When Willow Creek Community Church was celebrating their 20th anniversary, I was a regular attendee. At a celebratory anniversary service, Bill Hybels, the head pastor, shared the story of how WCCC came into being. One of the main driving forces behind the founder’s efforts was the idea that so many people were facing an afterlife of eternal torment because they had not come to faith in Jesus Christ. I remember him talking about all night prayer sessions in which this issue brought people to tears and God was begged to allow everyone to hear and be open to his message of saving grace. And despite all the stereotypes about wishy-washy, doctrine-free mega-churches, every single service at WCCC included a plea to accept Jesus as Lord and Savior lest one spend eternity suffering complete separation from God in hell. Other non-denominational Evangelical churches I have attended also included this message in each and every service they held. It’s on their website. It’s part of their statement of belief. Members are told of their responsibility to spread this message to those around them – even if it makes them uncomfortable and unpopular. After all, a person’s eternity is at stake.
Now, if the doctrine of eternal hell were true, one would expect that the early church would put this message front and center in the evangelization efforts as well. Surely those closest to the events, who had access to the apostles or those taught directly by the apostles would recognize how important it was to let people know that they were facing an eternity of torment if they did not convert to Christianity. Surely these people who weren’t at the mercy of translations but were learning the faith in their native tongues would have responded to this teaching as strongly as we do today. And yet, this is simply not the case. In fact, any discussion of the afterlife in very early church writings are surprisingly hard to come by.
To a certain extent this isn’t surprising. When studying the ancient church, and particularly the beliefs/theology of the ancient church, one runs into a number of real obstacles. The largest is that there is a scarcity of material to work from. Some texts that were widely read in the early church no longer exist and we know of them only because they are quoted in a few works we still have access to. The burning of the library at Alexandria destroyed the main repository of early Christian writings. Many of the texts burned were the only copies in existence. And starting around the 6th and 7th century, it became standard practice for theologians to burn texts which did not agree with the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, given the difficulties, what is really remarkable is that the prevalence of Universalism in the early church remains so apparent.
Universalism Among Early Christian Schools
Within the first century after the death of Christ the church became more organized. They quickly recognized the need to properly educate leaders and defend the young religion against heresies, the influence of surrounding religions and criticisms against the church by existing religions of the day. Fairly quickly, there arose 6 schools of divinity in the ancient world. The largest was the famous school in Alexandria. Others were found in Caesera, Rome, Antioch, Eddessa and Ephesus. Of these four were strictly Universalist – Alexandria, Caesera, Antioch and Eddessa. One taught the eventual annihilation of the wicked – Ephesus. Eternal torment in hell for the wicked was taught by the Roman school (which by most accounts was a small seminary, not an actual divinity school). So it’s not an exaggeration to say that universal salvation was taught and believed by the vast majority of the early church. Eternal hell, however, was a small minority position.
In reading early church writings, another difficulty the modern reader interesting in this subject runs into is the same issue of how to define the word “aion” that we spoke about earlier in this series. If you read only translations or accept the normal meaning of the word aion to be “eternal”, then it is easy enough to find the doctrine of eternal hell in early Christian writings. However, the reality is that among those who explicitly taught universalism (the eventual salvation of all) and annihilation, this word “aion” and its derivatives are used in exactly the same way that we see in scripture. So, for example, a writer like Origen whose entire theology was built around the idea of universal restoration and salvation speaks of “aionian fire” and “aionian punishment.” Same with Clement of Alexandria, another infamous universalist. Same thing with the well known annihilationist Justin Martyr. This alone shows the unmistakable fact that these people (who were writing in their native tongue) did not understand aion to mean eternal at all.
On the other hand, the first person we have on record teaching the doctrine of eternal hell was a gem of a fellow named Tertullian. Tertullian lived around 200-220 AD and despite being a revered father of the Latin/Roman church was not known to be a man much interested in love or forgiveness. For example, he had this lovely bit of teaching for the pagans who opposed him:
“You are fond of your spectacles, but there are other spectacles; that day disbelieved, derided by the nations, the last and eternal day of judgment, when all ages shall be swallowed up in one conflagration; what a variety of spectacles shall then appear! How shall I admire, how laugh, how rejoice, how exult, when I behold so many kings, and false gods in heaven, together with Jove himself, groaning in the lowest abyss of darkness! – so many magistrates, who persecuted the name of the Lord, liquefying in fiercer flames than they ever kindled against Christians; so many sage philosophers blushing in raging fire, with their scholars whom they persuaded to despise God, and to disbelieve the resurrection; and so many poets shuddering before the tribunal, not of Rhadamanthus, not of Minos, but of the disbelieved Christ! Then shall we hear the tragedians more tuneful in the expression of their own sufferings; then shall we see the dancers far more sprightly amidst the flames; the charioteer all red-hot in his burning car; and the wrestlers hurled, not upon the accustomed list, but upon a plain of fire.”
So, unlike most of the rest of the church who taught that the fire of hell was spiritual and redemptive in nature, Tertullian spoke with great satisfaction of the gruesome torment of not only the wicked, but philosophers and theologians who argued with him. Elsewhere he says he expects to look down from heaven at those in hell and laugh at their suffering. Compare this attitude to say, Christ on the cross (Father, forgive them.) or even the many martyred universalists of the early church who prayed for those who murdered them as they were put to death. By their fruits you will know them.
Was Universalism a Heresy?
At any rate, the most telling indication of just how accepted the teaching of universal salvation was in the early church was the fact that it was never named as a heresy until well into the 6th century. And only then at the instructions of Emporer Justinian. For example, the early church spent a good deal of time arguing against gnostic heresies. We know that the three main branches of Gnosticism were all universalistic in their teachings about the afterlife. Yet no where is universal salvation ever listed among their heresies. Likewise Origen – a good strong Christian man who was known during his life and for centuries afterward as a great light of Christianity. Origen was considered the most learned man of his days and is said to have written over 6000 books, tracts and essays on Christianity. After his death, there were those who spent a good deal of time picking through his writings and finding things which were not strictly orthodox. Some of them were even official condemned by the Roman Church. But his universalism was never even named, much less condemned as a heresy.
The beginning of the end of universalism as a commonly accepted doctrine was Augustine(354-430). Frankly, I’ve never been able to understand people’s affection for Augustine. Many of his teachings such as the damnation of stillborn infants, sex as a minor sin within marriage and his glaring dualism are all appalling and ought not be excused by Christians, IMO. Augustine was an heir both spiritually and clerically to that charming man Tertullian. He was trained at the seminary which Tertullian had been head of. And like Tertullian, Augustine was a firm proponent of eternal hell. Augustine was also unable to read Greek. He had tried to learn it at one point, but hated it, preferring Latin. However, even Augustine admitted that his view was a minority view among Christians at the time. In fact, he says that those who teach universalism are orthodox in their belief, although he held them to be mistaken and too tender hearted.
Unfortunately, Augustine was the wave of the future. As Latin became the language of learning and power and Greek fell away, more and more people relied on translations of scripture which conflated terms such as aion and adeleiptos. When Emperor Justinian convened the Council of Constantinople in 553, the teaching of universal salvation was declared heresy. It was a small, local council and Justinian wrote the language to be included which declared universalism anathema. The Eastern Church had recently broken away from the Roman church and was not party to this council. In fact although the Eastern Church doesn’t teach universalism, it has never condemned it as a heresy. It is allowed as a possibility, although one that has been much argued against. (By and large, there’s a lot more tolerance for a variety of ideas and mystery in the Eastern Church than in the Western Church.)
Nevertheless, once universalism had been declared a heresy, it was harder to teach and largely fell away. There have been universalists in every age, of course. The discovery of a great many texts in their original Greek sparked a good sized movement to defend and resurrect universalism in the 1800s. Unfortunately, the movement largely died out with the rise of fundamentalism. In a time when an onslaught of new discoveries seemed to threaten Christian teachings, radically re-thinking the doctrine of eternal hell couldn’t hold a candle to the lure of fundamentalism. Only those who were most open-minded would consider the arguments and in time they got absorbed into Unitarian Universalism. Fortunately, the excruciatingly detailed writings these 19th century universalists left behind have lead to yet another awakening of this timeless teaching. That God really does win. That Jesus’ work really will be to even greater effect than the sin of Adam which we all share. And that in God’s kingdom, nothing and no one is beyond salvation. Fortunately, it’s a truth that just won’t die.
Further reading on this subject: