Origen of Alexandria and Universalism

May 5, 2009

Is it true that most of the early "Christian" schools in the first several centuries taught universal salvation? I don't believe in universal salvation, but how could so many schools claiming to be Christian believe in that? It just doesn`t make sense to me.

Edits on Dec 24, 2013
Several comments from readers has made it clear that I am consistently making a mistake in my writing. I realize that this will seem clear as day and many will wonder how I could fail to see this. For this I apologize. I am guilty of referring to "the early church" and in my mind I am thinking MAINLY of my time period: the ante-Nicean period. For many, "early church history" continues to 590AD when Gregory becomes the Pope, or even 1054AD when the Eastern and Western Church split. I have edited this page due to this error of mine.

The quick answer is "No," that is NOT true.
Now for a more thoughtful answer. When scholars speak of "schools" in the ancient world you must be careful not to think of schools like what we have today. Philosophers and theologians would come together to learn and present their ideas and there were a few more formal schools, Alexandria Egypt was the most famous school in the ancient world, though the philosophy school in Athens should also be mentioned.

In the early part of the third century (cir. 210-230 AD) Origen of Alexandria led the Christian school in Alexandria. In one of his many works, On First Principles (Latin, De Principii) he speculated on many issues, one of which was how Ephesians 1:9-10 would be fulfilled,

...which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment—to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.

Origen was trying to present how this could happen - he speculated that perhaps after eons and eons even Satan himself might be saved,

who are called the devil and his angels....after having undergone heavier and severer punishments...improved by this stern method of training, and [are] restored...and thus advancing through each stage to a better condition, reach even to that which is invisible and eternal... - De Prin. I.6.3
I initially had quotation marks around the "eons and eons" sentence above. This was not accurate. This statement comes from De.Prin. I.6.3 which I cite below with several elipses. Origen typically does not say things in short, concise statements which is probably another reason for the controversies!

This was one of several things Origen writes in this particular work that caused a firestorm in Christian history. It is difficult to stress how much conflict the writings of Origen, and this one in particular, caused. Origen was seen as a theological giant and a very godly man. If you read much about church history you will see references to "the Origenist controversy."

Church leaders argued against each other with great passion, even calling one another "heretics." Jerome and his good Rufinus parted ways, theologically and physically, mainly over their positions on the writing of Origen. There were several controversial issues within Origens writings, but perhaps none caused as much conflict as his speculations on "all" being saved.

It is VERY important to remember when criticizing Origen that he says in the preface of "First Principles" that he would be presenting many arguments in the work - some of which he believed, but were not written down prior to his time. He went on to say that simple believers should not even read this work due to the controversial nature of his discussion. The work was written for theology/philosophy students to encourage thoughtful debate. WELL, he got debate!

It is also important to know that the answer to your question is "No." The belief in universalism was NOT widespread at all in the first three centuries of the early church, nor has it ever been a widely held belief. It is, however, a belief that has been gaining ground for the past 100 years.

I am curious - many web sites have said that four of the six theological schools of the first few hundred years believed in Universal Reconciliation (with one other believing in annihilation and the school in Rome of course believing in an everlasting hell). I have wondered what the evidence for this was, how people could know or conclude what these schools taught. How did you come to the conclusion that this is not true?

Also,I am curious about your statement that "The belief in universalism was not widespread at all in the early church..." The following quotes seem to indicate otherwise. What do you make of these? "The mass of men (Christians) say that there is to be an end of punishment to those who are punished." -- St. Basil the Great (c. 329-379) in De Asceticis
"I know that most persons understand by the story of Nineveh and its king, the ultimate forgiveness of the devil and all rational creatures." -- St. Jerome
"There are very many (imo quam plurimi, which can be translated majority) who though not denying the Holy Scriptures, do not believe in endless torments." -- Augustine (c. 29) in Enchiria, ad Laurent
Thanks for your help, and Merry Christmas! In Christ our Beloved Savior, Erik

1. When I say "the early church" I am usually referring to pre-Nicean Christianity which is my area of expertise. This gets me into difficulty and I need to remember to be clear about this.

2. My positions typically come from MY reading of the fathers. I have been accused of just repeating what I have read somewhere. Usually if I am referencing something I learned from another scholar I say it/cite it or reference it at least by giving their name. MOST of the time I am speaking from my reading and understanding. Now, I freely admit that my opinions get framed by the scholars I read - in other words, I understand the historical context through secondary scholarship, then using my knowledge of the fathers I have read I balance what I read.

Here is a quick list of the fathers/writings I have read (many more than once): Didache, Barnabas, Shepherd of Hermas, Ignatian letters, Diognetus, 1 and 2 Clement, Martyrdom of Polycarp, all of Clement of Alexandria, 2-3 treatises of Tertullian, Origen (parts of Contra Celsum, First Principles, all of On Prayer), Cyprian of Carthage, [Of the Nag Hammadi texts: 10-12 of these, important because many were read and held to be "inspired" by ante-Nicean fathers.], parts of the Pseudo-Clementine documents, Eusebius (History), parts of Lactantius, Life of Anthony (Athanasius the author), parts of Optatus (Against the Donatists), parts of Evagrius, (Conferences) by John Cassian, Rule of Benedict, Sayings of the Desert Fathers, several works of Greggory of Nyssa, esp Life of Moses and his Ascetical works, parts of Basil's Rule, Psuedo-Dionysius...that is all that comes to my mind quickly.

I would never claim to be an expert on ANY of these writings. My expertise, quite narrowly, is the spirituality in Clement of Alexandria's Stromateis.

3. Universalism mostly begins with Origen of Alexandria.
MOST of the early fathers who seem to more clearly reflect Origen's views are in the East. This is quite important when it comes to saying what the early church believed. I am not clear on the "theological schools" in the early church. I know about the Antiochen and the Alexandrian, but could not name another.

I would say that the Eastern Church probably has an understanding that is far closer to universalism than does the Western Church. I think it would be fair to say, "Something like universalism was more common among the great thinkers in the Eastern Church from the late fourth century moving forward." I would be interested to hear what John McGuckin has to say about this concept, for example. I could be wrong, but I do not think The Orthodox Church holds to "universalism" as we tend to think of it.

4. The West was far less inclined to accept Origen's writings or universalism, thus the "Origenist Controversy." Origens views were controversial and led to life long friendships ending, Jerome and Rufinus split ways over Origens writings.

Think about it. IF universalism were common and accepted by the early church you would not be asking me this question. It would be like asking if the ante-Nicean church prayed to Mary (not common), or did the early church believe Jesus was equal to God (commonly yes). Commonly held beliefs continued.

If universalism had been commonly believed and taught in the early church the Reformation leaders have talked about it.

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