We have arrived, by our previous discussions, at the result that the early fathers so understood the words of Christ in the sentence of the day of judgment, that they were free to adopt different views as to the duration of the sufferings of the wicked. By this the way has been prepared to take a preliminary view of the state of thought and feeling on future retributions in the centuries before the age of Justinian, in the sixth century. Then, for the first time, the doctrine of future restoration was condemned by a council, not ecumenical, but local. This too, was more the arbitrary act of Justinian than the result of any free movement of the intellectual leaders of the Church.

Such A View Indispensable.

To any intelligent understanding of the history of opinion on this subject, a clear understanding of the state of feeling among the leaders of the churches in those ages is indispensable. As every painting must have a background and a ground-color as indispensable to set forth the leading figures to be represented, so in an historical painting of past ages there is the same necessity. There must be an historical background and ground-color, or the actors of history cannot be truly presented or seen.

There is a constant and powerful tendency to carry the feelings and opinions of this age back to the early ages. The whole evangelical Church is now sensitive on the subject of eternal punishment, especially in America. It was the influence of the American clergy that induced the Evangelical Alliance to introduce a belief in eternal punishment into their creed, when otherwise it would have been omitted. In this country elaborate controversial works have been written on it by Chauncey and the second Edwards, and their successors. Aionios has been profoundly discussed by the aid of the concordance and dictionaries. Public debates have been held, and the whole community aroused and filled with intense emotion. The weight of the creeds of recent ages rests upon the churches. 

There is a constant tendency to carry back this state of things to the early ages. Such statements as are made by Hagenbach, whom Prof. Shedd has followed, do not correct the illusion, but rather favor it. But a greater falsehood in history is not possible than is involved in transferring the feelings and views of the orthodox bodies of this age back to those early centuries.

The Great Facts.

The great facts of the case were these: There was a universal agreement that, on the final coming of Christ, there would be retributions to the good and to the bad in the world to come. They also held that the punishment of the wicked would be so fearful as to furnish most powerful motives to accept the great salvation presented by Christ.

But as to the nature and duration of the punishment of the wicked there was no established and united opinion, and every man thought, and investigated, and spoke, with the utmost freedom, and different persons arrived at different results. Some taught the ultimate annihilation of the wicked; others their ultimate restoration after a long and severe remedial punishment; others taught the endless punishment of the wicked. As to the numerical proportion of the advocates of these opinions we will speak at another time. The men who arrived at these different results were eminent Christians, as in the case of such men as Iranaeus, Tertullian, and Origen. Nor was any penalty of public censure visited on them for their different views. Moreover, they were not assailed by elaborate controversial attacks, such as have been common in our age. On the other hand, they held and promulgated their peculiar views unquestioned and uncensured [sic].

Reasons of These Facts

It is not hard to discover the reasons of this state of things, and, as these reasons will act as proofs of its existence, we will state some of them:

1. In the first place, then, there were no creeds elaborately wrought out in which any doctrine as to future retribution was distinctly presented. Of this we need to attempt no proof, for no one even pretends that such creeds were in existence.

2. In the second place, there were no fathers to fall back upon whose opinions might supply the want of a creed. It is natural in every age to lean upon the writers of preceding ages. They are its fathers. The Reformers are the fathers of the Protestant churches. New England had its peculiar fathers in Edwards and others of his school. The early teachers of the Church are the fathers of subsequent ages. But who were the fathers of the Church of the first and second centuries?

3. The writings that came down from the ages before Christ, and which were extensively read, and were very influential in the early centuries, did not tend to produce any fixed and established type of doctrine, since they did not agree among themselves. Our previous exhibition of their views has made this plain. The Sibylline Oracles were extensively read and quoted, and exerted great influence, but these tended to establish the doctrine of universal restoration. Philo was very extensively read, but he taught the annihilation of the wicked. The book of Enoch was widely circulated and read, but it taught neither restoration nor annihilation, but endless punishment, based not on the fall of Adam, but of the angels. What the apocalypse of Ezra was designed to teach it is hard to say. In form, it taught future eternal punishment, based on the fall in Adam, but it filled the mind with unanswerable objections to the doctrine in that form.

4. The sentence of Christ at the day of judgment was not understood to establish any doctrine except the general doctrine that the wicked would be severely punished in the world to come. Whether this would result in annihilation, or restoration, or endless misery, in their view it did not decide. Of this we have already given much proof, and shall soon produce more.

5. So far was it from being true that there was a deep interest, and a united and decided opinion in the churches in favor of any one of these views so that they wished to insert it in a creed, that, though the subject of the reward of the righteous was in every public creed, yet till the days of Justinian the punishment of the wicked was omitted from all creeds established by general or local councils.

6. For centuries there was an intense absorption in other vital questions on which the life of the Church was dependent, and all who were agreed in these were accepted as in fellowship, whatever might be their diverse view as to the punishment of the wicked. In our war with slavery, for the life of our country, a common interest and common danger united all who were willing to fight for their country. There was a readiness to subordinate all else to a great common interest and common danger. So was it during these early ages in the Church.

That the union of so many and so powerful causes should produce the result we have set forth will seem perfectly natural and inevitable to every thinking man.

Subjects of Thought and Feeling.

But the strength of this conviction will be increased if we will consider what the subjects were that successively interested the heart and intellect of the Church. Some of these, which were of vial moment in their day, have so far receded from the view of the modern world that they have little conception what they were, or how certain errors could endanger the Church. They look upon them as we do upon the fossilized remains of the geologic ages – with a kind of incredulity as to the fact that they ever could have been alive. This is especially true with respect to the various forms of Gnostic errors.

The course of thought and interest in the early Church was this: 

1. To diffuse as widely as possible the great facts of Christianity, such as are recorded in the gospels, and were orally proclaimed by the apostles and early Christians. They did not wait for written gospels, or a completed canon, but gave all their energy to the oral proclamation and dissemination of these great facts.

2. Then came a period in which the defense of Christianity against its enemies and assailants was called for. Christianity was to be defended as a system against the assaults of Jews and pagans, and against the persecutions of the Roman power. This raised up that class of writers known as the Apologists, among whom Justin Martyr stands conspicuous as one of the earliest and most important. He wrote in the days of Marcus Antoninus, in the second century. He and his fellow-laborers in this cause were united in defending the Christians against the slanders, the arguments, and the persecution of the opponents, whether popular or imperial, for until the fourth century the power of Rome was arrayed against Christianity, and by it he suffered a martyr’s death. Hence he has ever been held in high honor, though he did teach the ultimate annihilation of the wicked.


3. Then they were called to meet a wide-spread effort to invalidate the great facts of Christianity, or to frame false systems of the universe out of them. Christ was retained in name, but the reality of his incarnation was questioned or denied on philosophical grounds. The fact that Christianity was a true development of the Old Testament was denied. By many it was asserted that the God of the Old Testament, the Creator of this world, was not the true God, but an evil spirit who had enslaved men in matter. All vulnerable points of the Old Testament were assailed, as showing the evil character of the God who made the world. Christ came, they asserted, to deliver men from his power. They framed new systems of the universe, into which they wove Christ. All this and much more they did with the assumption of a high degree of rationalism and insight. They looked into the nature of things; Christians were unintelligent believers in the letter. These were the Gnostics, i.e., the rational, intelligent, advanced party. For a long period it was necessary to encounter them and to defend Christianity against their false constructions and denials. It was during this war that the great elementary facts of Christianity were framed into the Apostles’ Creed. The great leader in this war was Irenaeus of Lyons, in the second century. He defended the great facts of Christianity, and refuted the allegations of the Gnostics, and did such service to the Church that in all ages he has been honored and revered as a saint. Yet he held to the doctrine of the annihilation of the wicked. Did it awaken odium or lead to controversy? Not at all. The Church was waging a war for the vital elements of Christianity, and in that war he was a faithful and valiant leader, and that was enough. They were absorbed in the great controversy of the age, and had no disposition to raise a controversy on other points held by men with whom they were standing shoulder to shoulder in a great conflict for the very essence of Christianity.

The Trinity and the Person of Christ.

4. Then came the development of the three persons of the Trinity, as set forth in the baptismal formula. Origen led the way in this discussion. Arius denied the supreme divinity of Christ, and a great controversy arose, which led to the first general council, called by Constantine the Great, in 325. From this point the emperor became a party and often the arbiter in doctrinal questions, and a period of bondage to the civil power begins, the malignant influences of which the world still feels. During this controversy the intellect and emotions of the Church were absorbed in it. All who were true to the orthodox side were accepted, whatever their views of future retribution. 

5. Then came the great controversies as to the person of Christ, which absorbed all minds, divided the Church, and shook the empire. The orthodox creed was promulgated and completed at Chalcedon, and fidelity to it covered all sins and all errors. Hence it is that Gregory of Nyssa, who powerfully defended it, though a decided advocate of universal restoration, escaped unscathed, and died as a saint in the odor of holiness.


Hence we can account for such great facts as these, that up to the time of Justinian no article as to future punishment was introduced into any creed, but only an article as to the life of the world to come, and that up to that date no great controversial work on future retribution had been written by any one, on any side. All that is said on the subject is said incidentally, or in hortatory and practical works. Origen’s work on the principles of theology is the nearest to an exception to this statement. But this is not written controversially, and by far the greater part of the work is occupied with other themes. But it is a striking fact that, though the positions of Origen were clearly stated, and also his reasons for them, in his own works, no one undertook a formal argumentative reply to him. What the Emperor Justinian has said about him on this point, in his letter to Mennas, has a profession and show of argument, but he makes no statement at all of the arguments of Origen, and no reply to them.

Substantially the same is true of Augustine in his “Enchiridion” and his “City of God.” He does not state the argument of Origen, or expound the texts on which he relies, or take an enlarged view of the subject. He speaks in a judicial style, and gives his opinions, but these bear no marks of profound investigation. 

It is of very great moment to understand this train of thought and feeling during the early centuries, for any effort to transfer into them the interests, the convictions, or the emotions of any of the existing parties of Christendom will, of necessity, result in an utter falsification of history.

In order truly to understand history, we must go back through the ages, dropping as we go, in succession, the controversies that grew up in later ages, until we can see clearly what Christians were, in fact, thinking about in the early ages, and what was the leading interest in every subsequent age.

The way is now prepared to consider the first effort to set forth the principles of a comprehensive theology by Origen, in which universal restoration occupied an important or rather a fundamental position.



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