How Universalism Became Heresy
When Theophilus of Alexandria first became involved in the Origenist controversy, he took the side of John of Jerusalem. But Jerome sent him flattering letters and soon won his support for Epiphanius. As Hosea Ballou writes on page 226, "But what no persuasion could effect, self-interest and revenge speedily accomplished."
Theophilus had already been involved in an internal dispute within the ranks of the Nitrian monks along the Nile River. The majority of them loved Origen, but the smaller group hated him, simply because he had opposed their doctrine that God possessed a body like that of a man. They were soon inflamed when Theophilus wrote a treatise agreeing with Origen that God was a spirit and did not possess a body. These "Anthropomorphites" (as they are called by the theologians) went to Alexandria with the intent of murdering Theophilus, but Theophilus tricked them into thinking that he had "seen the light" and was in agreement with them. He even promised to condemn the works of Origen. This satisfied them, and they went back to their desert dwellings.
Meanwhile, the elderly Isidorus, who was superintendent of the almshouse for the Alexandrian Church, refused to condone Theophilus’ sudden change of doctrine. About that time, a wealthy widow donated a large sum of money to Isidorus--under the condition that Theophilus not be told about this donation. She wanted the money to be used to supply the needs of poor women, rather than be spent on Theophilus' other building projects.
Theophilus soon heard about it and flew into a rage. He banished Isidorus with false accusations. Isidorus went to find refuge among the Nitrian monks who were Origenists and who believed with him that God was a spirit (John 4:24). Theophilus then sent troops to invade the monks, burn their monasteries, and torture those who refused to deliver Isidorus into their hands. This caused great indignation and horror among the Christians in Alexandria, who greatly revered the monks as holy men. The admirers of Origen immediately fled the blood-thirsty bishop's jurisdiction, most of them going north to Scythopolis, about seventy miles north of Jerusalem.
Then, because Isidorus was a great admirer of Origen, Theophilus sided with Jerome and Epiphanius in that dispute, hastily called a Synod of his bishops, and issued the first official decree of its kind condemning Origen and all who approved of his works. This occurred in 399 A.D. Hosea Ballou writes on page 230,
"Great were the mutual congratulations of Theophilus, Epiphanius, and Jerome, on these decisive measures. They informed each other, in their bombastic letters, that the snake of Origenism was now severed and disembowelled by the evangelical sword, that the host of Amalek was destroyed, and the banner of the cross erected on the altars of the Alexandrian church. Theophilus sent letters to Rome, to Cyprus, and to Constantinople, proclaiming his late measures, and exhorting the respective bishops to follow his example. Accordingly, Anastasius, the new Pope, who had succeeded Siricius at Rome, readily gratified the numerous partisans of Jerome in that city, by issuing a decree [400 A.D.] which was received through all the West, condemning the works of Origen; and Epiphanius soon afterwards convened a synod of his bishops in Cyprus, and procured from them a like sentence."
What is perhaps most remarkable is that these decrees condemned Origen, not for his teaching on the salvation of all mankind, but for his other teachings, including, of course, his teaching that the devil would be saved in the end. There were many in the Church at that time who continued to preach the salvation of all mankind with no restraint from these anti-Origenist synods.
Even John of Jerusalem was cowed by Theophilus and discovered within himself a revelation that the other side was right after all. But in Constantinople, John Crysostom was a bishop who had both the integrity and the power to oppose Theophilus.
Eighty of the Nitrian monks escaped and made their way to Constantinople to appeal to John Chrysostom. John was horrified and reduced to tears when he saw them in their sad state and heard their story. Church historians have written entire books detailing this appalling chapter in Church history. Theophilus succeeded in deposing John Crysostom and sending this elderly saint into exile, harassing him until his death in 407 A.D. The accusations against John were gleefully translated into Latin by Jerome who "lost all feeling of decency and veracity" (Hans von Campenhausen, The Fathers of the Latin Church, p. 178).
Yet because of these decrees, we are now supposed to believe that Universal Reconciliation is heresy. We are supposed to comply with the decrees of ungodly men in the Church by virtue of their position as bishops or archbishops, regardless of their personal character. I'm sorry, but I am not so respectful of ungodly men that I would allow them to interpret and establish the truth of Scripture. The prophets of the Old Testament suffered at the hands of the high priests in their day; and it was no different a few centuries into the New Testament era.
The Church bishops found it necessary to condemn Origen again in the Fifth General Council in 553 A.D., attended by only 148 bishops. Even so, nothing was specifically said about Origen's belief regarding the salvation of all men. It was left to the Emperor Justinian (527-565 A.D.) to condemn this belief in Anathema IX, where it read,
"If anyone says or thinks that the punishment of demons and impious men is only temporary, and will one day have an end, and that a restoration will take place of demons and of impious men, let him be anathema."
This seems to have been the first official decree on record condemning the restoration of all men, and it was done, not by the Church, but by a Roman Emperor participating in the Church Council. Ironically, the same Council praised Gregory of Nyassa, who believed that not only all men but also all the angels would be saved. Such is the inconsistent nature of the Church Council decrees.
Another Church Council in 692 again condemned Origen for his belief that the devil would be saved in the end. After this time, the Church entered a period of "dark ages" which historians describe as "The Golden Age of Profound Ignorance." The light of God's Word did not shine brightly again until the time of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, which occurred largely because of the invention of the printing press, which brought the Scriptures to the common people. Likewise, through the efforts of translator, John Wycliffe, those Scriptures were brought to the common people in their own language.
In the present light of Scripture, coupled with some historical knowledge of how this great Restoration teaching was lost, we have opportunity to see truth that has been buried for many centuries by unscrupulous men in the early Church. In the year 2000, Pope John Paul II issued an inexplicit, yet formal, apology for the actions of some of its zealous followers in past centuries. May I suggest that the Church also apologize for the actions of Epiphanius, Jerome, and especially Theophilus of Alexandria?
Those of us who believe in universal reconciliation have much precedent in the teaching of the great early Church leaders. Their teachings were lost through the political struggles of unscrupulous, jealous, and bitter men who were bishops of the Church, but not true bishops in the eyes of God. The plain history is written by historians, if anyone will take the time to study Church history.
The history of the Church itself does not prove the teaching to be true. But it does show us how this teaching was lost and why the majority of Church theologians in later years taught the alternative doctrines of a torturous and eternal hell for the vast majority of mankind. For this reason, this short Church history is helpful, for it puts the teaching of universal reconciliation into its proper context.
Other Selected Books by
Dr. Stephen E. Jones
Pocket Size Books ($1.50 each):
Creation’s Jubilee ($15) on the Restoration of All Things
Secrets of Time ($20) on the laws of time in history
The Struggle for the Birthright ($15) on the Middle East Conflict between Israelis and Palestinians
The Laws of the Second Coming ($18) on the prophetic significance of Israel’s Feast Days
The Seven Churches ($6)