Dan Popp
The early church and hell
A layman reads The Ante Nicene Fathers
By Dan Popp
November 24, 2009

The difficult thing about any religion, including Christianity, is that at some level there is a call to evangelize and proselytize. There's the belief, certainly in some quarters, that if people haven't embraced Jesus Christ as their personal savior, they're going to hell. — Barack Obama, in a 2004 interview

Hell has always been a four-letter word.

This article continues a series of my observations on the writings of the early Christian church leaders — the so-called Ante Nicene Fathers. In order to understand the purpose, scope and context of this series, please read its introduction.

No one can claim that the first Christians did not believe in hell. There are so many references in The Ante Nicene Fathers to "eternal punishment" or "everlasting fire" that it would be tedious to list them. Yet citing only a few may leave the impression that this doctrine isn't pervasive — so I'll encourage you, as I often do, to read the documents for yourself. Here are some of the references I find most intriguing.

    But God, foreknowing all things, prepared fit habitations for both, kindly conferring that light which they desire on those who seek after the light of incorruption, and resort to it; but for the despisers and mockers who avoid and turn themselves away from this light, and who do, as it were, blind themselves, He has prepared darkness suitable to persons who oppose the light, and He has inflicted an appropriate punishment upon those who try to avoid being subject to Him. Submission to God is eternal rest, so that they who shun the light have a place worthy of their flight; and those who fly from eternal rest, have a habitation in accordance with their fleeing. Now, since all good things are with God, they who by their own determination fly from God, do defraud themselves of all good things; and having been thus defrauded of all good things with respect to God, they shall consequently fall under the just judgment of God. For those persons who shun rest shall justly incur punishment, and those who avoid the light shall justly dwell in darkness. — Irenaeus, Against Heresies Book 4, Chapter 39.4

"Inasmuch, then, as in both Testaments there is the same righteousness of God displayed when God takes vengeance, in the one case indeed typically, temporarily, and more moderately; but in the other, really, enduringly, and more rigidly; for the fire is eternal...." — Irenaeus, Against Heresies Book 4, Chapter 28.1

"For neither will you commit any offence against your fathers, if you now show a desire to betake yourselves to that which is quite opposed to their error, since it is likely enough that they themselves are now lamenting in Hades, and repenting with a too late repentance.... — Justin, Hortatory Address to the Greeks Chapter 35

    And by means of this knowledge [of the true God] you shall escape the approaching threat of the fire of judgment, and the rayless scenery of gloomy Tartarus, where never shines a beam from the irradiating voice of the Word! You shall escape the boiling flood of hell's eternal lake of fire, and the eye ever fixed in menacing glare of fallen angels chained in Tartarus as punishment for their sins; and you shall escape the worm that ceaselessly coils for food around the body whose scum has bred it. — Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies Book 10, Chapter 30

Since I said in a recent article that Jesus doesn't necessarily hate the rich, here are some quotes that may supply balance:

"After death there were punishments for the arrogance of wealth and the glory of luxury." — Tertullian, Against Marcion Book 4, Chapter 34

"But if one chooses to continue and to sin perpetually in pleasures, and values indulgence here above eternal life, and turns away from the Saviour, who gives forgiveness; let him no more blame either God, or riches, or his having fallen, but his own soul, which voluntarily perishes." — Clement of Alexandria, Who is the Rich Man That Shall be Saved? Chapter 42

The heretic Marcion invented a "good" God who was better than that mean old biblical God — better, that is, for the many like Mr. Obama who apparently crave an unjust deity. Tertullian countered:

    It would be a more unworthy course for God to spare the evil-doer then to punish him, especially in the most good and holy God, who is not otherwise fully good than as the enemy of evil, and that to such a degree as to display His love of good by the hatred of evil, and to fulfil His defence of the former by the extirpation of the latter. — Tertullian, Against Marcion Book 1, Chapter 26


Some of the modern cults preach that physical death is the end. The "Fathers" had scriptural answers ready.

"We are persuaded that when we are removed from the present life we shall live another life, better than the present one...or, falling with the rest, a worse one and in fire; for God has not made us as sheep or beasts of burden, a mere by-work, and that we should perish and be annihilated." — Athenagoras, A Plea for the Christians Chapter 31

"By and by thou givest up thy life; thou shalt be taken where it grieveth thee to be: there the spiritual punishment, which is eternal, is undergone; there are always wailings: nor dost thou absolutely die therein — there at length too late proclaiming the omnipotent God." — Commodianus, Instructions Chapter 29

Tertullian seems to have been responding to Jesus' words, "Do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear the One who after He has killed has authority to cast into hell; yes, I tell you, fear Him" (Luke 12:4b, 5 NASB), when that "Father" wrote:

    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 admit that it is from this circumstance that this never-ending "killing" is more formidable than a merely human murder, which is only temporal. — On the Resurrection of the Flesh Chapter 35


Do primitive Christian writers mention a place of punishment that is not eternal? Well, yes. The fanciful Origen was something of a proto-Universalist. He taught that hell was a place where souls — not just Christian souls, but all souls — were refined. I should note that Origen is repudiated by all Christian denominations on this point.

    Into this condition, then, we are to suppose that all this bodily substance of ours will be brought, when all things shall be re-established to a state of unity, and when God shall be all in all. And this result must be understood as being brought about, not suddenly, but slowly and gradually, seeing that the process of amendment and correction will take place imperceptibly in the individual instances during the lapse of countless and unmeasured ages... and thus, through the numerous and uncounted orders of progressive beings who are being reconciled to God from a state of enmity, the last enemy is finally reached, who is called death, so that he also may be destroyed, and no longer be an enemy. When, therefore, all rational souls shall have been restored to a condition of this kind.... — Origen, De Principiis Book 3, Chapter 6.6

How did he defend his doctrine against the clear teaching of the Word of God? The same way many "intellectuals" do now: by saying that God lies to His children for their own good.

    Now the Scripture is appropriately adapted to the multitudes of those who are to peruse it, because it speaks obscurely of things that are sad and gloomy, in order to terrify those who cannot by any other means be saved from the flood of their sins, although even the attentive reader will clearly discover the end that is to be accomplished by these sad and painful punishments upon those who endure them. It is sufficient, however, for the present to quote the words of Isaiah: "For My name's sake will I show Mine anger, and My glory I will bring upon thee, that I may not destroy thee." — Origen, Against Celsus Book 5, Chapter 14

Perhaps Clement of Alexandria came closest to the doctrine of a place of punishment-as-refinement for the impure Christian.

    [True knowledge] leads us to the endless and perfect end, teaching us beforehand the future life that we shall lead, according to God, and with gods; after we are freed from all punishment and penalty which we undergo, in consequence of our sins, for salutary discipline. After which redemption the reward and the honours are assigned to those who have become perfect; when they have got done with purification, and ceased from all service, though it be holy service, among the saints. — Clement of Alexandria, Stromata Book 7, Chapter 10

But it seems to me that most of the early church leaders taught the contrary:

"But the righteous, being conducted in the light toward the right, and being hymned by the angels stationed at the place, are brought to a locality full of light. And there the righteous from the beginning dwell...." — Hippolytus, Against Plato, on the Cause of the Universe Section 1

    Believe Him who will give to all that believe the reward of eternal life. Believe Him who will call down on them that believe not, eternal punishments in the fires of Gehenna. ...An ever-burning Gehenna will burn up the condemned, and a punishment devouring with living flames; nor will there be any source whence at any time they may have either respite or end to their torments. Souls with their bodies will be reserved in infinite tortures for suffering. ... The pain of punishment will be without the fruit of penitence; weeping will be useless, and prayer ineffectual. Too late they will believe in eternal punishment who would not believe in eternal life. ... When you have once departed thither, there is no longer any place for repentance, and no possibility of making satisfaction. Here life is either lost or saved.... — Cyprian, Treatise 5, Sections 23,24,25

    The lovers of iniquity shall be given eternal punishment. And the fire which is unquenchable and without end awaits these latter, and a certain fiery worm which dieth not, and which does not waste the body, but continues bursting forth from the body with unending pain. No sleep will give them rest; no night will soothe them; no death will deliver them from punishment; no voice of interceding friends will profit them. — Hippolytus, Against Plato, on the Cause of the Universe Section 3

To conclude where we began, the early church's doctrine of hell would have posed a "difficulty" for Barack Obama. Christians then fully believed — how did the candidate put it? — "that if people haven't embraced Jesus Christ as their personal savior, they're going to hell."

As Tertullian wrote in Chapter 43 of his Apology, "The profane, and all who are not true worshippers of God, in like manner shall be consigned to the punishment of everlasting fire."

Click here to discuss this article.

© Dan Popp


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