Eternal? Damnation

Written July 31, 2021, On the Feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola

“May the perfect grace and eternal love of Christ our Lord be our never-failing protection and help.” ~St. Ignatius of Loyola

On Universalism

A Defense of the universal and redeeming grace of Christ


This work is undertaken to defend the orthodox teaching of Universalism, as expounded by orthodox Fathers of the Church, such as St. Gregory of Nyssa, and by contemporary clergy and theologians of the Catholic and Orthodox churches. Prior to the Fifth Ecumenical Council, convened in 553, Universalism — the theology of universal redemption of all souls to Christ, even from the pits of hell — was a dominant teaching, if not the predominant teaching, of Christian salvation theology. The notion of Universalism taken up by the Fifth Ecumenical Council was not the orthodox teaching of Universalism of the early Church, nor is it the contemporary teaching of Universalism accepted, even embraced and advocated, by clergy and theologians in good standing within the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches today. Scripture appears to support both eternal damnation and universal salvation, with a greater weight given to universal salvation. With contrasting views of Scripture with regard to salvation, and considering the early Church teachings on Universalism, and the continued teaching of Universalism within the orthodox confines of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, we must, in good faith to Christ and His Church, at least leave open the mutual understanding and consideration of both eternal damnation and Universalism. My basis for this paper and my beliefs is founded in Scripture, prayer and meditation, the teachings of the early Church, the teachings of my former Anglican clergy as duly facultied representatives of Christ’s One, True, Catholic and Apostolic Church, of reading the teachings of both ancient and contemporary Catholic and Orthodox clergy and theologians, and my own study of credentialed scholars on the matter.

What Universalism Is

“Universalism” is not a term with homogeneous meaning. It has been used to describe both the widely rejected teachings of Nestorianism and the orthodox teachings of exalted Church Fathers, saints and contemporary Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox clergy and theologians. To weed out heterodoxy from orthodoxy, I will use the following points to define Universalism for the purpose of this paper and my own beliefs:

  • Universalism affirms the Trinity, the Divinity of Jesus Christ, the Incarnation, conception of Christ by the Holy Spirit, Crucifixion, Death and Resurrection of Christ, and all other faithful affirmations of the Apostles, Nicene and Athanasian creeds (more on the Athanasian later in this paper).
  • The Harrowing of Hell of Holy Saturday, as set forth in Scripture, is a continual and timeless process by which Christ ceaselessly pursues our souls and offers redemption, even from the pits of hell.
  • Universalism declares that all souls that do not accept Christ and do not die in a state of grace (both states being beyond our authority to define) descend into hell. 
  • Hell is beyond our powers to fully comprehend, just as the Trinity and Heaven.
  • Hell is both punitive and expiationary in nature — it is the due reward of our willful self-isolation from God, and it is the recuperative, refining fire by which all souls who accept such healing are cleansed of that which separates them from God.
  • Souls who do not accept the healing refinement of hell, and thus the grace of Christ, will thus not be healed and will remain in their isolation from God — in hell — until they accept God’s loving grace, up to eternity.
  • All souls that accept the healing grace of Christ may be redeemed to Christ and awarded heaven — but only by their acceptance of said grace. 

What Universalism is not

Refutation of Universalism is primarily based on objections that are not germane to Universalism as defined above. Universalism does not:

  • Diminish the meaning of the cross, Christ’s redeeming sacrifice and the Resurrection. Rather, Universalism strengthens our understanding of this redemption and resurrection to stretch beyond the grave to those who, by their own free will, have damned themselves. To wit: the death of death extends beyond death.
  • Remove free will. As noted above, Universalism only brings hope to the damned when they freely accept the universal grace of Christ.
  • Offer a “get out of jail free card” for earthly errors and sins. Universalism, as defined, does not refute hell and damnation. On the contrary, by its definition, likely far more people suffer hell, and far fewer ascend directly to heaven. Most of us will require the purging fires of hell to attain that state in which we can fully recognize and accept Christ’s invitation to salvation.
  • Contradict Catholic teaching on the punitive cost of not dying in a state of grace. Universalism, as defined, is entirely in keeping with the Catholic notion of ameliorative suffering in Purgatory — Universalism just extends this reparative state to another, more severe, level, into hell itself.

A review of Scripture on Salvation

Theologians Emil Brunner and J.A.T. Robinson argue that verses related to salvation can be put into two distinct categories: damnation for some or eventual reconciliation for all. First, the former. We’ll now look at Scripture that is used to refute Universalism, and analyze it within the context of our definition of Universalism

John 3:36 “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them.” This passage is consistent with both eternal damnation and universal salvation, as it makes no stipulation of requiring the acceptance of the Son before mortal death. Universalism agrees that whoever rejects the Son remains outside salvation, but in Universalism, both acceptance and rejection can occur after death.

2 Thessalonians 1:8-9 “He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.” The same argument as in John 3:36, as to compatibility with both eternal damnation and Universalism. We shut ourselves out from the presence of the Lord, but the door remains open to us in death to accept salvation.

Luke 13:23-25 “Someone asked him, “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?” He said to them, ‘Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us.’ But he will answer, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’” This passage is the strongest argument in favor of eternal damnation; the door being closed, no more may enter and are excluded forever. The question remains, though, is there a way to make ourselves and our origin “known” again to Christ after bodily death? Of course God does not recognize or accept our fallacies when we deny our conception and life in Him. But can we, after the door is closed, shed our false nature and embrace the true — make ourselves “known” once more outside the door of salvation? Continuing on in this passage, in Luke 13:28-30, Christ tells us:28 “There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out. 29 People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. 30 Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last.” The reference to “weeping and gnashing of teeth” is consistent with Universalism, as Universalism does not deny hell, and believes it to be both punitive and remedial or reparative — but still a harsh refining process by fire. The idea of being “thrown out” also is compatible with Universalism, as those in need of refining (the vast majority of us) are placed first in the refining fire. Verse 30 refers directly to the previous two verses: to those who are thrown out, and to those who come from all directions to be seated at the table. Those who consider themselves last in the world — most needing a close relationship with Christ — will enter first. Those who have rejected Christ and placed themselves “first” in the world, believing themselves to be above the need for salvation, will be the last to enter — after the refining fires of hell have purged them of pride and allowed them to fully accept Christ. They are last through the doors — barred from entry until properly prepared to enter — but still they enter.

This last passage certainly has multiple valid interpretations, so let us consider another passage involving Christ as the door into the feast. John 10:7-10 7 Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. 9 I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. Again we properly see Christ as the gate through which we, the sheep, must enter salvation. In verse 8 Jesus tells us those who try to place themselves before him, in false “theologies” of greed, fear, et al, are “thieves and robbers,” who attempt to steal salvation. Then Jesus makes several statements that support Universalism in John 10.

I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. This makes no mention of the election to the gate of Christ being solely before mortal death, and if our soul is eternal, the saving grace of Christ, and our opportunity to accept it, also is eternal. I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. Fullness of true life does not come until we die to this world and accept Christ — “For whoever wills to save his life will lose it and whoever will lose his life for me will find it.” (Matthew 16:25) If we must die to this world to accept Christ, we may die to this world while in it (spiritual death to this world), or we may die to our misconceptions of this world in hell (after physical death) and spiritually accept life “to the full” by accepting Christ. To say that dying to this world is only a spiritual death denies the dual nature of Christ — both fully human and fully God — who himself died and entered hell so that he may emerge again from hell and lift us — all of God’s children — above death and hell.

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Jesus makes a contrast between himself and a hired hand — the false saviors of this world, who run at the approach of Satan and hell — while he is “the good shepherd” who does not run or abandon his flock in the face of that threat, but fights for and pursues them no matter how far they stray (see the Parable of the Lost Sheep, in Luke 15:3-7 and Matthew 18:12-14). Then, Jesus makes this absolute statement: “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.” Sheep “not of this pen” are understood as sheep outside the Jewish faith of the time, and as Judaism being the root of Christianity and Jesus being Jewish, this also extends to those outside Christianity. Jesus assures us he “must bring them also.” Not may bring them. Not “must bring them if they enter this pen by my gate before they die.” Must bring them. To believe this is only a statement confined to mortal life requires believing Christ’s will, that he must bring us all, is likewise confined to mortal life. In the end, he tells us, “there shall be one flock and one shepherd.”

Revelation of St. John

The entire book of Revelation has been used by anti-universalists to utterly and irrefutably destroy Universalism — or so they contend. Especially: Revelation 20:10 And the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. And, Revelation 14:11 And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.” These passages, however, appear in direct contradiction to two other Revelation passages: Revelation 5:13 “Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing: “To the One who is seated on the throne and to the Lamb, be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!’’” and, regarding the New Jerusalem (abode of saved souls), Revelation 21:25 “Its gates will never be shut by day–and there is no night there.” The only way to reconcile the latter passages with the former, to align worship from the pits of hell and eternally open gates to the New Jerusalem, is to understand that, while hell is eternal, and we remain trapped there, up to eternity, while we continue to identify with the devil, the beast and the false prophet, the door remains eternally open for us to accept Christ and enter the gates of his abode.

We’ve briefly analyzed the Scripture passages commonly used to advance eternal damnation, and seen there are multiple ways to read them, with some of those readings not only making room for, but fundamentally supporting, universal salvation. Let us also consider passages that more explicitly support Universalism.

Scripture in Support of Universalism

1 Corinthians 15:12-14;21-22 But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. … 21 For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. The 12th verse makes clear there is resurrection for the dead — this is mandated by Christ’s resurrection. Verse 22 states this resurrection will be for all people — all will be made alive with and through Christ. This strengthens, rather than detracts from, as some say, the importance and meaning of the cross and resurrection.

1 Corinthians 15:26-28 The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27 For he “has put everything under his feet.” Now when it says that “everything” has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. 28 When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all. Christ destroys death. If death is destroyed it is destroyed for all — there is no indication of the end of death for some, as annihalationists believe. Christ puts “everything” under his feet, including death, damnation and the powers of Satan to retain souls. What that means coming from a God who is Love is that God will be “all in all” as in Verse 28 — not all in some.

1 Corinthians 15:29 Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them? There are multiple interpretations of this Scripture, but one advanced by such heavyweights of Christian theology as Grotius, Michaelis, Tertullian, and Ambrose, held this verse to mean substitutionary baptism or vicarious baptism — being baptized in the name of one who has already died. The notion of relieving penal suffering in the next life is the basis of intercessory prayer for the dead. Vicarious baptism follows in this same vein, as an act of righteousness performed as an intercessory act on behalf of someone otherwise believed to be “damned.” Paul essentially asks “Why would we do this (vicarious baptism) if it doesn’t work?” The very notion of vicarious baptism is predicated on the ability to be saved after death — this is Universalism. As for substitutionary baptism — another possible interpretation that supports Universalism in this verse — it holds that Christ was baptized for all, and through his baptism all are baptized, through his unnecessary repentance all sins are repented — in an eternal sense, even if not accepted in mortal life. JD Greear, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention (from a tradition completely outside our own, but mentioned to show the breadth of belief in substitutionary baptism) puts it this way: “Jesus, at his baptism, was beginning his ministry of substitution. Jesus didn’t need to repent. John was right about that. But we did. So Jesus does it perfectly in our place so that he can continue to live the life that we were supposed to live and then die the death that we were condemned to die. When Jesus stepped into the water to repent of sin, he was repenting not for his sin but for ours.”

Acts 2:26-27;31 Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest in hope, 27 because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, you will not let your holy one see decay. … 31 Seeing what was to come, he spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay. These words, spoken by Peter, recall the words of David, who was foretelling Christ’s descent to hell and that hell could not hold him. Numerous passages of the Epistles tell us Christ lives in us. If we commit what are deemed by man to be “mortal sins,” does Christ abandon us, or does he continue to pursue us? The parables of the Prodigal Son, Lost Sheep and others tell us it must be the latter. If that is true, then the presence of Christ within us is not conditional for those who’ve been baptized and those who die in a state of grace, and that presence cannot be held in hell.

1 Peter 3:19-20 Jesus “went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah…” This reading makes clear Christ descended to the dead and freed those not previously saved. Most among those who teach the Harrowing of Hell hold this to be a limited freeing of the dead — i.e. just those righteous who died before Jesus. This would seem to be the end of the discussion of harrowing hell, were it not for Peter’s words in 1 Peter 4:6 — For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to human standards in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit. The Gospel being preached to the dead, if we read it according to its obvious meaning, could only mean the continued pursuit of salvation among those who have physically died. Of course there are arguments — predominantly Protestant evangelical, and quite ironic in their divergence from literalism — that say this passage does not say what it literally says, because that would conflict with eternal damnation. In other words, it can’t mean what it says because that would conflict with our preconceptions.

The 19th Century Anglican priest and theologian Charles Ellicott addressed this in his “Commentary for English Readers”: “The Greek is simply, For for this end was the gospel preached to the dead also, or, still more literally, to dead men also. No one with an un-preoccupied mind could doubt, taking this clause by itself, that the persons to whom this preaching was made were dead at the time of being preached to. If this is the case, then, pretty obviously, St. Peter is carrying us back to his teaching of 1 Peter 3:19, and is explaining further the purpose of Christ’s descent into hell.” In other words, if we read Peter’s words “un-preoccupied,” or without preconception, the message is a continuation of 1 Peter 3:19, and thus a continuation of the Harrowing of Hell to those “who are now dead,” in addition to those who were dead “in former times.”

2 Peter 3:8 But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The above argument regarding 1 Peter 3 and 4 would fall on its face if we, as is often argued, took the stance that the Harrowing of Hell was a one-time event, since Holy Saturday occurred only once. This objection to Universalism, however, ignores God’s standing above and outside both time and space. Time is relative to God, as this verse from 2 Peter 3 affirms. We can also turn to: For thus says the high and lofty one who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy (Isaiah 57:15) and “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty” (Revelation 1:8), to see that God does not exist in a linear notion of time as we do, but inhabits all of eternity at once, and who lives in the Beginning and End at once. Thus, the Harrowing of Hell cannot be a single, one-and-done, one-day event, as we understand time — it must be a continual process that stands outside time, for all time, for all those in its need. If we are to reject this nature of Christ’s timelessness and his omnipresence, we would have to ignore or refute (through heresy) the state of anamnesis in the Eucharist — of there being one Last Supper, into which we step, across time and space, through the Body and Blood of Christ. The Eucharist transcends time and space to feed us. The Harrowing of Hell transcends time, space and death to teach and save us.

Philippians 2:9-11 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. This passage makes it clear that all shall submit to Christ — above and below the earth, i.e. those who are living, those who are dead, those saved and yet-to-be saved. Ultimately, every tongue — every human soul — shall acknowledge Christ as Lord. Early 20th Century Orthodox theologian Sergius Bulgakov, based on this passage from Philippians, states emphatically it is “impossible to admit any limitation of the power of the redemptive sacrifice.” Like many other Universalist theologians, Bulgakov states that Christ’s power is absolute, his redemption is absolute, and thus all spirits eventually will be conquered by Christ’s saving grace, even demons (fallen angels) and the devil.

Psalm 139:7-10 Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. The psalmist here makes clear there is nowhere we can escape God — not on Earth, not in Heaven and not in Sheol (the Old Testament equivalent of hell). No matter where we go, God is with us, and “even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me.” As the Bible makes clear in numerous passages, especially in the Parable of the Lost Sheep, Christ pursues us to bring us into the fold, into his protection, which is salvation.

Lamentations 3:31-33 For no one is cast off by the Lord forever. 32 Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. 33 For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to anyone. Universalism is often misunderstood as refuting hell altogether. This is absolutely not the case. Universalism not only acknowledges but demands hell — hell is the refining fire through which Christ removes anything holding us back from him, and from which we are saved when we are sufficiently refined to accept our true nature and turn to Christ’s redeeming grace. Thus, we are cast off so that we may rise above what is holding us back from heaven — this drives us to grief in the mortal sense. But ultimately it is an act of compassion, as God, in His unfailing love — love that does not fail, no matter what — desires to redeem all His children. And God will not be cheated of Her children — to believe so would be to place God in an inferior position to the devil. As this passage makes clear, no one will be cast off forever — only as long as it takes us to turn back to Christ.

1 Timothy 4:10 That is why we labor and strive, because we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe. In this passage Paul makes a distinction between those who believe, and those who are outside belief. In the teaching of eternal damnation, those outside of Christian belief, either by creed or mortal sin, face damnation, or at best, “salvation according to their belief.” But, Paul says Christ is the Savior of all people — again no time limit is specified — and “especially of those who believe,” which is to say that those who do not believe also are saved, but not “especially.” This is keeping with Universalist theology, in which all are saved, as Paul tells us, but some need more refining, more time, perhaps more time in the refining fires of hell, before accepting Salvation.

Colossians 1:15-20 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. All of us, and all of Creation, are made through Christ, for Christ. We are his, and for our sake he became “firstborn from among the dead” so that he may have supremacy over everything — including death, hell, the devil and those who’ve trapped themselves in perdition. Through Christ’s cross and blood God is pleased to “reconcile to himself all things.” That means all of us, or none of us.

It is little wonder, with so much of the Bible giving credence to Universalism, that early Church Fathers turned first to Scripture as the basis of their belief in redemption for all. Ecclesiastical scholar Ilaria Ramelli describes the breadth of the Early Fathers who leaned on these passages for the hope and promise of Universalism:

“The main Patristic supporters of the apokatastasis theory, such as Bardaisan, Clement, Origen, Didymus, St. Anthony, St. Pamphilus Martyr, Methodius, St. Macrina, St. Gregory of Nyssa (and probably the two other Cappadocians), St. Evagrius Ponticys, Diodore of Tarsus, Theodore of Mopsuestia, St. John of Jerusalem, Rufinus, St. Jerome … Cassian, St. Isaac of Ninevah, St. John of Dalyatha, Ps. Dionysius the Areopagite, probably St. Maximus the Confessor, up to John the Scot Eriugena, and many others, grounded their Christian doctrine of apokatastasis first of all in the Bible.”

A brief review of early Universalist theologians

The contemporary view today that Universalism is a fringe, and heterodox, view of salvation is not in line with the early teaching of the Church, in fact the predominant teaching of the Church for almost its first six centuries. During that formational, and some would say purest, epoch of the Church, there were six primary theological schools of thought on salvation: four were Universalist, holding that all would eventually be saved; one was annihalationist, believing those not saved would simply cease to exist; and eternal damnation, more or less as we know it now. The Encyclopedia of Religious knowledge breaks this down further: “In the first five or six centuries of Christianity there were six theological schools, of which four (Alexandria, Antioch, Caesarea, and Edessa, or Nisibis) were Universalist, one (Ephesus) accepted conditional immortality; one (Carthage or Rome) taught endless punishment of the wicked.”

Edward Beecher, a 19th Century theologian and historian, confirms this state in the early Church:

“What, then, was the state of facts as to the leading theological schools of the Christian world, in the age of Origen, and some centuries after? It was, in brief, this: There were at least six theological schools in the Church at large. Of these six schools, one, and only one, was decidedly and earnestly in favor of the doctrine of future eternal punishment. One was in favor of the annihilation of the wicked. Two were in favor of the doctrine of universal restoration on the principles of Origen, and two in favor of universal restoration on the principles of Theodore of Mopsuestia.”

The two most influential catechetical schools of the early Church, the Didascalium in Alexandria and the School of Antioch, both produced numerous Universalists. Those related to the Didascalium directly declared as Universalist or guided by its principles include Origen, Gregory Thaumaturgus, Heraclas, Dionysius “the Great”, Didymus the Blind, Jerome, and Basil the Great. Theologian Dietelmaier, in the 18th Century, speaks to the prevalence of Universalist theologians in the early Church: “Universalism in the fourth century drove its roots down deeply, alike in the East and West, and had very many defenders.”

St. Augustine of Hippo, a devoted teacher of eternal damnation and opponent of Universalism, himself conceded his view was the minority stance in his day, and Universalism the majority. “There are very many (imo quam plurimi, can be translated majority) … who though not denying the Holy Scriptures, do not believe in endless torments.” In her seminal work “The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis,” Ilaria Ramelli points out the Latin word plurimi, as used by Augustine, does not mean just “very many” as quoted in contemporary translations of the Enchiridion, but means “vast majority.” While the early dominance of Universalism, acknowledged even by Augustine, is often dismissed today as a belief held only by Origen and a close group of his followers, 19th Century church historian Johann Karl Ludwig Gieseler declares quite the opposite: “The belief in the inalienable capability of improvement in all rational beings, and the limited duration of future punishment was so general, even in the West, and among the opponents of Origen, that it seems entirely independent of his system.”

To understand the breadth and impact of early Church Universalists, it’s worth perusing a (not comprehensive) selection of quotes from some of the most influential adherents of Universalism — a collection of Church Fathers (and we can be certain Church Mothers) who formed a significant portion of the foundation of our faith, in East and West, who still are embraced by Christians from Protestant to Orthodox today.

  • The mass of men (Christians) say there is to be an end to punishment and to those who are punished.—St. Basil the Great
  • For the wicked there are punishments, not perpetual, however, lest the immortality prepared for them should be a disadvantage, but they are to be purified for a brief period according to the amount of malice in their works. They shall therefore suffer punishment for a short space, but immortal blessedness having no end awaits them…the penalties to be inflicted for their many and grave sins are very far surpassed by the magnitude of the mercy to be showed to them. — Diodore of Tarsus, 320-394 A.D.
  • And God showed great kindness to man, in this, that He did not suffer him to continue being in sin forever; but as it were, by a kind of banishment, cast him out of paradise in order that, having punishment expiated within an appointed time, and having been disciplined, he should afterwards be recalled…just as a vessel, when one being fashioned it has some flaw, is remoulded or remade that it may become new and entire; so also it happens to man by death. For he is broken up by force, that in the resurrection he may be found whole; I mean spotless, righteous and immortal. — Theophilus of Antioch (168 A.D.)
  • Wherefore also he drove him out of paradise and removed him far from the tree of life, not because He envied him the tree of life, as some dare assert, but because He pitied him and desired that he should not be immortal and the evil interminable and irremediable. –Iraneaus of Lyons (182 A.D.)
  • These, if they will, may go Christ’s way, but if not let them go their way. In another place perhaps they shall be baptized with fire, that last baptism, which is not only painful, but enduring also; which eats up, as if it were hay, all defiled matter, and consumes all vanity and vice. — Gregory of Nazianzeu, Bishop of Constantinople. (330 to 390 A.D.) Oracles 39:19
  • The Word seems to me to lay down the doctrine of the perfect obliteration of wickedness, for if God shall be in all things that are, obviously wickedness shall not be in them. For it is necessary that at some time evil should be removed utterly and entirely from the realm of being.—St. Macrina the Blessed
  • In the end and consummation of the Universe all are to be restored into their original harmonious state, and we all shall be made one body and be united once more into a perfect man and the prayer of our Savior shall be fulfilled that all may be one. — St. Jerome, 331-420
  • For it is evident that God will in truth be all in all when there shall be no evil in existence, when every created being is at harmony with itself and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord; when every creature shall have been made one body. — Gregory of Nyssa, 335-390
  • The wicked who have committed evil the whole period of their lives shall be punished till they learn that, by continuing in sin, they only continue in misery. And when, by this means, they shall have been brought to fear God, and to regard Him with good will, they shall obtain the enjoyment of His grace. — Theodore of Mopsuestia, 350-428
  • We can set no limits to the agency of the Redeemer to redeem, to rescue, to discipline in his work, and so will he continue to operate after this life. -– Clement of Alexandria
  • Do not suppose that the soul is punished for endless eons (apeirou aionas) in Tartarus. Very properly, the soul is not punished to gratify the revenge of the divinity, but for the sake of healing. But we say that the soul is punished for an aionion period (aionios) calling its life and its allotted period of punishment, its aeon. — Olnmpiodorus (AD 550)
  • Wherefore, that at the same time liberty of free-will should be left to nature and yet the evil be purged away, the wisdom of God discovered this plan; to suffer man to do what he would, that having tasted the evil which he desired, and learning by experience for what wretchedness he had bartered away the blessings he had, he might of his own will hasten back with desire to the first blessedness …either being purged in this life through prayer and discipline, or after his departure hence through the furnace of cleansing fire.– Gregory of Nyssa (332-398 A.D.)
  • That in the world to come, those who have done evil all their life long, will be made worthy of the sweetness of the Divine bounty. For never would Christ have said, “You will never get out until you have paid the last penny” unless it were possible for us to get cleansed when we paid the debt. — Peter Chrysologus, 435
  • I know that most persons understand by the story of Nineveh and its king, the ultimate forgiveness of the devil and all rational creatures. — St. Jerome
  • “In the end or consummation of things, all shall be restored to their original state, and be again united in one body. We cannot be ignorant that Christ’s blood benefited the angels and those who are in hell; though we know not the manner in which it produced such effects. The apostate angels shall become such as they were created; and man, who has been cast out of paradise, shall be restored thither again. And this shall be accomplished in such a way, that all shall be united together by mutual charity, so that the members will delight in each other, and rejoice in each other’s promotion. The apostate angels, and the prince of this world, though now ungovernable, plunging themselves into the depths of sin, shall, in the end, embrace the happy dominion of Christ and His saints.” – Jerome (347-420 A.D.)
  • Our Lord is the One who delivers man [all men], and who heals the inventor of evil himself. — Gregory of Nyssa (332-398 A.D.), leading theologian of the Eastern Church
  • Our Lord descends, and was shut up in the eternal bars, in order that He might set free all who had been shut up… The Lord descended to the place of punishment and torment, in which was the rich man, in order to liberate the prisoners. — Jerome
  • In the liberation of all, no one remains a captive! At the time of the Lord’s passion the devil alone was injured by losing all the of the captives he was keeping. — Didymus, 370 AD
  • While the devil imagined that he got a hold of Christ, he really lost all of those he was keeping. — St. Chrysostom, 398 AD
  • Stronger than all the evils in the soul is the Word, and the healing power that dwells in him, and this healing He applies, according to the will of God, to everyman. The consummation of all things is the destruction of evil…to quote Zephaniah: “My determination to gather the nations, that I am assemble the kings, to pour upon them mine indignation, even say all my fierce anger, for all the earth shall be devoured with the fire of my jealousy. For then will I turn to the people a pure language that they may all call upon the name of the Lord, to serve Him with one consent”…Consider carefully the promise, that all shall call upon the Name of the Lord, and serve him with one consent.— Origen (185 to 254 A.D.) He founded a school at Caesarea, and is considered by historians to be one of the great theologians and exegete of the Eastern Church.
  • The nations are gathered to the Judgment, that on them may be poured out the wrath of the fury of the Lord, and this in pity and with a design to heal. in order that every one may return to the confession of the Lord, that in Jesus’ Name every knee may bow, and every tongue may confess that He is Lord. All God’s enemies shall perish, not that they cease to exist, but cease to be enemies.— Jerome (340 to 420 A.D), commenting on Zephaniah 3:8-10
  • Mankind, being reclaimed from their sins, are to be subjected to Christ in the fullness of the dispensation instituted for the salvation of all. – Didymus the Blind
  • So then, when the end has been restored to the beginning, and the termination of things compared with their commencement, that condition of things will be re-established in which rational nature was placed, when it had no need to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; so that when all feeling of wickedness has been removed, and the individual has been purified and cleansed, He who alone is the one good God becomes to him “all,” and that not in the case of a few individuals, or of a considerable number, but He Himself is “all in all.” And when death shall no longer anywhere exist, nor the sting of death, nor any evil at all, then verily God will be “all in all” — Origen, De Prinicipiis, 3.6.3.
  • The Son “breaking in pieces” His enemies is for the sake of remolding them, as a potter his own work; as Jeremiah 18;6 says: i.e., to restore them once again to their former state. –Eusebius of Caesarea (65 to 340 A.D). Bishop of Caesarea
  • Our Savior has appointed two kinds of resurrection 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 unto the second resurrection, these shall be disciplined until their appointed times, between the first and the second resurrection.– Ambrose, Bishop of Milan (340-397 A.D.)
  • We think, indeed, that the goodness of God, through His Christ, may recall all His creatures to one end, even His enemies being conquered and subdued…. for Christ must reign until He has put all enemies under His feet. –Origen (185 to 254 A.D.)
  • For it is needful that evil should some day be wholly and absolutely removed out of the circle of being. — Gregory of Nyssa (332-398 A.D.), leading theologian of the Eastern Church
  • In the present life God is in all, for His nature is without limits, but he is not all in all. But in the coming life, when mortality is at an end and immortality granted, and sin has no longer any place, God will be all in all. For the Lord, who loves man, punishes medicinally, that He may check the course of impeity. — Theodoret the Blessed, 387-458
  • When death shall no longer exist, or the sting of death, nor any evil at all, then truly God will be all in all. — Origen
  • All men are Christ’s, some by knowing Him, the rest not yet. He is the Savior, not of some and the rest not. For how is He Savior and Lord, if not the Savior and Lord of all? — Clement of Alexandria

The Church Changes Course on Salvation

Against all of these quotes from some of the greatest Fathers of the Church, we must consider how and why the Church changed direction from predominantly Universalist to almost entirely eternal damnation. The turning point seems to be the acceptance of the Athanasian Creed, which makes two statements that, on the surface, seem to ensure the position of eternal damnation. It is necessary to hold the Catholic faith, and if not perish everlastingly; but that does not prescribe a mortal confine to when “holding the Catholic faith” must occur, leaving the door open to postmortem redemption. At the end, consistent with the parable of the goats and sheep, it prescribes those who have done evil will go into everlasting fire — this is actually consistent with both eternal damnation and universalism, as universalism teaches the fire is everlasting, but by refinement and accepting Christ, the soul may be drawn out of it.

To believe eternal damnation is the only possible conclusion of the creed, we would have to ignore the rest of Athanasius’ teaching, and his view of salvation. Consider this quote: “While the devil thought to kill One [Christ], he is deprived of all those cast out of hades, and he [the devil] sitting by the gates, sees all fettered beings led forth by the courage of the Saviour.” 

There is no reasonable conclusion from that teaching except Universalism, as in many other of Athansius’ quotes and teachings, including  “. . . in himself he has liberated humanity from sin, completely and entirely, and has vivified it from the state of death . . .” and  “He died for all . . . to abolish death with his blood . . . he has gained the whole humanity.” Athanasius never declared himself a universalist, but he defended the teachings of Origen, Palladius, Theognostus, and St. Anthony — all universalists — and is considered today by many scholars to be a Universalist, in teaching if not in name. 

How, then, do we take a creed, written by a Church Father who clearly held Universalist beliefs, as a definitive prescription of eternal damnation and refutation of Universalism? To understand this we need to look at the context of the Fifth Ecumenical Council — the source from which those opposed to Universalism draw their authority. 

First, according to The New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia, the Fifth Ecumenical Council was contested as being an official and authorized Ecumenical Council, since it was established not by the Pope but Emperor Justinian, and the Pope resisted it. The Fifth Ecumenical Council addressed what was called “The Three Chapters” and was against a form of Origenism that took his name, but was not formed by Origen or consistent with his teachings, but rather originated from monks in Palestine and Syria whose teachings were causing civil unrest — more than an inconvenience for an emperor obsessed with expanding his authority.

But the council definitely anathematized Origen and Universalism, right? Yes and no, respectively. Origen was anathematized for certain teachings that were not enumerated by the council, and that likely were a combination of Origen’s teachings (but not necessarily Universalism) and teachings related to monks who capitalized on his name but did not study under or authentically follow Origen’s teachings. If Universalism, as expressed by Origen, were the express intent of the anathemas enumerated by the Fifth Ecumenical Council, the popes contemporary to the council are suspiciously silent on the matter. Popes Vigilius, Pelagius I (556–61), Pelagius II (579–90), and Gregory the Great (590–604) were “aware only that the Fifth Council specifically dealt with the Three Chapters, and they neither mentioned Origenism or Universalism and nor spoke as if they knew of its condemnation even though Gregory the Great was opposed to the belief of Universalism.” Scholar Richard Bauckham, along with other historians, have since found that while universalism appeared “discredited” because of scholarly resistance to Origen’s view, it “seems in doubt” if the Fifth Ecumenical Council specifically endorsed any negative view of it.

In fact, over the past three centuries, historians have seriously questioned whether the anathemas dealing with Universalism are derived from the Fifth Ecumenical Council. The council was convened by Emperor Justinian for the express purpose of condemning the Three Chapters, which dealt with Nestorianism — a belief that held Christ was divine and human in two separate existences, as opposed to the orthodox view of hypostasis. According to Fr. Kimel, Justinian “does not mention the Origenist debate in his letter announcing the council nor in his letter that was read to the bishops at the formal opening of the council; nor do the acts of the council, as preserved in the Latin translation (the original Greek text having been lost), cite the fifteen anathemas.”

True, the original Nine Anathemas of the fifth council address a form of universalist theology: 

“If anyone says or holds that the punishment of demons and impious human beings is temporary and that it will have an end at some time, and that there will be a restoration of demons and impious human beings, let him be anathema.”

But, scholars today attribute that anathema not to the belief of such Fathers of the Church as Gregory of Nyssa or Jerome, but rather to a bastardized form of universalist theology inextricably linked to the council’s first anathema, which dealt with the belief that souls pre-exist and are cast into the human world as punishment from God. This would be consistent with Nestorianism and other “Originest” (but probably not from Origen) teachings anathematized by the Church, but absolutely not with Universalism as practiced by contemporaries of the Fifth Ecumenical Council (Gregory of Nyssa et al) who practiced Universalism long after the council, remaining in good standing and even being celebrated by the Church. Nor does the Ninth Anathema address Universalism as it is expressed by contemporary priests, bishops, theologians and Catholic professors who nonetheless have been advanced and celebrated within the Church.

Noted scholar and author John Wesley Hanson asserts the Ninth Anathema is not tied to Universalism as it was expressed, in its orthodox form, then or now, but solely addresses the form of universalist thought rooted in the First Anathema: “The theory here condemned is not that of universal salvation, but the ‘fabulous pre-existence of souls, and the monstrous restitution that results from it.’” Ramelli concurs: “It is a doctrine of apokatastasis embedded within that of the transmi­gra­tion of souls that was condemned by Justinian’s Fifth Ecumenical Council (553), not Origen’s own doctrine of apokatastasis.”

Ramelli goes on to draw a clear and necessary distinction between universalist thought as expressed in the Ninth Anathema and Universalism as taught by orthodoxy, both ancient and contemporary. Kimel summarizes her assertion: “Neither Gregory of Nyssa nor Isaac of Nineveh advocate the preexistence of souls (nor Origen, if Ramelli’s reading is sustained). Their presentations of universalist hope are grounded solely upon God’s infinite love and the power of purgative suffering to bring enlightenment to the damned.” Neither the Ninth Anathema nor the later fifteen anathemas, therefore, condemn the “soteriological universalism of patristic saints like Gregory and Isaac.” It is worth noting again that Gregory of Nyssa was lauded by the 7th Ecumenical Council. If Universalist beliefs were sufficient in their own right to declare someone anathema, why was Gregory of Nyssa — one of the greatest proponents of Universalism in the history of the Church — named “Father of Fathers” by the same Church that is conventionally believed to have declared Universalism anathema? Obviously there is a contradiction there, but it is relieved by the distinction between the universal theology addressed by the council, tied to Nestorianism, and the orthodox Universalism taught by revered saints.

Hanson clearly shows the heresy of the Ninth Anathema is not representative of other Church Fathers considered orthodox, both then and now.

“The state of opinion on the subject of universal salvation is shown by the fact that through Ignatius, Irenænus, Hippolytus and others wrote against the prevalent heresies of their times, Universalism is never named among them. Some of the alleged errors of Origen were condemned, but his doctrine of universal salvation, never. Methodius, who wrote A.D. 300; Pamphilus and Eusebius, A.D. 310; Eustathius, A.D. 380; Epiphanius, A.D. 376 and 394; Theophilus, A.D. 400-404, and Jerome, A.D. 400; all give lists of Origen’s errors, but none name his Universalism among them. Besides, some of those who condemned his errors were Universalists, as the school of Antioch. And many who were opponents of Origenism were mentioned by Origen’s ene­mies with honor notwithstanding they were Universalists, as Clement of Alexandria, and Gregory of Nyssa.”

F. Nutcombe Oxenham, 19th century Roman Catholic theologian and translator of Karl Josef von Hefele’s “A History of the Councils of the Church,” addresses the historical and theological problem with labeling all Universalism and Universalists under the Ninth Anathema:

“Let me say to any who may consider it an important matter to be assured whether Origen was, or was not condemned, by some ancient Synod, two things—(1) That if it could be ever so conclusively proved that “Origen was condemned” by the Fifth Council, this would afford no evidence whatever that he was condemned on account of his doctrine of restitution, since he held a great many other doctrines much more open to blame than this one. And then (2) Supposing Origen’s doctrine of restitution had been “by itself condemned,” this would be no condemnation of the doctrine of restitution, as now held. e.g. by Mr. Jukes or by Dr Farrar [two 19th century exponents of universal salvation]; since their two doctrines of restitution are in many important points essentially different.

Kimel also points out the gross contradiction in believing the Church could both issue a blanket anathematization of all Universalist thought, and also later declare Gregory of Nyssa “Father of Fathers” of the Church.

Let us ask the decisive clarifying question: Did either Justinian or the synodical bishops believe they were con­demn­ing the universalist views of St Gregory of Nyssa? Bring forth the evidence—there is none. Anathema 9 was prompt­ed not by the abstract question of eternal damna­tion nor by dispassionate scholarly study of the theology of Origen but by the specific formulations of apokatas­tasis (i.e., the restora­tion of souls to their original disembodied state) that Justinian and his fellow anti-Origen­ists believed were being advanced by troublesome monks in Palestine. Anathema 9, in other words, is intrinsically linked to the condemnation of the preexistence of souls in anathema 1, which in turn is grounded in the metaphysics of sixth-century Origenism.

Kimel’s question and answer is supported by the writings of St. Sabas (often erroneously cited as support for uniform condemnation of Universalism). Writing within about five years of the council, Sabas recounts what the council addressed with regard to Universalism:

“When the fifth holy ecumenical council had assembled at Constantinople a common and universal anathema was directed against Origen and Theodore of Mopsuestia and against the teaching of Evagrius and Didymus on pre-existence and a universal restoration [lit. “restitution of all things” or “apocatastasis”], in the presence and with the approval of the four patriarchs.”

Again, it’s important to note what the council addressed was likely not Origen and his authentic teachings, but rather false “Origenist” teachings of monks who were related to Origen only in their appropriation of his name. What false Origenism had in common with Theodore of Mopsuestia, Evagrius, and Didymus, is a notion of Universalism rooted in Nestorian pre-existence (at least as concerns the teachings attributed to Origen). As Sabas confirms, the issue of Universalism, as taken up by council, specifically addressed Universalism as rooted in Nestorianism and as predicated on Nestorian pre-existence. The two heresies, as taken up by the council, are inextricably linked. How, then, do we today paint all Universalism with a broad brush, ignoring the contradiction between that notion and the Church’s affirmation of other Universalists, then and now (Gregory of Nyssa, et al)?

Many scholars reconcile this apparent contradiction by asserting that Origen was denounced by name, but Universalism, in its orthodox form, was never addressed. True, Origen’s name is included in the list of heretics denounced in canon 11: 

“If anyone does not anathematize Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, Apollinarius, Nestorius, Eutyches and Origen, as well as their heretical books, and also all other heretics who have already been condemned and anathematized by the holy, catholic and apostolic church and by the four holy synods which have already been mentioned, and also all those who have thought or now think in the same way as the aforesaid heretics and who persist in their error even to death: let him be anathema.”

But, as Kimel points out, the canon “does not specify which of Origen’s teachings are condemned, nor do the acts record any discussion of them by the council fathers” and “Origen is simply included in a list of previously condemned heretics.” Kimel continues:

“Which teachings of Origen, therefore, did the bishops of the Fifth Council believe to be antithetical to the apostolic faith and to which synod or synods were they appealing? We do not know—neither the canons nor the acts of the council tell us. This point needs to be stressed. We may not assume that because the council fathers condemned Origen by name they therefore intended to condemn his teaching on apokatastasis.”

If we are to question the application of the Ninth Anathema to all Universalist thought (and we must), we must also address the question of whether the Ninth Anathema is truly a product of the Fifth Ecumenical Council. A number of scholars now doubt, or outright refute, the Ninth Anathema as being truly sourced in the Fifth Ecumenical Council, but rather as a product of the earlier Synod of Alexandria (399 or 400), and later erroneously listed under the authority of the Fifth Ecumenical Council. Patriarch Theophilus, who convened the Alexandria Synod, identifies the anathematized teachings of Origen in his account of the proceedings. Theophilus lists eight condemned teachings supposedly found in Origen’s “On First Principles,” but Origen’s teaching on the restora­tion of all humanity to God is not listed among them. The Synod of Alexandria was quickly followed by councils held in Jerusalem and Cyprus (under the leadership of St Epiphanius), each subscribing to Theophilus’s synod. But still, Origen’s teaching on apokatastasis is not named.

If there is no direct source to condemn apokatastasis in the accounts of the Fifth Ecumenical Council, nor of the earlier regional synods, how has the Church come to hold Universalism as a whole as heretical? The first answer is that a heterogeneous belief system has homogeneously been denounced, erroneously lumping the orthodox and heterodox together. This can be attributed almost entirely to the later addition of the Fifteen Anathemas, which more directly attack Universalism (but again, not in the form held by such orthodox Fathers as Gregory of Nyssa).

According to some scholars, these 15 anathemas were added at the demand of Justinian well after the council issued its original nine anathemas. In current studies of the Fifth Ecumenical Council, these scholars now separate out the nine anathemas prescribed by the council, and the 15 anathemas subsequently added by the emperor. To wit, when Norman P. Tanner edited his collection of the Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils in 1990, he did not include the anti-Origenist denunciations, offering the following expla­nation: “Our edition does not include the text of the anathemas against Origen since recent studies have shown that these anathemas cannot be attributed to this council.”

If the 15 Anathemas, the source of Catholic opposition to Universalism (which version, we should ask), do not stem from an ecumenical council, but rather the edict of an emperor, then we must examine the authority and intent of the emperor. As to his intent, we cannot entirely know. But, it is important to understand the context of his actions, and that context was his desire to expand and consolidate power, which he saw as being challenged by troublesome monks in Palestine. As to his authority, scholars are far more conclusive and emphatic.

Karl Joseph von Hefele questions the dogmatic authority of imperial pronouncements: 

“The question of ecclesiastical authority, as to whether the Emperor was entitled or not to issue an edict of this kind, belongs to another department. It seems to me that we have here before us one of those many and great, even if well-meant, Byzantine encroachments, which does not disappear even when we assume that the Emperor acted in agreement with Mennas and Pelagius.”

Panayiotis Tzamalikos, Professor of Philosophy,  Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, more bluntly asserts Junstinian’s attacks on “Origen” are founded in a complete ignorance of Origen’s authentic teachings, and of the orthodox view of Universalism (then and now):

“Justinian had no idea of who Origen was, or what he had taught. His advisors, abbot Gelasius and his band, had only an oblique knowledge of Origen’s doctrine, namely, a no longer extant fifth-century book by Antipatrus of Bostra, which was studied by the anti-Origenists of the Great Laura. All possible and impossible interpolations and extrapolations were laid at the door of Origen, probably based on hearsay by monks of the era, who styled themselves ‘Origenists.’”

Tzamalikos contends the council, at the behest of Justinian, took up not Origen’s authentic teaching on Universalism, but rather a distorted view taken up by anti-Origen Greek prelate Antipatrus of Bostra, who, in the fifth century, conflated Origen with Nestorianism, essentially to make Origen an easier target for anathematization. Kimel concurs, stating: “In the world of Justinian, ‘Origen’ no longer denotes the historical Origen: it functions as a cipher, collectively naming those who disturb civil and ecclesial peace with their contro­ver­sial teachings.”

But, even if we stipulate Origen and his teachings were heretical, we again come up against the unavoidable contradiction between the supposed blanket denunciation of Universalism and the Church’s embrace of so many Universalists, long after the Fifth Ecumenical Council. The answer, as we’ve seen, is the notion of universal salvation addressed by the 5th Council was not consistent with the beliefs of other proponents such as saints Gregory, Anthony, and Jerome (and probably not Origen), and it is certainly not consistent with Universalism as advanced and expounded upon by numerous theologians, priests, bishops and professors of the Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican branches of Christ’s One, True, Catholic and Apostolic Church. Consider the following contemporary staunch advocates of universal salvation:

  • Kallistos Ware, Eastern Orthodox bishop and theologian;
  • David Bentley Hart, Eastern Orthodox theologian and author; 
  • Fr. Robert Wild, Roman Catholic priest and Universalist theologian; 
  • Fr. Richard Rohr, Roman Catholic Franciscan friar and proponent of Universalism; 
  • Fr. Aiden Kimel, Western Rite Orthodox priest and theologian; 
  • Sergius Bulgakov, Russian Orthodox priest and theologian; 
  • Alexandre Turincev, Greek Orthodox theologian and author;
  • Andrew Klager, PhD, professor of theology and church history, director of the Institute for Religion, Peace and Justice, and sits on the advisory council of the Orthodox Peace Council;
  • Brad Jersak, Eastern Orthodox theologian and author, reader and monastery preacher at All Saints of North America Orthodox Monastery in Canada;
  • Wacław Hryniewicz, Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI), Roman Catholic priest, described by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity upon his death in 2020 as an “ecumenist, academic and expert theologian of Orthodox theology”;
  • Panayiotis Tzamalikos, Orthodox professor and theologian;
  • Hans Urs von Balthasar, a Roman Catholic bishop, considered one of the most important Catholic theologians of the 20th Century, appointed Cardinal by Pope John Paul II, but died before the consistory. 

In addition to the above list (which is not comprehensive by any means), we can also add saints Silouan the Athonite and Elder Sophrony. Both Russian Orthodox priests and theologians — Elder Sophrony was also a gifted artist — these saints, both elevated by the Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarchate in the 20th Century, did not specifically take up the label of Universalism, but used unmistakable Universalist thought in their teachings. Silhouan repeatedly urged intercessory prayers for the relief of damned souls. As for eternal damnation, Silhouan is quoted by Kallistos Ware as saying “Love could not bear that … we must pray for all.” Sophrony declares more emphatically: “You may be certain that as long as someone is in hell, Christ will remain there with him.”

As we consider the question of ordination and faithful service in the Church of a faithful Catholic who holds Universalism as Christ’s promise and truth, we have to face head on these two incontrovertible facts: whatever the reason and substance of the Fifth Ecumenical Council’s treatment of Universalism, it did not stand in the way of lauding and elevating as saints numerous Universalist Church Fathers, including Gregory of Nyssa; and today, when Universalism is far less prevalent, numerous clergy and theologians in the Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions both advocate the theology of Universalism and not only remain in good standing, but are advanced and celebrated by their respective ecclesiastical superiors. The latter are not fringe, rogue priests and theologians (though some would claim Rohr is such). No — they are Universalists who have been appointed to the College of Cardinals, celebrated by the Vatican, advanced in theology schools of both the Roman and Orthodox churches, and elevated to sainthood.


If faithful members of Christ’s One, True, Catholic and Apostolic Church must consider universal salvation anathema, and those who believe it heretical, how does this theologically or ecclesiologically square with the fact, not opinion, that numerous clergy and theologians of the Universalist school of salvation are in good standing, and in fact celebrated by, the Orthodox Church, and the same Roman Catholic Church that supposedly holds Universalism anathema? Of course this contradiction — that Universalism is simultaneously anathema and celebrated among Catholic and Orthodox clergy — cannot be absolutely true.

As with most things concerning faith, the true answer must lie in between two extreme schools of thought. Certainly, there are versions of universalist thought that are heretical — such as the notion of pre-existent souls cast into human bodies as punishment (the first anathema of the 5th Council). But, likewise, there are and must be orthodox views of Universalism, as affirmed by the Vatican’s advancement and embrace of some Universalist clergy. The uncomfortable and inconvenient truth for seminary vicars, bishops and clergy is that there is no simple litmus test for orthodoxy in Universalism, or in any other clumsily defined school of thought. We must deal with each other in earnest, examining the faith, heart, and beliefs of those we would ordain. Under this approach, as has been the case in the Church both ancient and contemporary, there should be, and has been, no impediment to an adherent to the orthodox belief in Universalism serving with the full apostolic and sacramental faculties of the Church. 

I pray my thought and practice may always be in line with the Will of God, and find the favor of those who God may appoint to lead me. Pax et Bonum. Amen.

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