What the Greek Church Fathers Believed
The early Church fathers did not concern themselves with in-depth theology, but focused upon the person of Christ, the work that He accomplished, and how He fulfilled biblical prophecy in the law and prophets. The terms that they used of the judgment to come was essentially the same as the writers of the New Testament. Because they seldom felt the need to define their terms specifically, there is no way to prove what they believed, except by their use of the term aionios. Nonetheless, in the second century we begin to see some evidence as to how they generally understood this fiery judgment.
Irenaeus of Lyons, Gaul (120-202 A.D.)
Irenaeus was the Church leader from Lyons, a city in southern Gaul, which is now France. He died in 202 with thousands of fellow Christians during the persecution of Roman Emperor Severus. He wrote five books called Against Heresies. (See The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, edited by Roberts and Donaldson, 1994 reprint of the 1885 book.) He often writes of aionian judgment, and closes his monumental work with a commentary on 1 Corinthians 15:25 and 26, saying,
“For He must reign till He hath put all enemies under His feet. The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death. For in the times of the kingdom, the righteous man who is upon the earth shall then forget to die. But when He saith, All things shall be subdued unto Him, it is manifest that He is excepted who did put all things under Him. And when all things shall be subdued unto Him, then shall the Son also Himself be subject unto Him who put all things under Him, that God may be all in all.
“John, therefore, did distinctly foresee the first ‘resurrection of the just,’ and the inheritance in the kingdom of the earth; and what the prophets have prophesied concerning it harmonize [with his vision]. For the Lord also taught these things, when He promised that He would have the mixed cup new with His disciples in the kingdom. The apostle, too, has confessed that the creation shall be free from the bondage of corruption, [so as to pass] into the liberty of the sons of God. And in all these things, and by them all, the same God the Father is manifested, who fashioned man, and gave promise of the inheritance of the earth to the fathers, who brought it (the creature) forth [from bondage] at the resurrection of the just, and fulfills the promises for the kingdom of His Son. . . .” (p. 567)
Here we see that Irenaeus understood that the creation itself would ultimately be set free from corruption and pass into the liberty of the sons of God.
Again, in one of Irenaeus’ books that is now lost, we find another author quoting from it, giving us what is called a “fragment.” There are 55 fragments attributed to Irenaeus. Fragment number 39 reads,
“Christ, who was called the Son of God before the ages, was manifested in the fullness of time, in order that He might cleanse us through His blood, who were under the power of sin, presenting us as pure sons to His Father, if we yield ourselves obediently to the chastisement of the Spirit. And in the end of time He shall come to do away with all evil, and to reconcile all things, in order that there may be an end of all impurities.”
Here it is clear that Irenaeus believed in the reconciliation of all things at the end of time. So when Irenaeus speaks of aionios judgment of the wicked, we are inescapably drawn to the conclusion that he did not think the judgment would continue for all time.
Clement of Alexandria (150-213 A.D.)
Clement was born in Athens, Greece, and later moved to Alexandria, Egypt, where he became the head of the Church from 190-203. He fled for his life in 203 during the persecution of the Roman Emperor, Severus, and spent his remaining years teaching in Antioch and Palestine. In Stromata, VII, 26, Clement wrote,
“God does not wreak vengeance, for vengeance is to return evil for evil, and God punishes only with an eye to the good.”
Clement also comments on Paul’s statement in 1 Timothy 4:9-11, which says,
9 It is a trustworthy statement deserving full acceptance. 10 For it is for this we labor and strive, because we have fixed our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of the believers. 11 Prescribe and teach these things.
In his comment, Clement shows that he understood Paul to mean that there was a “general” salvation of all men, as well as a “particular” salvation and reward for believers. Stromata VII, 2:5-12 says,
“Wherefore also all men are His; some through knowledge, and others not yet so . . . For He is the Savior; not the Saviour of some, and of others not . . . Nor can He who is the Lord of All (and serves above all the will of the Good and Almighty Father) ever be hindered by another …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 book which comes by Him. [Christ is] the First Administrator of the Universe, Who by the will of the Father directs the salvation of all . . . (the One only Almighty Good God—from the eon and for the eon saving by His Son) . . . for all things are arranged with a view to the salvation of the Universe by the Lord of the Universe, both generally and particularly . . . .”
Clement then speaks of the nature of the fiery judgment at the Great White Throne where unbelievers will be judged:
“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.”
It was Clement’s opinion that the judgment would “compel egregious sinners to repent.” I do not mean to quibble, but in this I differ slightly with Clement. Any time a sinner is compelled to repent, the change is only superficial. The judgment of the law can only constrain the sinner’s behavior and limit his actions to what is lawfully acceptable. Only the love of God will change the heart and cause the sinner to truly repent.
Clement wrote again about the nature of God’s fiery judgment 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.”
Clement writes in Ecl. Proph., XXV, 4, that the fire is “wise,”
“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.”
Clement writes in The Instructor, I, 8, that the purpose of fire is to restore 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.”
Again, he writes in Stromata VII, 3:17,
“. . . at any rate, even suffering is found to be useful alike in medicine and in education, and in punishment; and by means of it, characters are improved for the benefit of mankind.”
Finally, in Clement’s commentary on 1 John, he writes,
(On 1 John 1:5) “And in Him is no darkness at all,” that is, no passion, no keeping up of evil respecting anyone; He destroys no one, but gives salvation to all.”
(On 1 John 2:2) “ ‘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, or things on earth, and things under the earth’—that is, angels and men.”
Clement clearly believed in the salvation of all men back to God. Some, he says, are reconciled voluntarily—and these are those who believe in Christ during the ages prior to the first resurrection. Others, he says, will be saved by means of “punishments.” I do not know what Greek word Clement was using, but I myself would use the word “judgment” rather than punishment in order to better manifest the purpose of the divine law (fire).
Origen of Alexandria (185-254 A.D.)
Origen was a student of Clement who became the head of the school in Alexandria after Clement was forced to flee. Origen is the most well-known of the early teachers of the restoration of all things. He wrote extensively and was the first to write a systematic theology of early Church belief. For this reason, the people today who oppose the teaching of restoration often call it “Origenism,” as if to imply that it was invented and believed almost exclusively by this one man and a few followers.
But such a view merely portrays either prejudice or ignorance, since Origen did not differ substantially from the teachings of Clement, his mentor, or Pantaenus before him. In Volume 6 of the Ante-Nicene Fathers, page 3, in the introduction to the writings of Gregory Thaumaturgus, the editors tell us,
“Alexandria continues to be the head of Christian learning. . . We have already observed the continuity of the great Alexandrian school; how it arose, and how Pantaenus begat Clement, and Clement begat Origen. So Origen begat Gregory, and so the Lord has provided for the spiritual generation of the Church’s teachers, age after age, from the beginning. Truly, the Lord gave to Origen a holy seed, better than natural sons and daughters.”
Origen is more well known than Clement or Pantaenus, because he produced the first real systematic theology in the early Church, called First Principles. And so he later became the “lightning rod” of his opponents’ wrath. Hence, the doctrine of the restoration of all things has been mislabeled “Origenism,” as if to imply that he invented the teaching. Nothing could be further from the truth, as every good Church historian knows. To include all that Origen writes about the nature and duration of God’s fiery judgment would take a large book in itself, and so we will include a sampling of what he wrote. In his book Against Celsus, IV, 13, he writes,
“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, such as is figuratively called ‘wood, hay, and stubble’ [1 Cor. 3:15]—which denote the evil works of man. Our God is a consuming fire in this sense; and He shall come as a refiner’s fire to purify rational nature from the alloy of wickedness and other impure matter which has adulterated the intellectual gold and silver; consuming whatever evil is admixed in all the soul.”
Origen, like most Christians in the second century, seems to have lost the knowledge of biblical law. Hence, he seems to think that the “fire” is painful to the sinner. This may simply be because Origen held what is called “the doctrine of reserve,” believing that certain truths ought to be held in secret. It may be, then, that he taught in public that the fiery judgment upon sinners was physically painful, though temporary, but in private he may have thought otherwise. That is a matter of debate. In speaking of the duration of the fiery judgment, Origen writes in his Commentary in Epistle to the Romans, VIII, 11,
“But how long this purification which is wrought out by penal fire shall endure, or for how many eons it shall torment sinners, He only knows to Whom all judgment is committed by the Father.”
Again, Origen writes in First Principles, I, 6:3,
“And so it happens that some in the first, others in the second, and others even in the last times, through their endurance of greater and more severe punishments of long duration, extending, if I may say so, over many eons, are by these very stern methods of correction renewed and restored . . . .”
This is an example of how Origen taught that the “penal fire” would “torment sinners” for “many eons.” Certainly, he did not understand the concept of the Jubilee and how it mandated a limitation of all debt, or liability for sin. In this way, I differ from Origen’s teaching, for I view the divine law as judgment, not punishment or torment. Nonetheless, we are in agreement that the goal of this fiery judgment is not to destroy sinners, but to restore them to God.
Novatian of Rome (circa 250 A.D.)
This great Presbyter of the Church in Rome also held the doctrine of the purifying nature of divine judgment. In De Regula Fidei, IV, he wrote that the. . .
“. . . 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 directly solely to our purification.”
Didymus the Blind (308-395 A.D.)
Didymus also held to the concept of divine punishment, rather than what I would call judgment. He says in De. Span. San. II,
“For although the Judge at times inflicts tortures and anguish on those who merit them, yet he who more deeply scans the reason of things, perceiving the purpose of His goodness, who desires to amend the sinner, confesses Him to be good. He who is our Lord and Saviour inflicts on us everything that may lead us to Salvation; inflicting on us according to His mercy, yet doing this in His judgment.”
In his Commentary on 1 Peter, III, he writes,
“As mankind by being reclaimed from their sins are to be subjected to Christ in the dispensation appointed for the Salvation of all, so the angels will be reduced to obedience by the correction of their vices.”
Gregory of Nazianzen, Bishop of Constantinople (325-390 A.D.)
Gregory was educated in Alexandria and in Athens. Along with his friend, Basil, they compiled a collection of Origen’s writings called Philokalia, or Love of the Beautiful. He ultimately became the bishop of Constantinople and was known as one of the four Eastern Doctors of the Church. Robert Payne writes 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 wrote this (Orat. XXXIX, 19) about the lake of fire:
“These (apostates), if they will, may go our way, which indeed is 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.”
Gregory, Bishop of Nyassa (335-395 A.D.)
This Gregory was the younger brother of Basil, the friend of Gregory of Nazianzen. He was the bishop of Nyassa, a town in Cappadocia. Robert Payne says of him in his book, The Fathers of the Eastern Church, page 168, 169,
“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’.”
In Gregory’s Orat. in 1 Cor. 15:28, 32-44, where the Apostle Paul writes of all things being restored to God at the end of time, he writes,
“33. 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 nature; 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. . .
40. And this is the ultimate goal of our hope, that nothing should be left in opposition to the good, but that the divine life should permeate everything and abolish death from every being, the sin, from which as we have already said, death secured its hold over men, having already been destroyed. . . [Here he quotes from 1 Cor. 15:22-28 ending with “God will be all in all.”]
44. That last phrase, which speaks of God coming to be in all by becoming all to each, clearly portrays the non-existence of evil. 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. So either He will not be ‘in all’ and some evil will be left in things, or, if we are to believe that He is ‘in all,’ then that belief declares that there will be no evil. For God cannot be in what is evil.”
In Gregory’s Comm. on Psalm 54:17, he writes about divine judgment and its purpose to restore mankind, saying,
“The Lord will, in His just judgment, destroy the wickedness of sinners; not their nature . . . Wickedness being thus destroyed, and its imprint being left in none, we shall all be fashioned after Christ, and in all that one character shall shine, which was originally imprinted on our nature.”
In Gregory’s De Anima et Resurrectione, he comments on the second death, saying,
“They who live in the flesh ought, by virtuous conversation, to free themselves from fleshly lusts, lest after death, they should again need another death, to cleanse away the remains of fleshly vice that cling to them.”
We know, of course, from Revelation 20:14 that the second death is the lake of fire. It is obvious from this that Gregory believed that the second death—the lake of fire—was God’s manner of cleansing the sinners, not of destroying them. After all, Revelation 20 makes it clear that the lake of fire is for unbelievers, not believers, and so Gregory was speaking about the cleansing of unbelievers.
Victorinus (circa 360 A.D.)
In his book Adv. Arium I, 3, he writes that Christ will . . .
“. . . regenerate all things, as He created all things. By the life that is in Him all things will be cleansed and return into eonian life. Christ is to subject all things to Himself . . . when this shall have been accomplished, God will be in all things, because all things will be full of God.”
Jerome, Bishop of Bethlehem (340-419 A.D.)
It was in Jerome’s day (400 A.D.) that the belief in the salvation of all men came to be questioned officially. It arose in Alexandria as the by-product of a petty dispute over money. There arose in Alexandria an unscrupulous bishop named Theophilus who became offended when a rich widow gave money to one of his deacons (Isidorus) in order to use the money to buy clothing for poor women. (She knew that if she gave the money to Theophilus, he would use it on his building projects.) Theophilus flew into a rage and banished Isidorus.
In my book, Creation’s Jubilee, I wrote a summary of the story on page 115, saying,
“It happened that Isidorus was a great admirer of Origen. So to get even with Isidorus, Theophilus called together a synod of a few loyal bishops, condemned Origen as a heretic, and forbade anyone henceforth to read his works. When a group of 300 Nitrian monks refused to acquiesce in denouncing Origen, he then sent armed men to attack and kill them. Eighty of these monks, however, escaped, making their way to Constantinople, appealing to the bishop there, John Chrysostom, who, they knew, was a man of great integrity. John was horrified, and after hearing the case, he sided with the monks. However, Theophilus succeeded by outrageous accusations to depose John and send him into exile. He ultimately drove John to his death. These accusations were gleefully translated into Latin by Jerome, who, according to historian, Hans von Campenhausen, ‘lost all feeling of decency and veracity’ (The Father of the Latin Church, p. 178).”
Up until that time Jerome had written much about the restoration of all mankind. But during this controversy, he wrote to the bishop of Rome, asking him what position he should take. The bishop sided with Theophilus, so Jerome suddenly stopped teaching the salvation of all men. In one of his earlier writings, though, Jerome wrote (In Eph. 4:16),
“In the end of all things the whole body which has been dissipated will be restored . . . What I mean is, the fallen Angel will begin to be that which he was created, and man, who was expelled from Paradise, will once more be restored to the tilling of Paradise. These things will then take place universally.”
John Chrysostom (347-407 A.D.)
John was one of the most famous of the bishops of Constantinople in the late fourth century. He is the bishop to whom the surviving Nitrian monks appealed when attacked by the soldiers of Theophilus, Bishop of Alexandria. His writings are not so clear as to make it certain of his belief concerning the salvation of all, but he does give some hints as to his belief in the purpose of judgment. In his Hom. IX in Epis. Ad Rom. 5:11, he writes,
“. . . if punishment were an evil to the sinner, God would not have added evils to the evil . . . all punishment is owing to His loving us, by pains to recover us and lead us to Him, and to deliver us from sin which is worse than hell.”
This same teaching can be found in his Hom. V, 2 de Statuis and in Hom. III, 2 in Epis. Ad Philem. 1:25. The problem is that there are many places in his writings where he seems to teach endless punishment. We believe that this is because he held the doctrine of reserve, where some thought it better to threaten with greater punishments than they themselves actually believed God would inflict—in order to discourage people from turning away from God.
Titus, Bishop of Bostra (circa 364 A.D.)
This bishop wrote a book against the Manichean religion that had been started in the third century by a man named Mani. Manicheanism taught Persian Dualism, where time would end with the separation of light from darkness. That is, good and evil would continue to co-exist side by side. The Christian Church adopted parts of this view in teaching that the ultimate goal of history would be heaven and hell forever co-existing. Titus’ book, Against Manichaeans, Book I refutes this idea, saying,
“. . . the punishments of God are Holy, as they are remedial and salutary in their effect upon transgressors; for they are inflicted, not to preserve them in their wickedness, but to make them cease from their sins. The abyss . . . is indeed the place of punishment, but it is not endless. The anguish of their sufferings compels them to break off from their sins.”
Perhaps this gives us some idea why Augustine, the ex-Manichean, could not shake the idea that evil would exist forever in the sinners sent to the lake of fire.
Ambrose of Milan (340-397 A.D.)
Ambrose was the one through whom Augustine was converted from Manicheanism to Christianity. Ambrose wrote in his In Psalm 1, ch. 54,
“Our Saviour has appointed two kinds of resurrection, in accordance with which John says, in the Apocalypse, ‘Blessed is he that hath part in the first resurrection;’ for such come to grace without the judgment. As for those who do not come to the first, but are reserved until the second (resurrection), these shall be burning until they fulfill their appointed times, between the first and second resurrection; or, if they should not have fulfilled in them then, they shall remain still longer in punishment.”
I find it interesting that Ambrose believed that there would be a “burning” of the sinners during the Millennium between the first and second resurrection, though John says nothing of any such thing. Ambrose himself does not tell us the nature of that fire, but he does tell us something of the duration of the judgment. He thought that some sinners would be released from the fire at the end of the thousand years, and only those who deserved a longer punishment would remain in the fire beyond the Millennium.
By no means is this a complete index of those who believed in the salvation of all men. Nor should we think that they were all agreed in every detail on how this was to be accomplished. Even so, they did all have one thing in common—they all believed that judgment would come upon the sinners, and that it was by means of this divine “fire” that all men would ultimately be saved. None of them believed that sinners would be saved apart from God’s fiery judgment.
We should also be remiss if we did not inform our readers that there were a minority of Church Fathers, particularly in the Latin-speaking Church of the Western part of the Roman Empire, who believed in eternal torment. Augustine was one. Another was Lactantius. Thus, the idea of universal reconciliation of all was not universally understood in the early Church. But even Augustine himself admitted that his own view was held by a minority of Christians. In his Enchiridion, ad Lauren. Ch. 29, Augustine wrote that there were . . .
“. . . very many, who, though not denying the Holy Scriptures, do not believe in endless torments.”
In view of Augustine’s admission, the Church today should not think it strange if some believe that God will save all mankind. They should not excommunicate or expel such Christian believers, but instead should search out the truth for themselves. And if even the search should end in disagreement, it should not become a “point of fellowship,” for if the early Church had done this, the majority of believers would have been expelled from the Church.
Christianity is based upon belief in Jesus as the Messiah, His death on the Cross in our place, His resurrection from the dead, and His ascension to the Throne in heaven, where He has been proclaimed King of all the earth. These are the essentials which define a Christian. We are justified by faith alone—not faith AND belief in any particular view of the judgments of God. We do not mean to minimize the importance of knowing the ultimate plan of God for the earth, but neither should we make these beliefs a requisite for justification.
If, then, we keep this in perspective, we will be able to discuss the things of God freely and openly in the spirit of love that Christ intended.