I’ve been putting up Christian history "news" posts on my Christian History for Everyman site. That’s not really a blog, though, and I’m learning there are some benefits to the blog setup.
So I’m moving those here, and I’ll just link to them from my Christian history site.
Today, Google Alerts informed me of a blog that I immediately liked (and subscribed to). It turns out the guy, George Sarris, is a professional speaker as well as a trained theologian, so it’s not surprising he’s so interesting. In fact, he has an excellent blog post on the Nicene Creed and unity, a subject on which I wrote an entire book.
But the post I wanted to comment on is called Hell: It Hasn’t Always Been Forever. In it, he writes:
Actually, Origen was not the first or most noted “universalist” in the early years of the Christian Church, and the belief was not a minority view held only by him and a few isolated followers. According to nineteenth century pastor and theologian Edward Beecher (1803-1895) – son of Lyman Beecher, brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, and one time pastor of Park Street Church in Boston – four of the six theological schools in the ancient church favored some form of ultimate restoration, while only one favored endless punishment.
I can’t blame Mr. Sarris for this deceptive piece of information. He did get it from someone else, but this paragraph paints, in my opinion, a very inaccurate picture.
The blog goes on to mention Clement of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa, Basil the Great, and Gregory Nazianzus as fellow universalists, along with Origen.
Let’s take a look at what that really means.
Origen … of Alexandria
Origen belongs to the first half of the 3rd century. Basil and the two Gregories belong to the middle and late 4th century. Further, Basil was the brother of Gregory of Nyssa, and all three were friends. They are also all from the Middle East shortly after the Council of Nicea when the teachings of the church in Alexandria, the place where Origen was trained as a teacher, reigned as the supreme example of intellectual orthodoxy.
Clement of Alexandria was a lot closer to Origen’s time, preceding him by one generation. However, Clement of Alexandria directly trained Origen, who spent most of his adult life in Caesarea only after he was excommunicated by the church in Alexandria. (He was excommunicated for teaching in Caesarea at the invitation of the church in Caesarea. Apparently the bishop of Alexandria at that time was a slave of jealousy. Too bad, a long line of truly gifted and gracious men came after him.)
Clement was one of the most notable teachers of his time, and he helped make Origen one of the most notable teachers of his time. In fact, throughout the third century the church of Alexandria was famous for its scholarly nature and its great teachers, who were all acquainted with and highly influenced by Origen’s writings.
The Influence of Alexandria on Fourth Century Scholars
Thus, it is no surprise, really, that the great controversy which led to the Council of Nicea began in Alexandria. After Nicea, the leader of the orthodox party was Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria. All eastern scholars had to be acquainted with the Alexandrian way of thinking, and those eastern scholars would have included three leading teachers, the friends Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory Nazianzus, and Basil the Great.
The point of all this is that it does no good whatsoever to add the names of Clement, the two Gregories, and Basil to Origen’s name as supporting universal reconciliation. That is not "four schools out of six," but is one stream of thought beginning with Clement and spreading because of the influence of Origen.
Reading History Without Wishful Thinking
If someone wanted to really answer the question of what early Christians believe without muddying the waters by throwing out fancifully speculated numbers like "four schools out of six," he would address Origen’s position in his own time. The fact is, only Clement and Origen make any suggestions of universal reconciliation in their time. There are at least a dozen writers still extant from between A.D. 150 and 250, and it would be no problem to gather quotes proving that all of them believed in eternal punishment after death for the majority of human beings.
These authors can be shown to represent Christianity in general much more than Clement or Origen, who are both known to be willing to speculative on a wide range of subjects. Irenaeus, for example, was raised up under the teaching of Polycarp in Smyrna in Asia Minor, but later was highly influential and involved with many of the western churches because of his stature after he became a missionary to the Gauls in what is now Trier, Germany.
Irenaeus’ apologetic writings are an attempt to keep church leaders holding to the apostolic faith against the powerful influence of mystical, self-centered gnosticism.
Justin Martyr wrote apologetic writings defending Christianity against Roman paganism, and as a traveler he was widely familiar with the faith of the European churches. Theophilus was bishop of Antioch in Asia Minor, the apostle Paul’s home church. His work is an explanation of Christianity written to an unbeliever.
On and on the other writings of Clement and Origen’s time can be shown to have no purpose than to describe and defend Christianity as it was understood by all the apostolic churches in harmony.
Not so Clement and Origen. They were teachers writing instructional books to other believers in which they clearly felt free to interpret the Scriptures as they felt led.
In general, this was not a problem, nor were they under obligation to avoid doing so. Irenaeus, whom I mentioned above, makes it clear in his writings that outside the basics of the apostolic faith, teachers should feel free to speculate as long as they don’t change the nature of the faith itself.
Did Clement and Origen go too far?
Did Clement and Origen go too far by suggesting that the will of God is that all should be redeemed in eternity?
I think so. I think they overstepped their bounds, and I believe that any honest historian has to conclude that they stood alone on several of their views, including the subject of universal reconciliation.
That is not bias on my part. Even by modern standards, I could be labeled a liberal. Personally, I cannot agree with the thought that God would eternally torture people for any reason, and especially not for sins committed during a temporal period on earth. Further, I am a huge fan of Origen. He was one of the most committed, godly men who ever lived, and he was tortured for his faith. He was reliable, faithful, and slow to anger despite opposition from both the world and supposed friends (like the bishop of Alexandria who excommunicated him over jealousy against the will of the church in Caesarea).
Historical (and Apostolic) Christianity
On the other hand, the teaching that only a few find the gate of life came from Jesus himself. I do not believe that any Christian teacher, no matter how gifted, is free to change such basics of the faith. I personally don’t feel free to do so, either. The early churches universally believed that only a few would find the gate of life, and they considered part of the definition of the faith. (e.g., Irenaeus, Against Heresies, I:10:1).
Whether you agree with me on that or not, the point I want to make in this post is that the historical facts say that Origen was alone in his view of universal reconciliation in his time. Adding the names of Clement of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa, Basil the Great, and Gregory Nazianzus to Origen’s and then acting as though this changes anything is an act of historical dishonesty, all the more repugnant because so few Christians are in a position to be able to defend themselves against such chicanery.