The oldest Christian document since the New Testament, explicitly avowing the doctrine of universal restoration, is the "Sibylline Oracles."1 Different portions of this composition were written at different dates, from 181 B.C. to 267 A.D. The portion expressing universal salvation was written by an Alexandrine Christian, about A.D. 80, and the "Oracles" were in general circulation from A.D. 100 onward, and are referred to with great consideration for many centuries subsequently.
After describing the destruction of the world, which Sibyl prophesies, and the consignments of the wicked to aionion torment, such as our Lord teaches in Matt. 25:46, the blessed inhabitants of heaven are represented as being made wretched by the thought of the sufferings of the lost, and as beseeching God with united voice to release them. God consents to their request, and delivers them from their torment and bestows happiness upon them. The "Oracles" declare: "The omnipotent, incorruptible God shall confer another favor on his worshipers, when they shall ask him. He shall save mankind from the pernicious fire and immortal (athanaton) agonies. Having gathered them and safely secured them from the unwearied flame, he shall send them, for his people's sake, into another and æonian life with the immortals on the Elysian plain, where flow perpetually the long dark waves of the deep sea of Acheron." 2
The punishments of the wicked are here described in the strongest possible terms; they are "eternal," (aionion), "immortal" (athanaton), and yet it is declared that at the request of the righteous, God will deliver them from those torments.
The Sibyl anticipates the poet Whittier:
Holmes expresses the same sentiment:
"Still thy love, O Christ arisen,
Yearns to reach those souls in prison;
Through all depths of sin and loss
Drops the plummet of thy cross;
Never yet abyss was found
Deeper than that cross could sound;
Deep below as high above
Sweeps the circle of God's love."
This famous document was quoted by Athenagoras, Theophilus, Justin Martyr, Lactantius, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Eusebius, and Augustine. Clement calls the author "the prophetess."
"What if (a) spirit redeemed, amid the host
Of chanting angels, in some transient lull
Of the eternal anthem heard the cry
Of its lost darling.
Would it not long to leave the bliss of heaven
Bearing a little water in its hand,
To moisten those poor lips that plead in vain
With him we call Our Father?"
As late as the Middle Ages the "Oracles" was well known, and its author was ranked with David. When Thomas of Celano composed the great Hymn of the Judgment, he said:
"the dreadful day of wrath shall dissolve the world into ashes, as David and the Sibyl testify."
"Dies Iræ, dies illa,
Solvet saeclum in favilla,
Teste David cum Sibylla,"--
The best scholars concede the Universalism of the "Oracles." Says Musardus,3 the "Oracles" teach "that the damned shall be liberated after they shall have endured infernal punishments for many ages, which was an error of Origen." And Opsopoeus adds 4 "that the 'Oracles' teach that the wicked suffering in hell (Gehenna) after a certain period, and through atonements of griefs, would be released from punishments, which was the opinion of Origen," etc. Hades, and all things and persons are cast into unquenchable fire for purification; that is, the fire is unquenchable until it has accomplished its purpose of purification. Gehenna itself, as Origen afterwards insisted, purifies and surrenders its prisoners. The wicked are to suffer "immortal" agonies and then be saved.
Dr. Westcott remarks of the "Oracles:" "They stand alone as an attempt to embrace all history, even it its details, in one great, theocratic view, and to regard the kingdoms of the world as destined to from provinces in a future Kingdom of God."
While the views of retribution are not elevated, and represent the punishment of the wicked as in literal fire, and not a moral discipline, such as Origen taught, they clearly teach universal salvation beyond all æonian, even athanaton suffering. A noted writer 5 declares: "The doctrine of Universalism is brought forward in more than one passage of this piece;" though elsewhere Dr. Deane misstates, inconsistently enough, the language of the Sibyl, thus: "God, hearkening to the prayers of the saints, shall save some from the pains of hell." He mistranslates anthropois into "some" instead of "mankind," the meaning of the word, in order to show that Sibyl "does not, like Origen, believe in universal salvation." And yet he is forced at add: "This notion of the salvation of any is opposed to the sentiment elsewhere expressed where in picturing the torments of hell the writer asserts that there is no place for repentance or any mercy or hope." But Dr. Deane forgets that the acknowledged Universalists of the early church employed equally strong terms concerning the duration of punishment. The use of the terms signifying endless torment employed by the Sibyl, as by Origen and others, did not preclude the idea of the ultimate salvation of those thus punished. Origen taught that the most stubborn sins will be "extinguished" by the "eternal fire," just as Sibyl says the wicked perish in "immortal" fire and are subsequently saved.
In line with Deane's strange contradictions may be mentioned another of the many curiosities of criticism. An English prose version of the Sibyl's Homeric hexameters was made in 1713 by Sir John Floyer.6 He denies that the "Oracles" teach universal salvation at all, but it order to sustain his position he omits to translate one word, and mistranslates another! He renders the entire passage thus: "The Almighty and incorruptible God shall grant this also to the righteous when they shall pray to him; that he will preserve them (literally save mankind, anthropois sosai) from the pernicious fire and everlasting gnashing of teeth; and this will he do when he gathers the faithful from the eternal fire, placing them in another region, he shall send them by his own angels into another life, which will be eternal to them that are immortal, in the Elysian fields," etc.1
It is only by rendering the words denoting "save mankind," "deliver them," that he makes his point. A correct rendering coincides with the declarations of most scholars, that universal salvation is taught in this unique document.
The Sibyl declares that the just and the unjust pass through "unquenchable fire," and that all things, even Hades, are to be purified by the divine fire. And after the unjust have been released from Hades, they are committed to Gehenna, and then at the desire of the righteous, they are to be removed thence to "a life eternal for immortals."
(B. II, vv: 211-250-340).
Augustine (De Civ. Dei. B., XVIII) cited the famous acronym on the Savior's name as a proof that the Sibyl foretold the coming of Jesus. And it is curious to note that in his "City of God," when stating that certain "merciful doctors" denied the eternity of punishment, he gives the same reasons they assign for their belief that the Sibyl names. He quotes the "merciful doctors" as saying that Christians in this world possess the disposition to forgive their enemies, they will not lay aside those traits at death, but will pity, forgive, and pray for the wicked. The redeemed will unite in this prayer and will not God feel pity, and answer the prayer in which all the saved unite? Augustine presents these unanswerable objections, and devotes many pages to a very feeble reply to them.
So fully did the Christians of the First Century recognize the "Oracles," and appeal to them, that they were frequently styled the Sibylists. Celsus applied the word to them, and Origen, though he accepted the Sibyl's teachings concerning destiny, objected that the term was not justly applied. This he does in "Ag. Cels." V. 61. Clement of Alexandria not only calls the Sibyl a prophetess, but her "Oracles" a saving hymn.
Lactantius cited fifty passages from the Sibyl in his evidences of Christianity.
No book, not even the New Testament, exerted a wider influence on the first centuries of the church, than the "Sibylline Oracles."
Quite a literature of the subject exists in the periodical publications of the past few years, but there are very few references to the Universalism of the "Oracles." The "Edinburgh Review" (July, 1867) is an exception. It states that the "Oracles" declare "the Origenist belief of a universal restoration (V. 33) of all men, even to the unjust, and the devils themselves." The "Oracles" are specially valuable in showing the opinions of the first Christians after the apostles, and, as they aim to convert Pagans to Christ, and employ this doctrine as one of the weapons, it must at that time have been considered a prominent Christian tenet, and the candid student is forced to conclude that they give expression to the prevalent opinion of those days on the subject of human destiny.
The reader must not fail to observe that the "Sibylline Oracles" explicitly state the deliverance of the damned from the torments of hell. They repeatedly call the suffering everlasting, even "immortal," yet declare that it shell end in the restoration of the lost.
Chapter 9--PANTAENUS AND CLEMENT - Contents
Spirit of the Word - Covenant Eschatology - Introductory Note - New Stuff
Chapter 1 - The Earliest Creeds
Chapter 2 - Early Christianity-A Cheerful Religion
Chapter 3 - Origin of Endless Punishment
Chapter 4 - Doctrines of Mitigation and Reserve
Chapter 5 - Two Kindred Topics
Chapter 6 - The Apostles' Immediate Successors
Chapter 7 - The Gnostic Sects
Chapter 8 - The Sibylline Oracles
Chapter 9 - Pantaenus and Clement
Chapter 10 - Origen
Chapter 11 - Origen-Continued
Chapter 12 - The Eulogists of Origen
Chapter 13 - A Third Century Group
Chapter 14 - Minor Authorities
Chapter 15 - Gregory Nazianzen
Chapter 16 - Theodore of Mopsuestia and the Nestorians
Chapter 17 - A Notable Family
Chapter 18 - Additional Authorities
Chapter 19 - The Deterioration of Christian Thought
Chapter 20 - Augustine--Deterioration Continued
Chapter 21 - Unsuccessful Attempts to Suppress Universalism
Chapter 22 - The Eclipse of Universalism
Chapter 23 - Summary of Conclusions