Over the past decade I have noticed—and perhaps you have too—that most Christians who have thought about matters eschatological believe that Origen of Alexandria concocted out of the blue the doctrine of universal salvation. But in truth the greater hope took on several distinct forms, both before and after Origen.1 In his City of God, St Augustine of Hippo identifies seven different universalist and semi-universalist positions present in the Church in the early fifth century, each group employing different biblical texts to support its convictions.2 He famously dubs them “misericordi nostri” (“our own compassionate ones”). With the exception of Origen and his followers, he does not regard the other six groups as heretical. His tone might even be described as cordial:
I must now, I see, enter the lists of amicable controversy with those tender-hearted Christians who decline to believe that any, or that all of those whom the infallibly just Judge may pronounce worthy of the punishment of hell, shall suffer eternally, and who suppose that they shall be delivered after a fixed term of punishment, longer or shorter according to the amount of each man’s sins. (XXI.17)
Richard Bauckham has helpfully provided a table listing the seven doctrinal positions and favorite texts:3
(1) Origen: All, including the devil and his angels, will be saved, after purgatorial punishments.
De civ. Dei 21.17; reply: 21.23.
Also Ad Orosium 5-7 (415 C.E.)
(2) All human beings (but not devils) will be saved, after punishments of varying duration.
De civ. Dei 21.17; reply: 21.23.
Also Ad Orosium 5-7 (415 C.E.)
(3) All human beings (but not devils) will be saved by the intercession of the saints on the Day of Judgment. Thus no one will be punished at all. Hell is a threat of what the wicked deserve, but mercy will overrule it. Scripture is largely silent on this in order to promote the repentance of those who fear hell.
Texts: Psalm 76:10(77:9); Jonah 3; Psalm 30:20(31:19); Rom 11:32.
De civ. Dei 21.18; reply: 21.24.
Also Enchiridion 29 (112) (421 C.E.)
Text: Psalm 76:10(77:9)
and perhaps Serm. 75.9 (? 400 C.E.)
(4) All who participate in the Christian sacraments, including heretics, will be saved.
Text: John 6:50-51.
De civ. Dei 21.19; reply: 21.25.
(5) All who participate in the Catholic eucharist will be saved.
Text: 1 Corinthians 10:17.
De civ. Dei 21.20; reply: 21.25.
(6) All who remain in the Catholic church (hold the Catholic faith) will be saved, those who lived wickedly after temporary punishment.
Text: I Corinthians 3:11-15.
De civ. Dei 21.21; reply: 21.26.
Also Defide et operibus 15 (24-26) (413 C.E.)
Text: I Corinthians 3:11-15.
Enchiridion 18 (67-69) (421 C.E.)
Text: 1 Corinthians 3:11-15.
De octo Dulcitii quaestionibus 1 (423-5 C.E.)
Texts: Matthew 5:26; 1 Corinthians 3:11-15.
(7) All who perform works of mercy will be saved.
Texts: James 2:13; Matthew 23:34-46; 6:12, 14-15.
De civ. Dei 21.22; reply 21.27.
Also Enchiridion 19-20 (70-77) (421 C.E.)
Text: Luke 11:41.
1) Origen: all shall be saved
Augustine begins with Origen, whom he describes as the most indulgent of the misericordes because of his extension of compassion to Satan and the unholy angels. After severe and prolonged purifying suffering, Origen teaches, God will deliver all rational beings from their wickedness and restore them to the company of the saints. For this belief and others (specifically, “his theory of the ceaseless alternation of happiness and misery, and the interminable transitions from the one state to the other at fixed periods of ages”), the Church, avers Augustine, has condemned Origen. He does not tell us when and where this condemnation took place. This is unsurprising. History has not recorded a formal synodical repudiation of the universalist views of Origen during the third through fifth centuries.4 Perhaps Augustine is invoking a growing consensus in the Latin Church. Perhaps he is referring to St Epiphanius’ letter to the patriarch of Jerusalem (394), in which he exoriates Origen for teaching that Satan “will return to his former dignity and rise again to the kingdom of heaven.”5 Perhaps he is thinking of Patriarch Theophilus’ synodal, in which he summarizes the eight condemnations of Origen by the 400 Synod of Alexandria (apokatastasis is not mentioned).6 Perhaps he is mesmerized by St Jerome’s abrupt conversion from being a supporter of the Adamantine to being his zealous adversary.7 Whatever his sources and reasons, the bishop of Hippo is convinced that Origen has been condemned by the catholic Church—and surely, he not unreasonably infers, this must include his “obviously” heterodox doctrine of apokatastasis.
For the doctor of grace, the eternal reprobation of the incorrigibly wicked, demons and humans alike, is a biblical given that overrides compassion. He wheels out the usual prooftexts: Matt 25: 31-46; Rev 20:10. The Scripture clearly states that final judgment is eternal, which of course it does if one is relying on either the Vetus Latina or the Vulgate. He is particularly impressed by the parallelism in Matt 24:46:
Then what a fond fancy is it to suppose that eternal punishment means long continued punishment, while eternal life means life without end, since Christ in the very same passage spoke of both in similar terms in one and the same sentence, “These shall go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into life eternal.” If both destinies are “eternal,” then we must either understand both as long-continued but at last terminating, or both as endless. For they are correlative—on the one hand, punishment eternal, on the other hand, life eternal. And to say in one and the same sense, life eternal shall be endless, punishment shall come to an end, is the height of absurdity. Wherefore, we the eternal life of the saints shall be endless, so too the eternal punishment of those who are doomed to it shall have no end. (Civ. Dei XXI.23)
Why is the brilliant Augustine unwilling to consider alternative readings of the damnation texts? At no point does he ask, Is eternal torment worthy of the God who is absolute goodness and cruciform love? In his On Christian Doctrine, Augustine instructs us that we have misunderstood a given text of Scripture if our interpretation does not build up our love of God and neighbor (I.36.40), yet throughout his analysis of the misericordes, he urges the reader to restrict their love and compassion before the sovereignty of the divine will. I have to wonder if Augustine’s developing reflection on divine predestination and the massa damnata now precludes the evangelical question posed above. Already in 397 he could write:
So the apostle represses the impudent questioner. “O man, who art thou that repliest against God?” A man so speaks back to God when he is displeased that God finds fault with sinners, as if God compelled any man to sin when he simply does not bestow his justifying mercy on some sinners, and for that reason is said to harden some sinners; not because he drives them to sin but because he does not have mercy upon them. He decides who are not to be offered mercy by a standard of equity which is most secret and far removed from human powers of understanding. (Ad Simplicianum 2.16)
Here we have the beginnings of Augustine’s doctrine of preterition. Why do some sin? Because God chooses not to bestow upon them his justifying mercy. At this point Augustine has introduced a cleavage in the heart of God. Once the schism between the divine love and justice is accepted, who are we to object to God’s decision to everlastingly punish the wicked? The “standard of equity” is inscrutable.8
2) Origen Lite: all shall be saved, except Satan
If Origen’s universalist views are heretical, then the second position should also be considered heretical, declares Augustine—if only its proponents were logically consistent in their reasoning:
Very different, however, is the error we speak of, which is dictated by the tenderness of these Christians who suppose that the sufferings of those who are condemned in the judgment will be temporary, while the blessedness of all who are sooner or later set free will be eternal. Which opinion, if it is good and true because it is merciful, will be so much the better and truer in proportion as it becomes more merciful. Let, then, this fountain of mercy be extended, and flow forth even to the lost angels, and let them also be set free, at least after as many and long ages as seem fit! Why does this stream of mercy flow to all the human race, and dry up as soon as it reaches the angelic? And yet they dare not extend their pity further, and propose the deliverance of the devil himself. Or if any one is bold enough to do so, he does indeed put to shame their charity, but is himself convicted of error that is more unsightly, and a resting of God’s truth that is more perverse, in proportion as his clemency of sentiment seems to be greater. (Civ. Dei I.17)
If compassion and mercy are to be our guide, then at least be consistent! Why should God’s compassion and ours stop with human beings. Limiting the divine mercy to humanity is purely arbitrary. Does not God also love the unholy angels? If you are willing to allow Satan to suffer eternal torment, have you not betrayed and violated pity itself? Augustine confronts the anthropic universalist with a stark choice: to follow Origen into heresy or to embrace the teaching of Christ and affirm the justice of everlasting damnation.
Note: Augustine does not name this compassionate view heretical. Apparently it was still permissible in the fifth century for Christians to believe that the Holy Trinity will bring all mankind to salvation, as long as they also taught the eternal punishment of the unholy spirits.
Augustine knew something about Origen’s theology from Jerome, but he learned of this “anthropic universalism” from Orosius, who had contacted Augustine in 415 about the growing influence of Priscillianism and Origenism in Spain. “A certain Avitus had brought a volume of Origen (probably the Peri Archon) back from Jerusalem to Spain,” Bauckham explains, “and Origen’s views on universal salvation were being propagated in Spain. But the salvation of devils seems not to have been adopted by the Spanish.”9
3) Intercessory Universalism
Whereas Augustine’s knowledge of Origen and Spanish Origenism is largely based on second-hand reports, his knowledge of this third group, what we might call “intercessory universalism,” has been acquired through personal conversation with its proponents. Unlike the Origenists, who propose a purgatorial fire by which the damned will be transformed and made fit for heaven, the intercessory universalists maintain that at the last judgment God will revoke his eschatological sentence of eternal punishment in response to the entreaties of the saints:
There are others, again, with whose opinions I have become acquainted in conversation, who, though they seem to reverence the holy Scriptures, are yet of reprehensible life [the ad hominem gloves come off!], and who accordingly, in their own interest, attribute to God a still greater compassion towards men. For they acknowledge that it is truly predicted in the divine word that the wicked and unbelieving are worthy of punishment, but they assert that, when the judgment comes, mercy will prevail. For, say they, God, having compassion on them, will give them up to the prayers and intercessions of His saints. For if the saints used to pray for them when they suffered from their cruel hatred, how much more will they do so when they see them prostrate and humble suppliants? For we cannot, they say, believe that the saints shall lose their bowels of compassion when they have attained the most perfect and complete holiness; so that they who, when still sinners, prayed for their enemies, should now, when they are freed from sin, withhold from interceding for their suppliants. Or shall God refuse to listen to so many of His beloved children, when their holiness has purged their prayers of all hindrance to His answering them? And the passage of the psalm which is cited by those who admit that wicked men and infidels shall be punished for a long time, though in the end delivered from all sufferings, is claimed also by the persons we are now speaking of as making much more for them. The verse runs: “Shall God forget to be gracious? Shall He in anger sut up His tender mercies?” [Ps 77.9]. His anger, they say, would condemn all that are unworthy of everlasting happiness to endless punishment. But if He suffer them to be punished for a long time, or even at all, must He not shup up His tender mercies, which the Psalmist implies he will not do? For he does not say, Shall He in anger shut up His tender mercies for a long period? but he implies that He will not shut them up at all. (Civ. Dei XXI.18)
The intercessory universalist does not deny that God has spoken clearly about the eternal punishment of the wicked, but this need not be determinative, he replies. Scripture teaches us that God may declare his retributive intent in the most absolute and unconditional terms yet choose not to enact his intent. Jonah and the Ninevites is the paradigmatic example. When Jonah prophesied the destruction of Nineveh, he did not say that the city will be destroyed if its inhabitants do not repent and change their ways. He spoke without qualification: Nineveh will be overthrown in forty days. No ifs, ands, or buts. Yet even so, God forgave the Ninevites when they beseeched his mercy. God threatens punishment in order to evoke the terror of the wicked and hopefully their repentance. The condition of repentance need not be explicitly stated; indeed the threat is more effective if it is not. The example of Nineveh, therefore, teaches us that “the great and hidden sweetness of God’s mercy is concealed in order that men may fear” (Civ. Dei XXI.18). “If, then,” Augustine continues, speaking on behalf of the intercessory universalists, “He spared those whom His own holy prophet was provoked at His sparing, how much more shall He spare those more wretched suppliants for whom all His saints shall intercede?” (Civ. Dei XXI.18). Surely this is the meaning and intent of the words of the Apostle: “For God hath concluded all men in unbelief, that He may have mercy upon all” (Rom 11:32).
Are you surprised by this particular formulation of universal salvation? I know I was when I first read about it. Yet it goes back at least to the first half of the second century! In the Apocalypse of Peter, which the Muratorian canon lists as an inspired text that was read in the churches, the risen Christ declares:
Then I will grant to my called and elect ones whomsoever they request from me, out of the punishment. And I will give them [i.e. those for whom the elect pray] a fine baptism in salvation from the Acherousian lake a portion of righteousness with my holy ones.10
In the context of the Apocalypse, the words of the Lord are not explicitly universalist. The damned are identified as those who have persecuted the faithful, and the mercy of Christ reaches only as far as the compassion of the saints. Bauckham elaborates:
Thus Peter’s desire for mercy, so severely rebuked in chapter 3, is granted eventually, when taken up by the elect on the Day of Judgment and after the justice of hell has been carefully demonstrated. . . . There is a kind of logic in the sequence. The justice of the punishment of the persecutors is a justice owed primarily to the persecuted. But in that case it is a punishment that can be remitted if the martyrs themselves desire mercy for their persecutors. No one else has the right to forgive oppressors, but those whom they have oppressed do have this right. So if it is for his people’s sake that God must punish their oppressors, then for his people’s sake (as SibOr 2:355, interpreting ApPet 14, states) he can save those for whom they desire mercy. In this way the conflict of justice and mercy is resolved. One obstacle to universal salvation—that of which the apocalyptic tradition, because of its origins in situations of injustice and persecution, was most aware—is effectively removed by the compassion and forgiveness of the saints. Other obstacles are not considered, and it is not, of course, actually stated that salvation will be universal, but as extensive as the compassion of the elect.11
But if the saints will have compassion on their oppressors, will they not also extend their compassion to all the damned? For their wills are perfectly aligned with the will of their Savior, “who desires all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4).
Bauckham believes that the beliefs of the third group of the misericordes, the intercessory universalists, clearly has its source in the Apocalypse of Peter:
This group of people, then, envisage that at the Day of Judgment (a) the damned will implore the saints to pray for them, (b) the saints will indeed pray for them, and (c) God ‘will grant them to the prayers and intercessions of his saints.’ It is clear that this expectation must derive from the apocalyptic tradition about the intercession of the saints for the damned at the Last Judgment. . . . The oldest source in which tradition is now extant is the Apocalypse of Peter, which contains all three points (a, b, c) in Augustine’s report of what the Christians he knew expected: (a) in 13:4; (b) and (c) in 14:1, which reads: ‘I will give to my called and elect ones whomsoever they request from me, out of the punishment’ (Rainer fragment). The phraseology is strikingly close to Augustine’s: God ‘will grant them to the prayers and intercessions of his saints.’12
Augustine does not mention the Apocalypse of Peter. Perhaps the members of the group did not refer to it in their conversations with him, knowing that he was skeptical of apocryphal writings. Instead they invoked Scriptural texts to support their convictions. As Bauckham notes: “The appeal to Scripture must be understood as defence of a doctrine Augustine’s interlocutors had derived from extra-canonical apocalyptic literature but now needed to defend in a period when apocryphal literature was being increasingly discredited.”13
Augustine offers a lengthy critique of the intercessory position, combined with a fair amount of ad hominem polemic. He appeals to the liturgical practice of the Church, observing that the Church does not pray for Satan and his fellow fallen angels or for incorrigible departed sinners:
The reason, then, which prevents the Church from now praying for the wicked angels, whom she knows to be her enemies, is the identical reason which shall prevent her, however perfected in holiness, from praying at the last judgment for those men who are to be punished in eternal fire. At the present she prays for her enemies among men, because they have yet opportunity for fruitful repentance. For what does she especially beg for them but that “God would grant them repentance,” as the apostle says, “that they may return to soberness out of the snare of the devil, by whom they are held captive according to his will?” [2 Tim 2:25-26]. But if the Church were certified who who those are, who, though they are still abiding in this life, are yet predestinated to go with the devil into eternal fire, then for them she could no more pray than for him. But since she has this certainty regarding no man, she prays for all her enemies who yet live in this world; and yet she is not heard in behalf of all. But she is heard in the case of those only who, though they oppose the Church, are yet predestinated to become her sons through her intercession. But if any retain an impenitent heart until death, and are not converted from enemies into sons, does the Church continue to pray for them, for the spirits, i.e., of such persons deceased? And why does she cease to pray for them, unless because the man who was not translated into Christ’s kingdom while he was in the body, is now judged to be of Satan’s following?
It is, then, I say, the same reason which prevents the Church at any time from praying for the wicked angels, which prevents her from praying hereafter for those men who are to be punished in eternal fire; and this also is the reason why, though she prays even for the wicked so long as they live, she yet does not even in this world pray for the unbelieving and godless who are dead. For some of the dead, indeed, the prayer of the Church or of pious individuals is heard; but it is for those who, having been regenerated in Christ, did not spend their life so wickedly that they an be judged unworthy of such compassion, nor so well that they can be considered to have no need of it. As also, after the resurrection, there will be some of the dead to whom, after they have endured the pains proper to the spirits of the dead to whom, after they have endured the pains proper to the spirits of the dead, mercy shall be accorded, and acquittal from the punishment of the eternal fire. For were there not some whose sins, though not remitted in this life, shall be remitted in that which is to come, it could not be truly said, “They shall not be forgiven, neither in this world, neither in that which is to come” [Matt 12:32]. But when the Judge of quick and dead has said, “Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world,” and to those on the other side, “Depart from me, ye cursed into the eternal fire, which is prepared for the devil and his angels,” and “These shall go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal fire” [Matt 25:34, 41, 46], it were excessively presumptuous to say that the punishment of any of those whom God has said shall go away into eternal punishment shall not be eternal, and so bring either despair or doubt upon the corresponding promise of life eternal. (Civ. Dei XXI.24)
Augustine’s objection is simple: the saints will not pray for the damned at the last judgment because they will see that the wicked are frozen in their obduracy and impenitence and therefore incapable of changing their fundamental orientation.14 Hence they are rightly excluded from the divine mercy, just as the unholy angels now are. To pray for the damned at this eschatological moment would be to set oneself against the holy will and judgment of God, which is impossible for the saints.
The intercessory universalists have at hand, I think, a ready rejoinder: if the damned were incapable of repentance, as Augustine presupposes, they would not be crying out to the saints for their supplications. The key difference between Augustine and the universalists is the latter’s refusal to limit the grace and mercy of God. Bauckham summarizes the conflicting theological principles:
In the debate between Augustine and these ‘merciful Christians’ there is a serious clash of theological principles. On the side of the apocalyptic tradition taken up by the ‘merciful Christians’ there are two key principles. The first is the solidarity of the human race, such that the compassion of the saints extends to all humans, however wicked, since they understand themselves to be bound up with them, to some extent even in their sin. Therefore they feel bound to plead the case of the damned with God. The second principle is an understanding of prayer in which the saints persist in prayer even against the apparent will of God. They plead God’s mercy against God’s justice and, as it were, win God over. On Augustine’s side of the debate, the overriding principle is the sovereign will of God. As a result the solidarity of the human race is radically severed by God’s will in the form of predestination. Even in this life the church prays for the reprobate only through ignorance. If she knew who the elect were, she would pray only for them. Prayer, in Augustine’s understanding, is wholly subordinated to God’s will. Therefore, once the will of God with regard to the reprobate is known, as it will be at the Last Judgment, the perfection of the saints will show itself in their absolute concurrence with that divine will.15
At this point I bring my article to a close. I will not discuss the remaining misericorde parties, as they do not represent a genuine universalist hope, restricting, as they do, their eschatological expectations to the baptized and merciful. But it is interesting to note that by St Augustine’s standards, St Ambrose and St Jerome qualify as compassionate Christians.16
 See Ilaria Ramelli’s magisterial monograph The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis (2013).
 De Civitate Dei XXI.17-25. My quotations from Civ. Dei are from Basic Writings of Saint Augustine, ed. Whitney J. Oates.
 Richard Bauckham, The Fate of the Dead (1998), pp. 150-151.
 On Epiphanius, see Elizabeth A. Clark, The Origenist Controversy (1992), pp. 86-104. Regarding Origen’s own beliefs on the salvation of the demons, see C. A. Patrides, “The Salvation of Satan,” Journal of the History of Ideas 28 (1967): 467-478; Lisa Holliday, “Will Satan Be Saved?” Vigiliae Christianae 63 (2009): 1-23; Ambrose Andreano, “The True Fate of the ‘So-called Devil’ in Origen“; Ramelli, Apokatastasis, pp. 141-156.]
 On Theophilus, see Clark, pp. 105-121.
 On Jerome, see Clark, pp. 121-151. While Augustine does not explicitly name Origen a “heretic,” Jerome certainly does:
Origen is a heretic, true; but what does that take from me who do not deny that on very many points he is heretical? He has erred concerning the resurrection of the body, he has erred concerning the condition of souls, he has erred by supposing it possible that the devil may repent, and—an error more important than these—he has declared in his commentary upon Isaiah that the Seraphim mentioned by the prophet are the divine Son and the Holy Ghost. (Ep. 61)
 Which comes first for Augustine, everlasting damnation or divine predestination? The chicken-and-egg problem can be run both ways. Also see Ilaria Ramelli’s fascinating article “Origen in Augustine,” Numen 60 (2013): 280-307.
 Bauckham, p. 152.
 Rainer fragment, quoted by Bauckham, p. 145.
 Ibid, p. 146.
 Ibid., pp. 155-156; also see my brief discussion of the Apocalypse of Peter and the Sybyline Oracles in “The Eucatastrophe of the Jesus Story.”
 Bauckham, p. 157.
 But is God incapable of changing their orientation? Even the old Catholic Encyclopedia is forced to admit, in Augustinian-Thomistic fashion, that he is not: “The proximate cause of impenitence in hell is God’s refusal of every grace and every impulse for good. It would not be intrinsically impossible for God to move the damned to repentance; yet such a course would be out of keeping with the state of final reprobation.” Why then does God not do so? The author’s final clause hardly provides a probative answer. And while it is true that the traditional liturgical prayers for the dead are restricted to the faithful departed, it is also true that the Latin Church has also prayed for all the departed, as documented by Hans Urs von Balthasar.
 Bauckham, pp. 158-159.
 Brian Daley, The Hope of the Early Church (2002), pp. 97-104.