The History of Universalism

Universalism is a major spiritual tradition dating back to the Apostles of Jesus Christ and the ancient Christian church. It is an understanding of the Gospel that has inspired saints, mystics, philosophers, theologians, and churches in nearly every era of religious history from the time of Jesus to today. Even before the proclamation of the Christian Gospel, there were foreshadowings of Universalism in the Hebrew scriptures as well as in Greek and Eastern philosophy — some of which taught the truths of reformative divine justice, the potential of all people to be perfected in the divine image, and the emanation and restoration of all things back to the Source of All Being.

“We are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses” ~ Heb. 12:1

If you believe in Universalism, you are not alone! You are part of a rich heritage of religious thought and practice that has always managed to bubble up from the wellspring of the human spirit — reappearing over and over again in different places and time periods — even though the teaching of God’s all-inclusive love has been opposed and suppressed by more powerful churches teaching a god of eternal torment. It is as if despite man’s most strenuous efforts to stop it, the Holy Spirit keeps on reminding people that Jesus came to earth to bring Good News.

The flow chart below shows the institutional history of Christian Universalism from roughly 2000 years ago to the present day. Solid lines indicate direct descent from one church group or movement to a later one. Dashed lines indicate a historical relationship of indirect influence.

Historical chart of Universalist movements from the early church to the present day

This two-part article will provide an overview of the development of Universalism as a Christian tradition. It is in Christianity that universalist faith has attained its most complete and meaningful manifestation. Christian Universalists would argue that the main purpose of Jesus Christ coming to this world was to proclaim and reveal a God who loves all people with a parental love, who will never give up on any soul, and who has a plan for the reconciliation of all things. A wide variety of Christian groups and individuals throughout history have believed in these ideas and taught them. Read on to learn about the most significant teachers and organized bodies of believers that are part of this great Universalist tradition we have inherited — the shining lamps of the Gospel that illuminate our minds and set our hearts afire with the love of God!

The Apostolic Era

Icon of Jesus Christ

Icon of Jesus Christ

Jesus of Nazareth, known to his followers as the Messiah (Christ), taught that God has a benevolent Fatherly nature and character. In moving parables such as the Prodigal Son, the Lost Sheep, and the Good Samaritan, he emphasized love, mercy, forgiveness, and compassion for all people. He instructed people to love not only their neighbors but also their enemies; forgave a woman caught in the act of adultery, who was supposed to be stoned to death according to Jewish religious law; and even asked God to forgive the Roman soldiers who pounded nails into his own hands.

When Jesus spoke of God’s judgment upon the wicked, he did so with words that implied a limited, corrective punishment. Specifically, he referred to divine judgment as aionios kolasis, meaning age-long chastisement. The idea was that a person who turns away from God and lives a life of evil will have to face justice — a purgatorial period in the afterlife — before enjoying eventual harmonious reunion with God.

Jesus explicitly prophesied that after his death on the cross and resurrection, he will “draw all people to myself.” (John 12:32). This hopeful promise was echoed by the teaching of the Apostles who founded the Christian ecclesia (church community). For example, St. Peter taught that Jesus visits sinners in hell to help them become redeemed (1 Pet. 3:18-20, 4:6).

Icon of Saint Paul the Apostle

Icon of Saint Paul the Apostle

Numerous verses in the writings of St. Paul speak of God’s plan for the ultimate reconciliation of all, and Paul approvingly referred to the practice of baptism on behalf of the dead in the Corinthian church he founded (1 Cor. 15:29). This practice presupposes that God will save even those who died in sin and unbelief. Paul’s vigorous and courageous efforts to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ were probably the most important factor in the development of Christianity as a major world religion. He was at the forefront of the movement to include non-Jews in God’s new community of faith and to broaden the understanding of salvation beyond the confines of Jewish law. Paul created an intellectually coherent view of the meaning and message of Christ that was heavily focused around the teaching that through successive ages of time, God is in the process of bringing all beings back to Himself — that through the transformative influence of His firstborn Son, the Christ, all people can be raised up into the station of mature sons and daughters of God (e.g. see 1 Cor. 15:22-28, 2 Cor. 3:18, Gal. 4:4-5, Eph. 5:1).

Other early disciples of Jesus whose writings appear in the Bible also advocated a universalist understanding of the Gospel. St. John the Apostle was a notable example. He made the striking statment that “God is love” (1 John 4:8,16) and frequently wrote of the importance of Christians showing love to everyone as brothers and sisters. In the Book of Revelation, believed to be written by John or one of his students, we read a glorious prophecy that at the end of the ages, nobody will be dead or in a state of suffering anymore, because God is making all things new (Rev. 21:3-5).

The Patristic Era

The early church from the time of the Apostles until the 4th century was primarily a Universalist church. Most of the church fathers during this period believed that all people will be saved. Over time, alternative doctrines about the fate of sinners grew more popular, such as annihilationism and eternal conscious torment. These doctrines were often held by Christians who could not read the New Testament in the original Greek language in which it was written, and who interpreted the Bible through the lens of barbaric forms of paganism. It is noteworthy that Irenaeus the Bishop of Lyons wrote a lengthy book called Against Heresies in the late 2nd century, which never once mentioned universal salvation as a heretical belief. This is because for the first few centuries of Christian history, Universalism prevailed as the mainstream understanding of the Gospel.

The greatest theological school of the Patristic era — which directly descended from the Apostles themselves — was called the Didascalium and was based in Alexandria, Egypt. It was founded by St. Pantaenus (d. ca. 216) in the year 190 C.E. Pantaenus, described by some of his students as “the Sicilian bee,” was a Stoic philosopher who became a Christian missionary and traveled as far as India to spread the Gospel. He sought to reconcile the best of Greek philosophy with the radical new spiritual message of Jesus and the Apostles. He was martyred for his faith in Christ.

The Didascalium was the earliest catechetical school, and it played a very influential role in the development of Christian theology prior to the rise of the imperial Roman Church. The city of Alexandria was the center of learning and intellectual culture for the entire ancient world. This cosmopolitan metropolis was the meeting place of philosophers, theologians, writers, teachers and students of various belief systems, and during the first three centuries of Christian history it became the most important city in the Christian world. The Alexandria school of Christianity was thoroughly Universalist in its theology. One wonders how history would have been different had Alexandria remained the center of gravity of Christian thought instead of Rome, which developed a diametrically opposite theological system based on the teaching of eternal damnation.

Icon of Saint Clement of Alexandria

Icon of Saint Clement of Alexandria

St. Clement of Alexandria (150-220) was a student of Pantaenus and became his successor as the head of the Didascalium. Among his main goals was to convince pagans that Christianity is an intellectually rigorous worldview, and to convince Christians that one could be a well-educated philosopher and a follower of Christ at the same time. He believed that God has planted the seeds of truth in every rational mind, and that “the Law is for the Jew what philosophy is for the Greek, a schoolmaster to bring them to Christ.” In the year 202, Clement had to flee Egypt due to persecution of the Christian community by the Romans, and he ended up as the leader of a church in Cappadocia. On the issue of salvation, Clement wrote in his Stromata and Pedagogue:

For all things are ordered both universally and in particular by the Lord of the universe, with a view to the salvation of the universe. But needful corrections, by the goodness of the great, overseeing judge, through the attendant angels, through various prior judgments, through the final judgment, compel even those who have become more callous to repent. … So He saves all; but some He converts by penalties, others who follow Him of their own will, and in accordance with the worthiness of His honor, that every knee may be bent to Him of celestial, terrestrial and infernal things (Phil. 2:10), that is angels, men, and souls who before his [Christ's] advent migrated from this mortal life. … For there are partial corrections (paideiai) which are called chastisements (kolasis), which many of us who have been in transgression incur by falling away from the Lord’s people. But as children are chastised by their teacher, or their father, so are we by Providence… for good to those who are chastised collectively and individually.

Saint Origen

Saint Origen

Clement’s student and successor was St. Origen (185-254), a great early Christian theologian and church father. Origen began his work in Alexandria, was ordained as a priest in Greece, and later founded a school at Caesarea, the provincial capital of Palestine. He wrote the first systematic commentary and exegesis of the entire Bible, including concordance, and he produced a Bible in six columns, showing parallel versions of the Greek and Hebrew text. His greatest contribution was to develop a comprehensive understanding of the Gospel that was based on belief in God’s plan for the ultimate redemption and restoration of all as the foundation of the Christian message. Origen died as a martyr, enduring torture at the hands of the Roman government for his faith in Christ, during a time of terrible persecution of the Christian community.

Most of Origen’s copious writings have been lost or destroyed by later opponents, but what remains shows a picture of a truly deep spiritual thinker who bridges the divide between East and West in a way that few, if any, other major religious leaders of history have done. He emphasized the teaching that all souls have emanated from God, descended into realms of separation as they fell into sin, and must ascend back to the Source of All Being through a divine plan of multiple ages and trials. Origen’s belief in preexistence and reincarnation of the soul led to a great deal of controversy, as these ideas were supported by some early Christians but adamantly opposed by others. These controversial views have prevented him from being canonized in most branches of Christianity, but he is recognized as a saint in the Coptic Church.

Regardless of whether one agrees with all of his specific teachings, Origen’s theology is rich and illuminating, and has a strongly Universalist flavor. Origen understood the Biblical story of the Fall of Man as an illustration of the way human spirits have left God, seeking earthly things of ego, and thus have been separated from the true happiness that can only be found in God’s Presence. He saw Christ as the firstborn Son of God, the only being in the universe who never fell from grace, and whose eternal perfection is an example to all other humans in their progression back toward reunion with God. Origen wrote in his De Principiis and Against Celsus concerning the way God will restore all beings to Himself:

God’s consuming fire works with the good as with the evil, annihilating that which harms His children. This fire is one that each one kindles; the fuel and food is each one’s sins. … When the soul has gathered together a multitude of evil works, and an abundance of sins against itself, at a suitable time all that assembly of evils boils up to punishment, and is set on fire to chastisement… [I]t is to be understood that God our Physician, desiring to remove the defects of our souls, should apply the punishment of fire. … Our God is a ‘consuming fire’ in the sense in which we have taken the word; and thus He enters in as a ‘refiner’s fire’ to refine the rational nature, which has been filled with the lead of wickedness, and to free it from the other impure materials which adulterate the natural gold or silver, so to speak, of the soul. [O]ur belief is that the Word [Christ] shall prevail over the entire rational creation, and change every soul into his own perfection. … For stronger than all the evils in the soul is the Word, and the healing power that dwells in him; and this healing he applies, according to the will of God, to every man.

Three major Universalist figures of the 4th century are St. Didymus the Blind, St. Macrina the Younger, and St. Gregory of Nyssa. St. Didymus the Blind (313-398) — also known as “the Seer” because of his spiritual vision and prophetic gifts — was a follower of Origen who served as the head of the Alexandia school for half a century. He was a great scholar, not only of religion but other subjects as well. He memorized large portions of the scriptures, wrote many books and commentaries, and invented a system of reading for the blind based on letters carved into wood (a precursor to Braille), which enabled blind students to study at his school. Didymus was known for his angelic nature and his gentle but intellectually persuasive responses to critics of the true Christian faith.

Icon of Saint Macrina the Younger

Icon of Saint Macrina the Younger

St. Macrina the Younger (324-380) was a nun who founded a sisterhood of several hundred women, and is honored as one of the most prominent nuns of the Eastern Church. Her grandmother was St. Macrina the Elder, also a Universalist — in fact, her family contained several significant church leaders who either professed Universalism or were sympathetic to it. Macrina the Younger was well educated and well versed in scripture, and was a supporter of Origen’s teachings. She was an avowed believer in the salvation of all, writing that God’s judgments are a “process of healing [which] shall be proportioned to the measure of evil in each of us, and when the evil is purged and blotted out, there shall come in each place to each immortality and life and honor.” She also taught that the resurrection is “the restoration of human nature to its pristine condition.” Macrina was known for her skill as a manager of her family and religious community, her life of piety and force of character.

Icon of Saint Gregory of Nyssa

Icon of Saint Gregory of Nyssa

St. Gregory of Nyssa (335-394) was one of Macrina the Younger’s brothers. He was a bishop and theologian. He was much influenced by Origen’s religious views, but made significant contributions of his own to the development of Christian theology. Gregory’s main issues of interest were the Trinity, the nature of God, and God’s plan for humanity. One of his most significant teachings is the idea that God is infinite and beyond any limited human understanding. Another is his teaching of epektasis, the constant progress of human beings toward greater and greater levels of divine perfection. The combination of this idea with the infinite transcendence of God was an important development in the Christian belief in theosis (divinization of man through spiritual growth).

In a book called Sermo Catecheticus Magnus, Gregory of Nyssa asserted “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 taught that “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.

The Nestorians were another branch of early Christianity — originating separately from the Alexandria school, in the cities of Constantinople and Antioch. Nestorianism eventually broke away from the Eastern Orthodox (Byzantine) churches and became a major influence in the development of the Assyrian Church of the East, which spread to Persia, India, Mongolia and China, and claims descent from St. Thomas the Apostle. This church continues to exist in some places today.

The Nestorian school of thought was characterized by the belief that Jesus Christ possessed two natures: the divine Christ who became embodied in the man Jesus. Nestorians also argued against the view of Mary as the “Mother of God,” which came to be an official church doctrine in Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. They argued instead that Mary was only the mother of Christ the human being. Nestorianism and the Assyrian Church have never taught eternal damnation in their creed, being heavily influenced by universalist ideas.

Nestorius, the Patriarch of Constantinople (386-451) is regarded as the founder of Nestorianism. Another equally important figure in this branch of the Christian religion is Bishop Theodore of Mopsuestia (350-428), who was an avowed Universalist and is still regarded by many Nestorians as “the Interpreter” of their faith. He is thought to have been the one who first introduced universal reconciliation into the Nestorian liturgy.

Theodore of Mopsuestia emphasized the sovereignty and power of God to restore all beings to Himself regardless of their free will to rebel. He wrote: “The wicked who have committed evil the whole period of their lives shall be punished till they learn that, by continuing in sin, they only continue in misery. And when, by this means, they shall have been brought to fear God, and to regard Him with good will, they shall obtain the enjoyment of His grace. For He never would have said, ‘until thou hast paid the uttermost farthing,’ [Mat. 5:26] unless we can be released from suffering after having suffered adequately for sin; nor would He have said, ‘he shall be beaten with many stripes,’ [Luke 12:47] and again, ‘he shall be beaten with few stripes,’ [vs. 48] unless the punishment to be endured for sin will have an end.

The Middle Ages

Perhaps the most important event in Christian history after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ was the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine (272-337), who legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire in the year 313 and became a patron of the Christian clergy. Christianity quickly went from a persecuted minority group to the dominant and semi-official religion of Rome because of Constantine’s support. But along with this dramatic improvement in status came increased infighting among Christians who believed in different versions of the faith. Constantine sought to resolve these conflicts by calling an ecumenical council of bishops to decide Christian orthodoxy.

The result of these changes was that Christianity came to have a much more Roman orientation, because Rome was involving itself in Christian affairs through government power. Knowing that the Roman Empire — formerly the arch-enemy of the Christian faith — would play a role in determining what type of Christian beliefs and practices would be considered normative or heretical, Christian leaders increasingly sought to please the state and ensure their position rather than seek truth. A politicization of Christianity thus took place over the coming centuries, with the end result that church and state became closely united with the development of the papacy as a powerful governing institution. The bishop of Rome assumed the title Pontifex Maximus, which was originally a title used by the Roman emperor, and is still used today to refer to the Roman Catholic pope who presides over the church from Rome. Christianity and Roman imperial traditions became thoroughly merged.

One of the side effects of the shifting center of gravity of Christianity from Alexandria, Palestine, and Eastern cities to Rome was that the Bible increasingly came to be read in Latin translation, rather than the original Greek and Hebrew. This allowed for distortions of the scriptures to be seen as part of the Judeo-Christian message.

Tragically, the most influential church theologian after Origen was a man who converted to Christianity from a pagan background after the development of the post-Constantine Christian empire, who could not even read Greek and thus had no command of the language in which the New Testament was written and in which the early Christians had read the Bible. This theologian was Augustine (354-430), considered the father of Western theology. He was responsible for a wholesale change in Christian thinking, replacing the belief system of the Apostles and most of the early church fathers with a completely different version of the gospel that has been handed down as the fundamental basis of much of Catholic and Protestant Christianity. The Eastern Orthodox churches remained somewhat skeptical of Augustine and have preserved the use of the Greek Bible and at least some of the Hellenistic interpretation of the Christian message rather than the later Latin ideas that usurped the Gospel.

Augustine was the turning point in the development of Western church-approved theology because he enunciated the central concepts of the religious paradigm that took hold in the Middle Ages and persisted in large part to the present day. His most important ideas which are contrary to the Biblical Gospel include, first and foremost, the belief that the very essence of our being is evil, because humans are defined in God’s eyes by our “original sin” that is passed on as a sexually transmitted disease at birth, and therefore damnation is the default destiny of all people — even unbaptized babies who die in infancy — because of God’s furious anger. Secondly, he taught that hell is eternal and anyone who is not saved from divine condemnation during life on earth will experience eternal conscious torment. The cornerstone of Augustine’s religious system was strong support for the authority of the Roman Church hierarchy and organization as the “visible kingdom of God on earth,” and its role in law, politics, war, and government — including the punishment of heretics.

The development and spread of this perverse, unbiblical Augustinian theological system was bad enough, but it was reinforced in future centuries by further key events, which combined to force Christianity as a whole to repudiate many of its original teachings and serve a completely different function from what it was originally intended to be. One of these was the official declaration that hell is eternal by the Roman Emperor Justinian in the year 544. Another important event was when Origen was officially declared a heretic in 553. The legacy of the greatest early church theologian and his illuminating writings were thus cast out of the church, and with this travesty the suppression of original Christian theology and its replacement by Roman Church tradition was ensured.

The Nestorians were also condemned as heretics — as was anyone else who had views of Christian theology that did not conform to the preferences of Rome. Many writings of Origen, his supporters, and Nestorian Universalists such as Theodore of Mopsuestia were destroyed by church censors. In many cases, we only know what these early church leaders taught because of the criticisms of those in later centuries who argued against their views. How much of their work was lost will probably never be known, but it was part of an overall trend of rejection and destruction of progressive intellectual works that took hold during the centuries that came to be known as the “dark ages.”

Torture by the Inquisition

Torture by the Inquisition

The Roman Catholic religion — falsely claiming the mantle of Christ — became a barbarous, evil enterprise of military conquest, torture chambers, and execution of anyone who dared to challenge its official doctrines and practices. Countless numbers of innocent people were wantonly killed in the Crusades in the name of Jesus, who had specifically prohibited the use of force to spread his religion. With the rise of the Inquisition, numerous intellectuals, free thinkers, and adherents of indigenous religions in Europe were tortured and murdered for their beliefs at the hands of clerical leaders loyal to Rome.

Yet surrounded by darkness, the light of the true Gospel never completely went out. A few isolated dissident philosophers and mystics arose with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, rediscovering universalist beliefs that the church sought to obliterate from existence. The three most significant Universalists of the Middle Ages are Johannes Scotus Erigena, Johannes Tauler, and Julian of Norwich. Various others — especially mystics — embraced some aspects of the universalist view of the Gospel but did not necessarily accept the entire belief system of Universalism.

Johannes Scotus Erigena

Johannes Scotus Erigena

Johannes Scotus Erigena (815-877) was a Scotch Irish theologian, philosopher, mystic and poet, who was highly proficient in Greek and read and translated some early Christian writings and Greek philosophy. He regarded man’s nature to be part divine and part animal, and believed that all people can return to God by cultivating their divine nature and resisting the animalistic impulses to sin. Nevertheless, he believed all beings (even animals) reflect attributes of the Creator and are capable of progressing toward harmony with God, to which all things ultimately must return. Scotus Erigena’s universalism was radical, especially for the time in which he lived. He was a free thinker who emphasized knowing God through direct revelatory experience, rather than the authoritarian dogmas of church orthodoxy. Nevertheless, he found support for many of his ideas in the Greek writings of the early Christian fathers, and perceived himself as being within the bounds of orthodox Christian thought. Several centuries after his death, his works were condemned as heretical by a Roman pope.

A period of four centuries between roughly 900 and 1300 was largely bereft of Universalist Christian thought — at least in any way that has been recorded by history. The next major figure who was definitely a Universalist was Johannes Tauler (1300-1361). He was a German Dominican mystic, theologian, and preacher who became quite influential and was highly esteemed by Martin Luther, who studied his sermons. Tauler wrote that “All beings exist through the same birth as the Son, and therefore shall they all come again to their original, that is, God the Father.

Tauler was influenced by Meister Eckhart (1260-1328) and Blessed John of Ruysbroek (1293-1381), both of whom were mystics who had some sympathies with universalist ideas. Eckhart wrote that man’s final end and purpose of existence is “to love, know and be united with the immanent and transcendent Godhead,” adding that “The seed of God is within us. It will grow and thrive up to God, whose seed it is.” Ruysbroek never developed a comprehensive theological system but wrote as the Holy Spirit moved him by automatic writing. He wrote that “Man, having proceeded from God is destined to return, and become one with Him again.

Icon of Blessed Julian of Norwich

Icon of Blessed Julian of Norwich

Blessed Julian of Norwich (1342-1416) was a great mystic who lived in England during the days of the Black Death. Life was very difficult at that time, with famines and pestilences, wars, and the constant shadow of death hovering over all things. Naturally, the church tended to focus its preaching on themes of death, judgment, the wrath of God, and the horrors of hell. Julian asked God to reveal Himself to her in a near-death experience, and she got her wish: She fell ill with the Plague and almost died, whereupon she saw visions that profoundly affected her life and led her to write two books — the first ever written by a woman in the English language. After recovering from her illness, she dedicated herself to a life of contemplation and prayer as an anchoress, occupying a cell adjoining the church in the town where she lived.

In her book called The Revelations of Divine Love, she described Jesus as a joyful and compassionate Savior: “Glad and merry and sweet is the blessed and lovely demeanour of our Lord towards our souls, for he saw us always living in love-longing, and he wants our souls to be gladly disposed toward him…. [B]y his grace he lifts up and will draw our outer disposition to our inward, and will make us all at unity with him, and each of us with others in the true, lasting joy which is Jesus.” Julian was troubled by the question of what would befall those who had never heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The answer she received was that whatever God does is done in love, and therefore “that all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.

Julian’s visions were of a God of love who cares deeply about all beings and promises to save everyone. In one vision, she saw God as our clothing, wrapping us tenderly in His love. In another vision she saw God holding what looked to be a small brown hazelnut in His hand, and she knew that this tiny seed was the entire created universe! Though it seemed so fragile and insignificant, she understood that it would continue always because God loves it — all that exists is loved and has its being by God’s love. She was told, “God made it, God loves it, God keeps it.” Receiving this revelation brought a deep sense of rest and happiness to her soul, knowing that nothing could separate her or anyone else from the magnificent love of God.

PART TWO → The Reformation through the Present Day