if people in hell can leave and enter heaven, then it would not be better to cut off your right hand or put out your eye to avoid going there since those who leave it with all their arms and eyes intact would be able to enjoy using them for all eternity while those who mutilated their body would not. Of course, no one in the new heavens and new earth will miss any limbs, but universalism destroys the hypothetical situation Jesus is painting. The Bible teaches that hell will last forever and is not locked from the inside (Matt 25:41-46; 26:24; Rev 14:9-11; 20:10-15).
The first church father to teach universalism appears to have been Origen (the source of all bad things in Christian theology). While Clement of Alexandria is often cited as an early universalist, I believe it is incorrect to label him as such. The clearest expression of Origen’s universalism is not found in the Latin translation of On First Principles by Rufinus, but in the original Greek text which we only have fragments of. It is preserved by Leontius of Byzantium in his Concerning the Sects 10.6 and in emperor Justinian’s condemnation of Origen in his Epistle to Menas:
“There is a resurrection of the dead, and there is punishment, but not everlasting. For when the body is punished the soul is gradually purified, and so is restored to its ancient rank. For all wicked men, and for demons, too, punishment has an end, and both wicked men and demons shall be restored to their former rank” (Greek text of On First Principles 2.10.8).
Arguing on the basis of 1 Corinthians 15:28, Origen proposes that all of Christ’s enemies will be restored to fellowship with him:
“If, then, that subjection be held to be good and salutary by which the Son is said to be subject to the Father, it is an extremely rational and logical inference to deduce that the subjection also of enemies, which is said to be made to the Son of God, should be understood as being also salutary and useful; as if, when the Son is said to be subject to the Father, the perfect restoration of the whole of creation is signified, so also, when 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” (On First Principles 3.5.7).
This would occur through a series countless ages where eventually all rational souls will be restored to their original condition after undergoing this period of purgation:
“And this result must be understood as being brought about, not suddenly, but slowly and gradually, seeing that the process of amendment and correction will take place imperceptibly in the individual instances during the lapse of countless and unmeasured ages, some outstripping others, and tending by a swifter course towards perfection, while others again follow close at hand, and some again a long way behind; and thus, through the numerous and uncounted orders of progressive beings who are being reconciled to God from a state of enmity, the last enemy is finally reached, who is called death, so that he also may be destroyed, and no longer be an enemy. When, therefore, all rational souls shall have been restored to a condition of this kind, then the nature of this body of ours will undergo a change into the glory of a spiritual body” (On First Principles 3.6.6).
In Origen’s theology, hell exists to rid those who are hostile to God of their hostility so that they are eventually no longer his enemies:
“For the destruction of the last enemy must be understood in this way, not that its substance which was made by God should perish, but that the hostile purpose and will which proceeded not from God but from itself will come to an end. It will be destroyed, therefore, not in the sense of ceasing to exist, but of being no longer an enemy” (On First Principles 3.6.5).
Jerome, in his letter to Pammacius and Oceanus, believed that Origen taught universal salvation for all including the devil:
“If you too for your parts will but admit that Origen errs in certain things I will not say another syllable. Acknowledge that he thought amiss concerning the Son, and still more amiss concerning the Holy Spirit, point out the impiety of which he has been guilty in speaking of men’s souls as having fallen from heaven, and show that, while in word he asserts the resurrection of the flesh, he destroys the force of this language by other assertions. As, for instance, that, after many ages and one restitution of all things, it will be the same for Gabriel as for the devil, for Paul as for Caiaphas, for virgins as for prostitutes.”
At one time, Jerome agreed with Origen on universal salvation. But he later changed his mind and embraced the Bible’s teaching that it will not be the same for Gabriel as for the devil (Rev 20:10).
While Origen taught universal reconciliation in private to those who are mature, to the immature and those outside the church, he taught eternal punishment as a means to restrain their evil:
“It is risky to commit to writing the explanation of these matters, because the multitude do not require any more instruction than that punishment is to be inflicted upon sinners. It is not of advantage to go on to the truths which lie behind it because there are people who are scarcely restrained by fear of everlasting punishment from the vast flood of evil and the sins that are committed in consequence of it” (Against Celsus 6.26).
Origen was the original theological liberal who used the language of orthodox Christianity in public so that the church would think he believed as they do while redefining its meaning while among the spiritually enlightened.
Gregory of Nyssa, an important church father who defended the doctrine of the Trinity against Arianism, is the most significant universalist in the early church. In his treatise on 1 Corinthians 15:28, he argues that all of Christ’s enemies will be reconciled to him:
“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. However, clear proof of the former meaning is definitely made when Paul makes a twofold distinction of the term ‘enemy.’ He says that enemies are to be subjected; indeed, they are to be destroyed. Therefore, the enemy to be blotted out from human nature is death, whose principle is sin along with domination and power. In another sense, the enemies of God which are to be subjected to him attach themselves to sin after deserting God’s kingdom. 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. . . . When all enemies have become God’s footstool, they 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.”
Hell for Gregory is a period of refinement which is purgatorial and temporary:
“Just as those who refine gold from the dross which it contains not only get this base alloy to melt in the fire, but are obliged to melt the pure gold along with the alloy, and then while this last is being consumed the gold remains, so, while evil is being consumed in the purgatorial fire, the soul that is welded to this evil must inevitably be in the fire too, until the spurious material alloy is consumed and annihilated by this fire” (On the Soul and the Resurrection).
He believed that even the devil would be saved by Christ:
“But as regards the aim and purpose of what took place, a change in the direction of the nobler is involved; for whereas he, the enemy, effected his deception for the ruin of our nature, He Who is at once the just, and good, and wise one, used His device, in which there was deception, for the salvation of him who had perished, and thus not only conferred benefit on the lost one, but on him, too, who had wrought our ruin. . . . Therefore even the adversary himself will not be likely to dispute that what took place was both just and salutary, that is, if he shall have attained to a perception of the boon. For it is now as with those who for their cure are subjected to the knife and the cautery; they are angry with the doctors, and wince with the pain of the incision; but if recovery of health be the result of this treatment, and the pain of the cautery passes away, they will feel grateful to those who have wrought this cure upon them. In like manner, when, after long periods of time, the evil of our nature, which now is mixed up with it and has grown with its growth, has been expelled, and when there has been a restoration of those who are now lying in Sin to their primal state, a harmony of thanksgiving will arise from all creation, as well from those who in the process of the purgation have suffered chastisement, as from those who needed not any purgation at all. These and the like benefits the great mystery of the Divine incarnation bestows. For in those points in which He was mingled with humanity, passing as He did through all the accidents proper to human nature, such as birth, rearing, growing up, and advancing even to the taste of death, He accomplished all the results before mentioned, freeing both man from evil, and healing even the introducer of evil himself” (The Great Catechism 26).
I believe Augustine’s doctrine of purgatory is an evolution of the purgatorial understanding of hell as expressed by Origen and Gregory of Nyssa. Augustine and later Western theology took this concept of postmortem purgation and drew a distinction between hell which lasts forever and a place of suffering for the righteous who will eventually be admitted into heaven after suffering for the temporal punishments due to their venial sins.
Another universalist was Theodore of Mopsuestia who taught that the punishments of the wicked will eventually come to an end:
“In the world to come, those who have chosen here what is good, will receive the felicity of good things along with praise; whereas the wicked, who all their life have turned aside to evil deeds, once they have been set in order in their minds by punishments and the fear of them, choose the good, having come to learn how much they have sinned, and that they have persevered in doing evil things and not good; by means of all this they receive a knowledge of religion’s excellent teaching, and are educated so as to hold on to it with a good will, and so eventually they are held worthy of the felicity of divine munificence. For Christ would never have said ‘Until you pay the last farthing’ unless it had been possible for us to be freed from our sins once we had recompensed for them through punishments. Nor would He have said ‘He will be beaten with many stripes’ and ‘He will be beaten with few stripes’ if it were not the case that the punishments measured out in correspondence to the sins, were finally going to have an end” (As cited by Isaac of Nineveh in his Ascetical Homilies 2.39.8).
A large number within Eastern Orthodoxy believe that it is possible that everyone in the end will be saved. As Bishop Timothy Ware writes:
“Hell is not so much a place where God imprisons humans, as a place where humans, by misusing their free will, choose to imprison themselves. And even in hell the wicked are not deprived of the love of God, but by their own choice they experience as suffering what the saints experience as joy. . . . Hell exists as a final possibility, but several of the Fathers have none the less believed that in the end all will be reconciled to God. It is heretical to say that all must be saved, for this is to deny free will; but it is legitimate to hope that all may be saved. Until the Last Day comes, we must not despair of anyone’s salvation, but must long and pray for the reconciliation of all without exception. No one must be excluded from our loving intercession. . . . Gregory of Nyssa said that Christians may legitimately hope even for the redemption of the devil” (The Orthodox Church, 262).
That so many people could believe in something so unbiblical demonstrates that simply because someone claims to be a Christian does not mean his beliefs are driven by the text of Scripture. May God protect us from the poison of Origen which is still alive and well.