Hell in the Times: Were the Early Church Fathers “Vague” in Their Support of Conditional Immortality?

Rethinking Hell was recently brought to the attention of readers of the New York Times, along with work of Edward Fudge and the subject of conditional immortality. Not too shabby! In the article, one theologian dismissed the comments of Church Fathers who supported conditional immortality as “vague.” But are they really?

On October 10 2014, Mark Oppenheimer’s “Tormented in the Afterlife, but Not Forever” appeared at the NYT website. The writer describes the work of Edward Fudge in writing The Fire that Consumes, interviewing Edward himself for the story.

Mr. Fudge’s inquiry into the nature of damnation resulted in his seminal 1982 book, “The Fire That Consumes,” in which he argued that the suffering of the wicked in hell is finite, that after a time their souls are extinguished. This view, called “conditional immortality” or sometimes the more macabre “annihilationism,” is in direct opposition to the traditional Christian view that suffering in hell lasts forever.

As well as interviewing Rethinking Hell’s own Chris Date and my fellow keynote speaker at the 2014 Rethinking Hell conference Professor John Stackhouse, the story gives very good, fair coverage to the issue in a short space, summing up evangelical conditionalism like so:

Advocates of conditional immortality say that their view reflects a common-sense reading of the Bible. They point to passages like Romans 6, where Paul says, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” The “eternal life” of the saved is contrasted with the ultimate “death” of the unsaved. And in the Book of Revelation, Jesus refers to a “second death,” which these theologians say means the dying-again of the resurrected wicked. Their final, irreversible punishment may involve torment, but it will come to an end.

The piece is a summation of a sea change in evangelical theology rather than an argument for or against conditionalism. However, one disagreement did rise to the surface in comments from Chris Date and Shawn Bawulski, a speaker at the 2014 conference and past interviewee here in the Rethinking Hell podcast.

Here’s what Chris is quoted as saying about the teaching of the Church Fathers on the subject:

“I don’t think the traditional view became popular among Christians until the late second and early third centuries,” said Christopher M. Date, a software engineer and independent theologian who helped organize the recent conference. He believes that conditionalism was the rule for early thinkers like the second-century bishop Irenaeus, who wrote that God “imparts continuance for ever and ever on those who are saved,” while denying that same continuance to the unsaved.

Oppenheimer apparently sought a reply from Bawulski:

But Shawn Bawulski, who teaches at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix and has written in opposition to conditionalism, said that while “you can find early Christian writers who would say things sufficiently vague” that they might support a conditionalist view of hell, “you don’t have much by way of conditionalism in church history until Victorian England.”

Effectively, the reader is asked to accept that anything the Church Fathers might have written that appears to support conditional immortality only does so because it is so vague that it is open to multiple equally plausible interpretations.

One of the constant refrains that we hear from traditionalists is that the new Testament doesn’t say what the early Church Fathers said, and therefore we should not interpret the New Testament writers to be annihilationists!

In light of the actual written evidence from the Early Church Fathers themselves, this pleading seems simply incredible. In fact, one of the constant refrains that we hear from traditionalists is that the new Testament doesn’t say what the early Church Fathers said, and therefore we should not interpret the New Testament writers to be annihilationists!

Let me explain: As readers will know, the biblical writers often describe the fate of the lost with language of death and destruction. We are told that the wages of sin is death, that God gave us his Son so that we will not perish (which just means die) but have everlasting life instead, that the path that seems right to a man ultimately leads to death, that we should fear God who can destroy life and body (usually translated “soul and body”) in hell, and that those who reject the gospel will be punished with “everlasting destruction” and so on. However, we also know that traditionalist theologians do not take these terms at face value, since they do not believe that the lost will really die or be destroyed.

Notice what a number of traditionalists say about the biblical language of destruction. Often traditionalists will reach for biblical instances where the word apollumi appears in a different grammatical form (for example, the wine that is “lost” when poured into old wineskins in Mark 2:22) and note that in this different form, “the word does not mean that a thing ceases to exist,” and therefore, in the biblical passages that refer to final punishment we should assume that it also does not mean that a thing ceases to exist. Of course the argument is highly fallacious for a couple of reasons (e.g. of course different forms of a word can have very different meanings, and we can never assume that all the possible meanings of a word in all its different forms are available to us in every passage containing that word). Even so, we are often told that in the passages that refer to the fate of the lost, really the writer is not offering support for a conditionalist view, because the word “destroy” does not necessarily mean that a thing ceases to be, is reduced to nothing, loses its being, loses existence and so on. If the Bible had used those phrases, we are led to believe, then our traditionalist friends wouldn’t be traditionalists, but would agree that Scripture teaches the literal, final destruction of the lost.

However, the very phrases that our traditionalist friends say are not suggested by the biblical language of destruction are used by some of the early Church Fathers. Virtually all traditionalists who have looked into the matter agree that Arnobius of Sicca, who died in AD 330, was a conditionalist. But there were earlier Fathers who were no less clear in their comments. As has been discussed elsewhere at Rethinking Hell, Irenaeus of Lyons was a conditionalist. Irenaeus notes that God called the planets and stars into existence, and  that they, along with all created things, “endure as long as God wills that they should have an existence and continuance.”1Irenaeus, Against Heresies Book 2, Chapter 34, paragraph 3. There is no vagueness about the meaning of these comments. But then Irenaeus, using exactly the same language, goes on in the same chapter to say that the lost will not exist forever:

And therefore 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 recognised Him who bestowed [the gift upon him], deprives himself of [the privilege of] continuance for ever and ever. And, for this reason, the Lord declared to those who showed themselves ungrateful towards Him: “If you have not been faithful in that which is little, who will give you that which is great?” indicating that 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.

Using language that is no less explicit, Athanasius the Great (AD296 – AD373) notes that God created humanity from nothing. Human beings didn’t exist before God made them, but came out of “non-being” into being. But because of sin, the creation of humanity was literally being undone:

The human race then was wasting, God’s image was being effaced, and His work ruined. Either, then, God must forego His spoken word by which man had incurred ruin; or that which had shared in the being of the Word must sink back again into destruction, in which case God’s design would be defeated.2Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word, Chapter 6.

It is perfectly clear that by “sink back into destruction,” Athanasius is referring to a return to the state out of which humanity came: nothingness. The only means of escape from this fate, Athanasius said, is through the Incarnation of the Word (Christ), so that “whereas men had turned toward corruption, He might turn them again toward incorruption, and quicken them from death by the appropriation of His body and by the grace of the Resurrection, banishing death from them like straw from the fire.” To call this a “vague” reference to real and complete destruction is to say that it is somehow unclear that we once did not exist, which is absurd. And Athanasius is not talking here about a universal immortality where everyone gets immortality whether they are saved or not. The resurrection to which he refers here is “grace.” Athanasius is explicit elsewhere (Discourse 3 Against the Arians, chapter 29) that it is only in “receiving Him” that we can “partake of the immortality that is from Him.”

To call this evidence “vague” is surely a highly motivated move. Indeed, this is exactly the language that our traditionalists friends tell us is missing from the New Testament, which is why they do not feel compelled to read that biblical evidence as we do. The issue is not that Irenaeus and Athanasius were not clear. They certainly were! The issue is that what they say is simply not compatible with what is now the traditional view of hell, so it would be better—politically, anyway—to agree that their statements are less than clear and so we should overlook their testimony. Irenaeus and Athanasius are not alone. With them, Ignatius of Antioch, the author of the Epistle of Barnabas and Arnobius all held this view, showing that prior to the influence of Augustine of Hippo, the conditionalist view was clearly mainstream.

If you’d like to see more of the evidence of this, here it is!

(If you prefer things in writing, the evidence cited in this clip is presented in an article of mine over at Afterlife.).

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1 Irenaeus, Against Heresies Book 2, Chapter 34, paragraph 3.
2 Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word, Chapter 6.