Many people incorrectly believe that, save for a few nut jobs, cults, and liberals who don’t care about the Bible, Christians of all stripes have always believed that hell is a place of eternal torment. For this reason, many are wary to even consider any alternative ideas like evangelical conditionalism (also called annihilationism). The idea that no one will live forever in hell, but will instead be destroyed and fully killed, sounds like some new age nonsense. Many think that Christianity simply has always taught that hell is a place of eternal torment, and only recently does anyone deny this because people today are just too soft and too sentimental to handle the truth. However, this assessment is not correct.
Admittedly, the view that hell is a place of eternal conscious suffering has historically been the dominant view among Christ-followers. There is a reason it is often called “traditionalism” and its adherents are called “traditionalists.” It has not, however, been the universal view. Denying eternal torment is nothing new. There is nothing “modern” about it. Not only has annihilationism existed in the relatively recent past, such as during its resurgence in the 19th century, but it goes all the way back to the early church. The same can be said for universalism, the idea that all people will ultimately be reconciled to God and eternally saved (which, I admit, seems to me to have been more widespread than conditionalism overall). The big black specter of denying something that every genuine believer has accepted until five months ago has been used to scare people out of reconsidering what they think the Bible teaches about hell. But because both alternative views of hell have existed since very early on in church history, this boogey man argument used to keep you from rethinking hell is unwarranted.
Scholars (Including Traditionalists) Acknowledge Different Views on Hell in the Early Church
The idea that some believers and early church fathers held to alternative beliefs about hell isn’t mine alone. Many scholars, including traditionalists, recognize this. It’s not so much a matter of widespread misinterpretation as it is a matter of widespread misinformation. Many people are simply misinformed. The New Catholic Encyclopedia, which obviously does not advocate conditionalism, tells us the following:
The problem of the eternity of Hell is also connected with the immortality of the soul. From time to time, there has recurred the idea the idea of conditional immortality. That is, survival after death is conditional on conformity with God’s law and wishes. 1
And according to the New Catholic Encyclopedia, this was not limited to heretics. For example: “Against the Gnostics Irenaeus said that the soul is not immortal by nature, but it can become immortal if it lives according to God’s law.” 2 We will get to the example of Irenaeus below, but the point is that there were believers and even influential church fathers (like Irenaeus) who held to conditionalism. Methodist writer Leslie Woodson, while defending the view of hell as a place of eternal torment, concedes that “there have always been individuals and small groups who held to the doctrine of annihilation of the wicked and repudiated eternal punishment [i.e. eternal torment]” and “the idea emerged as early as the second century of the Christian era” 3 Of course, I would argue that the idea actually emerged as far back as when God first taught anyone about the afterlife, and was subsequently cemented in the first century by Christ and the apostles…but the point is taken nonetheless. Richard Bauckham, a conditionalist, tells us, “The doctrine of the final restoration of all souls [i.e. universalism] seems to have been not uncommon in the East during the fourth and fifth centuries.” 4
Dr. Graham Keith of Scotland, in his oft-cited Evangelical Quarterly article “Patristic Views on Hell,” notes the following: “Indeed, a century or so after Constantine [i.e. the 4th-5th centuries] we have a surprising amount of evidence indicating widespread denial of eternal punishment within the church.” 5
The fact that there were adherents to alternative views of hell in the early church is no big secret.
Examples of Annihilationism in the Very Early Church
Ignatius of Antioch
Ignatius of Antioch was one of the earliest church fathers, teaching and writing in the generation after the apostles and dying in or around 110 AD (dates vary by source).
There are several substantial sayings of Ignatius that lead to a conditionalist understandings of hell and human destiny. For our purposes here, I will point to one of his lesser known letters, the Epistle to the Magnesians, chapter 10:
Let us not, therefore, be insensible to His kindness. For were He to reward us according to our works, we should cease to be. 7
I invite the reader to look at the additional resources in the footnotes and see that this is simply an especially explicit and succinct version of other statements he made regarding human immortality.
Irenaeus of Lyons
Irenaeus of Lyons is one of the most well-known and influential of all the early church fathers, and so his inclusion on this list is especially noteworthy. The quotation below is a bit long, but it gets the point across quite clearly.
…he who shall preserve the life bestowed upon him, and give thanks to Him who imparted it, shall receive also length of days for ever and ever. But he who shall reject it, and prove himself ungrateful to his Maker, inasmuch as he has been created, and has not recognized Him who bestowed [the gift upon him], deprives himself of [the privilege of] continuance forever and ever…those who, in this brief temporal life, have shown themselves ungrateful to Him who bestowed it, shall justly not receive from Him length of days for ever and ever. 8
Notice that Irenaeus goes far beyond simply using the biblical language of death, destruction, lack of immortality etc. His greater point in that chapter is that, contrary to pagan teaching, a soul can live forever even if it was created (as opposed to having eternally existed forever in the past like God did). This is because God, the eternal and immortal creator of the soul, wills it to exist and live. Therefore, that same creator can will that it exists and lives forever. And it is in that context that Irenaeus very much goes out of his way to make the point that the unsaved will not consciously exist for eternity because God wills that they should not. Irenaeus’s words are clear enough for Leslie Woodson and The New Catholic Encylopedia to specifically identify him as a conditionalist above. 9
Arnobius of Sicca
For they are cast in, and being annihilated, pass away vainly in everlasting destruction. For theirs is an intermediate state, as has been learned from Christ’s teaching; and they are such that they may on the one hand perish if they have not known God, and on the other be delivered from death if they have given heed to His threats and proffered favours. And to make manifest what is unknown, this is man’s real death, this which leaves nothing behind. For that which is seen by the eyes is only a separation of soul from body, not the last end— annihilation. 10
A number of other figures and writings from the earliest generations after Christianity also most likely taught conditionalism, although there is some question based on ambiguity in certain writings attributed to them. These figures include Clement of Rome, the author of the Epistle of Barnabas, the author of the Epistle to Diognetus, and Athanasius of Alexandria. 11 12 It is noteworthy that many of the earliest post-biblical writings merely described the fate of the unsaved with biblical language and no further explanation. Unlike the fathers cited here (and in the resources below), they did not expand upon the fate of the wicked to clarify what they believed it to be. Of course, it certainly doesn’t hurt that there is frequent talk of “death,” “destruction,” lack of “life” and lack of “immortality,” etc. It just is less clear cut because many early church fathers also use biblical terms that traditionalists often point to in favor of their view, such as “eternal fire” and “eternal punishment.” Therefore, it would be unwise to simply assume that one set of descriptions or the other is to be taken at face value, since further work is needed to determine what is meant by the use of biblical language.
Universalism, a Further Denial of Eternal Torment, Also Existed in the Early Church
An end or consummation would seem to be an indication of the perfection and completion of things…We think, indeed, that the goodness of God, through His Christ, may recall all His creatures to one end, even His enemies being conquered and subdued…What, then, is this “putting under” by which all things must be made subject to Christ? I of the opinion that it is this very subjections by which we also wish to be subject to Him, by which the apostles were also subject, and all the saints who have been followers of Christ. For the name “subjection,” by which we are subject to Christ, indicates that the salvation which proceeds from Him belongs to His subjects… 13
This reasoning, regarding the subjugation of God’s enemies at the end referring to the salvation of all, occurs elsewhere in De Principiis. 14
Gregory of Nyssa
A certain deception was indeed practised upon the Evil one, by concealing the Divine nature within the human; but for the latter, as himself a deceiver, it was only a just recompense that he should be deceived himself: the great adversary must himself at last find that what has been done is just and salutary, when he also shall experience the benefit of the Incarnation. He, as well as humanity, will be purged. 15
In the passage above, Gregory of Nyssa explains that even the devil, though he will be punished, will eventually be purged of wickedness and saved as a result of Christ’s saving work.
Universalism Continued to be Found Among Church Figures
Just as most theologians who have heard of Arnobius of Sicca believe he was a conditionalist, so too the universalism of Origen and Gregory of Nyssa is not that controversial. Now with that said, in light of the comments above by Bauckham and Keith, it should not surprise us that universalism continued to pop up in later centuries as well.
For example, eighth-century church figure Isaac of Ninevah was likely a universalist, in light of his words below:
He [God] has a single ranking of complete and impassible love towards everyone, and He has a single caring concern for those who have fallen, just as much as for those who have not fallen. And it is clear that he does not abandon them the moment they fall, and that demons will not remain in their demonic state, and sinners (will not remain) in their sins; rather, He is going to bring them to a single equal state of perfection in relationship to His own Being – in a (state) in which the holy angels are now, in perfection of love and a passionless minds…No part belonging to any single one of (all) rational beings will be lost, as far as God is concerned, in the preparation of that supernatural Kingdom which is prepared for all worlds. 16
Early Church Fathers Acknowledged Denial of Eternal Torment Among Believers
Tertullian of Carthage
Consider Tertullian of Carthage and his rebuttal of claims that Matthew 10:28 teaches annihilationism.
If, therefore, any one shall violently suppose that the destruction of the soul and the flesh in Hell amounts to a final annihilation of the two substances, and not to their penal treatment (as if they were to be consumed, not punished), let him recollect that the fire of Hell is eternal— expressly announced as an everlasting penalty; and let him then admit that it is from this circumstance that this never-ending “killing” is more formidable than a merely human murder, which is only temporal. 17
It stands to reason that if Tertullian was responding to the idea that this passage teaches the final destruction of the wicked, there would have likely been people who observed and believed the scriptures yet thought this passage taught an ancient form of evangelical conditionalism.
It is also worth noting that the fact Tertullian had to address annihilationism in this passage in the first place also throws a monkey wrench into arguments that the Greek word apollumi (translated as “destroy”) really doesn’t mean anything like annihilate (the way we mean it) and instead really just means (conscious) ruin or loss. He and everyone else was reading it in the original Greek, and yet the idea that it taught annihilationism still came up. Notice also that Tertullian’s reasons for rejecting conditionalism have nothing to do with the text of Matthew itself. Instead, he rejected annihilationism for other biblical and theological reasons.
And one more note about that: I suppose in theory, it is possible that there were no annihilationists known to Tertullian and he simply saw from the Greek that one could misread the passage as describing annihilation. Although that would negate him as evidence for my thesis in this article, it would hardly hurt conditionalism overall that the biblical passage, in the original language, looked so conditionalist-friendly that an early church theologian felt it necessary to refute an argument that had not even been made yet.
Augustine of Hippo
Even more clear than Tertullian’s rebuttal of annihilationism was the following statement by Augustine of Hippo in chapter 112 of the Enchiridion:
It is in vain, then, that some, indeed very many, make moan over the eternal punishment, and perpetual, unintermitted torments of the lost, and say they do not believe it shall be so; not, indeed, that they directly oppose themselves to Holy Scripture, but, at the suggestion of their own feelings, they soften down everything that seems hard, and give a milder turn to statements which they think are rather designed to terrify than to be received as literally true.” 18
Although Augustine was himself an ardent traditionalist, and although he chides these people for, in his view, interpreting the Bible based on their emotions and not proper exegesis, nonetheless he refers to these people who deny “eternal punishment” as not opposing themselves to holy scripture. This is not a polemic against Greek philosophy or unbelieving Jews. Rather, he is describing believers.
Now, it is not clear if these people he speaks of are conditionalists, universalists, or both. In a previous article on Matthew 25:46, I have explained why conditionalism is consistent with “eternal punishment” as used in scripture. Nevertheless, broadly speaking, both conditionalists and universalists fit the description as those who deny “eternal punishment and the perpetual, unintermitted torments of the lost.” Furthermore, like most traditionalists today, Augustine (incorrectly) believed that annihilationism was inconsistent with “eternal punishment” in Matthew 25:46, so that may come into play here as well. 19
I do not know if Augustine had both groups in mind, or just one. But whatever the case, we have a well-known and reliable ancient source telling us that in his time, in the fourth century, many people who believed in Jesus did not believe in eternal torment.
I know certain men for whom the king of Nineveh…is the symbol of the devil, who at the end of the world, (because no spiritual creature that is made reasoning by God will perish), will descend from his pride and do penitence and will be restored to his former position. To support this opinion they use this example of Daniel in which Nebuchadnezzar after seven years of penitence is returned to his former reign.” 20 21
Now, Jerome immediately goes on to argue that this view is not biblical. But the point is, he readily acknowledges that people were, based on the scripture, disagreeing with the traditional view in his time. He technically does not say the people he speaks of affirm the salvation of all, but he later in the chapter makes it evident that humans are included among “spiritual creatures” (whom he points to above as all being saved, according to the men he speaks of). That is aside from the unlikelihood that one would think the devil was to be saved but not all humans.
What to Make of This?
This would hardly be the first time that popular belief on a theological matter would be incorrect (and known to be incorrect by scholars). Consider the myth that the second Council of Constantinople condemned evangelical conditionalism as heresy. There is a reason those who make this claim almost never cite the actual council. Anyone who bothers to read it can see no such condemnation. This has been addressed, among other places, in a Consuming Fire blog article featured at Rethinking Hell, and in an extended Rethinking Hell article by contributor Graham Ware. A lot of people believe it, but once you look into it, it’s not hard to disprove it.
Or consider the conventional wisdom in popular circles that there is no evidence for a historical Jesus. How often have you heard it confidently asserted by unbelievers that the Jesus of the Bible isn’t even based on a real, non-divine first-century rabbi and everyone knows this? Jesus was just made up entirely from whole cloth. This view, Jesus mythicism, is taken for granted by many. But if you are reading this, I am guessing there is about a 95% chance or so that you believe not only in a historical first-century rabbi who led to Christianity, but in Jesus Christ, the divine Son of God that the Bible talks about. So you know that the conventional wisdom is wrong.
Quite importantly, so do the vast majority of historians and New Testament scholars, whether Christian or not. There may not be mountains of historical evidence, but there is a fair amount (which is pretty good for ancient history). Even active enemies of the historic Christian faith, like agnostic Bart Ehrman, write off those who hold to the conventional wisdom of Jesus mythicism as outliers and extremists. 22 Most who say there is not even a historical Jesus of a non-divine nature are just parroting what they heard others say.
This situation is similar. Lots of people are not aware of the diversity of beliefs about hell in the early church, so conventional wisdom is that pretty much everyone believed in eternal torment. But once you look into it, it is not too hard to see that the conventional wisdom is wrong. There may be disagreement about just how many people and how many influential fathers denied the eternal torment view, but it’s quite evident that more than a few did.
We are really just scratching the surface here, but it should be apparent that denying eternal torment is not theologically novel or reserved for the fringes of Christianity. So if that was holding you back before, maybe it is time now to rethink hell.
- The Catholic University of America, New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd ed. Volume 7, (Gale, 2003), 353.
- Leslie Woodson, What the Bible Says about Hell, (Baker Book House, 1976), 50.
- Richard Bauckham, “Universalism: A Historical Survey,” Themelios 4, no. 2 (September 1978): 48.
- Graham Keith, “Patristic Views on Hell―Part 1,” The Evangelical Quarterly 71, no. 3 (1999).
- Additional free resources include: – Chris Date, “Deprived of Continuance: Irenaeus the Conditionalist,” Rethinking Hell [blog], posted November 3, 2012, http://www.rethinkinghell.com/2012/11/deprived-of-continuance-irenaeus-the-conditionalist/ (accessed June 7, 2017). – Joseph Dear, The Bible Teaches Annihilationism, Section X, http://www.3ringbinder.org/uploads/1/9/1/0/1910989/the_bible_teaches_annihilationism__1st_edition_pdf_version__final.pdf (accessed June 7, 2017). – Glenn Peoples, “History of Hell: Hell before Augustine,” Afterlife [blog], posted May 20, 2013, http://www.afterlife.co.nz/2013/church-history/history-of-hell/ (accessed June 7, 2017). – Glenn Peoples, “Church Fathers Who Were Conditionalists,” Youtube Video, posted July 22, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=je3AW6QeXzk&feature=youtu.be (accessed June 7, 2017).
- Ignatius of Antioch, “Epistle to the Magnesians,” The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Volume 1, eds. Roberts, Alexander, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe (Christian Literature, 1885), 63.
- Irenaeus of Lyons, “Against Heresies, Book 2, Chapter 34,” The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Volume 1, eds. Roberts, Alexander, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe (Christian Literature, 1885), 411-412. Bracketed statements theirs.
- Woodson, 50; The Catholic University of America, 353.
- Arnobius of Sicca, “The Seven Books of Arnobius Against the Heathen,” The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 6, Ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, (Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885), 439.
- For more on Clement of Rome, the author of the Epistle of Barnabas, and the author of the Epistle to Diognetus, see Dear, The Bible Teaches Annihilationism, Section X.
- For more on Athanasius of Alexandria, see Peoples, “History of Hell: Hell Before Augustine.”
- Origen of Alexandria, “De Principiis,” Book 1, Chapter 6,” The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Volume 4, eds. Roberts, Alexander, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1901), 260.
- For example, See Book III, Chapter 5, Section 7.
- Gregory of Nyssa, “The Great Catechism,” Chapter 26, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Second Series, Volume 5, eds. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1893), 472.
- Isaac of Nineveh, “Chapter XL,” The Second Part, Trans. Sebastian Brock (Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium, 1995), 175-176.
- Tertullian of Carthage, “On the Resurrection of the Flesh.” The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 3, Ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, (Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885), 570.
- Augustine of Hippo, “Enchiridion,” Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 3, ed. Phillip Schaff (Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887), 273.
- Augustine of Hippo. City of God ed. Phillip Schaff (Veritatis Splendor, 2012), 21:23, 629.
- Jerome, “Chapter 3,” Commentary on Jonah, reproduced at Aquinas Study Bible, n.d., https://sites.google.com/site/aquinasstudybible/home/jonah/st-jerome-on-jonah/chapter-1/chapter-2/chapter-3 (accesssed June 7, 2017).
- A lengthy parenthetical comment about the king was removed but can be found in the actual commentary, linked in the footnotes.
- Bart Ehrman, “Did Jesus Exist?” The Huffington Post, March 20, 2012.