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How Hell Evolved in 2nd-4th Century Christianity (Journey Into Hell #8)

How Hell Evolved in 2nd-4th Century Christianity (Journey Into Hell #8) June 15, 2021

Hi and welcome back! Before we got a bit sidetracked by our old pal Russell Moore, we were talking about the early history of Hell. By Hell, of course, we mean the Christian version of it rather than any one of the many other Hells that other religious leaders have created over the eons. And the Christian Hell has a very interesting history. It did not pop into existence fully formed, as Athena is said to have done from the forehead of Zeus. No, Hell evolved. It has a lineage and a progression that we can track over the centuries since some anonymous dudes wrote down the first ideas that would later become Christianity. We tracked the prehistory of Hell already (here and in very early Christianity here), so today, let’s look at what 2nd-4th century Christians did with the idea of it. 

secret fire in a hawaiian volcano
The “secret fire” burns. (Ian Stauffer.)

(Previous Journeys Into Hell: Hell in Early Christian WritingsThe Night My Fear of Hell Died; But WHICH Hell Shall We Fear; Why Hell Fails as a Christian Threat; We’re Made Out of Meat; Why Hell Succeeds as a Threat; Dealing With Hell Disbelievers; A Brief Prehistory of Hell. Instead of BC and AD, historians and archaeologists who aren’t completely addled by religious zealotry now prefer BCE and CE — “before the Common Era” and “Common Era,” respectively. (And “c.” means “century”) Also, when I talk about the dating of Bible writings and biographical dates, bear in mind that there’s some speculation about these. Here, I offer the general majority view. Thanks!)

2nd Century: Justin Martyr and the “Condemnation of Fire.”

There weren’t many 1st-century Christian writers at all, strangely enough.

I'm just so confused here
NO IDEA WHY THOUGH.

So we begin in the second century.

Justin Martyr was one of the very first apologists. He was probably born around 100 CE and died around 165 CE. Though he wrote a lot of stuff, only a few of his writings survived. This essay of his discusses what happens to people who die:

[. . .] the serpent that sinned from the beginning, and the angels like him, may be destroyed, and that death may be contemned, and for ever quit, at the second coming of the Christ Himself, those who believe in Him and live acceptably,—and be no more: when some are sent to be punished unceasingly into judgment and condemnation of fire; but others shall exist in freedom from suffering, from corruption, and from grief, and in immortality.

As you can see, Justin’s Hellscape was pretty basic. It doesn’t sound too different from the Gospels’ own “lake of fire” ideas. It lasts forever, it’s described as just “fire,” etc. Of course, those who escape this fate through their faith in Jesus will never suffer at all. Justin actually wrote about this exact idea very often, and always in these terms — as least as far as I can see.

You can check out other 2nd-century sources here. Generally speaking, we don’t see a lot of elaboration on this theme. Those earliest Christians were content to preach a simple sort of Hell.

But we’re about to see Hell become way more extensive — and a lot more scary.

Later 2nd Century: Tertullian and His “Secret Fire.”

Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus, often just called Tertullian, was born in Carthage (in Africa) around 155 CE and died around 220 CE. He was another early and active Christian author. This very moralistic, ascetic convert wrote a whole bunch of Christian stuff in Latin — apologetics, anti-heresy books, and all sorts of stuff about theology. Perhaps his greatest claim to fame is coming up with the term “trinity” to describe his god.

(Ahh, says my inner ex-Oneness PentecostalSo THAT’s where this foul heresy came from.)

Tertullian hugely influenced Christianity for a long time. We have a few dozen of his writings and a bunch more fragments. He talked about Christianity in very martial terms — like Christians as “soldiers of Christ” and all that — and pushed hard on notions like the Endtimes and apostolic succession. He also ferociously condemned fornicators and murderers, teaching that such sinners could never be readmitted to their church fellowships.

Really, he sounds like a deeply unpleasant person.

So you can probably imagine what his views of Hell involved. As one of his apologetics books tells us, his Hell was eternal, and even people who thought they were Christians could go there. It was the familiar vision of eternal torture by what he called “secret fire,” which behaved more like lightning strikes or volcanic fire than regular fire.

Jesus had only spoken of a lake of fire, according to the Gospels. So by the 2nd century we’re already seeing a Christian pushing the idea outwards into more gruesome and extreme territory.

By the 3rd century, we’d see Minucius Felix (d. 250ish CE) extending Tertullian’s ideas outward even further (see Chapter 35 here).

Still Late 2nd Century: Origen and Apokatastasis.

The second wave of Christianity couldn’t really agree on much of anything. But one early leader’s views came to prominence in the 2nd century: Origen. He was probably born around 184 CE and died around 253 CE. Almost everything we think we know about Origen comes to us from a 3rd-century Christian leader named Eusebius (we’ll be covering him in a moment here).

Originally, Origen was one of the many young Christians aching for martyrdom around then. His mother helped channel that youthful zeal into getting a Christian education instead in Alexandria. Thanks to at least one wealthy patron’s help, Origen produced many early writings. Many of them have survived to our time. His writing heavily influenced the development of early Christianity (though even at the time he faced considerable pushback from his fellow Christians).

In Origen’s view, his god created all intelligent beings’ souls at the beginning of time. He thought Jesus had died as ransom to Satan, forcing Satan to hand humanity back to Yahweh. (See endnote.)

This view was called the ransom theory of atonement. Of course, it’s no longer in fashion in Christianity. They’ve gone through more than a few other theories over the centuries. (They’ve never been able to agree and settle on any one explanation for the Crucifixion.)

Moreover, according to a great many historians Origen believed in apokatastasis. That term means restoration, roughly (it’s not new, either). In apokatastasis, even sinful humans eventually get posthumously restored to a Heaven-worthy state. Once that happens, they leave Hell. Here’s a Harvard paper that discusses how Origen came to this idea.

In the 6th century the now-well-established Catholic Church declared him a heretic, sort of. I can see why. But during his heyday, his ideas were incredibly popular.

3rd Century: Eusebius and Origen, Sittin’ in a Tree.

Eusebius of Caesarea was probably born around 260ish CE and probably died around 340 CE. He wrote a lot about Christianity during his lifetime. Dude was busy — he even became a bishop in 314 CE. Many reckon him as the “Father of Church History,” though his work definitely had its serious flaws.

Eusebius really liked Origen. He fell under the influence of a teacher called Pamphilus, who had been a devoted (spiritual) student of Origen’s. And Eusebius went whole hog on Origen as a result — collecting and studying everything he could find that Origen had written. Eventually, he wrote a biography of his big hero as well as a five-volume set of books defending Origen’s ideas.

The work of Eusebius remains one of the only ways we know anything about Origen. So you won’t be surprised to hear that Eusebius was a big fan of apokatastasis. He took his hero’s ideas even further, though: he thought that literally every sentient being got restored. That view included even demons (which he tells us completely scandalized his contemporaries). In addition, Eusebius thought that humans could and would eventually become divine as a result of this reconciliation with Yahweh.

(Cuz we totally know how much Yahweh just LOVES seeing humans get too close to divinity, right?)

I kinda wonder if Eusebius wrote so much about Origen because he thought it would bolster his own ideas. Either way, Christians argued about them for a long time.

Also 3rd Century: Hippolytus of Rome’s Wicked Torture Fetish.

Hippolytus of Rome is considered a super-important 3rd-century Christian leader. He wrote a ton of stuff that shaped the early religion. And yet, we don’t know much about him. He was born around 170 CE and died around 235 CE. Eventually, he may have become one of the early antipopes. One Renaissance pope referred to him as “Bishop of Pontus,” so he may well have been.

Hippolytus wrote a book sometimes called Against the Greeks, which sought to convert pagans by scaring the willies out of them about Hell, it seems:

To those who have done well, everlasting enjoyment shall be given; while to the lovers of evil shall be given eternal punishment. The unquenchable and unending fire awaits these latter, and a certain fiery worm which does not die and which does not waste the body but continually bursts forth from the body with unceasing pain. [. . .] [N]o death will deliver them from punishment; no appeal of interceding friends will profit them.

Here, we see the addition of “a certain fiery worm” that behaves like a Chestburster from Aliens.

Hippolytus is joined by other 3rd-century Christians who thought similarly.

Cyprian of Carthage wrote about “an ever-burning Gehenna and the punishment of being devoured by living flames,” and very much looked forward to the jolly day when “our persecutors” would be condemned there forever.

Nice. But it’d get even not-nicer in time.

Very Early 4th Century: Arnobius and Annihilationism.

Arnobius of Sicca, who died around 330 CE, was an early Christian apologist. He was one of the first known sources of annihilationism.

Annihilationism isn’t anything like restoration or eternal torture in fire. Christians who go in for this idea don’t believe that all human souls are immortal. Instead, they think their god will actually 100% destroy those who don’t go to Heaven. Instead of pain, sinners in this paradigm face simple oblivion. Arnobius called this oblivion “man’s real death.” Of course, it’d still hurt, and the destruction itself would be eternal:

For that which is seen by the eyes is only a separation of soul from body, not the last end — annihilation: this, I say, is man’s real death, when souls which know not God shall be consumed in long-protracted torment with raging fire, into which certain fiercely cruel beings shall cast them, who were unknown before Christ, and brought to light only by His wisdom.

I mean, it beats eternal torture, at least. Right? Maybe?

Unfortunately, Arnobius’ student Lactantius (250 CE – 325 CE) seems to have gone back to the whole “secret fire” idea. If his essay here had been written in modern language by a high-schooler for English class, I guarantee it would have resulted in a serious sit-down conference with the school’s principal and the school counselor. Dude’s getting off on this whole fiery torture idea.

And he sure wouldn’t be the first or last Christian to do so.

So, Hell: The Evolution of an Idea.

We’ll be plunging into the 4th century next time, when the new religion had just begun to taste temporal power and dominance. At that stage of its development, its leaders’ ideas were getting more set in stone, which made any and all dissenting opinions way more dangerous-seeming.

For now, though, we see three different threads of ideas winding their way through early Christianity:

  • Eternal torture, with the flames eventually gaining all kinds of strange new properties, and Christians getting more and more titillated by the ideas added to it
  • Universal restoration, maybe even for demons (!!!)
  • Utter annihilation for anyone who doesn’t toe the line

And accordingly, each idea had its own hangers-on and fans. Those fans added their own special touches and fillips to their favorite idea, building off of each other until gradually the finished work barely even looked like Jesus’ comparatively-simple “lake of fire.”

It’s very interesting to me to see these squabbles among early Christians. More than that, it’s so interesting to see how Hell as a concept evolved to its present state. In so many ways, Hell loses another fang every time I read a new thing about it — even as long ago as I shed that fear. I truly hope that’s how it is for anybody who still fears the idea of it.

I can’t wait to see what comes next!

WHAT COMES NEXT: The 4th century, when the you-know-what gets real. See you then!


Endnotes.

Regarding that whole ransom thing: Satan thought he now had Jesus forever once Jesus died. Ah, but this was just a trick played on him by Jesus. Jesus held a secret trump card in his back pocket: he could die, sure, but he couldn’t really die-die. Satan didn’t know Jesus would just rise again. Oh, that trickster! I bet that was a big surprise! (Back to the post!)


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I’m greatly indebted to this site at Sojourners for their excellent work on source material, as well as Vision.org and National Geographic. Also, J. Warner Wallace and whoever did this page offer information on this topic that helped locate some primary sources. A hat-tipping to all of them.

About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.
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