The Evangelical Universalist Forum

Doesn't the lack of Universalism before Origen bother you?

The majority of Church writers before Origen closer to the days of the apostles seem to teach annihilation or ET, I think even those articles on tentmaker on early history affirm this. I have believed in UR for over 5 years but I admit I find this a little bit hard to swallow. So I am wondering how other universalists deal with this? Doesn’t this place alot of doubt on UR? Thanks

It’s my opinion that Paul should be included among the universalists, and Peter and John to name a few. More importantly, Jesus makes a fair quantity of universalistic statements (imo). As for later early church history I can’t really speak to that as it hasn’t been a study of mine, but I’m sure others will be weighing in. :slight_smile:

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This used to worry me, particularly the passages that use the word “Gehenna” as the possible destination of sinners. Then I realised two things. Firstly, when Jesus used the word, he was speaking mainly to a Jewish audience. Initially I thought he was using the word in the sense of a scrap heap, where damned souls slowly decayed away. If you like I believed in a sort of low-speed annihilation.

There are alternative spellings, I shall use “Gehenna.”

Then I discovered the second thing, that the Jewish idea of Gehenna is a place where the soul reflects on its shortcomings, and puts things right ready to go on to the world to come. This is not only a current idea, it seems to be very old in Jewish thought, so old that it would have been current in the audience Jesus was addressing. I enquired further, by posting on “Ask the Rabbi” lists and discovered that it is expected that souls in Gehenna will get themselves sorted out and move on in less than a year, which is why Kadesh for the dead is said for eleven months.

It therefore seemed to be the case that when Jesus spoke of Gehenna he was talking of a place that his audience would understand as a stage on the journey to the world to come, not a place of destruction. In short we have evidence for universal salvation in the words of Jesus himself.

While I do value the early fathers for their contribution on theology I would not be too worried about this issue. I say this because I think what matters is that you are able to evaluate the biblical evidence for yourself and come to a conclusion that makes sense to you. I am not sure that being in error on doctrine is grounds for rejection from God - after all who truly can be 100 percent accurate in their theology - so do the best you can. If you think universalism is the best way to account for the biblical data then go for it. At the moment, I have my reasons for disagreeing but this should not threaten you as I am in the same position of having to make sense of the data the best way I can. Disagreement need not be a point of departure, where we refuse to have anything to do with each other because of our divergent beliefs, but rather be seen as opportunities to learn and grow. Along the way we might just find that we have more in common than we first thought.

Just how sure is it that there weren’t universalists before Orignen? I mean, how many documents do we have, and how reflective of the common opinions are they?

And how long did it take for Christology and Trinitarianism to get worked out?

And how beholden should we be to Church Fathers anyway?

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I think one should not overvalue the so called “church fathers”, Paul warned of heretics and false teachers already in his own days.

Possibly all of the so called church fathers were false teachers that brought strange ideas into Christiantiy be it Platonism or any other heathen philosophy. I do not say that they were, but it is possible.

I have read contradictory things about the church fathers, one example, one of them (don’t remember his name) is said to have warned of the “neverdying worm and the unquenchable fire”, but as I remember he understood thereby some sort of mental anquish during this life. I think as long as one has not read their writings in the Greek it is impossible to be sure what they actually taught. Most people who refer to them might have a personal bias, be it infernalists or unversalists.

What I tought was more relevant is, that ancient paintings from early christians have been found where Jesus carries both a sheep and a goat on his shoulder or something similar. Such sentiments and imaginary might be more authentic than the writings of a so called church father.

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Yep, more concerned about what the scriptures teach than what the Fathers teach. It’s nice that some theological heavyweights did go with universalism, but I don’t lean much on that. As far as I’m concerned it only parries the charge that no one of any reputation held the belief–and, because of who did hold it, it also parries the charge that the belief was fringe. Gregory Nyssus, the Father of Orthodoxy was NOT fringe; Origen (in his time and for long afterward) was NOT fringe. The first leaders of the two main catechetical schools, at Alexandria and Antioch (and their satellite schools), were absolutely NOT fringe.

Protestants have trouble understanding the implications of this because we usually don’t give a poot about catechism. :wink: It would be like saying several generations of Roman Catholic Cardinals in charge of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (i.e. the freaking Inquisition!!) were only fringe guys whose goofy opinions didn’t amount to anything in the Church so they can be dismissed.

They can be wrong, they can be a minority, but they can’t be fringe. That’s literally ignorant. (I saw a popular Calv internet apologist try to claim this in passing again the other day.)

Beyond that, eh. What ultimately counts, unless we’re factoring in a recognized inerrancy of inspired teaching somehow, is the rationale. I’m not real fond of some of the rationales (whether metaphysical or exegetical) of the Patristic universalists myself. :wink:

So I respect that most of the Fathers weren’t or didn’t seem to be universalists (although the historical application of the “doctrine of reserve” lends a lot of agnosticism to whether they were preaching and teaching one thing because they thought most people would abuse the real truth); and I respect that some very notable Fathers were universalists. Respect doesn’t mean I have to agree with them all on every detail, on which they tend to contradict each other (and occasionally themselves) anyway. If it turned out that a majority of Fathers were universalists after all (as Hanson tried somewhat desperately to argue, though with more strength than I was prior expecting), I’d find that amusing to tweak people who want to just go with the majority opinion, but I wouldn’t lean on that either.

As an aside, just because I don’t put much weight on Patristic opinion overall, doesn’t mean I didn’t just spend around $350 (plus tax!!) to buy Dr. Illaria Ramelli’s super-ultra-hyper researched update to Hanson. :mrgreen:

And in terms of the thread question - Ramelli clearly demonstrates that Christian Universalism does predate Origen (if we are talking about early texts written not much later than the last NT writings). ORigen is simply the person that gave Christian UNiversalism its first systematic expression (but then he was the first systematic theologian in the early Church).

It would be interesting to pin down the early Christian image that Sven refers to - it probably comes from the Catacombs in Rome.

I would like to hear more about that, which texts are this?

Concerning the goats I found this: … tine%20Art

Yay Sven - that’s a very interesting piece of evidence indeed :smiley: Regarding Ramelli, you can find an article by her for free on the texts that influenced Origen at … rigin.html

"]It emerges from this investigation that the conception of apokatastasis had a variegated background and certainly did not emerge with Origen all at once. It was present toward the end of the second century and at the beginning of the third in different Christian philosophical environments such as those of Alexandria (Didaskaleion) and Caesarea (school and library of Origen), and that of Edessa (Bardaisan and his school). All these connections, which shed new light on the origin of the doctrine of universal salvation, seem to me worthy of reflection and close analysis. Origen is usually seen as the initiator of this theory, and indeed he was the first Christian philosopher who expressed it in a complete and fully coherent form, making it the essence of his theoretical system. But as Clement and, even more, Bardaisan suggest, Origen’s insight did not emerge in a vacuum.I’m starting to think Schaff might’ve been right… :smiley:

I agree with Jason that the church fathers’ teachings are a distant second in importance to what scripture teaches. And I agree with Cindy that most or all of the apostles themselves were universalists.

I would like to add that Clement of Alexandria, Origen’s teacher, and renowned theologian and philosopher in his own right, was almost certainly a universalist as well:

“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.” --Clement of Alexandria (190 A.D.)

“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?” --Clement of Alexandria (190 A.D.)

So this gets us a generation closer to the apostles.

I also recall Hanson claiming that there was a “dark” 80 year period (possibly around 100-180 A.D.), in which relatively few of the church fathers’ writings on any topic have survived. So this would go far in explaining the second century gap.

Imo that proves Clement was also an universalist. Obviously an UR teacher doesn’t become head of an ET school.

[url]This very interesting book shows UR traces back a long time.
A summary can be found here but I would suggest reading the whole book!

I think this quote from the above mentioned book clearly show the URs wern’t some fring group.

Hi Everyone -
The thing about Hanson as a source is that his ‘Prevailing Doctrine’ is a great work and well worth a read. He and Ballou were trailblazers in writing the history of universalism -and I’d broadly agree with the scope of Hanson’s narrative argument. However, his work is dated – he is not the final word on the early history of Universalism and lots of new evidence has come to light since the end of the nineteenth century. So a lot of his observations are dated, because more evidence has come to light.

From my limited knowledge I can see three assertions in the book summary that I’d question (small points perhaps, but worth pointing out):

Hanson states that Valentinius and other Gnostic sects taught universal salvation. Hanson only had the writings of the Church Fathers against the Gnostics to go on, and it’s interesting that some of the Church Fathers should have said that the Gnostics taught universal salvation. However, since the Nag Hammadi finds in the twentieth century we know a lot more about Gnosticism than Hanson did. Valentinius and other Gnostics teachers were not Universalists. Rather they taught there were three kinds of people, the spiritual, psychical, and material; and that only those of a spiritual nature (their own followers) received the gnosis (knowledge) that allowed them to return to the divine fullness, while those of a psychic nature (ordinary Christians) would attain a lesser form of salvation, and that those of a material nature (pagans and Jews – and indeed the majority of mankind) were doomed to perish.

Hanson cites Josephus as a reliable source concerning the beliefs of the Pharisees – but contemporary scholars treat Josephus assertions about the beliefs of Jewish sects with caution. For noel thing Josephus wrote predominantly for a pagan audience and often speaks in terms of inexact analogies regarding Jewish beliefs.

Regarding the missing ‘dark’ 80 years of evidence from Christian Universalism from the time of the Apostles – well it looks like Professor Ramelli is going to demonstrate that emergent universalism predates Origen and even Clement. Ramelli’s book will be a real boon for universalism because she is going to provide historical evidence and analysis of the highest qualities to update and correct the work of forerunners such as Hanson.
So yes, I think Hanson is a good read – but there is more to be said.


A note on Hanson’s contention that universalism was the prevailing doctrine of the Early church. This is strongly disputed in the All Shall Be Well volume of essays edited by Robin Parry, published in 2011.

Robin Parry argues in Introduction pp. 10 -12.

Steven Harmon confirms Parry’s view in his chapter on Gregory of Nyssa (pp 61-62);

It seems to me that their arguments are judicious and appropriately non-sectarian. Hanson did go too far – but then he was banging the drum for a separate Universalist Church whereas Parry and Harmon have a more irenic/no-sectarian/ecumenical outlook.

However, it seems that Ramelli’s study will show that evidence for universalism in the early Church is perhaps rather stronger than Parry and Harmon were aware of in 2011.

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When I think on this I recall that history is written by the “winners”. The RCC being the “winners”, the part of the early church that grew the fastest and covered the most territory, would naturally preserve and promote the writings of those in whom steps they affirmed, followed, and built upon. The Messianic Church virtually disappeared due to the Roman oppression of Jews and the Jews’ propensity to continue to rebel. And the Greek church did not have the backing that the Roman church did. So to me it’s amazing that any records exist that show anyone in the early church that affirms UR considering the Roman church tended to be infernalists and anti-UR. Just thinking.

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I think you are absolutely right Sherman – the winners do write history and it’s amazing that so much has survived of early UR texts. The Second Book of the Sibylline Oracles –a very early Christian text written sometime in the second half of the second century (edit) - speaks of God responding to the prayers of the pious and eventually restoring the wicked from aeonian torment (I guess it ranks as one of the earliest texts hinting at UR):

But in some manuscripts a later addition headed, “Contradiction of the ‘To the pious will the Almighty,’” is inserted which says:

:open_mouth: :frowning:


What evidence is there that that fragment belongs to Clement of Alexandria? This researcher thinks there may have been a mix-up “as this is actually related to pseudo-Clement (of Rome!), Homily11.11”:αἰώνιος_aiōnios_in_jewish_and_christian/

The Catholic Encyclopedia considers Clement of Alexandria a universalist:

“CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA (150-220 A.D.) likewise has sounded these words: “The Lord, [says John in his First Epistle,] is a propitiation, ‘not for our sins only,’ that is, of the faithful, ‘but also for the whole world.’ Therefore He indeed saves all universally; but some as converted by punishments, others by voluntary submission, thus obtaining the honour and dignity, that ‘to Him every knee shall bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth,’ that is [to say,] angels, and men, and souls who departed this life before His coming into the world.” The Fate of the Lost — A Fourth View?

Compare a similar quote at this url:

: The Sacred Writings of Clement of Alexandria By Clement of Alexandria:,+indeed,+saves+all;+but+some+He+saves,+converting+them+by+punishments&source=bl&ots=RfOjZ-0MTd&sig=E_84Rp91s2HaPQYV2rZZ0gsorOM&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjjrPnIzJvdAhVIFjQIHdIqAe8Q6AEwBnoECAQQAQ#v=onepage&q=He%2C%20indeed%2C%20saves%20all%3B%20but%20some%20He%20saves%2C%20converting%20them%20by%20punishments&f=false

More English translations allegedly quoting Clement of Alexandria:

"God does not take vengeance, which is the requital of evil for evil, but chastises for the benefit of the chastised (Stromata 7.16)

"To Him is placed in subjection all the host of angels and gods; He, the paternal Word, exhibiting a the holy administration for Him who put [all] in subjection to Him.

"Wherefore also all men are His; some through knowledge, and others not yet so; and some as friends, some as faithful servants, some as servants merely. …

"And how is He Saviour and Lord, if not the Saviour and Lord of all? But He is the Saviour of those who have believed, because of their wishing to know; and the Lord of those who have not believed, till, being enabled to confess him, they obtain the peculiar and appropriate boon which comes by Him. (Stromata 7.2)

“For all things are ordered both universally and in particular by the Lord of the universe, with a view to the salvation of the universe. But needful corrections, by the goodness of the great, overseeing judge, through the attendant angels, through various prior judgments, through the final judgment, compel even those who have become more callous to repent.”

“So he saves all; but some he converts by penalties, others who follow him of their own will, and in accordance with the worthiness of his honor, that every knee may be bent to him of celestial, terrestrial and infernal things (Phil. 2:10), that is angels, men, and souls who before his advent migrated from this mortal life.”

“For there are partial corrections (padeiai) which are called chastisements (kolasis), which many of us who have been in transgression incur by falling away from the Lord’s people. But as children are chastised by their teacher, or their father, so are we by Providence. But God does not punish (timoria) for punishment (timoria) is retaliation for evil. He chastises, however, for good to those who are chastised collectively and individually.” (Strom, VII, ii; Pedag. I, 8; on I John ii, 2)

”He is in no respect whatever the ’cause of evil. For all things are arranged with a view to the salvation of the universe by the Lord of the universe, both generally and particularly. It is then the function of the righteousness of salvation to improve everything as far as practicable. For even minor matters are arranged with a view to the salvation of that which is better, and for an abode suitable for people’s character. Now everything that is virtuous changes for the better; having as the proper cause of change the free choice of knowledge, which the soul has in its own power. But necessary corrections, through the goodness of the great overseeing Judge, both by the attendant angels, and by various acts of anticipative judgment, and by the perfect judgment, compel egregious sinners to repent.” (Str. VII 12.2-5)

“To Him is placed in subjection all the host of angels and gods; He, the paternal Word, exhibiting a the holy administration for Him who put [all] in subjection to Him. Wherefore also all men are His; some through knowledge, and others not yet so; and some as friends, some as faithful servants, some as servants merely.” (Str. VII)

“either the Lord does not care for all men; and this is the case either because He is unable (which is not to be thought, for it would be a proof of weakness), or because He is unwilling, which is not the attribute of a good being. And He who for our sakes assumed flesh capable of suffering, is far from being luxuriously indolent. Or He does care for all, which is befitting for Him who has become Lord of all. For He is Saviour; not [the Saviour] of some, and of others not. But in proportion to the adaptation possessed by each, He has dispensed His beneficence both to Greeks and Barbarians, even to those of them that were predestinated, and in due time called, the faithful and elect. Nor can He who called all equally, and assigned special honours to those who have believed in a specially excellent way, ever envy any. Nor can He who is the Lord of all, and serves above all the will of the good and almighty Father, ever be hindered by another. But neither does envy touch the Lord, who without beginning was impassible; nor are the things of men such as to be envied by the Lord. But it is another, he whom passion hath touched, who envies. And it cannot be said that it is from ignorance that the Lord is not willing to save humanity, because He knows not how each one is to be cared for. For ignorance applies not to the God who, before the foundation of the world, was the counsellor of the Father. For He was the Wisdom “in which” the Sovereign God “delighted.” For the Son is the power of God, as being the Father’s most ancient Word before the production of all things, and His Wisdom. He is then properly called the Teacher of the beings formed by Him. Nor does He ever abandon care for men, by being drawn aside from pleasure, who, having assumed flesh, which by nature is susceptible of suffering, trained it to the condition of impassibility. And how is He Saviour and Lord, if not the Saviour and Lord of all?” (Str. VII)

”God’s punishments are saving and disciplinary, leading to conversion, and choosing rather the repentance than the death of a sinner” (Str. VI)

“But punishment does not avail to him who has sinned, to undo his sin, but that he may sin no more, and that no one else fall into the like. Therefore the good God corrects for these three causes: First, that he who is corrected may become better than his former self; then that those who are capable of being saved by examples may be driven back, being admonished; and thirdly, that he who is injured may not be readily despised, and be apt to receive injury. And there are two methods of correction—the instructive and the punitive, which we have called the disciplinary. It ought to be known, then, that those who fall into sin after baptism are those who are subjected to discipline; for the deeds done before are remitted, and those done after are purged.” (Str. IV)

What writers are we talking about here? Those of the Scriptures, the early church fathers, unknown authors, the Sibylline Oracles, etc?

Could Clement of Rome (d. 99/100 AD) have been a persuaded or hopeful universalist? One source alleges that he “is considered to be the first Apostolic Father of the Church…Clement’s only genuine extant writing is his letter to the church at Corinth (1 Clement)…” I’ve seen nothing in it that opposes biblical universalism.

Another very early writing (70-135 AD) is The Epistle of Barnabas. Could the author(s) of this work have been a persuaded universalist? Lightfoot’s translation has it saying: “…when iniquity is no more and all things have been made new by the Lord…” (15:7). Similarly, Lake’s translation is “when there is no more sin”. OTOH, Roberts’ translation has “wickedness” instead of “iniquity” or “sin”: “wickedness no longer existing” (15:7). And God “giving rest to all things” (15:8) in the context of the Sabbath rest. The version in the “Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 1” has “wickedness” & notes that “Cod. Sin.” renders it “iniquity” (p.128, ed. Philip Schaff, etc). It doesn’t say sinners or the wicked will cease to exist, but sin or wickedness will cease to be.

"McC’s statement, “there are no unambiguous cases of universalist teaching prior to Origen” (p. 823), should also be at least nuanced, in light of Bardaisan, Clement, the Apocalypse of Peter’s Rainer Fragment, parts of the Sibylline Oracles, and arguably of the NT, especially Paul’s letters.

Ilaria Ramelli, The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis: A Critical Assessment from the New Testament to Eriugena (Brill, 2013. 890 pp.)

Scholars directory, with list of publications: