The intent of this writing is to explore the case for universalism, the idea that all sinful and alienated human souls will ultimately be reconciled to God, by making the strongest argument for it and allowing the reader to evaluate its merits. I believe that in order to do this, it is best to start by reviewing the writings of Paul and leveraging his phrasing, statements, and claims as a lens by which we can view the parables of Christ and the gospel message altogether. While some may view this as a mistake, I believe it is important to keep in mind that the parables of Christ are written in such a way that one could come to multiple conclusions by them, and, as history has shown, this does indeed happen quite frequently. By using Paul’s writing as a lens, we are able to eliminate some of these alternate conclusions by their contradictory nature, leaving us with a decision to make regarding the efficacy of Paul’s writing.
The Universalist Paul
As a disclaimer, I am not concretely stating that Paul accepted the idea of universalism, but I hope that by exploring critical elements of his writing we can demonstrate that some fundamental elements of universalism were present. If we use these elements as a lens for the larger gospel, I believe we will begin to see a clear case for universalism.
I have chosen a seemingly obscure place to start our examination of Paul’s writing, starting in 1 Corinthians 5 where Paul is rebuking the church for celebrating a sexually immoral relationship. While this may appear entirely unrelated to universalism, Paul provides an intriguing command to the church, found in verses 4 and 5.
So that his spirit may be saved on the Day of the Lord, presumably after the destruction of his flesh. Now, we can interpret this to mean a great deal of things in isolation, as well as in the context of this chapter of Corinthians, and Paul himself could have intended this verse to apply to a variety of situations within his own mind. Perhaps he meant a metaphorical destruction of the flesh, although it would be odd for Satan, as the opposition of God, to facilitate such an event. In this case, Paul could be implying that the man will be saved when God desires it, and that he should be expelled from the church until then. While this view fits nicely with the context of the chapter, the remark about Satan does not. In a more literal sense, he could also be implying that this man may be saved after his death, following the physical destruction of his body. For now, let us set this verse aside and look further into Paul’s writing in Corinthians.
In Christ, all will be made alive. Some may point to the last words here, stating that only those who belong to Him will be made alive, and so we must ask who actually belongs to Him? Christ, who was granted authority over all things, must then have all things under Him, which is affirmed in the very next set of verses from 1 Corinthians 15.
Verse 28 here clarifies that all things have been put under Christ by God. To further justify this position, let us briefly look to the words of Christ after His resurrection.
All authority in heaven and on earth was granted to Him. It logically follows that He was given authority over all of humanity as well, even those that do not claim Him. To further this point, let me ask a question. Who has authority over something, if not the creator, sustainer, maintainer, and judge of it? And if the owner chooses to hand that authority over to someone else, then they most certainly must be considered the owner of the object in question. If we agree with this conclusion, then it is inevitable that all people belong to Christ, even if they do not claim Him. So once again, in Christ, all will be made alive. Those that belong to Him will be made alive, and per our conclusion, all people belong to Christ. Let’s return to Paul for an additional point on this, continuing from our last verse in Corinthians.
The early church conducted baptisms on the behalf of those who had already died, and Paul plainly asks why they would do this if they did not also believe that they could be raised. This would be a rather futile endeavor, and pointless, if we do not believe that they could be saved as well. Many modern churches no longer practice this, believing that the dead have lost their chance at salvation and, as a result, the practice is indeed futile. However, if one were to read Paul’s writings, it is clear that he was quick to call out such things if they were not beneficial and it is important to note that no such chastisement is stated here. In fact, he appears to endorse the practice, using it as further justification for the eventual raising of the dead.
In review of what we have read so far, we can see the following concepts:
- If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. What is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable.
- Hand him over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that he may be saved on the day of the Lord.
- In Christ, all will be made alive.
From these passages alone, universalist undertones present themselves. Before we move on, let us attempt to reinforce these concepts by referring to other biblical authors. Should we require further evidence for the potential salvation of the dead, beyond the ceremonial implications of baptism addressed by Paul, let us look no further than Peter.
Why would Christ preach to those in prison, those who died long ago in the flood, if there were no hope for them? This would surely be a strangely insignificant action for Christ, unless they are still under His authority. Peter responds to this query in the following chapter.
According to Peter, the gospel was preached to the dead so that they might live according to God. How can the dead live, especially if they are in prison? Let us consult the very words of Christ on this accord.
If we are to believe that the dead cannot be saved and have no hope of freedom through Christ, our mediator to God our judge, then it would seem that a life-long sentence would be a more apt comparison. Instead, we find that Christ says you will not get out until you have paid every last penny, implying that freedom is still possible. Given the context provided by Paul and Peter, baptizing the dead and Christ preaching to them, this statement from Christ becomes far more meaningful and sounds much less like the eternal destruction we read about elsewhere.
Finally, before moving on to discuss eternal destruction, eternal punishment, and the outer darkness, I would like to pose a few questions. If Christ preached to the dead, so that they may live according to God, and if we accept the doctrine of eternal punishment, how do we reconcile these concepts? How does one live according to God while in the midst of eternal torment? What comfort could one soul offer another? What good could be provided by those in the midst of their torment? For these questions, I can conceive no answer.
Now, some commentators may point out that those who died in the flood had not heard the gospel, and without hearing had no opportunity for forgiveness. Thus, Christ gave them the gospel and the opportunity, should they have been willing to accept it. I suppose that such an argument has some merit, but I should point out that Noah most likely preached to them as well, until the very day of the flood. However, even if we yield to this argument, we are still left with Paul endorsing the practice of baptism on behalf of the dead, and again we find ourselves attempting to answer the very same set of questions.
Eternal Destruction and Eternal Life
The doctrine of eternal damnation clearly stands in the way of a plain reading of the verses I cited from Paul, Peter, and Matthew. Thus, we must look at the verses on which that doctrine is based for further understanding.
I’d like to start with a reminder that when interpreting any text, even text within our native tongue, context can change the entire meaning of a word. Sometimes this context is clear and apparent, but occasionally the context can be obscured, resulting in confusion and misunderstanding. As a brief demonstration of this, I would like to share a couple of sentences using the word awful. It should be possible to derive the intended meaning of the word from each example, even without defining it.
- Getting that flat tire was such an awful experience.
- The presence of Nature in all her awful loveliness.
In the first example, awful carries a negative connotation, while it does the opposite in the second example. This sort of contextual implication is common among all languages and so it should come as no surprise that there is debate, even among scholars, regarding the interpretation of ancient written texts such as the Bible.
I don’t believe that anyone would contend with the idea that the common meaning or usage of words change throughout time. I am sure that we could list many examples of this occurring within our own lifetimes as validation of the concept. As a result, we should start our contextual analysis by examining historical definitions of the word aiōn, the root from which every word translated as endless, eternal, or forever in the English New Testament is derived. I believe that in this case, we should start with the definition provided by the oldest known lexicographer, Hesychius of Alexandria. Likely living sometime during the 5th and 6th century C.E., Hesychius is the author of one of the world’s oldest existing lexicons, in it he defines aiōn as such:
Interestingly, he does not include any notion of eternity in his definition, but alludes to an indeterminate amount of time with both a beginning and end. John of Damascus, living sometime between the 7th and 8th century C.E. and one of the Fathers of the Eastern Orthodox Church, would seem to agree with this, adding the following:
In fact, it doesn’t seem that aión is given any secular or common use regarding endless or limitless time until the 16th century C.E., when a unique entry was added by yet another lexicographer. Varinus Phavorinus, who was a 16th century lexicographer and tutor to the future Pope Leo X, provides the following definition:
Phavorinus notes that theology has provided a new meaning for the word in common language. Somewhere between the time of Hesychius and that of Phavorinus, theological interpretation drove a new meaning into the common language. It appears that aión would have been understood very differently to ancient readers of the Old Testament, as well as the very people to whom Christ spoke, which only serves to strengthen the lens we built through Paul earlier.
The only exception found here comes from Theodoret of Cyrus, a theologian in the 5th century C.E., who provides us with one scenario in which aión can refer to the infinite; only when spoken of God. This is, of course, a direct result to the theological idea that God has no beginning or end. If the classical meaning of the word aión compares a length of time with the life of something, then when it is used while speaking about God it must refer to His duration as well.
Olympiodorus of Thebes was a Roman historian, poet, philosopher and diplomat of the early fifth century. I have included him here as an early non-Christian source informing us of the common understanding of aiónian punishment. Notice that he adds a Greek word (apeirous) to clarify that an aiónian period is not endless.
Eternal or Indefinite
From these authors, scholars, theologians, and lexicographers, it should be made plain that aión is not endless unless the target of its application can be deemed so, such as its application to God. Now, let us look to one of the passages from which the doctrine of eternal damnation is drawn.
The New International Version uses the definite translation of everlasting, making the contextual decision for us. Marvin Vincent, professor of classics at Troy Methodist University and professor of New Testament exegesis and criticism at Union Theological Seminary before his death in 1922, provides a very enlightening note on this very verse in his work, Word Studies in the New Testament.
Additional Note on ὄλεθρον αἰώνιον eternal destruction, Th2 1:9
Ἁιών transliterated eon, is a period of time of longer or shorter duration, having a beginning and an end, and complete in itself. Aristotle (περὶ οὐρανοῦ, i. 9, 15) says: “The period which includes the whole time of each one’s life is called the eon of each one.” Hence it often means the life of a man, as in Homer, where one’s life (αἰών) is said to leave him or to consume away (Il. v. 685; Od. v. 160). It is not, however, limited to human life; it signifies any period in the course of events, as the period or age before Christ; the period of the millennium; the mytho-logical period before the beginnings of history. The word has not “a stationary and mechanical value” (De Quincey). It does not mean a period of a fixed length for all cases. There are as many eons as entities, the respective durations of which are fixed by the normal conditions of the several entities. There is one eon of a human life, another of the life of a nation, another of a crow’s life, another of an oak’s life. The length of the eon depends on the subject to which it is attached.Vincent, M., 1991. Word studies in the New Testament:. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson.
Once again we see that the definitive use of everlasting, eternal, or endless, would not be appropriate here. The New International Version, as well as so many other interpretations of the New Testament, have chosen to make this contextual decision on our behalf. Perhaps it was done for the sake of doctrine, perhaps on behalf of doctrine for the sake of readability, the motivations do not really matter as the fact is that this decision was made for us, the reader, without any note of possible exception and in spite of the historical understanding of the word. However, not all translations choose to do this, preferring instead to remove doctrine from the text and allowing the reader to come to their own doctrinal conclusions.
As we see in Young’s Literal Translation, everlasting is instead presented as age-during, a much more appropriate phrase which carries the historical understanding. With this translation, the punishment could be everlasting or finite, and it is left to the reader to decide. Based on the verses I presented earlier from Paul, Peter, and even Christ, if we are talking about punishment, separated from God, could it truly be everlasting? If so, we are confronted with the same questions of baptism on behalf of the dead and of Jesus preaching to the dead. What would be the meaning of these things if the punishment is everlasting and unending? After the last penny has been paid, does the prisoner just remain in prison? It would seem that the lens Paul, Peter, and Christ have given us suggests otherwise.
Once again we are presented with an interpretation which makes the contextual decision for us. But which would you prefer, an interpretation which makes contextual decisions for you in the name of readability, or an interpretation which might be harder to understand but causes you to stop and ask the right questions? Let’s take a look at the same verse from another New Testament version.
I will admit that this verse is much more difficult to understand, but it does cause us to ask the following question. What is meant by punishment age-during, or life age-during? To answer this question, we would need to look at the historical lexicons and word studies which I have quoted, and others which I have not mentioned here. We would have to use our understanding of other biblical verses in order to create a holistic picture of what is being described, and the verses I have quoted so far would need to be accounted for.
If we leverage the lens we established earlier, the verse becomes clear. The context of the passage in Matthew is again regarding punishment separated from God, one which must be for an indeterminate period of time if we accept baptism on behalf of the dead, just as Paul clearly did. Life, on the other hand, can be presumed to be life with God, which can absolutely be eternal, as God is eternal. However, I still would insist that age-during is the appropriate phrase to use here, as opposed to eternal, and I will explain why.
It is my opinion that we retain free will in heaven. Though we may not desire to sin, if we have free will, the possibility remains. Removing free will would seem to defeat the purpose of this entire existence, as God could have created mindless automatons from the beginning, providing agency and then removing it would seem to be counterproductive. Although I can see no logical reason why someone, after striving to be with God through life and through punishment, being united with Him in paradise, would choose to rebel, the word choice here is just one more indication that it is indeed possible.
All of this leads me to one more point about the selection of phrasing and the translation. If Christ and the authors of the New Testament had insisted on endless duration without question, there were Greek words at their disposal, aïdios (eternal) or ateleutos (endless) for example. These words have no ambiguity to them and were even used by Flavius Josephus, a first century historian, to describe the eternal retribution and eternal imprisonment teachings of the Pharisees and the Essenes respectively. Nevertheless, we were given the use of a word which is hinged to the relative time-duration of its subject. It is my belief that this was deliberate.
There are many more examples of this throughout the New Testament, but I will not go through all of them here. I would like to present one final example though. Typically captioned as the unforgivable or unpardonable sin, Mark 3:29 is commonly interpreted as such:
With this interpretation, there can be no doubt as to its meaning. The contextual decisions have been made for us once again, regardless of the true intent of the underlying Greek. Once again, Young’s Literal and other translations have taken a more historically accurate phrasing.
The difference here is clear, and the passage is no longer absolute, allowing it to easily align with the verses we reviewed earlier. Rejection of the Holy Spirit, rejection of the gospel, results in punishment. If Christ will not mediate on our behalf until we accept the gospel, and if we allow baptisms on behalf of the dead and agree that Christ preaches to them, then this verse, as it is presented in Young’s, appears to be a more accurate translation. Further so when one considers the historical definition of aión.
Expanding the Lens
At this point we have given ourselves a set of verses which challenge the doctrine of eternal damnation and we have equipped ourselves with a more historically accurate understanding of some of the key verses which support such a doctrine. Now we must establish a larger context by which we can understand what is meant by age-during judgement or punishment, and age-during life.
Catholicism gets around the difficulty of dealing with baptism, preaching, and even prayers for the dead with the introduction of another alternative, referred to as purgatory, a temporary state of existence where believers who have not been perfected are prepared for their entrance to Heaven. Of course, this doctrine is presented with its own set of challenges, and these challenges overlap with the doctrine of eternal damnation.
If anyone builds on this foundation, his workmanship will be evident. If it is burnt up, he will suffer, but he himself will be saved. This passage comes from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians and is frequently assumed to be addressing the Corinthians directly. I’d like to challenge that assumption, given the way that Paul frequently addresses the Corinthians as you, yourselves, brothers, and so on. In fact, in the verses immediately prior to this passage, and immediately following, Paul returns to addressing the Corinthians in that manner. If we choose to ignore that distinction here, then we must also do so in verse 17:
If we presume Paul to be speaking exclusively to the Church in Corinth, then we must interpret this passage in the same way, taking away from the clear distinction of Paul’s choice to say anyone, and assuming that he is implying that only if a fellow brother in Christ destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. This is, of course, nonsensical given the phrasing. In this same manner, we must assume that Paul when Paul says anyone, he in fact means anyone, and not just those to whom he is speaking. Such an understanding would indeed challenge the view of eternal damnation, as well as purgatory. Not only does this understanding of the passage respect Paul’s choice of words, but it also aligns with the verses identified as our lens. Baptism on behalf of the dead, prayers for the dead, and even Christ Himself preaching to the dead so that they might live according to God, all make sense without any form of convoluted reasoning.
Additionally, I have heard it stated that the works spoken of in the previous passage are exclusive to believers, typically in defense of the view of purgatory, but this is addressed directly in the passage where it is explicitly stated that no one can lay a foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. Nonbelievers produce works as well, and those works must be built on some foundation, even if it is a foundation they reject.
Finally, I will offer one final passage by which we can expand the lens Paul provides us:
If our ministry is one of reconciliation, how then can we preach eternal and endless suffering? This does not appear to me, to be a message of reconciliation, but one purely of judgement. Is God reconciling the world, or merely reconciling part of the world and eternally punishing the rest?
All Shall Be Saved
Any doctrine which includes eternal damnation, with or without purgatory, must be thoroughly reconciled not only with the lens we have identified, but also with the following verses:
- This is good and pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who wants everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. – 1 Timothy 2:3-4
- For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all – 1 Timothy 2:5-6
- For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. – 2 Corinthians 5:14-15
- For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom He wishes. – John 5:21
This is merely a selection of verses with which eternal damnation would clash, but age-during judgement would easily be reconciled, and there are more. I’d like to walk through these examples in a larger context, so that we might see this point on full display.
These are the words of Christ, as recorded in the book of John. Here we see that not only does the Father raise the dead to life, but also the Son who does the will of the Father. What is the will of the Father?
According to Paul, God our Savior desires for everyone to be saved. If the Son does the will of the Father, and the Father desires all to be saved, how can we conclude that some will not be saved?
Everyone or All Humanity?
One common rebuttal to the verses we have examined so far is that, in context, they may not be referring to ‘all humanity’ when they say ‘everyone’. This is a valid point and something that should be addressed. Our last verse, from 1 Timothy 2, says that God wants everyone to be saved. Of course, this verse comes from a letter from Paul to Timothy, and a case could be made that Paul had a specific group of people in mind when he says ‘everyone’. Rather than go through and analyze the context of each of these verses individually, it may be better to present a concrete example supporting universalism, and then use that passage to help us decide if ‘everyone’ means merely the ‘elect’, or if it may indeed apply to all of humanity. In order to determine this, we must first establish that Christ atoned for all humanity, and then we can establish that all people will eventually experience salvation.
John establishes that Christ atoned for the sins of the whole world, not just some people. The word choice here is undeniable. All sins have been atoned for with one exception, the denial of the Holy Spirit. This denial is what condemns people to punishment, their own choice not to accept the pardon that has been made for them.
Punishment is an action that intends to seek a certain outcome, the understanding that whatever someone has done to deserve punishment was wrong or improper and a commitment to no longer conduct one’s self in that manner, also called repentance. An eternal, endless punishment would not obtain that outcome as the punishment would simply continue on forever, even after the person has repented. Endless punishment makes the act of repentance meaningless. In order for repentance to have value, a person must be saved from further punishment. So, the question that we must ask is if there is a promise from God that all people will eventually see that salvation from punishment.
All humanity will see the glory of God, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken. We could spend some time breaking down the meaning of this, but the book of Luke has already rephrased it for us.
All humanity will see God’s salvation. Not merely the elect, not some subgroup of humanity, but all humanity. Some will be saved prior to punishment, others will be handed over for the destruction of the flesh, so that their spirit may be saved on the Day of the Lord (1 Corinthians 5:4-5), but all humanity will see God’s salvation.
Age-During Judgement or Age-During Life
Earlier, I asked if Christ does the will of the Father, and the Father desires all to be saved, how can we conclude that some will not be saved? In response to that question, I’d like to use several verses by which we can paint a portrait of sorts, one which describes the fate of unbelievers beyond this life. In order to properly portray such imagery, we must first lay some foundation.
God is a Consuming Fire
God is indeed a consuming fire, one which refines and cleanses. For some context regarding what this means, let us consider the following:
In Isaiah we see that God cleanses the heart with a spirit of judgement and a spirit of fire.
Here in Malachi we see similarities in the imagery provided by Paul in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15, which I will refer to again in a moment. From this passage in Malachi we come to understand that the spirit of fire is like a refining fire, purifying and refining to be like silver and gold. These precious metals are most likely analogous to righteousness. Now that we have established that the spirit of fire, the consuming fire, is a refining, purifying, and cleansing fire, let us revisit Paul’s words in Corinthians.
Under the Old Covenant we are judged by our works, and since we are all fallible, this is not desirable or beneficial to us. It is absolutely a gauge by which we can aspire to improve, but it is not a measure by which we would benefit if judged. This is the judgement, the purifying fire by which we are judged, and if our works are good we are rewarded, but if they are not, we will suffer. However, through the flames we are saved. Regardless of this eventuality, the process does not sound appealing to say the least. How can we avoid such a fate?
According to Paul in 2 Timothy, a man can purge himself of dishonorable works and be sanctified, prepared for every good work. How can this be done? Through Christ.
In Romans Paul makes it clear that faith in Christ and confession of that faith will not only save us, but justify us as well, and that justification is what saves us from torment in our judgement.
Anyone who believes in Him will never be put to shame. Our works are justified through our faith in Christ and this gift is freely available to all. Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. Saved from age-during torment and judgement, the purifying and consuming fire, and rewarded with age-during life with Christ, which is eternally with God the Father.
The Lake of Fire
Now, there are many beliefs regarding the book of Revelation, whether certain events have taken place and if certain things mentioned are intended to be literal or metaphorical. Once again, these debates are not necessary for the understanding of that which I am about to share. First, we already have an understanding of the nature of fire in this context, as purifying and refining, but it is only purifying for those things which can remain through the flames. Those things which are no longer necessary, such as death or Hades, will not survive the flame. However, let us look into the book of Revelation for some examples of things which may indeed survive the fire.
The Kings of the Earth
This is a passage from Psalms which appears to foreshadow the same kings of the earth mentioned in Revelation, and a warning is given to them regarding their rebellion:
Here we see that they, the kings of the earth, will perish in their rebellion when His wrath ignites in an instant. We see these same events play out in the book of Revelation.
This is the first mention of the kings of the earth in Revelation, and Jesus is proclaimed to be their ruler, whom they were warned and instructed to serve.
Here we see the kings of the earth running and attempting to escape their imminent demise, just as they were warned.
Now the kings of the earth prepare for battle, for violent rebellion, just as described in Psalms 2.
In Revelation 17, it is made clear to whom the loyalty of the kings of the earth lays.
The kings of the earth watch in fear as their master is consumed by fire. It is important to remember here that their master is a city, Babylon.
We see the kings of the earth meet their fate and perish at the hands of Christ, just as stated in Psalms 2. At this point, in Revelation 20, we are presented with the resurrection of those who served Christ and are given a thousand years of peace. After this, the dead are judged according to their works. Surely we can count the kings of the earth, who died in open rebellion against Christ, among them.
At this point, we are presented with an open question. Do we believe that the names of the kings of the earth are recorded in the Book of Life? It is not necessary to debate this question here, so I will leave it to you for now. The more important question at this juncture is this: What happens to the kings of the earth? It is my belief that we are presented with three basic options:
- If we accept a doctrine of eternal conscious torment, everlasting damnation, then we must assume that they remain in the lake of fire.
- If we believe that their names were present in the Book of Life, then we must do so despite the fact that they are presented as dying in open rebellion against Christ. The ramifications of such a belief will be difficult to reconcile with all of the passages regarding the judgement of fire, age-during punishment, or even eternal punishment.
- We can accept the description of the fire of judgement as purifying and refining, destroying those works which are dishonorable and saving the man in the end, as we have seen it described in several passages.
I will not bother to address option two, as it seemingly contradicts very much of what we have read and established so far, and I would be hard pressed to imagine any position which can coherently reconcile such a view with scripture. So, let us address option number one, and inquire if they remain in the lake of fire.
Here we see a new heaven, a new earth, and the holy city, the new Jerusalem. But we also see that the kings of the earth enter into it with glory. How is this possible? Perhaps these are a different set of kings of the earth, different from those presented to us earlier. The phrasing is too suspect and deliberate, as this could have easily have been distinguished from such prominent figures in all of the earlier chapters of Revelation by simply describing them as new kings of the earth, or perhaps the remaining kings of the earth. Yet, here they are, being presented in the exact same manner as we have seen them described in Psalm 2, Revelation 1, 6, 16, 17, 18, and 19, as the kings of the earth. Even in the Greek, they were βασιλεῖς (basileis) when they were slain in Revelation 19 and βασιλεῖς (basileis) when presented in Revelation 21. Given this, it would seem that the view of judgement fire as being purifying and refining, saving the man through the flames, as well as the view of age-during punishment and age-during judgement being limited in duration, hold true even here at the end, with the new heaven and the new earth, and even the new Jerusalem.
Patriarchs of the Early Church
When looking for guidance on issues of grave importance, it is essential to look to the early church fathers for their understanding as well. This can only serve to inform our opinion on such matters. Many of these men have been venerated as Saints, have miracles attributed to them, and many of them died as martyrs refusing to deny their faith in Christ, as a result, I do not believe we should take their words lightly. I will offer some limited background information in order to properly introduce each person before looking into their quoted works, this way their is no confusion as to the prominence and historical role each of these men played in the history of the church.
Pope Clement I (1st Century)
Clement of Rome was Bishop of Rome until his death in 99 AD and is said to have been consecrated by Peter the Apostle.
Here Clement is careful to use the same Greek terminology that we find in our biblical examples, also translated as age-during punishment. Thus, we must once again refer to the biblical context for the implication of this phrasing, which we have already done. It is agreed that nothing will rescue us from such punishment, or refinement, and it is merely the duration being disputed as either eternal or limited. Given the historical usage of the word, and the lens we have been provided by Paul, we must once again ask ourselves if this is an appropriate translation of Pope Clement I from the Greek.
In this passage we are presented with torture in unquenchable fire and, as I previously pointed out, there are no qualms with the claim that the fire is unquenchable, merely the duration that one may spend in such a fire. There is nothing present in either of these passages which would call into question the biblical understanding of age-during punishment that I presented earlier, simply the recycled biblical language used to express age-during punishment, which we have already discussed.
In fact, in First Clement there is a passage which seems to imply limited, or age-during punishment:
He does good to all. Refining and purifying like silver and gold, or eternal conscious torment? What good comes to the soul suffering eternally?
Almighty God has justified all men; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.
Justin Martyr (c. AD 100 – c. AD 165)
Also known as Justin the philosopher, Justin was a second century Christian apologist who was martyred, hence the title.
Once again in this passage we see that original Greek uses the same biblical terminology that we have become accustomed to, with Justin using the word αἰωνίαν (aiōnian), from the root aión, which we have already discussed. For those same reasons, it is alternatively, and more appropriately, translated as age-during.
Here, we do not see any notion as to the duration of the punishment, merely the mention that the fire is age-during, or αἰωνίῳ (aionious).
Once again, in this final passage we see that the wicked are condemned to punishment in fire, and the duration of the punishment is not explicitly implied. In all of these passages from Justin, we again find ourselves reading the same biblical language we have already discussed and seeing passages which neither support nor condemn any notion of eternal punishment. One thing of note here is that demons are mentioned in this fire as well, and I will address this later with a passage from another church father.
While this passage is not one offered up as evidence for belief in eternal damnation among the church fathers, I believe it may help to provide some additional insight into, not only the previous passages from Justin and the other church fathers, but also to the biblical passages we have discussed. Most interesting in this passage is the phrase endless duration, as the word endless here is an entirely new Greek word (ἀπέραντον) which is never used in the Bible to describe the duration of punishment. We will return to that word in just a moment, but first I would like to address the second part of that phrase, the word duration here is actually from the same Greek aión which I pointed out is more accurately translated as age-during, but it is also translated as age and, apparently, duration, as it is used here. This only serves to strengthen the case that age-during, or some equivalent phrase expressing the flexibility of the term, is a more appropriate translation.
In regard to the word endless from the passage, used here to further describe the duration of punishment, I would like to point out that it is also used in the book of 3 Maccabees. Although this is not considered biblical canon, its usage in the following passage can help us to more accurately understand how it is used.
In Maccabees, ἀπέραντον is used to describe the earth. Unless we are willing to accept that the earth is literally endless, or boundless as it is translated here, we must accept that the Greek word is either being used as a form of poetic exaggeration or that its meaning does not always literally apply the infinite article. In fact, we see that in Job 36, in the Greek LXX, the word απέραντος with which the meaning of ἀπέραντον is equated in modern lexicons, being used to describe the age of God.
Here, απέραντος is translated as unsearchable from the Hebrew and unlimited from the Greek LXX, but far more telling is its translation in the New International Translation’s as unknowable. This makes the usage of ἀπέραντον in 3 Maccabees and in Justin’s First Apology much more clear. An unknowable duration more closely fits not only our biblical understanding of punishment through the lens of Paul, but also our geographic knowledge of the earth, the measure of which would have actually been unknowable when 3 Maccabees was written, and still maintains the eternal understanding we have regarding the nature of God being described in Job. In fact, combining this understanding of the term ἀπέραντον in Justin’s writing makes sense when presented with the rest of the passage; For He fore-knows that some are to be saved by repentance. If only some are to be saved by repentance, given that it is God’s will that all be saved (1 Timothy 2:4) how are the rest to be saved? For a very direct answer to this question, we will quote Gregory of Nyssa, Bishop, Saint, Cappadocian father, and church father, later on in this section. For now, I will leave it to you to ponder what, if anything, Justin is implying here.
In his work, On the Resurrection, Justin goes on to admit the following:
God will have all to be saved, which is far different than saying that only some will be saved. However, it is the end of this passage that draws the most attention. The Savior taught us to love our enemies, what He enjoins upon us, He Himself does first. If the wicked are the enemies of God, insofar as they reject His commandments and openly rebel against His will, how does eternal conscious torment in Hell show love to them? This is a question that the doctrine does not seem to answer. However, purifying or refining punishment, which saves the man even though he suffers for an unknown duration (1 Corinthians 3:10-15), does answer this question. The punishment is for their own edification, so that they may live according to the will of God (1 Peter 4:6).
Finally, with regard to Justin, I will leave you not only with the question from earlier, but also with a poem which he quotes in another of his works:
Who all things had destroyed, shall all things save.
This is an interesting passage to quote in support of eternal damnation for a couple of reasons. First, the author is unknown, but the word mathetes means student or disciple, and the time period ascribed to this writing is right around 150 AD.
Everlasting here is αἰώνιον (aiōnion), which we have already discussed and is more appropriately translated as age-during. Even so, the subsequent language suggests some form of end. “The fire which will punish even to the end those who are delivered to it”, to the end of what? The end of this age? The end of the next age? The end of their punishment? The end of their existence? Rather than supporting eternal damnation, the phrasing here actually seems to support some notion of limited punishment.
Athenagoras (c. 133 – c. 190 AD)
Ante-Nicene Christian apologist who lived during the second half of the 2nd century, not much is known about him otherwise.
With regards to this passage, I do not see anything which shows a belief in eternal damnation. However, I really enjoy the very next line of this passage, which is excluded in this quote.
We should not wish to deliver ourselves over to the great Judge to be punished, for Christ said:
Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.
Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 – c. 215 AD)
Clement of Alexandria was a Christian theologian and philosopher who taught at the Catechetical School of Alexandria. The Catechetical School of Alexandria is one of the six early schools of Christianity, four of which taught universalism. These were not formal schools in the sense of classrooms and schoolwork, but places where people could assist with pastoral duties until they had learned enough to work on their own.
Clement lays it out very plainly; some follow voluntarily, others are converted by punishment. But what kind of punishment are we talking about here? Eternal torment in Hell?
Saving and disciplinary punishment, leading to conversion and repentance rather than destruction.
Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335 – c. 395 AD)
Clement of Nyssa, Bishop of Nyssa in Cappadocia from 372 to 376 and from 378 until his death in 395. Venerated as a saint in multiple denominations, and helped author the Nicene Creed.
He healed the very author of evil himself. That statement might spark some controversy in the modern church, where the devil is depicted as trouncing around the world tempting us all. However, this is coming from a saint, Bishop, and author of many modern church doctrines. He goes on to say that the process of healing can be painful, echoing the words of Christ speaking about purifying fire (1 Corinthians 3:10-15).
Here Gregory of Nyssa clearly states the core concept of universalism. Some are saved in this life, others are saved after necessary periods in purifying fire.
When evil shall have been some day annihilated in the long revolutions of the ages, nothing shall be left outside the world of goodness. Nothing will be left outside the world of goodness. Even the evil spirits will rise in confession of Christ’s Lordship.
Jerome of Stridon (~c. 342 – c. 420 AD)
Jerome of Stridon was a Christian priest, confessor, theologian, and historian, recognized as a saint by multiple denominations.
Even the unbelievers will be made subject to Christ, so that God may be all in all.
The parables of Christ in the New Testament are intended to be a source of wisdom regarding the Gospel message, as Christ said:
Now, opponents of universalism use this passage as evidence against it. Matt Slick, President and Founder of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry, posits exactly this in his article, “How can universalism be true if Jesus did not want some people saved?”. I will quote some of the key premises from his argument here and respond to them in kind.
If Christian-based universalism is true, then it means Jesus atoned for everybody who ever lived.Matt Slick, How can universalism be true if Jesus did not want some people saved?, CARM.org
Yes, Christ atoned for the sins of everyone. We have established that Christ preached to the dead, and the Bible is clear that His atonement applies to everyone in the world.
If preaching to the dead and atoning for the sins of the whole world doesn’t encompass everyone who ever lived, I don’t know what could.
Since scripture says we are justified by faith (Rom. 3:28; 4:1-5; 5:1; Eph. 2:8-9), we would also know that the gospel is a necessity for people to believe because the Bible tells us that people are commanded to repent and believe the gospel (Mark 1:15). […] If that’s the case, and if Christian universalism is true, it should not occur that Jesus would prevent the belief of people in the gospel, or that he would desire that they not be forgiven. But, that is exactly the case.Matt Slick, How can universalism be true if Jesus did not want some people saved?, CARM.org
Here, Matt Slick identifies a potential conundrum. We have a quote from Christ saying that:
Indeed, he has correctly outlined an apparent problem. I will outline the issue Matt is addressing here:
- Christ is the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the whole world – 1 John 2:2
- We are saved through faith alone – Ephesians 2:8-9
- Christ spoke in parables so that, ‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven.’ – Mark 4:12
These bullet points by themselves make it easy to draw the conclusion that those Christ elects will be saved, and the rest will not. This is indeed a common understanding of the Gospel, but Matt goes on to elaborate why this is truly an issue for universalists and in the same breath creates a supporting argument for universalism while outlining a major issue for annihilationists and supporters of eternal conscious torment:
Jesus clearly tells his followers that the reason he is speaking in parables is so people will not be forgiven. Clearly, it is his intent that they are judged instead of forgiven. Why would he do that if universalism is true? If God wants all people to be saved, which is what universalism asserts, why did Jesus speak in such a way that people would not be forgiven?Matt Slick, How can universalism be true if Jesus did not want some people saved?, CARM.org
“If God wants all people to be saved, which is what universalism asserts, why did Jesus speak in such a way that people would not be forgiven?”, this appears to be, on the surface, quite the conundrum for universalists, but it actually supports the argument for universalism quite handily. You see, as we have established earlier, God does want all people to be saved.
And so, Matt has outlined a critical support for universalism, because it is not the contention of universalism that all people will escape judgment and punishment, merely that, in the end, all people will be saved, just as God desires. For those who believe in an eternal Hell, Matt has perfectly outlined a contradiction between the Son and the Father:
- God wants everyone to be saved – 1 Timothy 2:3-4
- Christ speaks in parables so that some will not be forgiven in this life – Mark 4:12
If Hell is eternal, and if the Son does the will of the Father (John 5:30), how can the Son fulfill the will of the Father by condemning some people to Hell? For the universalist, the answer is simple; Hell is a place of purification, and eventually all will be saved. For those who believe in an eternal Hell, I eagerly await an answer.
In the beginning of the book of Luke, chapter 15, we are presented with tax collectors and sinners gathering around Jesus, and the Pharisees are complaining that Jesus welcomes and even eats with them. This is the stage for the three parables presented in this chapter, told as a response to the Pharisees, and it is crucial to keep this in mind as we look at each parable.
The Lost Sheep
The shepherd leaves the flock to look for the one lost sheep, and does not stop looking until he finds it. Once the lost sheep has been found, it is saved by the shepherd and returned to the flock. We must assume that this parable applies to the very sinners that the Pharisees were complaining about. If God wants everyone to be saved (1 Timothy 2:3-4), and will not stop working towards that goal until it has been achieved, as displayed in this parable, how can we have an eternal Hell from which no one will ever be saved?
The Lost Coin
The woman who has lost one of her silver coins does not stop searching for it until she finds it. Whereas in the previous parable, the sheep may have been dead by the time it was found, in this parable the coin will continue to exist, it cannot die. It can be destroyed, just as God is capable of destroying both body and soul in Hell (Matthew 10:28), but the coin will not naturally expire. This runs parallel to the belief in a soul. If the sinner dies, they can still be saved because they still exist as body and soul in the prison of Hell, from which, as we have established, there is no escape until they “have paid the last penny” (Matthew 5:25-26). In this sense, it does not matter how long it takes to return the coin, the sheep, or the sinner, to their rightful place.
In the case of the coin and the sheep, they make no effort to be found, to be saved, or even to do good works, they merely exist in their current state and are eventually returned to their rightful place because that is the will of their true owner.
The Lost Son
In this parable, the son squanders all of the blessings his father had bestowed upon him, and he did so purely out of selfish desire. Note, that he does not change as a person, he only goes back to his father because he knew that whatever punishment he may receive would still result in an improvement to his situation. His father’s servants were well fed, and he was starving in a field while feeding pigs. He left for selfish reasons, and he returned for those same selfish reasons, but it did not matter to the father, who rejoiced upon his return.
The sinners who were eating with Jesus were still sinners, some of them may have repented but not all of them. This is why the Pharisees still refer to them as sinners. Yet, just like the son in the parable, one day they will return to the Father and be welcomed, much to the dismay of those who have served the Father and believe that those sinners should not be entitled to the same inheritance. Perhaps, the Pharisees, like the brother in the parable, would be jealous, claiming instead that they should be handed an eternal fate in hellfire, rather than being forgiven and celebrated.
The Rich Man and Lazarus
This story from the book of Luke is debated as being either a parable or authentically known to Jesus, and either view is acceptable for the purpose of this writing. I will not make a case here either way regarding the historicity of this story. However, I would like to point out a few key details of the story which align to what we have discussed so far.
- There is no detail in the story which indicates that the rich man’s torment is endless, merely that it is agonizing and that neither Abraham or Lazarus are able to offer him any reprieve.
- The rich man is tormented by fire and, as we have established, judgement is a purifying and refining fire, consuming that which can be burned up and leaving that which is refined like gold and silver. Though the rich man suffers, he will be saved through the flames.
- Abraham foreshadows the resurrection, and the fact that not all will believe in this life, by telling the rich man that if his family will not listen to the prophets and Moses, then they will not listen even if someone rises from the grave.
Given this, nothing in the story remains which could offer any substantive refutation of limited punishment or universalism.
Consequences of Universalism
Many people who hear the message of universal salvation scoff at its consequences. They ask why anyone should bother with God if everyone will be saved anyway? I must say, this is incredibly disheartening to hear, especially from those who claim to espouse Christian ideals, and it is remarkably similar to the sentiment that is present in Romans 6. If we are free from the law, why not sin? Paul addressed such sentiment in Romans, but we see the very same sentiment in response to the idea of universal salvation. People ask, why should anyone do good work if there is no reward? They ask this because if it is true that everyone will be saved, then their individual reward is no greater that of any common sinner. They reveal themselves to be much like the brother in the parable of the lost son, envious that their father loves them both equally even though one brother is faithful and the other is not. They seem to forget about the free pardon of God.
So, why not wait until you are dead to repent and accept Christ as your Lord and Savior? I assume that you would do this so that you can freely indulge in any evil behavior your heart desires. Hopefully, reading that sentence clarifies the whole situation. Why do good when I can do evil, and ultimately still get the same reward? My response is merely a question; Why do you despise the idea of doing good simply because it is good? Why must you be bribed in exchange for good behavior? We are not perfect, we will still stumble, but our intent should be to do what is right even if we do not get credit for our actions. Most assuredly, my friends, you will still do evil regardless:
We serve God out of love, not out of want. We do good works because it is good to do so, not for some grand reward. And once you know the truth, once you have died in Christ:
You see, it isn’t as simple as choosing to deny Christ and continuing to live in sin. First, you come to know the truth, then you find yourself convicted of your own sin, living with guilt, sadness, and remorse. Why continue living in guilt and remorse just so that you can keep doing the very things that make you feel those emotions? Why would you desire to continue causing yourself to suffer? So, ultimately, in regards to why someone wouldn’t just wait to repent because of universalism, I fail to see why they would want to continue living a lifestyle that makes them more miserable by the day. In the end, those who come to know the truth will eventually embrace it, and every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.