The Evangelical Universalist Forum

Fact Checking--Ancient Christian Schools Taught Universalism

I read Universalism: The Prevailing Doctrine of the Christian Church During its First 500 Years a while back and I wanted to fact check certain statements from it.

The author says that there were four schools of Christianity during the first few centuries A.D. and that four of them taught Universalism. Can anyone confirm that with a good reference or references?

This discussion relates to the topic:

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Hey, thanks for the reply. I just saw it yesterday (took a while). I need to get this forum to notify me when I get replies.

I love the tentmaker site, but I have to be honest, some of their sources seem sketchy… Gary seems like a great guy, much respect to him.

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Can you give some examples of their sketchy sources so I know what you’re referring to?

  • Brian

As a student of the church fathers, I find this list of fathers’ universalistic quotes unimpressive. For starters, one of the quotes is by Olympiodorus who was a pagan philosopher! There are also many typos, e.g. Olympiodorus is spelled there as “Olnmpiodorus”, Irenaeus as “Iraneaus” etc. But more importantly, in most cases the specific book and chapter where the quote is to be found isn’t mentioned, just the author’s name. When all I know about a quote is that it is from Chrysostom hundreds of whose homilies have been preserved, how can I ever fact check it? There is even one quote by Theodore of Mopsuestia mistakenly attributed to Peter Chrysologus.

Now, I’d say that most content on the tentmaker site is of higher quality than this list, but I think you can now see why some may view the tentmaker site as not very reliable.

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As for the six schools of Christianity in the first centuries, I think it’s something that people make too much fuss about. Those schools do not refer to actual institutions of learning as much as to schools of thought cultivated by clergy in certain areas. Of course there were real schools as well; in Alexandria for instance, there was something similar to a real university. But if you read about a North African school, what is meant is theologians like Tertullian, Cyprian and Augustine, not a building where pupils are taught. Anyway, I believe that pointing to a number of schools of thought promoting this or that belief doesn’t tell us how many Christians believed something. We should consider how much influence each school had and also take into account the beliefs of the multitudes of Christians who were no great theologians. None of the six schools had its seat in Spain for example, but despite that a great many Christians lived there. Ultimately, what I’m trying to say is that though we can claim that four out of six schools of thought were universalist, it is a minor victory. In my view, what really matters is how many early Christian writers can be proven to have been universalists from their writings.

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What’s your perspective on that?

Hello everybody :slight_smile:

You will also find a scholarly source for the four universalistic schools of the Early Church in Schaff’s encyclopedia:

George T. Night, “Universalists”, New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Vol. XII: Trench – Zwingli, ed. S. M. Jackson, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1950), 96.

I also cited that in my first universalistic blog post:

Apart from Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Didymus the Blind, Gregory of Nyssa, Theodore of Mopsuestia and Isaac of Nineveh (maybe I forgot someone) there are few writers of whom we can conclusively demonstrate that they firmly held to universalism. Many were open to the possibility and wavered, that much can be shown.

Thing is, every time I read an e-book claiming that most fathers were universalists I am bound to be disappointed to some degree once I start fact-checking. Don’t get me wrong. I greatly appreciate the books like Dr. Ramelli’s tome you posted a link to in the thread about Athenagoras, but very often universalists just try to prove things that cannot be proven. For example, we can speculate that Chrysostom was secretly a universalist, but we can never make a good case for it to a skeptic. He was a friend of Theodore, sometimes he said things that somewhat imply universalism, and in Homily 9 on Romans he said this: “[T]hey assume punishment to be worse than sin which it is not, but just the contrary. Yet, if it were an evil to the sinner, God would not have added evils to the evil; for He that does everything to extinguish evil, would not have increased it. Being punished then is no evil to the man who has done wrong, but not being punished, when in that plight, is evil, just as for the infirm not to be cured.” This is pretty much all that can be brought forward to support the contention that he was a universalist. Against this, however, we have to put the countless passages where he describes terrifying, infernal tortures and insists that they have no end. The vast majority of his utterances regarding hell can be used to support the eternal torment doctrine. I’d even venture to say that Chrysostom played a major role in solidifying this doctrine in Eastern Christianity and helped to drown out the opinions of Gregory of Nyssa.

A case similar to that of Chrysostom is Hilary of Poitiers. Some universalists make much of the fact that he translated some books of Origen and wrote a couple of things that can be (mis)interpreted to signify universalism, but they ignore passages like this: “[I]f there remains for the saints an expectation, whereas for the wicked there waits the end they have deserved, we cannot conceive that end as a final dissolution (1 Cor 15:24). What punishment would it be for the wicked to be beyond the feeling of avenging torments, because the capability of suffering has been removed by dissolution? The end is, therefore, a culminating and irrevocable condition which awaits us, reserved for the blessed and prepared for the wicked.” (On the Trinity, Book XI, paragraph 28) Consider also these bone-chilling words: “The ungodly have no possible hope of having the image of the happy tree applied to them; the only lot that awaits them is one of wandering and winnowing, crushing, dispersion and unrest; shaken out of the solid framework of their bodily condition, they must be swept away to punishment in dust, a plaything of the wind. They shall not be dissolved into nothing, for punishment must find in them some stuff to work on, but ground into particles, imponderable, unsubstantial, dry, they shall be tossed to and fro, and make sport for the punishment that gives them never rest. Their punishment is recorded by the same Prophet in another place where he says: I will beat them small as the dust before the wind, like the mire of the streets I will destroy them.
Thus as there is an appointed type for happiness, so is there one for punishment. For as it is no hard task for the wind to scatter the dust, and as men who walk through the mud of the streets are hardly aware that they have been treading on it, so it is easy for the punishment of hell to destroy and disperse the ungodly, the logical result of whose sins is to melt them into mud and crush them into dust, reft of all solid substance, for dust and mud they are, and being merely mud and dust are good for nothing else than punishment.” (Homily on the First Psalm, paragraph 19)

My intention in quoting this wasn’t to depress you :slight_smile: I just wanted to make the point that once we take a comprehensive look at church fathers’ writings instead of just quote-mining them, we might become less confident that the majority of ancient Christians were convinced universalists. But at the end of the day, our goal is not cultivate undue confidence, it is to walk in the Truth through which we must go on our Way to the Life.

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Hi, James!

Thanks for the link. The problem is that there is no proof there for the claims about Christian schools, it’s simply stated as a fact. Obviously, it cannot be completely dismissed by the skeptics since it is a scholarly source, but at the same time someone who doesn’t put boundless faith in authorities will probably want to see what representatives of those schools actually wrote. But you did address Brian’s question as best as possible, I believe.

How many “fathers” were universalists is totally irrelevant to me. They were fallible men just like the rest of us. And as a preterist, I think they (almost) all demonstrated just how fallible they were with their eschatology. If they could be so wrong about eschatology, they could be dead wrong about soteriology. Are you a universalist? If so, what are your reasons?

Thanks for all of the replies. They’re very helpful.

What do you think about Augustine’s statement about most believers being Universalists in his day?

I haven’t studied much about the Church Fathers, so I don’t know much about them.


What was wrong with the Church Father’s eschatology?

I have no idea about their eschatology, but you’ve got me interested now. Thanks!

Thanks for the link, James.

It looks like Questorius kind of killed the whole argument anyway with his explanation for the schools, so that answers my question. The argument isn’t really useful, it seems, which is good to know.

Well, as I said, I’m a preterist. And at least the vast majority of fathers were futurists.

What about the other writers to which Ramelli refers: "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…the Apocalypse of Peter’s Rainer Fragment, parts of the Sibylline Oracles, and arguably of the NT, especially Paul’s letters.” ":

Who do you have in mind here? Ramelli lists, for one example of a ECF Christian universalist, “Jerome before his change of mind”:

What early Christian writers would you list in the definitely (1) ECT & (2) CI categories? Assuming they weren’t engaging in a “doctrine of reserve” by doing so. And that their writings are genuine & haven’t been interpolated or re written by later pro endless torments advocates, who ruled by the sword through the dark & middle ages of Inquisitions, Crusades, burning of “heretics” & their writings.

Have you read Dr. Ramelli’s tome? AFAIK she has never made a claim that “most fathers were universalists”. Though that there were at times many, if not a majority of, Christians who believed in punishment coming to an end, seems likely, in light of these quotes, assuming they were telling the truth:

An apparently pro ECT EO member says after English language quotes of Chrysostom he seems to assume are accurately translated & prove Chrysostom’s supports ECT: “Jonathan Edwards, stand aside! The Eastern Church can boast a fire-and-brimstone preacher as terrifying as you!” He adds:

“My ignorance on this question is partly determined by the fact that a huge portion of the Eastern theological patrimony has never been translated into English. I read neither Greek (modern or patristic), Russian, Romanian, Serbian, or Syriac…”

“…Look high and low, but you will not find a comprehensive, detailed, and in-depth scholarly discussion of the eschatology of the Church Fathers, much less of the two thousand year old Eastern tradition. Perhaps such surveys are available in French, German, Russian or Greek, but alas not in English.”

Those English translations give the appearance of rejecting universalism. Yet i am always skeptical of such, since they seem to be made by those of pro endless punishment bias, as is evident, for example, when they always translate aionios punishment as “eternal punishment”. Have you read & researched Ramelli’s comments, quotes & references re Hilary?

Not depressing at all. Ultimately my faith isn’t in the majority opinion (whether ECT, CI, UR, or none of the above, i.e. if they were all minority views) of fallible men on any subject, but what the Spirit reveals as truth in the inspired Scriptures. The ECF, despite their differences of opinions about many things & some really strange viewpoints on some, are still an interesting topic of study. Though perhaps of more interest to those of EO & RC traditions than of others.

I’ll be perfectly honest now: I am an atheist.

Please don’t evict me :fearful:


Not long ago, I used to be a Christian, and in the last and longest phase of my Christian walk I was a universalist. I wasn’t 100% sure, but I believed it is better to err on the side of hope. The basis of my belief was the Bible (“God is love”, “God will be all in all”, “Behold the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world”, “Love thy enemy” etc.), the realization that aionios doesn’t have to mean eternal, logic (e.g.“God will not eternally torment creatures for sins of which He knew before he created them”), and also the fact that devout ancient Christians generally seemed much more open to universalism than modern Christians. This last reason, however, was the least important for me. The first work of the fathers that I read was the First Epistle of Clement of Rome who writes there about the phoenix as if it were a real animal. So I never considered any church father fully inspired. But this thread is about ancient Christians, and so I focused on them. Pointing out the fathers who taught universalism can certainly make the claim that the first Christians were universalists more plausible.

Even though I’m an atheist, I see much that is valuable in Christianity. I don’t believe in God, but I surely hope that a God greater than anything I can understand exists. It’s just that I’m convinced that gods of the religions that I know can’t be real. I would be happy if some kind of universalism were true and I also think most of the New Testament was written by universalists. On top of that, I’ve become fascinated with the evolution of Christianity in the first millennium.

Please forgive me for letting you believe I was still a Christian. One could say that I practised the “doctrine of reserve” with you :laughing:

Thanks for the info.

Would you mind if I ask about your relationship with your father growing up? Your mother too, I suppose, but the father’s more important.

Also, might I ask how you believe everything came into existence without a Creator?

You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to. Actually, oddly enough, in the four stages of spiritual development that psychologists have repeatedly defined through research, the third stage (Doubt) is where Atheists and those who’ve begun to doubt religion(s) [not necessarily God, but definitely religion(s)] are. Which means they’re actually more spiritually developed than the people in stage two, which is religion (or rule following). LOL In stage 3, the doubt stage, people either go Atheist or they just do a lot of research and discover that religions tend to mess up things. The latter end up in stage 4 eventually, which is a comfortable relationship with God where they realize He’s okay with them the way they are and they’re okay with Him, too. Atheists often get stuck because they don’t realize what drove them to rejection of God. They get a bit confused due to their intellectualism or other factors. They’re often looking right past the issue and can’t see it even when it’s pointed out to them. It’s very interesting to see it in action.

So I have a lot of respect for Atheists since they’ve at least seen through religion and figured out how man has screwed it up. I like that they keep Christians on their toes, too, about the facts, whether about the Bible or science. :slight_smile:

Sooo, you’re an amateur psychologist? :grinning:

I did not have a very good relationship with my father. Not that he was abusing me in any way, but we didn’t become really close when I was a kid. I feel like he failed to provide me a male role model. I had a better relationship to my mum, but the person I felt closest to was my grandma. By the way, my family was non-religious, although my mum has become New-Agey over the years. My homeland is Czechia, one of the most atheistic countries in the world. At school, there is on average one Christian in a class. A Catholic or a Jehovah’s Witness usually; Protestantism is all but extinct here. Until I was about 15 I thought that all Christians were literally either greedy paedophiles or retards. Then I was given a free copy of the New Testament and watched a few Christian videos on YouTube. I got saved. Though I’m an atheist I believe that Christ saved me in a way. I’m not sure I’d still be here if it weren’t for Christianity. This is all I’ll tell you about my childhood for now since I don’t think this thread is the right place for a psychotherapy session :laughing:

As for how everything came into existence, I guess the first cause could be a god, but it could also be something impersonal, possibly unintelligent, even unconscious. The existence of evil never made sense to me when I believed in God. As an atheist I can accept it as a tragic reality of a universe which is not guided by a wise providence. But the main reasons why I became an atheist were irreconcilable contradictions in the Gospels and my realization that morality makes perfect sense without the belief in a god. I could go into detail, but not here and now.