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This is a study of the first five centuries of the Church insofar as its teachings on Universal Reconciliation is concerned. It shows how U. R. was the majority view until the jealousy of an unscrupulous bishop in the year 400 A.D. put the Church down the path toward making it an official "heresy."
Category - Pocket-Sized Book
Origen of Alexandria was just seventeen when he became the head of the Church in Alexandria. The persecution of Emperor Severus began in 202 A.D., which caused Clement to flee to Antioch and which also saw Origen's father imprisoned and ultimately martyred. Origen himself would have exposed himself to the Roman authorities as well, had not his mother hidden his clothes so that he would not leave the house. Thus, she saved his life.
When his father was executed, the family estate was confiscated by the government, and the family was immediately reduced to poverty. But a wealthy lady in Alexandria took Origen into her house and provided for him so that he could preach the Word. But he insisted upon supporting himself, and so he soon opened a Grammar school.
A large number of non-Christians soon were sending their children to his school, also asking him to instruct them in religious subjects, and soon he had many converts to Christ. Seeing his potential, Demetrius, the bishop of Alexandria, then appointed him at the young age of 18 to head the great Catechetical School (their Bible College).
Origen took his duties very seriously. He insisted upon receiving only the smallest salary necessary to sustain life. He ate little and studied long into the night. In those days monkish austerity was held in high regard, and so he soon became well known for his sanctity. Certainly, not only was he a sincere believer, but he was an "enthusiast," a nice word for a fanatic for Christ.
His students were inspired by his fearlessness, and many of them were martyred by the Roman authorities. Origen went to the place of their executions to encourage them in the faith. But his excessive enthusiasm for Christ led him (about 206 A.D.) to emasculate himself, taking Jesus' words in Matt. 19:12 a bit too literally. The bishop at first applauded him, but later condemned such an act--and rightfully so.
In 213 Origen visited Rome for a short time, and then went to Arabia at the invitation of some of the Bedouin tribes who requested Christian teaching. He returned to Alexandria in 216 about the time that the Roman Emperor massacred many of the citizens because some had jeered at him. Origen then moved to Caesarea in Palestine, where the bishops persuaded him to expound the scriptures publicly. However, they did not ordain him formally, and this became an issue to Demetrius, the bishop in Alexandria, who was, by now, becoming jealous of Origen's talent and popularity.
Demetrius wrote to Alexander, bishop of Jerusalem, as well as to Theocristus, bishop of Caesarea, complaining that they were allowing an unordained minister to teach the people. They wrote back that this practice had been sanctioned several times in the past. Demetrius was unsatisfied and sent a letter to Origen, ordering him to return at once to Alexandria. He complied humbly, and resumed his position as head of the School.
Then about five or six years later, Origen received a letter of invitation from Mammaea, the mother of Alexander, the Roman Emperor himself. She was living in Antioch, and invited him to come there to teach--and even sent a full military escort for him. There was little that bishop Demetrius could do about that! After his stay in Antioch, as he passed through Palestine, the bishops there ordained him as a Presbyter.
Demetrius resented the fact that these bishops, in effect, had bypassed him, and so he declared Origen to be unfit for the priesthood on the grounds that he was a self-made eunuch. His position was based upon the law of the Old Testament priesthood in Lev. 21:20. Here is evidence that even in the third century the Church's priesthood was already reverting back to the requirements of the Levitical priesthood instead of Melchizedek as established by Christ.
By this time Origen had written a number of books and commentaries, which were being spread throughout the Greek-speaking world, making him one of the most well-known Bible teachers of the day. Meanwhile, Demetrius made life difficult for him in spite of his humble submission, and so it was not long before he decided to retire to Palestine in 231, where he was warmly received by the bishops there.
Demetrius, however, assembled all the bishops of Egypt to condemn Origen, but the bishops only deprived him of his office and teaching position at the School in Alexandria. Demetrius became still angrier and called for another council (232 A.D.), inviting only those bishops who agreed with him or could be manipulated. Thus, Demetrius succeeded in excommunicating Origen from the Church.
In the East, the bishops ignored this excommunication and freely welcomed Origen, but in the West, particularly in Rome, it was a different matter. The Roman mind was more interested in law and order than in justice, and to them, Origen was now a non-Christian rebel. It was not for any of Origen's teachings that he was condemned and excommunicated, but rather to satisfy the pride of a carnally-minded bishop who took offense at his fellow bishops in Palestine for honoring a man who had attained greater popularity than himself.
Bishop Demetrius died shortly after this, but the damage was done. The succeeding bishops of Alexandria respected the excommunication decree and did not attempt to reverse it. Meanwhile, Origen continued to write his commentaries in Palestine until a new Roman Emperor came to power named Maximin (235 A.D.). He began another round of persecution of Church leaders, causing Origen to go into hiding and later moving to Athens.
He continued to travel and teach at the invitation of various bishops, even corresponding with the first (secret) Christian Emperor, Philip, who ruled from 244-249. Philip was killed in battle by Decius, who then became the next emperor in 250. Perhaps because of this, Origen was arrested and tortured for some length of time with threats of being burned alive. Origen was true to his own principles and did not deny the faith. When Decius died in 251, his tormentors allowed him to "escape."
Origen died two years later in the city of Tyre (253 A.D.). Though he has become the most well-known Universalist of the early Church, this is only because he was the most prolific writer and the most influential theologian of his day. It should be stressed, however, that he did not have to convince any of the Greek-speaking bishops that God would save all mankind. This teaching was not even an issue, because they all assumed it was true. If it had been considered to be heresy, they would have rejected him and excommunicated him for teaching it.
I have gone into some detail about Origen's life, because a century and a half later, in 400 A.D., Origen would again become the center of controversy that brought the teachings of Universalism itself into disrepute. Once again, it had little or nothing to do with the teachings themselves; it had everything to do with personality disputes and a political struggle between bishops.
But all of this occurred after the Golden Age of Universalism in the fourth century, in which this teaching reached its zenith through Gregory of Nazianzen and Gregory of Nyassa. In the introduction to the writings of Gregory Thaumaturgus ("Wonder Worker"), bishop of Caesarea in the third century, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. VI, page 3 says,
"Alexandria continues to be the head of Christian learning. . . We have already observed the continuity of the great Alexandrian school; how it arose, and how Pantaenus begat Clement, and Clement begat Origen. So Origen begat Gregory, and so the Lord has provided for the spiritual generation of the Church teachers, age after age, from the beginning. Truly, the Lord gave to Origen a holy seed, better than natural sons and daughters."