Surveying the Early Church’s View of Hell

Surveying the Early Church’s View of Hell August 2, 2020

Here is a quick historical survey of the EARLY CHURCH regarding their surprising beliefs about HELL:

THE FIRST 500 YEARS:

In the first five centuries there were six known theological schools. Four of them taught that all men would EVENTUALLY be rescued from Hell, a doctrine which came to be known as “Apocatastasis” (the eventual restitution of all living things to Christ). These four theological schools taught that all humans would EVENTUALLY be rescued from Hell: these being the theological schools at Alexandria, Antioch, Caesarea and Edessa/Nisbis. One school, Ephesus, taught Annihilationism (that sinners are totally incinerated into nothingness in Hell). Only one theological school, Rome/Carthage taught eternal punishment. Source: The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Universalism entry, p. 96, Baker Book House.

“The main Patristic supporters of the Apocatastasis theory, such as Bardaisan, Clement, Origen, Didymus, St. Anthony, St. Pamphilus Martyr, Methodius, St. Macrina, St. Gregory of Nyssa (and probably the two other Cappadocians), St. Evagrius Ponticus, Diodore of Tarsus, Theodore of Mopsuestia, St. John of Jerusalem, Rufinus, St. Jerome and St. Augustine (at least initially [However, even after abandoning the doctrine of apokatastasis himself, Augustine very interestingly recognised that a great deal of Christians in his day did embrace it, ‘indeed the vast majority’ (immo quam plurimi). These very numerous Christians, ‘albeit not denying the Holy Scripture, do not believe in eternal torments’ (Ench. ad Laur. 29) page 683]), Cassian, St.Isaac of Nineveh, St.John of Dalyatha, Ps. Dionysius the Areopagite, probably St. Maximus the Confessor, up to John the Scot Eriugena,28 and many others, grounded their Christian doctrine of apokatastasis first of all in the Bible.” Page 11, The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis: A Critical Assessment from the New Testament to Eriugena, by Ilaria L.E. Ramelli (2013). Ramelli’s work is comprehensive (800 pages) on this and her credentials beyond reproach. I daresay its the most comprehensive and scholarly book on the subject ever written. She is working on a shorter user friendly version soon to be published.

1ST CENTURY: PAUL. It is interesting to note that Paul never used the word Hell in any of his writings, though he was considered the theologian of the New Testament. He spoke of God’s post-mortem purging fire in 1 Corinthians 3:11-15, but never of Hell per se. The Gospel of John, the disciple perhaps closest to Jesus’ heart, never used the word Hell in his Gospel. It is also interesting to note that the Book of Acts never mentions the word Hell, except to speak of Jesus’ liberation FROM it. Acts NEVER uses the word Hell to describe any part of the Christian message which established the Church. The following passages suggests Paul’s seminal thinking on the eventual and ultimate salvation of all men: Romans 5:17,18; 10:9-17; 11:25-33; 14:11; 1 Cor. 3:11-15; 15:22-28; 1 Tim. 2:1-6; 4:10; Eph. 1:10; 4:1-10; Phil. 2:9-11; Col. 1:20, 23; Heb. 2:9.

2ND CENTURY: CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA. Clement was the first to speak of God’s fire as a “wise fire” which purges the sinner unto salvation. “God’s punishments are saving and disciplinary (in Hades) leading to conversions, and choosing rather the repentance than the death of the sinner, and especially since souls, although darkened by passions, when released from their bodies, are able to perceive more clearly because of their being no longer obstructed by the paltry flesh. We can set no limits to the agency of the Redeemer to redeem, to rescue, to discipline, is His work, and so will he continue to operate after this life.” Clem. str. 5:14.90.4-91.2; see also 5.1.9.4; and hyp. (frg. In Stahlin, Clemens Alexandrians, 3:211).

3RD CENTURY: ORIGEN. “When the Son is said to be subject to the Father, the perfect restoration of the whole creation is signified, so also, when enemies are said to be subjected to the Son of God, the salvation of the conquered and the restoration of the lost is in that understood to consist.” Origen, De Principiis, Book III, Chapter 5, Section 7, Anf, Vol. 4. Origen was the first Christian Systematic Theologian. A fundamental and essential element of his theology was the doctrine of the universal restoration of all fallen beings to their original holiness and union with God. Gods mercy and goodness are all-inclusive and ultimately irresistible. Hellfire is corrective and purgative, not punitive and eternal. This doctrine was called Apocatastasis, “the restitution of all things” per Acts 3:21. Origen was the greatest enemy of Gnosticism (per his Against Celsus) and is considered the greatest theologian of the early Eastern Church. “There is hardly a major thinker who is not deeply indebted to Origen. From the middle of the Twentieth Century, focused scholarly symposia of the Greek and Latin Church have once again begun to study and critically expound the rich Origenian legacy.” The Westminister Handbook of Patristic Theology, WJK.

4TH CENTURY: GREGORY OF NYSSA. “What therefore is the scope of Paul’s argument in this place [1 Cor. 15:28]? That the nature of evil, at length, be wholly exterminated, and divine, immortal goodness embrace within itself every rational creature; so that of all who were made by God, not one shall be excluded from his Kingdom. All the viciousness, that like a corrupt matter is mingled in things, shall be dissolved and consumed in the furnace of purgatorial fire; and every thing that had its origin from God, shall be restored to its pristine state of purity.” Tract, in Dictum Apostoli, Tunc etiam ipse Filius subjicietur, and c.p. 137, and seqq. Gregory was one of the three great Cappodadocean Fathers who protected the doctrine of the Trinity from the Arians at the Councils of Nicea and Constantinople.

5TH CENTURY: Theodore of Mopsuestia. “They who have chosen the good, shall, in the future world, be blessed and honored. But the wicked, who have committed evil the whole period of their lives, shall be punished till they learn, that, by continuing in sin, they only continue in misery. And when, by this means, they shall have been brought to fear God, and to regard Him with good-will, they shall obtain the enjoyment of His grace.” Assemani Biblioth. Orient. Tom. iii. Par. i. p.323.

Church history is fairly clear that this view of Hell was not just the view of a few, but rather was the majority view of the Church.

Basil the Great (329-379) said that, “The MASS of men (Christians) say that there is to be an end of punishment to those who are punished.” De Ascetics.

Saint Jerome (347-420) said, “I know that MOST persons understand the story of Nineveh and its king, the ultimate forgiveness of the devil and all rational creatures.” Homily on Jonah.

Lastly, even Augustine (354-430), who later in his life vehemently opposed Universalism, still acknowledged, “There are VERY MANY in our day, who though not denying the Holy Scriptures, do not believe in endless torments.” Enchirdion cxii. (The Latin for “very many” is imo quam plurimi, which can be translated majority).

David Bentley Hart, Eastern Orthodox theologian and Patristic scholar, notes that the early church fathers, who knew ancient koine Greek far better than do most moderns, simply did NOT translate “aionios kolasis” as a phrase meaning “eternal punishment” to be applied to the duration and nature of Hell per Matthew 25:46.

Hart observes that “. . . patristic theologians as diverse as Origen, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, and Isaac of Nineveh saw in the phrase aionios kolasis (typically translated as ‘eternal punishment,’ but possible to read as ‘correction for a long period’ or ‘for an age’ or even ‘in the age to come’) no cause to conclude that hell was anything but a temporary process of spiritual purification.” Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (Loc. 2059-61) Yale University Press (February 23, 2010).

When the Church rejected this high view of God’s goodness and replaced it with a view of God as an eternal torturer, the dark ages began, almost to the day. Ever since, there has remained a constant and stubborn strand of those embedded in the Church who believe Hell is not an eternal torture chamber, but rather God’s final crisis-center, a cosmic ER station where God performs complicated, intense and painful surgery on human souls in order to remove all the false sin-identites accumulated over their lifetimes.

About Richard Murray
Richard K. Murray is a practicing criminal-defense attorney from Dalton, Georgia where he lives with his wife Rita and their seven children: Sloan, Caleb, Micah, Abraham, Sarah, Ben and Annie. Richard has a B.B.A. and J.D. from the University of Georgia and a M.A. from Regent University School of Divinity. He has written several books, including: THE SPIRITUAL EYE OF THE TIGER THE POWER: Discovering the Real "Secret" of Life LIFT UP YOUR JAWBONE: Developing Samson-like Strength by Daily Confession THE JESUS MOOD: Discovering the Treasure of Imperative Faith GOD VERSUS EVIL: Sculpting an Epic Theology of God's Heroic Goodness You can read more about the author here.
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