Wintery Knight

…integrating Christian faith and knowledge in the public square

Did the early Christians believe in an eternal hell or annihilationism?

From Please Convince Me. (H/T The Poached Egg)

Introduction:

As we seek to understand what the Bible teaches about Hell, it may be helpful to understand what the earliest believers believed and taught. The teachings of the early believers have been preserved for us in the writings of the earliest church leaders (known as the Early Church Fathers). While their writings are not canonical (they are not on par with the words of the Bible), they do help us to see what those closest to the apostles first understood as Biblical Truth.

As we assemble the teachings of these first church leaders, several patterns emerge related to the nature of Hell. The Early Church Fathers, with very few exceptions, agree with the teaching of the Bible in the way they describe Hell:

1. Hell is a place of judgment for those who have rejected God and denied Jesus as their Savior
2. Hell is a place of separation from God
3. Hell is a place of torment in which the rebellious are in anguish and pain
4. Hell is a place where the rebellious are tormented forever and are CONSCIOUS of this torment for all eternity (In fact, the eternal duration of their torment is often compared to the eternal duration of the reward of the saved)

At the same time, the earliest Church Fathers are ambiguous on those areas where the Bible is ALSO ambiguous.

1. The exact nature of the torment of the rebellious is unknown
2. The manner in which the rebellious are kept alive in spite of ‘deathly’ anguish is also un-described

The Early Church Fathers simply reflected the clearest teachings of the Bible related to the nature of Hell. They believed that Hell was a place of eternal conscious torment, reflecting the clearest teaching of the scriptures (more on that HERE).

Excerpt:

From Ignatius of Antioch (110AD)

Ignatius was a student of the Apostle John, and succeeded the Apostle Peter as the Bishop of Antioch. He wrote a number of important letters to believers in churches in the area:

Corrupters of families will not inherit the kingdom of God. And if they who do these things according to the flesh suffer death. how much more if a man corrupt by evil reaching the faith of God. for the sake of which Jesus Christ was crucified? A man become so foul will depart into unquenchable fire: and so will anyone who listens to him. (Letter to the Ephesians 16:1-2)

From Clement of Rome (150AD)

Clement was Bishop of Rome from 88 to 98AD, and his teaching reflects the early traditions of the Church. “Second Clement” reportedly a recorded sermon, and Clement discusses the nature of Hell:

 If we do the will of Christ, we shall obtain rest; but if not, if we neglect his commandments, nothing will rescue us from eternal punishment (“Second Clement” 5:5)

 But when they see how those who have sinned and who have denied Jesus by their words or by their deeds are punished with terrible torture in unquenchable fire, the righteous, who have done good, and who have endured tortures and have hated the luxuries of life, will give glory to their God saying, ‘There shall be hope for him that has served God with all his heart!’ (“Second Clement” 17:7)

From Irenaeus (189AD)

Irenaeus was bishop of Lugdunum in Gaul (now Lyon, France) at the end of the second century. He was a disciple of Polycarp and a notable early apologist for the faith. He wrote several volumes defending the faith against Gnosticism and other early heresies of the Church, and he often compared eternal punishment to eternal reward, drawing the conclusion that one endured as long as the other:

…Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Saviour, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, ‘every knee should bow, of things in heaven,, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess’ to Him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all; that He may send ‘spiritual wickednesses,’ and the angels who transgressed and became apostates, together with the ungodly, and unrighteous, and wicked, and profane among men, into everlasting fire; but may, in the exercise of His grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept His commandments, and have persevered in His love, some from the beginning of their Christian course, and others from the date of their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory. (“Against Heresies” 1:10:10)

The penalty increases for those who do not believe the Word of God and despise his coming. . . . [I]t is not merely temporal, but eternal. To whomsoever the Lord shall say, ‘Depart from me, accursed ones, into the everlasting fire,’ they will be damned forever (“Against Heresies” 4:28:2)

 From Clement of Alexandria (195AD)

Titus Flavius Clemens was the first significant and recorded Christian from the church of Alexandria, Egypt. His parents were Greek and he was raised with a solid, formal Greek education. While he had a tendency to blend Greek and Christian philosophies, his view on the issue of Hell was derived from the scriptures:

All souls are immortal, even those of the wicked. Yet, it would be better for them if they were not deathless. For they are punished with the endless vengeance of quenchless fire. Since they do not die, it is impossible for them to have an end put to their misery. (from a post-Nicene manuscript fragment)

From Tertullian (197AD)

Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus was a Romanized African citizen who was born in Carthage (now Tunisia). He became a Christian and was a powerful and influential apologist for the faith, writing prolifically in defense of the doctrines of orthodoxy:

These have further set before us the proofs He has given of His majesty in judgments by floods and fires, the rules appointed by Him for securing His favor, as well as the retribution in store for the ignoring, forsaking and keeping them, as being about at the end of all to adjudge His worshippers to everlasting life, and the wicked to the doom of fire at once without ending and without break, raising up again all the dead from the beginning, reforming and renewing them with the object of awarding either recompense. (“Apology” 18:3)

Then will the entire race of men be restored to receive its just deserts according to what it has merited in this period of good and evil, and thereafter to have these paid out in an immeasurable and unending eternity. Then there will be neither death again nor resurrection again, but we shall be always the same as we are now, without changing. The worshipers of God shall always be with God, clothed in the proper substance of eternity. But the godless and those who have not turned wholly to God will be punished in fire equally unending, and they shall have from the very nature of this fire, divine as it were, a supply of incorruptibility (“Apology” 44:12–13)

Therefore after this there is neither death nor repeated resurrections, but we shall be the same that we are now, and still unchanged–the servants of God, ever with God, clothed upon with the proper substance of eternity; but the profane, and all who are not true worshippers of God, in like manner shall be consigned to the punishment of everlasting fire–that fire which, from its very nature indeed, directly ministers to their incorruptibility. (“Apology” 48:12)

Just to be clear, I am one of those Christians who holds to the traditional doctrine of hell. Eternal, conscious punishment for eternity. I think most, if not all, people who object to the traditional doctrine of hell do it for one reason only – because they don’t want to appear to be mean, so that non-Christians will like them. Well, I don’t think there is any wiggle room here – conscious, eternal torment is what the Bible teaches, and what the earliest Christians believed.

Having said that, if someone has a historical case to make, then I’d like to see how they interpret the Bible and where the line of tradition is for their view. There is always room for scholars to make a case against the traditional view, but that case has to be on the merits. But I think for the vast majority of people who reject the traditional notion of hell, they are just asserting their emotions and intuitions over the Bible and the traditional interpretations of the early church. I don’t think that wanting to feel “nicer” than others, or wanting to be liked by others, is a good rationale for overruling the text and the traditional interpretations.

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13 Responses

  1. wgbutler777 says:

    WK,

    I’ve done alot of research into this topic and I believe I’ve come up with a view that reconciles annihilationism and the doctrine of eternal torment.

    Imagine if the wicked are resurrected with physical bodies and then judged. Their physical bodies are destroyed by unquenchable fire (keep in mind that unquenchable simply means that no one is able to put the fire out). This fire also destroys all the matter in the Universe, btw.

    Then the disembodied souls of the wicked are finally granted their deepest wish, which is to exist in a Universe that is bereft of God’s presence. They spend eternity floating around in a vacuum of darkness from which there is no escape, and fully realize the ultimate consequence of their actions, which brings excruciating mental torment.

    There is plenty of scriptural support for all these assertions, which I will be happy to provide when I am not at work and have more freedom to respond.

    I’m not saying that this view is the correct one, btw. It’s a hypothesis. Frankly, from scripture you can argue 1) this view, 2) the view that the wicked are completely annihilated, and 3) the view that the wicked spend eternity roasting in a furnace. In my opinion #3 has the weakest support.

    wgbutler

  2. Mike Singer says:

    Couple of scriptures come to mind:
    - outer darkness Matt 8:12, 22:13, 25:30 and Jude 1:13
    - Placed with hypocrites – Matt 25:41
    - Second death
    - Hades
    - Lake of Fire

    There is Hades and the Lake of Fire (20:14-15). The scriptures mention the Lake of Fire It looks like was created for the devil and his angels (Matt 24:41) but people will be cast into it also.

    A interesting read is on the second death which end in the the lake of fire (“Christian” or non – whoa – this one can be bit uncomfortable for “Christians” – so much for eternal security) :

    Reven 2:11 (Church in Smyrna)
    He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who overcomes will not be hurt by the second death.’

    Rev 20:6
    Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power..

    Rev 21:8
    But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”

    A interesting read is the about the rich man in Lazarus… The guy had a tongue, mouth, ears, speech and was in torment..

    Matt 10:28 sheds a bit of light – Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell

    Is 66:24 And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh

    Is 66:24 really reminds of the story of the rich man & Lazarus.

    • wgbutler777 says:

      Don’t forget Malachi 4:1-3

      1[a] “For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. 2But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. 3And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the LORD of hosts.

  3. Nick Jackson says:

    I think an annihilationist would respond to the writing of the Church Fathers in the same way they respond to the Biblical texts: (1) “eternal punishment” does not mean “eternal torment” but part of the eternal punishment is to cease to exist for the rest of eternity, and (2) “everlasting” does not mean the body/soul in fire is immortal and eternal.

    Tertullian’s text is a little trickier to navigate. It could be argued that when he says, “…to the doom of fire at once without ending and without break” he means the fire will never end, and the burning of the wicked will never end, but he does not mean their torment will never end. I think that’s a stretch. It should be noted however that as Tertullian is one of the most explicit about the punishment, he is the latest of the writer’s presented here.

    Clement of course can’t be argued around by annihilationist. Clement was clearly not an annihilationist. You can’t try to make the case for him being one, but an annihiliationist would just say he’s wrong. The argument is that there is no Biblical evidence for the immortality of the soul, and he is basing his assumption of Helenism. The verse to disprove the soul’s immortality is 1 Tim 6:15 I think, which says God alone possesses immortality.

    While you can’t try to make those to annihiliationists, I think there is room to wiggle around with the other guys.

    I go back and forth myself. I kind of resent the assumption that annihilationists believe what they do simply because they don’t want to be mean. I, and annihilationists that I know, put a lot on the judgement and wrath of God. I believe whatever the outcome, torment or annihilation, it would be terrible, and whatever it is, it is God’s judgement. I am swayed to believe annihilation because sometimes it seems like that’s what scripture says, but I don’t choose it because it’s soft. I think it’s intense and just and I want God to execute his judgement.

    • wgbutler777 says:

      Nick,

      There are also some early Christian writers who wrote letters indicating that they believed in annihilationism. Arnobius, an African Christian apologist who died in 330 was outspoken and very clear on the issue.

      I tend to agree with you about your assessment of the Christians WK quoted. Oftentimes many in the eternal torment camp will read into words things that aren’t really there. For example, “unquenchable fire” simply means a fire that can’t be put out. It doesn’t necessarily mean a fire that burns for all eternity. “Everlasting Punishment” means a punishment that lasts for all of eternity, which annihilationism teaches, etc.

      Even the phrases that are often used by eternal torment advocates to imply an eternal fire are often just figurative language that has its root in an old testament source. For example, in Isaiah 34 we read:

      “8 For the Lord has a day of vengeance,
      a year of recompense for the cause of Zion.
      9 And the streams of Edom shall be turned into pitch,
      and her soil into sulfur;
      her land shall become burning pitch.
      10 Night and day it shall not be quenched;
      its smoke shall go up forever.
      From generation to generation it shall lie waste;
      none shall pass through it forever and ever.”

      So here we see an scripture promising destruction for the people of Edom, involving an unquenchable fire that produces smoke that goes up forever. Obviously this fire that destroyed Edom is not still burning. The Edomites were simply wiped out and the figurative language is used to emphasize the permanent consequences of the judgement.

      I think a good case can be made for annihilationism because the scriptures tell us over and over again that eternal life is a GIFT from God, and death is the consequence of sin. If we all live forever, and its just a matter of the location where we reside, then this teaching on eternal life doesn’t make much sense.

      Jesus also said not to be afraid of those who can kill the body but not the soul, but instead to be afraid of the One who can destroy both the soul and the body.

      On the other hand, I think a case can be made that the spirit or soul in man has a permanent existence but needs a body to really experience its purpose. And it is possible that the eternal life promised in the Bible refers to having your soul united with a body that never dies.

      If that is the case then I can see where a case could be made that the wicked are resurrected in a physical resurrection, judged, and then their bodies are destroyed in the lake of fire that will destroy all matter in this Universe. (2 Peter 3:10). Once that happens the souls of the wicked would continue to exist in a disembodied form and be condemned to water the black void of this dead Universe for all eternity (as wandering stars described in Jude), finally having been granted their ultimate wish which was to exist in a Universe where God does not exist. Of course this would cause excruciating torment and hopelessness, not because God was torturing them but because they would finally experience the ultimate consequence of their actions.

      Whereas the redeemed would live in the new universe (the new heavens and new earth) with resurrection bodies that never died or grew old.

      • Mike Singer says:

        Well said. May I point out there is vast difference between “eternal existence” and “eternal life” ?

        Didnt Jesus say it was better to enter into life “maimed”

        The scriptures suggest they still have their body ( the spiritual realm and physical realm are joined together again as it was in the garden of Eden).

        One is judged in their body either good or bad
        2 Corinthians 5:10
        For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad.

        Clothed with ones actions as in Dan 12 ( this reminds me as the mount of transfiguration)

        Mark 9 matches Is 66
        Mark 9:43And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell…
        “Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.”
        And if thy foot offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter halt into life, than having two feet to be cast into hell..

        Check out Rev 19: “and them that worshipped his image. These both were cast alive into a lake of fire burning with brimstone.” (notice cast alive).

        Death is separation from God as seen in the garden of Eden.
        I would suggest that separation from God, His presence, His will and commandements is “hell”.

        Btw, here is a interesting scripture out of 1 Peter 4:16
        For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to men in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit.

      • Mike Singer says:

        “can the soul sustain itself being apart from the life of God? Or does the consequence of death lead to the ultimate annihilation of the soul?”

        I’ll really thought about this and this is what comes to mind. Here are a couple of points regarding physical and spiritual death.

        1.The NT refers physical death as “sleep” ( do a search and read the context)

        2.There is a spiritual death/life that is a “relationship” not a profession but a relationship (read the chapter and meditate on it – it is a good one)

        John 17:3 And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ

        Sin separates a person from God and other people. God will never let sin ( not even 1 be in His presence – He is a spirit and requires blood to be appeased ( kinda wild but that is what the scriptures say)

        Every action has a consequence ( good or bad). Sin results in separation from the Father.

        A person will reap exactly what they sow. It is a physical as well as a spiritual principle.

        Yes Christ died for the sins of the world, however, it is a persons decision to decide. Paul made this very very clear in Romans 6, 7, 8.

        For the sake of space, I will limit it to one verse that sums it up.
        Romans 8:13 For if ye live according to the flesh, ye are to die. But if, by the Spirit, ye mortify the practices of the body, ye will live.

        We are to choose – that is our decision. Man was created to be Gods judge and have dominion. That is why Jesus is Son of Man and Son of God and we are being created in His image if a person choses righteousness. If not, then the birth of Christ will be aborted spiritually as much it is in a actual physical abortion ( Gal 2 – my little children in whom I labor till Christ in formed in you – this was written to Christians).

        In regards to “annihilation”- the bible doesnt speak of that – it speaks of eternal torment and separation from God. Here is one ( there are more)
        2 Thessalonians 1:9 Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power

  4. Mike Singer says:

    Here is a couple interesting ones.

    Rev 22
    ..and may enter in through the gates into the city.For without are dogs, and sorcerers, and whoremongers, and murderers, and idolaters, and whosoever loveth and maketh a lie.
    ( they arent allowed in the city ? If they in the Lake of Fire it appears they will have access to the outside – hence the gates and the wall)

    Dan 12
    And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and “some to shame and everlasting contempt”.
    And they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever
    ( It would appear we will be clothed with our actions)

    Jude 1:12
    wandering stars, to whom is reserved the blackness of darkness for ever.
    ( wild verse…. wandering stars….)

  5. But I think for the vast majority of people who reject the traditional notion of hell, they are just asserting their emotions and intuitions over the Bible and the traditional interpretations of the early church. I don’t think that wanting to feel “nicer” than others, or wanting to be liked by others, is a good rationale for overruling the text and the traditional interpretations.

    WK, given that I have read what is likely to be most of the evangelical defences and critiques of annihilationism in the last fifty years (as well as looking at historical arguments), and given that you said that the “vast majority” who swing away from eternal torment do so because they’re just “asserting their emotions,” I have to ask what sort of a survey of the literature you’ve done. It strikes me that the overwhelming majority (virtually all) of those who defend annihilationism do so on exegetical grounds.

    But it could be that you’ve got a reading list of defenders of annihilationists that I’ve simply never heard of (the “vast majority,” you would appear to be saying). Care to share that list?

    Cheers.

    • Nooooo. But you are an exception!

      • What? What I’m saying is that I am familiar with probably most of the literature defending annihilationism from the early twentieth century until now (and sporadic example prior to that). I’m saying that virtually all of it argues from exegesis. I’m saying that since you claim that the “vast majority” are just asserting their emotions, you must clearly be familiar with a majority of the writing that I’ve never seen before. It can’t be that I’m the exception, because virtually none of the literature I know of does what you imply. So what are some of the examples you have in mind when you describe the “vast majority.” It’s not something you can now dismiss, having made this claim that portrays people who hold my view so poorly. Where is your evidence?

        • cl says:

          WK,

          Great post, but I must agree with Glenn above. Can you clarify any of this? If it was just a semantic overstep, no big deal, but if not, please, help us learn all we can about this.

  6. Wintery, perhaps you could outline why you believe that the eternal conscious torment understanding of hell is correct? Because it seems to me that the biblical case for annihilationism, the view that eventually all unsaved people will be utterly destroyed and wiped out, is extraordinarily strong. I don’t have an emotional objection to eternal conscious torment, although I think it does present a picture of God who does not ultimately destroy death and evil and that makes me angry.

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