Universal reconciliation

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In Christian theology, universal reconciliation (also called universal salvation, Christian universalism, or in context simply universalism) is the doctrine that all sinful and alienated human souls—because of divine love and mercy—will ultimately be reconciled to God.[1]

Universal salvation may be related to the perception of a problem of Hell, standing opposed to ideas such as endless conscious torment in Hell, but may also include a period of finite punishment similar to a state of purgatory.[2] Believers in universal reconciliation may support the view that while there may be a real "Hell" of some kind, it is neither a place of endless suffering nor a place where the spirits of human beings are ultimately 'annihilated' after enduring the just amount of divine retribution.[2] The concept of reconciliation is related to the concept of salvation—i.e., salvation from spiritual and eventually physical death—such that the term "universal salvation," is functionally equivalent. Universalists espouse various theological beliefs concerning the process or state of salvation, but all adhere to the view that salvation history concludes with the reconciliation of the entire human race to God. Many adherents assert that the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus Christ constitute the mechanism that provides redemption for all humanity and atonement for all sins.

Universalism is distinct from modern Unitarian Universalism, which is a syncretic religion that does not recognize Jesus of Nazareth as the unique savior of humankind, although the latter is historically derived in the from a union with a now-defunct Christian denomination which did affirm that all people would eventually come to salvation through Christ.

An alternative to universal reconciliation is the doctrine of annihilationism, often in combination with Christian conditionalism.



The most recent academic survey of the history of Universal Salvation is by Richard Bauckham. He outlines the history thus:

"The history of the doctrine of universal salvation (or apokatastasis) is a remarkable one. Until the nineteenth century almost all Christian theologians taught the reality of eternal torment in hell. Here and there, outside the theological mainstream, were some who believed that the wicked would be finally annihilated (in its commonest form, this is the doctrine of 'conditional immortality').[3] Even fewer were the advocates of universal salvation, though these few included some major theologians of the early church. Eternal punishment was firmly asserted in official creeds and confessions of the churches. It must have seemed as indispensable a part of universal Christian belief as the doctrines of the Trinity and the incarnation. Since 1800 this situation has entirely changed, and no traditional Christian doctrine has been so widely abandoned as that of eternal punishment. Its advocates among theologians today must be fewer than ever before. The alternative interpretation of hell as annihilation seems to have prevailed even among many of the more conservative theologians. Among the less conservative, universal salvation, either as hope or as dogma, is now so widely accepted that many theologians assume it virtually without argument."[2]

Early Christianity

Many early church fathers have been quoted as either embracing or hoping for the ultimate reconciliation of God with His creation. Those that did not embrace the teaching, such as Augustine, acknowledged that it was a common enough belief among Christians of the day.[4]

Origen, traditionally considered a 3rd century proponent of Universal Reconciliation

Origen (c. 185 – 254)

Origen and a form of apocatastasis were condemned in 544 by the Patriarch Mennas of Constantinople and the condemnation was ratified in 553 by the Fifth Ecumenical Council. Apocatastasis was interpreted by 19th Century Universalists such as Hosea Ballou (1842) to be the same as the beliefs of the Universalist Church of America.[5] However, until the middle of the sixth century, the word had a broader meaning. While it applied to a number of doctrines regarding salvation, it also referred to a return, both to a location and to an original condition. Thus, the Greek word's application was originally broad and metaphorical.[6] Many heteroclite views became associated with Origen, and the 15 anathemas against him attributed to the council condemn a form of apocatastasis, along with the pre-existence of the soul, animism, a heterodox Christology, and a denial of real and lasting resurrection of the body. Some authorities believe these anathemas belong to an earlier local synod.[7][8][9] The New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia claims that the Fifth Ecumenical Council was contested as being an official and authorized Ecumenical Council, since it was established not by the Pope, but rather by the Emperor, because of the Pope's resistance to it. The Fifth Ecumenical Council addressed what was called "The Three Chapters"[10] and was against a form of Origenism which had nothing to do with Origen and Origenist views. Popes Vigilius, Pelagius I (556-61), Pelagius II (579-90), and Gregory the Great (590-604) were only aware that the Fifth Council specifically dealt with the Three Chapters and they made no mention of Origenism or Universalism, nor spoke as if they knew of its condemnation, even though Gregory the Great was opposed to the belief of universalism.[11]

Fredrick W. Norris maintains Origen may not have strongly believed in universal reconciliation at all. In an article on Apocatastasis in The Westminster handbook to Origen (2004) he writes that "As far as we can tell, therefore, Origen never decided to stress exclusive salvation or universal salvation, to the strict exclusion of either case."[12]


The most important school of Universalist thought was the Didascalium in Alexandria, Egypt, which was founded by Saint Pantaenus ca. 190 C.E.[13] Alexandria was the center of learning and intellectual discourse in the ancient Mediterranean world, and was the theological center of gravity of Christianity prior to the rise of the true Roman Church.[14][15]

Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 – c. 215)

The Universalists Hosea Ballou (1829), Thomas Whittemore (1830), John Wesley Hanson (1899) and George T. Knight (1911) claimed that Clement of Alexandria expressed universalist positions in early Christianity. These claims have been controversial since they were first made.[16] In fact, Clement used the term apocatastasis to refer only to the "restoration" of a select few.[17]

Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335 – 390s)

Gregory of Nyssa was declared "the father of fathers" by the seventh ecumenical council and some traditional and modern Greek orthodox scholars dispute Pierre Batiffol and George T. Knight's claim that Saint Gregory of Nyssa and Saint Macrina the Younger, who were brother and sister, believed or taught universal salvation.[18][19][20][21][22]

However, Gregory of Nyssa, in his book Sermo Catecheticus Magnus, described: "The annihilation of evil, the restitution of all things, and the final restoration of evil men and evil spirits to the blessedness of union with God, so that He may be 'all in all,' embracing all things endowed with sense and reason."

He further stated, "when death approaches to life, and darkness to light, and the corruptible to the incorruptible, the inferior is done away with and reduced to non-existence, and the thing purged is benefited, just as the dross is purged from gold by fire. In the same way in the long circuits of time, when the evil of nature which is now mingled and implanted in them has been taken away, whensoever the restoration to their old condition of the things that now lie in wickedness takes place, there will be a unanimous thanksgiving from the whole creation, both of those who have been punished in the purification and of those who have not at all needed purification."[23]

7th century - Isaac of Nineveh

One of the documented teachers of universal salvation is St. Isaac the Syrian in the 7th century,[24]

Middle Ages

The Universalist John Wesley Hanson stated that even after eternal hell became the normative position of the Church, there were still some Christian thinkers during the Middle Ages who embraced Universalist ideas. In his Schaff article George T. Knight stated that "maybe" Johannes Scotus Eriugena, Johannes Tauler, Blessed John of Ruysbroeck and Blessed Julian of Norwich had Universalist leanings.

16th century - Reformation era

If ideas about the salvation of all souls after purgatory existed in early Christianity, they did not resurface in the Reformation, although figures such as Erasmus rekindled interests in the Greek Church Fathers, and early advocates of universal salvation, such as Origen, became more broadly known as new editions of their writings were published. The period between the Reformation and Enlightenment featured extended debates about salvation and hell. [25] The main controversy during this period was between the majority, who believed in the immortal soul and eternal punishment in hell (such as Calvin), and a minority, (including Luther) who believed in soul sleep. Joachim Vadian and Johann Kessler accused the German Anabaptist Hans Denck of universal salvation, but he denied it, and recent research suggests that this is not so.[26][27] [28] Hans Hut was deeply influenced by Denck, but there is no evidence that he spread the doctrine of universalism.

17th century

The 17th century saw a resurgence of Christian universalism:

18th century (Britain)

George Whitfield in a letter to John Wesley says that Peter Boehler, a bishop in the Moravian Church, had privately confessed in a letter that "all the damned souls would hereafter be brought out of hell"[29] William Law in An Humble, Earnest, and Affectionate Address to the Clergy (1761),[30] an Anglican, and James Relly, a Welsh Methodist, were other significant 18th century Protestant leaders who believed in Universalism.

In 1843, the Universalist Rev J. M. Day published an article "Was John Wesley a Restorationist?" in the Universalist Union magazine suggesting that John Wesley (d. 1791) had made a private conversion to Universalism in his last years but kept it secret. Biographers of Wesley reject this claim.

18th century (America)

The 18th century saw the establishment of the Universalist Church in America, in part due to the efforts of Hosea Ballou

Universalism was brought to the American colonies in the early eighteenth century by the English-born physician George de Benneville, attracted by Pennsylvania's Quaker tolerance. North American universalism was active and organized. This was seen as a threat by the orthodox, Calvinist Congregationalists of New England such as Jonathan Edwards, who wrote prolifically against universalist teachings and preachers.[31] John Murray (1741–1815)[32] and Elhanan Winchester (1751–1797) are usually credited as founders of the modern Universalist movement and founding teachers of universal salvation.[33] Early American Universalists such as Elhanan Winchester continued to preach the punishment of souls prior to eventual salvation.

19th century

The 19th century was the heyday of Christian Universalism and the Universalist Church of America.

20th century

The Universalist Church of America merged with the American Unitarian Association in 1961 to form the Unitarian Universalists.

Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote a small book addressing the virtuous hope for universalism, as well as its origin in Origen, entitled Dare We Hope "That All Men Be Saved"?. He also addressed the relationship between love and universalism in Love Alone is Credible.

Adolph E. Knoch and William Barclay were universalists. In 1919, the Swiss F. L. Alexandre Freytag led a breakaway group of the Bible Student movement.

21st century

Christian Universalism continues as a minority within Unitarian Universalism.

In 2004, the Pentecostal bishop Carlton Pearson received notoriety when he was officially declared a heretic by the Joint College of African-American Pentecostal Bishops. Bishop Pearson, who had attended Oral Roberts University, a Charismatic Christian college, formally declared his belief in the doctrine of universal salvation. His church, called the New Dimensions Church, adopted this doctrine,[34] and in 2008, the congregation was merged into All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, one of the largest Unitarian Universalist congregations in the world.[35]

In 2005, Cardinal Murphy O'Connor, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, expressed his hope that Protestants and non-believers are destined for heaven.[36] and expressed his personal hope that he would be surprised in heaven.[37]

On May 17, 2007, the Christian Universalist Association was founded at the historic Universalist National Memorial Church in Washington, D.C.[38] This was a move to distinguish the modern Christian Universalist movement from Unitarian Universalism, and to promote ecumenical unity among Christian believers in universal reconciliation.

In 2008, the Russian Orthodox bishop Hilarion Alfeyev of Vienna, in his presentation at the First World Apostolic Congress of Divine Mercy (held in Rome in 2008), argued that God's mercy is so great that He does not condemn sinners to everlasting punishment. The Orthodox understanding of hell, said Bishop Hilarion, corresponds roughly to the Roman Catholic notion of purgatory.[39]

Contemporary Conservative Evangelical teachers of ultimate reconciliation include Thomas Talbott, Stephen E. Jones,[citation needed] J. Preston Eby[citation needed] and Bill and Elaine Cook.[citation needed]

See also


  1. ^ Otis Ainsworth Skinner (1807-1861), A Series of Sermons in Defence of the Doctrine of Universal Salvation, Page 209, "Repentance is a means by which all men are brought into the enjoyment of religion, and we do not expect any man will be saved while he continues in sin. The reason why we hold to universal salvation, is, we expect all men will repent."
  2. ^ a b c Richard Bauckham, "Universalism: a historical survey", Themelios 4.2 (September 1978): 47-54.
  3. ^ 1 For details see L. E. Froom, The Conditionalist Faith of Our Fathers (Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1965-1966).
  4. ^ Quotes by Early Church Fathers Regarding the Reconciliation of All
  5. ^ Hosea Ballou, The ancient history of universalism: from the time of the apostles, 1842, p. 166.
  6. ^ Ludlow, pp. 39-42.
  7. ^ Von Balthasar, Hans Urs & Greer, Rowan A. Origen. Pg 3. Paulist Press (1979). ISBN 0-8091-2198-0.
  8. ^ The Anathemas Against Origen
  9. ^ Excursus on the XV. Anathemas Against Origen
  10. ^ 1914 "Three Chapters". Catholic Encyclopedia. New Advent. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14707b.htm. Retrieved 2007-09-04.
  11. ^ "Origen and Origenism". Catholic Encyclopedia. New Advent. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11306b.htm. Retrieved 2007-09-04.
  12. ^ ed. John Anthony McGuckin, p. 61. See also Elisabeth Dively Lauro in the article on Universalism.
  13. ^ Pantaenus
  14. ^ Christian Universalist.org, The Christian Universalist Association History of Universalism.
  15. ^ Seymour, Charles. A Theodicy of Hell. p. 25. Springer (2000). ISBN 0-7923-6364-7.
  16. ^ Matthew Hale Smith, Universalism not of God: an examination of the system of Universalism, 1847, p. 58, "Universalists claim Origen, Clement of Alexandria, and some others among the early fathers. Yet these fathers held not one doctrine peculiar to Universalism; neither did they believe in the salvation of all men."
  17. ^ Andrew C. Itter, Esoteric teaching in the Stromateis of Clement of Alexandria, 2009, p. 200, "Clement uses the term apokatastasis and its cognates generally to refer to the gnostic elect rather than to an eschatological restoration of the universe, or to a restoration of the faithful as a whole."
  18. ^ St. Isaac of Nineveh
  19. ^ Schmithals, Walter. The Theology of the First Christians. Pp. 85-88. Westminster John Knox Press (1998). ISBN 0-664-25615-5.
  20. ^ St. Gregory of Nyssa
  21. ^ Gregory of Nyssa
  22. ^ Ludlow, Morwenna. Universal Salvation: eschatology in the thought of Gregory of Nyssa and Karl Rahner. Pp. 1-2. Oxford University Press (2000). ISBN 0-19-827022-4.
  23. ^ Patristic Universalist History - Christian Universalist Association
  24. ^ Hilarion Alfeyev, The mystery of faith: "Salvation will not be compulsory for anyone: it is 'those who wish to follow' Christ who will be saved. 63 The doctrine of universal salvation is expressed in a very definite and striking manner by Isaac the Syrian,"
  25. ^ Ludlow, pp. 2-3.
  26. ^ Ludlow, 2004.
  27. ^ See also Stetson, Eric. Christian Universalism: God's Good News for All People. p. 120. Mobile, Alabama: Sparkling Bay Books, 2008. ISBN 0-9670631-8-3.
  28. ^ Morwenna Ludlow, The Journal of Ecclesiastical History (2004), Cambridge University Press - "Why Was Hans Denck Thought to Be a Universalist?"
  29. ^ "Peter Bohler, one of the Moravian brethren, in order to make out universal redemption, lately frankly confessed in a letter that all the damned souls would hereafter be brought out of hell. I cannot think Mr. Wesley is thus minded. And yet unless this can be proved, universal redemption, taken in a literal sense, falls entirely to the ground. For how can all be universally redeemed, if all are not finally saved?" from Amirault G. Peter Bohler 1712-1775.
  30. ^ Amirault, Gary. William Law 1686-1761. Law W. Affectionate and Earnest Address to the Clergy. Address 191: "every number of destroyed sinners, whether thrown by Noah's flood, or Sodom's brimstone, into the terrible furnace of a life, insensible of anything but new forms of raging misery till judgment's day, must through the all -working, all- redeeming love of God, which never ceases, come at last to know that they had lost, and have found again such a God of love as this".
  31. ^ Seymour, Charles. A Theodicy of Hell. Pp. 30-31. Springer (2000). ISBN 0-7923-6364-7.
  32. ^ Thomas Brown, A History of the Origin and Progress of the Doctrine of Universal Salvation.
  33. ^ Catherine L. Albanese, A republic of mind and spirit: a cultural history of American metaphysical.
  34. ^ "'Inclusionism' deemed heresy". The Washington Times. 2004-04-21. http://www.washtimes.com/news/2004/apr/20/20040420-104557-5370r/. Retrieved 2007-05-27.
  35. ^ Bill Sherman, "After last sermon, no regrets", Tulsa World, September 21, 2008.
  36. ^ Catholic Herald, Protestants and non-believers are destined for heaven, says Cardinal, 7 January 2005.
  37. ^ "Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor Speaks of His Hope for Universal Salvation". Romancatholicism.org. http://www.romancatholicism.org/cormac-apokatastasis.htm. Retrieved 2007-10-16.
  38. ^ "Founding Board Meeting of the CUA". The Christian Universalist Association. May 17, 2007. http://www.christianuniversalist.org/events/foundingmeeting.html. Retrieved 2008-11-22.
  39. ^ Lawler, Phil (2008-04-07). "Divine Mercy congress ends-- spiced by theological disagreement". Catholic World News. http://www.cwnews.com/news/viewstory.cfm?recnum=57674. Retrieved 2008-04-08.