Excerpted from “Universalism – The Prevailing Doctrine Of The Christian Church During Its First Five Hundred Years” by J.W. Hansen, 1899
When our Lord spoke, the doctrine of unending torment was believed by many of those who listened to his words, and they stated it in terms and employed others, entirely differently, in describing the duration of punishment, from the terms afterward used by those who taught universal salvation and annihilation, and so gave to the terms in question the sense of unlimited duration.
For example, the Pharisees, according to Josephus, regarded the penalty of sin as torment without end, and they stated the doctrine in unambiguous terms. They called iteirgmos aidios (eternal imprisonment) and timorion adialeipton (endless torment), while our Lord called the punishment of sin aionion kolasin (age-long chastisement).
Meaning of Scriptural Terms.
The language of Josephus is used by the profane Greeks, but is never found in the New Testament connected with punishment. Josephus, writing in Greek to Jews, frequently employs the word that our Lord used to define the duration of punishment (aionios), but he applies it to things that had ended or that will end.1 Can it be doubted that our Lordplaced his ban on the doctrine that the Jews had derived from the heathen by never using their terms describing it, and that he taught a limited punishment by employing words to define it that only meant limited duration in contemporaneous literature? Josephus used the word aionos with its current meaning of limited duration. He applies it to the imprisonment of John the Tyrant; to Herod’s reputation; to the glory acquired by soldiers; to the fame of an army as a “happy life and aionian glory.” He used the words as do the Scriptures to denote limited duration, but when he would describe endless duration he uses different terms. Of the doctrine of the Pharisees he says:
“They believe * * * that wicked spirits are to be kept in an eternal imprisonment (eirgmon aidion). The Pharisees say all souls are incorruptible, but while those of good men are removed into other bodies those of bad men are subject to eternal punishment” (aidios timoria). Elsewhere he says that the Essenes, “allot to bad souls a dark, tempestuous place, full of never-ceasing torment (timoria adialeipton), where they suffer a deathless torment” (athanaton timorion). Aidion and athanaton are his favorite terms for duration, and timoria (torment) for punishment.
Philo’s Use of the Words.
Philo, who was contemporary with Christ, generally used aidion to denote endless, and aionian temporary duration. He uses the exact phraseology of Matt. xxv: 46, precisely as Christ used it: “It is better not to promise than not to give prompt assistance, for no blame follows in the former case, but in the latter there is dissatisfaction from the weaker class, and a deep hatred and æonian punishment (chastisement) from such as are more powerful.” Here we have the precise terms employed by our Lord, which show thataionian did not mean endless but did mean limited duration in the time of Christ. Philo adopts athanaton, ateleuteton or aidion to denote endless, and aionian temporary duration. In one place occurs this sentence concerning the wicked: “to live always dying, and to undergo, as it were, an immortal and interminable death.”2 Stephens, in his valuable “Thesaurus,” quotes from a Jewish work: “These they called aionios, hearing that they had performed the sacred rites for three entire generations.” 3 This shows conclusively that the expression “three generations” was then one full equivalent of aionian. Now, these eminent scholars were Jews who wrote in Greek, and who certainly knew the meaning of the words they employed, and they give to the aeonian words the sense of indefinite duration, to be determined in any case by the scope of the subject. Had our Lord intended to inculcate the doctrine of the Pharisees, he would have used the terms by which they described it. But his word defining the duration of punishment was aionian, while their words are aidion, adialeipton, and athanaton. Instead of saying with Philo and Josephus, thanaton athanaton, deathless or immortal death; eirgmon aidion, eternal imprisonment; aidion timorion, eternal torment; and thanaton ateleuteton, interminable death, he used aionion kolasin, an adjective in universal use for limited duration, and a noun denoting suffering issuing in amendment. The word by which our Lord describes punishment is the word kolasin, which is thus defined: “Chastisement, punishment.” “The trimming of the luxuriant branches of a tree or vine to improve it and make it fruitful.” “The act of clipping or pruning–restriction, restraint, reproof, check, chastisement.” “The kind of punishment which tends to the improvement of the criminal is what the Greek philosopher called kolasis or chastisement.” “Pruning, checking, punishment, chastisement, correction.” “Do we want to know what was uppermost in the minds of those who formed the word for punishment? The Latin poena or punio, to punish, the root pu in Sanscrit, which means to cleanse, to purify, tells us that the Latin derivation was originally formed, not to express mere striking or torture, but cleansing. correcting, delivering from the stain of sin.” 4 That it had this meaning in Greek usage, see Plato: “For the natural or accidental evils of others no one gets angry, or admonishes, or teaches, or punishes (kolazei) them, but we pity those afflicted with such misfortune * * * for if, O Socrates, if you will consider what is the design of punishing (kolazein) the wicked, this of itself will show you that men think virtue something that may be acquired; for no one punishes (kolazei) the wicked,
looking to the past only simply for the wrong he has done–that is, no one does this thing who does not act like a wild beast; desiring only revenge, without thought. Hence, he who seeks to punish (kolazein) with reason does not punish for the sake of the past wrong deed, * * * but for the sake of the future, that neither the man himself who is punished may do wrong again, nor any other who has seen him chastised. And he who entertains this thought must believe that virtue may be taught, and he punishes (kolazei) for the purpose of deterring from wickedness?” 5
Use of Gehenna.
So of the place of punishment (gehenna) the Jews at the time of Christ never understood it to denote endless punishment. The reader of Farrar’s “Mercy and Judgment,” and “Eternal Hope,” and Windet’s “De Vita functorum statu,” will find any number of statements from the Talmudic and other Jewish authorities, affirming in the most explicit language that Gehenna was understood by the people to whom our Lord addressed the word as a place or condition of temporary duration. They employed such terms as these “The wicked shall be judged in Gehenna until the righteous say concerning them, ‘We have seen enough.'”5 “Gehenna is nothing but a day in which the impious will be burned.” “After the last judgment Gehenna exists no longer.” “There will hereafter be no Gehenna.”6 These quotations might be multiplied indefinitely to demonstrate that the Jews to whom our Lord spoke regarded Gehenna as of limited duration, as did the Christian Fathers. Origen in his reply to Celsus (VI, xxv) gives an exposition of Gehenna, explaining its usage in his day. He says it is an analogue of the well-known valley of the Son of Hinnom, and signifies the fire of purification. Now observe: Christ carefully avoided the words in which his auditors expressed endless punishment (aidios, timoria and adialeiptos), and used terms they did not use with that meaning (aionios kolasis), and employed the term which by universal consent among the Jews has no such meaning (Gehenna); and as his immediate followers and the earliest of the Fathers pursued exactly the same course, is it not demonstrated that they intended to be understood as he was understood?7
Professor Plumptre in a letter concerning Canon Farrar’s sermons, says: “There were two words which the Evangelists might have used–kolasis, timoria. Of these, the first carries with it, by the definition of the greatest of Greek ethical writers, the idea of a reformatory process, (Aristotle, Rhet. I, x, 10-17). It is inflicted ‘for the sake of him who suffers it.’ The second, on the other hand, describes a penalty purely vindictive or retributive. St. Matthew chose–if we believe that our Lord spoke Greek, he himself chose–the former word, and not the latter.”
All the evidence conclusively shows that the terms defining punishment–“everlasting,” “eternal,” “Gehenna,” etc., in the Scriptures teach its limited duration, and were so regarded by sacred and profane authors, and that those outside of the Bible who taught unending torment always employed other words than those used by or Lord and his disciples.
Professor Allen concedes that the great prominence given to “hell-fire” in Christian preaching is a modern innovation. He says: “There is more ‘blood-theology’ and ‘hell-fire,’ that is, the vivid setting-forth of everlasting torment to terrify the soul, in one sermon of Jonathan Edwards, or one harangue at a modern ‘revival,’ than can be found in the whole body of homilies and epistles through all the dark ages put together. * * * Set beside more modern dispensations the Catholic position of this period (middle ages) is surprisingly merciful and mild.”3
Whence Came the Doctrine?
Of Heathen Origin.
When we ask the question: Where did those in the primitive Christian church who taught endless punishment find it, if not in the Bible?–we are met by these facts:–1. The New Testament was not in existence, as the canon had not been arranged. 2. The Old Testament did not contain the doctrine. 3. The Pagan and Jewish religions, the latter corrupted by heathen accretions, taught it (Hagenbach, I, First Period; Clark’s Foreign Theol. Lib. I, new series.) Westcott tells us: “The written Gospel of the first period of the apostolic age was the Old Testament, interpreted by the vivid recollection of the Savior’s ministry. * * * The knowledge of the teachings of Christ * * * to the close of the Second Century, were generally derived from tradition, and not from writings. The Old Testament was still the great store-house from which Christian teachers derived the sources of consolation and conviction.” 9 Hence the false ideas must have been brought by converts from Judaism or Paganism. The immediate followers of our Lord’s apostles do not explicitly treat matters of eschatology. It was the age of apologetics and not of polemics.10 The new revelation of the Divine Fatherhood through the Son occupied the chief attention of Christians, and the efforts seem to have been almost exclusively devoted to establish the truth of the Incarnation, “God in Christ reconciling the world unto himself.” We may reasonably conclude that if this great truth had been kept constantly in the foreground, uncorrupted by pagan error and human invention, there would have been none of those false conceptions of God that gave rise to the horrors of medieval times,–and no occasion in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries for the renascence of original Christianity in the form of Universalism. The first Christians, however, naturally brought heathen increments into their new faith, so that very early the doctrine of the annihilation of the wicked, or their endless torment, began to be avowed. Here and there these doctrines appeared from the very first, but the early writers generally either state the great truths that legitimately result in universal good, or in unmistakable terms avow the doctrine as a revealed truth of the Christian Scriptures. “Numbers flocked into the church who brought their heathen ways with them.” (Third Century, “Neoplatonism,” by C. Bigg, D.D., London: 1895, p. 160.)
At first Christianity was as a bit of leaven buried in foreign elements, modifying and being modified. The early Christians had individual opinions and idiosyncrasies, which at first their new faith did not eradicate; they still retained some of their former errors. This accounts for their different views of the future world. At the time of our Lord’s advent Judaism had been greatly corrupted. During the captivity 11 Chaldæan, Persian and Egyptian doctrines, and other oriental ideas had tinged the Mosaic religion, and in Alexandria, especially, there was a great mixture of borrowed opinions and systems of faith, it being supposed that no one form alone was complete and sufficient, but that each system possessed a portion of the perfect truth. “The prevailing tone of mind was eclectic,” and Christianity did not escape the influence.
The Apocryphal Book of Enoch.
More than a century before the birth of Christ 12 appeared the apocryphal Book of Enoch, which contains, so far as is known, the earliest statement extant of the doctrine of endless punishment in any work of Jewish origin. It became very popular during the early Christian centuries, and modified, it may be safely supposed, the views of Tatian, Minucius Felix, Tertullian, and their followers. It is referred to or quoted from by Barnabas, Justin, Clement of Alexandria, Irenæus, Origen, Tertullian, Eusebius, Jerome, Hilary, Epiphanius, Augustine, and others. Jude quotes from it in verses 14 and 15, and refers to it in verse 6, on which account some of the fathers considered Jude apocryphal; but it is probable that Jude quotes Enoch as Paul quotes the heathen poets, not to endorse its doctrine, but to illustrate a point, as writers nowadays quote fables and legends. Cave, in the “Lives of the Fathers,” attributes the prevalence of the doctrine of fallen angels to a perversion of the account (Gen. vi: 1-4) of “the sons of God and the daughters of men.” He refers the prevalence of the doctrine to “the authority of the ‘Book of Enoch,’ (highly valued by many in those days) wherein this story is related, as appears from the fragments of it still extant.” The entire work is now accessible through modern discovery.
A little later than Enoch appeared the Book of Ezra, advocating the same doctrine. These two books were popular among the Jews before the time of Christ, and it is supposed, as the Old Testament is silent on the subject, that the corrupt traditions of the Pharisees, of which our Lord warned his disciples to beware, 13 were obtained in part from these books, or from the Egyptian and Pagan sources whence they were derived. At any rate, though the Old Testament does not contain the doctrine, 14 Josephus, as has been seen, assures us that the Pharisees of his time accepted and taught it. Of course they must have obtained the doctrine from uninspired sources. As these and possibly other similar books had already corrupted the faith of the Jews, they seem later to have infused their virus into the faith of some of the early Christians. Nothing is better established in history than that the doctrine of endless punishment, as held by the Christian church in medieval times, was of Egyptian origin, 15 and that for purposes of state it and its accessories were adopted by the Greeks and Romans. Montesquieu states that “Romulus, Tatius and Numa enslaved the gods to politics,” and made religion for the state.
Catholic Hell Copied from Heathen Sources.
Classic scholars know that the heathen hell was early copied by the Catholic church, and that almost its entire details afterwards entered into the creeds of Catholic and Protestant churches up to a century ago. Any reader may see this who will consult Pagan literature 16 and writers on the opinions of the ancients. And not only this, but the heathen writers declare that the doctrine was invented to awe and control the multitude. Polybius writes: “Since the multitude is ever fickle * * * there is no other way to keep them in order but by fear of the invisible world; on which account our ancestors seem to me to have acted judiciously, when they contrived to bring into the popular belief these notions of the gods and of the infernal regions.” Seneca says: “Those things which make the infernal regions terrible, the darkness, the prison, the river of flaming fire, the judgment seat, etc., are all a fable.” Livy declares that Numa invented the doctrine, “a most efficacious means of governing an ignorant and barbarous populace.” Strabo writes: “The multitude are restrained from vice by the punishments the gods are said to inflict upon offenders, * * * for it is impossible to govern the crowd of women and all the common rabble by philosophical reasoning: these things the legislators used as scarecrows to terrify the childish multitude.” Similar language is found in Dionysius Halicarnassus, Plato, and other writers. History records nothing more distinctly than that the Greek and Roman Pagans borrowed of the Egyptians, and that some of the early Christians unconsciously absorbed, or studiously appropriated, the doctrines of the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans concerning post-mortem punishment, and gradually corrupted the “simplicity that is in Christ” 17 by the inventions of antiquity, as from the same sources the Jews at the time of Christ had already corrupted their religion. 18 What more natural than that the small reservoir of Christian truth should be contaminated by the opinions that converts from all these sources brought with them into their new religion at first, and later that the Roman Catholicpriests and Pagan legislators should seize them as engines of power by which to control the world?
Coquerel describes the effect of the irruption of Pagans into the early Christian church: “The, at first, gradual entrance and soon rapid irruption of an idolatrous multitude into the bosom of Christianity was not effected without detriment to the truth. The Christianity of Jesus was too lofty, too pure, for this multitude escaped from the degrading cults of Olympus. The Pagans were not able to enter en masse into the church without bringing to it their habits, their tastes, and some of their ideas.”19 Milman and Neander think20 that old Jewish prejudices could not be extirpated in the proselytes of the infant church, and that latent Judaism lurked in it and was continued into the darker ages. Chrysostom complains that the Christians of his time (the Fourth Century) were “half Jews.” Enfield 21 declares that converts from the schools of Pagan philosophy interwove their old errors with the simple truths of Christianity until “heathen and Christian doctrines were still more intimately blended * * * and both were almost entirely lost in the thick clouds of ignorance and barbarism which covered the earth. * * * The fathers of the church departed from the simplicity of the apostolic church and corrupted the purity of the Christian faith.” Hagenbach reminds us that 22 “There were two errors which the newborn Christianity had to guard against if it was not to lose its peculiar religious features, and disappear in one of the already existing religions: against a relapse into Judaism on the one side, and against a mixture with Paganism and speculations borrowed from it, and a mythologizing tendency on the other.” The Sibylline Oracles, advocating universal restoration; Philo, who taught annihilation, and Enoch and Ezra, who taught endless punishment, were all read by the early Christians, and no doubt exerted an influence in forming early opinions.
Early Christianity Adulterated.
The Edinburgh Review concedes that “upon a full inspection it will be seen that the corruption of Christianity was itself the effect of the vitiated state of the human mind, of which the vices of the government were the great and primary cause.” “That the Christian religion suffered much from the influence of the Gentile philosophy is unquestionable.”23 Dr. Middleton, in a famous “Letter from Rome,” shows that from the pantheon down to heathen temples, shrines and altars were taken by the early church, and so used that Pagans could employ them as well as Christians, and retain their old superstitions and errors while professing Christianity. In other words, that much of Paganism, after the First Century or two, remained in and corrupted Christianity. Mosheim writes that “no one objected (in the Fifth Century) to Christians retaining the opinions of their Pagan ancestors;” and Tytler describes the confusion that resulted from the mixture of Pagan philosophy with the plain and simple doctrines of the
Christian religion, from which the church in its infant state “suffered in a most essential manner.” The Rev. T. B. Thayer, D. D., 24 thinks that the faith of the early Christian church “of the orthodox party was one-half Christian, one-quarter Jewish, and one-quarter Pagan; while that of the gnostic party was about one-quarter Christian and three-quarters philosophical Paganism.” The purpose of many of the fathers seems to have been to bridge the abyss between Paganism and Christianity, and, for the sake of proselytes, to tolerate Pagan doctrine. Says Merivale: In the Fifth Century, Paganism was assimilated, not extirpated, and Christendom has suffered from it more or less even since. * * * The church * * * was content to make terms with what survived of Paganism, content to lose even more than it gained in an unholy alliance with superstition and idolatry; enticing, no doubt, many of the vulgar, and some even of the more intelligent, to a nominal acceptance of the Christian faith, but conniving at the surrender by the great mass of its own baptized members of the highest and purest of their spiritual acquisitions.” 25 It is difficult to learn just how much surrounding influences affected ancient or modern Christians, for, as Schaff says (Hist. Apos. Ch. p. 23): “The theological views of the Greek Fathers were modified to a considerable extent by Platonism; those of the medieval schoolmen, by the logic and dialectics of Aristotle; those of the latter times by the system of Descartes, Spinoza, Bacon, Locke, Leibnitz, Kant, Fries, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel. Few scientific divines can absolutely emancipate themselves from the influence of the philosophy and public opinion of their age, and when they do they have commonly their own philosophy, etc.”
Original Greek New Testament.
That the Old Testament does not teach even post-mortem punishment is universally conceded by scholars, as has been seen; and that the Egyptians, and Greek and Roman Pagans did, is shown already. That the doctrine was early in the Christian church, is equally evident. As the early Christians did not obtain it from the Old Testament, which does not contain it, and as it was already a Pagan doctrine, where could they have procured it except from heathen sources? And as Universalism was nowhere taught, and as the first Universalist Christians after the apostles were Greeks, perfectly familiar with the language of the New Testament, where else could they have found their faith than where they declare they found it, in the New Testament? How can it be supposed that the Latins were correct in claiming that the Greek Scriptures teach a doctrine that the Greeks themselves did not find therein? And how can the Greek fathers in the primitive church mistake when they understand our Lord and his apostles to teach universal restoration? “It may be well to note here, that after the third century the descent of the church into errors of doctrine and practice grew more rapid. The worship of Jesus, of Mary, of saints, or relics, etc., followed each other. Mary was called ‘the Mother of God,’ ‘the Queen of Heaven.’ As God began to be represented more stern, implacable, cruel, the peopleworshiped Jesus to induce him to placate his Father’s wrath; and then as the Son was held up as the severe judge of sinners and the executioner of the Father’s vengeance, men prayed Mary to mollify the anger of her God-child; and when she became unfeeling or lacked influence, they turned to Joseph and other saints, and to martyrs, to intercede with their cold, implacable superiors. Thus theology became more hard and merciless–hell was intensified, and enlarged, and eternized–heaven shrunk, and receded, and lost its compassion–woman (despite the deification of Mary) was regarded as weak and despicable–the Agape were abolished and the Eucharist deified, and its cup withheld from the people–and woman deemed too impure to touch it! As among the heathen Romans, faith and reverence decreased as their gods were multiplied, so here, as objects of worship were increased, familiarity bred only sensuality, and sensuous worship drove out virtue and veneration, until, in the language of Mrs. Jameson’s “Legends of the Madonna,” (Int. p. xxxi): One of the frescoes in the Vatican represents Giulia Farnese (a noted impure woman and mistress of the pope!) in the character of the Madonna, and Pope Alexander VI. (the drunken, unchaste, beastly!) kneeling at her feet in the character of a votary! Under the influence of the Medici, the churches of Florence were filled with pictures of the Virgin in which the only thing aimed at was a meretricious beauty. Savonarola thundered from his pulpit in the garden of S. Marco against these impieties.” 26
1 See my “Aion-Aionious,” pp. 109-14; also Josephus, “Antiq.” and “Jewish Wars.”
2 “De Præmiis” and “Poenis” Tom. II, pp. 19-20. Mangey’s edition. Dollinger quoted by Beecher. Philo was learned in Greek philosophy, and especially reverenced Plato. His use of Greek is of the highest authority.
3 “Solom. Parab.”
4 Donnegan, Grotius, Liddel, Max Muller, Beecher, Hist. Doc. Fut. Ret. pp. 73-75.
5 The important passage may be found more fully quoted in “Aion-Aionios.”
6 Targum of Jonathan on Isaiah, xvi: 24. See also “Aion-Aionious” and “Bible Hell.”
7 Farrar’s “Mercy and Judgment.” pp. 380-381, where quotations are given from the Fourth Century, asserting that punishment must be limited because aionian correction (aionian kolasin), as in Matt. xxv: 46, must be terminable.
8 “Christian Hist. in its Three Great Periods.” pp. 257-8.
9 Introduction to Gospels. p. 181
10 The opinions of the Jews were modified at first by the captivity in Egypt fifteen centuries before Christ, and later by the Babylonian captivity, ending four hundred years before Christ, so that many of them, the Pharisees especially, no longer held the simple doctrines of Moses.
11 Robertson’s History of the Christian Church, vol. 1. pp. 38-39.
12 The Book of Enoch, translated from the Ethiopian, with Introduction and Notes. By Rev. George H. Schodde.
13 Mark vii: 13; Matthew xvi: 6, 12; Luke xxi, 1; Mark viii, 15.
14 Milman Hist. Jews; Warburton’s Divine Legation; Jahn, Archaeology.
15 Warburton. Leland’s Necessity of Divine Revelation.
16 Virgil’s æneid. Apollodorus, Hesiod, Herodotus, Plutarch, Diodorus Siculus, etc.
17 II Cor. xi: 3.
18 Milman’s Gibbon, Murdock’s Mosheim, Enfield’s Hist. Philos., Universalist Expositor, 1853.
19 Coquerel’s First Historical Transformations of Christianity.
20 See Conybeare’s “Paul,” Vol. I, Chapters 14,15.
21 See also Priestley’s “Corruptions of Christianity.”
22 Hist. Doct. I Sec. 22.
23 Vaughan’s Causes of the Corruption of Christianity; also Casaubon and Blunt’s “Vestiges.”
24 Hist. Doct. Endelss Punishment, pp. 192-193.
25 Early Church History, pp. 159-160.
26 Universalist Quartarly, January 1883.
Doctrines of “Mitigation” and of “Reserve.”
There was no controversy among Christians over the duration of the punishment of the wicked for at least three hundred years after the death of Christ. Scriptural terms were used with their Scriptural meanings, and while it is not probable that universal restoration was polemically or dogmatically announced, it is equally probable that the endless duration of punishment was not taught until the heathen corruptions had adulterated Christian truth. God’s fatherhood and boundless love, and the work of Christ in man’s behalf were dwelt upon, accompanied by the announcement of the fearful consequences of sin; but when those consequences, through Pagan influences, came to be regarded as endless in duration, then the antidotal truth of universal salvation assumed prominence through Clement, Origen, and other Alexandrine fathers. Even when some of the early Christians had so far been overcome by heathen error as to accept the dogma of endless torment for the wicked, they had no hard words for those who believed in universal restoration, and did not even controvert their views. The doctrines of Prayer for the Dead, and of Christ Preaching to those in Hades, and of Mitigation, were humane teachings of the primitive Christians that were subsequently discarded.
The doctrine of Mitigation was, that for some good deed on earth, the damned in hell would occasionally be let out on a respite or furlough, and have surcease of torment. This doctrine of mitigation was quite general among the fathers when they came to advocate the Pagan dogma. In fact, endless punishment in all its enormity, destitute of all benevolent features, was not fully developed until Protestantism was born, and prayers for the dead, mitigation of the condition of the “lost,” and other softening features were repudiated.1
It was taught that the worst sinners–Judas himself, even–had furloughs from hell for good deeds done on Earth. Matthew Arnold embodies one of the legends in his poem of St. Brandon. The saint once met, on an iceberg on the ocean, the soul of Judas Iscariot, released from hell for awhile, who explains his respite. He had once given a cloak to a leper in Joppa, and so he says–
“Once every year, when carols wake
On earth the Christmas night’s repose,
Arising from the sinner’s lake’
I journey to these healing snows.
“I stand with ice my burning breast,
With silence calm by burning brain;
O Brandon, to this hour of rest,
That Joppan leper’s ease was pain.”
It remained for Protestantism to discard all the softening features that Catholicism had added to the bequest of heathenism into Christianity, and to give the world the unmitigated horror that Protestantism taught from the Sixteenth to the Nineteenth Century.
The Doctrine of “Reserve.”
We cannot read the patristic literature understandingly unless we constantly bear in mind the early fathers’ doctrine of “O Economy,” or “Reserve.”2 Plato distinctly taught it,3 and says that error may be used as a medicine. He justifies the use of the “medicinal lie.” The resort of the early fathers to the esoteric is no doubt derived from Plato. Origen almost quotes him when he says that sometimes fictitious threats are necessary to secure obedience, as when Solon had purposely given imperfect laws. Many, in and out of the church, held that the wise possessor of truth might hold it in secret. when its impartation to the ignorant would seem to be fraught with danger, and that error might be properly substituted. The object was to save “Christians of the simpler sort” from waters too deep for them. It is possible to defend the practice if it be taken to represent the method of a skillfulteacher, who will not confuse the learner with principles beyond his comprehension. 4 Gieseler remarks that “the Alexandrians regarded a certain accommodation as necessary, which ventures to make use even of falsehood for the attainment of a good end; nay, which was even obliged to do so.” Neander declares that “the Orientals, according to their theology of oeconomy, allowed themselves many liberties not to be reconciled with the strict laws of veracity.” 5
Some of the fathers who had achieved a faith in Universalism, were influenced by the mischievous notion that it was to be held esoterically, cherished in secret, or only communicated to the chosen few,–withheld from the multitude, who would not appreciate it, and even that the opposite error would, with some sinners, be more beneficial than the truth. Clement of Alexandria admits that he does not write or speak certain truths. Origen claims that there are doctrines not to be communicated to the ignorant. Clement says: “They are not in reality liars who use circumlocution 6 because of the oeconomy of salvation.” Origen said that “all that might be said on this theme is not expedient to explain now, or to all. For the mass need no further teaching on account of those who hardly through the fear of æonian punishment restrain their recklessness.” The reader of the patristic literature sees this opinion frequently, and unquestionably it caused many to hold out threats to the multitude in order to restrain them; threats that they did not themselves believe would be executed.8
The gross and carnal interpretation given to parts of the Gospel, causing some, as Origen said, to “believe of God what would not be believed of the cruelest of mankind,” caused him to dwell upon the duty of reserve, which he does in many of his homilies. He says that he can not fully express himself on the mystery of eternal punishment in an exoteric statement.9 The reserve advocated and practiced by Origen and the Alexandrians was, says Bigg, “the screen of an esoteric belief.” Beecher reminds his readers that while it was common with Pagan philosophers to teach false doctrines to the masses with the mistaken idea that they were needful, “the fathers of the Christian church did not escape the infection of the leprosy of pious fraud;” and he quotes Neander to show that Chrysostom was guilty of it, and also Gregory Nazianzen, Athanasius, and Basil the Great. The prevalence of this fraus pia in the early centuries is well known to scholars. After saying that the Sibylline Oracles were probably forged by a gnostic, Mosheim says: “I cannot yet take upon me to acquit the most strictly orthodox from all participation in this species of criminality; for it appears from evidence superior to all exception that a pernicious maxim was current, * * * namely, that those who made it their business to deceive with a view of promoting the cause of truth, were deserving rather of commendation that censure.”
What Was Held as to Doctrine.
It seems to have been held that “faith, the foundation of Christian knowledge, was fitted only for the rude mass, the animal men, who were incapable of higher things. Far above these were the privileged natures, the men of intellect, or spiritual men, whose vocation was not to believe but to know.”10
The ecclesiastical historians class as esoteric believers, Chrysostom and Gregory Nazianzen; and Beecher names Athanasius and Basil the Great as in the same category; and Beecher remarks: “We cannot fully understand such a proclamation of future endless punishment as has been described, while it was not believed, until we consider the influence of Plato on the age. * * * Socrates is introduced as saying in Grote’s Plato: ‘It is indispensable that this fiction should be circulated and accredited as the fundamental, consecrated, unquestioned creed of the whole city, from which the feeling of harmony and brotherhood among the citizens springs.” Such principles, as a leprosy, had corrupted the whole community, and especially the leaders. In the Roman Empire pagan magistrates and priests appealed to retribution in Tartarus, of which they had no belief, to affect the masses. This does not excuse, but it explains the preaching of eternal punishment by men who did not believe it. They dared not entrust the truth to the masses, and so held it in reserve–to deter men from sin.”
General as was the confession of a belief in universal salvation in the church’s first and best three centuries, there is ample reason the believe that it was the secret belief of more than gave expression to it, and that many a one who proclaimed a partial salvation, in his secret “heart of heart” agreed with the greatest of the church’s fathers during the first four hundred years of our era, that Christ would achieve a universal triumph, and that God would ultimately reign in all hearts.
Modern Theologians Equivocal.
There can be no doubt that many of the fathers threatened severer penalties than they believed would be visited on sinners, impelled to utter them because they considered them to be more salutary with the masses than the truth itself. So that we may believe that some of the patristic writers who seem to teach endless punishment did not believe it. Others, we know, who accepted universal restoration employed, for the sake of deterring sinners, threats that are inconsistent, literally interpreted, with that doctrine. This disposition to conceal the truth has actuated many a modern theologian. In Sermon XXXV, on the eternity of hell torments, Arch-bishop Tillotson, while he argues for the endless duration of punishment, suggests that the Judge has the right to omit inflicting it if he shall see it inconsistent with righteousness or goodness to make sinners miserable forever, and Burnet urges: “Whatever your opinion is within yourself, and in your breast, concerning these punishments, whether they are eternal or not, yet always with the people, and when you preach to the people, use the received doctrine and the received words in the sense in which the people receive them.” It is certainly allowable to think that many an ancient timid teacher discovered the truth without daring to entrust it to the mass of mankind.
Even Lying Defended.
Theophilus of Alexandria proposed making Synesius of Cyrene, bishop. The latter said: “The philosophical intelligence, in short, while it beholds the truth, admits the necessity of lying. Light corresponds to truth, but the eye is dull of vision; it can not without injury gaze on the infinite light. As twilight is more comfortable for the eye, so, I hold, is falsehood for the common run of people. The truth can only be harmful for those who are unable to gaze on the reality. If the laws of the priesthood permit me to hold this position, then I can accept consecration, keeping my philosophy to myself at home, and preaching fables out of doors.”11
1 Christian History in Three Great Periods. pp. 257,8.
2 Bigg’s Platonists of Alexandria. p. 58.
3 Grote’s Plato, Vol. III, xxxii. pp. 56, 7.
4 J.H. Newman, Arians; Apologia Pro Vita Sua
5 Allin, Univ. Asserted, shows at length the prevalence of the doctrine of “reserve” among the early Christians.
7 Against Celsus I, vii; and on Romans ii.
8 “St. Basil distinguishes in Christianity between what is openly proclaimed and which are kept secret.” Max Muller, Theosophy of Psychology, Lect. xiv.
9 Ag. Cels. De Prin.
10 Dean Mansell’s Gnostic Heresies of the First and Second Centuries. Introduction, p. 10.
11 Neoplatonism, by C. Bigg, D.D. London: 1895, p. 339.
Two Kindred Topics.
Gospel Preached to the Dead.
The early Christian church almost, if not quite, universally believed that Christ made proclamation of the Gospel to the dead in Hades. Says Huidekoper: “In the Second and Third Centuries every branch and division of Christians believed that Christ preached to the departed.” 1 Dietelmaier declares2 this doctrine was believed by all Christians. Of course, if souls were placed where their doom was irretrievable salvation would not be offered to them; whence it follows that the early Christians believed in post-mortem probation. Allin says that “some writers teach that the apostles also preached in Hades. Some say that the Blessed Virgin did the same. Some even say that Simeon went before Christ to Hades.” All these testimonies go to show that the earliest of the fathers did not regard the grave as the dead-line which the love of God could not cross, but that the door of mercy is open hereafter as here. “The platonic doctrine of a separate state, where the spirits of the departed are purified, and on which the later doctrine of purgatory was founded, was approved by all the expositors of Christianity who were of the Alexandrian school, as was the custom of performing religious services at the tombs of the dead. Nor was there much difference between them and Tertullian in these particulars.”
In the early ages of the church great stress was laid on I Pet. iii. 19: “He (Christ) went and preached unto the spirits in prison.” That this doctrine was prevalent as late as Augustine’s day is evident from the fact that the doctrine is anathemitised in his list of heresies–number 79. And even as late as the Ninth Century it was condemned by Pope Boniface VI. It was believed that our Lord not only proclaimed the Gospel to all the dead but that he liberated them all. How could it be possible for a Christian to entertain the thought that all the wicked who died before the advent of our Lord were released from bondage, and that any who died after his advent would suffer endless woe? Eusebius says: “Christ, caring for the salvation of all * * * opened a way of return to life for the dead bound in the chains of death.” Athanasius: “The devil * * * cast out of Hades, sees all the fettered beings led forth by the courage of the Savior.” 3 Origen on I Kings, xxviii:32: “Jesus descended into Hades, and the prophets before him, and they proclaimed beforehand the coming of Christ.” Didymus observes “In the liberation of all no one remains a captive; at the time of the Lord’s passion he alone (Satan) was injured, who lost all the captives he was keeping.” Cyril of Alexandria: “And wandering down even to Hades he has emptied the dark, secret, invisible treasures.” Gregory of Nazianzus: “Until Christ loosed by his blood all who groaned under Tartarian chains.” Jerome on Jonah ii: 6: “Our Lord was shut up in æonian bars in order that he might set free all who had been shut up.”
Such passages might be multiplied, demonstrating that the early church regarded the conquest by Christ of the departed as universal. He set free from bonds all the dead in Hades. If the primitive Christians believed that all the wicked of all the æons preceding the death of Christ were released, how can we suppose them to have regarded the wicked subsequent to his death as destined to suffer interminable torments? Clement of Alexandria is explicit in declaring that the Gospel was preached to all, both Jews and Gentiles, in Hades;–that “the sole cause of the Lord’s descent to the underworld was to preach the gospel.” (Strom. VI.) Origen says: “Not only while Jesus was in the body did he win over not a few only, * * * but when he became a soul, without the covering of the body, he dwelt among those souls (in Hades) which were without bodily covering, converting such of them as were fit for it.”
The Gospel of Nicodemus.
About a century after the death of John appeared the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, valuable as setting forth current eschatology. It describes the effect of Christ’s preaching in Hades: “When Jesus arrived in Hades, the gates burst open, and taking Adam by the hand Jesus said, “Come all with me, as many as have died through the tree which he touched, for behold I raise you all up through the tree of the cross.'” This book shows conclusively that the Christians of that date did not regard æonian punishment as interminable, inasmuch as those who had been sentenced to that condition were released. “If Christ preached to dead men who were once disobedient, then Scripture shows us that the moment of death does not necessarily involve a final and hopeless torment for every sinful soul. Of all the blunt weapons of ignorant controversy employed against those to whom has been revealed the possibility of a larger hope than is left to mankind by Augustine or by Calvin, the bluntest is the charge that such a hope renders null the necessity for the work of Christ. * * * We thus rescue the work of redemption from the appearance of having failed to achieve its end for the vast majority of those for whom Christ died. * * * In these passages, as has been truly said, ‘we may see an expansive paraphrase and exuberant variation of the original Pauline theme of the universalism of the evangelic embassage of Christ, and of his sovereignty over the world;’ and especially of the passage in the Philippians (ii. 9-11) where all they that are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, are enumerated as classes of the subjects of the exalted Redeemer.” 5And Alford observes: “The inference every intelligent reader will draw from the fact here announced: it is not purgatory; it is not universal restitution; but it is one which throws blessed light on one of the darkest enigmas of divine justice.” Timotheus II., patriarch of the Nestorians, wrote that “by the prayers of the saints the souls of sinners may pass from Gehenna to Paradise,” (Asseman. IV. p. 344). See Prof. Plumptre’s “Spirits in Prison,” p. 141; Dict. Christ. Biog. Art. Eschatology, etc. Says Uhlhorn (Book I, ch. iii): “For deceased persons their relatives brought gifts on the anniversary of their death, a beautiful custom which vividly exhibited the connection between the church above and the church below.”
“One fact stands out very clearly from the passages of patristic literature, viz.: that all sects and divisions of the Christians in the second and third centuries united in the belief that Christ went down into Hades, or the Underworld, after his death on the cross, and remained there until his resurrection. Of course it was natural that the question should come up, What did he do there? As he came down from earth to preach the Gospel to, and save, the living, it was easy to infer that he went down into Hades to preach the same glad tidings there, and show the way of salvation to those who had died before his advent.” 6
Prayers for the Dead.
It need not here be claimed that the doctrine that Christ literally preached to the dead in Hades is true, or that such is the teaching of I. Pet. iii: 19, but it is perfectly apparent that if the primitive Christians held to the doctrine they could not have believed that the condition of the soul is fixed at death. That is comparatively a modern doctrine.
There can be no doubt that the Catholic doctrine of purgatory is a corruption of the Scriptural doctrine of the disciplinary character of all God’s punishments. Purgatory was never heard of in the earlier centuries.7 It is first fully stated by Pope Gregory the First, ‘its inventor,’ at the close of the Sixth Century, “For some light faults we must believe that there is before judgment a purgatorial fire.” This theory is a perversion of the idea held anciently, that all God’s punishments are purgative; what the Catholic regards as true of the errors of the good is just as true of the sins of the worst,– indeed, of all. The word rendered punishment in Matt. xxv: 46, (kolasin) implies all this.
Condition of the Dead not Final.
That the condition of the dead was not regarded as unalterably fixed is evident from the fact that prayers for the dead were customary anciently, and that, too, before the doctrine of purgatory was formulated. The living believed–and so should we believe–that the dead have migrated to another country, where the good offices of supervisors on earth avail. Perpetua begged for the help of her brother, child of a Pagan father, who had died unbaptized. In Tertullian the widow prays for the soul of her departed husband. Repentance by the dead is conceded by Clement, and the prayers of the good on earth help them.
The dogma of the purificatory character of future punishment did not degenerate into the doctrine of punishment for believers only, until the Fourth Century; nor did that error crystallize into the Catholic purgatory until later. Hagenbach says: “Comparing Gregory’s doctrine with the earlier, and more spiritual notions concerning the efficacy of the purifying fire of the intermediate state, we may adopt the statement of Schmidt that the belief in a lasting desire of perfection, which death itself cannot quench, degenerated into a belief in purgatory.”
Plumtre (“Spirits in Prison,” London, p. 25) has a valuable statement: “In every form; from the solemn liturgies which embodied the belief of her profoundest thinkers and truest worshippers, to the simple words of hope and love which were traced over the graves of the poor, her voice (the church of the first ages) went up without a doubt or misgiving, in prayers for the souls of the departed;” showing that they could not have regarded their condition as unalterably fixed at death. Prof. Plumptre quotes from Lee’s “Christian Doctrine of Prayer for the Departed,” to show the early Christians’ belief that intercessions for the dead would be of avail to them. Even Augustine accepted the doctrine. He prayed after his mother’s death, that her sins might be forgiven, and that his father might also receive pardon. (“Confessions,” ix, 13.)8
The Platonic doctrine of a separate state where the spirits of the departed are purified, and on which the later doctrine of purgatory was founded, was approved by all the expositors of Christianity who were of the Alexandrian school, as was the custom of performing religious services at the tombs of the dead. Uhlhorn gives similar testimony: “For deceased persons their relatives brought gifts on the anniversary of their death, a beautiful custom, which vividly exhibited the connection between the church above and the church below.” Origen’s tenet of Catharsis of Purification was absorbed by the growing belief in purgatory. 9
Let the reader reflect, (1) that the Primitive Christians so distrusted the effect of the truth on the popular mind that they withheld it, and only cherished it esoterically, and held up terrors for effect, in which they had no faith; (2) that they prayed for the wicked dead that they might be released from suffering; (3) that they universally held that Christ preached the Gospel to sinners in Hades; (4) that the earliest creeds are entirely silent as to the idea that the wicked dead were in irretrievable and endless torment; (5) that the terms used by some who are accused of teaching endless torment were precisely those employed by those acknowledged to have been Universalists; (6) that the first Christians were the happiest of people and infused a wonderful cheerfulness into a world of sorrow and gloom; (7) that there is not a shade of darkness nor a note of despair in any one of the thousands of epitaphs in the Catacombs; (8) that the doctrine of universal redemption was first made prominent by those to whom Greek was their native tongue, and that they declared that they derived it from the Greek Scriptures, while endless punishment was first taught by Africans and Latins, who derived it from a foreign tongue of which the great teacher of it confesses he was ignorant. (See ” Augustine” later on.) Let the reader give to these considerations their full and proper weight, and it will be impossible to believe that the fathers regarded the impenitent as consigned at death to hopeless and endless woe.
Note.–After giving the emphatic language of Clement and Origen and other ancient Christians declarative of universal holiness, Dr. Bigg, in his valuable book, “The Christian Platonists of Alexandria,” frequently quoted in these pages, remarks (pp. 292-3): “Neither Clement not Origen is, properly speaking, a Universalist. Nor is Universalism the logical result of their principles.” The reasons he gives are two: (1) They believed in the freedom of the will; and (2) they did not deny the eternity of punishment, because the soul that has sinned beyond a certain point can never become what it might have been!
To which it is only necessary to say (1) that Universalists generally accept the freedom of the will, and (2) no soul that has sinned, as all have sinned, can ever become what it might have been, so the Dr. Bigg’s premises would necessitate Universalism, but universal condemnation!
And, as if to contradict his own words, Dr. Bigg adds in the very next paragraph: “The hope of a general restitution of all souls through suffering to purity and blessedness, lingered on in the East for some time;” and the last words in his book are these: “It is the teaching of St. Paul,–Then cometh the end, when he shall have delivered up the Kingdom to God, even the Father. Then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all.” And these are the last words of his last note: “At the end all will be one because the Father’s will is all in all and all in each. Each will fill the place which the mystery of the economy assigns to him.”
It would be interesting to learn what sort of monstrosity Dr. Bigg has constructed, and labeled with the word which he declares could not be applied to Clement and Origen.
1 An excellent resume of the opinions of the fathers on Christ’s descent into Hades, and preaching the gospel to the dead, is Huidekoper’s “The Belief of the First Three Centuries Concerning Christ’s Mission to the Underworld;” also Huidekoper’s “Indirect Testimony to the Gospels;” also Dean Plumptre’s “Spirits in Prison.” London: 1884.
2 Historia Dogmatis do Descensu Christi ad Inferos. J. A. Dietelmaier.
3 De Passione et Cruce Domin. Migne, XXVIII, 186-240.
4 Carm. XXXV, v. 9
5 Farrar’s “Early Days of Christianity.” ch. vii.
6 Universalist Quarterly.
7 Archs. Usher and Wake, quoted by Farrar, “Mercy and Judgment.”
8 That these ideas were general in the primitive church, see Nitzsch, “Christian Doctrine,” Sec. III; Dorner, “System of Christian Doctrine,” Vol. IV (Eschatology). Also Vaughan’s “Causes of the Corruption of Christianity,” p. 319.
9 “Neoplatonism,” by C. Bigg, p. 334.