When I read The Restitution of All Things by Andrew Jukes, I came across this quote of Athenagoras: “And as this follows of necessity, there must by all means be a resurrection of the bodies which are dead or even entirely dissolved, and the same men must be formed anew. … for if this takes place, the end befitting the nature of men follows also. And the end of an intelligent life and of a rational judgment, we shall make no mistake in saying, is to be occupied uninterruptedly with those objects to which the natural reason is chiefly and primarily adapted, and to delight unceasingly in the contemplation of Him who is, and of His decrees; notwithstanding that the majority of men, because they are affected too passionately and too violently by things below, pass through life without attaining this object. For the large number of those who fail of the end that belongs to them does not make void the common lot, since the examination relates to individuals, and the reward or punishment of lives ill or well spent is proportioned to what each has done.” (On the Resurrection, ch. XXV.)
Here’s the Greek original which I can’t read: “Τούτου δ᾽ ἐξ ἀνάγκης ἐπομενου, δεῖ πάντως γενέσθαι τῶν νεκρωθέντων ἢ καὶ πάντη διαλυθέντων σωμάτων ἀνάστασιν, καὶ τοὺς αὐτοὺς ἀνθρώπους συστῆναι πάλιν. … ταύτης γάρ γενομένης καὶ τὸ τῇ φύσει τῶν ἀνθρώπων πρόσφορον ἐπακολουθεῖ τέλος. Τέλος δὲ ζωῆς ἔμφρονος καὶ λογικῆς κρίσεως οὐκ ἂν ἁμάρτοι τις εἰπὼν τὸ τούτοις ἀπερισπάστως συνδιαιωνίζειν, οἷς μάλιστα καὶ πρώτως ὁ φυσικὸς συνήρμοσται λόγος, τῇ τε θεωρίᾳ τοῦ ὄντος καὶ τῶν ἐκείνῳ δεδογμένων ἀπαύστως ἐπαγάλλεσθαι· κἂν οἱ πολλοὶ τῶν ἀνθρώπων, ἐμπαθέστερον καὶ σφοδρότερον τοῖς τῇδε προσπεπονθότες ἄστοχοι τούτου διατελῶσιν. Οὐ γὰρ ἀκυροῖ τὴν κοινὴν ἀποκλήρωσιν τὸ πλῆθοσ τῶν ἀποπιπτόντων τοῦ προσήκοντος αὐτοῖς τέλους, ιδιαζούσης τῆς ἐπὶ τούτοις ἐξετάσεως, καὶ τῆς ἑκάστῳ συμμετρουμένης ὑπὲρ τῶν εὖ ἣ κακῶς βεβιωμένων τιμῆς ἣ δίκης.”
The passage seems quite clear to me. Athenagoras says that after the resurrection takes place, the end befitting our nature will follow, which is the uninterrupted contemplation of God, though there are many who don’t achieve it in this life. But their failure “does not make void the common lot”. Now, what could he have meant by this except that the present sinfulness of a portion of humanity does not change the fact that all people share one blessed ultimate destiny? Perhaps someone who knows Greek can say whether a different translation is possible, but the English phrase “does not make void the common lot” appears to me as an unequivocal declaration that all people have the same fate which cannot be made void. However, it perpelexes me that no opponent of the idea of endless torment except Andrew Jukes seems to have noticed this. Not even Dr. Ramelli. What’s more, the annihilationist Henry Constable described Athenagoras as a sort of inventor of the doctrine of endless torment (truthaccordingtoscripture.com/documents/death/future-punishment/chapter18.php#.WWSPM4jyjcs). Anyway, if I’m right, we’ve got an explicitly universalist statement from 178-179 (earlychristianwritings.com/tixeront/section1-2.html#tatian) prior to the writings of Clement of Alexandria who would then seem to simply have continued the universalist tradition of Pantaenus who received it from Athenagoras, if the fifth century historian Philip of Side is to be trusted.
I’ve read the two extant works of Athenagoras (en.wikisource.org/wiki/Author:Athenagoras_of_Athens) and have found several passages indirectly pointing to his universalism:
“I pass over the fact, that so long as the nature we at present possess is preserved, the mortal nature is not able to bear a punishment commensurate with the more numerous or more serious faults.” (On the Resurrection, ch. XIX.) Saying that the mortal nature can’t bear the punishment for the more serious faults implies that it can bear the punishment for the less serious faults. As the mortal nature can’t bear an endless punishment, it is clear that in Athenagoras’s view the punishment for the less serious faults is not endless. Doesn’t it then stand to reason that the punishment for the more serious sins isn’t infinite either?
“false opinions are an aftergrowth from another sowing” (On the Resurrection, ch. XI.) This looks like a reference to the Parable of the Tares where the devil sows the bad seed. Jesus’s explanation that “the tares are the children of the wicked one” is typically understood as talking about people, but not so with Origen and Gregory of Nyssa who interpret the children of the devil as evil words or errors as to the true Beauty (see Origen’s Commentary on Matthew and Gregory’s On the Soul). It’s conspicuous that Athenagoras interpreted the parable similarly to these outspoken universalists.
“a god never rages” (A Plea for the Christians, ch. XXI.) That’s his reaction to Homer’s depiction of Mars. It contrasts with what Athenagoras’s annihilationist contemporary Theophilus of Antioch wrote: “if I call Him Fire, I but mention His anger. You will say, then, to me, “Is God angry?” Yes; He is angry with those who act wickedly” (To Autolycus, Book I, ch. III.).
“we cannot endure even to see a man put to death, though justly” (A Plea for the Christians, ch. XXXV) It’s unimaginable that those who can’t bear to see a man deservedly executed would be content with sinners being eternally tormented.
The only part of Athenagoras’s writings that could be construed as teaching endless woe is this: “when we are removed from the present life we shall live another life, better than the present one, and heavenly, not earthly (since we shall abide near God, and with God, free from all change or suffering in the soul, not as flesh, even though we shall have flesh, but as heavenly spirit), or, falling with the rest, a worse one and in fire” (A Plea for the Christians, ch. XXXI.). But this does not preclude the possibility of eventual universal salvation.
Overall, the case for Athenagoras being a universalist is quite strong, don’t you agree?