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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