Universalism and Historical Confessional Christianity
As a protestant who believes in sola Scriptura (Scripture alone), I believe that tradition and confessional Christianity does not hold a place above Scripture. However, I do believe it is important and helpful to consider what church history has to say on theological issues. So let’s look briefly at the question of whether or not universalism has been accepted in historical confessional Christianity.
Harold J. Brown makes an interesting point that we should consider. He says,
“curiously enough, it is heresy that offers us some of the best evidence for orthodoxy, for while heresy is often very explicit in the first centuries of Christianity, orthodoxy is often only implicit. If we hope, today, that the orthodoxy we believe is the ‘faith once delivered to the saints’ (Jude v. 3), then it is necessary to assume that it is older than heresy. But heresy appears on the historical record earlier, and is better documented, than most of what the church came to call orthodoxy. How then can heresy be younger, orthodoxy more original? The answer is that orthodoxy was there from the beginning and heresy reflected it. Sometimes one catches a glimpse of another person or object in a mirror or a lake before seeing the original. But the original preceded the reflection, and our perception of it. The same, we could argue, is true of orthodoxy—the original—and heresy—the reflection. The heresy we frequently see first, but orthodoxy preceded it.”
False teachings call into question the pillars of Christianity and so teachers and creeds rise up in protection of the church’s foundational teaching. The doctrine of the Trinity has always been orthodox but there has not always been a creed stating such. The reason for this is because false teaching gives rise to defensive of orthodox teaching. Thus, in history we often see heresy argued before we see orthodoxy defended. Greg A. Allison says that the “issue of the continuation of punishment for the wicked became a point of debate with the theology of Origen” (c. 185-254) so it makes sense that universalism was not formally acknowledged as heresy until later on.
Everett Ferguson says that
“apart from Origen, who entertained the possibility of universal salvation after a period of purification and education of souls in the afterlife, those who spoke to the subject understood an ultimate division of humanity in heaven or hell. The expectation of eternal reward sustained Christian endurance in the face of persecution and other hardships.”
W. G. T. Shedd wrote:
“The common opinion in the Ancient church was, that the future punishment of the impenitent wicked is endless. This was the catholic faith; as much so as belief in the trinity. But as there were some church fathers who deviated from the creed of the church respecting the doctrine of the trinity, so there were some who dissented from it in respect to that of eternal retribution. The deviation in eschatology, however, was far less extensive than in trinitarianism.”
Allison demonstrates in his book Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine that
“from its inception, the church has believed that there will be a final judgment of both believers and unbelievers… On the one hand, this judgment will usher believers into the presence of Christ and the blessedness of heavenly reward forever. On the other hand, following the judgment of condemnation, unbelievers will experience eternal conscious punishment in hell. Only a few Christians deviated from this understanding of the last judgment and eternal punishment.”
A few more examples:
“As regards the fate of the wicked… the general view was that their punishment would be eternal, without any possibility of remission.”
“Everlasting punishment of the wicked always was, and always will be the orthodox theory.”
“The punishment inflicted upon the lost was regarded by the Fathers of the Ancient Church, with very few exceptions, as endless.”
“Church creeds from the early Middle Ages through the Reformation and into the modern era regularly affirmed the eternal punishment of the wicked… The reality of hell and eternal punishment was thought to be as basic to Christian belief as the Trinity and incarnation.”
J.I. Packer says that although universalism is now rapidly advancing throughout Protestantism it is a new situation that began to change with German liberalism and Schleiermacher in the 19th century. “Origen’s notion was condemned in the sixth century. That condemnation was thought conclusive throughout Christendom for centuries.”
There are many historical documents that show that the early church’s position on judgment and eternal punishment. The Epistle of Barnabas (c. 130) says, “The way of the black one is crooked and completely cursed. For it is a way of eternal death and punishment.” Cyprian, bishop of Carthage in the 3rd century, said, “The damned will burn forever in hell. Devouring flames will be their eternal portion [reward]. Their torments will never decrease or end. Their lamentations will be vain and entreaties ineffective. Their repentance comes too late. They will have to believe in an eternal punishment, as they refused to believe in the eternal life.”
The Athanasian Creed (c. mid 300s) summarizes the belief of the church that Christ “will come to judge the living and the dead. At his coming all people will rise again with their bodies and will give account for their own works. Those who have done good will to into eternal life, and those who have done evil into eternal fire.” “Ultimately,” we see, “a church council held Alexandria, Egypt, in 400 condemned Origen’s doctrine of universal salvation.”
The synod of Constantinople said this in 543: “If anyone says or thinks that the punishment of demons and of wicked people is only temporary, and will one day have an end, and that restoration will take place of demons and of wicked people, let him be anathema [cursed].” There is a long pastoral history of taking doctrines that intersect with the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ very seriously (Matt. 23:1-36; 2 Cor. 11:14-15; Gal. 1:8-9; 5:12; 1 Tim. 6:3-4).
Augustine, in The City of God (c. 426), also defended the doctrine of eternal punishment. Allison concludes, “Although a few exceptions would arise over the course of the next millennium and a half, the position of Augustine, which reflected the position of most Christians prior to him, would stand as the classic doctrine of the last judgment and eternal punishment.”
In the same way, Richard Bauckham says,
“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… Even fewer were the advocates of universal salvation, though these few included same 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.”
Thus the conclusion we come to is that universalism has not been accepted in historical confessional Christianity.
Below are some examples from noncanonical literature that seem to clearly show an expectation of judgment that will last forever:
1 Enoch 90:26-30
“And I saw at that time how a like abyss was opened in the midst of the earth, full of fire, and they brought those blinded sheep, and they were all judged and found guilty and cast into this fiery abyss, and they burned; now this abyss was to the right of that house.  And I saw those sheep burning and their bones burning.  And I stood up to see till they folded up that old house; and carried off all the pillars, and all the beams and ornaments of the house were at the same time folded up with it, and they carried it off and laid it in a place in the south of the land.  And I saw till the Lord of the sheep brought a new house greater and loftier than that first, and set it up in the place of the first which had been folded up: all its pillars were new, and its ornaments were new and larger than those of the first, the old one which He had taken away, and all the sheep were within it.  And I saw all the sheep which had been left, and all the beasts on the earth, and all the birds of the heaven, falling down and doing homage to those sheep and making petition to and obeying them in every thing.”
4 Ezra 7:32-8:3 (c. 90-100AD)
“The earth shall give up those who sleep in it, and the dust those who rest there in silence; and the storehouses shall give back the souls entrusted to  them. Then the Most High shall be seen on the judgment- seat, and there  shall be an end of all pity and patience. Judgment alone shall remain;  truth shall stand firm and faithfulness be strong; requitals shall at once begin and open payment be made; good deeds shall awake and wicked  deeds shall not be allowed to sleep. Then the place of torment shall appear and over against it the place of rest; the furnace of hell shall be displayed, and on the opposite side the paradise of delight.  ‘Then the Most High shall say to the nations that have been raised from the dead: “Look and understand who it is you have denied and refused to  serve, and whose commandment you have despised. Look on this side, then on that: here are rest and delight, there fire and torments.” That is what he will say to them on the day of judgment. [39, 40] ‘That day will be a day without sun, moon, or stars; without cloud, thunder, or lightning; wind, water, or air; darkness, evening, or morning;  without summer, spring, or winter; without heat, frost, or cold; without  hail, rain, or dew; without noonday, night, or dawn; without brightness, glow, or light. There shall be only the radiant glory of the Most High, by  which all men will see everything that lies before them. It shall last as it  were for a week of years. Such is the order that I have appointed for the Judgment. I have given this revelation to you alone.’  I replied: ‘My lord, I repeat what I said before: “How blest are the  living who obey the decrees you have laid down!” But as for those whom I have been praying, is there any man alive who has never sinned,  any man who has never transgressed your covenant? I see now that there are few to whom the world to come will bring happiness, and many to  whom it will bring torment. For the wicked heart has grown up in us which has estranged us from God’s ways, brought us into corruption and the way of death, opened out to us the paths of ruin, and carried us far away from life. It has done this, not merely to a few, but to almost all who have been created.’  The angel replied: ‘Listen to me and I will give you further instruction  and correction. It is for this reason that the Most High has created not one  world but two. There are, you say, not many who are just, but only a few,  whereas the wicked are very numerous; well then, hear the answer. Suppose you had a very few precious stones; would you add to their number  by putting common lead and clay among them?’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘no one  would do that.’ ‘Look at it also in this way,’ he continued; ‘speak to the  earth and humbly ask her; she will give you the answer. Say to her: “You  produce gold, silver, and copper, iron, lead, and clay. There is more silver than gold, more copper than silver, more iron than copper, more lead than  iron, more clay than lead.” Then judge for yourself which things are valuable and desirable — those that are common, or those that are rare.’  ‘My lord, my master,’ I said, ‘the common things are cheaper, and the  rarer are more valuable.’ He replied, ‘Consider then what follows from that: the owner of something hard to get has more cause to be pleased than  the owner of what is common. In the same way, at my promised judgment, I shall have joy in the few who are saved, because it is they who have made my glory prevail, and through them that my name has been made  known. But I shall not grieve for the many who are lost; for they are no more than a vapor, they are like flame or smoke; they catch fire, blaze up and then die out.’  Then I said: ‘Mother Earth, what have you brought forth! Is the mind  of man, like the rest of creation, a product of the dust? Far better then if the very dust had never been created, and so had never produced man’s mind  But, as it is, We grow up with the power of thought and are tortured by it;  we are doomed to die and we know it. What sorrow for mankind; what happiness for the wild beasts! What sorrow for every mother’s son; what  gladness for the cattle and flocks! How much better their lot than ours They have no judgment to expect, no knowledge of torment or salvation after death. What good to us is the promise of a future life if it is going  to be one of torment? For every man alive is burdened and defiled  with wickedness, a sinner through and through. Would it not have  been better for us if there had been no judgment awaiting us after death?’  The angel replied: ‘When the Most High was creating the world and Adam and his descendants, he first of all planned the judgment and what  goes with it. Your own words, when you said that man grows up with the  power of thought, will give you the answer. It was with conscious knowledge that the people of this world sinned, and that is why torment awaits them; they received the commandments but did not keep them, they  accepted the law but violated it. What defense will they be able to make  at the judgment, what answer at the last day? How patient the Most High has been with the men of this world, and for how long!- not for their own sake, but for the sake of the destined age to be.’  Then I said: ‘If I have won your favor, my lord, make this plain to me: at death, when every one of us gives back his soul, shall we be kept at rest until the time when you begin to create your new world, or does our torment  begin at once?’ ‘I will tell you that also’, he replied. ‘But do not include yourself among those who have despised my law; do not count  yourself with those who are to be tormented. For you have a treasure of good works stored up with the Most High, though you will not be shown  it until the last days. But now to speak of death: when the Most High has given final sentence for a man to die, the spirit leaves the body to return to the One who gave it, and first of all to adore the glory of the Most High.  But as for those who have rejected the ways of the Most High and despised  his law, and who hate all that fear God, their spirits enter no settled abode, but roam thenceforward in torment, grief, and sorrow. And this for seven [81, 82] reasons. First, they have despised the law of the Most High. Secondly, they have lost their last chance of making a good repentance and so gaining  life. Thirdly, they can see the reward in store for those who have trusted the  covenants of the Most High. Fourthly, they begin to think of the torment  that awaits them at the end. Fifthly, they see that angels are guarding  the abode of the other souls in deep silence. Sixthly, they see that they are  soon to enter into torment. The seventh cause for grief, the strongest cause of all, is this: at the sight of the Most High in his glory, they break down in shame, waste away in remorse, and shrivel with fear remembering how they sinned against him in their lifetime, and how they are soon to be brought before him for judgment on the last day.  ‘As for those who have kept to the way laid down by the Most High, this is what is appointed for them when their time comes to leave their mortal  bodies. During their stay on earth they served the Most High in spite of constant hardship and danger, and kept to the last letter the law given [90, 91] them by the lawgiver. Their reward is this: first they shall exult to see the glory of God who will receive them as his own, and then they shall enter  into rest in seven appointed stages of joy. Their first joy is their victory in the long fight against their inborn impulses to evil, which have failed to  lead them astray from life into death. Their second joy is to see the souls of the wicked wandering ceaselessly, and the punishment in store for  them. Their third joy is the good report given of them by their Maker, that throughout their life they kept the law with which they were entrusted.  Their fourth joy is to understand the rest which they are now to share in the storehouses, guarded by angels in deep silence, and the glory waiting for  them in the next age. Their fifth joy is the contrast between the flesh world they have escaped and the future life that is to be their possession, between the cramped laborious life from which they have been set free and the spacious life which will soon be theirs to enjoy forever and ever.  Their sixth joy will be the revelation that they are to shine like stars, Never  to fade or die, with faces radiant as the sun. Their seventh joy, the greatest joy of all, will be the confident and exultant assurance which will be theirs, free from all fear and shame, as they press forward to see face to face the One whom they served in their lifetime, and from whom they are now to receive their reward in glory.  ‘The joys I have been declaring are the appointed destiny for the souls of the just; the torments I described before are the sufferings appointed for the rebellious.’  Then I asked: ‘When souls are separated from their bodies, will they be] be given the opportunity to see what you have described to me?’ ‘They will be allowed seven days,’ he replied; ‘for seven days they will be permitted to see the things I have told you, and after that they will join the other souls in their abodes.’  Then I asked: ‘If I have won your favor, my lord, tell me more. On the day of judgment will the just be able to win pardon for the wicked, or  pray for them to the Most High? Can fathers do so for their sons, or sons for their parents? Can brothers pray for brothers, relatives and friends for their nearest and dearest?’  ‘You have won my favor,’ he replied, ‘and I will tell you. The day of judgment is decisive, and sets its seal on the truth for all to see. In the present age a father cannot send his son in his place, nor a son his father, a master his slave, nor a man his best friend, to be ill for him, or sleepy, or  eat or be cured for him. In the same way no one shall ever ask pardon for another; when that day comes, every individual will be held responsible for his own wickedness or goodness.’ To this I replied: ‘But how is it, then, that we read of intercessions in  scripture? First, there is Abraham, who prayed for the people of Sodom then Moses, who prayed for our ancestors when they sinned in the desert.  Next, there is Joshua, who prayed for the Israelites in the time of Achan,  then Samuel in the time of Saul, David during the plague, and Solomon  at the dedication of the temple. Elijah prayed for rain for the people, and  for a dead man that he might be brought back to life. Hezekiah prayed for the nation in the time of Sennacherib; and there are many more besides.  If, then, in the time when corruption grew and wickedness increased, the just asked pardon for the wicked, why cannot it be the same on the day of judgment?’  The angel gave me this answer: ‘The present world is not the end, and the glory of God does not stay in it continually. That is why the strong  have prayed for the weak. But the day of judgment will be the end of the present world and the beginning of the eternal world to come, a world in  which corruption will be over, all excess abolished, and unbelief uprooted, in which justice will be full-grown, and truth will have risen like the sun.  On the day of judgment, therefore, there can be no mercy for the man who has lost his case, no reversal for the man who has won it.’  I replied, ‘But this is my point, my first point and my last: how much better it would have been if the earth had never produced Adam at all, or,  since it has done so, if he had been restrained from sinning! For what good does it do us all to live in misery now and have nothing but punishment to  expect after death? O Adam, what have you done? Your sin was not your  fall alone; it was ours also, the fall of all your descendants. What good is the  promise of immortality to us, when we have committed mortal sins; or the hope of eternity, in the wretched and futile state to which we have come;  or the prospect of dwelling in health and safety, when we have lived such  evil lives? The glory of the Most High will guard those who have led a life of purity; but what help is that to us whose conduct has been so wicked?  What good is the revelation of paradise and its imperishable fruit, the source  of perfect satisfaction and healing? For we shall never enter it, since we  have made depravity our home. Those who have practiced self-discipline shall shine with faces brighter than the stars; but what good is that to us  whose faces are darker than the night? For during a lifetime of wickedness we have never given a thought to the sufferings awaiting us after death.’  The angel replied, ‘This is the thought for every man to keep in mind  during his earthly contest: if he loses, he must accept the sufferings you have mentioned, but if he wins, the rewards I have been describing will be his.  For that was the way which Moses in his time urged the people to  take, when he said, “Choose life and live!“ But they did not believe him,  nor the prophets after him, nor me when I spoke to them. Over their damnation there will be no sorrow; there will only be joy for the salvation of those who have believed.’  ‘My lord,’ I replied, ‘I know that the Most High is called “compassionate”,  because he has compassion on those yet unborn; and called “merciful”, because he shows mercy to those. [8:1] The angel said to me in reply: ‘The Most High has made this world for  many, but the next world for only a few. Let me give you an illustration, Ezra. Ask the earth, and it will tell you that it can produce plenty of clay for making earthenware, but very little gold-dust. The same holds good  for the present world: many have been created, but only a few will be saved.’”
2 Baruch 51:2, 6 (after 70AD)
“For the aspect of those who now act wickedly shall become worse than it is, as they shall suffer torment…  For they will first behold [‘those who have now been justified in My Law” and glorified], and afterwards depart to be tormented.”
2 Baruch 85:8-86:1 (after 70AD)
“But you, for the wicked and despotic slaughter of us, shalt, from the Divine vengeance, endure torture by fire” (9:8).
“But thou, for thy impiety and blood-shedding, shalt endure indissoluble torment” (10:11).
“The eternal punishment of the tyrant” (10:15).
“Divine vengeance is reserving for you, eternal fire and torments, which will cling to you for all time” (12:12).
“The danger of eternal torment laid up for those who transgress the commandment of God” (13:15).
Judith (c. 150-125BC)
“Woe to the nations that rise up against my Kindred! The Lord Almighty will take vengeance on them in the day of judgment, in putting fire and worms in their flesh; and they shall feel them, and weep forever” (16:17).
Ecclesiasticus (also known as Wisdom of Sirach or Sirach) (c. 195-171BC)
“Number not thyself among the multitude of sinners, but remember that wrath will not tarry long. Humble thy soul greatly: for the vengeance of the ungodly is fire and worms” (7:16-17).
 Brown, Heresies, 4. I have refrained from using the word “heresy;” however, I think it is helpful to understand that term. Heresy “is the English version of the Greek noun hairesis, originally meaning nothing more insidious than ‘party.’ It is used in this neutral sense in Acts 5:17, 15:5, and 25:5. Early in the history of the first Christians, however, ‘heresy’ came to be used to mean a separation or split resulting from a false faith (1 Cor. 11:19; Gal. 5:20). It designated either a doctrine or the party holding the doctrine, a doctrine that was sufficiently intolerable to destroy the unity of the Christian church. In the early church, heresy did not refer to simply any doctrinal disagreement, but to something that seemed to undercut the very basis for Christian existence” (Harold J. Brown, Heresies: The Image of Christ in the Mirror of Heresy and Orthodoxy from the Apostils to the Present [Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984], 2).
 Allison, Historical Theology, 704.
 Everett Ferguson, Church History Volume 1: From Christ to Pre-Reformation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 159.
 W. G. T. Shedd, The Doctrine of Endless Punishment (The Banner of Truth Trust, 1885), 1.
 Greg A. Allison, Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine, 702.
 J. N. D Kelly, Early Chrsitian Doctrines, rev. ed. (San Francisco: Harper, 1976), 483 as quoted in Richard L. Mayhue, “Hell: Never, Forever, or Just for Awhile?” in The Master’s Seminary Journal, 132.
 Philip Schaff, The History of the Christian Church, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company), 606. He goes on to say, “It was held by the Jews at the time of Christ, with the exception of the Sadducees, who denied the resurrection. It is endorsed by the highest authority of the most merciful Being, who sacrificed his own life for the salvation of sinners” (606-07). “Consequently the majority of the fathers who speak plainly on this terrible subject favor this view” (608).
 William G. T. Shedd, A History of Christian Doctrine, vol. 2 (Minneapolis: Klock & Klock, n.d.), 414.
 Gerald R. McDermott, “Will All Be Saved?” 233 in Themelios 38.2 (2013).
 Packer, Celebrating the Saving Work of God, 170.
 See Ibid.
 Barnabas 20:1; see Ibid.
 Ibid., 705.
 Richard Bauckham, “Universalism: A Historical Survey,” Themelios 4, no. 2 (January 1979): 48.
 The Pharisaical “Schools of Shammai and Hillel represented the theological teaching in the time of Christ and His Apostles, it follows that the doctrine of eternal punishment was that held in the days of our Lord” (Alfred Edersheim, “On Eternal Punishment, According to the Rabbis and the New Testament,” in Appendix I in Robert A. Morey, Death and the Afterlife [Bethany House Publishers: Minneapolis, 1984]. See also Everett Ferguson in Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 554-55).
 First Enoch is an ancient Jewish religious work, ascribed by tradition to Enoch, the great-grandfather of Noah, although modern scholars estimate the older sections to date from about 300BC, and the latest part probably to the first century BC (cf. Wikipedia).
 G. E. Ladd says it was “written shortly after the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70” (“Apocalyptic Literature” in ISBE, 159).
 G.E. Ladd dates 2 Baruch “from the late 1st. cent. A.D.” (“Apocalyptic Literature” in ISBE, 160).
 There is no decided upon date but in the 1st century (before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD) is most likely.