The Evangelical Universalist Forum

Can Someone Disprove These Arguments? (Pt. 1 Church Fathers)


((NOTE: This post is for the purpose of researching how people might attempt to invalidate the different pieces of evidence [ie. arguments] I use to fully support Universalism. Thus, I’m inviting people to rip them apart as long as your responses are well researched, well thought out, and concisely get right to the point.))

After reading the 19th Century scholar J. W. Hanson’s book Universalism: The Prevailing Doctrine of the Christian Church During Its First Five Hundred Years, I found a few things that I could think of no good arguments against.

Terms for Eternal Judgment
The Pharisees and Pagans wrote about eternal hell. The used two very specific Koine Greek terms to denote it, then they described it at length. Therefore, we’re certain that those two Koine Greek terms mean eternal hell. Jesus, however, used a different Koine Greek term to describe hell (technically, He used two). It’s a term the Pharisees and Pagans did not use for “eternal hell.” The term Jesus used combines the words “aionian” or “aion,” which means “age,” and then “judgment” or “punishment.” Bible’s translate aion judgment and aion punishment to mean eternal judgment or eternal punishment. But there are some major problems with that.

The typical argument is that when the word for “age” is used with something we know is eternal, such as life or God, then the word “age” means eternal rather than a period of time like the word “age” normally means. I have no problem with that. What doesn’t make sense is that we don’t know if death is eternal. In fact, we’re certain it’s not, because 1 Peter 3-4 says that Jesus went to the spirits in prison from before the flood and made proclamation to them, and then later in the verse, claims He saved them all. Why go to hell and proclaim you died to free the captives if you’re not going to free them? That’s like a slap in the face. “Hey, guys, I just died to save everyone, but sorry…you guys are stuck here for eternity. Have fun!” It only makes sense that He made proclamation to them so they’d accept Him. And if they were living in torment and knew there was a way to be saved out of it, of course, they’re going to take it. What idiot wants to stay in horrific torment when God’s right there saying He’ll take them to heaven?

That’s not the only problem, though. The words Jesus pairs “age” with are both corrective words. Paul uses the Koine Greek word for vengeful punishment only once when describing what he did to the Christians when he was persecuting them. Never again is that version of the word “punishment” used in the New Testament. Judgment is also a corrective word. Let’s first source its meaning from the Old Testament. In the Old Testament, the best translation research we have on the word “judgment” says that it is basically the same as pruning. It is defined as finding a problem that harms people and removing it so the people can grow/mature. So on a societal level, it’s reforming people who are harming others and the society as a whole, or removing them altogether. But on a personal level, it’s removing what causes a person to sin (ie. be disfunctional) so that they can grow and mature, becoming more functional in society). In other words, the Ancient Hebrews say judgment is a positive, helpful thing, even if it often hurts. They also say the word “punishment” is the same, and its root is the word “prune.” So we know the Ancient Hebrews were talking about correction when they used those words since those words are without a doubt corrective.

Jesus was using the same words as the Ancient Hebrews to describe hell to the Jews of His time. And sure enough, He uses the corrective version of those words “punishment” and “judgment.” I don’t want to argue about how those words are translated because most people haven’t truly done their research on those words, and if they have, they often haven’t looked at the more recent research out of Israel which is about 50 years ahead of our research here in the United States.

What I want to know is this: Why would Jesus use terms that were different than the recognized terms for eternal hell? And why did Jesus’ terms for eternal hell include corrective words when hell is supposed to be forever and have no corrective quality to it?

The Greek Church Fathers wrote a few quotes we still have today which use the same terms for “eternal hell” as Jesus used, but in the same sentence or paragraph, they then say that hell is only temporary for purification purposes so the person can be saved out of hell and go to heaven.

Not only that, but 4 of the 6 schools of Christianity during the first five centuries taught Universalism, and only one taught eternal hell.

Also, some Church Fathers who were known Universalists and other people who were known Universalists were put on trial at times. They were tried for their heretical beliefs. However, never once was their Universalism brought into question. None of the councils had a problem with their being Universalists. In fact, Augustine and managed to get Emperor Justinian to make the council convene and told them to condemn Universalism. The council convened and then refused to condemn Universalism. That’s all quite peculiar.

If Universalism were a heresy, why did no one condemn it outright until Protestantism came about? Why did the Greek Church Fathers for the first 500 years say hell was temporary and to get people saved? Why did they teach that at their schools?

Let me know if you have any good arguments against these that actually disprove them.

Thansk so much!



Welcome to the site, Brian.

Jason Pratt may be along shortly with the official reasons why your posts are appearing 3 days after you posted :slight_smile:

Here’s a link to the book referred to:


Yes, the official reason is because all posts from new members go to the spamcatcher first, until the system’s code collects enough “pass through” actions from admins or mods to sort the new member into the category of “not-spammer”. I try to check every morning (just got through with my check today), and other ad/mods will drop in to check on their own schedules; but over the weekend we’re likely to miss doing so. (Certainly I am! – although in this case I did check on Sunday night, and found you, Brian, to let through. Someone else, too.)

So don’t worry, just post two or three more times (you’ve already got two posts through) and thereafter you’ll have no more delays: the forum engine will let you through automatically.

Over the weekend we actually had a Russian spammer trying to get through with a post that boasted that he and/or she (named both Alexander and Julie :unamused: ) was using the most advanced hacking codes for getting past captchas and things like that; and if you could read the post, then obviously their codes worked once again! :laughing: That one was a genuine pleasure to nuke.

Anyway, welcome to the forum, Brian! Hanson was better, when I read him, than I expected him to be, but he does have some weaknesses, mainly connected to his attempt at over-reaching his thesis (with universalism being the “prevailing” doctrine for the first five centuries). Which your presentation avoids.

However, some points of correction:

1.) It wasn’t Augustine who told Emperor Justinian to convene a council (or local synod rather), or who convinced him of anything: Augustine was long dead. (You meant to include someone else, too, from your grammatic construction, but you forgot to type it, by the way.) Justinian had his own reasons, related to the doctrinal authority of the squabbling university systems, to put the stomp on universal salvation. Augustine’s argument from several generations prior, might have served some purpose, but I don’t recall any specific evidence of it being used. (St. Basil’s similar argument would have been more likely to be used by the Eastern synods and councils anyway; or that might have been the occasion for importing Augustine’s later argument from GosMatt 25, after Basil, back into one of Basil’s manuals of hermetic doctrine.)

2.) In fact, Paul uses a cognate of {timoria} once more, as {tio}, at 2 Thess 1:9, not only in the speeches of his testimony in Acts 22 and 26. The term and its cognates are somewhat common in the NT (maybe also the LXX, I haven’t checked), although not usually for punishment; but Jesus uses it, too, when talking about the punitive judgment coming to the resurrection of those who do the evil things and who do not honor the Son and the Father, in GosJohn 5. (Or John translated the discussion there, between Jewish rabbis speaking Aramaic, into Greek.) The Hebraist uses the term for divine punishment, too, at Hebrews 10:29. Those are the only usages of the term in relation to punishment that I’ve found so far, but it’s more than Hanson reports.

The narrative and thematic contexts, however, indicate in all cases that the Greek authors of the NT are using the term in discussion of remedial punishment, not hopelessly final punishment. That includes the context of Paul’s actions in persecuting Christians, and it’s built into the whole point for using this term, which means something literally like “value-lift”, in punishment contexts: the term was normally about value-honoring something, and that’s how it is indisputably used most of the time in the NT, too. The situation is similar to how nowadays the English (from Latin) word “retribution” is used for hopeless punishment but it inherently means to bring punished objects back to proper tribute to authority.

Now, it might be true that surrounding cultures were using that term for hopeless punishment; but that’s a linguistic development which must have proceeded from an original intention of remedial punishment. But then again, context would indicate that the term was now (at the time of NT composition) being used another way.

Just the same, contextual analysis can (I would argue in detail) indicate that the term is being used for remedial punishment (when it’s related to punishment at all) in the New Testament canon. There would be a distinction between how one culture (Judeo-Christian) is using it, and how other cultures are using it. As another example, related to Hanson, somehow cultures got to using {eirgmos aidios} to mean eternal imprisonment. But the noun there actually refers to peace! It isn’t too difficult to figure out how the concept of peace could lead, via the concept of imprisonment, to a term for imprisonment. But if this phrase was used in the NT (it isn’t, and neither is the specific cognate {eirgmos} as far as I can tell), context might indicate that the goal of the imprisonment is to bring people to be at peace with one another. This leads to…

3.) Hanson’s arguments about comparing various terms to surrounding cultural usage, breaks down somewhat on the evidence. Christians could and demonstrably did borrow terms from the surrounding cultures (so did the Hebrews before the Christian era) to use with categorically different meanings (even though some discernable relations would still remain when tracing the rationales behind the usages). That means it’s theoretically possible that surrounding cultures might use a word for hopeless punishment which Christians used instead for remedial punishment – which I think is demonstrably true not only theoretically – but it’s also just as theoretically possible that Christians could use a remedial punishment term, like {kolasis} and its cognates, to talk about hopeless punishment. The inspired usage would be corrective of the surrounding ideas, either way.

Surrounding usage isn’t worthless as evidence; it has an important contribution to make. But it isn’t deductively decisive as evidence, and Hanson tends to present it that way. That’s a serious weakness in his overall case.

4.) Hanson is wrong about {aidios} not being used to describe imprisonment of spirits in the New Testament, too: it’s found that way in Jude 6. It’s called {desmois aidiois} (using dative suffixes, “to aidios chains”) not {eirgmos aidios}, but the idea is essentially the same. Or it might be – the term could be “imperceptible” instead, and parallel statements in the two Petrine epistles definitely run that way. Context is the only way to tell the difference. “Invisible” would admittedly be an unusual deployment of the term, however, and that’s important to keep in mind for fairness to the opposition!

5.) Hanson likes to have things both ways sometimes: the Jews, as a collective group, teach endless punishment when that suits his purpose for Christ to be correcting their beliefs; but they Jews, as a collective group, teach remedial punishment or annihilation (non-endless punishment either way) when that suits his purpose for Christ to be using their terms the way they would have understood them and thus with the same meaning.

The more complicated solution is that “the Jews” had the same spread of beliefs: never-ending punishment, annihilation out of existence, and reformatory punishment. Generally I think it can be argued that a belief in universal salvation by God of all sinners from sin was very rare among Jewish authorities, then and later, even when they believed all Jews would be saved from sin, or even that many or most Gentiles also would be.

6.) Christian authorities did condemn universal salvation as a heresy outright, “before Protestantism came about”. Epiphanius, in the 300s, seems to have been the first authority (in surviving records anyway) to oppose it, explicitly as a heresy hunter (although his progression on that topic seems to have been an offshoot of something else he was fighting against over the years. He wasn’t the first non-universalist, of course, far from it; just the first we know of to specifically oppose it.) Justinian’s synod obviously did, and he tried to get the subsequent Ecumenical Council to condemn it, too. EOx and RCC councils after Justinian both did, not least because Justinian’s efforts in getting the condemnation of his local synod tacked onto the Ecumenical discussion were successful. (I used to know the specific RCC council that did; I’ve read somewhere that the EOx also did, but I don’t know enough about their councils to verify that or not. I think our local EOx member however, Geoffrey, does not think the EOx ever did?) When RC Popes were trying to get EOx bishops to convert over, they would list certain beliefs that would have to be dropped or altered as heretical and universal salvation was one of them. This all happened before Protestantism came along.


Oh, no problem about the post not coming up for a few days. Thanks for letting me know!



Thanks so much for the information. It’s very helpful. I’ve been hoping someone could catch the problems with these arguments since I’m not well studied enough to do so. I’m obviously a Universalist who believes hell is temporary and for purification purposes, but I’m wanting to fact-check what I’ve read so I don’t use any invalid arguments.

Would you mind if I ask a few questions that I haven’t yet sorted out or that your presentation brought to mind? There’s never a rush in getting back to me on this stuff, and if you’re too busy to respond, don’t worry about it. You’ve already been hugely helpful. Also, I realize you may not have the answers to all of these questions, so I completely understand if you can’t give answers to them all. They should cover all the questions I have, though.

Schools of Christianity

  1. Was Hanson accurate when he said 4 of the 6 schools of Christianity taught Universalism during the first few centuries A.D. and only one taught eternal hell? (I can’t remember if he said the four Universalist schools were Greek and the one teaching an eternal hell was Latin, but I was unclear on that point, too.)

Condemnation of Universalism
2. I keep retyping this question, but instead, I’m just going to post a quote from Hanson’s book and then ask the question:

Excerpt from Universalism: The Prevailing Doctrine…
" Now let the reader recapitulate: (1) Origen during his life-time was never opposed for his Universalism; (2) after his death Methodius, about A.D. 300, attacked his views of the resurrection, creation and pre-existence, but said not a word against his Universalism; (3) ten years later Pamphilus and Eusebius (A.D. 310) defended him against nine
charges that had been brought against his views, but his Universalism was not among them; (4) in 330 Marcellus of Ancyra, a Universalist, opposed him for his views of the Trinity, and (5) Eustathius for his teachings concerning the Witch of Endor, but limited their arraignment to those items; (6) in 376 Epiphanius assailed his heresies, but he did not name Universalism as among them, and in 394 he condemned Origen’s doctrine of the salvation of the Devil, but not of all mankind; (7) in 399 and 401, his views of Christ’s death to save the Devil were attacked by Epiphanius, Jerome and Theophilus, and his advocacy of the subordination of Christ to God was condemned, but not his teachings of man’s universal salvation; and (8) it was not till 544 and again in 553 that his enemies formulated attacks on that doctrine [The Fifth Ecumenical Council], and made a cat’s-paw of a half-heathen Emperor, and even then, though the latter [Justinian II] framed a canon for the synod, it was never adopted, and the council adjourned–owing, it must have been, to the Universalistic sentiment in it–without a word of condemnation of Origen’s Universalism. With the exception of Augustine, the doctrine which had been constantly advocated, often by the most eminent, did not evoke a frown of opposition from any eminent scholar or saint." [The brackets contain additions I made for clarity]
End of Excerpt

Question: So is Hanson correct that Epiphanius didn’t ever attack Origen’s, or anyone’s, Universalism?
Question: Did Justinian II, when attempting to denounce Universalsim, hold any water since Justinian II was overthrown twice? (in other words, do historians really see that as a legitimate judgment of heresy against Universalism in Justinian II’s time?)

  1. Did Epiphanius succeed in getting Universalism deemed heretical? I couldn’t determine that from your earlier answer to one of my points. It seems odd that Universalism would continue for very long if a large council deemed it heretical.

Eternal Hell Terminology (Jews, Pagans, and Jesus)
4. Do you think the argument of the Jews and Pagans using two different terms to describe an eternal hell which were different than the term Jesus used to describe it is a valid argument?

I ask because it sounds like you’re saying that because we can’t be sure what type of hell the Jews and Pagans were describing in their writings, we can’t be sure they were talking about an eternal hell as opposed to a redemptive hell. However, Hansen claims that they describe eternal hell at length, and basically says that’s proof that the terms the Jews and Pagans used meant eternal punishment. And those were distinctly different terms than Jesus used, which could easily be translated as temporary judgment/punishment and likely should be. Thus, I was unable to tell if you were saying it was a valid or pointless argument to pursue. (That’s not to say your answer wasn’t a good answer, though–it was very informative and much appreciated.)

  1. After reading your explanation of the Greek term for “punishment” used in the NT, it sounds like arguing from the angle of the Greek word’s definition is pointless. Which would mean if someone were going to argue based on words, they’d really need to argue based on the narrative and thematic contexts those words are found in, correct?

Church Father’s Quotes
6. Do you know of a good list of quotes from the Church Fathers where they use the term we translate as “eternal hell” but turn right around and say it was remedial for purificatory purposes?

OT “Eternal Punishment/Judgment” Verses & Language
7. Do you know of a good source that discusses the Hebrew verses and terms used in the OT to describe hell? I’ve read up a little on the newest translation research out of Israel on this subject, but I haven’t really read/heard a good Universalist scholar discuss the different OT verses and terms.

Alright, I think that fully exhausts my questions on this subject. Answers to those will keep me busy for quite some time. Sorry to throw them all out there at once.

Thank you foryour time. I’m so glad you guys created this forum and moderate it. It’s a great resource.