Sometimes I hear people say that the idea of God saving everyone (The Victorious Gospel) is a rather modern idea. Nothing could be further from the truth. Actually, the Victorious Gospel was not only a doctrine a few exotic believers held but it was taught at most theological schools in the first five centuries.
For more than a century, the New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge has set the standard for biblical and theological reference works. Over a period of nearly four decades, nearly 100 editors and more than 600 scholars under the editorship of Philip Schaff collaborated to write the most detailed and comprehensive biblical and theological encyclopedia in the English language. The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge points out that 4 out of 6 known theological schools in the first five centuries were Universalist:
“In the first five or six centuries of Christianity there were six known theological schools, of which four (Alexandria [see Alexandria, School of], Antioch, Cæsarea, and Edessa or Nisibis) were Universalist, one (Ephesus) accepted conditional immortality; one (Carthage or Rome) taught endless punishment of the wicked. Other theological schools are mentioned as founded by Universalists, but their actual doctrine on this subject is unknown. Doederiein says that “In proportion as any man was eminent in learning in Christian antiquity, the more did he cherish and defend the hope of the termination of future torments.” (Jackson, 1908-1914:96)
Many of the great church fathers taught the Victorious Gospel: Clement of Alexandria, Origen, the Gregories, and Basil, the Great.
Neither endless punishment nor universal reconciliation are mentioned in any of the ancient creeds. Maybe because many of the writers of the creeds believed in Universal reconciliation? Gregory of Nazianzen, who presided over the Council which crafted the Nicene Creed was a universalist. Apparently no one at that time saw a problem in having a Universalist overseeing this important project.
“Before we can hope to understand the Fathers, or rightly to estimate the force of the testimony they bear to universalism, we must try to place ourselves mentally where they stood. The church was born into a world of whose moral rottenness few have, or can have, any idea. Even the sober historians of the later Roman empire have their pages tainted with scenes impossible to translate. Lusts the foulest, debauchery to us happily inconceivable, raged on every side. To assert even faintly the final redemption of all this rottenness, whose depths we dare not try to sound, required the firmest faith in the larger hope as an essential part of the gospel. But this is not all: in a peculiar sense the church was militant in the early centuries. It was engaged in, at times, and always liable to, a struggle for life or death, with a relentless persecution. Thus it must have seemed in that age almost an act of treason to the cross to teach that, though dying unrepentant, the bitter persecutor, or the votary of abominable lusts, should yet in the ages to come find salvation. Such considerations help us to see the extreme weight attaching even to the very least expression in the Fathers that involves sympathy with the larger hope—a fact to be kept in mind in reading these pages. Especially so when we consider that the idea of mercy was then but little known (and that truth, as we conceive it, was not then esteemed a duty). As the vices of the early centuries were great, so were their punishments cruel. The early fathers wrote when the wild beasts of the arena tore alike the innocent and the guilty, limb from limb, amid the applause even of gently nurtured women; they wrote when the cross, with its living burden of agony, was a common sight, and evoked no protest. They wrote when every minister of justice was a torturer, and almost every criminal court a petty inquisition: when every household of the better class, even among Christians, swarmed with slaves, liable to torture, to scourging, to mutilation, at the caprice of a master or the frown of a mistress. Let all these facts be fully weighed, and a conviction arises irresistibly that, in such an age, no idea of universalism could have originated, unless inspired from above. If, now, when criminals are shielded from suffering with an almost morbid care, men, the best men, think with very little concern of the unutterable woe of the lost, how, I ask, could universalism have arisen of itself in an age like that of the Fathers? Consider further. The larger hope is not—we are informed—in the Bible; it is not we know in the heart of man naturally: still less was it there in days such as those we have described, when mercy was unknown, when the dearest interest of the church forbad its avowal. But it is found in many, in very many, ancient Fathers, and often in the very broadest form, embracing every fallen spirit. Where, then, did they find it? Whence did they import this idea, not taught in the Old Testament and forbidden by the New Testament, as we are assured: totally out of harmony with every prevailing belief: totally at variance with the obvious interests of the gospel in such days? Whence, I repeat the question, whence did this idea come? Can we doubt that the Fathers could only have drawn it, as their writings testify, from the Bible itself?” (Allin & Parry 2015:87-88)
After studying the beliefs of the first Christians Hanson came to the conclusion:
“An examination of the earliest Christian creeds and declarations of Christian opinion discloses the fact that no formulary of Christian belief for several centuries after Christ contained anything incompatible with the broad faith of the Gospel – the universal redemption of mankind from sin.” (Hanson, 1899:16)
The Victorious Gospel, the belief in universal reconciliation, has been part of Christianity since the very beginning. In fact it maybe even was the main belief of the first Christians.
Hanson, J. W. 1899. Universalism – The Prevailing Doctrine of the Christian Church During its First Five Hundred Years. Pantianos Classics
Jackson, S. M. (Ed.). (1908–1914). In The new Schaff-Herzog encyclopedia of religious knowledge: embracing Biblical, historical, doctrinal, and practical theology and Biblical, theological, and ecclesiastical biography from the earliest times to the present day (Vol. 12, p. 96). New York; London: Funk & Wagnalls.
Allin, T. & Parry, R.A. 2015. Christ Triumphant: Universalism Asserted as the Hope of the Gospel on the Authority of Reason, the Fathers, and Holy Scripture. Annotated Edition. Eugene; OR: Wipf & Stock
Wow. Thank you for your research. Very interesting and so important to know. God bless you. Peter, England.