In the discussion regarding hell amongst evangelicals, Scripture should be our starting point and final authority. Of course, this doesn’t mean that historical theology is irrelevant. How the biblical texts have been interpreted throughout almost 2000 years of Church history matters in a very real sense. The Church Councils can be informative for our doctrine, but are not supposed to take precedence over Scripture. Sola Scriptura does not mean tradition doesn’t matter, but that Scripture is over tradition. But it’s worth looking at historical theology when trying to shed light on biblical interpretation when it comes to the doctrine of final punishment/hell.
In the discussion of final punishment, the Councils give us precious little to go on. However, some evangelicals have turned to the Second Council of Constantinople to assert that the early Church condemned all views other than eternal conscious torment. For instance, Robert Yarborough argues (citing ACUTE 1):
“In fact, even a source friendly to conditionalism admits that it is not until Arnobius (died ca. A.D. 330) that we find ‘the first explicit defence of the annihilation of ungodly souls in hell.’ Moreover, ‘Arnobius is among the least biblically-grounded of the early church fathers.’ It is therefore not surprising that this view ‘was deemed heretical by the Second Council of Constantinople in 553 and again by the Lateran Council in 1513.'” 2
In another chapter of the same book, Christopher Morgan argues that annihilation was “Condemned by the Second Council of Constantinople (553) and the Fifth Lateran Council (1513)”. 3 We’ll leave the Fifth Lateran council for another time for the sake of space, and focus our attention here only on the Second Council of Constantinople.
Convened in 553, at the order of the Emperor Justinian, the main topic of conversation at the 5th Ecumenical Council was to address the “Three Chapters”- propositions anathematizing: (1) Theodore of Mopsuestia, who had argued for a Christology (Nestorian) which disagreed sharply the decrees of the previous two councils (Ephesus in 431 and Chalcedon in 451) (2) some affirmations of Theodoret of Cyrus who had written in opposition of Cyril of Alexandria and (3) The Letter of Ibas. This council was poorly attended by Western Bishops (Pope Vigilius refused to attend), featured a lack of consensus among the Bishops 4, and much of the documentation in connection with the Council is dubious at best. The original Greek texts are lost, leaving only Latin translations (which contain significant variances), and the Third Council of Constantinople concluded that the copies of the Acts of the Council in the Patriarchal Library had been tampered with. 5
In an attempt to establish a single view on hell within the Early Church, some evangelicals will appeal to one particular statement in the documents connected with this council. The statement in question is this:
“If anyone says or thinks that the punishment of demons and of impious men is only temporary, and will one day have an end, and that a restoration (ἀποκατάστασις) will take place of demons and of impious men, let him be anathema.” 6
This is appealed to by some as a clear affirmation that both annihilation and universal reconciliation were deemed by the Church to be heretical views. But does that claim hold any water? I would argue it absolutely does not.
1. The Anathema is Specific to Origen’s Teachings
First, it is important to keep in mind that the anathema in question is specifically targeted at Origen. It is part of a list of accusations and condemnations against him and those who hold his view- a specific form of universal restoration (ἀποκατάστασις). To use this statement against annihilation/conditional immortality is at best sloppy reading of the primary source material. Whatever we conclude about the authority of Councils in general, and the 5th Ecumenical Council specifically, we have to read statements like this one in context. Who and what is it addressed to? It is addressed at the teaching of Origen, and can only rightly be applied (if accepted as legitimate) to his teaching, and those who accept and repeat it.
So what is Origen’s teaching which is here being condemned? Origen taught that fallen souls were in need of healing, and the fires of punishment are the remedy to the soul’s fallenness (Origen affirmed the pre-existence of souls, and their eventual liberation from physical bodies, with humans after the resurrection becoming entirely spiritual 7). After a time of exposure to the fires of judgment, all will ultimately find restoration. He writes:
Now I am of opinion that another species of punishment may be understood to exist; because, as we feel that when the limbs of the body are loosened and torn away from their mutual supports, there is produced pain of a most excruciating kind, so, when the soul shall be found to be beyond the order, and connection, and harmony in which it was created by God for the purposes of good and useful action and observation, and not to harmonize with itself in the connection of its rational movements, it must be deemed to bear the chastisement and torture of its own dissension, and to feel the punishments of its own disordered condition. And when this dissolution and rending asunder of soul shall have been tested by the application of fire, a solidification undoubtedly into a firmer structure will take place, and a restoration be effected. 8
The Punishment, argues Origen, is like an amputation, the removal of evil from the person’s soul; “the evil has at last to be burned out by fire”. God is “our Physician, desiring to remove the defects of our souls” who will “employ penal measures of this sort, and should apply even, in addition, the punishment of fire to those who have lost their soundness of mind!” 9 This is what is being addressed in the oft quoted anathema- a temporary period of penal measures which burn out the evil in the person’s soul, making them fit for restoration to God.
2. The Anathema Itself Doesn’t Say Anything About Conditional Immortality
The language is “and” – that is both a temporary punishment and restoration. The anathema is for those who who hold both/and (like Origen), not either/or. It isn’t a condemnation of universalism and conditionalism lumped together. It specifically addresses the position of Origen—that temporary penal measures will result in restoration.
Not only is the anathema a both/and not either/or, conditionalists actually hold to neither statement. We do not affirm a restoration, and we affirm an eternal punishment. We actually agree that the punishment is eternal, but where we disagree with the authors/editors of Hell Under Fire is not the the duration but the nature of the punishment. The conditionalist claim is that the process of punishing may end, but the punishment itself is permanent, irrevocable, everlasting deprivation of life; death, perishing, destruction, being cut off from the source of all life. To use the words of Athanasius, we affirm that the nature of the punishment is to “be everlastingly bereft even of being; in other words, that they should be disintegrated and abide in death and corruption.” 10 We do not affirm that the punishment of the unsaved will end with destruction, but that destruction (process and result) is the punishment. Therefore this anathema in no way pertains to conditional immortality.
3. The Anathema in Question is of Dubious Origin (to say the least)
The anathema in question, directed specifically at Origen, cannot conclusively be shown to be part of the Council’s official decrees. The main discussion of the council was to reaffirm the hypostatic union (the full divinity and full humanity in perfect union in Christ) as articulated at the councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon, in opposition to Theodore of Mopsuestia (ca. 350-428) who had promoted Nestorian 11 Christology which had been condemned at the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon (included in the 5th Council’s discussion was the anathematizing of anyone who denied the doctrine of theotokos and perpetual virginity of Mary 12, which should result in us taking the authority of all these documents with a grain of salt).
Following the record of deliberations and affirmations of the Council is a series of anathemas against Nestorius and Theodore (The Capitula of the Council), and a second set of anathemas (which some dismiss as not being part of the councils decrees, since the material anathematized is of a separate topic from that which was the main topic of conversation during the Council) which consists of 15 statements against Origen for teaching the pre-existence of souls, the condescension of rational souls into corrupted flesh (clearly Platonic thinking) and several other doctrines. However, the anathema quoted above, used to argue that the Council condemned annihilation is not in those 15 anathemas against Origen, but in a separate document which was attached to the documentation, which is almost certainly not part of the Council’s decrees. It is part of a document entitled “The Anathematisms of the Emperor Justinian Against Origen”. The 15 statements against Origen (which may or may not have been authorized by the council) did not anathematize conditionalism, and it’s statement about ἀποκατάστασις is tied to Origen’s notion of pre-existent souls restored to the previous, disembodied, state through corrective punishments, so it isn’t necessarily the issue of universal salvation being addressed, but the nature of the future person (and it should be pointed out that the Council commends the orthodoxy of Gregory of Nyssa who was an outspoken universalist). The anathema directly addressing ἀποκατάστασις comes from the 9 anathemas of the Emperor Justinian, not the Church. 13 The fact that we have two documents listing anathemas against Origen and his teachings should make us wary of the documents and the conclusions contained in them. It simply isn’t clear which teachings of Origen were condemned by the Council in 553.
What does this mean? It is sloppy scholarship to argue that the Second Council of Constantinople actually declares conditional immortality a heretical teaching. Even the 15 anathemas can’t be verified to have been approved by the council, and those don’t mention ἀποκατάστασις except as restoration to the pre-existent state of disembodied souls. The of-quoted anathema is contained only in a document which is of even more dubious origin, cannot be proven to have been adopted by the Council, and only condemns the particular universalist position of Origen. It is even difficult to maintain, without at least some cause for doubt, the condemnation of universalism. 14
4. The Myth of Patristic Consensus
In what appears to be an attempt to make the anathema in question stick to a broader group of ideas, Albert Mohler claims that the anathema results from the fact that “Origen’s teaching was a clear rejection of the patristic consensus”. 15 While Origen may have been the earliest theologian whose writings survive which unambiguously support ἀποκατάστασις, 16 it simply cannot be said that there was Patristic consensus in favour of eternal conscious torment. Similarly, Yarborough’s affirmation of the claim mentioned above that Arnobius is the first to explicitly argue for annihilation is fraught with error. Glenn Peoples has presented the evidence clearly (as did Edward Fudge 17 and LeRoy Froom 18) that several key early Church Fathers articulated the view of conditional immortality, so I won’t restate the overwhelming evidence, but will simply note that several Fathers, like Irenaeus and Athanasius 19 (who are often looked to as the standards for defining orthodoxy and heresy) held this view along with many others, including, we would argue, the Apostles whose writings are contained in Scripture, and the Lord Jesus himself (on these final assertions there is obviously disagreement, but the historical facts are this: the 5th council did not condemn conditional immortality, and many important theologians, Ancient and modern, whose orthodoxy is without dispute held this view). Origen was a universalist, and may have been condemned for it (and other things) in 553, but other universalists, like Gregory of Nyssa were not. These claims of historical consensus and ecumenical condemnation of anything other than eternal torment are completely without merit.
What then can be said about hell and the early church councils? Essentially, very little. The silence is deafening. The first four councils make no statements at all on this front, even though three different views had been proposed prior to the First Ecumenical Council at Nicea. While we may want to believe the early church was mostly on the same page, excepting perhaps a few heretics who got dealt with by the councils, the evidence hardly supports this picture. At no point is the doctrine of final punishment narrowed to one orthodox view to the exclusion of the others by any ecumenical council. The only thing we can conclude from the oft cited anathema was that Justinian was opposed to Origen’s teaching of ἀποκατάστασις, and this controversial council may have agreed with him. The evidence will simply not allow for anything beyond that. You cannot push beyond what the primary source material will allow. What we have evidence wise is a dubious text which cannot be verified to be part of the Councils actual decisions, and which only anathematizes Origen and those who share his particular views of universal reconciliation of all souls to God through a purification of temporary penal actions. The anathemas also reveal that the author(s) understand Origen to teach the destruction of the physical body, and restoration of immortal, disembodied souls, which pre-existed human conception and were imprisoned temporarily in corruptible bodies. Origen’s condemnation is on the basis of several teachings taken together, which seem to demonstrate that the authors of the anathemas saw in Origen significant (Neo)Platonic influence. The statements of Yarborough, Mohler, and Morgan mentioned above misrepresent and misuse the primary source material, arguing a point that simply cannot be demonstrated from the evidence in front of them. It’s sloppy as both theology and history.
- ACUTE, The Nature of Hell, 62
- Robert Yarborough, “Jesus on Hell”. Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment. Christopher W. Morgan & Robert A. Peterson (eds). Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004. 85
- Christopher W. Morgan, “Annihilationism: Will the Unsaved Be Punished Forever”. Hell Under Fire, 197
- Pope Vigilius had initially rejected the Three Chapters, and encouraged the Bishops in his sphere of influence to do also, and only conceded after being heavily pressured to recognize the Council’s validity. Vigilius objected because Ibas had appeared before a prior council and been cleared, and it was not the practice of the Church to condemn post mortem those who had died while still in fellowship with the Church.
- See Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity, 278-282; “Second Council of Constantinople” Catholic Encyclopedia, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04308b.htm & http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3812.htm; “Constantinople, Second Council of (533)” The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church 2nd. edition. F.L. Cross & E.A. Livingstone (eds). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978. 339-340; “The Fifth Ecumenical Council. Historical Introduction” NPNF2 14, 587-9. I am citing from the electronic version of Schaff & Percival (eds.) available for free here: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf214
- “The Anathematisms of the Emperor Justinian Against Origen” NPNF2 14. 620
- For a good summary of Origen’s universalism in contrast to that of other Fathers, see John R. Sachs. “Apocatastasis in Patrisitic Theology”. Theological Studies, 54. 1993. 617-640
- De Pricippiis. II.10.5.
- Ibid. II.10.6
- Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word, 4.6
- Nestorius (ca. 386-450), who was a student Theodore, argued that Christ has two distinct natures, which were only loosely united. Though he learned this from Theodore, Nestorius’ prominence as Patriarch of Constantinople and his condemnation at the Council of Ephesus in 431, after Theodore had already died (Pope Viglius, as noted above in note 3, initially rejected the proposals of the Three Chapters, because it was not the practice of the Church to posthumously excommunicate someone, so Theodore was not condemned at Ephesus along with Nestorius) resulted in the position being connected to the name of Nestorius rather than Theodore.
- Anathema II in the “Capituala of the Council”, NPNF2.14, 605
- Some, like Richard Bauckham, have argued that perhaps the 9 decrees come from an earlier, local gathering of Bishops at Constantinople in 543, (which did address Origenism) and may or may not have been brought before the ecumenical council in 553 and approved. See “Universalism: A Historical Survey” Themelios, 4, 2, 1978, 47-54. He writes: “Origen’s universalism was involved in the group of doctrines known as ‘Origenism’, about which there were long controversies in the East. A Council at Constantinople in 543 condemned a list of Origenist errors including Apokatastasis, but whether this condemnation was endorsed by the Fifth Ecumenical Council (553) seems in doubt. (p. 49-50).
- While Rethinking Hell obviously does not accept universalism as a true teaching, we continue to intentionally engage with many universalists (e.g. Robin Parry), welcome them as guests on the podcast, and invite them to participate in and speak at the Rethinking Hell conference, and consider them brothers and sisters in Christ.
- R. Albert Mohler Jr. “Modern Theology: The Disappearance of Hell”. Hell Under Fire, 18. Interestingly, in citing the anathema in his footnotes, he cites it as coming from the Anathemas Against Origen, and not the Anathematisms of Justinian Against Origen.
- Many appeal to Clement of Alexandria, Origen’s predecessor, as teaching apokatastasis, but this remains debated, though quite likely true. For the case for Clement’s being a universalist, see Sachs “Apocatastasis”, 618-20.
- The Fire that Consumes, 3rd ed., (Eugene: Cascade, 2011. 253-296)
- The Condionalist Faith of our Fathers. (Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1965)
- Whether Athanasius was a conditionalist or not is debated, but several sections of his notable works certainly seem to favour conditionalism. See On the Incarnation of the Word, 4.4-6 and Against the Arians, 29.