With the recent publication of Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins, the concept of universalism has once again entered into the conversation of the church. As Bell states (p. xi) the idea of universalism is not a new topic, but one that was in the thoughts of the early church. The goal of this article is to provide some historical context to the topic of universalism by examining what the early church taught about heaven and hell and their eternal nature.
To begin with, it ought to be noted that the early church fathers had a wide variety of opinions on the topic, and therefore it is impossible to declaratively say that the early church taught one particular idea. However, there are certain distinct features which many in the early church held and other features which many early fathers rejected. Thus, while there is not a unanimous witness, there is a solid tradition of thoughts which are eventually codified by later church councils as elements of settled theology. When it comes to the topic of universalism, there is a clear majority witness against universalism, with only a few fathers speaking in favor of universalism.