The whole thing is sheer fantasy. The reality is that from the Old Testament all the way through to the time of Origen, there is a loud, clear, and consistent emphasis on precisely the opposite of universal salvation – on the condemnation and perpetual exclusion of those who fail to repent of evildoing in this life. Origen and the very few orthodox writers who sympathized with him beginning only in the third century represented a novelty – and a tentatively proposed one that was immediately resisted as such – not some longstanding mainstream loyal opposition.
The universalist sleight of hand vis-à-vis scripture is accomplished via two main moves. First, when considering the scriptural evidence against universalism, the universalist tends to focus primarily on passages that on a natural reading threaten perpetual suffering. He then argues (not plausibly, but put that aside) that these passages don’t really entail such suffering. And then he claims thereby to have defused the scriptural evidence against universalism. But that is to conflate the debate over universalism and the debate over annihilationism. If you take account of all the passages that indicate final exclusion of the wicked (bracketing off the question whether those excluded are annihilated or suffer perpetually) the collection of anti-universalist scriptural texts is massive.
Second, the universalist piles up passages that say things to the effect that God “desires all men to be saved” (1 Timothy 2:4), “has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all” (Romans 11:32), and so on. (Hart does this at pp. 95-102 of That All Shall Be Saved – where, it should be noted, narrowed margins and big block quotes from the Greek artificially jack up the page count.) It is then suggested that these passages somehow support universalism, and that the question of how to reconcile them with passages that threaten damnation is a real chin-puller, unless we read the latter non-literally.
In fact it is nothing of the kind. That God desires all men to be saved no more gives reason to think that all will in fact be saved than the fact that God desires all men to avoid sin shows that all men do in fact avoid sin. That God has shown mercy on all entails only that he has offered to all the way to salvation, not that they all will in fact take it. And so on. There isn’t one passage in scripture – not one – that asserts or implies the universalist thesis that all will in fact be saved. Meanwhile, there are many passages which, taken at face value, clearly assert the opposite – passages to the effect that “the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:14), that the wicked “shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord” (2 Thessalonians 1:9), that they “will be tormented day and night for ever and ever” (Revelation 20:10), and so on.
The overall picture is in no way whatsoever either mysterious or friendly to universalism. Christ offers salvation to all, on the condition that they repent. But those who do not repent will be lost, and the clear indication is not only that some will in fact be impenitent and thereby lost, but that many will be. That is what scripture clearly and consistently says, and for two centuries after the time of Christ, the earliest of the Fathers – the people closest in time to Christ and the Apostles, and thus best placed to know what they taught – say the same thing. It isn’t remotely complicated, and you have to tie yourself in intellectual knots to pretend otherwise. Someone might not like the fact that this is what Christ and the early Church taught – for example, someone might think it morally abhorrent, or intellectually indefensible. But that they did in fact teach it is beyond any reasonable doubt.
Let’s take a look at some of the relevant texts. I will not try to be comprehensive but will focus on the clearest examples. I also will not confine myself to scriptural passages that threaten everlasting fire or the like. To be sure, passages that threaten everlasting suffering certainly imply that some are lost forever, but not every passage that implies that some are lost forever threatens everlasting suffering. Sometimes they just imply that some will be lost, without addressing whether they suffer perpetually or are annihilated. (I have addressed annihilationism elsewhere, e.g. .) What the scriptural passages that follow have in common is that on a natural reading, they imply that impenitence in this life will condemn you forever.
THE OLD TESTAMENT AND INTERTESTAMENTAL PERIOD:
The earlier parts of the Old Testament are famously obscure at best on the topic of the afterlife. But some later passages clearly imply that the wicked are punished forever:
The sinners in Zion are afraid; trembling has seized the godless: “Who among us can dwell with the devouring fire? Who among us can dwell with everlasting burnings?” (Isaiah 33:14, RSV)
And they shall go forth and look on the dead bodies of the men that have rebelled against me; for their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh. (Isaiah 66:24)
And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. (Daniel 12:2)
Woe to the nations that rise up against my people! The Lord Almighty will take vengeance on them in the day of judgment; fire and worms he will give to their flesh; they shall weep in pain for ever. (Judith 16:17)
The Lord will laugh them to scorn. After this they will become dishonored corpses, and an outrage among the dead for ever; because he will dash them speechless to the ground, and shake them from the foundations; they will be left utterly dry and barren, and they will suffer anguish, and the memory of them will perish. (Wisdom 4:19-20)
You can argue about whether any of this should be understood to imply literal perpetual suffering or if instead the references to everlasting burnings, weeping in pain forever, etc. are meant poetically. I’m not addressing that particular issue here. What you cannot reasonably deny is that on a natural reading, these passages imply that some are lost forever.
Now, in the Jewish tradition during the period between the Old and New Testaments, this general idea developed into an explicit thesis of eternal loss and even of everlasting suffering after death. As Hart acknowledges, “the idea of an eternal punishment for the reprobate – in the sense not merely of a final penalty, but also of endlessly perduring torment – seems to have had a substantial precedent in the literature of the intertestamental period, such as 1 Enoch, and perhaps in some early schools of rabbinic thought” (That All Shall Be Saved, p. 117).
Here are some examples:
Here their spirits shall be set apart in this great pain, till the great day of judgement, scourgings, and torments of the accursed for ever, so that (there may be) retribution for their spirits. There He shall bind them for ever. (1 Enoch 22)
The destruction of the sinner is for ever, and he shall not be remembered, when the righteous is visited. This is the portion of sinners for ever. But they that fear the Lord shall rise to life eternal, and their life shall be in the light of the Lord, and shall come to an end no more. (Psalms of Solomon 3)
And from one of the Dead Sea Scrolls:
The judgment of all who walk in such ways will be multiple afflictions at the hand of all the angels of perdition, everlasting damnation in the wrath of God’s furious vengeance, never-ending terror and reproach for all eternity, with a shameful extinction in the fire of Hell’s outer darkness. For all their eras, generation by generation, they will know doleful sorrow, bitter evil and dark happenstance, until their utter destruction with neither remnant nor rescue. (Community Rule 1QS 4)
Though these last three texts are not canonical scripture, they are important because they indicate how the more harrowing language Christ uses when threatening the impenitent with judgment and hellfire is liable to have been understood by the audiences of his day. There was already, by Christ’s time, an established usage which associated notions like those Christ deploys with final exclusion and even perpetual suffering.
THE NEW TESTAMENT:
Let’s turn to Christ’s words, then, and then to other New Testament passages. I will pause to comment here and there:
If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell. (Matthew 5:29-30)
Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few. (Matthew 7:13-14)
And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (Matthew 10:28)
Note how the urgency of Christ’s warnings in the first and third of these passages would not make sense if hell amounts to some temporary punishment. The natural reading of these texts is that hell has both a maximal degree of awfulness and a finality to it that it would lack in that case. If universalism were true, it would make sense to reply to Christ: “But Lord, what if I opt to preserve my eyes, hands, and life and accept the risk of having to tough it out in hell temporarily? That would be an option too, right?” I submit that it is absurd to suppose that Christ intended his words to be understood in a way that would be open to such a response. And again, such an interpretation would not fit with the way such apocalyptic imagery was understood in intertestamental sources like the ones quoted above.
Note also how the second passage is almost as clear a denial of universalism as one could expect. (I say “almost” because the parallel passage from Luke is even clearer, as we’ll see below.) To state the obvious (though never, it seems, obvious enough for universalists): If universalism were true, Christ’s teaching would have been that everyone, and not just a few, would find the gate that leads to life eventually. Certainly to say “those who find it are few” is extremely misleading if what you really mean is that everyone is ultimately saved. As I have said before, the universalist makes of Christ the most incompetent possible communicator.
The next passage is no less clear:
Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. And whoever says a word against the Son of man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. (Matthew 12:31-32)
Once again to belabor the obvious for those with no grasp of it: If some sin will not be forgiven either in this age or the age to come, then it just won’t be forgiven, full stop – contrary to the claim of some universalists that all sins will and must eventually be forgiven. If such universalists were right, one could respond: “Yes, Lord, but in the age after the age to come, it will be forgiven, right? Or if not then, then the age after that one. Or maybe the one after that…” And once again, it is simply ridiculous to think that Christ intended to be understood in a way that would permit that.
With this passage and with the “those who find it are few” passage, universalists who insist that all must in the end be saved have to say, in effect: “Never mind what Christ actually said; he didn’t really mean it!”
Really, just who the hell do they think they are?
But this is just the beginning of the problems scripture poses for universalism. Let’s move on to the next set of passages:
I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned. (Matthew 12:36)
Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the close of the age. The Son of man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and throw them into the furnace of fire; there men will weep and gnash their teeth. (Matthew 13:40-42)
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net which was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind; when it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into vessels but threw away the bad. So it will be at the close of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous, and throw them into the furnace of fire; there men will weep and gnash their teeth. (Matthew 13: 47-50)
Once again, the natural reading is that Christ is warning his listeners that they had better repent now, in this life, or there will be condemnation, weeping and gnashing of teeth, etc. There is no indication that this condemnation is anything other than final, no hint that after a little weeping and gnashing of teeth, you’ll get another chance in some future age.
And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. (Matthew 18:8)
Afterward the other maidens came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ (Matthew 25:11-12)
For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth. (Matthew 25:29-30)
Then he will say to those at his left hand, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” … Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’ And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25: 41, 45-46)
In And given that “eternal” is the correct translation, then we once again have teaching in direct conflict with universalism. , I discussed the “parallelism problem” facing the suggestion that the Greek word rendered “eternal” in the first and fourth of these passages should be translated “for the age.”
In the second passage, notice that “I do not know you” would be an odd thing to say if everyone is ultimately forgiven. If hell is temporary, Christ should have said merely: “You’ll have to come back later.”
Woe to that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born. (Matthew 26:24)
As I noted in that same previous post, while some have claimed that this is a warning to Judas rather than an assertion that he is in fact damned, that doesn’t help the universalist who claims that God must save everyone. For a warning against eternal punishment would be pointless unless there could be such a thing.
Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin. (Mark 3:28-29)
For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of man also be ashamed, when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels. (Mark 8:38)
[I]t is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire… [I]t is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched. (Mark 9:43, 47-48)
For the Son of man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born. (Mark 14:21)
And he said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark 16:15-16)
For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. (Luke 9:26)
I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has power to cast into hell; yes, I tell you, fear him! (Luke 12:4-5)
He who denies me before men will be denied before the angels of God. And every one who speaks a word against the Son of man will be forgiven; but he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. (Luke 12:9-10)
And some one said to him, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” And he said to them, “Strive to enter by the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. When once the householder has risen up and shut the door, you will begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us.’ He will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from; depart from me, all you workers of iniquity!’ There you will weep and gnash your teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God and you yourselves thrust out. (Luke 13:23-28)
Notice that in this passage, Christ is explicitly asked how many would be saved, and he gives a straightforwardly non-universalist answer. He says that “many …will not be able” to enter heaven, indeed will be “thrust out.”
Here too, even if we read this as a warning rather than a prediction, it does not help the universalist who claims dogmatically that all must be saved. It makes no sense to warn someone of what cannot happen. If all must be saved, then what Christ should have said in response to the question put to him is: “All will be let in eventually, but in stages. Repent now or you’ll have to wait in line a long time.”
And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy upon me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in anguish in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us. (Luke 16:24-26)
Notice here that Abraham says “None may cross.” He does not say “All may cross from there to us, but you’ll have to wait a long time,” as he should have said if hell were temporary.
He who believes in the Son has eternal life; he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God rests upon him. (John 3:36)
The hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment. (John 5:28-29)
I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, he takes away… If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned. (John 14:1-2, 6)
If all must eventually be saved, then in the first of these passages from John, what Christ should have said is that those who do not obey will not see life yet; in the second, that all will come forth to the resurrection of life, but not at the same time; and in the third, that the branches that don’t bear fruit will be nursed back to health until they do, for as long as it takes, rather than being burned.
As with the passages from the other Gospels warning of condemnation, judgment, punishment, etc., the natural reading is a non-universalist one. Even if one were to concede the possibility of a universalist interpretation of one or two such passages, that there are so many passages, spread across all four Gospels, the natural reading of which is non-universalist, makes the universalist position simply incredible. Again, you’d have to believe that Christ was the most incompetent or dishonest communicator imaginable – constantly saying things that seem to imply that you will be condemned forever if you fail to repent in this life, when in fact (according to the universalist) what he really meant is that you’ll be given all the chances you need until you finally come around!
Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor sexual perverts, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God. (I Corinthians 6:9)
Now the works of the flesh are plain: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19-21)
Be sure of this, that no fornicator or impure man, or one who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. (Ephesians 5:5)
God deems it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant rest with us to you who are afflicted, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance upon those who do not know God and upon those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord. (2 Thessalonians 1:6-9)
Note that in context, the natural interpretation of the first three of these passages from St. Paul is that you’d better repent of all of these sins, now, in this life, or you will not inherit the kingdom of God. It is perverse to suggest that what he really meant is that if you do not repent of them, you will not inherit the kingdom yet, but will have to wait for some future age to get another chance. The passage from 2 Thessalonians even more clearly warns of final and everlasting “exclusion.”
It is worth noting that these examples give the lie to Hart’s ridiculous claim that the notion of everlasting punishment is “entirely absent from the Pauline corpus, as even the thinnest shadow of a hint” (p. 93). To be sure, I imagine that Hart might deny Paul’s authorship of Ephesians and 2 Thessalonians. But since the question of their authorship is controversial, and since 1 Corinthians and Galatians are clearly Pauline, it is (to say the very least) nevertheless quite a stretch for Hart to claim that there isn’t “even the thinnest shadow of a hint” of the idea of hell in St. Paul.
Moreover, Hart goes on to say that the idea of eternal hell is also not “anywhere patently present in any of the other epistolary texts” (p. 93). Which is also patently not true as we can see just from 2 Thessalonians, if we counted that as non-Pauline. It’s also obviously not true in light of some of the other non-Pauline epistles. Let’s take a look:
For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they then commit apostasy, since they crucify the Son of God on their own account and hold him up to contempt. For land which has drunk the rain that often falls upon it, and brings forth vegetation useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed; its end is to be burned. (Hebrews 6:4-8)
For if we sin deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury of fire which will consume the adversaries. (Hebrews 10:26-27)
The significance of these passages cannot be overstated. Hebrews tells us that if at first you heed the call of repentance but then fall back into impenitence, “it is impossible to restore [you] again to repentance,” and that “there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins.” If, as the extreme universalist claims, all must eventually be saved, then it would not be impossible, and your sins would always be covered by Christ’s sacrifice no matter how many times you fell away.
But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their licentiousness, and because of them the way of truth will be reviled…
But these, like irrational animals, creatures of instinct, born to be caught and killed, reviling in matters of which they are ignorant, will be destroyed in the same destruction with them, suffering wrong for their wrongdoing…
These are waterless springs and mists driven by a storm; for them the nether gloom of darkness has been reserved…
For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overpowered, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them. (2 Peter 2:1-2, 12-13, 17, 20-21)
Like Hebrews, 2 Peter tells us that it is worse for those who at first repent and then fall away from the faith than it would have been had they never repented. The obvious implication is that they’ve had their chance and blown it. Now all that is left for them is “the nether gloom of darkness” (and some texts of 2 Peter add “forever”).
Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise acted immorally and indulged in unnatural lust, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire. (Jude 7)
These are blemishes on your love feasts, as they boldly carouse together, looking after themselves; waterless clouds, carried along by winds; fruitless trees in late autumn, twice dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars for whom the nether gloom of darkness has been reserved for ever. (Jude 12-13)
Jude speaks of “eternal fire” and “the nether gloom of darkness… for ever.” Yet, as we have seen, Hart claims that the idea of an eternal hell isn’t to be found “anywhere patently present in any of the other epistolary texts”!
Now we come to the scriptural coup de grace to the thesis that all must be saved, namely the book of Revelation:
If any one worships the beast and its image, and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also shall drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured unmixed into the cup of his anger, and he shall be tormented with fire and sulphur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up for ever 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. (Revelation 14:9-11)
And the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulphur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night for ever and ever. (Revelation 20:10)
And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, by what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead in them, and all were judged by what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire; and if any one’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. (Revelation 20: 12-15)
I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the fountain of the water of life without payment. He who conquers shall have this heritage, and I will be his God and he shall be my son. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, as for murderers, fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their lot shall be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death. (Revelation 21: 6-8)
And in the Spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God… They shall bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean shall enter it, nor any one who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life. (Revelation 21:10, 26-27)
Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense, to repay every one for what he has done… Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates. Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and every one who loves and practices falsehood. (Revelation 22:12, 14-15)
This is, needless to say, all about as harrowing and high-octane as warnings of damnation get. I have in addressed the “parallelism problem” that afflicts attempts to reinterpret Revelation’s references to torments that last “for ever and ever.” I also there discussed why it will not do to pretend, as Hart does, that the book is too mysterious to draw any conclusions from. Whatever one says about this or that detail, what cannot be denied is that the point of Revelation is to tell us how the whole story of salvation history ends, and that what it ends with is a Great Divorce between the saved and the damned (to borrow C. S. Lewis’s phrase). Whether you think the fate of the damned is annihilation or perpetual suffering; whether you think the damned are few or many; whether you think that Revelation is a prediction of what will in fact happen or merely a warning of what could happen; whether you think we may at least hope that all are saved or regard such hope as wishful thinking and a poor fit with what scripture indicates; there can be no question that Revelation is warning us at the very least that it is possible that some will be lost forever.
Yet universalists like Hart claim that no one can possibly be lost forever. It is clear why Hart wants to beat a retreat into obscurantism when it comes to this book. Revelation all by itself completely destroys his case. It is absurd for Hart to admit that texts like 1 Enoch teach eternal damnation, and then go on to deny that we can draw any such lesson from Revelation.
THE EARLY CHURCH FATHERS:
The earliest Church Fathers pick right up with the theme we see in Revelation, without skipping a beat. Here are some key texts:
The Didache (1st or 2nd century):
Then shall the creation of men come into the fire of trial, and many shall be made to stumble and shall perish; but they that endure in their faith shall be saved from under the curse itself. And then shall appear the signs of the truth; first, the sign of an outspreading in heaven; then the sign of the sound of the trumpet; and the third, the resurrection of the dead; yet not of all, but as it is said: The Lord shall come and all His saints with Him.
Though this text lacks the harrowing imagery of Matthew or Revelation, we nevertheless see in it the reiteration of the idea of a final separation of the faithful and the wicked.
St. Ignatius of Antioch (died c. 110):
Those that corrupt families shall not inherit the kingdom of God. If, then, those who do this as respects the flesh have suffered death, how much more shall this be the case with any one who corrupts by wicked doctrine the faith of God, for which Jesus Christ was crucified! Such an one becoming defiled [in this way], shall go away into everlasting fire, and so shall every one that hearkens unto him. (Epistle to the Ephesians 16)
Epistle of Barnabas (c. 130):
But the way of darkness is crooked, and full of cursing; for it is the way of eternal death with punishment, in which way are the things that destroy the soul, viz., idolatry, over-confidence, the arrogance of power, hypocrisy, double-heartedness, adultery, murder, rapine, haughtiness, transgression, deceit, malice, self-sufficiency, poisoning, magic, avarice, want of the fear of God. (Epistle of Barnabas 20)
Second Epistle of Clement (130-160):
For if we do the will of Christ, we shall find rest; otherwise, nothing shall deliver us from eternal punishment, if we disobey His commandments…
The righteous, having succeeded both in enduring the trials and hating the indulgences of the soul, whenever they witness how those who have swerved and denied Jesus by words or deeds are punished with grievous torments in fire unquenchable, will give glory to their God. (2 Clement 6:7, 17:7)
Martyrdom of Polycarp (150-160):
And, looking to the grace of Christ, they despised all the torments of this world, redeeming themselves from eternal punishment by [the suffering of] a single hour. For this reason the fire of their savage executioners appeared cool to them. For they kept before their view escape from that fire which is eternal and never shall be quenched, and looked forward with the eyes of their heart to those good things which are laid up for such as endure…
The proconsul said to him, “I will cause you to be consumed by fire, seeing you despise the wild beasts, if you will not repent.”
But Polycarp said, “You threaten me with fire which burns for an hour, and after a little is extinguished, but are ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and of eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly. But why do you tarry? Bring forth what you will.” (Martyrdom of Polycarp, Chapters 2 and 11)
Shepherd of Hermas (100-160):
They who have known God, and have seen His mighty works, and still continue in evil, shall be chastised doubly, and shall die forever. (Shepherd of Hermas Book III, Similitude 9, Chapter 18)
St. Justin Martyr (100-165):
We believe (or rather, indeed, are persuaded) that every man will suffer punishment in eternal fire according to the merit of his deed. (First Apology, Chapter 17)
For reflect upon the end of each of the preceding kings, how they died the death common to all, which, if it issued in insensibility, would be a godsend to all the wicked. But since sensation remains to all who have ever lived, and eternal punishment is laid up (i.e., for the wicked), see that you neglect not to be convinced, and to hold as your belief, that these things are true. (First Apology, Chapter 18)
Some are sent to be punished unceasingly into judgment and condemnation of fire; but others shall exist in freedom from suffering, from corruption, and from grief, and in immortality. (Dialogue with Trypho, Chapter 45)
And as we, to whom it now easily happens to die, afterwards receive the immortal with enjoyment, or the painful with immortality, so the demons, who abuse the present life to purposes of wrong-doing, dying continually even while they live, will have hereafter the same immortality. (Address to the Greeks 14)
Athenagoras of Athens (c. 133-190):
We are persuaded that when we are removed from the present life we shall live another life, better than the present one, and heavenly, not earthly… or, falling with the rest, a worse one and in fire; for God has not made us as sheep or beasts of burden, a mere by-work, and that we should perish and be annihilated. (A Plea for the Christians 31)
Theophilus of Antioch (died 180):
I believe, obedient to God, whom, if you please, do you also submit to, believing Him, lest if now you continue unbelieving, you be convinced hereafter, when you are tormented with eternal punishments; which punishments, when they had been foretold by the prophets, the later-born poets and philosophers stole from the holy Scriptures, to make their doctrines worthy of credit… But do you also, if you please, give reverential attention to the prophetic Scriptures, and they will make your way plainer for escaping the eternal punishments, and obtaining the eternal prizes of God… To those who by patient continuance in well-doing seek immortality, He will give life everlasting, joy, peace, rest, and abundance of good things, which neither has eye seen, nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man to conceive. But to the unbelieving and despisers, who obey not the truth, but are obedient to unrighteousness, when they shall have been filled with adulteries and fornications, and filthiness, and covetousness, and unlawful idolatries, there shall be anger and wrath, tribulation and anguish, and at the last everlasting fire shall possess such men. (To Autolycus I:14)
St. Irenaeus (died c. 200):
The Church, though dispersed throughout the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith… that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Saviour, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, every knee should bow… and that He should execute just judgment towards all; that He may send… the angels who transgressed and became apostates, together with the ungodly, and unrighteous, and wicked, and profane among men, into everlasting fire; but may, in the exercise of His grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept His commandments, and have persevered in His love, some from the beginning [of their Christian course], and others from [the date of] their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory. (Against Heresies, Book I, Chapter 10)
That eternal fire, [for instance,] is prepared for sinners, both the Lord has plainly declared, and the rest of the Scriptures demonstrate. And that God foreknew that this would happen, the Scriptures do in like manner demonstrate, since He prepared eternal fire from the beginning for those who were [afterwards] to transgress [His commandments]. (Against Heresies, Book II, Chapter 28)
Inasmuch, then, as in both Testaments there is the same righteousness of God [displayed] when God takes vengeance, in the one case indeed typically, temporarily, and more moderately; but in the other, really, enduringly, and more rigidly: for the fire is eternal, and the wrath of God which shall be revealed from heaven from the face of our Lord… entails a heavier punishment on those who incur it – the elders pointed out that those men are devoid of sense, who, [arguing] from what happened to those who formerly did not obey God, do endeavour to bring in another Father, setting over against [these punishments] what great things the Lord had done at His coming to save those who received Him, taking compassion upon them; while they keep silence with regard to His judgment; and all those things which shall come upon such as have heard His words, but done them not, and that it were better for them if they had not been born…
Thus also the punishment of those who do not believe the Word of God, and despise His advent, and are turned away backwards, is increased; being not merely temporal, but rendered also eternal. For to whomsoever the Lord shall say, Depart from me, you cursed, into everlasting fire, these shall be damned for ever; and to whomsoever He shall say, Come, you blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you for eternity, these do receive the kingdom for ever. (Against Heresies, Book IV, Chapter 28)
Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus (130-200):
Then shall you condemn the deceit and error of the world when you shall know what it is to live truly in heaven, when you shall despise that which is here esteemed to be death, when you shall fear what is truly death, which is reserved for those who shall be condemned to the eternal fire, which shall afflict those even to the end that are committed to it. Then shall you admire those who for righteousness' sake endure the fire that is but for a moment, and shall count them happy when you shall know [the nature of] that fire. (Epistle to Diognetus 10)
St. Clement of Alexandria (died c. 215):
All souls are immortal, even those of the wicked, for whom it were better that they were not deathless. For, punished with the endless vengeance of quenchless fire, and not dying, it is impossible for them to have a period put to their misery. ()
Tertullian (died c. 220):
These have further set before us the proofs He has given of His majesty in His judgments by floods and fires, the rules appointed by Him for securing His favour, as well as the retribution in store for the ignoring, forsaking and keeping them, as being about at the end of all to adjudge His worshippers to everlasting life, and the wicked to the doom of fire at once without ending and without break. (Apology, Chapter 18)
But the profane, and all who are not true worshippers of God, in like manner shall be consigned to the punishment of everlasting fire – that fire which, from its very nature indeed, directly ministers to their incorruptibility. (Apology, Chapter 48)
St. Hippolytus (died c. 236):
To those who have done well shall be assigned righteously eternal bliss, and to the lovers of iniquity shall be given eternal punishment. And the fire which is unquenchable and without end awaits these latter, and a certain fiery worm which dies not, and which does not waste the body, but continues bursting forth from the body with unending pain. No sleep will give them rest; no night will soothe them; no death will deliver them from punishment; no voice of interceding friends will profit them. For neither are the righteous seen by them any longer, nor are they worthy of remembrance. (Against Plato 3)
Minucius Felix (fl. 200-240):
Nor is there either measure or termination to these torments. There the intelligent fire burns the limbs and restores them, feeds on them and nourishes them. As the fires of the thunderbolts strike upon the bodies, and do not consume them; as the fires of Mount Aetna and of Mount Vesuvius, and of burning lands everywhere, glow, but are not wasted; so that penal fire is not fed by the waste of those who burn, but is nourished by the unexhausted eating away of their bodies. (Octavius, Chapter 35)
St. Cyprian of Carthage (200-258):
An ever-burning Gehenna will burn up the condemned, and a punishment devouring with living flames; nor will there be any source whence at any time they may have either respite or end to their torments. Souls with their bodies will be reserved in infinite tortures for suffering. Thus the man will be for ever seen by us who here gazed upon us for a season; and the short joy of those cruel eyes in the persecutions that they made for us will be compensated by a perpetual spectacle, according to the truth of Holy Scripture, which says, Their worm shall not die, and their fire shall not be quenched; and they shall be for a vision to all flesh. (Treatise V, 24)
Lactantius (240 - c. 320):
But, however, the sacred writings inform us in what manner the wicked are to undergo punishment. For because they have committed sins in their bodies, they will again be clothed with flesh, that they may make atonement in their bodies; and yet it will not be that flesh with which God clothed man, like this our earthly body, but indestructible, and abiding for ever, that it may be able to hold out against tortures and everlasting fire, the nature of which is different from this fire of ours, which we use for the necessary purposes of life, and which is extinguished unless it be sustained by the fuel of some material… The same divine fire, therefore, with one and the same force and power, will both burn the wicked and will form them again, and will replace as much as it shall consume of their bodies, and will supply itself with eternal nourishment. (Divine Institutes, Book VII, Chapter 21)
This brings us to the time of Origen (185 - c. 254), with whose lifetime that of Lactantius overlaps. Let’s take stock of what we’ve seen so far. The centuries prior to the time of Christ saw the development of the idea of eternal damnation. Christ and the New Testament authors make many statements that on a natural reading clearly teach eternal damnation, sometimes using language that echoes that of the intertestamental authors who taught it. For two centuries after the time of Christ, the Fathers also teach eternal damnation, often using the same language, and often representing their teaching as that of scripture. The obvious conclusion is that the reason the New Testament so often seems to be teaching that some will be damned forever is that it is teaching that. That is the sense that readers of the time would have given the relevant language.
In order to resist this conclusion, you have to ignore not only the natural reading of the relevant scriptural passages but also all of this historical context that clearly supports the natural reading. You have to say that all of the earliest Church Fathers simply got scripture badly wrong, even though they were the readers closest in time to Christ and the Apostles, and even though their reading is the natural one and fits in with the apocalyptic literary tradition that preceded the New Testament. That’s more than a stretch. It simply doesn’t pass the laugh test, and no one would take it seriously for a moment who wasn’t desperate to find a way to reconcile universalism with Christianity.
Hence, when Origen comes along two centuries after the time of Christ and teaches universalism, what he is proposing is a novelty, not the expression of some loyal opposition view that had always been there in the orthodox tradition. Here several points need to be emphasized. First, the only clear precursors for Origen’s universalism are to be found in the writings of gnostic heretics – not a good provenance for those wanting to sell the view as orthodox. As Michael McClymond writes in , “if one omits these second-century gnostics, the connecting links are not there to span the roughly two centuries from the New Testament until the time of Origen’s Peri archōn (ca. 220-ca. 230)” (The Devil’s Redemption, p. 234). Clement of Alexandria is sometimes said to be an orthodox precursor, but it is not clear from the relevant statements that he really was suggesting that all will be saved (see McClymond, pp. 239-46), and as the passage cited above shows, Clement said clearly anti-universalist things too.
Second, Origen himself presents his view tentatively and as a hypothesis, not as the reiteration of some longstanding option. He writes: “These subjects, indeed, are treated by us with great solicitude and caution, in the manner rather of an investigation and discussion, than in that of fixed and certain decision” (De Principiis, Book I, Chapter 6). (Contrast this with the dogmatism of writers like Hart, who insist that no rational and decent person could possibly disagree with them, and indeed who claim that Christianity stands or falls with universalism!)
Third, Origen’s universalism is connected with other suspect ideas, such as the preexistence of souls. And this was a tendency in other universalists of the era. Universalism isn’t a standalone error, but tends to presuppose and/or lead to others. For example, as McClymond notes, in the Platonic tradition that influenced Origen, there was sometimes a tendency “to assign quasi-divine status or eternity to the human soul,” as an extrapolation from its preexistence (p. 335). The idea of the universal salvation of all souls was in turn a byproduct of this divinization. (In this connection, it is worth reminding the reader of the pantheistic tendency to blur the distinction between God and human beings which, , is to be found in Hart’s book. In , Hart dismisses the charge of pantheism while in the same breath acknowledging: “There are many ways in which I would proudly wear the title.”)
Fourth, the handful of later Fathers sometimes lumped in with Origen as fellow universalists are not all in fact unambiguously so. For example, though St. Jerome was at one time sympathetic to Origen’s position, he later rejected it. St. Ambrose taught only that some, not all, could still be purified and saved after condemnation. St Gregory of Nazianzus did not take a definite position.
Even St. Gregory of Nyssa, the great hero of universalists like Hart, is not entirely unambiguous on the issue. As the introduction to the volume on Gregory in Schaff and Wace’s Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers says:
Nevertheless passages have been adduced from Gregory’s writings in which the language of Scripture as to future punishment is used without any modification, or hint of this universal salvation. In the treatise, De Pauperibus Amandis, II. p. 240, he says of the last judgment that God will give to each his due; repose eternal to those who have exercised pity and a holy life; but the eternal punishment of fire for the harsh and unmerciful: and addressing the rich who have made a bad use of their riches, he says, ‘Who will extinguish the flames ready to devour you and engulf you? Who will stop the gnawings of a worm that never dies?’ Cf. also Orat. 3, de Beatitudinibus, I. p. 788: contra Usuarios, II. p. 233: though the hortatory character of these treatises makes them less important as witnesses. (p. 16)
In one place Gregory writes:
Certainly, in comparison with one who has lived all his life in sin, not only the innocent babe but even one who has never come into the world at all will be blessed. We learn as much too in the case of Judas, from the sentence pronounced upon him in the Gospels; namely, that when we think of such men, that which never existed is to be preferred to that which has existed in such sin. For, as to the latter, on account of the depth of the ingrained evil, the chastisement in the way of purgation will be extended into infinity; but as for what has never existed, how can any torment touch it? (On Infants’ Early Deaths)
(For discussion of the scholarly debate over whether Gregory really was a universalist, see McClymond p. 281, 288-90.)
Fifth, Origen’s universalism was in any event decisively rejected by the vast majority of the Fathers who succeeded him. St. Athanasius, St. Hilary, St. Ephrem, St. Cyril, St. Basil, St. John Chrysostom, and so on and on, reaffirm the anti-universalist teaching of Origen’s predecessors. As, of course, does St. Augustine, whose views on the issue would become so influential. As what we’ve seen demonstrates, the idea that Augustine somehow foisted onto Christianity an anti-universalist hegemony that didn’t previously exist is absurd. Augustine’s position became influential not because it was novel but because it gave a systematic articulation, against the universalist novelty, of a position that was already firmly embedded in tradition. Augustine’s triumph is not that of an innovator, but that of a loyal son of the tradition who decisively smacked down the innovators who would upend it.
As McClymond concludes, “a full examination of the views of the early church authors, both before and after Origen, does not support the concept of a universalist ‘minority report’” (p. 40). Origen and his handful of admirers are a blip, not an orthodox counter-tradition.
Nor does scripture give them any succor whatsoever. I’ve already explained what is wrong with some of the scriptural appeals made by universalists. The others are no better. For example, universalists often try to make hay out of Christ’s remark in John 12:32 that he will draw all men to himself. But Christ doesn’t say that all men will actually heed this call, and as we’ve already seen, there are other passages from John’s gospel that unambiguously imply that they won’t all heed it.
I Corinthians 15:22 tells us that “as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” But the context is an argument for the reality of the resurrection of the body, not the question of who will be saved. Moreover, as we have seen, St. Paul also explicitly says in the very same epistle (at 6:9) that some will not inherit the kingdom of God.
In Matthew 5:25-26, Christ says:
Make friends quickly with your accuser, while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison; truly, I say to you, you will never get out till you have paid the last penny.
It is sometimes suggested that that last line indicates that punishment in the hereafter will be temporary. But how does such an interpretation of this one passage square with the obvious contrary implication of the mountain of other passages from Matthew considered above? And why suppose that Christ is even talking here in the first place about the reward of the wicked in the afterlife, or of all of the wicked?
This is all quite pathetic. You need to strain mightily to read universalism out of this handful of passages, and even more mightily to avoid reading eternal damnation out of the gigantic pile of other passages cited earlier.
But, finally to let you out of this long purgatory of a post, let’s end with a few other passages that universalists – and all churchmen and theologians who think it merciful to preach complacent reassurance rather than dire warning – are well-advised to heed:
From prophet to priest, every one deals falsely. They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace. (Jeremiah 6:13)
For they are a rebellious people, lying sons, sons who will not hear the instruction of the Lord; who say to the seers, “See not”; and to the prophets, “Prophesy not to us what is right; speak to us smooth things, prophesy illusions.” (Isaiah 30:9-10)
If I say to the wicked, O wicked man, you shall surely die, and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from his way, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand. (Ezekiel 33:8)