by David Burnfield
From the Author
Patristic Universalism is the belief that God desires all men to be saved and achieves this desire through His Son Jesus Christ. While some forms of universalism have sprung up that teach there is no hell and that all truth is relative, this is not the universalism I'm defending. The form of universalism advocated in this book is that which was taught by some of the earliest and greatest church Fathers such as Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Gregory of Nyssa. It adheres to all the traditional teachings with only a few areas of deviationtion such as the doctrine of post mortem evangelism and the doctrine of hell.
The Early Church and Universalism
Gregory of Nyssa believed that evil existed only through the improper use of our divine gift of freewill and that eventually, all will be restored to God because evil—being the opposite of good— cannot exist forever. Like Clement and Origen, Gregory of Nyssa saw eschatological punishment as having a positive purpose (should we expect anything else from God?) and this “purpose” was the restoration of mankind to God. According to Gregory, divine punishment is like the painful cures of medicine that eventually bring healing and that divine punishment is not administered to exact vengeance, but to bring restoration.
Let me just say that this view of eschatological punishment where there is a positive outcome rings with more truth and reason than the traditional model which teaches eternal torment for those who either did not make a decision in time (Arminianism) or those who were not selected to begin with (Calvinism). And like Clement and Origen before him, Gregory's views were not the result of a free flowing ideological system that discounted Scripture to arrive at a pre-determined result; Gregory believed his understanding of the apocatastasis was "explicitly" taught in Scripture.
What about Hell?
God continues to evangelize to people even after they die (1 Chron 16:34; Isa 9:2; Matt 12:32; Rom 8:35-39; Eph 4:8-9; 1 Pet 3:18-20; 4:6) The main problem with the traditional view – and one that has never been satisfactorily addressed – is how can one “accept Christ” if they have never heard of Christ, or were unable to understand the message (i.e. too young, mentally handicapped, etc.). The traditional view seems much less appalling when viewed from the balcony of Middle America where there is a church on nearly every corner and Bibles available in multiple translations. But this is not the experience of many people in the world. Many struggle from day-to-day just to get enough to eat. To suggest they will spend eternity in hell because they didn’t stop and “accept Christ” to me is ludicrous.
Given the environment most people live in throughout the world, a belief in post-mortem evangelism is the only view that makes sense. After all, didn’t Paul tell us that Christ is the God of both the living and the dead (Rom 14:9)?
Wasn’t Origen Considered a Heretic?
Unfortunately, it is necessary to dispel some misconceptions about Origen that are constantly brought up by evangelicals anytime universalism is discussed....
Like many fields of study, once information is out there and accepted, it takes a long time to reverse the thinking.
Origen’s belief in the remedial nature of hell and the salvation of all men was “steeped in the Christian Scriptures.” It was his view that the purpose of hell was medicinal, purificatory, pedagogical, and redemptive and that in the end, all would be saved.
Thus Origen’s view of the apokatastasis was a restoration back to the original condition prior to the fall when man shared unity with God. But this universal restoration would never violate freewill according to Origen.