Greek and Roman Christianity
Early Church leaders had differing views on nearly every subject. However, the majority of them believed in universal reconciliation for at least the first four centuries. Their views are not as important as Scripture itself, of course, but many have questioned this doctrine, saying, “If it is really a true teaching, then why are there not more Churches teaching it today?” This booklet answers that question. It shows how the teaching came to be discredited in the early fifth century because of religious-political infighting over issues that often had little to do with the teaching itself.
Until I was 23, I too had no idea that a view other than hell-fire for the lost even existed. Then I read the first page of a book advocating universal reconciliation and, horrified, I would not touch the book for another eight months. But the damage was done. Now I knew the view existed, and whenever I read the Bible again, I saw scores of passages teaching it. My eyes had been opened, and I could not get them shut again.
Yet for a time, I cringed every time I read about all things being put under His feet, defined in terms of "things in heaven, things in earth, and things under the earth." I winced every time I read, "as in Adam all die, even so in Christ will all be made alive." I was pained every time I read the comparison between Adam and Christ in Romans 5, where through one man all were condemned, and even so through One Man all men were given justification of life.
Finally, I picked up that book (now out of print) and read it in one evening. My life changed, and in the years that followed, I searched out every detail, every possible objection, and sought the balance between the biblical statements about divine judgment and how this fit with the ultimate restoration of all things.
If the Bible is so clear in its teaching of universal reconciliation, with Paul and John standing at the forefront of this teaching, then surely we ought to see it reflected in the writings of the early Church leaders who sat under their teaching and in later generations. And we certainly do. In fact, it was by far the most dominant view, especially in the Greek-speaking Churches of Asia where Paul ministered, as well as the Alexandrian Church in Egypt, where Thomas ministered before going to India.
In the first few decades, the gospel was more restricted in Rome than in other places. Though many did understand Greek, the dominant language was Latin, and it took longer for the Scriptures to be translated into Latin. Likewise, the Greeks and Romans had different interests. The Greeks, with all their classical statues attempting to depict virtue, beauty, and perfection, were in a search for the ideal--the perfect man. The Romans, on the other hand, had an empire to administer and control, so they were concerned primarily with the pursuit of law and order.
And so the Roman Christians (such as Lactantius, Tertullian, and Augustine) pictured Jesus as the God of Law and Order. Their concept of divine justice followed the Roman idea that to keep law and order and to deter crime or revolt, one had to increase the punishment to intolerable levels. Thus, as time passed, one could be executed for relatively small crimes. This happens when deterrence takes precedence over justice. The criminal is more quickly discarded through excessive punishment.
On the other hand, biblical law concerns itself with justice, built upon the basic principle that the severity of judgment is always directly proportional to the crime itself. Hence, if you steal $100, you owe your victim $200, no more and no less. The deterrence factor is always subservient to the establishment of justice, and the criminal is more easily restored through justice.
In biblical law, justice is not done until full restitution has been made to all the victims of injustice. In Roman law, "justice" is not done until the criminal has been punished and others deterred from committing the same type of crime. And so, for example, Tertullian, the Christian Roman lawyer, bitterly writes in 203 A.D.
"How I shall admire, how laugh, how rejoice, how exult, when I behold so many kings . . . groaning in the lowest abyss of darkness, so many magistrates who persecuted the name of the Lord, liquefying in fiercer flames than they ever kindled against Christians; so many sage philosophers blushing in raging fire."(de Spectaculis, 30)
In the same year (203 A.D.), Clement of Alexandria fled for his life during the persecution of the Roman Emperor, Severus, after being the head of the Church in Alexandria for 13 years. In Stromata, VII, 26 he writes:
"God does not wreak vengeance, for vengeance is to return evil for evil, and God punishes only with an eye to the good."
Again, in commenting upon 1 Tim. 4:9-11, wherein we read that He is the Savior of all men, especially those that believe, Clement writes:
"And how is He Saviour and Lord, if not the Saviour and Lord of all? But He is the Savior of those who have believed . . . and the Lord of those who have not believed. . . for all things are arranged with a view to the salvation of the Universe by the Lord of the Universe, both generally and particularly. . . . But necessary corrections, through the goodness of the great Overseeing Judge, both by the attendant angels, and through various preliminary judgments, or through the Great and Final Judgment, compel egregious sinners to repent."
Please excuse his lengthy sentences, typical of that day. Any sentence that has more than 15 words in it is today considered to be college-level writing. But it was normal back then. See also Paul's sentences, which can go on and on!
Clement also wrote in Stromata, VII, 6,
"We say that the fire purifies not the flesh but sinful souls, not an all-devouring vulgar fire, but the 'wise fire' as we call it, the fire that 'pierceth the soul' which passes through it."
Again, Clement wrote in Ecl. Proph., XXV, 4,
"Fire is conceived of as a beneficent and strong power, destroying what is base, preserving what is good; therefore this fire is called 'wise' by the Prophets."
Where did Clement get this idea of the "wise fire" that purifies, rather than destroys? He certainly did not get it from the Egyptian culture surrounding him. According to Jaques de Goff's book, The Birth of Purgatory, pages 19 and 20,
"The Egyptian Hell was particularly impressive and highly refined. . . Confinement and imprisonment played an important role. The tortures were bloody, and punishment by fire was frequent and terrifying . . . . When it came to the topography of Hell, the Egyptian imagination knew no limits. . . . Intermediate states of phases in the other-worldly process of purification did not exist."
Jaques de Goff also informs us on page 53 of the contrast between the Egyptian view of divine punishment and that of the early Christians,
"From the Old Testament, Clement and Origen took the notion that fire is a divine instrument, and from the New Testament the idea of baptism by fire (from the Gospels) and the idea of a purificatory trial after death (from Paul)."
Few Christians today realize that the Church’s doctrine of a burning hell is much closer to the Egyptian view than to the view of the early Church. The fact that the Egyptians taught eternal torture in both hell and purgatory stands in direct opposition to the teaching of the Church in the first few centuries. Only later did the Church finally come to agree with the Egyptian religious teaching on the subject.
When Clement fled Alexandria in 203, his most brilliant student, Origen, replaced him as head of the Church in Alexandria. After Paul, Origen was the first great Theologian of the Church, and his writings were the most influential of his time. Though he did not originate the idea of universal reconciliation, he is today the most well-known Universalist of all time, simply because of the sheer volume of his writings and the extent of his influence. Hence, universal reconciliation is often called "Origenism."