The Golden Age of Universalism
When Origen went to Caesarea in 231 A.D., there were two brothers from a rich family in Neocaesarea in Pontus who came to study under him for five years. They were Gregory (later called Thaumaturgus, "Wonder Worker") and his brother Athenodorus. Origen gave them a deep love for the Scriptures, and they were probably the first to introduce Origen's teachings to that northern province of what is now Turkey.
Gregory's Panagyric on Origen was written on the occasion of their parting. A Panagyric is a speech of lavish praise written for a festival or special day. According to Hosea Ballou's The Ancient History of Universalism, p. 130, written in 1829, Gregory "was reckoned among the most eminent bishops of the time."
Origen also had his critics, but the remarkable thing is that they never disputed his teaching on Universalism! Yet as the Church leaders became less Christian in their attitudes and more rigid and pompous in their show of religion, their passion for dispute began to reach the stage of frenzy. Hosea Ballou says on page 133,
“In one word, so universal was the passion for censure, that scarcely an individual of eminence escaped reproof from one quarter or another."
Ballou makes the point on page 147,
"Throughout the long period of nearly a century and a half . . . there is not an intimation found that Origen's Universalism gave any offence in the church, notwithstanding his writings, the meanwhile, underwent the severest scrutiny, and were frequently attacked on other points. . . Even the few who treated his name with indignity, and bitterly censured various parts of his doctrine, uniformly passed, in silence, over the prominent tenet of Universal Salvation."
Methodius, bishop of Tyre, is a good example, since Origen had died in his city and was no doubt buried there. Methodius attacked his teaching that in the resurrection the dead will rise not with physical bodies but as spiritual beings. He attacked Origen's teaching that the witch of Endor had actually raised Samuel himself. He attacked Origen's teaching that the saints in eternity would become angels and that all human souls were created at the beginning and thus pre-existed before being born on earth. Yet, as Ballou points out, "in all his search for errors, Universalism escaped without a censure" (p. 150).
Peter, a later bishop of Alexandria, castigated Origen for being a schismatic (causing division), solely because he finally left a domineering and carnally-minded bishop to live in Caesarea where he was well treated.
Meanwhile, Origen was greatly admired by the vast majority of Church leaders in the third and fourth centuries, including Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea, who was by far the most learned of all Church leaders of his day. His Ecclesiastical History is the first of its kind after the book of Acts itself to record the history of the Church to the fourth century.
During the fourth century, some of the greatest men of the Church openly taught that all men would be saved, some by believing in Christ today, and others by means of judgments in an afterlife. Hosea Ballou states on page 166,
". . . that the doctrine of Universal Restoration was regarded, in the church, as neither heretical nor even unpopular; and that the standard of orthodoxy, so far as it concerned that particular point, was then supposed to require only a belief in future punishment."
Hence, it can be seen that my own teaching on this subject would have been regarded as orthodox in the third and fourth centuries, though no doubt I would have been attacked on many other points--as everyone was. No one in those days taught that unbelievers would be saved apart from judgments called "fire."
Universalism today is often defined by the idea of salvation without judgment or accountability; but that is why I have made a distinction between Universalism and Restoration. My teaching on Restoration is close to the type of Universalism taught in the first centuries of the Church. The only difference is that the only "torment," permissible in the law is a maximum of forty stripes, whereas they tended to think of the "fire" in more literal terms. We agree, however, that the fire was temporary.
Novatian of Rome (about 250 A.D.) wrote in his De Regula Fidei, IV, that
". . . wrath and indignation of the Lord, so called, are not such passions as bear those names in man; but that they are operations of the Divine Mind directed solely to our purification."
Here, then, is at least one Latin father who agreed with the Greek fathers of the Church.
Gregory of Nazianzen, bishop of Constantinople (325-390 A.D.), along with his good friend Basil, compiled a collection of Origen's writings called Philokalia, "Love of the Beautiful." Gregory was known as one of the four Eastern Doctors of the Church. Gregory wrote in Orat. XXXIX, 19 about the lake of fire:
"These (apostates), if they will, may go our way, which indeed in Christ's; but if not, let them go their own way. In another place perhaps they shall be baptized with fire, that last baptism, which is not only very painful, but enduring also; which eats up, as it were hay, all defiled matter, and consumes all vanity and vice."
Robert Payne writes of Gregory on page 179 of his book, The Fathers of the Eastern Church,
"Of all the Fathers of the Church, he was the only one to be granted after his death the title 'Theologian,' which until this time was reserved for an apostle--John of Patmos."
Gregory's friend, Basil (known as "the father of the monastic movement") had a brother who was also named Gregory, who became the bishop of Nyassa, a town in Cappadocia. After Origen, this Gregory has left us the greatest wealth of writings on Universal Restoration. In his commentary on 1 Cor. 15:28, where all things are said to be put under His feet and God is to become "all in all," we read Gregory's comments:
"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 creature; 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 a 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."
In commenting specifically upon the phrase that God will be "all in all," he says that "obviously, God will be 'in all' only when no trace of evil is to be found in anything. For God cannot be in what is evil."
Robert Payne's The Fathers of the Eastern Church, pp. 168, 169, says of this Gregory,
"Of the three Cappadocian Fathers, Gregory of Nyassa is the one closest to us, the least proud, the most subtle, the one most committed to the magnificence of men. That strange, simple, happy, unhappy, intelligent, and God-tormented man was possessed by angels. . . In Eastern Christianity his Great Catechism follows immediately after Origen's First Principles. These were the two seminal works, close-woven, astonishingly lucid, final . . . Athanasius was the hammer, Basil the stern commander, Gregory of Nazianzus the tormented singer, and it was left to Gregory of Nyassa to be the man enchanted with Christ. . . Four hundred years after his death, at the Seventh General Council held in A.D. 787, the assembled princes of the Church granted him a title which exceeded in their eyes all the other titles granted to men; he was called 'Father of Fathers'."