Is Hell Eternal?
Or Will God's Plan Fail
By Charles Pridgeon

Chapter Twenty-seven: Witness of the Early Church Fathers

An overruling providence has preserved for us much of the writing and the testimony of the leaders of Christianity in the early centuries. In fact there is an unbroken line from apostolic times.

Our chief interest centers in the first four centuries:

"These centuries are especially characterized by the preponderance of the Eastern theologians. All the early influences that molded Christian thought are of the East and not of the West. The language hallowed by the New Testament continued for several centuries the language of theology.  The great Councils that fixt the Creed of the Church were all held in the East, and there too were the early schools of theology--the centers of Christian light and learning."

Those who used the Latin language were at first largely under the influence of the East, in fact, it was not until the time of Augustine that the Roman and Latin thought dominated. It took the influence of the spirit of an Empire imbued with militarism and cold legalism, to give any kind of prominence to the doctrine of endless torment.

In these early centuries those holding the doctrine of endless punishment were in the minority and no one was counted unorthodox who believed in restitution and the ultimate and complete victory of Christ. In fact, the leaders in the early Church Councils and those who were chosen to establish orthodoxy were well-known believers in the beneficent side of future punishment. This is especially true of the second great Church Council which was held to perfect the Nicene Creed: Gregory of Nyssa was the authoritative theologian of that Council and he was a declared believer in universal reconciliation.  There is no word in these early statements of creed declaring in favor of endless punishment. It is passing strange that we have to wait 553 years after Christ before any attempt is made officially to condemn the doctrine of restitution, and then many of those who began to dominate Christian thought could not even read the New Testament in the original Greek.

We will now turn to the testimony of a few representatives among the early Church Fathers; we shall find that the majority did not accept the doctrine of endless punishment of the wicked.

The first one that we will mention is Irenaeus: he lived from 130 to about 200 A.D. He was Bishop of Lyons. His nearness to the apostles makes his testimony most interesting. He writes to a friend of his remembrance of Polycarp, who knew the Apostle John*:

"I have a more vivid recollection of what occurred at that time than of recent events (inasmuch as the experiences of childhood, keeping pace with the growth of the soul, become incorporated with it): so that I can even describe the place where the blessed Polycarp used to sit and discourse--his going out, too, and his coming in--his general mode of life and personal appearance, together with the discourses which he delivered to the people; and how he would speak of his familiar intercourse with John, and with the rest of those who had seen the Lord."

*Fragments from the Lost Writings of Irenaeus. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, page 568.

Irenaeus did not believe that evil would last forever.  In his treatise "Against Heretics," he writes in Book III, chap. 23, §6:

"Wherefore also He drove him (Adam) out of Paradise, and removed him far from the tree of life, not because He envied him the tree of life, as some dare to assert, but because He pitied him and desired that he should not continue always a sinner, and that the sin which surrounded him should not be immortal, and the evil interminable and irremediable."

Clement of Alexandria, 150-220 A.D., Presbyter of, Alexandria, Head of Catechetical School, pupil of Panteus, and teacher of Origen was a noted and influential writer, the following is but a sample:

"The Lord is a propitiation not for our sins only but also for the whole world! Therefore He indeed saves all universally but some are converted by punishments, others by voluntary submission, thus obtaining the honor and dignity, that to Him 'every knee shall how of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth.'

"He punishes for their good those who are punished, whether collectively or individually."

He comments on Jude, verse 5, "They perished until they turned to the Lord," and on verse 7, "By which the Lord signified that pardon had been granted, and that on being disciplined they had repented."

Theophilus, Bishop of Antioch, 160-181 A.D., "To Autolycus," Book 2, chap. 26:

"And God showed great kindness to man in this, that He did not suffer him to continue being in sin forever; but, as it were by a kind of banishment, cast him out of Paradise, in order that, having by punishment expiated within an appointed time the sin, and having been disciplined, he should afterward be recalled. Wherefore, also when man had been formed in this world, it is mystically written in Genesis as if he had been twice placed in Paradise; so that the one was fulfilled when he was placed there, and the second will be fulfilled after the resurrection and judgment. Nay, further just as a vessel, when on being fashioned it has some flaw, is remolded or remade, that it may become new and entire; so also it happens to man by death. For he is broken up by force, that in the resurrection he may be found whole, I mean spotless and righteous and immortal."

Athenagoras, A.D. 177, once an Athenian Philosopher, on "The Resurrection":

"And as this follows of necessity; there must by all means be a resurrection of the bodies which are dead or even entirely dissolved, and the same men must be formed anew . . . for if this takes place, the end befitting the nature of men follows also. And the end of an intelligent life and of a rational judgment, we shall make no mistake in saying, is to be occupied uninterruptedly with those objects to which the natural reason is chiefly and primarily adapted, and to delight unceasingly in the contemplation of Him, who is, and of His decrees."

Origen*, 185-254 A.D., pupil and successor of Clement of Alexandria, founded a. school at Caesarea; he was the greatest theologian and exegete of the Eastern Church. He writes:

"But he that despises the purification of the word of God and the doctrine of the Gospel only keeps himself for dreadful and penal purifications afterward; that so the fire of hell may purge him in torments whom neither apostolical doctrine nor gospel preaching has cleansed, according to that which is written of being 'purified by fire.' But how long this purification which is wrought out by penal fire shall endure, or for how many periods or ages it shall torment sinners, He only knows to whom all judgment is committed by the Father."  (Commentary on Rom., Book 8, Chap. 11.)

*See Farrar’s Mercy and Judgment, Chapter X, XI and XII on Origen and Church Councils (E. P. Dutton & Co., New York)

Again we give but a sample:

"The end of the world, then, and the final consummation will take place when every one shall be subjected to punishment for his sins; a time which God alone knows, when He will bestow on each one what he deserves. 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 . . . 'For Christ must reign until He has put all enemies under His feet.' But if even that unreserved declaration of the apostle does not sufficiently inform us what is meant by 'enemies being placed under His feet,' listen to what he says in the following words, 'For all things must be put under Him.' What, then is this 'putting under' by which all things must be made subject to Christ? I am of opinion that it is this very subjection by which we also wish to be subject to Him, by which the apostles also were 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, agreeably to the declaration of David, ‘Shall not my soul be subject unto God? From Him cometh my salvation'." (Origen, De Principiis, Book 1, Chap. 6, etc.)

"When thou hearest of the wrath of God, believe not that this wrath is a passion of God. It is a condescension of language, designed to convert and improve the child. . . . So God is described to us as angry, in order to our conversion and improvement, when in truth He is not angry."  ( Origeniana, edited by Huet. f. 378.)

Gieseler, the historian, says (Eccl. Hist., Vol.1, page 82):

"The opinion of the indestructible capacity for reformation in all rational creatures, and the finiteness of the torments of hell, was so common in the West, and so widely diffused among opponents of Origen, that tho it might not have sprung up without the influence of his school, yet it had become quite independent of it."

Eusebius of Caesarea, 265-340 A.D., Bishop of Caesarea in Palestine; friend of Constantine; the greatest of the early Church historians, writes on Ps. 2:

"The Son 'breaking in pieces' His enemies is for the sake of remolding them, as a potter his own work; as Jer. 18:6 says: i.e., to restore them once more to their former state."

In speaking of our Lord's subjection to the Father he says,

"Christ will therefore subject to Himself everything, and this saving subjection it is right to regard as similar to that. according to which the Son Himself shall be subjected unto Him, who subjected to Himself all things."

The thought here is clear, it is difficult to conceive of all things being subdued to signify any other kind of subjection than that of the Son to the Father when the same Greek word is used in both cases. The Son's subjection was voluntary and loving, so must be that of all who yield to Him no matter what judgments and persuasion may have to be used!

Gregory Nazianzen, 330-390 A.D., Bishop of Constantinople; friend of Basil; studied at Alexandria and Athens, says:

"These, if they will, may go our way, which indeed is Christ's: but if not, let them go their own way. In another place perhaps they shall be baptized with fire, that last baptism, which is not only very painful, but enduring also; which eats up, as if it were hay, all defiled matter, and consumes all vanity and vice."  (Orat. 39, §9.)

"Adam receives death as a gain, and thereby the cutting off of sin; that evil should not be immortal: and so the penalty turns out a kindness, for thus I am of opinion it is God punishes." (Orat. 42.)

Ambrose, 340-397 A.D., Bishop of Milan; converted Augustine by his preaching; the Father of Latin hymnology; be reproduced many of the writings of the Greek Fathers. He says (on Ps. 1:54):

"Our Savior has appointed two kinds of resurrection in accordance with which John says in the Apocalypse, 'Blessed is he that hath part in the first resurrection,' for such come to grace without the judgment. As for those who do not come to the first, but are reserved until the second resurrection, these shall be burnt until their appointed times, between the first and second resurrection; or if they should not have fulfilled them then, they shall remain still longer in punishment."

Athanasius, 296-373 A.D., called "the Great," "Father of Orthodoxy," Pillar of Orthodoxy; Bishop of Alexandria; writer of many works; especially noted for defending the deity of our Lord. To him is ascribed a treatise in which he writes:

"While the devil thought to kill one he is deprived of all . . . . cast out of Hades, and sitting by gates, sees all the fettered beings led forth by the courage of the Savior."

His view of evil argues strongly for its final extinction from God's universe:

"Now certain Greeks, having erred from the right way, and not having known Christ, have ascribed to evil a substantive and independent existence. In this they make a double mistake: either in denying the Creator to be maker of all things, if evil had an independent subsistence and being of its own; or again, if they mean that He is maker of all things, they will of necessity admit Him to be maker of evil also. . . . How could two principles exist, contrary one to another: or what is it that divides them, for them to exist apart? For it is impossible for them to exist together, because they are mutually destructive."

Gregory of Nyssa, 332-398 A.D.; a leading theologian of the Eastern Church and one of the most prominent figures in the second great Church Council which practically established the orthodoxy of the Nicene Creed. He writes:

"For it is needful that evil should someday wholly and absolutely removed out of the circle of being. . . . or inasmuch as it is not in the nature of evil to exist without the will, when every will comes to be in God, will not evil go to absolute extinction, by reason of there being no receptacle it left?"  ("Dialogue of the Soul and Resurrection," Book 3).

"Therefore the Divine judgment does not as its chief object to cause pain to those who have sinned, but works good alone by separating from evil, and drawing to a share in blessedness. But this severance of good from evil causes the pain (of the judgment). In other words, the penalty is the cure; it is merely the unavoidable pain attending the removal of the intruding element of sin."  ("Dialogue of the Soul and Resurrection").

"If this (sin) be not cured here, its cure is postponed to a future life. As sure remedies for obstinate cases, so God announces His future judgment for the cure of the diseases of the soul, and that judgment uses threats to the lazy and vain . . . in order that, through fear, we may be trained to avoiding evil; but by those who are more intelligent, it (the judgment) is believed to be a medicine, a cure from God, who is bringing the creature, which he has formed, back to that state of grace which first existed."  (Cat. Orat. VIII).

Gregory of Nyssa says again (Orat. pro Mortuis):

"Wherefore at the same time liberty of free-will should be left to nature and yet the evil be purged away, the wisdom of God discovered, this plan to suffer man to do what he would, that having tasted the evil which he desired and learning by experience for what wretchedness he had bartered away the blessings he had, he might of his own will hasten back with desire to the first blessedness, either being purged in this life through prayer and discipline, or after his departure hence through the cleansing fire."

Gregory's "Catechetical Orations" our Lord is spoken of as "the One who both delivers man from evil, and who heals the inventor of evil himself.''

Neander, speaking of Gregory of Nyssa, says:

"But this particular doctrine (of the final restitution of all) was expounded and maintained with greatest ability in works written expressly for that purpose by Gregory of Nyssa. God, he maintained, had created rational beings in order that they might be self-conscious and free vessels for the communications of the original fountain of all good. All punishments are means of purification, ordained by divine love to purge rational beings from moral evil, and to restore them back to that communion with God which corresponds to their nature. God would not have permitted the existence of evil, unless He had foreseen that by the Redemption all rational beings would in the end, according to their destination, attain to the shine blessed fellowship with Himself."

Another discriminating writer* remarks:

"Now when it is borne in mind that Gregory of Nazianzen presided at the Second General Church Council, and that to Gregory of Nyssa tradition ascribes all those additions to the original Nicene Creed which were made at the same Second General Council, and which we now recite as portions of it--when we remember the esteem and works of this same Gregory of Nyssa have ever been held both during his life and since his death, and that he was referred to by both the Fifth and Seventh General Councils as among the highest authorities of the Church--we shall be better able to judge the worth of the assertion, which is sometimes made, that the doctrine of final restitution is a heresy."

*The Second Death and the Restitution of All Things, by Andrew Jukes, page 180 (Thomas Wittaker).

Jerome, 340-420 A.D., devoted to Scripture study; revised the old Latin translations and translated the Old Testament from Hebrew into Latin of the New Testament; finally settled at Bethlehem:

"Our Lord descends, and was shut up in the eternal bars, in order that He might set free all who had been shut up . . . The Lord descended to the place of punishment and torment, in which was the rich man, in order to liberate the prisoners."  (On Isa. 14:7).

Jerome, writing on Zeph. 3:8-10, says:

"The nations are gathered to the judgment, . . . that on them may be poured out all the wrath of the fury of the Lord, and this in pity, and with a design to heal--for the nations being assembled for judgment, in order that wrath may be poured on them; not in part but in whole, both wrath and fury being united; then whatever is earthly is consumed in the whole world .  . in order that every one may return to the of the Lord, that in Jesus' Name every knee may bow, and every tongue may confess that He is Lord."

Again he says:

"All God's enemies shall perish, not that they shall cease to exist but cease to be enemies."

Theodoret, 386-485 A.D., Bishop of Cyprus; Fellow student of Nestorius and John of Antioch; Pupil of Chrysostom and Theodore of Mopsuestia; a leading scholar and theologian of his century.

In his ''Homily on Ezek. 6:6'' he shows the reason of punishment:

"For the Lord, the lover of men, torments us only to n sure us that He may put a stop to the course of our iniquity. All these things, He says, I do, and bring in desolation, that I may extinguish men's madness and rage after idols."

Augustine, 354-430 A.D., was horn in Numidia; taught rhetoric at Milan, where he heard Ambrose. He was the greatest of the four great Latin Church Fathers (Augustine, Ambrose, Jerome, and Gregory the Great). His influence probably more than that of any other of the Church Fathers brought forward and emphasized the doctrine of never-ending Punishment. He spoke with greater consideration for those who differed with him than many of the moderns.

"And now I see I must have a gentle disputation with certain tender hearts of our own religion, who are unwilling to believe that everlasting punishment will he inflicted, either on all those whom the just Judge shall condemn to the pains of hell, or even on some of them, but who think that after certain periods of time, longer or shorter according to the proportion of their crimes, they shall be delivered out of that state." (De Civ. Del, lib. 21, c.17).

And in Encheirid. ad Laurent, c. 29, refers to  "The very many in his day, who tho not denying the Holy Scriptures, do not believe in endless torments."

He does not declare them unorthodox.

Augustine, in replying to the Manichees, says:

"Who is so blind as not to see that evil is that which is opposed to the nature of a thing? And by this Principle is your heresy refuted; for evil as opposed to the nature is not a nature. But you say, that evil is a certain nature and substance.

That what is opposed to nature struggles against it and would destroy it. So that which exists tends to make non-existence. For nature is only what is understood, after its kind, to be something . . . If then you will consider the matter, evil consists in this very thing; namely, in a defection from being and a tendency to non-being."

"If this is so," says an able writer, "what becomes of Augustine's doctrine of never-ending punishment, which surely is never-ending existence in evil?"

Athanasius, Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, and others argue against evil having absolute reality, it could not therefore continue in eternity.

In collecting the above testimonies we have given only a representative portion of the great leaders of the Church of the first four hundred years. During this whole period it seems clear that over half of the authoritative teachers in the Church held the ultimate salvation of all, and in no case was this view regarded as heretical. When we remember that many who taught this view spoke the language of the New Testament and represented the first promulgators of the Gospel, the evidence is strengthened. In later years some of the objectors could not even read the Bible in the original language.

We need to remember also that on account of the doctrine of Reserve which was held by so many of the Church Fathers (see Chapter on Doctrine of Reserve), some who are quoted as holding to the doctrine of never-ending torment have other passages which teach quite the contrary.  Many held the doctrine of the ultimate salvation of all for themselves and for the other doctors of divinity; but felt that it was not safe for the multitude, and therefore taught them an endless perdition.

When we remember the cruelty and militarism of the Roman Empire, and also the pagan teaching that was permitted to enter on this great subject because it was found in the pagan and barbarian religions of many who profest allegiance to Christianity, many of these we fear, judging from their actions, had not received a truly Christian spirit, and we are not surprized that "endless torment" was so largely incorporated in The Western Church. Besides this, it took the dark ages and medieval ignorance to render this doctrine almost universal. It is time to return to the Bible and to the teaching of the early Church, which is not only Biblical but is sane and is also consistent with a God of love and the sacrifice of His Son who was a "propitiation for our sins and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world" (1John 2:2).

Go to Chapters: (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7) (8) (9) (10) (11) (12) (13) (14) (15) (16) (17) (18) (19) (20) (21) (22) (23) (24) (25) (26) (27) (28) (29) (30)

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