Oh. Hell? The Patristics

One of the reasons I appreciate James Leo Garrett’s Systematic Theology: Biblical Historical and Evangelical (Vol 2) so much is that he takes us through a journey of not only biblical theology, but historical theology as well.

Regarding the Patristic age of historical theology, Garrett notes that neither the Apostles’ Creed nor the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed refers to hell, or everlasting punishment. The Athanasian Creed, a Christian statement of belief focusing on Trinitarian doctrine and Christology, includes a short statement on the idea of eternal punishment in the first lines. It states:

Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith. Which Faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled; without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. And the Catholic Faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the Persons; nor dividing the Essence.

Note that Catholic Faith is not speaking of the Roman Catholic church, but catholic in terms of universal.

Edward Bouverie Pusey (22 August 1800 – 16 September 1882), an English churchman and Regius Professor of Hebrew at Christ Church, Oxford, quoted from 84 patristic authors whom he identified as “witnesses” “to the belief in eternal punishment.” What Is of Faith As to Everlasting Punishment? in Reply to Dr. [F.W.] Farrar’s Challenge in His ‘eternal Hope’., pp 172-290) We will mention just a few of these.

1. Ignatius of Antioch wrote concerning false teachers that “such as one becoming defiled (in this way), shall go away into everlasting fire, and so shall every one that hearkens unto him.”
2. Justin Martyr repeatedly refers to “the eternal fire” and “eternal punishment” to be endured by wicked human beings.
3. For Irenaeus eternal separation and punishment, originally designed for Satan and his angels, is also to be the destiny of wicked human beings.
4. Augustine of Hippo taught that the kingdom of Satan would be subject to eternal death and alienation from God, and this despite the prayers of the saints, and refuted Origen’s eschatological universalism with its temporary hell.

One who did not subscribe to an eternal hell was Origen of Alexandria (c. 185-254 AD), one of the early church leaders. He proposed a universalism and a temporary hell. According to Richard Bauckman, New Testament scholar and professor of New Testament studies at St. Mary’s College, University of St. Andrews, Scotland:

Origen’s universalism belongs to the logic of his whole theological system, which was decisively influenced by his Platonism and depended on his hermeneutical method of discerning the allegorical sense of Scripture behind the literal sense. According to Origen all intelligent beings (men, angels, devils) are created good and equal, but with absolute free will. Some, through the misuse of free will, turned from God and fell into varying degrees of sin. Those who fell furthest became the devils, those whose fall was less disastrous became the souls of men. These are to be restored to God through a process of discipline and chastisement, for which purpose this material world has been created and the pre-existing souls incarnated in human bodies. The process of purification is not complete at death but continues after this life. Nor is it an inevitably upward path: the soul remains free to choose good or evil, and so even after this life may fall again as well as rise. Within this scheme punishment is always; in God’s intention, remedial: God is wholly good and His justice serves no other purpose than His good purpose of bringing all souls back to Himself. Thus the torments of hell cannot be endless, though they may last for aeons; the soul in hell remains always free to repent and be restored.

Logically it might seem that Origen’s conviction of the inalienable freedom of the soul ought to prevent him from teaching both universalism (for any soul is free to remain obstinate for ever) and the final secure happiness of the saved (who remain free to fall again at any time). In fact Origin seems to have drawn neither conclusion. Given unlimited time, God’s purpose will eventually prevail and all souls will be finally, united to Him, never to sin again. The final restoration includes even Satan and the devils.

A Council at Constantinople in 543 condemned a list of Origenist errors including his universalism, but whether this condemnation was endorsed by the Fifth Ecumenical Council (553) seems in doubt. At any rate the condemnation of Origenism discredited universalism in the theological tradition of the East. In the West, not only Origen’s heretical reputation but also Augustine’s enormous influence ensured that the Augustinian version of the doctrine of hell prevailed almost without question for many centuries.

David has been a systems thinker most of his life. He has started three businesses as well as designed and developed systems and processes in existing organizations. He has a Doctorate in Leadership and has also done additional post-graduate work in communications.

He has also pastored 3 churches and loves to think about, write about and podcast about scripture, theology, and leadership.

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