When discussing universalism (specifically what is often called ‘Christian universalism’ or universal reconciliation), universalists will default to proof-texting patristics to give weight to their position. In truth, despite many efforts, church history is clearly (as far as I have seen) against the claim of universalists that “universalism was the prominent position within the early church.” I do not deny the position’s presence in the church, but the rhetoric is exaggerated. To me, such exaggerations demonstrate that Christian Universalists are grasping for straws to validate their position. When one boils down the evidence, we see confirmation of select early writers such as Clement of Alexandria and Origen. Then you have your heavy hitter: Gregory of Nyssa and a few others.

General Assumptions and Presuppositions

Universalists will often speculate regarding early writers and their adherence to universalism based on whether or not they express a view of unlimited atonement and the notion that the atonement affects the whole world. In essence, because the early church’s scope of atonement was broad, these ancient writers seem to be ‘closet universalists,’ meaning they must be universalists even if they say things contrary. Another assumption is that if a writer has points of agreement with Origen, then we can infer they might have been a universalist. Additionally, because Origen was so popular and had followers (“Orgienists”), this must denote that the Origenists were all believers in Origen’s universal reconciliation. Of course, the universalists that I have observed would be quick to say that other universalists abandoned Origen’s peculiar doctrine of the souls; thus, from my perspective, they pick and choose what these Origenists believed. (I think it is clear that the Origenists were more recognized by their Trinitarian model, but that’s neither here nor there.)

The game still ultimately becomes a game of conjecture and speculation.

This build-up moves into our discussion today, Universalists claiming non-Universalists as universalists. I’m particularly concerned today with their attempt to claim Athanasius of Alexandria, or Athanasius the Great, as a universalist. The grounds? Athanasius defends Origen here and there, makes much of the incarnation affecting all of humanity, and allegedly or logically claims the death of Christ results in the salvation of “all.”

Athanasius the Universalist?

A dear old friend of mine, Jason, who moved to Christian Universalism, quotes Athanasius’s Festal Letters (fitting as they were letters for Easter) to support universalism. The quote,

“Christ, because he is good and loves humanity, came to bring fire onto earth; he wills the repentance and the conversion of the human being rather than its death. In this way, evilness, all of it, will be burnt away from all human beings.” (3.4.8)

The only version of this text that I could find that matched Jason’s was that of Ramelli’s tome, “The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis” (p. 252).

The citation is a bit different in Schaff:

“And our Lord Jesus Christ, being good and a lover of men, came that He might cast this upon earth, and said, ‘And what? would that it were already kindled!’ For He desired, as He testified in Ezekiel, the repentance of a man rather than his death; so that evil should be entirely consumed in all men, that the soul, being purified, might be able to bring forth fruit; for the word which is sown by Him will be productive, some thirty, some sixty, some an hundred.”

Other citations match with Schaff, while Ramelli’s seems unique and thus I am left thinking Jason pulled it from Ramelli. Regardless, Jason uses this quote to say that Athanasius is declaring “that Christ’s redemptive work will ultimately restore and reconcile the whole creation and creatures therein to harmonious fellowship with God in the end.” He adds that the writers he cites believed in hell but that it was corrective and purifying rather than punitive thus, all men would be saved.

The problem is that the citation of Athanasius a few verses below states,

“But not such were those nine lepers who were cleansed from their leprosy, and yet were unthankful to the Lord who healed them; nor Judas, who obtained the lot of an apostle, and was named a disciple of the Lord, but at last, ‘while eating bread with the Saviour, lifted up his heel against Him, and became a traitor.’ But such men have the due reward of their folly, since their expectation will be vain through their ingratitude; for there is no hope for the ungrateful, the last fire, prepared for the devil and his angels, awaits those who have neglected divine light. Such then is the end of the unthankful.”

(Fes. 3.8) (Readers can access this letter here to verify)

Athanasius, in clear terms, says immediately after this supposed claim of universal reconciliation (or ironically universal hope), “there is no hope for the ungrateful.” The last fire “is the end of the unthankful.

As we will see below, Athanasius speaks to what he views as the end of those at the last judgment, but it is not a corrective fire. Indeed, fire has many places and uses in scripture, as we do see saints being judged by the fire and not consumed if they have the foundation who is Christ (1 Cor. 3). As even Athanasius says, God is a consuming fire” (3.3). The universalists’ eisegesis in taking 1 Corinthians 3 to mean that even those without Christ may be purified may be discussed on a different day. Regardless, we need to read writers in their context and check citations before proof-texting a given writer.

On the Incarnation

What strikes me further is that many universalists on forums expressly point to Athanasius’ work “On the Incarnation” as being obviously universal. Yet, I’m not sure how one can get such an idea from reading the text unless they inject their hopes into the writer.

There is something to be said about Athanasius making a great deal about how the work of Christ has eliminated many idols and pagans, namely, because they are seen as foolishness in light of the work of Christ. And Athanasius certainly has a universal scope of atonement and what seems to be a hybrid of recapitulation and satisfaction views of the atonement. He certainly does speak about humanity with a broad brush, and he indeed uses “all” because of that universal work of Christ. The problem is conflating the idea of a universal scope of atonement with a universal application of that atonement, which is often what universalists seem to do.

Initially, I was tempted to trace the entire arguments of “On the Incarnation” here, but I quickly realized that would be too long, so we will outline big points instead.

Athanasius indeed speaks about how God’s good creation couldn’t be left to mere ruin and “turn again toward non-existence by the way of corruption” (6.4). Universalists will say that Athanasius argues that because God’s good work cannot be undone (i.e., creating human beings with the goal of being incorruptible), the incarnation must apply to All. This is reading too much into Athanasius here, while Athanasius is simply pointing out why it would be reasonable for God the Son to become incarnate and why God would save human beings. It is a logical leap to go beyond his point.

In chapter eight, he speaks to this, because of God’s love, he sent the Word to bring those who are corrupt to incorruption. He reasons that we were under penalty of corruption of death, and thus the Son gave his body of our nature over to death “in the stead of all” (a universal scope of atonement, sure) and offered it to the Father-doing this. He continues,

“whereas men had turned toward corruption, he might turn them again toward incorruption, and quicken them from death by the appropriation of his body and by the grace of the resurrection, banishing death from them like straw from the fire.” (8.4).

This universal scope of atonement, as mentioned prior, does not equate to a universal application of the atonement. This becomes clear,

“Why, now that the common Savior of all has died on our behalf, we, the faithful in Christ, no longer die the death as before, agreeably to the warning of the law; for this condemnation has ceased; but, corruption ceasing and being put away by the grace of the Resurrection, from now on we are only dissolved, agreeably to our bodies’ mortal nature, at the time God has fixed for each, that we may be able to gain a better resurrection.” (21.1; my emphasis)

Notice that we can take the universalist’s use of “all” here only to a point. Jesus is the common Savior to “all” who “died on our behalf” (that universal scope of atonement), but it is “we, the faithful in Christ,” who “no longer die the death as before.” For this faithful in Christ, the condemnation has ceased alongside corruption and dissolving into “non-existence.”

If there is any doubt, Athanasius says the same later again. In chapter 27, Athanasius speaks of Christ’s victory over death. He talks about how the saints no longer fear death,

“death is no longer terrible; for all who believe in Christ tread him under as nothing, and choosing rather to die than to deny their faith in Christ. For they verily know that when they die they are not destroyed, but actually begin to live and become incorruptible through the resurrection.” (27.2, my emphasis).

Again, death is no longer terrible “for all who believe in Christ,” and those martyrs would rather die than deny their faith because they know it is by that faith that they are not “destroyed” but instead are made incorruptible.

Athanasius, at many points, likens the situation to “straw” being naturally “destructible by fire.” The fire naturally consumes the straw, but if the straw is “enclosed with a quantity of asbestos, the substance said to be an antidote to fire, the straw no longer dreads the fire, being secured by its enclosure in incombustible matter” (44.7).

Athanasius argues it is vital that the Word takes on flesh rather than merely command that death depart because the human bodies would still be corruptible. Here Athanasius’ articulation of deification (or theosis; not to be confused with little-god theology or the deification of Mormonism) is teased out, which is also a discussion for a different day. The ground floor is that “For He was made man that we might be made God,” specifically that “we might inherit immortality. For while He Himself was in no way injured, being impossible and incorruptible and very Word and God, men who were suffering, and for whose sakes He endured all this, He maintained and preserved in His own impossibility.” (Incarnation 54:3)

Essentially, we become like God in immortality and incorruptibility by being united to the Word. When bodies “put on the incorporeal Word of God” it no longer “fears either death or corruption, for it has life as a garment, and corruption is done away in it.” (44.8).

For Athanasius, the Word is the believer’s incombustible matter that secures the believer from the fire that consumes.

The fatal blow against universalists in claiming Athanasius is in chapter 56 when Athanasius speaks to the second coming of Christ,

“And you will also learn about His second glorious and truly divine appearing to us, when no longer in lowliness, but in His own glory, — no longer in humble guise, but in His own magnificence, — He is to come, no more to suffer, but that time forward to render to all the fruit of His own Cross, that is, the resurrection and incorruption; and no longer to be judged, but to judge all, by what each has done in the body, whether good or evil; where there is laid up for the good the kingdom of heaven, but for them that have done evil everlasting fire and outer darkness.”
(Incarnation 56:3)

The juxtaposition is clear – one gets a resurrection and another incorruption. One is given the kingdom of heaven and the other “everlasting fire and outer darkness.” Athanasius, at this point (as we have seen), already has spoken that this fire is not a fire of purification as the universalist will attempt to read into the passage. Rather, the fire is a fire that consumes, and without the asbestos of the Word, man will be consumed back to where he came, “non-existence.

If there is any doubt, Athanasius continues in chapter 57 by saying a man would do well to purify himself so that they “may escape the peril of the sinners and their fire at the day of judgment” and instead “receive what is laid up for the saints in the kingdom of heaven.” He concludes by affirming that those who love God and Father, in Christ Jesus, in the Holy Spirit, will have the kingdom.

In short, Athanasius was not a universalist, but he did see the scope of Christ’s work as vast. Therefore, the presupposition that the universal scope of atonement equals the universal application of said atonement needs to be recognized and disregarded. Further, the abuse of “all men” and “all humanity” ought not to be considered a viable argument.

When reading Athanasius in context, we find that he argues for the coming of the divine Word, emphasizing the necessity of the deity of the Son to bring incorruption to humanity. Still, that incorruption is only through being united to the Word in his death and resurrection.

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