Sunday, May 01, 2011

Hell: It Hasn't Always Been Forever!

Has a paradigm shift occurred in the evangelical Christian world?

Scot McKnight, the Karl A. Olsson Professor in Religious Studies at North Park University, commented recently that Universalism, or at least the prospect of it, is the single most significant issue running through the undercurrent of evangelicalism today.[1]

That observation is certainly being supported by the phenomenal level of interest in Rob Bell's book Love Wins. It rose to number 3 on the list of bestsellers on Articles about it have been written not only in religious periodicals like Christianity Today, but even in The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USAToday, and many other secular news outlets. It even became the cover story for Time. What had been a marginal issue that most evangelical Christians ignored has suddenly become the central issue under discussion. If nothing else, Bell's book has revealed a deep level of interest in the possibility that God's plan may actually be the restoration of His entire creation.

Unfortunately, the discussion so far has generally been characterized by heat and not nearly as much light. Much of the response has consisted of name calling, with a great deal of mis-information being printed and disseminated. One area in particular that has been victimized by mis-information is history. It has generally been assumed in the various reviews and articles that the idea of an ultimate restoration of all is a belief that has only been held by a few ancient "heretics," generally beginning with the controversial figure of Origen.

Actually, Origen was not the first or most noted "universalist" in the early years of the Christian Church, and the belief was not a minority view held only by him and a few isolated followers. According to nineteenth century pastor and theologian Edward Beecher (1803-1895) – son of Lyman Beecher, brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, and one time pastor of Park Street Church in Boston – four of the six theological schools in the ancient church favored some form of ultimate restoration, while only one favored endless punishment. [2]

Clement of Alexandria

The concerns of people in the ancient world were actually not as different from ours as we sometimes think. Like us, they wanted to know what God is really like, and what would happen after they died. Is He all-powerful, or is His power limited like the gods of Greece and Rome? Is He loving, or does He have some of the same capricious qualities that their gods had? What is the final destiny of mankind?

One of the first of the early Christian leaders to articulate a belief that God would ultimately restore all was Clement of Alexandria. Clement was a Greek who was born in Athens about AD 150. He was very knowledgeable of all branches of Greek literature and all existing systems of philosophy. He also knew the Old Testament and understood well the gospel of Jesus Christ. He considered it his task to demonstrate to pagans that Christianity was intellectually respectable and philosophically rigorous, and to Christians that Christianity was not only for the uneducated.

Clement's deep belief in God's absolute goodness and sovereign power undergirded his understanding of eternity. God cares for all His creation, not just part of it, and is both able and willing to save all. For him, to believe that God is unable to save all was unthinkable because that would be a proof of His weakness. To believe He is unwilling was also unthinkable because that is not the attribute of a good Being. God is the Lord of the universe and He has arranged all things with a view to the salvation of the universe.

For either the Lord does not care for all men; and this is the case either because He is unable (which is not to be thought, for it would be a proof of weakness), or because He is unwilling, which is not the attribute of a good being. And He who for our sakes assumed flesh capable of suffering, is far from being luxuriously indolent. Or He does care for all, which is befitting for Him who has become Lord of all. For He is Saviour; not [the Saviour] of some, and of others not. . . . For all things are arranged with a view to the salvation of the universe by the Lord of the universe, both generally and particularly. . . .[3]

For Clement, God's punishments are medicinal and temporary, and for the ultimate good of those He created. Does God's patience have a limit? Clement answered, "No." God's chastening continues not only in this life, but even after we are released from our bodies because the active power of God is "everywhere and is always at work." God never gives up on the sinner.

God's punishments are saving and disciplinary, leading to conversion, and choosing rather the repentance than the death of a sinner, and especially since souls, although darkened by passions, when released from their bodies, are able to perceive more clearly, because of their being no longer obstructed by the paltry flesh. . . . So I think it is demonstrated that the God being good, and the Lord powerful, they save with a righteousness and equality which extend to all that turn to Him, whether here or elsewhere. For it is not here alone that the active power of God is beforehand, but it is everywhere and is always at work.[4]

For Clement, God's sovereign power coupled with His unfailing love for all enables Him to ultimately bring about the restoration of all.

Gregory of Nyssa

Gregory of Nyssa, along with his brother Basil the Great, and close friend Gregory of Nazianzus were a major force in the triumph of the teaching on the Deity of Christ that prevailed at the Council of Constantinople in AD 381 where the Nicene Creed was finally shaped. Gregory of Nazianzus initially presided over that Council, and Gregory of Nyssa added the clause, "I believe in the life of the world to come" to the creed.

Gregory of Nyssa died around AD 395 and is still revered as one of the greatest of the Eastern Church Fathers. In AD 787, the Seventh General Council of the Church honored Gregory by naming him, "Father of the Fathers." His credentials as an influential leader in the early Christian Church have never been questioned, and his position on restoration has never been condemned.

Does God punish forever with terrifying pain? Gregory explained that those who are immature think this, and fear it. They are thus motivated to flee from wickedness. However, those with more maturity understand the true purpose of after-death punishment – it is a remedial process instituted by a good God to ultimately restore those who are sick to health. Like a skilled physician who doesn't stop until his work is finished, God doesn't give up on those He created. If a soul remains unhealed in this life, the remedy is dispensed in the life to come.

If, however, the soul remains unhealed, the remedy is dispensed in the life that follows this. Now in the ailments of the body there are sundry differences, some admitting of an easier, others requiring a more difficult treatment. . . . For the healing of the soul's sicknesses the future judgment announces something of the same kind, and this to the thoughtless sort is held out as the threat of a terrible correction, in order that through fear of this painful retribution they may gain the wisdom of fleeing from wickedness: while by those of more intelligence it is believed to be a remedial process ordered by God to bring back man, His peculiar creature, to the grace of his primal condition.[5]

In his sermon on I Corinthians 15:28 where the apostle Paul says that God will ultimately be "all in all," Gregory explained how this can happen. Evil, in the end, will become non-existent. God will succeed in His goal to restore all of His creation.

So I begin by asking what is the truth that the divine apostle intends to convey in this passage? It is this. In due course evil will pass over into non-existence; it will disappear utterly from the realm of existence. Divine and uncompounded goodness will encompass within itself every rational nature; no single being created by God will fail to achieve the kingdom of God. The evil that is now present in everything will be consumed like base metal melted by the purifying flame. Then everything which derives from God will be as it was in the beginning before it had ever received an admixture of evil.[6]

Contemporary scholar John R. Sachs concluded his study of the belief in restoration among the early church fathers with the following observation:

. . . we have seen that Origen was not alone in presenting weighty reasons for his hope that all would be saved. Before him Clement and afterwards Gregory Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa argued in the same direction. It is notable that none of them were condemned; indeed they continue to be held in high esteem. None of them denied human freedom and responsibility. Each of them at times has rather traditional things to say about eschatological punishment. But what really motivated them was an even stronger conviction about the infinity and incomprehensibility of God's goodness and mercy, revealed and bestowed in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. There, rather than in the philosophical currents of their times, is where, ultimately, each of these theologians founded his hope that all will be saved. Thus, their thought exhibits a certain dynamic tension – not an abstract, neutral tension that sees God's saving grace and human freedom as equal forces opposite each other, but rather a tension with a definite center of gravity, the eternal mercy and universal saving will of God.[7]

The belief that God will one day restore all of His creation to its initial perfection may or may not be correct. But, to say that it is a belief that has never been held seriously by well respected leaders in the history of the Christian Church is clearly not the case.


[2] Edward Beecher, History of Opinions on the Spiritual Doctrine of Retribution, D. Appleton and Company, New York, 1878, p. 189ff

[3] Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, Book VII, Chapter 2,,

[4] Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, Book VI, chapter 6,

[5] Gregory of Nyssa, Catechetical Oration, VIII, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Calvin College,

[6] Gregory of Nyssa, Sermon I Corinthians 15:28, Documents in Early Christian Thought, Editors by Maurice Wiles & Mark Santer, Cambridge University Press, 1975, p. 257

[7] John R.Sachs, "Apocatastasis in Patristic Theology." Theological Studies. Volume: 54. Issue: 4. 1993. pp. 617+, in Patristic Theology


goliah said...

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Unknown said...

Thank God that many are coming to the truth of the final reconciliation of all. There were many, many more who believed and taught UR in the first five centuries of the church--as Dr. J.W.Hanson pointed out in his book about primitive Christianity in this period. Orthodox Christian scholars then knew and believed what Catholic means (Universal), and the universal hope and scope of the Gospel.

Anonymous said...

I first came across the Universalist concept, I believe, back in 1971 in one of Theodore Fitch's little white books which he published from his home in Council Bluffs, Iowa. The theme was "Jesus is much greater than you think..." so it was a provocative think piece. The church in general, no longer (if it ever did) provides any integral teaching on precisely what the original "hell" was, a dumping ground just outside of ancient Jerusalem called "the valley of Gehinnom". Here it was said, the worn never died; neither did the fires ever go out, and that the Savior simply used this as an illustration to indicate the ultimate fate of the wicked if they remained unrepentant. The Greek word for forever is the term eon which indicates a certain period of time and is not meant to convey eternity without end. As to the fire, today on the Truth network, listening to George Saris, I was once again reminded of a lively conversation I had back in the day with Brother Lee Burkhead of Adel, Iowa (now deceased) and Lloyd Hannawalt once I had graduated from high school, as I puzzled over this notion. Burkhead contended and Hannawalt agreed that there is only one fire and that the "Holy Ghost and fire" is glory to the saints and torment to the sinner. They pointed out what misery one suffers while under conviction for sin and of the "hell" sinners sitting out in the congregation experience while the gospel is preached to the shouts and acclaims of the saints. The New Testament teaches that Yahshua HaMashiach ("Jesus Christ") is the Savior of all mankind, especially of them which believe. How can this be if God burns up 99.9 percent of his creation in a "burning hell"? I came to understand that the New Testament "hell" is the grave as clarified by the Greek and that it is not eternal by any stretch of the imagination, as the church-world teaches. The Book of Revelation clearly teaches that death, hell and the grave end when cast into the "lake of fire". This harmonizes with the Apostle Paul who taught that death, hell and the grave are swallowed up in victory. Does anyone care to give the citations for these powerful scriptures alluded to in my comment, quoted from memory?

George W. Sarris said...

Ronald Murphy, thank you for your comments.

Anonymous, in I Corinthians 15:54, Paul says that death has been swallowed up in victory. Revelation 20:14 says that death and hades were thrown into the lake of fire. Revelation 20:13 says that death and hades gave up the dead that were in them.

By the way, take a look at my book - Heaven's Doors . . . Wider Than You Ever Believed! You can read quite a bit for free with the Look Inside feature on Amazon.

God bless.