Universalism at its most basic is the idea that all people will be eventually reconciled to God, in direct contrast to the traditional view of biblical Christianity which states that there will be some who are reconciled to God eternally, and some who are not. The fate of those who are not is never explicitly described; images of hell stay within the metaphorical but the images of eternal condemnation are painted quite powerfully if not clearly.
Universalism more or less rears its head with Origen (who lived from approximately 185-254 A.D.), an early Christian writer who was eventually condemned as a heretic:
“So then, when the end has been restored to the beginning, and the termination of things compared with their commencement, that condition of things will be re-established in which rational nature was placed, when it had no need to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; so that when all feeling of wickedness has been removed, and the individual has been purified and cleansed, He who alone is the one good God becomes to him “all,” and that not in the case of a few individuals, or of a considerable number, but He Himself is “all in all.” And when death shall no longer anywhere exist, nor the sting of death, nor any evil at all, then verily God will be “all in all” (Origen, De Prinicipiis, 3.6.3).
Origen was influenced by Gnostic thought, which emphasized “secret knowledge” known only to a few and rejected large portions of Scripture as un-historical, un-reliable or simply allegorical, rejected the physical resurrection of Christ and as such had his teachings condemned as anathema by the early church. Such teaching, though certainly comforting, simply does not fit in with the revelation of the Bible, which explicitly states that not all will come to salvation:
47And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, 48where “‘the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched.”
“16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”
It is clear that Jesus himself did not teach universal reconciliation, but the opposite. Reconciliation is available to all, but not necessarily effective for all, as illustrated in the above verses. Eternal consequences are the theme of many of Jesus’ teachings, and though pictures of hell as spoken by Christ are often metaphorical, their eternal nature cannot be denied.
Origen’s rejection of Christ’s physical resurrection is a key reason for his condemnation;
We now direct the discussion to some of our own people, who either from want of intellect or from lack of instruction introduce an exceedingly low and mean idea of the resurrection of the body. We ask these men in what manner they think that the ‘natural body’ will, by the grace of the resurrection, be changed and become ‘spiritual;’ and in what manner they think that what is sown in weakness will be ‘raised in power,’ and what is sown ‘in dishonor’ is to ‘rise in glory,’ and what is sown ‘in corruption’ is to be transformed into ‘incorruption.’ Certainly if they believe the apostle, who says that the body, when it rises in glory and in power and in incorruptibility, has already become
spiritual, it seems absurd and contrary to his meaning to say that it is still entangled in
the passions of flesh and blood. (On First Principles 2.10.3)
Paul of Tarsus in his letter to the Corinthians makes it clear that the resurrection is THE crucial element of the Christian faith:
1 Corinthians 15:13-19
12 But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
1 Corinthians 15:50-54
50 I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51 Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— 52 in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53 For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable and the mortal with immortality. 54 When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
Paul seems to anticipate teaching such as Origen’s and makes it clear that without the resurrection, the faith of the church is pointless and futile, in typical blunt Pauline fashion. Origen appears to be using skillful rhetoric to distort and change the basic ideas Paul is trying to convey here.
The conclusion reached is that Origen, while both gifted as a writer, speaker and thinker, ultimately preached ideas and views that are contrary to the written revelation in the Scriptures; Paul, predating Origen by nearly 200 years, gave a clear, simple answer to that type of theology: “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.”
Origen. De Prinicipiis. Print.
Quest Study Bible. NIV.Michigan. Zondervan. 2003. Print.