Thursday, August 18, 2005

The Early Church

OK. Perhaps you're new to Universalism and you think you've stumbled across some new age, new-fangled heresy. Would it surprise you to know that Universalism was present in the early church and that people like Origen and Clement gleaned it from the scriptures? Would it surprise you that Eternal Torment (ET) wasn't commonly accepted until around the year 500?
Here are some tidbits from a very long book (about 200 pages- available online). These might might whet your appetite to learn a little more.
The doctrine of Eternal Torment is nowhere to be found in ancient Judaism. Somewhere after the close of the Old Testament and Jesus' time, this error began creeping in from the surrounding paganism. The early church was not focused on eternal destiny but rather on apologetics. However, the early church Fathers were largely Universalists. This belief came from the scripture, as it was no where to be found in the surrounding Paganism.
The church fathers closest to the beginning of Christianity and who were well versed in Greek (the language of the New Testament) largely did not believe in endless, torment for the sake of retribution. They believed in limited, corrective punishment based on their understanding of several key Greek words that have been mistranslated. Augustine, the first church father to really promote ET to the exlusion of other beliefs, hated Greek and studied mostly in Latin. When the power of the church shifted from the Greek fathers (Alexandrian) to the Latin, the teachings became largely corrupted.
Prior to 200 AD, there were three schools of thought, within Christianity, concerning human destiny- endless punishment, annihilation (the wicked would simply be wiped out no longer to exist) and universal salvation. But prior to this there was not much, if any controversy over these opinions. 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. Universalism wasn't really attacked and ET didn't come into "favor" until around 540 AD, the beginning of the Middle Ages. Some of the most revered early church fathers were staunch universalists, who gained this understanding from scripture.
Here are the Cliff's notes:
  1. During the First Century the primitive Christians did not dwell on matters of eschatology, but devoted their attention to apologetics; they were chiefly anxious to establish the fact of Christ's advent, and of its blessings to the world. Possibly the question of destiny was an open one, till Paganism and Judaism introduced erroneous ideas, when the New Testament doctrine of the apokatastasis was asserted, and universal restoration became an accepted belief, as stated later by Clement and Origen, A.D. 180-230.
  2. The Catacombs give us the views of the unlearned, as Clement and Origen state the doctrine of scholars and teachers. Not a syllable is found hinting at the horrors of Augustinianism, but the inscription on every monument harmonizes with the Universalism of the early fathers.
  3. Clement declares that all punishment, however severe, is purificatory; that even the "torments of the damned" are curative. Origen explains even Gehenna as signifying limited and curative punishment, and both, as all the other ancient Universalists, declare that "everlasting" (aionion) punishment, is consonant with universal salvation. So that it is no proof that other primitive Christians who are less explicit as to the final result, taught endless punishment when they employ the same terms.
  4. Like our Lord and his Apostles, the primitive Christians avoided the words with which the Pagans and Jews defined endless punishment aidios or adialeipton timoria (endless torment), a doctrine the latter believed, and knew how to describe; but they, the early Christians, called punishment, as did our Lord, kolasis aionios, discipline, chastisement, of indefinite, limited duration.
  5. The early Christians taught that Christ preached the Gospel to the dead, and for that purpose descended into Hades. Many held that he released all who were in ward. This shows that repentance beyond the grave, perpetual probation, was then accepted, which precludes the modern error that the soul's destiny is decided at death.
  6. Prayers for the dead were universal in the early church, which would be absurd, if their condition is unalterably fixed at the grave.
  7. The idea that false threats were necessary to keep the common people in check, and that the truth might be held esoterically, prevailed among the earlier Christians, so that there can be no doubt that many who seem to teach endless punishment, really held the broader views, as we know the most did, and preached terrors pedagogically.
  8. The first comparatively complete systematic statement of Christian doctrine ever given to the world was by Clement of Alexandria, A.D. 180, and universal salvation was one of the tenets.
  9. The first complete presentation of Christianity as a system was by Origen (A.D. 220) and universal salvation was explicitly contained in it.
  10. Universal salvation was the prevailing doctrine in Christendom as long as Greek, the language of the New Testament, was the language of Christendom.
  11. Universalism was generally believed in the best centuries, the first three, when Christians were most remarkable for simplicity, goodness and missionary zeal.
  12. Universalism was least known when Greek, the language of the New Testament was least known, and when Latin was the language of the Church in its darkest, most ignorant, and corrupt ages.
  13. Not a writer among those who describe the heresies of the first three hundred years intimates that Universalism was then a heresy, though it was believed by many, if not by a majority, and certainly by the greatest of the fathers.
  14. Not a single creed for five hundred years expresses any idea contrary to universal restoration, or in favor of endless punishment.
  15. 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.
  16. While the councils that assembled in various parts of Christendom, anathematized every kind of doctrine supposed to be heretical, no oecumenical council, for more than five hundred years, condemned Universalism, though it had been advocated in every century by the principal scholars and most revered saints.
  17. As late as A.D. 400, Jerome says "most people" (plerique). and Augustine "very many" (quam plurimi), believed in Universalism, notwithstanding that the tremendous influence of Augustine, and the mighty power of the semi-pagan secular arm were arrayed against it.
  18. The principal ancient Universalists were Christian born and reared, and were among the most scholarly and saintly of all the ancient saints.
  19. The most celebrated of the earlier advocates of endless punishment were heathen born, and led corrupt lives in their youth. Tertullian one of the first, and Augustine, the greatest of them, confess to having been among the vilest.
  20. The first advocates of endless punishment, Minucius Felix, Tertullian and Augustine, were Latins, ignorant of Greek, and less competent to interpret the meaning of Greek Scriptures than were the Greek scholars.
  21. The first advocates of Universalism, after the Apostles, were Greeks, in whose mother-tongue the New Testament was written. They found their Universalism in the Greek Bible. Who should be correct, they or the Latins?
  22. The Greek Fathers announced the great truth of universal restoration in an age of darkness, sin and corruption. There was nothing to suggest it to them in the world's literature or religion. It was wholly contrary to everything around them. Where else could they have found it, but where they say they did, in the Gospel?
  23. All ecclesiastical historians and the best Biblical critics and scholars agree to the prevalence of Universalism in the earlier centuries.
  24. From the days of Clement of Alexandria to those of Gregory of Nyssa and Theodore of Mopsuestia (A.D. 180-428), the great theologians and teachers, almost without exception, were Universalists. No equal number in the same centuries were comparable to them for learning and goodness.
  25. The first theological school in Christendom, that in Alexandria, taught Universalism for more than two hundred years.
  26. In all Christendom, from A.D. 170 to 430, there were six Christian schools. Of these four, the only strictly theological schools, taught Universalism, and but one endless punishment.
  27. The three earliest Gnostic sects, the Basilidians, the Carpocratians and the Valentinians (A.D. 117-132) are condemned by Christian writers, and their heresies pointed out, but though they taught Universalism, that doctrine is never condemned by those who oppose them. Irenaeus condemned the errors of the Carpocratians, but does not reprehend their Universalism, though he ascribes the doctrine to them.
  28. The first defense of Christianity against Infidelity (Origen against Celsus) puts the defense on Universalistic grounds. Celsus charged the Christians' God with cruelty, because he punished with fire. Origen replied that God's fire is curative; that he is a "Consuming Fire," because he consumes sin and not the sinner.
  29. Origen, the chief representative of Universalism in the ancient centuries, was bitterly opposed and condemned for various heresies by ignorant and cruel fanatics. He was accused of opposing Episcopacy, believing in pre-existence, etc., but never was condemned for his Universalism. The very council that anathematized "Origenism" eulogized Gregory of Nyssa, who was explicitly a Universalist as was Origen. Lists of his errors are given by Methodius, Pamphilus and Eusebius, Marcellus, Eustathius and Jerome, but Universalism is not named by one of his opponents. Fancy a list of Ballou's errors and his Universalism omitted; Hippolytus (A.D. 320) names thirty-two known heresies, but Universalism is not mentioned as among them. Epiphanius, "the hammer of heretics," describes eighty heresies, but he does not mention universal salvation, though Gregory of Nyssa, an outspoken Universalist, was, at the time he wrote, the most conspicuous figure in Christendom.
  30. Justinian, a half-pagan emperor, who attempted to have Universalism officially condemned, lived in the most corrupt epoch of the Christian centuries. He closed the theological schools, and demanded the condemnation of Universalism by law; but the doctrine was so prevalent in the church that the council refused to obey his edict to suppress it. Lecky says the age of Justinian was "the worst form civilization has assumed."
  31. The first clear and definite statement of human destiny by any Christian writer after the days of the Apostles, includes universal restoration, and that doctrine was advocated by most of the greatest and best of the Christian Fathers for the first five hundred years of the Christian Era.
A careful study of the early history of the Christian religion, will show that the doctrine of universal restoration was least prevalent in the darkest, and prevailed most in the most enlightened, of the earliest centuries--that it was the prevailing doctrine in the Primitive Christian Church.
The full book is available here:


Anonymous said...


Wow — what an extensive laying out of the grounds for Universalism.

You've quite obviously expended a great deal of effort to assemble these unassailable tidbits to point out the Universalism of early Christendom. The state-imposed dogma of Eternal Torment never set well with me either intellectually or spiritually. More importantly, in my heart of hearts, I know that it is not Jesus' Way, because fundamentally God is Love.

Thanks for this highly informative post.

Br. Aidan-Boniface, SSF

Bern Zumpano said...

Dear are to be congratulated on your excellent scholarship in confirming the Truth that the Endtime earthly church does not even know the Gospel of Truth ( 1 Tim. 4:10), and instead preaches the Gospel of Augustine ( Mt. 25:34-44). Few realize that everybody's New Testament has two separate and distinct Gospels of Salvation. Augustines' is the counterfeit, yet the one primarily preached by the "church". May I suggest that you change the title of your website "The Beautiful Heresy....", or put quotes around "Heresy" . Although the message is beautiful, it is not complimentary to "The True Gospel" to refer to it as a heresy, and I know that you don't intend it to be construed that way. Yet, some people will. I invite you to visit our website where we have posted 43 audio teachings on The Restoration of All . Congratulations again. Good job, well done! - Bern Zumpano
Word of Faith Ministries International
The School of Ministry
Miami, Florida, USA

new paradigm thinkers said...

Thanks for a great article Brain.
Bern Zumpano, hanks for he reference to your audio!
new paradigm thinkers-the Grace ministry of Andre Oosthizen

VC said...

I have discovered a new book about the early church. It turns the traditional views of what happened on their heads. In his new book,Cover-Up: How the Church Silenced Jesus's True Heirs , Lawrence Goudge proposes that "Today’s mainstream church is the true heretic since it adopted the new religion of the dying God which arose from Paul’s visions. Peter James and John and their heirs, the Jewish followers of Jesus rejected it. Preserving the beliefs and practices of Jesus. they strove to create the kingdom of God here on earth. A new book, Cover-Up: How the Church Silenced Jesus's True Heirs, exposes the church's hypocrisy in first silencing those who truly followed Jesus and then exterminating them, just as they did the Cathars. Mr. Goudge does the world a service in revealing who to followers of
Jesus were. Then I found the book at:"

Craig Bracy said...

An interesting study of church history. However, it is still very unconvincing for me as a sound biblically based doctrine. However, I will agree with some of your thoughts on ET eternal torment. Recently I just finished a great book by Rev. Paul Humber on the subject of limited punishment called "Terminal Hell / Eternal Paradise" copyright 2013 and I recommend it. It portrays a much more just and merciful creator than ET does and is biblically based as far as I can tell. It is available on

Rev. A. Craig Bracy

Brian D. Smith said...

Thanks Reverend Bracy.

I agree this one article isn't an open and shut case. There is much, much more and it is biblically based.

I believe there probably is limited, corrective punishment. That view makes a lot of sense to me.


Craig Bracy said...

Brian, there's too much in scripture against universal salvation being offered for all, consequently happening for all. The opportunity may be there, but Jesus said broad is the way to destruction and many go there. People have free will and make often bad and irrational choices with permanent consequences. Many are cast into the lake of fire after the white throne judgment according to scripture. There's the parable of the sower, the parable of the separation of sheep and goats, etc. Not all roads lead to heaven and few there be that find the straight and narrow way compared to the majority of humanity.
However, I do believe the soul of man is mortal and not immortal, and therefore the lost humans and fallen angels, after sufficient and just punishment for their sin and crimes, some with few lashes and some with many lashes for the greater sins, will be terminated, annihilated and mercifully put out of their failed, miserable existence.
Last to utterly perish will be Satan himself, with whom sin began and will end after all his followers are destroyed and obliterated in the lake of fire to come, and then Satan himself will be mercifully put out of his agony and evil and sin will cease to embody anyone and therefore cease to exist and the Lord with his saints and holy angels will be all that is left to dwell in the glorious new heaven and earth to come that he will create and bring to past forever.

Everlasting peace in Christ alone,

Rev. A. Craig Bracy

Brian D. Smith said...

Wow, Craig. That type of theology is why I very nearly left Christianity. I appreciate your comments, but I find that to be utterly depressing and makes God a failure for the most part. I don't understand people who embrace that and sign of with "Everlasting peace". That type of thinking made me depressed and nearly suicidal for the first couple of decades of my life.


777VoiceofReason said...

Hi, I was just wondering, if you believe in universal salvation what do you make on the unforgivable sin then? To which Jesus said ppl would not be forgiven in this life or the next? Thanks and Peace.

Brian D. Smith said...

777- I think that passage is better translated as this "age" or the next "age" not this life or the next life.

777VoiceofReason said...

Yes but it says they shall never have forgiveness but face eternal condemnation? Don't get me wrong I love the idea of all peoples being safe. Just wondering how this factors into the equation.

Brian D. Smith said...

It doesn't say "never" at least not in any good translation.

Here is an in depth analysis from a universalist perspective. I don't get all hung up on it because its only one verse and the Bible has some really (really) bad translations out there. The overall theme is every sin will be forgiven. I really don't think God is looking for one loophole that He can use to condemn people eternally.

777VoiceofReason said...

Thanks for the link, will give it a good read. I would love greatly to believe this but sadly it does also say all sins will be forgiven EXCEPT said sin. I honestly hope all sentient beings may come to the peace of love one day in the grand scheme of eternity tbh. Peace to you and thanks for the reply brother ;)

Craig Bracy said...

In order for there to be eternal peace, the eternal peace maker, the Lord, has to be trustworthy and incorruptiable and His word always true. If the Lord broke his promises and was corruptable or impotent, then there would just be eternal mess and nightmare forever and no eternal peace. Not one word or prophecy or promise of properly translated and interpreted scripture can be broken if God is going to be trustworthy and able to give us eternal peace and rest. Hence, when scripture speaks of the unpardonable sin or blasphemy against the Holy Spirit which is rejecting God's love and forgiveness and doubting and questioning His character to the point of not trusting Him or belieiving in Him, the sin is unforgivable in this life or the next. Hell may be terminal rather than eternal, but there must be just punishment for sin and correction where possible. However, due to free will, there will always be those who refuse correction in both the human and angelic realms. There is no other option but to terminate such wilfull humans and angels who choose to persist in selfish evil and hostility toward God and others.

I hope this clarifies the issues for you Brian and helps you to return to orthodox biblical teaching for the salvation of your soul and soundness of your mind. You must not insult God by saying His word is not true. Trust that the Lord is totally loving and totally holy and just and omnipotent. That is the God of the Bible and His word is always trustworth, true, and reliable.

Seek the truth at all times and believe it rather than the clever lies of Satan, the enemy of your soul who hates you with unending hatred,

Rev. A. Craig Bracy

Brian D. Smith said...


With all due respect I must point out that God did not write the Bible, men did. While I do believe that God has (and still does) inspire men to write, I have no reason to believe the Bible is infallible because clearly it is not. And, if it ever were, we have translations of translations of copies. The concept of hell doesn't even appear in the Hebrew scriptures. When they referred to sheol or the grave, they were referring to a shadowy underworld with no sense of judgment. But, up until recently Bible translators chose to put the word "hell" in there.

This particular passage that we are discussing, the "unforgivable" sin has also been mistranslated if it it taken to say never or ever or any such thing.

Believe me I do seek the truth and I look for God speaking in all sorts of ways not just through what some claim to be his word. His word is much larger than the Bible.

I appreciate your concern. I have more peace now than I ever did when I believed the Bible was infallible.

Shawn said...

There are many claims written here with no references so that we can check for ourselves. That in of itself is problematic.

Brian D. Smith said...

The link to the full book is provided. If you doubt any of the claims, feel free to research them.

Joseph and Christi said...

THANK YOU ALL for this wonderful discussion. Its nice to see us humans pondering our creator with open hearts desiring truth.
I am not sure whether or not I agree with his book as I am only about 120 pages into it, but Phillip Prown's New Wine for the End Times does put forth a very well argument that resolves many questions here. The main premise is this: we interpret the Bible, especially the new testament, in the (Greek) mindset of an instant Heaven or Hell after this life that is determined based solely on our life now, which is wrong. Brown explainswe should use the OT view of death to decipher the NT, which does not specify an instant heaven/hell upon death but EVERYONE, good and bad, go to Hades, the place of the dead; and that ALL will be raised in the Millenial Kingdom (MK) with their new body (In Adam all die, Christ all live). It is an exhaustive book that goes in to great details and I haven't read it all, but I have read enough of it to see how applying that understanding (interpreting the NT by the OT not the other way around) to this forum offers plausible resolutions.

For instance, 777, about your unforgivable sin question: yes, denying the work of the HS in your life here is unforgivable, and it will also be unforgivable if it is still maintained in the MK (the next age) resulting in the second death. EVERYONE else (infants, complacent Christians, every other religion, tribal indians who have never heard the name Jesus, etc) will have an opportunity to grow towards the end goal of complete sanctification as described by Jesus (more righteous than the Pharisees; be holy as I am holy) in their new bodies with Christ reigning in the MK.

And Rev. Bracy, many choose the broad way here and now, but maybe not in the next age (aion - the MK) where they will have the same free will to have a clearer choice for what could have such a permanent and devastating result. It is worth mentioning that Brown is not universalist. He says those who knowingly reject God (very knowingly - like in Heb 6 those who have tasted and known God) choose Hell, as would also be the cases with the unforgivable sin in the next life. I personally disagree: even the clearest insight to God here is "dim", and how can you make a decision that could have eternal (negative) consequences during this temporal/unclear life?

I myself am currently in the process of departing from traditional American Heaven/Hell Christianity and applying Romans 5 to my Biblical interpretation.

Craig Bracy said...

There are a lot of things only partially revealed in the OT, such as the Trinity and the work and ministry of Jesus Christ, until clearly revealed in the NT. OT concealed, NT revealed. Scripture is really consistent throughout and it warns of the coming Lake of Fire and divine judgment but points us to God's loving mercy and grace in Christ to all who believe and receive. In Korah's rebellion the earth opened up and they were consumed in fire and swallowed up by the earth. It's a foreshadowing of hell. The OT spoke of people going down into Sheol or the pit or grave. The OT spoke of the resurrection in Job and Daniel. Jesus spoke clearly of hell as unquenchable fire. There is a good book out for the terminal hell view written by Rev. Paul Humber available on I believe it is called Terminal Hell and Eternal Paradise. He has a new book coming out. I could email his draft to you if you are interested. There is an evangelical minority that advocates this perspective on hell. It's a theological possibility in Scripture at least, but not univeralism. I do not believe the Bible teaches universal salvation. God is not willing that any should perish, but we free will and choice. Some of angels fell and many people of their own free will do not listen to or believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ when it is clearly preached. Be careful you are not deceived into rejecting the truth of Scripture and succumb to false teaching. You need to believe and teach the plain, straightforward teaching of the Word of God if you want to stand on solid ground with Him. As scripture says, "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my word will never pass away."

JaredMithrandir said...

I've become a Universalist over the course of the last year. I talk about Soteorlogy mainly on my Sola Scriptura Blog.