UU Minute #83

Universalism: Beginnings

We move now from our Unitarian story to the Universalist side of our heritage. Universalism gets its name from Universal salvation – that everyone goes to heaven and there is no hell. The early Universalists did, however, believe in purgatory – a temporary period of purging, purifying and cleansing before ultimate union with God.

Through Christian history, the concept of hell has been a mixture of attempting to discourage sin and a perverse schadenfreude enjoyment for the elect. 2nd-century Christian theologian Tertullian (155-220) wrote that the joy of heaven consisted in being able to look down into hell and watch the torments of the damned. In the 13th-century, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) also argued that the saints in heaven would be able to view the sufferings of the damned – “in order that the happiness of the saints may be more delightful to them.”

Yet there have also been Christian thinkers from early on who found incongruous the notion that a loving God would condemn to eternal torment creatures of God’s own making.
  • Origen (185-253) is most often named as the first Christian universalist. He was firmly convinced that “all human souls will ultimately be saved” and “united to God forever in loving contemplation.”
  • Clement of Alexandria (150-215) seems to have viewed punishment after death as medicinal and therefore temporary before eventual elevation to heaven.
  • Gregory of Nyssa (335-395) is interpreted by many as a Universalist.
  • Isaac of Nineveh (613-700) in the 7th century was an advocate of Universalism.
Through the middle ages and the reformation an undercurrent of Universalist thought simmered.

In the 18th century, London-born preacher and medical student George de Benneville had a near death mystical experience that convinced him of Universal salvation. For more on de Benneville sure to catch our next thrilling episode.

NEXT: George de Benneville, part 1

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