Christian Universalism: Will Everyone Finally Be Saved?

The Last Judgment, Fresco in the Chora Monastery, Constantinople The Last Judgment, Fresco in the Chora Monastery, Constantinople

When they are in fashion, fads are never recognized as fads. Those under their influence and promoting them feel that they have come across An Important New Truth, or (if Orthodox) An Important But Neglected Part of Our Tradition. Recognizing them as fads or, (worse yet for Orthodox) as deviations from genuine Tradition, would only serve to dismiss them from serious consideration. Thus fads never ’fess up.

I suggest that the latest interest in Universalism, the belief that everyone will eventually be saved, is the latest fad (or, if preferred, that it is currently fashionable). Evidence of this may be found in the fact that the view is being promoted by a number of different people who have little contact with one another and with little else in common. Thus we find it promoted by a scholar such as David Bentley Hart in his essay God, Creation, and Evil, and also in more popular form (I am being polite), by Rob Bell in his best-seller Love Wins. (My review of the latter may be found here.)

Admittedly the conviction that everyone will eventually be saved (including Satan and the demons) has been expressed from time to time throughout Christian history (as has the unrelated conviction that Christ is not fully divine), but, like the latter Arian opinion, the majority of Christians have decided to pass on it. For people like the Orthodox who believe that God guides His Church and that therefore consensus matters, the solid fact of Christian consensus about the eternity of hell is surely significant.

Orthodox scholars rarely stand on their hind legs and boldly proclaim that everyone will be saved. Like Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, they simply ask “Dare We Hope for the Salvation of All?” (see his essay by that title in the anthology The Inner Kingdom), and then go on to answer, “Why yes, of course”. Metropolitan Kallistos thus begins by declaring the question open (much like he recently declared the question of whether or not women may be ordained priests as open in the latest revision of his The Orthodox Church), and then proceeds to examine the evidence. We will do the same here, and examine the Scriptures, the Fathers, and the teaching of the Fifth Ecumenical Council. Since this is a blog and not a book, the examination must of necessity be somewhat limited.

We begin with the Scriptures, and in particular with the Old Testament. Most discussions I have read about this topic tend to ignore the Old Testament as irrelevant to the subject at hand, but given the fact that the apostles would have consulted the Hebrew Scriptures for all subjects, this seems unwise. In the Old Testament we find the following consistent themes:

  1. God loves everyone, even idolatrous Gentiles such as those of Nineveh (e.g. Jonah 4:11);
  2. God hates sin and judges sinners (e.g. Psalms 11:5, 34:16);
  3. God judges sin with some reluctance, preferring the repentance of the sinner to his destruction (e.g. Ezekiel 33:11).

In all of these themes (the Scriptural citations for each could easily be multiplied) we see that although God loves everyone and judges with reluctance, He does nonetheless judge with severity those who persist in sin because He is implacably hates sin. This binary theme of God as the lover of righteousness and hater of sin runs throughout the Old Testament. God is the judge of all the earth, and His punishing judgment and severity falls upon those who rebel against righteousness. Some might suggest that these themes have little ultimately to do with the subject of hell, since the judgment threatened in the time of the Old Testament had to do with this life and not the next. Admittedly, the Old Testament texts do not deal much with the life of the age to come. But there is one text that does: Daniel 12:2, which declares that “many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt”. The word rendered here “everlasting” is the Hebrew olam, which given its context of the age to come after the resurrection of the dead, means precisely “eternal” or everlasting in the traditional sense. There is therefore no reason to think that the judgments of God upon the sinner have no application to the life of eternity.

The theme of the age to come of course comes to the fore in the New Testament. And here, Christ speaks quite categorically: the punishments of Gehenna are eternal. He warns of the impenitent being bound hand and foot and cast into the outer darkness where men will weep and gnash their teeth (Matthew 8:12, 22:13, 25:30), and there is no suggestion that this punishment will be temporary. Indeed, He teaches that in Gehenna, the “unquenchable fire”, the “worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:43, 48). If the Universalists are correct, then the worm will indeed die and the fire will indeed be quenched, but Christ here says the opposite. In His parable about Lazarus and the rich man, Christ explicitly says that there is a great gulf fixed between paradise and the place of punishment, so that none may cross over from the place to punishment into paradise (Luke 16:26). Granted that this is a parable and not a behind the scenes peak at eternity, it remains an odd thing to say if in fact everyone in the place of punishment will indeed eventually cross over into paradise. Also important to the discussion is the fact that Christ describes the two fates awaiting men after the final judgment either as “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels”, and “eternal punishment”, or as “eternal life” (Matthew 25:41, 46). Note that the same word “eternal” (Greekaionion) is used in v. 46 to describe both the eternal life of the saved and the eternal punishment of the condemned. One can debate the meaning of the word aionion if one likes, but the word must have the same meaning in both halves of v. 46. It cannot mean, for example, “the unrighteous will go away into age-long punishment, but the righteous into eternal life”. If the life of the righteous is eternal, then so must be the punishment of the unrighteous. One may assert that St. Paul proclaims universalism, but no one has ever suggested that Christ did. All of His words about the fate of men in the age to come are emphatic that hell is eternal, and contain not a hint of universalism. One cannot bypass this fact when promoting universalism, as many seem to do, but must rather explain why it is that Christ is so uncompromising in His words about hell.

In his examination of the New Testament evidence mentioned above, Metropolitan Kallistos writes that “these and other ‘hell-fire’ texts need to be interpreted in the light of different passages from the New Testament which point rather in a ‘universalist’ direction”, by which he means “a series of Pauline texts”. This is not so much using Paul as a lens through which to view Christ’s teaching as it is misusing Paul as a means of discounting the teaching of Christ, for if Paul indeed taught universalism, then Christ was simply wrong. One cannot oppose Christ to His apostle like this and reject all of Christ’s teaching on hell simply because one prefers what one imagines is the teaching of Paul. Obviously one must interpret both Christ and His apostle so that their teachings are mutually compatible.

And in fact St. Paul does indeed conform with his Lord, and teach that the punishment of hell is unending. Take for example 1 Corinthians 6:10 and Galatians 5:21, where Paul teaches that the unrighteous will not inherit the Kingdom of God. There is no suggestion that actually they will inherit the Kingdom of God after all, but only after a lot of suffering. Or take for example Ephesians 5:6, where he writes that the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. If by “wrath” Paul meant only “temporary anger which will eventually give place to acceptance and bliss”, his warning loses most of its force. Or take for another example 2 Thessalonians 1:9, where Paul describes the lost as “suffering the punishment of eternal destruction away from the presence of the Lord”. If the banishment from the Lord’s presence were only temporary, it would hardly be eternal destruction. As it is, it looks as if Paul is here echoing Christ’s teaching about the lost being bound hand and foot and cast into the outer darkness.

Fragment of a fresco of the ninth scene of the Apocalypse, Dionysiou Monastery, Mt. Athos Fragment of a fresco of the ninth scene of the Apocalypse, Dionysiou Monastery, Mt. Athos

And then there is the Book of Revelation. This Book is clear to the point of being almost lurid that the pains of hell are unending: “if anyone worships the Beast and its image…he also shall drink the wine of God’s wrath poured unmixed into the cup of His anger and he shall be tormented with fire and sulphur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever [Greek eis aionas aionon] and they have no rest day or night” (Revelation 14:11). The devil and his angels, far from being eventually redeemed because love wins, will be “thrown into the lake of fire and sulphur…and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever” [Greek eis tous aionas ton aionon] (Revelation 20:10). If the words eis aionas aionon does not here mean “unending”, then words have no meaning. Indeed, if a man wanted to express the concept of unending punishment, how much more emphatic than this could he get? One may, if one likes, presume to be more loving and tender-hearted than the apostolic author of these words. One may lament the fate of the lost, while condemning those who believe that hell is eternal as heartless and insensitive members of a “hellfire club”, but of the author’s intent in writing those words there can be little doubt: the punishments of hell are unending and eternal. How such a view can be moral and consistent with belief in a loving God can and should be debated. But for Christians who believe the Scriptures, the truth of this teaching is sure. Our faith must be rooted in the Scriptures, not in our own views of whether or not we think something is consistent with love as we understand it. A belief in hell may or may not be consistent with love, but what is certain is that it is taught in the Scriptures, and this must be the deciding factor for us. The upshot of all this may be summed up by John, the beloved disciple and the apostle of love: “he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides upon him” (John 3:36).

Since this teaching about the eternity of hell is so unambiguous, Paul’s other words (which everyone acknowledges contain more ambiguity) must be interpreted in the light of them. In 1 Corinthians 15:28, for example, Paul teaches that at the end, all will be subject to God, so that He “will be all in all”. In its context, it is doubtful if this means more than simply all of God’s enemies including death (the main subject of the chapter) will be destroyed, and in the new heaven and new earth, righteousness will finally reign (compare 2 Peter 3:13). This is compatible with the lost no longer being found in the new heavens or the new earth, but in the darkness outside, excluded from the Kingdom (compare Matthew 13:41-43, 25:30).

In other passages Paul writes that just as Adam’s sin brought death to all men, so Christ’s work brought justification and life to all (Romans 5:18), and that “as in Adam all die so in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22). Here Paul is speaking of the possibility of all men enjoying eternal life, not of the certainty of their eventual salvation. Paul teaches here that inChrist all have been made alive, and their redemption has been purchased—but whether one chooses to be and to remain “in Christ” depends upon their personal choice. According to Paul, life has indeed come to all, but that life is in God’s Son. No one will enjoy this life unless one is in the Son, “in Christ” (to use Paul’s term) and unless one remains in Him “stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel” (Colossians 1:23). Christ is truly the Saviour of all men (1 Timothy 4:10), but for men to be enjoy that salvation, they must believe, otherwise they will be condemned.

In perusing the New Testament teaching, John’s gospel in particular, along with his epistles, shines not only with a universal offer of salvation to all the world, but also with this fundamental binary approach—the choice between light or darkness, faith or unbelief, salvation or condemnation. For St. John the key to enjoying this salvation is acceptance of Jesus as Lord and God. John is emphatic that Jesus came to save the whole world, and equally emphatic that a man must believe in Jesus to be saved. Thus “he who has the Son has life”, while “he who has not the Son of God has not life” (1 John 5:12). Universalism destroys this fundamental apostolic binary. A view of history as one of eternal cyclic return—of all the cosmos falling and then eventually returning to saving unity—might have resonated for many in Origen’s day and inspired his own view of apokatastasis, but it is alien and incompatible with the Hebrew and binary approach to life and salvation found in John’s Gospel, and in the rest of the New Testament.

We turn now to a brief look at the Fathers. Here is not the place to enter into a detailed examination of what these ancient Christian writers wrote, and what they meant by it, and whether they would be happy to be thus hauled into court as witnesses for Christian universalism. In the case of Origen, we may doubt this last: he said that although all will be saved, this teaching ought to be kept secret, and shared only with the spiritually mature. Presumably this excluded promoting this teaching on blogs.

In the vast array of the Fathers, only a few are regularly cited: Gregory of Nyssa (along with his mentor Origen), and Isaac the Syrian. We note in passing that some have debated whether or not Gregory of Nyssa may be considered a universalist in the sense we are discussing. Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos argues in his book Life After Death that Gregory of Nyssa did not in fact contradict the view of the Fifth Ecumenical Council that the punishments of Gehenna were unending. Where such scholars disagree about patristics, I am happy to walk away quietly and leave the question open. But even if Gregory of Nyssa did actually teach that all will be saved, his was still simply a single individual opinion. It could be, as some suggest, that many other Fathers have written from a universalist perspective. Being a parish priest and not a patristic scholar, I have not read everything written by the Fathers, would be happy to hear their voices, especially set in context, finding out in which book or essay they wrote their universalist opinion. But that Gregory of Nyssa and Isaac the Syrian are the only ones constantly quoted by proponents like Ware and Hart does little to bolster the view that many of the Fathers thought like this. One always hears about Gregory and Isaac, and hardly ever about anyone else. It is difficult to not to conclude that Gregory (with his mentor Origen) and Isaac the Syrian and few others stood over against the vast consensus of practically everyone else.

At the risk of opening up a game of duelling patristic citations, in the east one might quote from St. John Chrysostom: “There are many men, who form good hopes not by abstaining from their sins, but by thinking that hell is not so terrible as it is said to be, but milder than what is threatened, and temporary, not eternal… But that it is not temporary, hear Paul now saying, concerning those who know not God, and who do not believe in the Gospel, that ‘they shall suffer punishment, even eternal destruction.’ How then is that temporary which is everlasting?” (from his third homily on 2 Thessalonians).

Then in the west we may quote from St. Augustine of Hippo: “I am aware that I now have to engage in a debate with those compassionate Christians who refuse to believe that the punishment of hell will be everlasting…On this subject the most compassionate of all was Origen, who believed that the Devil himself and his angels will be rescued from their torments and brought into the company of the holy angels…But the Church has rejected Origen’s teaching…Is it not folly to assume that eternal punishment signifies a fire lasting a long time, while believing that eternal life is life without end? For Christ, in the very same passage, included both punishment and life in one and the same sentence when He said, ‘So those people will go into eternal punishment, while the righteous will go into eternal life’” (City of God Book 21, chapters 17, 23).

In this last citation we note that Augustine asserted that “the Church has rejected Origen’s teaching”. He appears to refer to an existing consensus, which rejected the apokatastasistaught by Origen. This consensus would later come to be expressed in the canons of future Ecumenical Councils. The views of the Fathers are important, but perhaps not as important as the traditions of these Councils, for an Orthodox thinker may disagree with St. Augustine or St. John Chrysostom, but he may not disagree with the conclusions of the Ecumenical Councils and still regard himself as genuinely Orthodox. This is not a matter of “rigorism” or being exclusionary, but simply a matter of recognizing the normative authority of the Ecumenical Councils for those claiming to be Orthodox.

When we look at the Fifth Ecumenical Council, we find associated with it a series of fifteen anathemas directed as heretical teachings of that day associated with the name of Origen. Though no one doubts Origen was condemned by the Council (his name was included along with Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius and other ancient heretics in Canon 11), considerable doubt attaches to whether the fifteen anathemas were the genuine work of the Council. Some suggest that they were the work of bishops meeting before the Fifth Ecumenical Council. Either way, the Council Fathers certainly knew of them and approved of them (as even Metropolitan Kallistos acknowledges), since they condemned Origen by name, lumping him in with other ancient heretics. These anathemas therefore may be allowed to stand as illustrative of why the Council Fathers anathematized Origen in Canon 11. (These anathemas were confirmed by the first canon of the “Quinisext Council” held in 692, which spoke with approval of how previous Council Fathers “anathematized and execrated…Origen”.)

Origen of course produced much good work in his day (St. Gregory the Theologian referred to him as “the whetstone of us all”), but much of his speculation was later deemed erroneous and heretical. The abiding point of the anathemas therefore has to do with Origenism as it was known in the sixth century with its erroneous teachings, and less to do with the historical figure of Origen himself. What was it that the Church was determined to anathematize? We gain some idea from looking at the fifteen anathemas themselves.

The first one anathematizes anyone who “asserts the fabulous [i.e. mythical] pre-existence of souls”. The fourteenth anathema rejects the teaching that “all reasonable beings will one day be united in one when hypostases as well as the numbers and the bodies shall have disappeared…and that in this pretended apokatastasis spirits only will continue to exist”. Clearly the doctrine of apokatastasis considered here appears in Origenistic dress. But would the Council Fathers have been much more accepting if the doctrine appeared without Origen’s teaching of the pre-existence of souls and their eternal return? St. Augustine would not have been much mollified, nor St. John Chrysostom. Nor would Justinian, who called the council: one of his nine anathemas against Origen reads, “If anyone says that the punishment of demons and of impious men is only temporary, and will one day have an end, and that aapokatastasis will take place of demons and of impious men, let him be anathema”. It is possible, I suppose, that although the Emperor seems to have rejected the notion ofapokatastasis in principle, the Council Fathers accepted it in principle, and only anathematized it because of its Origenistic framework, but this seems a bit of a stretch. If the Council Fathers had no problem with apokatastasis as such, one wonders why they mentioned it at all in their condemnation of Origen. At least they could have made clear that it was Origen’s use of the teaching that they found objectionable, and not the teaching itself. It all reminds me of the special pleading of John Henry Newman, who argued in his Tract 90 that the 39 Articles (then considered authoritative for Anglican clergy) did not condemn the doctrine of purgatory in principle, but only “the Romish doctrine concerning purgatory”, when clearly the framers of the 39 Articles would have little sympathy for any doctrine of purgatory at all.

At the end of the day what ultimately matters is less the historical minutiae of the Council’s background (fascinating though it may be to scholars) than the abiding consensus of the Church through the centuries–a consensus reflected not only in the Church’s iconography regarding the Last Judgment, but also in her hymns. Consider, for example, the stich for the Vespers of the Sunday of the Last Judgment: “the whole vale of sorrow shall echo with the fearful sound of lamentation, as all the sinners, weeping in vain, are sent by Your just judgement to everlasting torment”. The Church later read the Council as condemning not only Origen’s teaching in particular, but also as condemning the concept of an ultimateapokatastasis in principle. One may lament this reading of the Council (as some do) and spend much effort trying to correct it and promote universalism as a live option (perhaps even rehabilitating Origen). But surely an age-long Orthodox consensus has a weight of its own? For centuries Orthodox Christians have believed that the doctrine of an ultimateapokatastasis was off the table, and this cannot be ignored. It is a narrow and legalistic reading of our tradition that that ascribes authority only to the pronouncements of the Ecumenical Councils, as if everything not explicitly condemned by them were live options. Liberal scholars, of course, are happy to dismiss centuries of tradition and belief as the ramblings of the ignorant and uneducated, but pious Orthodox will give this tradition its due weight. And when the Scriptures are so clear, and when the consensus of the Fathers so weighty, and when the occasions when the Ecumenical Councils which considered the question all point in the same direction, we may conclude that we have found the mind of the Church. We live in a day when much of Holy Tradition is being challenged in the Church, and many questions which were considered closed are now being considered open. It is not surprising, therefore, if the Church’s condemnation of the apokatastasis is among them.

It remains to consider the question: if a desire to rehabilitate a belief in the apokatastasis is indeed a fad, why does it arise in our culture now? A full response cannot be attempted at the end of an already over-long article. But I think that is not unrelated to our culture’s loss of its sense of sin. As mentioned over a century ago by C.S. Lewis, the modern West has lost its sense of sin. In ancient times, all men, be they Jew, pagan, or Christian, believed that they stood guilty before the divine judgment seat. That is not to say that there was no cause for theodicy, but at very least one felt shame for one’s own sins. Thus when Christ said in passing that men were evil [Greek poneros; Matthew 7:11], no one batted an eye, for everyone knew it was true. We no longer believe that, and so (in Lewis’ famous phrase) we have put God in the dock, with ourselves as His judges. In this frame of mind the very existence of hell is a stumbling block, and something which cries out for justification, if not revision. There is a place for considering and explaining how the existence of hell is consistent with God’s love. But we set ourselves up to err if we do not first feel the shame for our own sins, and proceed from there.

Ira Kurtz7/15/2021 5:25 pm
Are we supposed to reject Scripture (Acts 3:21 and its use of apokatastasis) and accept the tradition's rejection of apokatastasis? What is the relation of tradition to Scripture? How can we say apokatastasis is heresy when it is taught in Scripture?
David3/3/2017 9:27 am
Excellent and timely article! You're correct, I think, in seeing this as a fad. Another refreshing thing to see is your starting point of scripture. I'm always shocked at how little scripture is used in Orthodox circles. I'm going to be referencing and linking this article quite a bit in the future.
Nicole1/27/2016 6:04 am
Fantastic article, Father. Please write another one, just as long, covering the possibilities in the final paragraph. I'm fascinated. Thanks!
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