The Evangelical Universalist Forum

Universalism not supported in church history

Ok, I am becoming very convinced of the philosophical and biblical reasoning for believing in universalism. However, I really struggle with the fact that the majority of church history has disagreed or even condemned it. Sure, we can argue that a lot of the church fathers were universalists etc., but a lot of people claim their wacky (Gnostics for example) beliefs were held by the early Christians and then the ‘strong’ people pushed them out.

For a long time I held that God was guiding the church and therefore, as time has progressed he has guided it theologically too, but, to accept universalim, I have to believe that either God hasn’t guided the church successfully, or the church in general hasn’t listened.

I don’t know. So, I wondered what some of your thoughts were.


Well, the apostles were notorious for not listening very well from the outset… :wink: A condition that didn’t get magically solved after the resurrection, or Peter wouldn’t have had to have had his wakeup call concerning Cornelius.

That includes a strong theme running throughout the Gospels (particularly the Synoptics), where Jesus keeps explaining that God is concerned to save people that His allies would consider to be only enemies worthy of destruction. We have a natural tendency to think that way; it’s hard to fight against it. We also have a natural tendency to think this or that derivative entity is the Way the Truth and the Life; so when competitive ‘churches’ start making waves, and we know our beliefs are important… then what is the natural temptation? To make the Church (and/or a doctrinal set) the Way/Truth/Life. And so, ironically, gnosticism starts competing against the Gnostics. (But most likely the gnosticism of the church was already well-underway by the time the Gnostics started spinning off or syncretising the material.)

I should also point out that as a matter of history, God didn’t keep Israel from devolving into all kinds of deviant beliefs. But even in the worst times a remnant of a remnant still kept going, being the salt of the earth.

That all having been said: I understand and sympathize with the worry about falling into a persecution complex. :wink: THEY CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!! THE ESTABLISHMENT IS ALWAYS THE TOOL OF THE PRINCE OF THIS WORLD!!! etc. The fair man shouldn’t hold the majority-ness of a majority opinion against the majority. (After all, orthodoxy, even when not spelled out formally, was the majority opinion, too… {hyper-orthodox g!})


Are you aware that that universalism was widespread in the Church in ancient history and universalism remains an option in Eastern Christianity to this day? If you don’t know this, then I’ll help you with some of these resources.: )


I do appreciate your concern. I too look to the Spirit to guide the Church and the fact that universalism is, historically a minority view, is a cause for concern. Indeed my view is that it is precisely for this reason that we should start by assuming the truth of the classical view - eternal conscious torment - and only move away from that if there are very good grounds. As it happens, there are very good reason in this case.

A few things to get some perspective
(a) universalism was held by some early orthodox Christians (and still is)
(b) the Church did embrace some views early on which became majority views which most Christians today would repudiate. For instance, supercessionism was adopted early and was the majority view for most of Christian history. However, it has now been officially repudiated by major denominations including the Catholic Church. Why? Because it is (a) unbiblical, and (b) has shown its true colours through the dreadful ethical impact it has had in the history of Jewish-Christian relations.

In fact, all good Protestants would have to believe that the Church can go wrong - even badly wrong - on occasion.

Final thought, specific views on Hell never assumed the central role of core convictions enshrined in the Rule of Faith or the Creeds. My argument is that universalism allows us to hold together the core convictions of orthodox better than the classical view of Hell. So, ironically, I think that universalism serves to preserve historic orthodoxy. It is embraced out of a sense of trust in the Spirit’s guidance of the Church’s core convictions (even if it acknowledges that the Church went wrong around the fringes)

Excellent points. A similar situation that I explored in the past was that of justification by faith. This was a doctrine that, when I fully comprehended it, was the most life-changing spiritual experience I had since my conversion. Then, I had the random opportunity to church history to 7th and 8th graders (and I had no background in church history, mind you). I fell in love with church history. But as I got to the reformation I wondered why it took the church 1500 years to figure this thing out. I began doing lots of research on this and discovered that the doctrine was alive throughout the whole post-church-father to Reformation years, but not in the established 'C’hurch. Rather, side-groups, some of which were persecuted as heretics, held the belief firmly. In addition, it was encouraging to note that it was clearly taught in the early church. But it seemed to have gotten muddied and mixed with the idea of penance, particularly as the issue of persecution became widespread. The church had to figure out what to do with people who publicly denounced their faith to save themselves from execution, but then who wanted back into the church. In my view, this is one situation where penance came into being and muddied the concept of justification. Surely, this is a simplistic interpretation, but it helps none the less.

So, universalism. Widespread in the early church, continued to live in splinter groups or individuals throughout history, and today…maybe a reformation? Who knows. Still, it carries similarities in its historical journey.

To play my own devil’s advocate though, couldn’t the same comparison be made to something like anti-trinitarianism/Arianism? And yet, I don’t believe that perspective.

Ah, well, thoughts anyone?

p.s. oh, James, how is universalism an “option” in Eastern Christianity? Do they list it as a tenet of faith or just condone it? I’m curious? Has it had an effect on their ministry that is different from Western Christianity? I’d be very interested in some of the resources you mentioned

I know I’ll receive a black eye for asking this but my helmet is black and hard (see my photograph just to the right of all my posts)…

Does a doctrine HAVE to be fully disclosed or understood by the early church to make it true or ratifieable (sorry if I’m not choosing the right word)?

Daniel is told to take these things (visions which he wrote) and seal them up it’s not for him to understand but those in the end will understand.

If Eschatology is up in the air due to the mysterious and symbolic nature of the revelations paul, peter and John all wrote about then why is this eschatalogical view supposed to be fully understood by church fathers?

Sorry if this is a “stone em” type of post but I’m simply wondering…

Studying church history should prove to anyone who knows God personally that Jesus did not come to found the religion of Christianity.

Mopping up the blood of dissenters from the church floor? Are you kidding me??? Even reformation fathers Luther and Calvin were clueless as to who the real Jesus was.

Of course, if you believe God tortures by fire then I guess maybe Luther and Calvin were being inspired by Him to do the same? (In Calvin’s defense - he did try to have Severus beheaded for his heresy instead of burned).

Men took a message and made it into a dogma. Now it’s a ‘world’ religion (and I mean ‘world’ in the biblical sense).

We’ve come a long way in that we don’t kill Jews anymore for believing what the Torah has always taught (The LORD is one) but we still have far to go.

Strictly speaking, that would be “YHWH is AeCHaD” (the Lord is a compound unity–the distinction gets lost in Greek texts). :mrgreen: The rabbinic principle of “for AeCHaD read YaCHYiD” wasn’t formalized until the great Talmudic commentator Maimonides, many centuries after Christianity.

But I’m also glad we don’t kill Jews anymore, or anyone else for that matter, for dissent. The problem there was gnosticism (which I agree Jesus did not come to teach), combined with a threat of ultimate hopelessness for not getting the gnosticism right (which also I agree Jesus did not come to teach). The problem wasn’t trinitarian theism per se. The world’s most popular group of Jesus-respecters who deny multiple persons in the singular God, certainly are not trinitarian theists; but they do tend to be gnostic-or-else-maximally-hopeless in their soteriology, too. Guess what the results have been historically? :wink:

In response to auggybendoggy: I think people want to know if the early church supported this or that doctrine because of the concept that things were most pure when closest to Jesus’ teaching. It’s assumed that it must be easier to alter, add to, or misinterpret things the farther you get away from the source. This makes sense when we remember that there are some people who go even farther by claiming that Paul made things up and that they only believe what Jesus said (the assumption being that there is a difference-I don’t agree).

Anyway, while I tend to agree that support in the early church has weight, the Bible does present a sort of “progressive revelation” concept which would make the early church argument less important. For example, God didn’t fill Adam and Eve in on the whole deal of what He was doing on the Earth, nor did He do so with Abraham or Moses etc. God gradually revealed his will. The disciples are beautiful examples too. They clearly didn’t get “it” until later. Even in Acts they’re still squabbling about whether to include the Gentiles. So…I’m going both ways here: The early church does, to me, hold some weight, but then again, God also may be still progressively revealing His will to us. Could universalism be a part of that???


Here is a speech from Russian Orthodox Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev (2002), “Christ the Conqueror of Hell: The Descent of Christ into Hades in Eastern and Western Theological Traditions” Hilarion defends the hope of universalism while he says that non-universalism is a widespread belief in the Orthodox tradition.

As far as I know, Orthodox churches don’t specify the length of the duration of torment in hell. My best guess is that universalism is optional per bishop or priest. I read about a related example. For example, some Orthodox churches memorialize only Orthodox believers while other Orthodox churches will memorialize anybody. And this option of practices varies from parish leader to parish leader ( I can only guess that belief in the hope of universalism verses non-universalism is the same. But I haven’t studied it enough to know for sure while I feel that I have a general idea about it.

Concerning your last question, I’m not sure about the effects of the option of universalism in Eastern Orthodoxy verses the non-universalism of Roman Catholicism. And the anser to that question doesn’t determine my biblical beliefs. In fact, Early Church Father beliefs don’t determine my biblical beliefs while I always get informed by Christian leaders throughout church history.

I believe Luther had a good understanding of Jesus when Luther began to understand justification by faith. But for some reason, Luther started to sound paranoid in 1528 and he clearly backslid into what I call Old Testament Christianity by 1536.

But this is THEOLOGY not a knowing of Jesus. God is not angry about good or bad theology but the cry of the prophets is always against oppression.

Do you want to do the work of God? The real work of God? You can start here:

We can STOP supporting the slave trade (as we all do as American consumers) and STOP little girls and boys from being bought and sold for sex.

Some disturbing facts: Virgins bring more money (when they are sent out for week long ‘rentals’) partially because they are perceived to be aids free.

So what do their ‘owners’ do? When the week is up - get them back, sew their hymens back up and do it all over again.

So please, go to the link and see Jesus sans religion.

While we sit and discuss theology we are missing the entire point.

In Christ’s love,

  • Byron


Other writings by Luther suggest that he had genuine encounters with Jesus Christ prior to his backsliding in 1536. We need to be careful how we judge other believers in both present and past. And we can also note that Luther prophetically cried out against many evils in his day.

I agree that we need to oppose modern slavery including child prostitution slavery. Our most important starting place is to focus on the ministry of the word and prayer while giving our all to God and the Great Commission, evangelism and discipleship in all nations. Child prostitution will stop when the earth is filled with the glory and knowledge of the Lord.

Don’t get me wrong James - I recognize that many good things came out of the reformation but at the same time we need to recognize that they were still encompassed with great spiritual darkness. We need to move on. I am not shy to say that someone who is willing to imprison, torture and kill others over beliefs and correct doctrine does not have a clue. This would include Luther and Calvin.

Sorry to be so blunt with the ‘real’ work of God comment. I have worked with some of the finest ministries in the country for decades and yet I see evangelical Christianity (by and large) missing the point.

Jesus told the 12 to go into all the world and make disciples, NOT us (I know this statement will be a tall hurdle for evangelicals). We need to free the oppressed now in practical ways. The time for preaching the gospel is over - it’s time to BE the gospel. We think the answer is for some mystical move of God to sweep the earth but I for one am unwilling to sit in a prayer closet while these atrocities are going on. I will fill the earth with the knowledge of God by DEMONSTRATING how much He and I care for these people (while the ‘church’ has one more bible study or more "How to " conference). I guarantee that if it was your own child there would be no closet needed before taking action. In that case putting a stop to it would be a number one priority, right?

So the bottom line that we don’t really care. The church (by and large) is more interested in being religious than doing the works of God. They think the enemy is Islam, or Satan, or the theory of evolution or an improper understanding of church doctrine.

The enemy is our own calloused hearts which allow us to sleep well while these things are happening on God’s planet.

So, did I kill this thread with my harsh judgements about our general condition of heart? Is no one going to defend us ugainst my vicious attacks? :wink:

Byron, We have major problems, but I strongly disagree with you when you say, “Jesus told the 12 to go into all the world and make disciples, NOT us.” Jesus said that all disciples of Christ need to be taught what Jesus taught the 11. This is way off.

“…and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Matthew 28:20 NIV

ooops, yes - my statement was way off. It was 11 at that time, not 12!

So what happened after the age ended and the temple was destroyed ect. ? A new religion was born - that’s what. Look at the pattern from that point forward. It’s not a pretty sight.

I have the same problems preterists have with folks taking what was specifically spoken to Jesus’ contemporaries and applying it to ourselves personally. That’s why rapture doctrine persists and the entire end-time prophecy ‘industry’ relies on this type of thinking to perpetuate itself.

Mark 13:7 (NKJV) But when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be troubled; for such things must happen, but the end is not yet. 8For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be earthquakes in various places, and there will be famines and troubles. These are the beginnings of sorrows.
9"But watch out for yourselves, for they will deliver you up to councils, and you will be beaten in the synagogues. You will be brought before rulers and kings for My sake, for a testimony to them. 10And the gospel must first be preached to all the nations. 11But when they arrest you and deliver you up, do not worry beforehand, or premeditate what you will speak. But whatever is given you in that hour, speak that; for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. 12Now brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; and children will rise up against parents and cause them to be put to death. 13And you will be hated by all for My name’s sake. But he who endures to the end shall be saved".

Who did Jesus say this too? Peter, James, John, and Andrew. Who would hear rumors of wars? Peter, James, John, and Andrew. Who got beaten in synagogues? Peter, James, John, and Andrew (the early apostles).

“The Gospel of the Kingdom shall be preached to the whole world as a witness and THEN the end shall come".

So it’s something to consider that these things are fulfilled and our job is to be the good news and let the life of God live through us instead of teaching that the end is near and that ‘salvation’ comes through believing correct theology.

Byron, we’ve gone over some of this in the past. For example, many futurists incorporate preterist typologies. And the Gospel wasn’t preached to the whole world when Titus destroyed Jerusalem in AD 70. And many churches outside of Jerusalem had no or minimal change resulting from the destruction of Jerusalem, so claiming that Christianity was a new religion after 70 holds no water outside of Jerusalem. And even the churches inside Jerusalem didn’t focus on the Temple when making decisions. And Jesus or anybody else in the New Testament never taught your dichotomy of being the good news versus proclaiming the good news. The commandment to fulfill the Great Commission still stands. The Church still needs to be the good news and proclaim the good news to all people. Please reconsider your logic.

I think from statements like “The time for preaching the gospel is over - it’s time to BE the gospel” you’re falling off the horse on the other side. The two notions are not mutually exclusive options. The overemphasis on the former comes from strong latent gnosticism, which is a theological heresy–and if someone doesn’t explain (or at least teach with accepted authority) why that’s not just something to be avoided because of unpleasant results, but also untrue, then people (including obviously Christians) are going to keep falling into that error. With those (to put it mildly) unpleasant results.

Dichotomizing between faith and works is not a good idea in either direction. But I tend to agree that charity should proceed along something like that represented by Mazlow’s hierarchy. One of the reasons institutional atheism went over so well in China and the Soviet Union is because the people preaching it made sure to address basic needs first. At first. (Then came the coersion and dehumanization contingent on the false teaching. Pretty rapidly after the teachers got the people to respect-them-into-power with the charity first, too.)

It’s a famous story now, in fact - the most popular in history. The main problem (generally speaking) is not that people don’t know it - it’s that they don’t see it.

As Jason points out above - atheists are sometimes wiser in their work than theists are in theirs.

Resources are poured into the church system but those who do the works of God outside of ‘proper’ theology are labeled new age heretics or secular humanists or even pawns of satan (false angels of light) ect ect.

My stance is basically that the true work of God has ALWAYS gone against the established tradition. As then - so now.