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What is hell, and is it biblical? Part 7: the early church

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16 minutes to read A response to Jacob McMillen and Josiah Pemberton. In this installment, I demonstrate how they must cite cherry-picked evidence from the most absurdly unqualified sources to make the case that eternal punishment wasn’t part of early church doctrine.

The final pin in J&J’s well-worn donkey is their claim that hell was not a doctrine of the early church—or at least that it was a minority position. In one sense this is irrelevant, since our theology is derived from the Bible, not church history. And in this series I have conclusively established hell from the Bible, beyond the remotest shadow of doubt.

In another sense, even if hell was a minority position in the early church, this might prove nothing at all, since the same could be said of the Trinity at one point!

That said, J&J’s claim is worth assessing as a final mop-up. The argument from history does tug on some Christians, and these claims, if true, could be troubling. Although the early church went off the rails pretty quickly (as the epistles to the Corinthians demonstrate), the absence and even contradiction of a major doctrine in early history might constitute prima facie evidence that it is not apostolic.

So, how does their case fare against the facts on the ground?

Unqualified sources

The main problem with assessing their argument is that they cite nearly no credible sources. Their content apparently comes almost exclusively from one Julie Ferwerda, with whom they partnered to write this article.

You might expect that Julie would be a patristic scholar, or a historical theologian. After all, if you want to build a case about early church theology, you would partner with a credentialed scholar who had expertise in that specific field…right?

Well, J&J, in a final abdication of their teaching responsibilities, have instead partnered with a mystic syncretist to answer the question.

Yes, you heard me correctly. Perusing Julie’s Facebook page, we find the following kinds of posts:

The only way to improve our understanding of the "God of history" (his/her intent and character) is to recognize that…

Posted by Julie Ferwerda on Jueves, 10 de diciembre de 2015

"You need not try to change the world. Let it alone; all people are doing the best they can. No one needs to be saved…

Posted by Julie Ferwerda on Viernes, 23 de octubre de 2015

"Most of organized religion, without meaning to, has actually discouraged us from taking the mystical path (relying on…

Posted by Julie Ferwerda on Sábado, 7 de noviembre de 2015

Julie quotes Richard Rohr more than anyone else, so you might like to know that he is “a globally recognized ecumenical teacher bearing witness to the universal awakening within Christian mysticism and the Perennial Tradition.” Now, I know you’re wondering what the Perennial Tradition is, so let me help you out there too:

The Perennial Tradition encompasses the recurring themes in all of the world’s religions and philosophies that continue to say:

  • There is a Divine Reality underneath and inherent in the world of things,
  • There is in the human soul a natural capacity, similarity, and longing for this Divine Reality, and
  • The final goal of existence is union with this Divine Reality.


To summarize, the Christian authority J&J partner with to make their case is a pro-LGBT, radically egalitarian, pantheistic pluralist, follows the Bhagavad Gita in believing that “Scriptures are of little use to the illumined man or woman,” and is impressed with the deep spirituality of Gnostic psychiatrist Carl Jung—the man who followed the half-beast god Abraxas as a deity greater than Yahweh, and whom biographers compare with Emperor Julian for his influence in turning the West back to paganism.

It is her book—Raising Hell: Christianity’s Most Controversial Doctrine Put Under Fire, about how hell is a mistaken doctrine—that J&J chose to draw from for their final argument.

Now, if Julie were a credentialed, or even a recognized authority on patristic theology, I would still be willing to investigate her arguments. I would be amazed at J&J’s terrible judgment in partnering with her, rather than with a Christian scholar. But at least she would be qualified to address the question of hell in church history.

But she isn’t.

So why should we even bother to read the woo-woo-inspired ravings of a self-deceived mystic who can’t tell the difference between Christianity and paganism, and whose position on hell is transparently derived a priori from emotional pantheistic monism? Why should we take any a posteriori case she makes as a balanced, accurate, or well-informed reflection of the biblical and historical facts?

In what possible way is such a misguided false teacher a credible witness to any part of the arguments around hell—including what early church history actually says?

She is not.

And so we get exactly what you’d expect from such an incompetent thinker:

  • A lengthy ad hominem fallacy about how Augustine popularized hell because he was a hateful bigot with a “wicked spirit” who didn’t want babies or non-Christians to be saved. Of course, poisoning the well like this is an effective strategy when you’re appealing to intellectual lightweights who are moved by sentiment rather than fact, but it’s also a transparent ploy completely unbecoming of supposedly Christian teachers—the equivalent of dismissing Calvinism not for exegetical or theological reasons, but because of a malicious narrative about Servetus.
  • Rhetorical boilerplate about how Greek mythology influenced Christian theology. Even if this were true, it is still a basic genetic fallacy. It’s a popular card for annihilationists (and open theists) to play; but since I have already shown that the Bible plainly and straightforwardly teaches eternal hell in a thoroughly Jewish context, this objection is simply cut off at the knees.
  • Undocumented claims that the doctrine of eternal torment was “strong-armed into the Church through major dissension and even bloodshed, with intolerant, oppressive Church leaders insisting that they were ‘led by the Spirit’ on such matters.” Needless to say, this is not only unsubstantiated but also wildly implausible, as I’ll document in a moment. Once again we are treated to a shrill, almost hysterical “argument” rather than a clear-headed and balanced assessment.
  • Pure fabrication about hell being cemented in church tradition because of Jerome’s Vulgate, a “tainted version of the Scriptures” translated “from a very inferior Latin text in the late 4th century”. This is simply astounding, since while the Vulgate is by no means a stellar translation of the Bible, it was not translated from an inferior Latin text; it was itself a Latin text, translated from Hebrew and Greek. Perhaps J&J are confused by the fact that Jerome also did a revision of the Old Latin gospels, correcting them against the Greek manuscripts?
  • Cherry-picked quotes from early theologians, without referencing, and at least one of which doesn’t even say what J&J pretend it says (Irenaeus’ comment about Adam’s expulsion from Eden—this has no obvious bearing on hell at all). Oddly, they also approvingly quote Jerome, who apparently was a universalist despite it being his “tainted translation” that cemented eternal torment in church tradition! How is that even supposed to work?

In other words, what J&J present here through Julie is propaganda; a narrative so distorted as to be essentially fact-free, rather than a serious historical study. Once again, the question I can’t figure out: are they so incompetent that they can’t even spot what they’re doing; or are they cynically spinning the evidence to influence their flock?

Unfortunately, regardless of the answer, by signing their name to Julie’s work they have effectively abandoned any pretense of being Christian teachers at all. They not only “HIGHLY recommend” Julie’s book, describing it as “exhaustively researched and incredibly well-sourced”—which it is not, if her arguments here are any indication—but they also link to her website. By thus endorsing a pagan as if she were a Christian teacher, they slip over the edge of heterodoxy and fall into straight-up heresy. I wish this series had a better ending, but enthusiastically encouraging your flock to take a mosey down the broad road to meet the wolf waiting for them behind the wide gate…well, you get my point.

A summary of the actual state of hell in the early church

J&J conclude their thesis as follows:

For 5 centuries, Christian doctrine remained unaffected by Hell until St. Augustine forcibly inserted it into orthodoxy, using a combination of power and violence to ensure it’s survival. Since that time, we’ve seen the gradual evolution of Christian doctrine in and around this concept, until today, the average believer has no idea that the concept of eternal torment isn’t even Biblical.

Obviously books could be written in response to this, surveying the voluminous sources available from church history, but I will try to present a briefish overview of the most pertinent evidence.

Some quotes from patristic sources

I’ll start with the earliest sources we have and move on from there. Some I will quote without commentary, since they speak for themselves. This is by no means an exhaustive list—but it doesn’t need to be. Unlike J&J, who have to prove a universal negative to make their case in full, all I need to do is quote some representative examples of early theologians who believed in hell. Most you will have heard of; they are major figures in the early church.

Polycarp (AD 69–155)

Polycarp was a direct disciple of the apostles, and is most associated with the apostle John, who if you recall had a lot to say about the lake of fire. As early church fathers go, he is the earliest. Here’s part of his church’s account of his martyrdom:

And, looking to the grace of Christ, they [Christian martyrs] despised all the torments of this world, redeeming themselves from eternal punishment by the suffering of a single hour. For this reason the fire of their savage executioners appeared cool to them. For they kept before their view escape from that fire which is eternal and never shall be quenched… Polycarp said, “Thou threatenest me with fire which burneth for an hour, and after a little is extinguished, but art ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and of eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly. But why tarriest thou? Bring forth what thou wilt.” The Martyrdom Of Polycarp, 2, 11

Aside from reminding us that early Christians were badasses, the force of the comparison here is between fire of limited duration, and fire that is eternal; fire that shall dwindle as its human fuel is consumed, and fire that shall never be quenched.

Justin Martyr (AD 100–165)

Justin is the first major apologist of church history. Apologetics is especially significant to our question because it tells us a lot about the kinds of objections that people make, which in turn lets us infer the kinds of views Christians are preaching to the world. For example, if you were to peruse modern secular objections to Christianity, you would quickly infer that Christians widely believe evolution is at odds with what the Bible teaches. (This doesn’t tell us whether the views in question are correct. But it does tell us a lot about how common they are.) By the same token, we note that Christians in the early church repeatedly had to defend the doctrine of hell. Justin writes:

For among us the prince of the wicked spirits is called the serpent, and Satan, and the devil, as you can learn by looking into our writings. And that he would be sent into the fire with his host, and the men who follow him, and would be punished for an endless duration, Christ foretold… For the prophets have proclaimed two advents of His: the one, that which is already past, when He came as a dishonoured and suffering Man; but the second, when, according to prophecy, He shall come from heaven with glory, accompanied by His angelic host, when also He shall raise the bodies of all men who have lived, and shall clothe those of the worthy with immortality, and shall send those of the wicked, endued with eternal sensibility, into everlasting fire with the wicked devils… And in what kind of sensation and punishment the wicked are to be, hear from what was said in like manner with reference to this; it is as follows: “Their worm shall not rest, and their fire shall not be quenched.” First Apology, 28, 52

Theophilus of Antioch (died c. AD 183)

Theophilus was another early apologist, born a pagan and converted to Christianity. He cites a poem to explicate the nature of judgment in the afterlife, as follows:

Therefore, upon you burning fire shall come, And ever ye shall daily burn in flames, Ashamed for ever of your useless gods. But those who worship the eternal God, They shall inherit everlasting life, Inhabiting the blooming realms of bliss, And feasting on sweet food from starry heaven. To Autolycus, 2:36

Irenaeus (died c. AD 202)

I mentioned that J&J cherry-pick quotes. One way they do this is by focusing on patristic sources that don’t believe in hell. Just as today, in the early church there were those who didn’t believe in eternal punishment. That is beyond dispute—the question is how representative they are of early Christianity as a whole. Were theirs the only views? J&J rely on their readers’ ignorance of patristics to give the impression that every church father was a disbeliever in hell.

But they also go further, and cherry-pick quotes from theologians who actually believed in hell, but who made comments at times which could be interpreted otherwise. I mentioned above that they quote Irenaeus—yet their quote is oddly chosen since it doesn’t seem to bear on hell at all. If they had wanted to, this would have been a far better comment to pick:

For life does not arise from us, nor from our own nature; but it is bestowed according to the grace of God. 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. Against Heresies, 2:34:3

This obviously looks like annihilationism. And I quote it specifically to illustrate how early Christians, following the Bible, used language that can be twisted to say things about hell that are completely contrary to what they actually taught. Because here is Irenaeus’ straightforward view on hell:

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, and the wrath of God which shall be revealed from heaven from the face of our Lord. Against Heresies, 4:28:1

But on as many as, according to their own choice, depart from God, He inflicts that separation from Himself which they have chosen of their own accord. But separation from God is death, and separation from light is darkness; and separation from God consists in the loss of all the benefits which He has in store. Those, therefore, who cast away by apostasy these forementioned things, being in fact destitute of all good, do experience every kind of punishment. God, however, does not punish them immediately of Himself, but that punishment falls upon them because they are destitute of all that is good. Now, good things are eternal and without end with God, and therefore the loss of these is also eternal and never-ending. Against Heresies, 5:27:2

You can see clearly that Irenaeus believed the punishment of hell was everlasting; it endured forever. Yet he spoke of it as “death”, and even as the deprivation of continuance. Obviously it is uncharitable to the point of stupidity to think he could not get the doctrine straight in his mind—rather, we should understand these kinds of descriptions as referring not to annihilation, but to the permanent removal of all that is good: an unending existence devoid of virtue or benefit.

Tertullian (c. AD155–240)

While Tertullian had some odd ideas about volcanoes and lightning, and misconstrued the fire of hell in overly literal terms, he clearly believed it went on forever:

Think of these things, too, in the light of the brevity of any punishment you can inflict—never to last longer than till death. On this ground Epicurus makes light of all suffering and pain, maintaining that if it is small, it is contemptible; and if it is great, it is not long-continued. No doubt about it, we, who receive our awards under the judgment of an all-seeing God, and who look forward to eternal punishment from Him for sin—we alone make real effort to attain a blameless life, under the influence of our ampler knowledge, the impossibility of concealment, and the greatness of the threatened torment, not merely long-enduring but everlasting, fearing Him, whom he too should fear who the fearing judges—even God, I mean, and not the proconsul… When, therefore, the boundary and limit, that millennial interspace, has been passed, when even the outward fashion of the world itself—which has been spread like a veil over the eternal economy, equally a thing of time—passes away, then the whole human race shall be raised again, to have its dues meted out according as it has merited in the period of good or evil, and thereafter to have these paid out through the immeasurable ages of eternity. Therefore after this there is neither death nor repeated resurrections, but we shall be the same that we are now, and still unchanged—the servants of God, ever with God, clothed upon with the proper substance of eternity; but the profane, and all who are not true worshippers of God, in like manner shall be consigned to the punishment of everlasting fire—that fire which, from its very nature indeed, directly ministers to their incorruptibility. The philosophers are familiar as well as we with the distinction between a common and a secret fire. Thus that which is in common use is far different from that which we see in divine judgments, whether striking as thunderbolts from heaven, or bursting up out of the earth through mountain-tops; for it does not consume what it scorches, but while it burns it repairs. So the mountains continue ever burning; and a person struck by lighting is even now kept safe from any destroying flame. A notable proof this of the fire eternal! A notable example of the endless judgment which still supplies punishment with fuel! The mountains burn, and last. How will it be with the wicked and the enemies of God?” Apology, 45, 48)

Cyprian (c. AD 200–258)

There is no faith in the fear of God, in the law of righteousness, in love, in labour; none considers the fear of futurity, and none takes to heart the day of the Lord, and the wrath of God, and the punishments to come upon unbelievers, and the eternal torments decreed for the faithless. On The Unity Of The Church, 26

What actual historians have to say

J&J substitute the assertions of a layman for the analysis of credentialed historians. This makes sense, because I’m not aware of any historians who could agree with their nonsense. Here are some good examples:

Schaff on the history of hell

Philip Schaff is a general historian of the church and is widely regarded as one of the foremost experts in the field. He writes:

There never was in the Christian church any difference of opinion concerning the righteous, who shall inherit eternal life and enjoy the blessed communion of God forever and ever. But the final fate of the impenitent who reject the offer of salvation admits of three answers to the reasoning mind: everlasting punishment, annihilation, restoration (after remedial punishment and repentance)… Everlasting Punishment of the wicked always was, and always will be the orthodox theory… the majority of the fathers who speak plainly on this terrible subject, favor this view… The generality of this belief among Christians is testified by Celsus [an opponent of Christianity who wrote in the second century], who tells them that the heathen priests threaten the same “eternal punishment” as they, and that the only question was which was right, since both claimed the truth with equal confidence. History Of The Christian Church, 2:12:157

Kelly on the history of hell

J N D Kelly is a patristic scholar whose name you have also probably heard. He observes:

As regards the fate of the wicked… the general view was that their punishment would be eternal, without any possibility of remission. As Basil put it, in hell the sinful soul is completely cut off from the Holy Spirit, and is therefore incapable of repentance; while Chrysostom pointed out that neither the bodies of the damned, which will become immortal, nor their souls will know any end of their sufferings. Early Christian Doctrines [New York: Continuum, 2003], p 483

Kelly’s references to Basil and John Chrysostom are telling, because both are Eastern theologians roughly contemporaneous with Augustine in the West. J&J want us to believe that hell was a Western doctrine, and the Eastern church did not truck with eternal punishment. This is flatly wrong. (I will leave uncommented their bizarrely anachronistic view that the eastern church was “the Church of the early apostles and Church fathers such as Paul, Clement of Alexandria, St. Gregory of Nyssa, Origen.”)

Other historians

I’m not going to claim expertise I don’t have—I am not a church historian or historical theologian or patristic scholar. That said, I know people who are quite widely read on this topic. Their impression is of a broad consensus among patristic scholars that the traditional doctrine of hell was the majority view in the early centuries of the church. For example, Allen Clayton writes:

Some scholars have argued that a notion of the annihilation of the wicked, and not eternal punishment, is present in the writings of such thinkers as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Arnobius. The textual evidence, however, does not seem to bear the weight of this conclusion. The overwhelming majority of Christian writers held that the wicked were to be eternally punished. Encyclopedia of Early Christianity [New York: Garland Publishing, Inc, 1999], p 517

By the same token, G S Shogren writes in the Dictionary of the Later New Testament that, “if the extant literature is any indication, then an overwhelming majority within the ancient church were persuaded that damnation leads to everlasting, conscious suffering.” Eric Osborn comes to the same conclusions, as does Everett Ferguson, who notes:

Apart from Origen, who entertained the possibility of universal salvation after a period of purification and education of souls in the afterlife, those who spoke to the subject understood an ultimate division of humanity in heaven or hell. Church History Volume 1: From Christ To Pre-Reformation [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2005], p. 159

Indeed, from what I’ve read, J&J’s narrative that hell grew to be the majority position thanks to Augustine is exactly backwards: hell was already the majority position, and the reason Augustine made noise about it was because he was concerned that this majority was shrinking.

Non-Christian sources

I mentioned that the objections skeptics focus on is helpful for inferring what Christians themselves widely believe. With that in mind, here are some representative examples from historical critics of Christianity (these are all from the second to fourth centuries, before Augustine):

  • Celsus criticized Christians for their belief in “eternal punishments”, comparing hell unfavorably to the views of other religions (Origen, Against Celsus, 8:48).
  • Caecilius wrote that Christians promised “to others, as being unrighteous, eternal punishment” (Minucius Felix, Octavius, 11); in defending this view, Felix explains that the punishment is eternal and conscious suffering (ibid, 35). There is no mention of universalism or annihilationism.
  • Porphyry and Julian the Apostate are cited by Robert Wilken as examples of a popular objection to Christianity that God was unjust to make no provision for the salvation of the unevangelized (The Christians As The Romans Saw Them [New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1984], p 181).


I could summarize the historical situation no better than fellow apologist Jason Engwer, who—unlike me—is well acquainted with patristic studies. In summing up his own assessment of this question, he observes:

I am not aware of any early non-Christian source who suggests that universalism or annihilationism was the mainstream view.

We’ve seen that J&J’s case is bunk from beginning to end. From exegesis to theology to philosophy—and now finally to history…they are flatly wrong about hell.

 1 comment

Arlano Aquino

Thank you for this excellent series. May Christians come to embrace this sobering truth again.