“In the first five or six centuries of Christianity there were six theological schools, of which four (Alexandria, Antioch, Caesarea, and Edessa, or Nisibis) were Universalist, one (Ephesus) accepted conditional immortality; one (Carthage or Rome) taught endless punishment of the wicked. Other theological schools are mentioned as founded by Universalists, but their actual doctrine on this subject is not known.”
“The Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge”
by Schaff-Herzog, 1908, volume 12, page 96
St. Basil the Great (c. 329-379) in his De Asceticis wrote: “The mass of men (Christians) say that there is to be an end of punishment to those who are punished.” I point out that he is not classified as a Universalist.
St. Jerome (342-420), the author of the Vulgate Latin Bible and whose jealousy got him into an ugly scandal that stained the church, writes: “I know that most persons understand by the story of Nineveh and its King, the ultimate forgiveness of the devil and all rational creatures.”
The last person I want to quote regarding what the average early Christian believed, is the very champion of the doctrine of “Eternal Torment” himself–Saint Augustine. He stands right next to Emperor Constantine as a key figure leading the church away from the original teachings of the Old and New Testaments. Augustine was in the Manichaean religion for nine years prior to becoming a Christian. This was an Eastern religion of fire worship. In this system, the universe would be divided forever between good and evil. The Romans and Greeks had a habit of incorporating the religions of the countries they conquered. The religions of the East flooded into the church after Constantine united church and state. Constantine provided the building materials to build this monstrous structure and Augustine built the theological structure. His most famous writing was The City of God. Now listen to the champion of “Eternal Torment” regarding the view of Christian believers over this matter over four hundred years after Christ’s resurrection:** “There are very many (imo quam plurimi, can be translated majority) who though not denying the Holy Scriptures, do not believe in endless torments” (Enchiria, ad Laurent. c.29).**
The great church historian Geisler writes: “The belief in the inalienable capability of improvement in all rational beings, and the limited duration of future punishment was so general, even in the West, and among the opponents of Origen, that it seems entirely independent of his system” (Eccles. Hist., 1-212).
This statement is very significant because many modernists attribute to Origen’s influence the fact that the vast majority of early Christians did not believe in eternal torment! Keep in mind these historians I am quoting do not embrace the “larger hope.” What Geisler said in a nutshell was that the church believed in ultimate reconciliation, even many of those who opposed Origen.
The famous Dietelmaier has this to say: “Universalism in the fourth century drove its roots down deeply, alike in the East and West, and had very many defenders.”