The Sound of Silence

UNIVERSALISM – THE FIRST 500 YEARS

THE PREVAILING DOCTRINE OF THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH

I have begun embracing the doctrine of Universal Salvation and obviously would not do so if I didn’t see it in the scriptures. I have written extensively on the passages that seem to me to be strong declarations that God has a plan to be victorious in reconciling to Himself all of humanity, without exception. I have also written about the “eternal torment”, “everlasting punishment” and “weeping and gnashing of teeth” passages that have been mistranslated to read the fires of forever into that plan of God and to mischaracterize His actions in dealing with the world of unbelievers as punitive and not corrective.

It seems to me that, if eternal perdition was a tenet of the early church, there should be something that would suggest as much in the historical record of the first few hundred years. What can we glean from the writings of those who led the early church in the generations immediately following the death of the Apostles?

I think it is important to know that, in that period of time, the early Church Fathers were faced with attacks on the new Christian religion from two sides: heresy from within and the intellectual reaction of paganism from without.1

Christianity was winning converts from among the Jews, Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, and Macedonians. These new converts were bringing with them doctrines colored by Jewish and pagan error. The earliest church fathers, those that were said to have “sat at the feet of the Apostles”, defended Apostolic doctrine against this onslaught of false teaching. Men such as Clement of Rome, probably the same Clement mentioned by Paul in Philippians 4:3 – a fellow laborer of the apostle, Ignatius, and Polycarp (both students of the Apostle John) wrote extensively to this end.

Heresy was addressed primarily by written statements of faith and creeds. Probably the oldest was known as The Teachings of the 12 Apostles. Quoted by Clement of Alexandria, the 1st century Christian historian Eusebius, and Athanasius an early bishop of Alexandria, scholars believe it was written somewhere between AD 120 and AD 160. While it addresses a wide variety of subjects from the divinity of Christ, holy living and the authority of the church to the return of Jesus, the great tribulation, the antichrist and trial by fire, it is entirely silent on the duration of punishment. Not a whisper of endless torment is to be found. Absolutely nothing is said about eternal fire.2

The creeds, formal statements of Christian belief, are historically significant because they were authorized by the consensus of bishops. The Apostle’s creed, the oldest known creedal document of the early church (AD 250-350), and the council creeds of Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedon along with the statements of faith of the Roman church, the Greek church, and the Alexandrian church all set forth a system of Christian faith through the end of the fifth century.

They dealt with the nature of God, creation, the incarnation and divinity of Jesus Christ and His death, burial and resurrection. They speak of belief in His return to judge the living and the dead, the authority of the church, resurrection of the dead, and life in an age to come. They are completely silent on the duration of punishment. Not a word on eternal fire and torment can be found.

It seems odd that declarations of faith to heretics and to a world that knew nothing of Christianity would be silent on such a vital doctrine as endless punishment if, at that time, it was a tenet of the church. Could the sound of silence from the creeds indicate that the dogma of everlasting damnation was not held in the early church as a “teaching of the Apostles?”

Notes:

1Julian Marias, translated from the Spanish by Stanley Appelbaum and Clarence Strowbridge, History of Philosophy, Dover Publications, New York, ©1967, pp. 107-108, in Morehead, Keith G., Fictional Foundations of Trinitarian Thought, ©1988

2Hanson, J.W., D.D., Universalism, the Prevailing Doctrine of the Christian Church for the First Five Hundred Years, Boston & Chicago: Universalist Publishing House, ©1899