Monday, July 5, 2010

A Universalist Myth: Hell wasn't a doctrine of the early Church

I'm worried that some of my commenters have been taken in by this universalist website, which wrongly claims that "'Hell' was not a Doctrine of the Early Church." I've entitled this post 'A Universalist Myth,' I don't mean to be rude to my universalist commenters but because when you actually look at the evidence you see that universalism was the exception, and some sort of eternal punishment was the norm. So I've briefly organised in rough chronological order, some of the evidence for the what the early church really believed about Hell and judgment.







Ignatius (50-117 AD)
Living almost in the time of Jesus and Paul, Ignatius describes "Hell" as the final destination of false teachers 
(The Epistle of Ignatius to the Ephesians) a warning he repeats in his Epistle to the Philadelphians.


Justin Martyr (100-165 AD)
One of the earliest church fathers was quite happy to refer to "eternal punishment"(Dialogue with Trypho, A Jew) long before universalism came onto the scene and before the doctrine of Hell was formalized. 

Tertullian (160-220 AD)
Tertullian  in his Apolegeticus describes how Pagans mock Christians for their belief in Hell. 

And so we are ridiculed because we proclaim that God is going to judge the world. ... In the same way if we threaten Gehenna, which is a store of underground fire for the purposes of punishment, we are received with howls of derision.





Theophilus of Antioch (c180 AD)
The tentmaker site makes the very unusual claim that Hell was invented later by the Latin speaking church who didn't understand the Greek of the New Testament!  However Theophilus of Antioch seems to have no trouble in his treatise ad Autolycum, were he discusses conditional morality and observes that; if humanity inclined towards those things which relate to immortality by keeping the commandments of God, then it would receive immortality by keeping the commandments of God, then it would receive immortality was a reward from God, ... on the other hand, if humanity should incline towards those things which relate to death by disobeying God, then humanity would be the cause of its own death. 



Irenaeus (c202 AD)
An important early church father, refers to Hell several times as the final destination of the wicked.


Cyprian (? - 258 AD)
Augustine's predecessor had this to say: He [God] has prepared heaven, but He has also prepared hell, but not just as a temporary purgatory because later he says God might destroy both body and soul in hell. (Epistle, Treatise)


Origen (185-254 AD)
Origen is cited as an early universalist but this is the result of his Platonic philosophy which saw the material world being a place of preparation for the spiritual world, rather than a clear exposition of Scripture or an adherence to what the church was teaching. (Bauckham, Themelios 4/2) This means Origen saw judgement as remedial and not retributive putting him at odds with some of the very earliest church fathers who followed the Apostles.  For example Justin Martyr describes Christ as "cursed"  for our sins, clearly he has retributive not remedial justice in mind.  What tentmaker.org doesn't mention is that Origen is probably more important for making the church sort out what it believed than actually shaping what the church believed, furthermore it's important when quoting Origen to note at what point in life he was writing because during his lifetime he moved in and out of heretical groups, sometimes making more or less sense depending on who he was hanging out with at the time.


The Apostle's Creed and the Nicene Creed
In both of these creeds, there is the idea that the world concludes with Jesus' judgement:
He will come again to judge the living and the dead. (Apostles Creed)
From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. (Nicene Creed)
Note very carefully that the idea of judgment, contra Origen, is clearly retributive. The Early church fathers keep talking about Jesus being cursed for our sins. For example Eusebius of Caesarea (275-339) and Hilary of Poitiers (300-368) living and writing at about the time these creeds were formalized use the language of Jesus being "cursed" on the cross.  For universalism to be a viable theory it requires judgement to be remedial, a concept clearly not in view when the early church fathers described Jesus' final judgement.

Athanasius (293-373)
Interestingly while Athanasius isn't as strong with the "curse" vocabulary, he's quite happy to describe Hell in these sharp terms: but for those that practice evil outer darkness and the eternal fire, (Incarnation)









Then, and this is all before Augustine mind you, there are lots of minor early church fathers who think Hell is a place of eternal punishment. I just got tired of scrolling through all the results to list them here.  The only major early church father, universalist Keith DeRose mentions, is the eccentric and sometimes heretical Origen.  Buackham in his historical survey of universalism observes that universalism is a minority position until the rise of liberal theology in the nineteenth century. (BauckhamThemelios 4/2)

22 comments:

Keith DeRose said...

Your first link should be changed: It is to my "Universalism and the Bible," which does not even go into the matter of what the views of the early church were. --Keith DeRose

Allan Smith said...

We've all seen that optical illusion: is it a beautiful girl or is it an ugly hag?

We have godly men of great learning seeing different things though reading the same text. Barclay sees universal reconciliation. Stott leans towards annihilation. Lewis sees hell as self-inflicted. Von Balthasar says the issue cannot be resolved, but we must hope. Edwards thinks hell is a just act of a Holy God against those who have trodden underfoot his Son, and that the perfected saints will gaze upon the torments of the damned with jubilation.

"Who do people say that I am?" asked Jesus. (There were all sorts of absurd replies.) Then Jesus said, "Who do you say I am?"

We all must answer that question. We choose the God we worship.

Luke said...

Hi Keith,

And welcome, I'm sorry you've had to discover my blog in the midst of such disagreement. However you are being slightly disingenuous, because in the article that I originally posted as a general introduction to universalism (http://www.tentmaker.org/articles/universalism-bible-derose.html) you refer favorably to Origen but I've changed that very first link to the general website (http://www.tentmaker.org/index.html) and the left the second as it remains (http://www.tentmaker.org/ifhellisreal.htm) because that's where the erroneous claim about church history is made.

Hi Allan,

While I agree personal bias plays a part in theology, it's not a matter of choose your own adventure. Individuals operate within schools of thought, that's what your quick survey misses. Edwards sits in a long line of puritan thought going back to the Reformation which in turn was greatly influenced by Augustine. Lewis and Stott both find universalism difficult, deciding the unsaved are destroyed in different ways.

Your quote reminds me again of one of the reasons I find universalism so difficult. If sin is the worst horror in the cosmos because it's against God, then it deserves the worst punishment, and if we accept God as the determiner of good and evil is a fair outcome. People are saved from that default position, that's what makes God's mercy so uncalled for and refreshing.

Jon said...

Hi Luke, good to see you still willing to stump up for this. You know a lot more about church fathers than I do, my reading of them has been fairly random over the years. However, two things occur to me.

1. From your descriptions (which I realise are very short summaries) the various church fathers seem to be saying different things. Ignatius sounds like he's waving the threat of hell at heretics within the church - i.e. at other Christians. Cyprian talks about "destroying both body and soul" (quoting Mt 10:28 out of context - who does Jesus mean in the original quote?) which sounds final not eternal. Origen has a contrary view. The creeds talk about judgement but not about eternal punshment. Athanasius and Justin refer to eternal fire or eternal punishment. Theophilus refers to "death" not eternity. So is there a consensus, or a variety of views?

2. How much weight should we put on the views of the church fathers? Are older views better than newer views?

Interestingly while I was vainly looking for the creeds in my ancient Anglican prayer book I got waylaid by the 39 articles and found that they don't seem to refer to eternal punishment either and there is no article on hell. Correct me if I'm wrong Mr Anglican Priest.

Bearbrass said...

The spirit of "Choose Your Own Adventure" is very much the thing you're up against, Luke! I'm just getting in to these discussion threads and am thankful to you for creating them. - Ben Palmer

Luke said...

Hi Jon,

Well Mr Anglican layperson!

1. Yes that is correct, hell and eternal punishment are generally only mentioned indirectly, and normally on the way to another topic. However if you were to search the church fathers prior to Augustine you'd find these two points a) Punishment always seems retributive (with Origen and a few others being the notable exceptions) and permanent. b) There is no sense when they do mention hell, eternal punishment or its variations that ultimately everyone will be saved. Not a variety of views or a consensus but a common concept expressed differently.

2. Doctrines take time to develop, there is no pure inside track on what Scripture *really* says. That said good doctrine should always be submitting to and being reformed by Scripture. This doesn't occur in a historical vacuum but inside a particular church tradition. Sola Scriptura not Solo Scirptura! So when you trawl through church history you ask the following questions; what do most say, who says what when and how has what's been said been reinforced or denied? So some weight, they're first chronologically, that's important but so are the later developments.

Hmm, the 39 Articles. Well Article 17 says "he hath constantly decreed by his counsel secret to us, to deliver from curse and damnation those whom he hath chosen in Christ out of mankind, and to bring them by Christ to everlasting salvation." This is what I'd say about universalism and the 39 Articles:
a) It's not condemned.
b) It's not supported.
c) Judgement is retributive "curse"
d) Salvation is selective "out of mankind"
e) Permanent Hell is a real possibility "damnation"

Hi Ben,

Welcome and are you the same Ben from Shiloh's big Facebook thread about government sponsorship of the arts?

Sethals said...

I like the way you have clearly laid out your points bro, very clear. Would be interested to see some exegesis on passages in the Bible relating to Universalism as well.

Allan Smith said...

Luke said: If sin is the worst horror in the cosmos because it's against God, then it deserves the worst punishment

From a legal point of view, Christ has paid the debt. It's finished. How can we be punished twice for the one crime? Limited atonement is the answer, with double predestination following close behind. Is this where you want to go? Is it any wonder the puritans wore black?

But what father conducts his household like a court of law?

Suppose your daughter lies to you. Will you say to yourself, "I am a man and she has sinned against me. Therefore she will suffer a man's punishment." Only a lunatic would think such a thing.

Even crazier is this: "Because my daughter sinned against me, and I love her, I will let her off the hook and punish my wife instead!"

Rather, you would say, "She is my child. I forgive her absolutely. I willingly bear the pain. I will suffer even though I am innocent. Nonetheless, because I love my daughter, I will send her to her room. I will cut her off from the family for a time. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, but she must learn the error of her ways. To let her off the hook might appear to be loving to a superficial mind, but in fact it would be to spoil and ruin her. I will not spoil her because I love her. Therefore, justice will be done, justice that is also mercy."

Bearbrass said...

Hi Luke - yes that's me - and we did meet at JD's buck's night in Aspendale...

Allan Smith said...

Luke said: it's not a matter of choose your own adventure

I believe in a good God because it's the only thing worth believing and worthy of our deepest love. All other gods ultimately lead to despair. Since hope is better than despair, there's only one sane thing to do: Hope in the good God who might be there. Yes. In this sense I choose my own adventure. We all do.

The reason I believe the Bible isn't because the Church tells me to, even less because the Bible itself tells me to, but because I find therein a picture (albeit unfocused at times) of this good God.

A good God would desire the best for us. Since he is the best, he would give himself to us in love, and invite us to do the same. In two neat lines, as logical as twice two is four, we have God's revelation (and incarnation) as well as the greatest commandment.

Keith DeRose said...

But on the topic of the views of the historical church. I certainly accept that universalism has been a minority position from the beginning. However, it seems it was a well-represented minority position in the early church. It's not like it was just Origen. In fact, the Church father that seems most looked to by current universalists seems to be Gregory of Nyssa. (Incidentally, when Robin Perry wrote THE EVANGELICAL UNIVERSALIST under the pseudonym "Gregory Macdonald," he was taking the "Gregory" part from Gregory of Nyssa, and the "MacDonald," of course, from George MacDonald, another great universalist Christian theologian.) A very brief history can be found in the Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge; see:
http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/encyc12/Page_96.html
While S-H correctly notes that universalism was never the majority position of the church, they also note:
"In the first five or six centuries of Christianity there were six known theological schools, of which four (Alexandria, Antioch, Caesarea, and Edessa or Nisibis) were Universalist, one (Ephasus) accepted conditional immortaility; one (Carthage or Rome) taught endless punishment of the wicked."

Alex C Smith said...

Thanks Keith!

I almost fell off my chair when I saw that you had posted on Luke's blog. Only last night, I was scouring the net for anything else you had written on the topic (I've already read the 4 on your homepage) :)

Luke, given the size of the post, and the fact I'm not a Church historian, it will take me a while to reply. However, I've started reading through "Universalism. The Prevailing Doctrine Of The Christian Church During Its First Five Hundred Years" http://www.tentmaker.org/books/Prevailing.html

Luke said...

@ Seth,

Thanks for the feedback I intend to blog through, some time, the three main passages Keith points to in his article that he sees as foundational for universalism.

@ Allan

I can't respond to everything you've raised but I meant "choose your own adventure" in the sense of being arbitrary, and therefore begs the question what it makes it epistemologically or even morally better than another view of God. Furthermore, while God is certainly love, he is not love to the exclusion of sovereignty or vice versa. I think it's safer to say God along with several other key attributes is good and loving as well as just and pure.

@ Keith,

I agree the universalism was minority position in the early church, however we'll have to disagree about the level and type of representation. That fact that it was a minority position isn't evidence it was a legitimate minority position, as the Arian heresy demonstrates.

@ Alex,

That's quite an article there, it'll take some time to work through.

Allan Smith said...

Luke said: what it makes it morally better than another view of God.

Another parable.

A child disobeys her father.

The father says to the child, "I am so pure and so angry that I am going to flood the whole house with the hose to wash the sin away. You, along with the dog, canary and goldfish must sleep in the kennel, or else you'll drown."

The next day, the child creeps into the devastated house, gazing about.

The father now says, "I am so pure and so angry that you must kill your canary and pour its blood on the barbeque!"

The next day, the father says, "I am so pure and so angry that I will beat up your innocent brother before your very eyes so that justice will be done! He will pay the price for your sins."

The child watches as her brother is nailed to the door.

"Now," says the father, "You have seen my justice. You now know how much I love you and how much I hate sin. Repent! Give me your heart, or things will go badly for you."

"Love you?" the child screams, backing away. "You're a lunatic!"

"That's it!" says the father. "Times up! Don't say I'm not a fair man. You've had your chance."

Wrenching open the oven (preheated), he stuffs his daughter inside.

Allan Smith said...

BTW, I'm not suggesting this is what you think :) I'm trying to show that, once short of their fancy trappings, certain propositions are both evil and absurd.

If God is the good and wise father of a large and unruly household, what will his rule be like? What will his goal be?

Will his children bad-mouth him? Will they misinterpret his intentions?

Luke said...

Hi Allan,

BTW, I'm not suggesting this is what you think :) I know, if any idea is really sound it'll survive getting take to it's limits.

While illustrated like that divine retribution sounds horrible but it would be equally horrible for all evil, all depravity (imagine a few steps beyond the worst the internet has to offer) being eventually reconciled with God. But not just reconciled, considered worthwhile, perfect and pure. This is the final horizon of universalism. This is why Alex's earlier example of accept Jesus now so as not to hurt your relationship with God doesn't work. On that final distance horizon,the distinctions of good and evil are erased. Why fight against injustice, why protect the innocent, eventually the oppressor will be considered pure and the torturer perfect, regardless!

Sin/destruction is the default starting point, God doesn't need humanity, doesn't need to save them to gain a friend. Now I accept that man's rebellion is asymmetrical, a mosquito against the bulldozer. However humanity chooses the very moment God is vulnerable to bring their attempted murder to fruition, the worst thing we're able to do, is to kill God (because we want to replace him with ourselves to know good and evil etc). This is what your stories so far are missing. You've made the child innocent of murder, given the chance the child wants to do all those things and more to the father, and for a moment on Golgotha gets the chance.

Allan Smith said...

Hi Luke,

For me, the most illuminating story in the Bible is the prodigal son. It is the key that unlocks the treasure.

We are all seduced by folly and leave our true home. We rip off our heavenly Father, presuming on his support, squandering his gifts even as we spurn his love and blaspheme his good name. We hurt and hate him, but he willingly bears our sins. In his grace and wisdom, he supplies our needs while we fornicate in a far land. He knows our folly will end in filth and torment. He knows that in this hell our hearts will one day hanker for home. He knows that we will return transformed by the fire of our suffering. "My son was dead, but now he is alive."

This is my picture of God. This is what I see supremely in the face of Christ, less clearly in the history of Israel, and less clearly still in the Hebrew myths (such as the fall of Adam and his paradise lost.)

Allan Smith said...

Luke said: Why fight against injustice, why protect the innocent, eventually the oppressor will be considered pure and the torturer perfect, regardless!

Abuse of the gospel isn't a reason not to preach it. No doubt, many will say, "Hey, if all will be well in the end, I can do what I like now." How is this different to "Shall we sin so that grace might abound?" And the answer is the same. Heaven forbid! All will repent in the end. Joy and freedom await. Why put it off?

Luke said: This is what your stories so far are missing. You've made the child innocent of murder

For me, the most illuminating story in the Bible is the prodigal son. It is the key that unlocks the treasure. And if that boy didn't murder his dad, he sure did the next worst thing.

We are all seduced by folly and leave our true home. We rip off our heavenly Father, presuming on his support, squandering his gifts even as we spurn his love and blaspheme his good name. We hurt and hate him, but he willingly bears our sins. In his grace and wisdom, he supplies our needs while we fornicate in a far land. He knows our folly will end in filth and torment. He knows that in this hell our hearts will one day hanker for home. He knows that we will return transformed by the fire of our suffering. "My son was dead, but now he is alive."

This is my picture of God. This is what I see supremely in the face of Christ, less clearly in the history of Israel, and less clearly still in the Hebrew myths (such as the fall of Adam and his paradise lost, Noah's Flood etc.)

Anyway, I talk too much. Time for someone else.

Chow.

Jill said...

Luke, I hesitate to weigh into this debate, but it seems to me that you are conflating two distinct doctrinal issues.

Firstly - will all people ultimately be saved? (i.e. the universalist question).

Secondly - assuming that not all will be saved (a position I hold on the basis of my reading of scripture, my understanding of the tradition of the church, and my own experience of God), what then will be the fate of those who are not saved?

On this latter question, scripture seems to me to be ambiguous. Assuming that they face judgement and condemnation, what then? Are they consigned to gehenna? Is that the same as Hell as understood in Medieval and subsequent thought? Is it a place that endures forever? To the end of time? Beyond the end of time? Is it placed in submission under the feet of the Christ (1 Cor 15)? If so, how can such a place come into the Holy presence? If it persists, but is not brought to such submission, what does that say about the sovereignty of God? Is it destroyed? I don't think scripture gives us clear answers on these questions.

What does seem clear is:
1. there is no way to enter into the presence of God except through the saving work of Jesus,
2.there will be a day of judgement when all men and women will be called to account.
3. On that day, some will meet with divine approval, and some with divine disapprobation.
4. Those who meet with divine approval will enter into the fullness of eternal life in the presence of God.
5. Those who suffer divine disapprobation will face punishment for their sins.

It seems to me that one can (indeed many theologians over time have) question the existence or nature of Hell as generally understood, without adopting a universalist position.

Luke said...

@ Allan,

The Prodigal Son is a very compelling parable, I certainly don't want to be the older brother begrudging the return of the younger son and casting doubt on the Father's mercy.

Should it control all other passages? God listening patiently and mercifully to Abraham plead Gomorrah's case? The God who reconciles all things to himself, even after saving the cattle of Ninevah, withering the vine sheltering Jonah.

I'd prefer a hungry and fearful desire for mercy because my sinful self will greedily snatch at any license for sin. Maybe this makes me horrible but Chesterton's portrait of God at the end of A Man called Thursday rings true.

Luke said...

@ Jill,

It has tended to be a family discussion, although you welcome to comment because it is a public blog and your comment isn't at all objectionable!

I don't think I'm conflating the issues, of will everyone be saved and what is the fate of the saved. They are distinct but connected questions, with a positive answer to the first making a negative answer to the second relatively superfluous.

Luke Isham said...

A year later the Universalism debate continues.

Just an update though, the link that Keith DeRose posted turns out to be rather thin providing no researchable evidence for "several theological schools of the early church being universalist." Disapointing support for such a bold claim.