Gregory of Nyssa famously defended the doctrine of the Trinity in the Second Ecumenical Council in AD 381, and Gregory of Nyssa also defended the doctrine of universalism with the restoration of all things. Ironically, the Fifth Ecumenical Council in 553 condemned Origen's universalism according to the wishes of Emperor Flavius Justinian, who wanted to condemn all universalist teachings, but the Fifth Ecumenical Council also commended Gregory of Nyssa, calling him a holy Father who wrote about the true faith. And universalism has been heterodox in most of Western Christianity since then.1
On the other hand, universalism was an orthodox option during the Early Church and the first four Ecumenical Councils. For example, four of the six known theological schools during the Church's first five centuries taught universalism.2
Gregory of Nyssa had exemplary trinitarian credentials and taught that the unsaved dead suffer punishment in hell while he also taught that hell is purgatorial and temporary. He taught that hell is purgatorial in that the punishments in hell purge the sinful dispositions of the unsaved dead. And he taught that hell is temporary in that the unsaved dead suffer punishment in degree and duration according to their sinfulness. And this implies that the unsaved dead will eventually repent in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and get liberated from hell.3
Modern evangelical denominations typically forbid doctrines of purgatorial hell. For example, the Assemblies of God credentialed me a few years ago, but I had to resign my credentials or waive my right to teach my recently modified interpretations of future prophecies in Scripture.
This paper contends that Christian Scriptures teach that the unsaved dead can eventually repent in the name of Jesus to get saved out of hell and accepted into heaven. And this paper contends that such formerly orthodox teachings should be orthodox within evangelical churches. And here is a review of some relevant Scriptures and various opposition.
1Pierre Batiffel, "Apocatastasis", The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume I, (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907), http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01599a.htm.
2George T. Night, "Universalists", New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Vol. XII: Trench – Zwingli, ed. S. M. Jackson, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1950), 96.
II: I PETER 3:18-20, 4:6 AND PATRISTICS
18For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, 19in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, 20who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. (1 Peter 3:18-20 NRSV)
For this is the reason the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does. (1 Peter 4:6 NRSV)
Many Early Church fathers taught that Christ descended to hell with the gospel according to 1 Peter 3:18-20, 4:6. Second and Third Century Church fathers teaching the descent to hell with the gospel included Polycarp of Smyrna, Ignatius of Antioch, Hermas, Justin, Melito of Sardis, Hyppolytus of Rome, Irenaeus of Lyons, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen. Fourth Century Eastern Church Fathers teaching the descent to hell with the gospel included Athanasius, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory Nazianzen, John Chrysostom, Jacob Aphrahat, and Ephrem the Syrian. Later Eastern Church Fathers teaching the descent to hell included Cyril of Alexandria, Maximus the confessor, and John Damascene. These patristic authors agreed that Christ delivered the gospel to hell between his death and resurrection. The only dispute among them was if Christ preached the gospel to all the dead or only a particular category of the dead such as those imprisoned from the days of Noah or the Old Testament believers.4
Augustine wrote extensively on the topic. For example, in Letter 164, he opposed a common Christian doctrine of his time by saying that it is absurd to think that anybody who rejected Christ in life would get a chance at salvation in hell. And he proposed that 1 Peter 3:18-20 teaches that the preexistent Christ preached through Noah.
4Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, "Christ the Conqueror of Hell: The Descent of Christ into Hades in Eastern and Western Theological Traditions", (A lecture delivered at St Mary’s Cathedral, Minneapolis, USA, 2002), http://orthodoxeurope.org/page/11/1/5.aspx.
III: EXEGESIS AND I PETER 3:18-20, 4:6
Utley's exegetical Bible study of 1 Peter represents common modern evangelical views of 1 Peter 3:18-20, 4:6.5 Utley notes that three items should be linked together: 1) Jesus was "in the spirit" per verse 18; 2) Jesus preached to the spirits in prison per verse 19; 3) these spirits did not obey in the days of Noah per verse 20.
Utley also notes six theories about the preaching to the imprisoned spirits according to 1 Peter 3:18-20:
1) the preexistent Christ preached through Noah
2) Christ ascended through the heavens and announced his victory over the angelic realms, which relates to Rabbinic tradition from the apocryphal II Enoch that says fallen angels are imprisoned in the second of seven heavens
The next five theories are in the context of Christ preaching between his death and resurrection.
3) Christ preached "condemnation" to the imprisoned humans of Noah's day
4) Christ preached good things to Noah and his family in Paradise in the view of the imprisoned humans of Noah's day in Tartarus
5) Christ preached "condemnation" to the fallen angels of Genesis 6:1-4
6) Christ preached "condemnation" to the "half-angel, half-human" creatures of Genesis 6:4
7) Christ preached "salvation" to the imprisoned humans of Noah's day
The context of 1 Peter 3:18 indicates that the preaching takes place after the physical death of Christ. So we can eliminate the interpretation of the first theory.
Utley contends that "was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit" implies that the preaching took place after the resurrection, and he chooses the second theory. Utley says that both phrases "was put to death in the flesh" and "made alive in the spirit" are a parallelism while both phrases are aorist passive participles, and the tense implies that this is a historical event performed by an outside agency. And in this case, "made alive in the spirit" implies the resurrection.
We agree that this is an example of parallelism that is common in the Bible, and we agree that the phrases are aorist passive participles. But "made alive in the spirit" does not have to imply the resurrection. For example, the death by crucifixion forced the spirit of Christ to temporarily leave his physical body, so Christ was made alive in the spirit.
And in regards to the theory of fallen angels imprisoned in the second of seven heavens, we see no essential difference between angels in "chains of deepest darkness"6 in the second heaven or some region in hell. Likewise, we see little difference between the second and fifth theories apart from whether Christ preached between his death and resurrection or after his ascension.
Concerning the third theory, we see no reason for Christ to preach unconditional condemnation to the unsaved humans that lived in Noah's days. This is inconsistent with Hebrew prophecies of judgment. For example, the books of Jeremiah and Ezekiel teach that prophecies of judgment to both nations and individual people are always conditional, which we will see in Section V. And the fourth theory is similar to the third theory in that the unsaved hear preaching with evidently no conditions for repentance.
Christ preaching unconditional judgment to the fallen angels in the fifth theory has the same problem as the third and fourth theories because prophecies of unconditional judgment are inconsistent with the teachings in Jeremiah and Ezekiel. The sixth theory has all of the problems of the fifth theory, plus the sixth theory contains the apocryphal I Enoch teaching of half-angel, half-human creatures, which needs correction. For example, if incarnate angelophanies had sex with women, then it would be incorrect to say that the offspring are half-angel, half-human. The argument for this correction will examine scriptural teachings of human-like angelophanies, teachings about the incarnation of God the Son from the Fourth Ecumenical Council in 451, and mammalian hybrids.
The account in Genesis 18:1-19:25 teaches important details about human-like angelophanies. The account begins with three human-like angelophanies visiting Abraham. The angelophanies conversed, ate, and drank with Abraham. And later, the men from Sodom wanted to sexually rape two of the angelophanies. These details suggest that the angelophanies had a digestive tract and sex appeal. We assume that these angelophanies manifested in a human body. And we propose that each of the angelophanies were a hypostatic union of an angel and a newly created human adult body without mother or father or genealogy, which we call a "fiat angelic incarnation". We also consider that some angelophanies were a hypostatic union beginning with an angel fusing to a human zygote or new embryo, which we call a "progressive angelic incarnation". We favor the former scenario because good angelophanies tend to suddenly appear in scriptural accounts and the former scenario avoids Adam’s curse on holy incarnate angels.
We propose that the wicked sons on God that produced children with human women according to Genesis 6:1-4 were angelic incarnations. And other interpretations have contextual problems according to Utley.7
Now we will look at the biology of the purported descendants of angelic incarnations and human women, which from the scriptural context includes the "Nephilim" per Genesis 6:4 and the "Anakites" who descended from the Nephilim per Numbers 13:33. The example of the Anakites indicate that at least some of the Nephilim had no trouble producing fertile children. And the biological definition of "hybrid" in regards to mammals implies that hybrids such as mules rarely if ever produce offspring. And the "biological species concept" implies that interbreeding between different mammalian species rarely if ever produces fertile offspring. This implies that the Anakites did not descend from a hybrid. And this implies that the angelic incarnations had Homo sapiens chromosomes. Many of the angelic incarnations and their children may have been physically taller or stronger than the average human, but their biological bodies were completely human as the body of the Lord Jesus was completely human.
Rejecting the apocryphal theory of hybrids also fits the rest of the New Testament. For example, 2 Peter 2:4 and Jude 6 use apocryphal descriptions for the punishment of fallen angels, but do not suggest that the angels are hybrids.
The seventh theory that Christ preached salvation to the imprisoned humans of Noah's day has trouble because the phrase "spirits in prison" in 1 Peter 3:19 alludes to the fallen angels from Genesis 6:1-4. And Utley associates the seventh theory with Clement of Alexandria. But Clement of Alexandria noted in Stromata, Book 6 that Christ also preached to those who were chained after perishing in the flood, which implies the fallen incarnate angels of Genesis 6:1-4. And Clement of Alexander supported universalism that included the restoration of fallen angels. Likewise, the seven theory options are insufficient.
We propose that 1 Peter 3:18-20 teaches that Christ preached the gospel to the imprisoned incarnate angels from Noah's days. This has advantages: 1) the interpretation represents sound exegesis; 2) it works with the teachings in Jeremiah and Ezekiel in regards to the conditions of prophetic judgments; 3) it rejects the erroneous apocryphal teaching about half-angel, half-human creatures.
Clement of Alexandria and other Early Church fathers such as Gregory of Nyssa also believed that Christ preached salvation to all dead humans. And we assume that this is an implication of combining 1 Peter 3:18-20 and 4:6. And this suggests that the preaching to the wicked angelic humans from Genesis 6:1-4 represents the universality of the preaching during the descent to hell. For example, these wicked angelic humans lived before the origin of Hebrew messianic prophecies, the Mosaic Covenant, the Abrahamic Covenant, and the Noahic Covenant. Likewise, we propose that 1 Peter 3:18-20 and 4:6 imply that Christ preached salvation to all dead humans, including fallen incarnate angels.
5Bob Utley, The Gospel According to Peter: Mark and I & II Peter, (Lubbock, Texas: Bible Lessons International, 2001).
6See "chains of deepest darkness" in 2 Peter 2:4 and "eternal chains in deepest darkness" in Jude 1:6. NRSV
7Bob Utley, How It All Began - Genesis 1-11, (Lubbock, Texas: Bible Lessons International, 2001).
IV: COLOSSIANS 1:15-20
15He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 17He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:15-20 NRSV)
Colossians refuted a heresy in the church of Colossae that evidently was related to various gnostic beliefs. Part of the heresy involved a belief in a hierarchy of angels that included the belief that physical matter such as the human body is evil. For example, it taught that matter and spirit are antithetical.8
Colossians 1:15-20 teaches about the superiority of Christ over everything "visible" that represents matter and everything "invisible" that represents spirit. It also teaches that Christ shed blood on his cross to reconcile everything to God, which includes everything on "earth" that represents matter and everything in "heaven" that represents spirit. And this refutes the heresy that matter and spirit are antithetical.
We also propose that Christ shedding his blood to reconcile everything in heaven to God according Colossians 1:20 suggests that Christ shed his blood for fallen angels in heavenly places. For example, the context of 1:16 and 2:15 implies fallen angels. And a related passage in Ephesians 6:12 teaches that evil angels are in heavenly places. Likewise, Christ shed his blood for fallen angels and preached the gospel along with the consequences of rejecting the gospel to the fallen angels. And presumably many of the fallen angels chose to hold onto their worldly powers as long a possible instead of surrendering to Christ.
8Bob Utley, Paul’s Prison Letters: Colossians, Ephesians, Philemon and Later, Philippians, (Lubbock, Texas: Bible Lessons International, 1998).
V: PROPHETIC JUDGMENTS
If we believe that all of the original books in the Old Testament and the New Testament are the Word of God while contending that 1 Peter 3:18-20, 4:6 teaches that Christ preached salvation with liberation from hell to the unsaved dead, then we need to apply the Analogy of Faith and offer suggestions that explain the consistency of Scripture. We propose that a careful examination of Old Testament prophetic judgements helps to reconcile Scriptures that describe everlasting punishment with Scriptures that imply possible liberation from hell. For example, Jeremiah 18:5-10 and Ezekiel 33:12-16 teach that prophecies of blessing or judgment to nations or individual people are conditional.9 And most Scriptures related to hell are apocalyptic, and apocalyptic Scriptures by definition are mostly symbolic instead of literal.
Here is Jeremiah 18:5-10:
5Then the word of the Lord came to me: 6Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. 7At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, 8but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. 9And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, 10but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it. (Jeremiah 18:5-10 NRSV)
Jeremiah 18:7-8 teaches that prophetic condemnations to nations are conditional. For example, according to the Book of Jonah, Jonah prophesied the overthrow of Nineveh to the people of Nineveh. And Jonah tried to avoid delivering the prophecy of doom because he knew that the Lord would relent of his plans for Nineveh's doom if the people would repent after Jonah prophesied. And the Book of Jonah never explains this conditional element of the prophecy. But we see that the Lord delayed his punishment of Nineveh after the people of Nineveh repented. And the Jeremiah also contains various prophecies of doom to several nations while all of the prophecies were conditional with no conditions directly stated within the respective prophecies.
And here is Ezekiel 33:12-16:
12And you, mortal, say to your people, The righteousness of the righteous shall not save them when they transgress; and as for the wickedness of the wicked, it shall not make them stumble when they turn from their wickedness; and the righteous shall not be able to live by their righteousness when they sin. 13Though I say to the righteous that they shall surely live, yet if they trust in their righteousness and commit iniquity, none of their righteous deeds shall be remembered; but in the iniquity that they have committed they shall die. 14Again, though I say to the wicked, “You shall surely die,” yet if they turn from their sin and do what is lawful and right— 15if the wicked restore the pledge, give back what they have taken by robbery, and walk in the statutes of life, committing no iniquity—they shall surely live, they shall not die. 16None of the sins that they have committed shall be remembered against them; they have done what is lawful and right, they shall surely live. (Ezekiel 33:12-16 NRSV)
Ezekiel 33:14-16 teaches that prophecies of doom to individual people are conditional. And the Book of Ezekiel contains several prophecies to individual people and nations while all of the prophecies were conditional with no conditions directly stated within the respective prophecies.
Kearley compiles several other examples of conditional prophecies in the Old Testament, and he concludes that all predictive prophecies are conditional. For example, prophecies with unfulfilled conditions can be repealed, altered or delayed according to God's eternal purposes. And Kearley applies this to end-time prophecies when he says: "If the conditional element were accepted, this would constitute a giant step toward the unity of classical premillennialists, dispensationalists, amillennialists, and postmillennialists."10
Such conditional eschatology also applies to Christ offering salvation to the unsaved dead. The prophecies of everlasting punishment depend upon the condition that the unsaved continue to reject Christ forever.
We also consider that many prophecies describing everlasting punishment are apocalyptic, which by definition is mostly symbolic instead of literal. For example, many classify the Book of Daniel as an Apocalypse. And during the Olivet discourse, Jesus says that Daniel is a prophet. And Daniel 12:2 predicts that many people will be resurrected to disgrace and everlasting contempt. But given the conditional nature of prophecy and the symbolic nature of Apocalypses, we should not insist that these verses teach about everlasting punishment with no chance of liberation.
9F. Furman Kearley, "The Conditional Nature of Prophecy: A Vital Exegetical and Hermeneutical Principle", (Montgomery, AL: Apologetics Press, not dated), http://www.apologeticspress.org/rr/reprints/Conditional-Nature-of-Prophecy.pdf.
VI: OPPOSITION FROM HODGE
In 1871, Charles Hodge represented many in the Reformed tradition by appealing to the Analogy of Faith to assert that 1 Peter 3:18-20, 4:6 cannot teach that Christ preached the gospel to spirits in prison because such an interpretation is contrary to the rest of Scripture and "the faith of the whole Church, Latin, Lutheran, and Reformed". Hodge also says the whole Church teaches that preaching the gospel for salvation is confined to this present life. And he says, "It is certainly a strong objection to an interpretation of any one passage that it makes it teach a doctrine nowhere else taught in the Word of God, and which is contrary to the teachings of that Word, as understood by the universal Church."11
We respect Hodge's enormous contribution to systematic theology, but Hodge is mistaken about the Early Church and Eastern Church Father's in regards to the limits of the gospel. And Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev says that contemporary Eastern Orthodox churches believe Christ preached the gospel to the dead.12
Rejecting that Christ preached the gospel to unsaved dead requires more than Hodge appealing to the Analogy of Faith while denying the truth about the first five centuries of Church doctrine. And it requires more than Augustine saying that Christ offering salvation to those who rejected him in earthly life is absurd. Both Church history and Scriptures referenced in this paper indicate that the possibility and hope of universalism is orthodox.
11Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology II, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1940), 615-21.
VII: THE POSSIBILITY OF UNIVERSALISM
Hebrews 9:27 says that humans are destined to die once and then face judgment. And this is consistent with Gregory of Nyssa's view of hell. Those who die lost suffer in hell according to their sins, but they still have the possibility of salvation.
Many modern universalists claim that everybody's salvation is guaranteed. For example, various preachers claim that Acts 3:21 teaches that all people including the final Antichrist will be restored before Christ returns. But that is not the context according to 3:22-23.
Here is Acts 3:19-23:
19Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, 20so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah appointed for you, that is, Jesus, 21who must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets. 22Moses said, ‘The Lord your God will raise up for you from your own people a prophet like me. You must listen to whatever he tells you. 23And it will be that everyone who does not listen to that prophet will be utterly rooted out of the people.' (Acts 3:19-23 NRSV)
Acts 3:21 implies that the restoration of all things will occur before the return of Christ while 3:23 implies that all who do not heed Christ will be utterly destroyed. Likewise, the context of 3:21-23 does not necessitate that this restoration of all things must include everybody's salvation. On the other hand, if 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12 and various passages in Revelation teach about a final personal Antichrist who is a progressive or fiat incarnation of a fallen archangel, then that Antichrist could get saved according to conditional eschatology in Section V.
There are several scriptural passages about God's love and desire for the salvation of all people, for examples, John 3:16 and 1 Timothy 2:1-4. These passages along with 1 Peter 3:18-20 & 4:6, Colossians 1:20, Jeremiah 18:5-10, Ezekiel 33:12-16 and an understanding of scriptural Apocalypses can encourage us with the possibility and hope of universalism. Humans and angels have the free will to continually reject Christ forever, but literal foreverness is a long time.
VIII: VARIOUS PHILOSOPHICAL CONSIDERATIONS
We conclude by addressing various philosophical considerations that are all part of the big picture. For example, many devout Christians struggle with the Augustinian doctrine which implies that billions of people including everybody's loved ones that died lost have no chance of liberation from the torments of literal everlasting punishment. We contend that Scriptures do not ask us to carry the burden of this interpretation. And we are free to approach theodicy and console mourners including ourselves with the possibility and hope of universalism. And many people think that Gregory of Nyssa's representation of God is more just and more loving and more powerful than Augustine's representation of God.
Some evangelicals complain that if Christ evangelizes the dead, postmortem evangelization, then there is no need for Christians to sacrificially dedicate themselves to the Great Commission. But this as an immature attitude that has nothing to do with the universalism and evangelistic zeal of the Early Church. That immature attitude essentially says, "Let the world go to hell because Christ evangelizes hell." Regardless of our interpretation of hell, Christ told us to preach the gospel to all ethnic groups. And we obey Christ.
Some evangelicals are concerned with the problem that immature Christians and the lost will take hell lightly if we admit that Scriptures indicate the possibility of liberation from hell. And some people may think like that. This is analogous to some people deciding to murder only in states that do not have a death penalty. However, we can decrease the problem by emphasizing teaching that God gives extra punishment to those who purposefully abuse God's grace. Likewise, the unsaved dead suffer punishment in degree and duration according to their sinfulness. And nobody gets out of hell without genuinely repenting of their sins.
Gregory of Nyssa went as far as saying that the punishments in hell are purgatorial instead of judicial. We propose a middle ground where the punishments for the lost in the afterlife are both purgatorial and judicial. And we clarify that all cases of salvation are initiated by the Holy Spirit and require the regeneration of the Holy Spirit.
Finally, many people say that all theological systems that include universalism teach that all paths lead to God. This is not the case with scriptural Early Church approaches to universalism. For example, there are many wrong paths that lead away from God. And this paper strictly holds to the belief according to John 14:6 that nobody comes to the Father apart from Jesus Christ while nobody comes to Christ without repenting from wrong paths.
Copyright © 2007, 2008 James Edward Goetz
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.