Philosophize about the world or worlds; about matter; about soul; about natures endowed with reason, good or bad; about resurrection, about judgment, about reward, or the Sufferings of Christ. For in these subjects to hit the mark is not useless, and to miss it is not dangerous.
–St. Gregory the Theologian (Oration 27)
If one were to ask me a few years ago if I would ever take universalism (apokatastasis) seriously, I would have immediately said no. However, at the time, I would say I never honestly investigated the claims precisely because I did not take it seriously. Now that I am older, a little wiser and more informed, my zealous ignorance has taken a back seat for the sake of an honest evaluation of a teaching that was held by more church fathers than people want to admit. Most people know about big two: Origen and St Gregory of Nyssa, but many others also either believed in the universal restoration of all things, or stated things with Universalist implications. I will make a list below:
- Theophilus of Antioch – “And God showed great kindness to man, in this, that He did not suffer him to continue being in sin forever; but as it were, by a kind of banishment, cast him out of paradise in order that, having punishment expiated within an appointed time, and having been disciplined, he should afterwards be recalled…just as a vessel, when one being fashioned it has some flaw, is remolded or remade that it may become new and entire; so also it happens to man by death. For he is broken up by force, that in the resurrection he may be found whole; I mean spotless, righteous and immortal.”
- St Clement of Alexandria – “We can set no limits to the agency of the Redeemer to redeem, to rescue, to discipline in his work, and so will he continue to operate after this life.” He also said, “All men are Christ’s, some by knowing Him, the rest not yet. He is the Savior, not of some and the rest not. For how is He Savior and Lord, if not the Savior and Lord of all?”
- Origen of Alexandria – “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 everyman. The consummation of all things is the destruction of evil…to quote Zephaniah: “My determination to gather the nations, that I am assemble the kings, to pour upon them mine indignation, even say all my fierce anger, for all the earth shall be devoured with the fire of my jealousy. For then will I turn to the people a pure language that they may all call upon the name of the Lord, to serve Him with one consent”…Consider carefully the promise, that all shall call upon the Name of the Lord, and serve him with one consent.”
- Theodore of Mopsuestia – “The wicked who have committed evil the whole period of their lives shall be punished till they learn that, by continuing in sin, they only continue in misery. And when, by this means, they shall have been brought to fear God, and to regard Him with good will, they shall obtain the enjoyment of His grace.”
- Diodore of Tarsus – “For the wicked there are punishments, not perpetural, however, lest the immortality prepared for them should be a disadvantage, but they are to be purified for a brief period according to the amount of malice in their works. They shall therefore suffer punishment for a short space, but immortal blessedness having no end awaits them…the penalties to be inflicted for their many and grave sins are very far surpassed by the magnitude of the mercy to be showed to them.”
- St Macrina the Younger – “The Word seems to me to lay down the doctrine of the perfect obliteration of wickedness, for if God shall be in all things that are, obviously wickedness shall not be in them. For it is necessary that at some time evil should be removed utterly and entirely from the realm of being.”
- St Gregory of Nyssa – “For it is evident that God will in truth be all 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.” He also says elsewhere, “Wherefore, that at the same time liberty of free-will should be left to nature and yet the evil be purged away, the wisdom of God discovered this plan; to suffer man to do what he would, that having tasted the evil which he desired, and learning by experience for what wretchedness he had bartered away the blessings he had, he might of his own will hasten back with desire to the first blessedness …either being purged in this life through prayer and discipline, or after his departure hence through the furnace of cleansing fire.”
- St Jerome (before the Origenist crisis) – “The nations are gathered to the Judgment, that on them may be poured out the wrath of the fury of the Lord, and this in pity and with a design to heal. in order that every one may return to the confession of the Lord, that in Jesus’ Name every knee may bow, and every tongue may confess that He is Lord. All God’s enemies shall perish, not that they cease to exist, but cease to be enemies.” He also says, “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.”
- Eusebius of Caesarea – “The Son “breaking in pieces” His enemies is for the sake of remolding them, as a potter his own work; as Jeremiah 18:6 says: to restore them once again to their former state.”
- Didymus the Blind – “Mankind, being reclaimed from their sins, are to be subjected to Christ in he fullness of the dispensation instituted for the salvation of all.”
- Evagrius Ponticus
- Theodoret of Cyrus – “In the present life God is in all, for His nature is without limits, but he is not all in all. But in the coming life, when mortality is at an end and immortality granted, and sin has no longer any place, God will be all in all. For the Lord, who loves man, punishes medicinally, that He may check the course of impeity.”
- St Isaac the Syrian – “I am of the opinion that He is going to manifest some wonderful outcome, a matter of immense and ineffable compassion on the part of the glorious Creator, with respect to the ordering of this difficult matter of (Gehenna’s) torment: out of it the wealth of His love and power and wisdom will become known all the more—and so will the insistent might of the waves of his goodness.”
There are those who are in the realm of sympathetic but not an explicit supporter, such as Sts Gregory the Theologian, Ambrose of Milan, and Maximus the Confessor. I also do not know how many of the above quotes can actually be verified, as I am simply presenting information that currently circulates around the internet.
First, we must define what universalism is and is not, because Protestants like Rob Bell have caused a lot of controversy in modern times, and all the cultural chatter has clouded the information. I’ll tread carefully, because I want to avoid straw man arguments and get to the heart of what the Universalist believes.
Universalism is the teaching that is primarily founded in the words of scripture which says how “Christ must reign until all enemies are put under his feet,” (1 Cor 15:25) and that “God may be all in all” (1 Cor 15:28). However, there are many misconceptions about this teaching, and the majority of popular Christianity simply does not understand it, and mostly because they do not want to understand it. Thus, I will present some arguments against Universalism that any honest theologian will find to be lacking in weight:
1. “Universalists don’t believe in hell.”
When most Christians hear the term universalism, they interpret it to be a denial of hell. However, this is not actually true. Universalism does not deny the existence of hell, it denies the eternality of hell. From the Universalist perspective, the fires of hell are inherently pedagogical; inherently sanctifying. Instead of believing in (1) heaven (the place of the righteous), (2) hell (the place of the unrighteous), and (3) purgatory (the place of those being made righteous), it could be said that Universalists believe only in (1) heaven and (2) a hell that is purgatory. Hell is like a self-created prison, but prisons in our world have the option to support its prisoners with behavioral therapy. A prison should not be understood to be a punitive torture chamber, but a temporary rehabilitative quarantine. Since the heart of God is such that desires that none should perish (2 Pet 3:9), it is unthinkable that God would remove the ‘therapy sessions’ when He is warden. Those therapy sessions are the prayers of the saints, and to the Universalist, they will continue unto the ages until every last person leaves the cell of his own accord.
2. “Universalism imposes itself upon the free will of mankind.”
Another misconception about universalism is that it implies a monergistic framework. Just because someone believes all of mankind will be saved does not mean they also believe God forced them into the kingdom against their will (Though, I might add, going the other direction does follow, since a monergistic framework with its destination somewhere other than universalism has serious implications on the character of God). All patristic Universalists were Synergists; believing that all mankind will eventually choose God of their own will (with some help from the prayers of the saints, of course).
3. “Universalists don’t care about the Bible.”
On top of these misconceptions is the idea that Universalists do not care about the Bible. “How could they? They reject such obvious passages about the eternality of hell,” right? Well, no. That’s not necessarily true. Universalists simply interpret “aeon” to mean a long undetermined amount of time rather than something literally without an end. If one were to live 10,000,000,000 years, there is no perceivable difference between that and an infinite amount of years. Both could be described as an eternity from the person’s perspective. Thus, the Universalist takes the perspective that when scripture says people suffer torment for eternity, it is a reflection of how such an experience feels, not how it exists in any objective sense within time. Perhaps it would be fair to say the Universalist would say “eternal” is a misleading English translation, and it rather means something more like “an immeasurable period of time.”
4. “Universalism was already condemned at the Fifth Ecumenical council.”
Technically, this is not true. In my article “Examining the Origenist Controversy,” I point out how modern scholarship is essentially unanimous in its conclusion that the fifteen anathemas against Origen were a forgery, with the leading conclusion being that Emperor Justinian was responsible for retrospectively adding them. I have even read that modern versions of the text omit that section entirely. Therefore, such a punch is now understood to not have any Ecumenical weight behind it, and it is an opinion that persists based on a blind faith that it is correct. One might say, “but it was condemned at local councils,” to which I could say, “and the filioque was accepted at local councils.”
The Universalist Majority
In the work “De Asceticis,” St Basil allegedly states, “The mass of men say there is to be an end to punishment and to those who are punished.” St Augustine concurs by allegedly saying, “There are very many in our day, who though not denying the Holy Scriptures, do not believe in endless torments.” In his commentary on Jonah, St Jerome is also consistent with this when he said, “I know that most persons understand by the story of Nineveh and its king, the ultimate forgiveness of the devil and all rational creatures.” If these statements can be confirmed, it would certainly be true to say that the majority of Christians at least around the time of the fourth and fifth centuries held to an eschatological perspective that all creatures will eventually be fully restored through Christ.
Wherefore also He drove him out of Paradise, and removed him far from the tree of Life, not because He envied him the tree of Life, as some dare to assert, but because He pitied him and desired that he should not continue always a sinner, and that sin which surrounded him should not be immortal, and that the evil interminable and irremediable.
–St. Irenaeus of Lyons (Against Heresies, Book III, 23.6)
It could be argued that the universalist framework of Origen (and others) came from not merely the philosophical world (as many would neatly summarize), but also elements within earlier theologians like St Irenaeus. Irenaeus says that Adam was removed from paradise (Eden) to be separated from the tree of Life. However, it was a pedagogical mercy, not a punitive judgment. God wanted humanity to have the possibility of a full restoration, and Irenaeus specifically says that God did not want evil to be without remedy. This quote does not necessitate a universalist reading, but it could certainly drive a universalist reading.
Interestingly enough, Origen and others did not think that universalism should be included in evangelistic conversation. From what I can gather, it is essentially because economy (oikonomia) should always take priority over a firm stance on doctrine (akrivia). They were fully aware of how such a teaching could be interpreted by certain people in a way that tempts them to not take the spiritual life seriously:
But the remarks which might be made on this topic are neither to be made at all… [but] for the sake of those who are with difficulty restrained, even by fear of eternal punishment, from plunging into any degree of wickedness, and into the flood of evils which result from sin.
–Origen (Against Celsus, 6:26)
All of which nevertheless they allow should not now be openly told to those with whom fear yet acts as a motive, and who may be kept from sinning by the terror of punishment. But this question we ought to leave to the wisdom of God alone, whose judgments as well as mercies are by weight and measure, and who, well knows whom and how long, He ought to judge.
–St. Jerome (Commentary on Isaiah, Book 18, cap. 66)
However, just because a doctrine has potential to be taken wrongly does not mean the doctrine itself is automatically heretical. If such a thing were true, the understanding of eternal torment would have the same problem, because some people even today interpret it to mean that God is unjust, and therefore such a God cannot exist, and therefore religion is pointless. However, this evangelical caution from Origen and Jerome is something that I believe needs further study, because it sounds quite nuanced and self-aware. Perhaps Universalists interpreted eternal torment within the framework of economy for the spiritually immature (that the average person might be kept from sin), but universalism within the framework of a speculative spiritual awareness that is edifying only for the spiritually and intellectually mature.
The Divine Liturgy
For any doctrine to have any importance at the end of the day, it must always find foundation within the liturgy. The question is, can the Universalist make a case for their understanding from the liturgy? When it comes to the things for which we ask of the Lord’s mercy, the deacon prays the following prayer multiple times throughout the liturgy:
For the peace of the whole world, for the welfare of the holy churches of God, and for the union of all, let us pray to the Lord.
Elsewhere in the Divine Liturgy, the priest prays the Trisagion prayer:
O Holy God…who hast created man after Thine own image and likeness, and hast adorned him with Thine every gift, who givest to him who asks wisdom and understanding, who dost not despise the sinner, but instead hast appointed repentance unto salvation.
Later on in the liturgy, we as the Lord to have mercy on specific people: Bishops, Priests, Deacons, and all clergy, all brethren in Christ, the president, all civil authorities, the armed forces, Orthodox patriarchs, founders of parishes; all our fathers and brethren, all Orthodox who departed this life before us, etc. However, after asking God to forgive both voluntary and involuntary sins (for Christians who have fallen asleep in the Lord) in the litany for the departed, the priest exposes the reason why God forgives us:
For Thou art a good God and lovest mankind, because there is no man who lives yet does not sin, for Thou only art without sin, Thy righteousness is to all eternity, and Thy word is truth.
During the Great Entrance section of the liturgy, the priest says:
The noble Joseph, when he had taken down Thy most pure Body from the tree, wrapped it in fine linen and anointed it with spices, and placed it in a new tomb. In the tomb with the body and in hell with the soul, in paradise with the thief and on the throne with the Father and the Spirit, wast Thou, O boundless Christ, filling all things. Bearing life and more fruitful than paradise, brighter than any royal chamber: Thy tomb, O Christ, is the fountain of our resurrection.
When commenting on the Latin doctrine of purgatory, St Mark of Ephesus said some saints, by their prayer (synergistically aligned with the loving heart of Christ), saved even pagans (who had not repented before they died) from hell. Thus, if one can conclude that the forgiveness of sins after death it is consistent with Orthodoxy, it seems unreasonable to think people will stop actively trying to make universalism a reality.
Personally, I do not identify as a Universalist, so I do not want people to get the impression I am trying to sell it, as I am merely presenting the objective patristic data. If I were to gauge where I am on this topic, I would probably have one arm around the neck of St Basil, and the other arm around the neck of St Gregory the Theologian, while being engaged in a pleasant eschatological conversation with St Gregory of Nyssa. I have my own reasons for disagreeing, but I’ve gotten less vocal about it. I would probably be much more zealous in my rejection of universalism, if it were not for the liturgy making a hypocrite out of me. I say evil people who reject God will not be saved, yet I pray for the salvation of those same evil people who reject God even after they die. I have heard that there are even monks on Mount Athos who pray for the devil. Is it any wonder why Fr. Sergius Bulgakov arrived at such a place? Like Moses, it is the heart of love that persistently seeks to change God’s mind (so to speak) to actually give people precisely what they don’t deserve (Exo 32:14). This Mosaic prayer is constantly uttered unto God by the saints on behalf of all humanity. If any man desires to condemn the sinner, rather than to forgive him, scripture cries out to the hypocrite, “and such were some of you!” (1 Cor 6:11).
Therefore, I’ve come to the place where I do not think any Christian should zealously condemn the very hope we all share. To borrow from St Gregory the Theologian, I think, on this subject, “to hit the mark is not useless, and to miss it is not dangerous.” It seems to me that we are all functionally Universalist already, but perhaps being a Universalist is not about any of this. Perhaps it is about simply believing that the Father was really listening when the Son prayed on behalf of the entire human race, saying,
…Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do… (Luke 23:34)
I suppose one could only hope.