Let us look at these objections: --
(1) First, it is said that the Church has never held, but on the contrary has distinctly condemned, this doctrine. But is this true? Where then, I ask, and when, has the Catholic [Universal] Church ever authoritatively condemned this view of restitution? At what council, or in what decrees, received by East and West, shall we find the record and the terms of this condemnation? Of course I am aware that individuals have judged the doctrine, and that since Augustine's days the Western Church, led by his great authority, has generally received his view of endless punishment. I know too that Theophilus of Alexandria, the persecutor of Chrysostom, [for details, see Neander, "Church Hist." vol. iv. pp. 474-476.] and then Anastasius of Rome, who, according to his own confession, until called upon to judge Origen, knew little or nothing about him, [Id. "ibid." p. 472] and later on the bishops at the "home synod" summoned by the patriarch Mennas at Constantinople, the latter acting under court influence, two hundred years after his death, condemned Origen.
[NOTE: Both Neander and Gieseler show, that this condemnation of Origen was passed, not at the 5th General Council of Constantinople, in 553, as some have supposed, but at the "home synod" under Mennas, in 541. See Neander, "Church Hist." vol. iv. p. 265; and Gieseler, "Eccl. Hist." Second Period, div. ii. ch. 2, par. 109; and notes 8 and 20. And even this "home synod," though under court influence it condemned some of Origen's views, would not consent to condemn the doctrine of Restitution, spite of the Emperor's express requirement that this doctrine should be anathematized.]But so have certain bishops in council asserted Transubstantiation, and condemned all those who on this point differed from them; and yet it would be most untrue to say that the Universal Church asserted this doctrine, or that a rejection of it involved a rejection of the Christian faith. It is so with the doctrine of endless torments. It can never be classed under "Quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus." Many have held it; but the Catholic Church has nowhere asserted it; while not a few of the greatest of the Greek Fathers distinctly dissent from it. The Creeds received by East and West at least know nothing of such a doctrine, and in their assertion of "the forgiveness and remission of sins," seem rather to point to another belief altogether.
But suppose it were otherwise, -- suppose it could be shown that the Church, instead of asserting "the forgiveness of sins," had taught the reverse, and had judged the doctrine of restitution, -- grant further, what I admit, that the Church generally has seen, or at least has taught, comparatively little, especially of late, respecting universal restoration, -- what does this prove, if, though yet beyond the Church's light, the doctrine is really taught in Holy Scripture? Many things have been hid in Scripture for ages. St. Paul speaks of "the revelation of the mystery, which had been hid from ages and generations;" [Rom. 16:25, 26; Eph. 3:5] some part of which at least, though hidden, had been "spoken by the mouth of all God's holy prophets since the world began." [Acts 3:21.] There are many such treasures hidden in Scripture, open secrets like those in nature which are daily opening to us. But when have God's people as a body ever seen or received any truth beyond their dispensation? Take as an instance Israel of old, whose ways, "ensamples of us," [1 Cor. 10:6] prefigure the Church of this age. Did they ever receive the call of the Gentiles, or see God's purpose of love outside their own election? A few all through that age spoke of blessings to the world, and were without exception judged for such a testimony: -- "Which of the prophets have not your fathers slain?" Was God's purpose to the Gentiles therefore a false doctrine: or, because His people did not receive it, was it not to be found in their own Scriptures? The doctrine of "the restitution of all things" is to the Church what "the call of the Gentiles" was to Israel. And if the Church, like Israel, can see no truth beyond its own, and has judged those who have been witnesses to a purpose of love far wider than that of this age, -- which is not to convert the world, as some suppose, but only "to take out of the nations a people for God's name," -- [Acts 15:14. Compare Matt. 24:14 -- "This gospel shall be preached in all the world FOR A WITNESS to all nations."] -- is God's purpose, though declared in Scripture, to be damned as a false doctrine, simply to teach us nothing? Are men's traditions as to God's purpose to be preferred to His own unerring Word? When I see that if I bow to the decisions of its widest branch, I must receive not Transubstantiation only, but the Immaculate Conception also, -- the last of which cuts away the whole ground of our redemption, for if the flesh which bore Christ was not ours, His Incarnation does not profit us, -- I can only fall back on that Word, which in prospect of coming apostasy is commended to the man of God, as the guide of his steps and the means to perfect him. [2 Tim. 3:14-17]. It is indeed a solemn thing to differ with the Church, or like Paul to find oneself in a "way which they call heresy," simply by "believing," not some but, "all things which are written in the law and in the prophets." [Acts 24:14]. But the path is not a new one for the sons of God. All the prophets perished in Jerusalem [Luke 13:33, 34]. And, above all, the Lord of prophets was judged as a Deceiver [Matt. 27:63], by those whom God had called to be His witnesses. The Church's judgment, therefore, cannot decide a point like this, if that judgement be in opposition to the Word of God.
But is it possible that Christians should have been allowed to err on so important a point as the doctrine of future judgment? Would our Lord Himself have used, or permitted others to use, words which, if final restitution be true, might be understood as teaching the very opposite? I say again, look at the doctrine of Transubstantiation. Has, or has not, one large section of the Church been suffered to err as to the meaning of the words, which are at the very foundation of her highest act of worship? Did not our Lord, when He said, "Take, eat, this is my body," (Matt. 16:26) know how monstrously the words would be perverted? Yet though a single sentence would have made any mistake almost impossible, He did not add another word. Why? Because the very form in which the Word is given is part of our discipline; and because without His Spirit, let His words be what they may, we never really understand Him. Transubstantiation is a mistake built on Christ's very words; and the doctrine of endless torments is but another like misunderstanding; which not only directly contradicts many other Scriptures, but practically denies and falsifies the glorious revelation of Himself, which God has given us in the gospel, and in the face of Jesus Christ. Both show the Church's state. And though thousands of God's children have held, not these only, but many other errors, only proves the grace of Him, who spite of such errors can yet bless and make His children a blessing.