Video – The early church fathers on hell


What did the early Church Fathers have to say about the doctrine of eternal punishment?

Every now and then I make a video for Rethinking Hell, and I’ll share some of those here as they are produced. The purpose of this one was to provide a succinct reply to the comment that is sometimes made that the doctrine of hell as a place of eternal torment is the view that all the Early Church Fathers held. I hope you find it interesting!

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{ 13 comments… add one }
  • Martin Smith September 8, 2013, 1:32 am

    Thanks for this, Glenn, really interesting. What do you know about forms of conditionalism among, say, the Pharisees? Was this view found within the Judaism most similar to Christianity?

  • Glenn September 8, 2013, 2:41 pm

    Martin, I don’t adopt the view that Pharisaism was the Judaism most similar to Christianity. But as far as the Pharisees beliefs on hell go, I’m not sure. I know that (as Josephus describes it) some of them certainly held what has now become the traditional view, and we know from the Dead Sea Scrolls that a number of Jewish believers and teachers were annihilationists. But as for a breakdown by proportion, I couldn’t say.

    My initial comment is driven by the fact that, while there were two main “elite” group of Jewish thinkers, the Pharisees (the larger group) and the Sadducees, the Judaism of most Jews was neither of these. We know that Christianity sided with the Pharisees on the fact of the future resurrection, but I don’t know that we can say with any confidence that Pharisaism was most similar to Christianity. It may well be that the grass roots Judaism of everyday Godfearing Jews held that position.

  • Matti September 9, 2013, 7:00 am

    Athanasius, my hero! What hath thou done?! But it is true that annihilationism makes a lot of sense in the patristic soteriological context which emphasized the immortality and theosis of human beings as the benefits of salvation.

    Do you have any estimation how common is the traditional view in the Fathers before Augustine? (This is not a rhetorical question)

  • Andrew G September 12, 2013, 12:55 am

    Thanks Glenn, some really good food for thought there.

    BTW is it just me or is the audio slightly out of sync with the video?

  • Blair M September 16, 2013, 6:38 am

    Good video. It’s always encouraging to see Protestants presented with the writings of the Church Fathers. Of course, this is what the Orthodox Church has always believed about hell – though I think you misinterpret the language. In Orthodoxy, God is the ultimate existence, and to be separate from God is to cease to exist. Those separated from God are already foretasting Hell – and it will only get worse! The burning and torment of Hell is simply the full force of God’s energies, which redeemed souls will experience as love and grace, but damned ones will experience as an all-consuming fire.

    One has to bear in mind also that, while the soul may waste away exposed to the energies of God, the resurrected body is incorruptible, so my understanding of Orthodox theology on this subject is that, even if the soul is destroyed, the body will remain tormented.

    I think it’s interesting that you mention Augustine and his influence on this topic. Augustine of course, wrote in Latin, and his Greek was poor, so a lot of the stuff he thought up was not necessarily in tune with the other Church Fathers. In fact, he only got translated into Greek in the 13th Century, well after the Great Schism, so his influence on the Orthodox Church has been minimal. He is one of the reasons Western and Eastern Christianity remain so divided.

  • Glenn September 16, 2013, 9:34 am

    Blair, that may be the Orthodox view, but it isn’t *quite* what some of these fathers are saying – they do not say, for example, that the bodies of the lost are incorruptible.

    Can you point me to Orthodox writers who say with Irenaeus that the lost will not have continuation of existence? I’ve never read that, but then I don’t read a lot of Orthodox writers.

  • BlairM September 17, 2013, 5:05 am

    Forgive my red herring about incorruptible bodies for the moment. The main point I was trying to get across was that the Orthodox view (being no less than the consensus of the Church Fathers led by the Holy Spirit) suggests a definition of existence that is both antecartesian and anticartesian – it’s a pre-enlightenment view. Existence is based solely on one’s relationship to God. So when Irenaeus (and others you cite) talk about being deprived of continuance, it is not a Western/enlightenment notion of disappearing in a puff of smoke. Irenaeus was very firm on the eternality of hell. Elsewhere he states: “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)

    In fact, Arnobius also displays this well in the quote you cite, when he defines annihilation as long-protracted torment. Context is everything in the patristic writings.

    Metropolitain Hierotheos of Nafpaktos writes very well on this subject, where he discusses Gregory of Nyssa’s views:

  • Glenn September 17, 2013, 7:08 am

    Blair, are you suggesting that because Irenaeus thought the punishment was eternal, he must have therefore thought that the lost will therefore exist forever? (This is a claim that I discuss in the video.)

    I must also protest the language suggesting that the concept of being literally destroyed is somehow Western or an Enlightenment concept.

  • BlairM September 17, 2013, 9:59 am

    “I must also protest the language suggesting that the concept of being literally destroyed is somehow Western or an Enlightenment concept.”

    Not the concept itself, but that the Church Fathers would mean such a thing, or thought about death or annihilation in those terms. They related them to our relationship with God, not our discrete self-awareness. These guys were not operating under “I think, therefore I am”. They were operating under “God is, therefore I am”.

    It’s not that you may be right or wrong on the greater issue of whether the damned eventually disappear under the fire of God’s Energy. I just don’t think that’s what any of the Fathers meant, nor is that how they are interpreted in anything I have read in the Orthodox Church at least. I don’t think you will find any writers in Orthodoxy who take that view (although you will find several who propose something close to Universalism).

    It is clear that all will be resurrected – some to Life, and some to be condemned. Aside from anything anyone has written on this subject, it makes no logical sense for Christ to do that if he’s just going to “unresurrect them” straight away! Furthermore, for God to “annihilate” is for God to profess a mistake – that His creation is not Good. He can therefore neither do it as a mercy, nor because the person damned is of no further use. The damned are damned because they choose to be damned, and God having created them eternal, they stay eternal, either as part of the Divine, or by choice outside of Him.

  • Glenn September 17, 2013, 6:01 pm

    Blair, thanks for your perspective. I think I have presented the message of these Fathers fairly and in context, and I would hope that the interested viewer who went back and read the Fathers that I discuss will see that. Interestingly, Irenaeus expressly answers your concern that the resurrection would make no sense given that God is going to destroy the lost. Certainly nothing about my comments suggests an “I think therefore I am” approach on the part of the Fathers.

    But the most I can do is show people what has been said. I can’t compel them not to read through the lens of their ecclesiological tradition.

  • BlairM September 19, 2013, 9:19 am

    “But the most I can do is show people what has been said. I can’t compel them not to read through the lens of their ecclesiological tradition.”

    Glenn, I think the problem is that you are reading through the lens of yours. I’d refer you to your own recent post on etymology. Just because certain language is used, you can’t infer that the meaning is the same. Just as the Bible and the Fathers in numerous places talk about “death”, meaning “the first death” and do not mean that the soul is annihilated when we die, so also when they refers to “the second death” and all the language associated with that, it does not necessarily mean that annihilation is their intent or meaning beyond the Judgment.

    There are huge problems with annihilation with regards to an “eternal fire”. If it is created eternal for the devil and his minions as in Revelation 20:10, you run into the trouble of explaining why a bodiless power like the devil is not annihilated, and yet embodied souls of human beings created in God’s image are! You’d need to either explain that the devil is also annihilated (despite the Scripture seeming to say otherwise), that the souls/bodies of the resurrected damned are somehow materially or spiritually different from the devil and therefore naturally annihilated and the devil not, or propose that God annihilates humans “by grace” in a dispensation not granted to the devil.

    I think a case could possibly be made for the second view, although I don’t personally believe in it, or see what evidence there is from the Bible or elsewhere that points to it. As for the last argument, which I suspect is the more attractive to annihilationists; it seems to me to be completely based on a Western, judicial hell created as an act of God’s Will, not the Orthodox view of hell as God’s uncreated Energies consuming the damned through ultimate exposure. While it does not make for a sound argument against annihilation to question motive, the advocacy for it is, in my opinion, based on the false soteriological view of Satisfaction, and an argument as to just how much justice would in fact “satisfy” God. If one’s Christian faith is instead concerned with theosis, and removing the separation between oneself and God, the finer details of just how bad our suffering will be in separating ourselves from God – eternal, or just really, really painful for a while before we disappear with a *poof*, becomes academic. The discomfort at preaching a version of hell that may distort God’s justice disappears, because He is revealed as All-Loving and not responsible for anything relating to hell other than the free will He gives each and every one of us.

  • Glenn September 19, 2013, 5:18 pm

    Glenn, I think the problem is that you are reading through the lens of yours. I’d refer you to your own recent post on etymology. Just because certain language is used, you can’t infer that the meaning is the same.

    Blair, this is a very hard sell. In the first place, the churches of which I have been a part reject my views on this subject, so it is quite hard to see how I could be reading the fathers through the lens of my church. I’m surprised that you would assume that I was simply drawing on my ecclesiological affiliation without even known whether it agrees with me on hell.

    Secondly, you need to read the Fathers in *their* thought world, not the thought world that your orthodox affiliation embraces. The language they are using here is classical language about being and non-being (I think especially of Athanasius when I say that), and in that context to be bereft of being altogether as he puts it actually is to cease to exist.

    As for those earlier than Athanasius, their language is drenched in biblical terminology, and as we know full well from extra-biblical sources such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, to use this language to refer to actual, literal and final destruction was quite normal. This is the case in the Gospels as well.

    So although it would be useful to assume that I have simply imposed a modern framework onto the Fathers, this is just not so.

    Your comments about Revelation 20:10 simply assume, ironically, a literalist interpretation of apocalyptic imagery, which itself is a modern tendency. I do not think that claim about the Devil living forever is true, so the argument based on it is unpersuasive.

    And finally, your argument from the atonement is wanting. yes, any satisfaction-based theory of the atonement would demand annihilationism, but it does not follow from this that any other theory of the atonement rules annihilationism out. God is the source of our life and being, and to say no to that source is to lose our being. And the satisfaction view of the atonement is not required here.

  • Dick Matz October 10, 2015, 8:57 am

    Based on a personal search of the bible I had, years ago, come to the conclusion that the wages of sin is death…Period! I have also come to understand that many of the statements Jesus made refer to the events of 70 AD not an eternal torment. However, of late I have been watching several youtube testimonies of persons who say they either saw or personally experienced the traditionalist view of hell and it has got my attention given the bible does teach that there is a place darkness created for the Devil and his angles..

    QUESTION: Does the bible offer any information that could suggest the wicked suffer punishment in hell prior to annihilation or that an encounter with that darkness could lead to repentance and salvation as it did with Howard Storm, an atheist professor, who experienced a near death experience that featured an encounter with demons and Jesus Christ (see below).

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