Did the early church believe in a literal hell of eternal punishment

I am aware that the very title of this post raises immediate objections and dismissals. Those who do not believe in an eternal hell have little difficulty mustering lists of early church fathers who did not believe in the eternal punishment of the lost. Church historians scoff at the very mention of “the” early church. Christianity was too diverse. “The” early church is a myth spun by ignorant romantics.

To the first group of naysayers, I ask you to consider the witness of the church not just individuals. To the second group, it is a pleasant surprise to find out that men who were actually a part of “the” early church, had no problems making assertions about what “the” church believed and practiced.

Consider Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 140 – 202/3). While his precise theological upbringing cannot be determined, he mentions learning from Polycarp of Smyrna who was a disciple of the Apostle John. So if Irenaeus was not John’s spiritual grandson, he was at least a nephew. Irenaeus was esteemed highly enough to be sent by his church with correspondence to the bishop of Rome. While he was away persecution arose and the bishop of Lyons was killed. When he returned he was elected bishop. Historians stumble over themselves in estimating the importance of Irenaeus. It is said that Irenaeus “killed Gnosticism” and “founded Christian theology.”[1] Irenaeus “is by far the most important of the theologians of the second century” and “deserves to be called the founder of Christian theology.”[2] While Irenaeus never claimed or desired to be an original-thinking theologian, he was “among the first Christian writers to seek the theological meaning of history.”[3] In short, Irenaeus is “among the greatest theologians of all times.”[4] One might say Irenaeus has a pretty decent résumé.

So what did the most important theologian of the second century, the founder of Christian theology say about the church and eternal punishment of the lost? In Against Heresies book 1 chapter 10, Irenaeus writes,

The Church, though dispersed through our the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father “to gather all things in one,” and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Savior, 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 331 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.

And just in case it was missed the first time, in book 3 chapter 4 Irenaeus writes,

Since therefore we have such proofs, it is not necessary to seek the truth among others which it is easy to obtain from the Church; since the apostles, like a rich man [depositing his money] in a bank, lodged in her hands most copiously all things pertaining to the truth: so that every man, whosoever will, can draw from her the 417 water of life. For she is the entrance to life; all others are thieves and robbers. On this account are we bound to avoid them, but to make choice of the thing pertaining to the Church with the utmost diligence, and to lay hold of the tradition of the truth. . . . carefully preserving the ancient tradition, believing in one God, the Creator of heaven and earth, and all things therein, by means of Christ Jesus, the Son of God; who, because of His surpassing love towards His creation, condescended to be born of the virgin, He Himself uniting man through Himself to God, and having suffered under Pontius Pilate, and rising again, and having been received up in splendor, shall come in glory, the Savior of those who are saved, and the Judge of those who are judged, and sending into eternal fire those who transform the truth, and despise His Father and His advent.

Two points: Irenaeus seems to have a pretty strong opinion about the existence of “the” church; and, according to him at least, the church taught that “ungodly, unrighteous, and wicked” men share in the same fate as fallen angels: eternal fire.

It seems fair to say that the most important theologian of the second century believed in an eternal hell of suffering for the lost and that he presented this as the teaching of the one, apostolic, catholic, church.


[1] F. Cayre, Manual of Patrology (Paris: Desclee &Co., 1936), 146.

[2] Johannes Quasten, Patrology vol 1 The Beginnings of Christian Literature (Utrecht-Antwerp: Spectrum Publishers, 1975) 287, 294.

[3] Justo L. Gonzalez, A History of Christian Thought Thought: From the Beginning to the Council of Chalcedon (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1987), 170.

[4] Ibid, 170.

18 thoughts on “Did the early church believe in a literal hell of eternal punishment

  1. Of course Origen also spoke of ” eternal fire” but no one in their right mind would try to argue that he believed in the doctrine of endless torment. The problem with the Irenaeus quotes is that they are translated from the Greek by the say group that likes to translate aionios as eternal when everyone who is honest knows it really means “age long.”

    • I am trying to work this out myself. It is very hard to believe that Jesus prayed that the ones crucifying Him would be forgiven, but the Father said – “Nope. Not unless they’ve got their doctrine right. I’l spend all of eternity frying them in hell instead.” How can we believe that? Why does He ask us to forgive our enemies, if He does not want to do that? I cannot understand.

      • I am undecided on the doctrinal of hell and lean away from eternal suffering, but I wanted to comment on your question. It seems to me that God wants to forgive people because of what will happen if they don’t accept Christ.

    • Yes. In the same quote we have Irenaeus saying That God will “gather all things in one,” and “raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race”, in order that “every knee should bow” and “every tongue should confess” to the Lord. And yet we also have the ungodly being cast into “everlasting fire.” So which is it? The whole human race raised anew to bow and confess before the lord, or, some bowing and confessing and some thrown into fire? or is it both? Some humans bowing and confessing out of fire, and some bowing and confessing whilst in the midst of everlasting fire? That seems unlikely to me. I believe the word “everlasting” is a mistranslation — the same mistranslation we got from that highly imperfect student of Greek, Augustine. I believe the fire Iranaeus is referring to is more likely a corrective, reparative, purifying, and temporary punishment . The recipients of that punishment will eventually bow and confess along with the rest of the human race.

  2. The phrase “eis aionas ton aionon” is translated as “forever” which is correct. The exact phrase used in Revelation 20:10 to describe eternal punishment is also used in Rev. 1:18 and Rev. 22:5 to describe Christ’s eternality and eternal life for believers. See also Galatians 1:5.
    How can Universalists honestly say the phrase means “age long”? That would mean that Christ’s eternality has an end date and the “eternal” life of believers also comes to an end.

    • The one I find understand is… Why did Jesus say, “For God so loved the world that He sent His only Son, that whosoever believed in him shall not PERISH but have everlasting life. Why would He say that? Sa6y that instead of using the words, “Shall not have eternal torture but everlasting life”? It cannot be an attempt to deceive us. It cannot be a simple life. Surely Jesus would not deliberately use words just to confuse or deceive everyone. Or a way to bring people into the Kingdom before they had a chance to see the fine print about perish really meaning very, very different. To me perish means perish. How could Jesus use that word if he was really sneakily meaning eternal torture rather than dead – surely the meaning of perish is dead? Do not say he was only meaning physically dead rather than totally dead. That would only be using words as a smoke screen to deliberately deceive those around Him. That is not the Saviour I follow.
      It also seems strange that God would promise that He would never flood the world again”- presumably good news, if He later that us in the N.T. that most of the world would be eternally tortured anyway. All I can say about that theory is : Huh?”
      The truth is that none of us are God, and I think He has chosen not to give us inside information about how He judges the world.
      Lucky for us, He has not done that. I can’t think why.

    • But Christ is immortal and at the resurrection so will His saints, hence living forever. Since Augustine stated he hated the Greek, “Age-long” was changed to “Eternal”. It is only indeed age-long. There are more than one age. We are in the 3rd age. There are 3 resurrections. Read Acts 24:15. The unjust will be raised and even the early Christians understood the unjust would have an opportunity for salvation. Also in 1 Corinthians 15 it states ALL will be raised. Raised for what? So God can say they have been bad and burn them forever? Doesn’t make sense. Not all will accept, but MANY will. You have to take some of Irenaeus’ stuff with a grain of salt. Irenaeus heard Polycarp indeed, yet made deals with Rome that disagreed with Polycarp’s teachings. Polycarp is the true successor, not Irenaeus.

    • I do not think that translation is correct. The actual word aion or its derivative only appears in scripture twice. In Jude 8 and Romans 1:20. The others are not aion (eternal). And eternal fire does not equate to eternal punishment. The quality is given to the fire, not the torment. “Age during” or “age long” is actually the correct translation in the N.T. and “unto the ages of ages” in the O.T.

  3. I believe the result of the punishment of the non Christians will be eternal, and that the eternal fire is eternal not for man, but for the Devil and his compatriots. It seems that people who worship the Beast also will spend eternity being tortured, but i think that you will find that this is because they are so full of pride and arrogance, that even when they are given an opportunity to repent and receive mercy, they reject it, even when fire is being poured onto them. The Bible says God’s mercy endures forever, but someone who is too proud to accept mercy, will continue to have the wrath of God abide on them. The Bible says “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness” So, to suppress the truth is similar or even the same as rejecting it in favor of a lie. If people who willfully took the mark of the Beast, which is undoubtedly a mark of a servant, they were wanton servants, suppressing the truth and rejecting any chance they might have for grace or mercy. In short, there are two types of judgement; 1. of the unbelievers who simply chose to disregard the gospel, and 2. the judgement of those who knew full well the truth, and rebelled against it, just as Satan did. Remember, the lake of fire was prepared for the Devil and his angels, and what is an angel but a servant, or a messenger. It is unthinkable to many that God would simply dig a pit, and throw most of the 400 billion or so people who have ever lived into it, light it, and let them burn in an unending torture, with no hope simply because they heard but disregarded the gospel. It would serve no purpose, and would not glorify God, for God is glorified by being loving, and merciful more than by punishing.

    • Ah well – if you want to go to a heaven like that, I think you are welcome.  It’s not for me.  I think if the universe it based on torturing billions – I think I’d rather be with the victims, not those who want to pretend nothing is wrong in heaven.  It all sounds horrible. 

  4. You may have noticed the following sentence in the text of Irenaeus, “in the exercise of His grace, confer immortality on the righteous”. Only the righteous receive immortality. Nothing is ever said about the wicked being raised as immortals. Without the gift of everlasting life from Christ, the soul will burn up.

    • That sounds good to me. The more I think of this eternal hell the less I can believe in such a doctrine. When I get a chance I must find out more about this Irenaeus. Anyway it was Jesus who said the “God so loved the world that He sent His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not PERISH but have everlasting life. If Jesus used the word perish, and not everlasting torture… Do we believe Him or not? I do. I have thought hard about this, and want to believe that Jesus was not lying to us at all, and it is a when He said perish, that is what He meant. I do not believe in eternal hell at all these days. Probably I never did – I just tried to fit all sorts of things together and try to make sense of it all.

      • Well, Irenaeus made deals with the church of Rome that went against Polycarp and Polycarp was taught by John. We have to becareful with what Irenaeus says. I haven’t found anything talking of eternal torment in the Bible. “ever-lasting”, “Forever”, etc. was changed. It should mean age-long. Age-long chastisement or correction. God is truly a God of MERCY. The Bible clearly teaches that ALL will see the salvation of God. This obviously hasn’t happened yet 🙂 ALL who died in Adam will be made alive in Christ. I encourage you to keep researching though. Modern Christianity teaches that a few will be saved, like 2%. Calvinism is a dangerous doctrine and isn’t Biblical.

  5. Poor Jesus. He came as Savior of the World, the Savior of all men, especially those who believed. However according to traditional doctrine, He failed. Our free will was stronger than His will? I recall reading from Scripture that it was God’s will that all men be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. Adam’s sin was more powerful than God’s grace? Satan’s darkness and deception comprehended God’s Light? If only a small number of the billions of human beings who lived on this planet are saved and the rest lost, either annihilated or tortured, Satan wins. I THINK GOD HAS A BETTER PLAN.

  6. I will start by saying that I can only find that eternal life is a gift from God. Do a search on eternal life, everlasting life etc, and you will find that they are all meant for the born again believer. Also the bible never teaches that a person apart from Christ Jesus is immortal. The Apostle Paul clearly states that we the believer will put on immortality at the resurrection, which I believe one can make the assumption that we all were once mortal. I believe most people are lazy and have put their faith in a Pastor or man who has only truly been taught one view based on their denominational position, rather than search the scriptures to see what is most consistent with entirety of the Bible and it’s intent. I personally no longer hold dogmatically to the view of eternal torment for the unbelieving, but punishment and eventual destruction with regards to the false prophet, the beast and satan whom the Bible does disclose will be tormented forever. Do your homework and see what you find. Don’t merely pick a few scriptures that seem to support that which you’ve been taught.

  7. It is clear from Scripture that if we believe in Jesus we are born again and come into the kingdom of God. By Christ’s sufficient sacrifice our sins are blotted our, having been imputed to Jesus Who died, bearing our sins. Therefore, that the sin that separated us from God is no longer ours and Jews and Gentiles have access to the Father in Christ. This is only possible by being savingly united to Jesus in faith and repentance.
    All men were first created immortal in Adam and only because of his sin did death enter the universe.
    If we have such a Saviour, let us flee from the wrath to come and lay hold upon Jesus Christ and let us encourage everyone to do the same for it is only in Him that we can be sure to be saved.
    Moreover, it is only in Him that we can have fullness of life here on earth and in heaven.
    Also, He is an amazing Saviour, Lord and lover of our souls.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s