Clement of Alexandria
Marcus Aurelius ruled the Roman Empire from 161-180 A.D., after which time his son Commodus ruled (180-192). Marcus Aurelius was the last of the five good emperors that had begun with Nerva (96-98), under whose mild reign the Apostle John was able to leave Patmos and return to his home in Ephesus. After Nerva came the final four: Trajan, Hadrian, Antonius Pius, and Marcus Aurelius.
Many historians trace the decline of Rome to the end of these five “good” emperors (180 A.D.) and to the beginning of the reign of Commodus, the worst of the worst.
Irenaeus gives us a list of the bishops in Rome up to his time, beginning with Linus, then Anencletus, then Clement of Rome, Evarestus, Alexander, Xystus, Telesphorus, Hyginus, Pius, Anicetus, Soter, and finally Elueutherus, who was bishop in Irenaus’ time.
In Jerusalem, Jesus' brother James was succeeded by his cousin Symeon, Justus I, Zaccheus, Tobias, Benjamin, John, Matthias, Philip, Seneca, Justus II, Levi, Ephres, Joseph, Judas, and Mark. Most if not all of these were Judeans, as one can tell by their names. Then after the Bar-Cochba revolt was crushed in 135 A.D., the Romans built a new city on the ruins of Jerusalem, calling it Aelia Capitolina. From here on, the bishops had Latin or Greek names. This is to be expected, since Judeans were forbidden from setting foot in the new city, except for once a year when they could pay a fee to mourn at a designated spot.
When Commodus came to the throne in Rome, Narcissus became bishop in Jerusalem, and in Alexandria, Julian replaced Agrippinus as bishop. My purpose in recording these lists of names is to show that the early Church did keep records, and that these forgotten men were each responsible to teach the next generation of the ways of Christ. Many of them sealed their testimony with their blood for daring to belong to an unlicensed religion not recognized by the state.
Up to the end of the second century, the two main problems of the Church were the heretics on the inside and the opposing political-religious establishments on the outside. To counter these threatening forces, the early Church writers wrote words of encouragement and practical exhortation to those undergoing persecution, to ensure that those persecuted ones retained the character of Christ in all things.
To oppose heresies, they wrote against those specific issues—primarily focusing on the nature of God and of Christ. Irenaeus was the greatest of those anti-heretical writers, producing five books called Against Heresies, toward the end of the second century. Yet he, too, showed great concern for the character of the people and especially the bishops. When Victor, the Bishop of Rome, took overly harsh measures against the eastern bishops over the Passover controversy (192 A.D.), Irenaeus reprimanded him in a letter and forced him to back down.
But the writings themselves do not give us a complete picture of the teachings of the Church. There was no great systematic theologian until the third century, which produced Origen of Alexandria. But in order to understand Origen's teachings, one must know something about his predecessors from whom he learned—namely, Clement of Alexandria and Pantaenus before him.
None of these men were bishops in Alexandria. Pantaenus started a theological school (or catechism school) in Alexandria in the middle of the second century. Little more is known of him, because he disdained to write down his teachings. When he left Alexandria as a missionary to India, he was succeeded by Clement, who wrote many books that we may read today, including eight books entitled The Stromata, translated “Miscellanies,” and three more volumes called The Instructor.
Clement is important because he was Origen's teacher and predecessor as head of the School. It is well known to all that Origen taught Universal Reconciliation, for the sheer number of his books on the subject exceeded all other authors in both quantity, size, and quality. His books were circulated throughout the Empire and prized so highly that copies were seen everywhere. This is how most of his books survived the years.
But getting back to Clement, the end of his seventh volume of The Stromata speaks clearly of his belief in the Reconciliation of All, where he writes,
“Wherefore also all men are His; some through knowledge, and others NOT YET SO . . . For He is the Saviour; not the Saviour of some, and of others not . . . And how is He Saviour and Lord, if not the Saviour and Lord of ALL? But He is the Saviour of those who have believed, and the Lord of those who have NOT believed, TILL, being enabled to confess Him, they obtain the peculiar and appropriate boon which comes by Him. The First Administrator of the Universe, who by the will of the Father, directs the salvation of all . . . 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.” [Stromata, VII, vi]
Clement shows that he believed in a “great and final judgment” to come upon sinners; however, he also believed that this judgment would “compel egregious [outstandingly bad; blatant] sinners to repent.” Earlier in the same chapter, Clement speaks of the lake of fire--that is the “great and final judgment—in this way:
“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 ‘pierces the soul’ which passes through it.”
In another writing, Clement describes the “fire” in this way:
“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” (Eccl. Proph. XXV, iv).
It is obvious from this that Clement's idea of the lake of fire is that its purpose will be beneficial to those cast into it, for it is a purifying fire, not a destructive fire that is seen on earth (i.e., “vulgar fire”). In his first volume of The Instructor, Clement writes about the idea of punishment upon sinners:
“Punishment is, in its operation, like medicine; it dissolves the hard heart, purges away the filth of uncleanness, and reduces the swellings of pride and haughtiness; thus restoring its subject to a sound and healthful state.”
Clement confirms his view in his Commentary on 1 John. We read in 1 John 1:2,
2 And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.
Clement explains it:
“And not only for our sins, that is, for those of the faithful, is the Lord the Propitiator does he say, but also for the whole world. He, indeed, saves all; but some He saves converting them by punishments; others, however, who follow voluntarily He saves with dignity of honour; so that every knee should bow to Him, of things in heaven, of things on earth, and things under the earth—that is, angels and men.”
There is no way to misunderstand Clement's teaching, especially when we see these things set forth by his pupil, Origen, who wrote:
“The Sacred Scripture does, indeed, call our God a consuming fire [Heb. 12:29], and says that rivers of fire go before His face [Dan. 7:10], and that He shall come as a refiner's fire and purify the people [Mal. 3:2, 3]. As therefore, God is a consuming fire, what is it that is to be consumed by Him? We say it is wickedness and whatever proceeds from it.” [Against Celsus, IV, xiii]
Some have tried to argue that Origen’s well-known views on Universal Reconciliation went against the earlier teachers such as Clement. They cite Clement’s use of the term aionian punishment, which is usually translated “eternal punishment.” But the Greek term aionian does not necessarily mean “eternal” in the sense of never-ending. If it did, then Clement’s other statements regarding the “wise fire” converting the whole world would be self-contradictory.
The case for never-ending torture in a literal fire is based almost entirely upon forcing the Greek word aionian to mean everlasting or eternal and then demanding that it must ALWAYS be so translated. But most language scholars know that the most natural rendering of the term is “age-abiding” (Rotherham) or “age-during” (Young), or “pertaining to an age.” our English term “eon,” means an age.
The most generous use of the term that a person can claim is that it can mean either a limited or an unlimited period of time. If that is the case, then neither side could use the term to prove their case, for the translation would be purely according to the bias of the translator. I would challenge anyone to prove eternal punishment without using the term aionian. It simply cannot be done, because nearly their entire case rests upon the translation of that single word.
Certainly, if we consider aionian to pertain to a limited age or eon, then Clement’s statements no longer contradict themselves. The best way to read Clement is to use his definition of aionian, not our own.