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The Happy News! No One Stays In Hell!

I don’t want to leave the impression that Origen was the only early Christian thinker who held to the idea of universal salvation, that in the end, everyone gets saved.  Very few (hardly any) would have agreed that the Devil too would get redeemed.  But that all humans will eventually “make it” was an attractive view to others – even “orthodox” Christian thinkers.

Among scholars from the later church, the most famous theologian to countenance universal salvation was a self-confessed advocate of Origen, the late fourth-century Gregory of Nyssa (335-94 CE).  In a dialogue called “On the Soul and the Resurrection,” held with his own sister and fellow theologian Macrina the Younger, Gregory insists that suffering after death is not meant to be a punishment for sin, but as a way of driving evil out of the soul.  His sister agrees, at some length.  Moreover, she claims that when evil is finally driven out, it will disappear, since evil cannot exist outside of the will of a person.  And when that happens, Macrina maintains, there will be a “complete annihilation of evil.”  When that happens God will be all and “in all.”  That is, all will be saved.

In many ways the most intriguing suggestions of eternal salvation come in one of the great narrative Gospels put in circulation sometime in the late fourth century, even though it may well have been based on traditions of earlier times.  It is variously called …

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Eternal Torment Even for Christians?
Did Early Christians Believe in Reincarnation?



  1. Avatar
    rborges  January 11, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Still regarding Origen, in this website https://www.john-uebersax.com/plato/origen1.htm it is argued that the quote

    “By some inclination toward evil, certain spirit souls come into bodies, first of men; then, due to their association with the irrational passions after the allotted span of human life, they are changed into beasts, from which they sink to the level of plants. From this condition they rise again through the same stages and are restored to their heavenly place.”

    is not originally by Origen, but it was from Gregory of Nyssa (“On the Soul and the Resurrection”) and Paul Koetschau, who translated the “First Principles” to German, included in the text. What is your opinion on this issue?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 13, 2019

      The text of On First Principles has to be reconstructed in the original Greek because the Latin translator of the fifth century, Rufinus, explicitly indicates that he left parts out because they could be understood as containing “false teachings” (heresies). And so modern scholars have to reconstruct what the text originally said, not just on the basis of Rufinus’s translation but also on other traces of the Greek text in the writings of other authors indebted to Origen who cite his words extensively. No one did so more than Gregory of Nyssa, and there are parts of Gregory’s writings that appear to be quotations of Origen, his theological hero/model. This passage is one of those.

  2. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  January 11, 2019

    Wouldn’t it be far easier for God just to make everyone better from the beginning, then to have to make them better after they have died? Just wondering????

    • Bart
      Bart  January 13, 2019

      Well, it would have been my choice. Or if he didn’t do it in the beginning, maybe he could do it now. It would be a good time for it!

    • Rick
      Rick  January 13, 2019

      Something I thought once along the same line…

      Let me see if I have this straight, the triune God who is the omnipotent, omniscient creator of all sends himself to earth as a human to suffer and die to atone for the sins of everyone else? Everyone else that he also created in forms that would sin, knowing they would sin (he’s omniscient) when, being omnipotent, he could have created them without sin? And, this was his plan all along to change his relationship with his creations and bring salvation to them from himself? Rather than just forgiving them for sinning, or forgiving himself for creating the sinners..?

    • Avatar
      godspell  January 16, 2019

      Wouldn’t it be easier if we made our own lives better (which would mean making the lives of other people better as well) instead of wasting our time on the internet asking questions like this?

      I mean, judge not lest ye be judged, dude.

      God works with the material to hand, and it’s us. And we like to imagine hells, for some reason. Like the working week isn’t hell enough. I see complete and total atheists on the internet, imagining hells of various sorts for people they don’t like. It’s a reflex action, and it would have happened if Jesus was never born. Origen was trying to ease things up. Cut him a break too. 😉

  3. Avatar
    fishician  January 11, 2019

    Those clever theologians! First they invent the concept of hell and then they figure out how to avoid the idea that a loving God would actually allow people to suffer there! At least in the scenario described in this gospel salvation still depends on Jesus’ death on the cross, unlike the ones where suffering itself seems to drive out the sin. But all these concepts of universal salvation seemed to have died out and been replaced by permanent heaven and hell. Why? (Or do I need to wait for your book to come out?!)

    • Bart
      Bart  January 13, 2019

      Yeah, they can be clever, even if the creators of the idea and the tinkerers with it would have been different clever people. And yes, I’m afraid you’ll have to wait! Hopefully the END won’t come before then….

  4. Avatar
    petersilie  January 11, 2019

    Doesn’t this “being swallowed” echo back to Greek and Egyptian mythology? Even Jonas & the Whale come to mind.
    It seems not really a metaphor for being eaten/recycled, though (poor Hades, going forever hungry after a fit of vomiting …).

  5. Avatar
    Eric  January 11, 2019

    Now if only it had been a gigantic talking cross that did the harrowing….

  6. Avatar
    therileyoffice  January 11, 2019

    Dear Dr. Ehrman-
    Will you please explain the meaning of verse I Corinthians 15:29? Regarding being ‘baptized FOR the dead’? I’ve done some research into it but I’m not quite satisfied by the results. I don’t read or speak ancient Greek so I know I’m missing something. Also, I’m quite enjoying your latest release “The Triumph of Christianity” as I do all your books.

    Thank you,
    JG Riley

    • Bart
      Bart  January 13, 2019

      There are roughly 6983 interpretations of it. It almost certainly means that living people were being baptized for those who had already (physically) died. Although even that’s debated. Could a person be baptized in the stead of someone else who is “spiritually” dead? Maybe. But more likely, for a deceased person. But what’s it mean? Baptized for a believer who unfortunately died before getting baptized? For a dead relative who never hear the gospel? For … simply anyone else? Who knows! (Lots of people claim to know, but I don’t think we know)

  7. Avatar
    doug  January 11, 2019

    It sounds like even early Xians were struggling with the Problem of Evil and how massive widespread evil, both the natural and moral varieties, could be consistent with a perfect God.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 13, 2019


    • Avatar
      godspell  January 13, 2019

      Does anyone NOT struggle with that?

      I know plenty of non-believers who struggle with it every day.

      Even if you don’t believe in God, you still do have some ideal world in your mind–and then you see the world you’re living in. They never match. Some people with a similar vision get together to try to make them match. With results that are, shall we say, less than ideal.

      Why do you think people started believing in gods in the first place? In a perfect world, created by a perfect God, nobody would believe in God. Everybody would take it for granted that all this was theirs by right. Just like everybody always does, until things go wrong. As they always will. Because Life isn’t perfect. But it sure beats the alternative.

      Thank you, God. Whoever, wherever, whatever You are.

      I thank you for giving me this moment, my family, my friends, my jobs, and my pain,, a chance to prove myself worthy of your gifts.

      Even if you are nothing more than Life itself, I thank you.

  8. Avatar
    godspell  January 11, 2019

    The Gospel of Nicodemus would have been a natural for a Jack Chick comic, with SuperJesus smashing through the gates of Hell and freeing the tormented sinners, kicking demon ass, etc.

    Trouble is, Jack was an evangelical Protestant, and LOVED Eternal Damnation. Would have loathed the notion of a finite purgatory, a sauna for the soul.. Too Catholic. He would not indulge such notions (you see what I did there.)

    Interesting notion, from Gregory of Nyssa (or his sister), that evil can’t exist outside a person’s will. But that being the case, wouldn’t it be necessary to destroy the person to destroy the evil? Is it akin to demonic possession? Jesus drove out devils, but it’s is never suggested all or most human evil stems from such afflictions, and those who have them would seem to be deranged, not evil. Satan is not the reason for the existence of the goats. Truthfully, Jesus never tries to explain them. It isn’t for him to say why some people are manically self-centered, others mysteriously selfless, and most of us wavering between the two poles. It is enough to know that these two orientations exist, and one must choose between them. To fail to choose is itself a choice.

    So what’s left when a soul is purged of evil? Is there anything resembling a person? Wouldn’t personality be one of the vanities one left behind?

    To Jesus, it’s the person who matters, it is persons he wishes to save. Physical human persons, who have the potential for good in them. He want to see them in a physical world where they can no longer be thwarted in their good intentions, or tempted to abandon them. For that to happen, the goats must be purged from that world. But since that didn’t happen, the later generations of Christians who were intellectuals (Philosophers/Theologians, same difference) needed to come up with a way it could still come out all right in the end. The imperfection of this world is merely a prelude to the perfection yet to come.

    My problem with Origen’s solution is that it takes moral choice out of the mix. You’re going to be good whether you want to or not. I don’t think so. Jesus was right. It’s our choice.

    • Avatar
      meohanlon  January 14, 2019

      I’m wondering if in response to the issue of choice (and I do agree that free-will, albeit sometimes clouded by what Sartre calls ‘bad faith’ is the necessary condition for moral choice) Origen, wanting to preserve free-will, would respond that we don’t lose our ability to choose as we approach complete redemption, so much as we gain more clarity – more reason and insight into why it’s better to choose the good, resist what we know is wrong, or act with sounder intentions (perhaps because it is truer to our nature, or the consequences of rightful living, over time result in a net improvement) – and also in that we discern more opportunities for doing good (intuited from past experience, including previous lives perhaps) that we are also more inclined to act on – the feeling of guilt is often also for failing to do what we already knew was good when called upon (sometimes it’s not so clear as Sartre points out in at least one of his stories). Actually a good portion of my master’s thesis dealt with the question of karma and free will, which, in the Buddhist traditions I studied, are complementary conditions for conscious life.

      • Avatar
        godspell  January 19, 2019

        I like the argument, but must quibble–my problem with reincarnation is that you start every life with a blank slate. You don’t remember past lives, past mistakes, so how can you learn from them?

        Buddhism posits the Bodhisattva, who remembers past lives, and thus has a map towards enlightenment, liberation from existence (but may delay Nirvana out of compassion for others further back in the line).

        Trouble is, that’s about as likely as walking on the water. In practice, it never happen (possibly because there are no past lives to recall). Anyway, after a few score lives, perhaps not all in human form, how would you keep them straight in your head? “Back when I was a dog, I learned….”

        It’s easy to nitpick castles in the air, which is what all philosophies are, good or bad, true or false, theist or secular (I question where there is any such thing as atheist philosophy, since a real atheist would have none). We have ideas, and they matter to us, are essential to our mental processes–but they aren’t real, any of them.

        What is real is the Sheep and the Goats. Jesus is closer to core truths than any other famous thinker I know of. His mistake was to believe God would intervene, but that’s not as silly as Plato believing in Philosopher Kings. The king side always wins out, you know? Lord Acton could have told him that.

        Clearly we do have free will, and don’t usually make good use of it. Just as we’re born with the potential to be physically fit, but slack off, let fat replace muscle.

        We evolved from primates who, like modern chimps and gorillas, didn’t need to exercise much to be strong and healthy.

        Our ancestors evolved a more efficient bodily form, to deal with the new environments we were mastering, but that meant constant labor, hunting and gathering, so we needed constant activity to stay fit.

        But the ape in us still cherished indolence, quiet contemplation of the world around us, with only sporadic bursts of activity. And this is why I have a Planet Fitness membership, and almost never use it. I’m posting here instead. My choice. 😉

  9. Avatar
    fedcarroll77  January 11, 2019


    Off topic comment on this but going over your upcoming year post you posted about. Sounds like a rounded year ahead of you for 2019. Concerning your book about the afterlife I like the idea of a one thesis idea to demonstrate it. I do also find a series of “mini thesises” also just as productive. I think going to the literature of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament and demonstrating what was each writers understanding was and thoughts were about the afterlife is also just as good. This can show readers that it was not universal, but different amongst each group. Also adding into that the culture and surrounding influences can also demonstrate the evolution of the concept. So mini thesis and showing what each culture believes and how that belief evolved would be interesting to read. Just my comments on that, but either will be a good read.

  10. Avatar
    paulfchristus  January 11, 2019

    What is so funny is maybe the joke is on us.
    Reading ancient Cartoon Heros like there were real in the first place.

  11. Avatar
    AstaKask  January 11, 2019

    I’ve heard of something called Pelagianism? Is this related to that?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 13, 2019

      Not really. Pelagius taught, speaking very roughly, that people were not inherently entirely evil and that a person of his or her own free will could choose to do what is right to please God. Augustine saw this as a very dangerous position, and took the opposite view.

      • Avatar
        godspell  January 13, 2019

        Posse. Velle. Esse. The potential to be good. The will to be good. Good.

        Many people today would be surprised to find they are in fact Pelagians. Augustine was able to fix that fight (and the chaotic times kind of argued his case), but the ideas of that fat Irishman live on. 😉

  12. Avatar
    mannix  January 11, 2019

    That would make a great book/movie. Why don’t you call your friend Dan Brown?

  13. Avatar
    AstaKask  January 12, 2019

    Another question – how do you write these posts? How much work goes in to them? How much research? And how does that research go into your professional life?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 13, 2019

      Depends on the post! These afterlife posts are all based on the research I’ve done for my afterlife book(s). I never ever put time into doing research just for a blog post. It’s always something that I already know, have already written on, or have already thought extensively about. It normally takes about a half hour or so for me to crank out a thousand words.

  14. Avatar
    Steefen  January 12, 2019

    Bart (Sep 16, 2018)
    I’ve never been convinced that there is any stoicism in Jesus’ teachings (apart from “generally held wisdom”). Do you have something in mind?

    I brought up Stoicism in Early Christianity a book edited by Tuomas Tasimus published by Baker Academic, 2010.

    Christopher Tuckett of Pembroke College – University of Oxford wrote:
    “This important collection of essays will be of interest to all those concerned with seeing the early Christian movement within the broader context of the Greco-Roman world. The focus on Stoicism here opens valuable new insights into aspects of early Christianity and will be a major stimulus for future research.
    = = =
    Also, there is a book, Hellenistic Religions: The Age of Syncretism by Frederick C. Grant

    Mike DePue, OFS (Secular Franciscan Order) in his amazon review wrote:
    Frederick C. Grant 1891-1974 was president of Seabury-Western Theological Seminary and was on the Revision Committee for the RSV. … The auther sees cross fertilization: Stoic ethics, for instance, providing a matrix for theological formulations in Pauline letters, Hebrews, the Gospel of John, and Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. (p. xxx)
    = = =
    Loving enemies/forgiving enemies in the Greco-Roman world does not only have Jesus standing tall but Julius Caesar with his Clementia (mercy) and Seneca teaching Nero about Clementia in two books (which you have probably read since you said you have done some reading of Seneca, if not having read more than some). Seneca’s guidance of Nero is responsible for Nero’s great start as an emperor.
    = = =
    So, the author of the article “Jesus the Teacher and Stoic Ethics in the Gospel of Matthew,” Stanley K. Stowers of Brown University, in the Stoicism in Early Christianity book is not the only scholar that sees Stoicism in the Gospel of Matthew but Frederick Grant also sees it in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount.
    = = =

    Maybe you can do a post or you have written an article or a section of one of your books against Stoicism in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, against Stoicism in Pauline ethics in Romans, and against Stoicism in Hebrews (in that order of priority)?

    Maybe you can do a post or you have written an article or a section of one of your books contrasting Seneca’s Stoic concept of Clementia/Mercry and Jesus’ concept of Mercy and which provides the better teaching on the subject of Mercy?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 13, 2019

      Yes, saying that there is Stoic influence on Paul or the later Christian writers is very different indeed from saying there was Stoic influence on Jesus, an itinerant Aramaic-speaking preacher raised in a small hamlet in a rural part of Galilee.

      • Avatar
        godspell  January 16, 2019

        I can’t count the number of times here that I’ve had this sudden flash of insight, an idea I’ve never had before, relating to something we’re discussing–and then of course turns out a bunch of scholars I’d never heard of, let alone met, or read, had it before me.

        Because one person had an idea doesn’t mean somebody else can’t have the same basic idea, perhaps with variations. Because of plagiarism laws, copyright, scholarly ethics, and the desire to create something we’ll be remembered for, we’re obsessed with originality in the modern world. “Who said this first?” The real question is who said it best. But that’s an opinion, and we figure at least who thought it first would be a fact. If we could only know. But we can’t.

  15. Avatar
    Rita Gomes  January 13, 2019

    The Prayer of the Creed, in the part which says: “the death of the dead has come down” may be related to this account of Christ in Hade?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 14, 2019

      I’m not familiar with that Prayer. Which Creed are you referring to? (It’s not in the Apostles’ or the Nicene Creed)

      • Avatar
        Rita Gomes  January 15, 2019

        Sorry, É the Nocene Creed or Apostles.

  16. Avatar
    dankoh  January 20, 2019

    I wonder if Origen’s view might have become official doctrine if Augustine hadn’t decided it couldn’t logically fit into his reading of the NT.

    Incidentally (or not), Origen’s view is similar to that of the Talmud, which for the most part argues that sinners are sent to hell for at most 12 months in order to repent of their sins and to learn how to come close to God, somewhat similar to purgatory. In fact, Rabbi Akiba argues the the reason children say kaddish for their parents for 11 months, not 12, is so as not to imply that their parents were worthy of the maximum penalty. I wonder, is there are cross-fertilization here, or perhaps common ancestry, between the Talmud’s view and Origen’s?

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