That Jesus saves is not disputed among true believers. Yet there are those who would suggest that only some will actually be saved (particularism), and others who say that all of humanity eventually will be saved (universalism). In theology, there are three areas in which a decision is needed between these two views. They relate respectively to the range of appeal, the intention and provision of God, and the extent of the actual attainment of salvation.
The Range Of Appeal
It should be abundantly clear that the gospel’s range of appeal is indeed universal. Jesus commissioned his followers to “make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19), to “preach the gospel to all creation” (Mark 16:15), to preach “repentance and forgiveness of sins to all nations” (Luke 24:47, cf. Mark 13:10). Paul declared that “God commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30).
The early church had difficulty accepting this design. Their Jewish background predisposed them to think that in order to be incorporated into the church of Christ one must have first been accepted within the Jewish covenant community. Yet the Book of Acts, especially in chapters 2–15, shows how the Holy Spirit guided the church to receive people of an ever-widening circle as fellow members of the body of Christ. This was anticipated in the miracle of the many languages of Pentecost, but it was articulated in the movement from Hebraic Jews to Grecian Jews (Acts 6 and 7), to Samaritans (Acts 8:1–25), to a proselyte (Acts 8:26–40), to a heathen, Cornelius, to whom God specifically directed Peter to preach (Acts 10 and 11), and to heathens who were approached without a special mandate of God (Acts 11:20–23). The council of Jerusalem approved the principle of accepting into the church any person, irrespective of background, on the basis of repentance and faith in Christ. Indeed, the transition from a particularistic call through the nation of Israel to a universalistic call is one of the significant differences between the Old Testament and the New Testament, as John Calvin aptly remarked in his Institutes.
It is not necessary to believe (as many do) that in order for God to offer a sincere, universal invitation to salvation it is necessary for him also to assure a provision that everyone will accept the invitation. In the first place, it is quite apparent from the Scripture that the scope of the call and that of the divine choice are profoundly different: “There are many called, but few chosen” (Matt. 22:14). Furthermore, the well-meant character of an offer does not depend upon the provision marshaled. Instead, it merely requires that if the terms of the offer are observed, the benefit proffered is in fact granted.
It is therefore by a flaw of logic that some advocates of definite atonement (also known as “limited atonement”) have contended that a genuine offer of the gospel can be extended only to the elect. A similar fault flaws the argument of those who hold that a universal provision is indispensable for a genuine universal offer.
The Intention And Provision Of God
Those of strictly Reformed persuasion embrace particularism, in which the purpose of Christ’s work concurs precisely with God’s elective purpose and the Holy Spirit’s saving action. The great majority of Christendom, however, adheres to the view that Christ died for the sins of the whole human race without exception. It has been customary in Reformed circles to call this position “hypothetical universalism,” because it posits a universal divine intention to save on the condition of repentance and faith. That is to say, if only human beings would repent and believe, they would be saved. In a very general way, this is the position of the Roman Catholic church, of Eastern Orthodoxy as well as its heterodox offshoots of the Lutheran church, of the Arminian movement in all its forms, of Amyraldism in Reformed circles, and of a number of individual Reformed theologians such as J. Ussher, R. Baxter, E. Polhill, E. Calamy, M. Martinius, R. Wardlaw, James Morison, A. Hovey, A. H. Strong, L. S. Chafer, N. Douty, and M. Erickson.
Those who advocate universal atonement advance passages that are construed to teach a universal saving will in God (Ezek. 18:23, 32; John 3:16; 1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9). They insist that some for whom Christ died may, or even will, perish (Rom. 14:15; 1 Cor. 8:11; Heb. 10:29). And they suggest that the saving work of Christ was done for all (Isa. 53:6; Rom. 5:18; 1 Cor. 15:22); for everyone (Heb. 2:9); for “whoever” (John 3:16; Rev. 22:17); for the world (John 1:29; 2 Cor. 5:19; 1 John 2:2; 4:14).
On the other hand, the upholders of particular redemption point out that a number of these passages occur in a context that relates to people who are actually redeemed, or that the statements made do not merely affirm that Christ accomplished his work for the benefit of those mentioned, but that these actually received salvation (John 1; Rom. 5; 1 Cor. 15). Furthermore, there are passages where Christ’s specific purpose is presented as giving himself for his people (Matt. 1:21), his church (Acts 20:28), his sheep (John 10:11, 15), and his friends (John 15:13). These passages do not necessarily exclude anyone not expressly mentioned, but they are quoted to indicate the particular intent of God for those who are elect.
Many other arguments may be advanced to support the idea of particular redemption. Consider the words used to describe the work of Christ: redemption, reconciliation, propitiation. All involve the actual attainment of salvation, not merely the creation of a potential for it. Also, penal substitution, which is at the heart of the Atonement, implies all those for whom Christ died will in fact be saved, since no sin would remain to their charge. Finally, particular redemption manifests the unity of purpose between the Father who elects, the Son who redeems, and the Holy Spirit who applies salvation.
The Attainment Of Salvation
Who, then, actually will be saved? To answer, we must first determine whether evil is a permanent feature of the universe, or whether it will be completely eliminated at some future time. The latter option characterizes various forms of universalism (see chart below).
Materialism is obviously out of harmony with Scripture since it ignores the most important element in human nature: the soul (Matt. 10:28). Further, it is closed to the hope of any significant destiny beyond the grave. It is a pity that in a secularist and materialistic age like the present there are so many whose expectations do not rise above this.
Idealism makes a similar error by failing to recognize a future destiny for the human body. Here we move in the realm of Greek philosophical speculation in line with Plato’s Phaedo rather than in a biblical frame of reference. Although idealism, like Christianity, places great emphasis on spiritual realities, it is fundamentally opposed to the Christian view of humanity.
The same comment would apply to the Barthian view that the future destiny of humankind means simply that we are remembered by God, and not that we have an individual concrete existence beyond the grave. This outlook not only nullifies the resurrection (including the resurrection of Christ), but renders history insignificant, as being merely a passageway between an eternal pre-existence in the mind of God who foreknows all things, and an eternal future in his memory. It flatly contradicts passages like 1 Corinthians 15:51–53 and 1 Thessalonians 4:15–18.
There is no significant difference between conditional immortality and annihilationism regarding the destiny of those who are not redeemed: in both outlooks they cease to exist. The difference relates to the natural endowments of human nature. The conditionalists consider immortality a boon that was proffered to Adam and Eve as a reward for obedience, forfeited by their rebellion, and made available again only in Christ. Those, therefore, who are not found in Christ inevitably fall into nonexistence, either immediately at death or after a limited period of conscious punishment after death.
Annihilationists, on the other hand, would readily ascribe immortality to human nature as a constituent element. Our first parents’ sinful rebellion forfeited this endowment, so that those naturally destined to immortality are now exposed to a process of erosion and attrition culminating in nonexistence. Or again, they are reduced to nonbeing by a special act of God canceling out an existence that could only be viewed as a calamity.
Often the difference between conditionalism and annihilationism is not observed, and the two terms are commonly used as synonyms.
Here, then, are the major arguments and problems concerning the cessation of existence of the reprobates:
- God alone has immortality (1 Tim. 1:17; 5:16). This argument, if it proves anything, proves too much, since no one wants to deny that God confers immortality on holy angels and on redeemed humanity. God alone has life and immortality in himself (John 5:26), but this does not mean that he has not conferred endless existence as a natural endowment to his rational creatures. In Scripture, death is presented as the punishment for sin (Gen. 2:17; Rom. 5:12; 1 Cor. 15:22) rather than immortality the reward for obedience.
- Immortality is a special gift connected with redemption in Jesus Christ (Rom. 2:7; 1 Cor. 15:53–54; 2 Tim. 1:10). Granted such passages represent life and immortality as the privileged possession of the redeemed. But in these contexts, these terms do not merely connote continued existence but rather refer to existence in joyful fulfilment of the human high destiny in true fellowship with God (John 17:3).
- Cessation of existence is implied in various Scripture terms applied to the destiny of the impenitent, such as death (Rom. 6:23), destruction (Ps. 21:10; 92:7; Matt. 7:13), and perishing (Ps. 19:9; Luke 13:3, 5; John 3:16). But these expressions do not so much imply annihilation as the complete deprivation of something essential to normal existence. Physical death does not mean that body or soul vanishes away, but rather that an abnormal separation takes place that severs their natural relationship until God’s appointed time. Spiritual death, or “the second death” (Rev. 2:11; 20:6, 14; 21:8), does not mean that the soul or personality lapses into nonexistence, but that it is ultimately and finally bereft of that presence of God and fellowship with him that is the chief end of humanity and the essential condition of worthwhile existence. To be deprived of it is to perish, to sink into abysmal futility. Likewise, an automobile is said to be wrecked, ruined, demolished, “totaled,” not only when its constituent parts have been melted or scattered away, but also when they have been so damaged and twisted that the car has become completely unserviceable.
Conditionalism is intimated in the writings of Arnobius and Lactantius. It was revived by Socinus and has flourished especially in the latter part of the nineteenth century with R. Rothe, C. Secretan, E. Petavel, E. White, C. F. Hudson, J. B. Heard, Henry Constable, and others. Among twentieth-century advocates one may list Eric Lewis, O. Cullmann, and L. E. Froom, noted for his weighty two-volume work The Conditionalist Faith of Our Fathers (Washington: Review and Herald, 1965–66).
These arguments, particularly in view of the reservations indicated above, do not appear sufficient to overcome the substantial weight of evidence supporting an endless conscious sorrow for the wicked. This is further apparent from biblical expressions like “fire unquenchable,” “the worm that does not die,” or “God’s wrath remains on him.” Moreover, it is hard to ignore adjectives like “everlasting” or “forever” when applied to God’s punishment of the unrepentant.
One serious difficulty for those who advocate conditional immortality resides in the fact that the resurrection of the wicked would appear not as the inevitable destiny of human beings but as a special intervention of God made in order to inflict punishment upon them.
Universalism proper envisions the actual redemption of all humans, perhaps even of all rational beings, including Satan. It contrasts sharply with the Judaism of biblical times and with the stance of the earliest church fathers. It was advocated in unmistakable terms by Origen (see p. 36), followed in this by Gregory of Nyssa, Theodore of Mopsuestia, and John Cassian. Certain Middle Ages mystics, such as John Scotus Erigena (see p. 39), Johann Tauler, Jan Van Ruysbroeck, also expressed themselves in this sense, as did Albert the Great. Several theologians in various denominations advocated a final universalism: J. H. Petersen among Lutherans, S. Huber among the Reformed, C. Chauncy among the Congregationalists, E. Winchester among the Baptists, and Archbishop Tillotson in the Church of England. Some of the fountainheads of liberal theology—Kant, Schleiermacher, and Ritschl—are to be counted here as well. In New England, John Murray of Gloucester, Maine (1741–1815), is considered the founder of the Universalist denomination. He was followed by Hosea Ballou (see below), whose influence oriented the whole movement toward Unitarianism, with which it ultimately united forces in 1961.
In the latter part of the nineteenth century there was a considerable surge of universalism, and in 1912, George T. Knight could claim that “there are more Universalists outside the denomination than inside.”
The tendency has accelerated in the twentieth century. Many flatly reject the biblical doctrine of punishment after death, while others have posited a kind of antinomy between restoration of all things and punishment (Urs von Balthasar, K. Rahner, P. Althaus, E. Brunner, K. Barth) in which the latter usually is permitted to wane in favor of the former. In the three last decades, the whole concept of salvation has been reinterpreted as relating to social, political, and economic situations on earth, (liberation theologies), and the biblical message on the after-life was “demythologized.” This is very apparent in some formulations issued by the World Council of Churches; and the presence of this ferment is also traceable in the documents of Vatican II and in the writings of theologians like H. Küng and E. Schillebeeckx.
Universalism and the Bible
Part of the appeal of universalism is its apparent scriptural support. Because of this, the concept of universal salvation has a ring of orthodoxy to it. Consider the manner in which universalists appeal to Scripture:
- They build their case on Scriptures that are construed to teach a universal saving will of God (Ezek. 18:23, 32; John 3:16–17; 1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9).
- They use Scriptures that suggest the death of Christ had a universal intent articulated by the words world, all, everyone, and whoever.
- They quote passages that represent the final state as one of total subservience to God: “the renewal of all things” (Matt. 19:28; Acts 3:21); “all flesh shall see the salvation of the Lord” (Isa. 40:3; 52:10; 62:2; Luke 3:6); “to bring all things in heaven and earth together under one head, even Christ” (Eph. 1:10; cf. Col. 1:20); “that every knee should bow … and every tongue confess …” (Phil. 2:10–11); “He has put everything under his feet” (1 Cor. 15:27–28); “… that God may be all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28).
- They quote passages where death is represented as subdued in the eschaton (1 Cor. 15:26; Rev. 20:14).
These Scriptures, considered in isolation, constitute a fairly strong case, especially when combined with a deep yearning in our hearts for an ultimate abolishment of evil. We do not, however, have the luxury of dealing with any Scripture in isolation. Specifically, we must note the expressions used to denote the fate of the impenitent:
Separation from God. Death and hell can be described as separation from God for whose service we were made, and outside of whom there is nothing but futility and hopeless frustration. In referring to the unrepentant, Jesus said, “Depart from me.” Numerous references in the New Testament support the idea that those who reject Christ are “shut out of the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power” (2 Thess. 1:9).
Destruction and death. This type of language does not so much imply cessation of existence as a complete deprivation of some element essential to normal and fruitful existence. This total waste is perhaps the basis for the use of the word gehenna, the Jerusalem dump where rubbish was burned.
Fire. Beneficial to humanity when kept under control, nonetheless, fire may develop into a terrible scourge. This is perhaps the most common figurative language of Scripture to represent the torment of the damned, with references to consuming fire, everlasting burning, the lake of fire, and burning sulphur being most familiar.
From the frequency of this language, some have inferred that physical fire burns the bodies of the reprobates. While this is not strictly impossible, it appears unlikely since physical fire appears in conflict with other scriptural descriptions of hell (outer darkness, bottomless pit). Also, it appears ill-suited to resurrection bodies that might seem impervious to it. The spiritual fire, however, which consumes and sears the soul, is perhaps more terrifying and excruciating than physical burning.
Darkness (Matt. 8:12; 22:13; 25:30; Jude 6; 13). Since God is light and the source of light, it is not surprising that separation from him implies darkness forever (Matt. 8:12; Jude 13).
The worm that will not die (Isa. 66:24; Mark 9:48). This may well refer to the gnawing pains eating away at the vitals of the soul (Isa. 66:24; Mark 9:48).
Trouble, distress, torment, agony. These terms emphasize the conscious suffering of the damned, as does the word punishment (kolasis) used by Jesus (Matt. 26:46), as well as the passages where our Lord speaks of weeping, wailing, or gnashing of teeth (Matt. 8:12; 13:42, 50). The implication of consciousness is reinforced in Revelation 20:10, where we read of being “tormented day and night for ever and ever.”
Shame and everlasting contempt. This emphasizes the disgrace experienced by the lost who will now see their rebellion in its true light (Dan. 12:2; Isa. 66:24).
Everlasting chains and gloomy dungeons. Punishment for sin includes the loss of one’s potential to do as one pleases. Contrary to what many people imagine, it is the people of God who enjoy glorious liberty in obedience to God, while the sinner is detained in shameful slavery. Heaven and hell are the definitive expression of this truth.
Futility. This concept surfaces in Scripture in relation to the life that is shipwrecked away from God. “Meaningless, utterly meaningless,” says the teacher, “a chasing after the wind” (Eccles. 1:2, 14). “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:26; Luke 9:25).
The wrath of God. A final form of biblical language must be noted in the many places relating to the damned (John 3:36; Rom. 2:5, 8; Eph. 2:3; Heb. 10:27). This expression appears more than 600 times in Scripture. The word propitiation bears emphatic witness to God’s fundamental displeasure at the sight of sin.
Though some Scripture appeals to a universalistic understanding of salvation, in the final analysis the universalist must face the more consistent scriptural treatment of a final judgment to which all humankind is summoned and which issues into a bifurcation of destiny.
The universalist faces further difficulties with passages relating to the unpardonable sin, the great chasm between the rich man and Lazarus over which no one could cross, Jesus’ statement “Where 1 go, you cannot come,” and particularly with his remark about Judas: “It would be better for him if he had not been born.” How could someone who is ultimately going to be saved be called “the son of perdition?” How can a universalist fairly deal with the many Scriptures that show that life’s decisions have everlasting and irrevocable consequences in the life to come?
Endless Punishment and God’s Love
Some approach universalism from the perspective of punishment. They argue that the endlessness of punishment is unjust because the sanction is not proportionate with the fault. But this disregards the fact that time is not a primary factor: a fault of a brief moment may well have lifelong consequences. The universalist does not sufficiently weigh the gravity of the offense in rejecting God. Furthermore, the reprobates in hell are not in a penitential mood; they continue in their senseless rebellion. In a sense, they would be worse off being exposed in all their ugliness to the full light of the presence of God than in groveling in their darkness away from him (John 3:20).
To this, however, the universalists object on the basis of God’s love. It is inconsistent with this love, they urge, to imagine that God upholds the existence of a great many rational beings, angelic and human, just to wreak vengeance upon them. In pressing this argument, the tendency is present to minimize the importance of sin. All these arguments grounded in an appeal to God’s love ignore his honor and righteousness. Love that is not accompanied by righteousness is merely sentimental weakness and has no connection with a scriptural understanding of God’s love. Here the concerns of holiness are so important that God was willing to give his only Son as a substitute “so as to be just while justifying the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26). It is the fearful reality and the inexpressible sadness of perdition that account for the sacrifice on the cross. Where these are toned down there is inevitably an erosion of the significance of Christ’s work. In the Universalist denomination, the deity of Christ was soon jettisoned after his atoning sacrifice was downplayed.
We must remember that the very person who revealed most stunningly God’s love, our Lord Jesus Christ, is also the one who spoke most frequently and in most frightening words of the tragedy of the lost. It is dangerous to be more generous than God has revealed himself to be!
If the plight of the unbelievers is what the Bible reveals it to be, it is not an act of love to hide their fate from them. To do so further blinds them from the remedy God provided. If a person is struck with a deadly disease for which there is a known cure, it is neither wise nor loving to try and convince him that nothing is wrong.
Thinking about Hell in Heaven
But doesn’t the eternal existence of a dark spot in the universe spoil the bliss of the redeemed in heaven and of the triune God himself? How can we be happy in heaven knowing that many are suffering in hell? This objection does not sufficiently consider the heinousness of sin and of the importance of God’s honor whose majesty has been violated by our disobedience. From the vantage point of heaven and of divine holiness, the sheer ugliness of sin will be fully apparent and will undoubtedly erase remnants of natural affection that were appropriate on the earthly scene. Surely it might be tempting to envision a universe in which no trace of evil remains, and hell does constitute a dark corner in a scene that is otherwise resplendent in brightness and beauty (Rev. 21 and 22, yet consider also Rev. 22:15, 18, 19). But the great problem is not really the continuance of evil, but its existence at any point! The very nature of evil is to be irrational and absurd, whether it be in its origin, in its transmission, or in its destiny. This also applies to the doctrine of hell.
In the discussion of this topic, it must be emphasized that divine justice will be fully manifest: “The judge of all the earth will do right” (Gen. 18:25). Thus there is no one who will have a legitimate grievance against the judgment. And indeed the Bible makes it plain that there will be degrees of punishment, not in duration, but in severity (Luke 12:46, 47).
The judge is also the one who came to know humanity from the inside (Heb. 2:17; 4:15), and who in his love for humankind gave himself up in sacrifice on the cross. David was wise when in the expectation of an inpending calamity that he had brought on himself and the nation he said: “Let us fall into the hands of the Lord, for his mercy is great, but do not let me fall into the hands of men” (2 Sam. 24:14; 1 Chron. 21:13).
Evangelism and Universalism
When universalism is propounded, one of two consequences necessarily follows. Either there is salvation on this earth outside of the preaching of the gospel, or there must be a way of salvation beyond the grave for those who have not “made it” in this life. Both of these propositions are clearly unbiblical. The former makes a mockery of the Incarnation and the Cross, since it suggests salvation can be experienced apart from them. The coming of Christ and his sacrifice are turned into a dispensable luxury! The latter proposition goes counter to the biblical urgency that challenges us to decide here and now and to see our eternal destiny as sealed in terms of this life. Both of these weaknesses in universalism erode evangelistic and missionary zeal, which, in fact, has been the historic result of this interpretation.
Contrary to what universalists contend, the doctrine of hell gives us an insight into the unfathomable goodness of God. He has done whatever was needed to snatch us away from this horrifying destiny, even to the point of absorbing hell itself in our place in order to redeem us. Far from feeling superior or smug in thinking about the lostness of the reprobates, Christians should be prone to say: “There but for the grace of God go I!” This should issue into a special gratitude to God, our Savior.
Finally, those who truly believe in hell ought to refrain from any levity on this subject. The destiny of human beings created in the image of God, and who are to be confined to ultimate separation from him, is a topic of such tragic nature that our major concern ought to be showing others how to avoid this awful destiny. The thought of hell should bring tears to our eyes, and a compassionate desire to point out the only way to sure salvation.
The lost will perish indeed. But Christ died to save the lost.
Hosea Ballou (1771–1852) was the apostle of universalism in America. The son of a Baptist preacher, he grew up in southern New Hampshire near the Vermont border. There, during Ballou’s youth, Ethan Allen led his Green Mountain Boys against the British and against unscrupulous speculators who tried to unseat settlers from hard-won farms.
But not only did Allen campaign against distant monarchs and present scoundrels with an army, but he also attacked the Bible and Calvinism with his pen. In Reason the Only Oracle of Man, a rambling book of homespun theology, Allen dismissed the authority of the church, rejected the ideas that God predestines people, answers prayer, or performs miracles, and scorned the Bible’s claim to be God’s Word. Young Ballou read these attacks and listened to a farmer named Caleb Rich who said all men would be saved.
Ballou had been raised to believe that before the foundation of the world, God had consigned a large portion of the human race to everlasting damnation. He had been taught to assume he was one of the reprobate unless he experienced a soul-wrenching, supernatural conversion that he was powerless to influence. However, something in Ballou rebelled against this idea. How could a good God irresistibly predestine much of humanity to perdition? Reading Allen convinced him Calvinism was not reasonable; reading the Bible convinced him Calvinism was not true.
Trusting his own reason and his own reading of the Bible, at the age of 20 Hosea Ballou began preaching universalism. He was at first thoroughly orthodox in every matter except for his optimism about the ultimate fate of humanity. But as he rode over the New England hills, studying his Bible while his horse found the way, Ballou began to doubt such theological constructions as original sin, vicarious atonement, and the Trinity. The more he pondered, the more he came to believe that these doctrines were simply human dogmas, repellent to reason and unsupported by Holy Scripture. He even reached the conclusion that Christ’s divinity was merely a creation of the early church. Thus Ballou was preaching unitarianism 20 years before the denomination was formally organized. His reasoning convinced most of the 20 other universalist preachers of his day, and shaped the thought of the growing denomination.
Ballou crisscrossed the New England hills like a Yankee trader, preaching the universalistic message. Where he could not go in person he went through his books, Treatise on the Atonement and Examination of the Doctrine of Future Retribution, his hymns, and his students. He offered people an optimistic belief that relied on the Bible interpreted by common sense, stressed all humanity’s equality before God and freed people from awaiting a supernatural conversion experience. Those who bought his doctrinal goods were usually Yankees like him—shrewd and independent farmers who lived by their wits and who mistrusted the convolutions of the establishment’s orthodox theology.
Meanwhile, down in Boston, wealthy intellectuals were coming to the same conclusions, thereby foreshadowing today’s union of the Unitarian and Universalist denominations.
Origen (185–254) was the church’s version of the little girl who had a little curl right in the middle of her forehead: when he was good he was very, very good, but when he was bad he was horrid. Georgios Scholarios, patriarch of the Eastern Church in the fifteenth century, tells us that the Western churchmen said, “Where Origen was good, no one was better; where he was bad, no one was worse,” and that the Eastern theologians admitted, “Origen is the whetstone of us all, [but] he is the fount of foul doctrines.” Scholarios himself adds, “Both are right. He splendidly defended Christianity, wonderfully expounded Scripture, and wrote a noble exhortation to martyrdom. But he was also the father of Arianism, and, worst of all, said that hell-fire will not last forever.”
As a teenager, Origen wanted to be a martyr. When he learned his father had been taken away to be killed, Origen told his mother that he was going to join him in prison. (In order to keep her son in the house, his mother hid his clothes.)
The persecution that eventually killed his father also emptied the local catechetical school of all its teachers, so at age 18 Origen assumed its leadership. Knowing that he would be teaching women as well as men, and wishing to obey his Lord’s commands without reserve, he castrated himself in order to remove all sexual temptation.
He soon devoted himself entirely to writing. He was called “The Ironman,” perhaps because of his ability to keep working while he exhausted seven shifts of secretaries each day. He prepared the first critical edition of the Old Testament, wrote ten books of biblical commentary, prepared homilies on the entire Scripture, authored numerous practical and apologetic works, and published the church’s first work of systematic theology.
Three beliefs are central to Origen’s theology, all of which, when taken to their logical conclusion, got him into trouble as a universalist: God is good, God is just, and God is powerful. So good is God, said Origen, that he wishes all beings, even the Devil, to be saved. So just is he that all thinking beings have free will. So powerful is he that he fully accomplishes his purpose. Origen taught that God’s punishment lasts only until it has accomplished its purpose and persuaded the sinner to repent. Thus, without violating the free will of the creature, God eventually will bring all beings back to himself. When he fulfills his plan, the world will end. The only catch is that because of eternal free will, Satan may fall away again, starting the whole process of redemption over.
The quantity and quality of Origen’s work soon brought him to the attention of the whole Christian world. Rome banned him as a heretic, but Antioch honored him. When persecution once again broke out, he was taken to prison and tortured. When his tormentors discovered they could break his body but not his spirit, they sent him home to die. Origen longed to be clothed with the martyr’s white robe, but was denied this honor by the lack of mundane apparel.
As the church’s first systematic theologian, Origen had to patch up the holes in early biblical theology. Like one building a road through untamed territory, he sometimes used rubble to fill in the gaps. As with all pioneer construction, we should not condemn it for its imperfection but marvel that it was done at all.
John Scotus Erigena
Origen’s teaching that all free moral agents—angels, men, and devils—will ultimately be saved was formally condemned at the Council of Constantinople in 543 and was not explicitly advocated by anyone in the church for almost a thousand years. But in the ninth century, John Scotus Erigena (810–77) taught a version of eschatology that could easily be considered universalistic.
Erigena, born and educated in Ireland, was one of the few men in the West to master the Greek language. He worked as a translator when he moved to France to serve in the court of Charles the Bald. He not only translated the Greek Fathers into Latin, he also wrote commentaries on their works, along with commentaries on John’s gospel and on Boethius.
Erigena’s learning induced the bishop of Rheims to ask him to answer Gottschalk, a monk who was teaching an extreme form of double predestination, saying not only that God elects some to eternal bliss and others to eternal punishment, but also that God foreordains every human action. Erigena agreed to the task, and produced an antidote to Gottschalk’s doctrine that the bishop found worse than the poison.
The bishop liked Erigena’s criticism of Gottschalk as ignorant and heretical. He also found perfectly orthodox the assertion that since God is one, his will must also be one, and therefore there is only one predestination. What the good bishop could not countenance, however, was Erigena’s conclusion that God predestines all men to salvation.
Having displeased the bishop with his first attempt at polemical theology, Erigena returned to his work as a translator. His sovereign requested him to translate works that were thought to be written by Paul’s Athenian convert, Dionysius the Areopagite, but that in reality were the composition of a sixth-century Neoplatonist theologian. Thus, under the influence of Pseudo-Dionysius, Erigena’s thinking began to approach pantheism.
His most important work, De Divisione Naturae, argues that all things come from God and that all things will return to God so that, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:28, “God will be all in all.” According to Erigena, everything in the created world will be reconciled to God, and united to his nature. When asked how he could reconcile this universalism with the Scripture’s plain teaching of eternal punishment for the wicked, he answered that the wicked will be punished through all eternity by having their desire to be wicked frustrated.
Erigena’s theology was almost universally rejected, but his translations reintroduced Greek thought to the West during the Dark Ages, and the questions he raised continue to be posed in Christian theology.
Historical vignettes by Charles E. White, assistant professor of Christian thought and history at Spring Arbor College and author of The Beauty of Holiness (Zondenvan).
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