The following is a chapter on the history of universalism as it relates to Justinian, the pagan emperor that tried to influence the council of Constantinople to anathematize Origen’s view of “the restoration of all things” nearly 200 years after his death. His decisions were not based in piety but in politics. Note the manner in which he had to negate Origen’s view. He had to use an indisputable word at the time that meant “eternal” in front of the word “aionios” in order to define his edict against Origen!
(See 5th paragraph below)

Unsuccessful Attempts to Suppress Universalism

Historians and writers on the state of opinion in the early church have quite often erred in declaring that an ecclesiastical council pronounced the doctrine of universal salvation heretical, as early as the Sixth Century. Even so learned and accurate a writer as our own Dr. Ballou, has fallen into this error, though his editor, the Rev. A. St. John Chambre, D.D., subsequently corrected the mistake in a brief note.

A.D. 399 a council in Jerusalem condemned the Origenists, and all who held with them, that the Son was in any way subordinate to the Father. In 401 a council in Alexandria anathematized the writings of Origen, presumably for the same reason as above. Certainly his views of human destiny were not mentioned.

In 544-6, a condemnation of Origen's views of human salvation was attempted to be extorted from a small, local council in Constantinople, by the emperor Justinian, but his edict was not obeyed by the council. He issued an edict to Mennas, patriarch of Constantinople, requiring him to assemble the bishops resident, or casually present there, to condemn the doctrine of universal restoration. Ranting ten anathemas, he especially urged Mennas to anathematize the doctrine "that wicked men and devils will at length be discharged from their torments, and re-established in their original state." 1 He wrote to Mennas requiring him to frame a canon in these words:

"Whoever says or thinks that the torments of the demons and of impious men are temporal, so that they will at length come to an end, or whoever holds to a restoration either of the demons or of the impious, let him be anathema."

Justinian's Views

It is conceded that the half-heathen emperor held to the idea of endless misery, for he proceeds not only to defend, but to define the doctrine.2 He does not merely say, "We believe in aionion kolasin," for that was just what Origen himself taught. Nor does he say "the word aionion has been misunderstood; it denotes endless duration," as he would have said, had there been such a disagreement. But, writing in Greek, with all the words of that abundant language from which to choose, he says: "The holy church of Christ teaches an endless aeonian (ateleutetos aionios) life to the righteous, and endless (ateleutetos) punishment to the wicked." If he supposed aionios denoted endless duration, he would not have added the stronger word to it. The fact that he qualified it by ateleutetos, demonstrated that as late as the sixth century the former word did not signify endless duration.

Justinian need only to have consulted his contemporary, Olympiodorus, who wrote on this very subject, to vindicate his language. In his commentary on the Meteorologica of Aristotle, 8 he says: "Do not suppose that the soul is punished for endless ages in Tartarus. Very properly the soul is not punished to gratify the revenge of the divinity, but for the sake of healing. But we say that the soul is punished for an aeonian period, calling its life, and its allotted period of punishment, its aeon." It will be noticed that he not only denies endless punishment, and denies that the doctrine can be expressed by aionios declares that punishment is temporary and results in the sinner's improvement. Justinian not only concedes that aionios requires a word denoting endlessness to give it the sense of limitless duration, but he insists that the council shall frame a canon containing a word that shall indisputably express the doctrine of endless woe, while it shall condemn those who advocate universal salvation. Now though the emperor exerted his great influence to foist his heathen doctrine into the Church canons, he failed; for nothing resembling it appears in the canons enacted by the synodical council.

The synod voted fifteen canons, not one of which condemns universal restoration.

Home Synod Canons

The first canon reads thus: "If anyone asserts the fabulous pre-existence of souls, and the monstrous restitution which follows from it, let him be anathema."

This condemnation, it will be readily seen, is not of universal salvation, but of a "monstrous" restitution based on the soul's pre-existence. That this view is correct appears from the fourteenth anathema:

"If anyone says that there will be a single unity of all rational beings, their substances and individualities being taken away together with their bodies, and also that there will be an identity of recognition as also of persons, and that in the fabulous restitution they will only be naked even as they had existed in that præ-existence which they insanely introduced, let him be anathema."

The reader will at once perceive that these canons do not describe any genuine form of our faith, but only a distorted caricature which no doubt was thought to represent the doctrine they opposed. But not one of the nine anathemas ordered by Justinian was sanctioned by the council. They were laid before the Home Synod, but the Synod did not endorse them. Fifteen canons were passed, but the Synod refused to condemn universal salvation. Justinian was unable to compel the bishops under his control to condemn the doctrine he hated, but which they must have favored. The theory here condemned is not that of universal salvation, but the "fabulous pre-existence of souls, and the monstrous restitution that results from it."4

The bishops, says Landon, declared that they adhered to the doctrines of Athanasius, Basil and the Gregories. The doctrine of Theodore on the Sonship of Christ was condemned, also the teachings of Theodoret. "Origen was not condemned."5

The Council Refused to Condemn Universalism

Even the influence of Justinian and his servile, compliant bishop, and his disreputable queen, failed to force the measure through. The action of this local Synod has been incorrectly ascribed to the Fifth Ecumenical Council, nine years later, which has also been inaccurately supposed to have condemned Universalism, when it merely reprehended some of the erratic notions of "Origenism"--doctrines that even Origen himself never accepted, but that were falsely ascribed to him by ignorant or malicious opponents; doctrines that no more resemble universal restoration, as taught by the Alexandrine fathers, than they resemble Theosophy or Buddhism. So that, though the Home Synod was called by the Emperor Justinian expressly to condemn Universalism, and was commanded by imperial edict to anathematize it, and though it formulated fifteen canons, it refused to obey the Emperor, and did not say one word against the doctrine the Emperor wished to anathematize. The local council came to no decision. Justinian had just arbitrarily condemned the writings of Theodore of Mopsuestia, and Theodoret, and a terrible controversy and division ensued, and Theodorus, of Cesaræa, declared that both himself and Pelagius, who had sought the condemnation of Origen, ought to be burnt alive for their conduct.6

In the Fifth General Council of 553 the name of Origen appears with others in the eleventh canon, but the best scholars think that the insertion of his name is a forgery.

Whether so or not, there is not a word referring to his views of human destiny. His name only appears among the names of the heretics, such as "Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, Apollinaris, Eutyches, Origen and other impious men, and all other heretics who are condemned and anathematized by the Catholic and Apostolical Church, etc." 7 The Fifth Ecumenical Council, which was held nine years later than the local, neither condemned Origen by name, nor anathematized his Universalism. The object of this council was to condemn certain Nestorian doctrines; and Gregory of Nyssa, the most explicit of Universalists, is referred to with honor by the council, and as the denial of endless punishment by Origen, and his advocacy of Universalism are not named, we cannot avoid the conviction that the council was controlled by those who held, or at least did not repudiate Universalism.

Great confusion exists among the authorities on this subject. The local council has been confounded with the general. Hefele has disentangled the perplexities.

It was not even at that late day--three centuries after his death--the Universalism of Origen that caused the hatred of his opponents, but his opposition to the Episcopizing policy of the church, his insisting on the triple sense of the Word, etc., and the peculiar form of a mis-stated doctrine of the restoration.8

Universalism not Condemned for Five Centuries

Now, let the reader remember that for more than five hundred years, during which Universalism had prevailed, not a single treatise against it is known to have been written. And with the exception of Augustine, no opposition appears to have been aroused against it on the part of any eminent Christian writer. And not only so, but A.D. 381, at the first great Ecumenical Council of Constantinople, the intellectual leader was Gregory of Nyssa, who was only second to Origen as an advocate of universal restoration. Thus his followers, not only, but his opponents on other topics, accepted the great truth of the Gospel. As Dr. Beecher pointedly observes: "It is also a striking fact that while Origen lies under a load of contempt as a heretic, Gregory of Nyssa, who taught the doctrine of the restoration of all things more fully even than Origen, has been canonized, and stands high on the roll of eminent saints, even in the orthodox Roman Catholic Church." Beecher's conclusion is, "That the modern orthodox views as to the doctrine of eternal punishment, as opposed to final restoration, were not fully developed and established till the middle of the Sixth Century, and that then they were not established by thorough argument, but by imperial authority." But the fact is that they were not even then matured and established.

The learned Professor Plumptre says in the "Dictionary of Christian Biography": "We have no evidence that the belief in the total reconciliation of all which prevailed in the fourth and fifth centuries was ever definitely condemned by any council of the Church, and so far as Origen was named as coming under the church's censure it was rather as if involved in the general sentence passed upon the leaders of Nestorianism, than singled out for special and characteristic errors. So the council of Constantinople, the so-called Fifth General Council, A.D. 553, condemns Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, Apollinarius, Nestorius, Eutyches and Origen in a lump, but does not specify the errors of the last-named, as though they differed in kind from theirs, and it is not till in the council of Constantinople, known as in Trullo (A.D. 696) that we find an anathema which specifies somewhat cloudily the guilt of Theodore of Mopsuestia, and Origen, and Didymus, and Evagrius, as consists in their 'inventing a mythology after the manner of the Greeks, and inventing changes and migrations for our souls and bodies, and impiously uttering drunken ravings as to the future life of the dead.' It deserves to be noted that this ambiguous anathema pronounced by a council of no authority, under the weak and vicious Emperor Justinian II, is the only approach to a condemnation of the eschatology of Origen which the annals of the church councils present."9

Significant Facts and Conclusions

Now let the reader recapitulate: (1) Origen during his life-time was never opposed for his Universalism; (2) after his death Methodius, about A.D. 300, attacked his views of the resurrection, creation and pre-existence, but said not a word against his Universalism; (3) ten years later Pamphilus and Eusebius (A.D. 310) defended him against nine charges that had been brought against his views, but his Universalism was not among them; (4) in 330 Marcellus of Ancyra, a Universalist, opposed him for his views of the Trinity, and (5) Eustathius for his teachings concerning the Witch of Endor, but limited their arraignment to those items; (6) in 376 Epiphanius assailed his heresies, but he did not name Universalism as among them, and in 394 he condemned Origen's doctrine of the salvation of the Devil, but not of all mankind; (7) in 399 and 401, his views of Christ's death to save the Devil were attacked by Epiphanius, Jerome and Theophilus, and his advocacy of the subordination of Christ to God was condemned, but not his teachings of man's universal salvation; and (8) it was not till 544 and again in 553 that his enemies formulated attacks on that doctrine, and made a cat's-paw of a half-heathen Emperor, and even then, though the latter framed a canon for the synod, it was never adopted, and the council adjourned--owing, it must have been, to the Universalistic sentiment in it--without a word of condemnation of Origen's Universalism. With the exception of Augustine, the doctrine which had been constantly advocated, often by the most eminent, did not evoke a frown of opposition from any eminent scholar or saint.

The Ancient Councils

The character of these ancient synods and councils is well described by Gregory Nazianzen, A.D. 382, in a letter to Procopius: "I am determined to avoid every assembly of bishops. I have never seen a single instance in which a synod (church council) did any good. Strife and ambition dominate them to an incredible degree. From councils and synods I will keep myself at a distance, for I have experienced that most of them, to speak with moderation, are not worth much. I will not sit in the seat of synods, while geese and cranes confused wrangle. Discord is there, and shameful things, hidden before, are gathered into one meeting place of rivals." Milman tells us: "Nowhere is Christianity less attractive, and if we look to the ordinary tone and character of the proceedings, less authoritative than in the Councils of the Church. It is in general a fierce collision of rival fact, neither of which will yield, each of which is solemnly pledged against conviction. Intrigue, injustice, violence, decisions on authority alone, and that the authority of a turbulent majority, decisions by wild acclamation rather than after sober inquiry, detract from the reverence, and impugn the judgments, at least of the later councils. The close is almost invariably a terrible anathema, in which it is impossible not to discern the tones of human hatred, of arrogant triumph, of rejoicing at the damnation accursed against the humiliated adversary." 10 Scenes of strife and even murder in connection with ancient ecclesiastical councils were not uncommon.

There is no evidence whatever to show that it was not entirely allowable for five hundred years after Christ, to entertain the belief in universal salvation. Besides, the Council of Nice, A.D. 325, had, as an active member, Eusebius, Origen's apologist, a pronounced Universalist; the Council of Constantinople, A.D. 381, had as active members the two Gregories, Nazianzus and Nyssa, the latter as outspoken a Universalist as Origen himself; the Council of Ephesus, A.D. 431, declared that Gregory Nyssen's writings were the great bulwark against heresy. The fact that the doctrine was and had been for centuries prevalent, if not the prevailing sentiment, demonstrates that it must have been regarded as a Christian doctrine by the members of these great councils, or they would have come out against it.

How preposterous the idea that the prevailing sentiment of Christendom was adverse to the doctrine of universal restoration even as late as the middle of the Sixth Century, when these great, heresy-hunting bodies met and dispersed without condemning it, even at the dictation of a tyrannical Emperor, who expressly demanded its condemnation.

1. Neander and Gieseler say that the name of Origen was inserted fraudulently into the declaration of the Fifth Council by forgery at a later date. 2. But if the condemnation was actually adopted it was of "Origenism," which was synonymous with other opinions. 3. "Origenism" could not have meant Universalism, for several of the leaders of the council that condemned Origenism held to universal restitution. 4. Besides, the council eulogistically referred to the Gregories (Nazianzen and Nyssen) who were Universalists as explicit as was Origen. Manifestly, if the Council had meant Universalism by "Origenism," it would not have condemned as a deadly heresy in Origen what Gregory of Nyssa advocated, and anathematized the one, and glorified the other.

Justinian's Suppression of the Truth

Justinian not only commanded the council to suppress Universalism, but he arbitrarily closed the schools in Athens, Alexandria and Antioch, and drove out the great church centers that theological science that had been its glory. He had "brought the whole empire under his sway and he wished in like manner to settle finally the law and the dogmatics of the empire." To accomplish this evil work he found an aid in Rome, in a "characterless Pope (Vigilius) who, in gratifying the emperor covered himself with disgrace, and jeopardized his position in the West." But he succeeded in inaugurating measures that extinguished the broad faith of the greatest fathers of the church. "Henceforth," says Harnack, "there was no longer a theological science going back to first principles."11

The historians inform us that Justinian the great opponent of Universalism was positive, irritable, apt to change his views, and accessible to the flatteries and influences of those who surrounded him, yet besides, very opinionated in insisting upon any view he happened at the time to hold, and prepared to enforce compliance by the free employment of his despotic power," a "temporal pope." 12 The corrupt Bishop Theophilus, the vile Eudoxia and the equally disreputable, though beautiful, crafty and unscrupulous Theodora, exercised a malign influence on Justinian, the Emperor, and, thus was dictated the action of the council described above.

Justinian and His Age

Milman declares: "The Emperor Justinian unites in himself the most opposite vices,--insatiable greed and plundering and lavish extravagance, intense pride and contemptible weakness, unmeasured ambition and dastardly cowardice. He is the devoted slave of his Empress, whom, after she had ministered to the licentious pleasures of the populace as a prostitute and also an actress in the most immodest exhibitions, in defiance of decency, of honor, of the protests of his friends, and of religion, he had made the partner of his throne. In the Christian Emperor seemed to meet the crimes of those who won or secured their empire by the assassination of all whom they feared, the passion for public diversions without the accomplishments of Nero, the brute strength of Commodus, or the dotage of Claudius." And he was the champion of endless punishment in the Sixth Century!

Justinian is described as an ascetic, a scholastic, and obstinate, "neither beloved in his life, nor regretted at his death."

The age of Justinian, says Lecky, that condemned Origen, is conceded to have been the vilest of the Christian centuries. The doctrine of a hell of literal fire and endless duration had begun to be an engine of tyranny in the hands of an unscrupulous priesthood, and a tyrannical emperor, and moral degradation had kept pace with the theological declination. "The universal verdict of history is that it constitutes, without a single exception, the most thoroughly base and despicable form that civilization has yet assumed." Contrasted with the age of Origen it was as night to day. And the persons who were most active and prominent in the condemnation of the great Alexandrian were fit implements for the task. On this point the language of Farrar in "Mercy and Judgment" is accurate: "Every fresh study of the original authorities only leaves on my mind a deeper impression that even in the Fifth Century Universalism as regards mankind was regarded as a perfectly tenable opinion."

The Divine Light Eclipsed

Thus the record of the times shows, and the testimony of the scholars who have made the subject a careful study concedes, that though there were sporadic assaults on the doctrine of universal restitution in the fourth and fifth centuries; they were not successful in placing the ban of a single council upon it; even to the middle of the Sixth Century. So far as history shows the impressive fact which the great Alexandrians made prominent--the

"One divine event to which the whole creation moves,"

had never been stigmatized by any considerable portion of the Christian church for at least its first half a millennium of years.

The subsequent history of Christianity shows but too plainly that the continued influence of Roman law and Pagan theology as incarnated in the mighty brain of Augustine, came to dominate the Christian world, and at length almost obliterate the faith once delivered to the saints--the faith that exerted so vast an influence in the church's earliest and best centuries--and spread the pall of darkness over Christendom, so that the light of the central fact of the Gospel was scarcely seen for sad and cruel centuries.

1 Nicephorus, Eccle. Hist., xvii: 27. Hefele, iv: 220.
2 Murdock's Mosheim I, pp. 410-11; Gieseler, Hist. vi, p. 478. Also Hagenbach and Neander. Cave's Historia Literaria.
3 Vol. 1, p. 282. Ideler's edition.
4 Mansi IX, p. 395; Hefele, iv: 336.
5 Landon, pp. 177-8.
6 Landon, Manual of Councils, London, 1846, p. 174.
7 The canon reads: "Si quis non anathematizat Arium, Eunomium, Macedonium, Apollinarium, Nestorium, Eutychen, Origenem cum impiis eorum conscriptis, et alios omnes hæreticos, qui condemnati et anathematizati sunt a Catholica et Apostolica Ecclesia," etc.
8 Dietelmaier declares that many of the church doctors agreed with Origen in advocating the salvability of the devil.
9 Article Eschatology p. 194; also Spirits in Prison, p. 41.
10 Latin Christ. I, p. 227.
11 Outlines Hist. Dog., pp. 204, 8, 320, 323.
12 Sozomen, Eccl. Hist.; Gibbon, Decline and Fall.

From the book:

Universalism: The Prevailing Doctrine Of the Christian Church
During Its First Five-Hundred Years --Chapter 21
by J.W. Hanson - 1899