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.

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Do I really have to believe in hell?

Herman Bavinck begins and ends his discussion of the eternal punishment of sinners with the caveat that no one is really enthused about the doctrine:

If human sentiment had the final say about the doctrine of eternal punishment, it would certainly be hard to maintain and even today find few defenders.

For in eternal punishment God’s justice always manifests itself in such a way that his goodness and love remain inviolate and can never be justly faulted. The saying that he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone applies also in hell. The pain he inflicts is not an object of pleasure, either for him or for the blessed in heaven, but a means of glorifying his virtues, and hence [the punishment is] determined in severity and measure by this ultimate goal. (Reformed Dogmatics, IV, 708, 714)

Christians do not believe in hell because they find the idea enjoyable. Christians believe in hell because the Bible teaches the reality of it. Along those lines, here some important things to remember when considering the doctrine of eternal punishment:

  1. “Human feeling is no foundation for anything important, therefore, and neither may nor can it be decisive in the determination of law and justice. All appearance notwithstanding, it is infinitely better to fall into the hands of the Lord than into human hands (1 Chron. 21:13).” In short, your feelings and opinions are inconsequential to the formulation of doctrinally orthodox beliefs.
  2. “…no one in Scripture speaks of [eternal punishment] more often and at greater length than our Lord Jesus Christ, whose depth of human feeling and compassion no one can deny and who was the meekest and most humble of human beings.” In other words, if you have a problem with hell you have a problem with Jesus.
  3. “Granted, sin is finite in the sense that it is committed by a finite creature in a finite period of time, but as Augustine already noted, not the duration of time over which the sin was committed but its own intrinsic nature is the standard for its punishment.” The denial of eternal punishment minimizes the sinfulness of sin and the greatness of God.  Even in this life we recognize the varied magnitude of different decisions. There is a world of difference between choosing the wrong thing off the menu for supper and choosing the wrong person to marry. Sin is not just choosing the curly fries instead of the home-style fries at Arby’s. “…sin is infinite in the sense that it is committed against the Highest Majesty, who is absolutely entitled to our love and worship. God is absolutely and infinitely worthy of our obedience and dedication.”
  4. “…for the person who disputes [the reality of] eternal punishment, there is enormous danger of playing the hypocrite before God. Such a person presents himself as extremely loving, one who in goodness and compassion far outstrips our Lord Jesus Christ. This does not stop the same person, the moment one’s own honor is violated, from erupting in fury and calling down on the violator every evil in this life and the life to come.” Or, if you are going to deny the right of God to punish sin, you have no right to condemn it yourself.
  5. Finally, “Critics of eternal punishment not only fail to do justice to the doom-worthiness of sin, the rigorousness of divine justice; they also infringe on the greatness of God’s love and the salvation that is in Christ.” For all the talk of a loving God not sending people to hell, a denial of hell actually makes God into a hateful misogynist. If hell is not real, why would the eternal Word of God have to take on human flesh and die for man’s sin? If the eternal Son of God did not have to die for man’s sin to save him and God sent Him to die anyway… What kind of Father does that?

No one likes the idea of hell. But, “If the object had not been salvation from eternal destruction, the price of the blood of God’s own Son would have been much too high. The heaven that he won for us by his atoning death presupposes a hell from which he delivered us. The eternal life he imparted to us presupposes an eternal death from which he saved us.”