By the doctrine of universal restoration, in its broadest and most generic sense, we mean the doctrine that all sinful beings will be finally restored to holiness and eternal life, and that thus the harmony and unity of the universe will be restored. It was in this broad sense that Origen held it, when he taught the future restoration, not only of all men, but also of all fallen spirits, not even excepting the devil himself.

Various Forms.

But the doctrine has been held by some as applicable to all men, without any hope as to the devil and his angels, either because they have no belief in their existence; or because, like the Persian divines in the Zend-Avesta, they believe in their annihilation; or because, if all men are saved, they are willing to vie up the evil angels to endless punishment, though this would not be very consistent with their principles.

The doctrine of universal restoration applied to men has also been held in different forms. In the statements of some, ideas of material purification by fire and torment have been predominant. Others, like Origen, have entirely excluded material fire, and, holding to the eternal possession of free agency, made the process of purification to depend on the truth operating to produce deep conviction of sin, and of ill desert, filling the spirit with unspeakable anguish, until, by repentance and a return to holiness, it is delivered and restored to eternal life. Others, like Theodore of Mopsuestia, have regarded a temporary process of sinning as indispensable to full spiritual development, and the formation of a firm and established holy character, and have taught that God will surely conduct all men through this process of education, until finally they are established in holiness and eternal life.

Need of Discrimination.

These views were historically developed in the order in which we have stated them, and will be more fully set forth in the course of this history. This summary view is here given for the sake of greater clearness of conception during our narrative. Much confusion and error have arisen in different ages from the fact that the analogical, spiritual sense of the word fire has been overlooked, and that thus that which was in the Word of God spoken analogically and spiritually has been used to sustain a doctrine of literal fire in the punishment of the wicked. The merits of Origen are great in having entirely rejected the gross literalism of torrents by material fire. Before him such literalism was universal. Accordingly, we shall find an example of it in the first appearance of the doctrine of universal restoration.

First Statement.

The first statement of this doctrine is found in the Sibylline oracles.

It is in them, however, as part of a general account of the day of judgment, including its antecedents and consequents. It has a peculiar interest as probably the first written description of that day by a Christian.

Increased Interest.

This interest is increased by the fact that it is distinctly appealed to in the hymn on the Judgment, that greatest Latin hymn of the middle ages, Dies Irae, the “Day of Wath.” Of this Prof. Schaff says, “It excites new wonder on every reading, and to it no translation in any modern language can do full justice.” He calls it “That incomparable giant hymn on the Judgment, the tremendous power of which resides first, indeed, in its earnest matter, but next in its inimitable mastery of the musical treatment of the vowels.” Yet in this great hymn there is a virtual indorsement [sic] of the Sibylline verses, by appealing to the Sybil alongside of David as authority, with reference to that day:

“Dies Irae, dies illa, Solvet seclum in favilla, Teste David cum Sibylla.”

“The day of wrath, that dreadful day, shall dissolve the world into ashes, according to the testimony of David with the Sibyl.” Some of the versions of this hymn do not show this appeal to the Sibyl, for the translators, having outgrown the faith of the middle ages, seem to shrink from so prominent and sacred a recognition of the Sibyl. Hence, in the translation adopted in the “Plymouth Collection,” we find this version of the first three lines:

“Day of wrath, that day of burning, All shall melt to ashes turning, All foretold by seers discerning.”

Here the unlearned English reader would have no conception who these discerning seers could be. Least of all would be conjecture that they were David and the Sibyl. But as soon as this is known, the inquiry at once arises, How and when did these seers foretell these things?


As to David, it may meet the exigencies of the case to say that, in Psalm ciii. 26, 27, he testifies that the heavens and the earth, which God of old created, shall perish and be changed as a vesture. But there is no such deficiency in the case of the Sibyl. In her testimony the fire is prominent, dissolving the universe, and explicit mention is made of the ashes into which all things are dissolved.

But if any shrink from such an appeal, they should recall the usages of the age of the poet. In this appeal the author of this hymn did not act without illustrious precedent. Dr. Schaff says, vol. i., p. 205: “The first appeal of the apologists was, of course, to the prophetic writings. But even a Clement of Alexandria, and, with more caution, an Origen, a Eusebius, and St. Augustine, employed, also without hesitation, apocryphal prophecies, especially the Sibylline Oracles.” Lactantius quoted these oracles so freely that over two folio pages of Gallandius are needed to present a conspectus of his quotations.

The Sibyl. Who?

The word sibyl means a revealer of the counsels of God, that is, a prophetess. It was applied to at least ten in the heathen world, and Dr. Schaff as well as Bishop Horsley believes that some of their revelations were true. “All was not error and pious fraud. Through all heathenism there runs, in truth, a dim, unconscious presentiment of Christianity.” In proof, he refers to the fourth “Eclogue” of Virgil.

But the Sibyl of these verses was not one of these heathen prophetesses, but, according to her own testimony, one of the daughters-in-law of Noah, a person of strict veracity, who was with him in the ark, and who was therefore, able to give a summary of the history of the world before the flood, as well as to predict its future fates. Of the Sibylline verses there were at least two authors. One was a Jew, who wrote about one hundred and twenty years before Christ, and foretold the coming and kingdom of the Messiah, following, mainly, the Hebrew prophets. Of his views of the Messiah and his kingdom Westcott has given a summary (pp. 114-116, “Study of the Gospels”). In these, although there is retribution when the Messiah establishes his kingdom, and rewards his people, and punishes his enemies, yet the peculiar features of the final day of judgment and its results spoken of in the New Testament are not found. These are presented in the second book, which obviously proceeded from a Christian writer. And yet he follows no one of the New Testament writers absolutely, and sometimes introduces matter found in none of them.

The Judgment.

The great drama is opened by a night of fearful and universal gloom, during which a deluge of fire from heaven is suddenly poured upon the earth, resulting in the utter dissolution of the elements of the universe, for this fiery deluge extends not only to the earth and all the works that are therein, but also to the heavenly luminaries. All worlds are thus dissolved into one great ruin, and the seer expressly informs us that ashes shall cover all things, and thus justifies the appeal of the poet. Of such a deluge of fire nothing is said in our Saviour’s account of the day of judgment in Matt. xxv. But in 2 Peter the burning of the heavens and the earth by fire, and the consequent dissolution of the elements, are expressly mentioned, and the Sibylline poet may have followed him or his authorities.

The Judge.

In the personalities of the judgment he follows Dan. vii., where the Ancient of days first is seen enthroned, and then the Messiah comes to him in the clouds of heaven, to receive his glorious kingdom. In like manner the Eternal Father is first enthroned, and then Christ the judge, himself immortal, appears in glory with his holy angels, and, throned on a cloud, comes to the immortal Father, and sits in majesty at his right hand on the judgment-seat to judge the life and the deeds of godly and of ungodly men.

The Assembly.

Before the judgment the dead of all ages are raised, and reinvested with bodies by the mighty power of God. No account is made of difficulties. The writer specifies those who died before the flood, hose consumed by birds, beasts, and serpents, and those burned by fire. But over all difficulties the almighty power of God triumphs. Then, by the angels, all, good and bad, are gathered before the judgment-seat. Moses, Abraham, and other eminent saints, are specially named. But here a remarkable deviation from our Saviour’s account occurs.

The Separation.

No public summation of their deeds by the Judge is made, nor is a sentence pronounced; on the other hand, they are divided by being made to pass through a river of fire. By this process the righteous are separated from the wicked and saved. The angels convey them safely through the burning river to their heavenly home. But the wicked are abandoned to the river of fire, where they suffer for whole ages according to the deeds they have done. A long list of their crimes is given, such as murder, lies, theft, adultery, slander, apostacy [sic] from God, idolatry.


The punishment inflicted on them is then set forth in great detail. They are chained by God with fiery chains to a mountain, around which flows the river of fire, and the angels of the eternal God scourge them, with fearful severity, with fiery scourges.

After this they are exposed in the darkness of Tartarus to horrid monsters. Then the most wicked are condemned to go through a fiery circuit of the river of fire. Meanwhile their ceaseless lamentations ascend, until at last they pay in suffering thrice as much as they have sinned. In their torments they gnash with their teeth, and in vain desire to die. They implore god for deliverance, but he turns from them and reminds them that by the incarnation he gave them the opportunity for repentance in the seven ages of the world’s history.

After all this the good are fully described and their happy lot. A long account is given of the heavenly world, and its holy society and various forms of happiness.

Final Restoration.

But according to this prophetess the holy cannot be happy even amid the joys of heaven while others are suffering. Hence, with one voice, they petition God for their delivery. Nor is their petition vain. Thus entreated, he will deliver them from the devouring fire and from eternal gnashing of teeth. Having thus delivered them, he will firmly establish them and assign them, through his people, to a new and eternal life among the immortals.

This view of restitution is not peculiar in distinctly bringing out that feeling of compassion an d sympathy for the lost that has since been repeatedly expressed during the ages. But it is peculiar in this, that it makes the expression of it to God the turning-point of the system. God at first rejects the prayers of the wicked for salvation, and it is not until he is moved by the earnest entreaties of the holy that he interposes to deliver them.

Influence of this View.

That this view was not without popular power is plain from one fact. Augustine states, in his “City of God,” that there were many tender-hearted souls in the west who were moved with sympathy for the lost, and denied the eternity of their punishment. In stating their reasonings he gives a prominent place to this view of the merciful prophetess, and devotes one whole chapter to setting forth the principles of their reasoning. As he presents them they have no little plausibility. They insisted on the fact that Christians, even in this imperfect state, were imbued with the spirit of forgiveness and of prayer even for their enemies. Will they, then, lay aside these traits when perfect and in that perfect world? Will they not pity and forgive and pray for the wicked? Will not the whole church of the redeemed unite in this prayer? And if they do, can it be that God will not feel it and be moved to answer the united petitions of the glorious host of the redeemed?

What Augustine would have said in reply to such reasonings must be matter of conjecture, for he is content to state them without making a reply.

The account of the judgment and its consequences thus reported has been much abbreviated. In full it occupies 143 lines of Greek hexameters. Yet to a great extent we have translated and used the words of the writer. A view of the Sibylline oracles as a whole excites admiration at the amount of study requisite for their composition. The author aims to use the vocabulary of Homer, and the composition of such a work in twelve books by a Jew or a Christian would have been impossible, had it not been for the careful and extended study of the poems of Homer in the schools of Alexandria. Westcott speaks of the Sibylline writings as exhibiting much enlargement of views. He says, “They stand alone as an attempt to embrace all history, even in its details, in one great theocratic view, and to regard the kingdoms of the world as destined to form provinces in a future kingdom of God.”

View Physical.

Yet the views of retribution presented are not elevated. The punishment of the wicked is inflicted by literal fire, nor are the ideas of a moral purification as the means of restoration, afterward promulgated by Origen, visible in the work. It more nearly accords in this respect with the Zoroastrian Bundehesh, in which the final punishment and purification of the wicked are represented as effected by a river of literal fire.

Not Zoroastric.

But one striking fact proves that this prophecy of the judgment was not derived from Persian sources. There is no reference to the devil and his angels in the whole account; whereas Ahriman and his angels figure conspicuously in all Zoroastrian accounts of the final day of retribution.

The development of the higher forms of universal restoration will be considered hereafter. We shall next consider the first statement of the doctrine of future eternal punishment in the book of Enoch, a work which affected the public mind and filled the imaginations of men more perhaps than any other apocalyptic work of the ages before Christ.



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