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.

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.”

Christian History’s The History of Hell A Brief Survey and Resource Guide A Review

Today I received the latest publication of Christian History Institute: The History of Hell: A brief survey and resource guide. Here are some thoughts:

Aesthetics: The three-tone presentation of black, white, and red is effective and well executed. The serpent graphic spanning the top of every page is provocative and helpful. The size (5½x8½) seems right for something of this nature.  While the publisher might appreciate advertisers and the financial support that comes with them, I appreciated the fact that the only ad was on the inside of the back cover. I dislike commercial interruptions: even printed ones. One slight blemish is the disparity in the quality of the pictures of the various men who are discussed. The difference in quality between the images of Irenaeus, Anselm, and Dante as when compared to those of Augustine, Aquinas, and Erasmus is quite noticeable: especially since the images of Dante and Erasmus are on facing pages. Sometimes, more effort is needed than simply “copy and paste” from Wikipedia.

Content: The inside front cover offers a summary of the three main Christian views on hell: Traditional, Conditional Immortality or Annihilationism, and Restorationism or Universalism. There follows 20 pages presenting a historical overview of the beliefs of nearly 50 individuals, groups, or eras from the Didache (late 1st century) to Seventh-day Adventists (1863).  Following that  7 pages offer nearly 60 contemporary works (1940-2011) that in part or in full deal with the doctrine of hell.

Some time ago the publisher made known that this resource was on the way and the purpose of it. As the subtitle indicates, the purpose of The History of Hell is not polemic, but informative. Even with this caveat, I have a feeling that those who hold to the traditional view will not be entirely satisfied with the presentation. If one were to simply count the proponents of each view, Traditionalists would have more representation than the other two views.  Even so, the editors seem to be at pains to present support for opposing views where it might not exist.

In the case of Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Athanasius, Gregory Nazianzen the refrain is, “They didn’t say anything clearly repudiating the traditional view, but they could be taken to teach Annihilationism or Universalism.” In the case of Erasmus, Zwingli, and Denck the discussion seems to go beyond the question of, “Who is damned and how?” to “Who is saved and how?” The inclusion of Locke and Mill seems out of place. While they were important men in their fields, those fields were not theology, biblical studies, or ecclesiastical leadership. My perception is that the editors wanted to paint a picture of mist and clouds with nothing certain.  The traditional view seems to be traditional in name only. Was there ever a time when the traditional view was by and large accepted as fact? If not, how can it be called traditional? But perhaps I am being prejudicial. Everyone wants to see his opinion afforded the greatest possible argument and I am not sure mine was.

The list of modern resources is a treasure. It is an annotated bibliography of books from each position and books surveying multiple positions.

Which brings up a major shortcoming in the historical section: there are no citations in the historical section! Some of the men wrote volume upon volume and we are nowhere told where we may find what they taught on the subject. For a publication of this nature, this seems almost inexcusable. It seems almost irresponsible to assert that Justin Martyr is the father of “father of the inclusivist tradition within Christianity” but nowhere give the reader where to read in Justin in support of such a statement. Even in a survey, one should be told where to look for more in-depth information. This is a quite unfortunate failing. A good publication could have easily been made superb.

Rob Bell is Right: Love Wins

The Christian side of the internet was set a flutter this weekend over the subject matter of Rob Bells upcoming book release: Love Wins. Most of the discussion was over the question of whether or not Rob bell is a heretic for denying hell and embracing universalism. Even those who made the charge of heresy admitted they did so only tentatively since the promotional material only seemed to indicate that Bell embraced universalism. This caveat received as much space and attention as the legal disclaimers at the conclusion of commercials.

Whether or not Rob Bell is a heretic is not for me to say. I will say that about the only thing more distasteful than the so-called evangelical rock star mentality is the glee that others seem to demonstrate in tearing those rock stars down. Whether or not Rob Bell is a universalist or not, he is right about one thing: love does win.

Universalism is wrong on multiple levels. It is wrong logically: there is no point in pursuing the Christian life if we all end up in the same place. It is wrong historically: no group of orthodox Christians have ever believed and taught it. It is wrong biblically: no plain reading of the Scripture’s teaching on hell allows for it. It is wrong theologically: and this is the most fundamental error of universalism.

The promotional video for Love Wins points to one of the foundational arguments for the salvation of all mankind: God is too loving to send anyone to a place of eternal torture. A loving, merciful God would never do such a thing. The problem with such an argument is that it actually belittles the love of God. That’s right: to say that God is too loving to send anyone to hell diminishes God’s love and makes his mercy into something repulsive.

“God is love.” While John’s statement certainly is not meant to describe all that God is, it accurately represents what his character is. We also know from Scripture that God does not change; he is immutable. If God is loving and immutable he has always loved. That is to say, even before man existed, God was a God of love. But who was there for God to love before creation? Only himself.

And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed. Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. (John 17:5, 24)

Universalism fails to take the love of God seriously because it does not recognize the fountain of all God’s love: the love that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have for one another. What shall the Father say to the Son regarding the humiliation of his incarnation and crucifixion? “Sorry my boy, I guess you did not have to abandon your glory, embrace poverty, and be forsaken after all. I have decided to just let everyone in.” What shall he say to the Spirit? “I know you have been striving for thousands of years to call sinners to repentance and saints to holiness, but all your effort really was not needed.”

Universalism makes God a monster. It actually validates the charge of atheists that God is a cosmic child-abuser. Universalism declares that God loves people more than his own Son. For God to be merciful to those who reject the sacrifice of Christ, the Father Himself is the one “who has spurned the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant…”

As with all heresy, universalism begins with a faulty conception of God. Universalism maintains that God the Father does not love the Son enough to honor the sacrifice he made to save his people from their sins. In addition, the Holy Spirit toils in vain to apply the benefits of Christ’s death to his followers if all will eventually receive it.

Universalism is heresy because it makes little of the love God has for himself. I pray that if Rob Bell has been tempted by this poisonous allurement, the Spirit will open his eyes to the fact that love does win. Te love God has for himself will be vindicated.


The Trinity in Scripture: Acts 13. The Jealousy of the Trinity

There are several similarities between Acts 8 and Acts 13. Both passages speak of magicians, or sorcerers: Simon and Bar-Jesus/Elymas. Both of the magicians are influential: Simon with the population and Elymas with the leadership. Both of the magicians are confronted with the gospel and both men are confronted with Trinitarian rebukes. But whereas Peter seems to leave Simon with some hope of restoration, Paul offers no such hope to Elymas.

When they had gone through the whole island as far as Paphos, they came upon a certain magician, a Jewish false prophet named Bar-Jesus. He was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, a man of intelligence, who summoned Barnabas and Saul and sought to hear the word of God. But Elymas the magician (for that is the meaning of his name) opposed them, seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith. But Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him and said, “You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord? And now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon you, and you will be blind and unable to see the sun for a time.” Immediately mist and darkness fell upon him, and he went about seeking people to lead him by the hand. Then the proconsul believed, when he saw what had occurred, for he was astonished at the teaching of the Lord. Acts 13:6-12

We see in this passage a vivid demonstration of the jealousy of the Trinity. Sergius Paulus summoned Barnabas and Saul to hear the word of God (the Father) that they were preaching. That word from the Father was the gospel of Jesus Christ, his Son. Elymas sought to turn Sergius “away from the faith” in the Messiah Saul and Barnabas preached. This aroused the righteous anger of the Trinity. The Holy Spirit moved Paul to proclaim that the Lord (Jesus) would judge Elymas for his sin by blinding him. Sergius, like Paul himself, responded to Jesus’ judgment of blindness by opening his eyes to the truth of the gospel.

God is a jealous God. He is jealous for his own glory. When Elymas tried to pervert God’s word; tried to keep another person from seeing the truth about Jesus; the Holy Spirit gave Paul the boldness to proclaim the Trinity’s declaration of war against such rebellion. Those who attempt to hinder the spread of the gospel face the same wrath today—and eternally.

It is important for Christians to realize, especially Christians today, that hell exists because of the love of God. God sent forth his Son into the world to bear the sins of all who would believe. At the request of his Son, God sent the Holy Spirit into the world to convict it of sin and righteousness and judgment. What else is the Father to do with a soul that rejects the eternal blood of Christ and counts it a common thing to be trampled upon? What else is the Son to do to that sinner who constantly resists and rejects the work of the Holy Spirit? Hell exists because God loves his son. Hell exists because it is the only place worthy of those who refuse such love. Our God is a jealous God.