The Early Church Fathers on Hell

If you are debating Christian theology with a cultist, there are two arguments that he or she will certainly bring up: what you believe is not what the earliest Christians believed, and you believe what you believe because of the influence of Greek philosophy. While it is true that some church fathers were unduly influenced by pagan philosophy, Protestants believe that the Bible alone is the Word of God written and our ultimate authority in matters of faith and practice. The argument concerning the influence of Greek philosophy is a double-edged sword because Greek philosophy is extremely diverse with many different schools of thought and contradictory ideas. I would argue that it is the cultist, not the Christian, who is being influenced by pagan philosophy and fallen human reasoning rather than believing in Scripture alone. Annihilationists and universalists will often appeal to the writings of the early church fathers to argue that the belief in eternal torment is a later pagan concept rooted in the belief in the immortality of the soul. But the irony is that Origen, an early church father who taught universalism, was steeped in Greek philosophy having been trained in Platonism and influenced by Ammonius Saccas and Numenius. The following quotations demonstrate that the belief in hell as eternal conscious torment was held by the earliest church fathers living in the second century:

“For if we do the will of Christ, we shall find rest; otherwise, nothing shall deliver us from eternal punishment, if we disobey His commandments” (2 Clement 6:7).

“But the righteous who have done well and endured torments and hated the enjoyments of the soul, when they shall behold those that have gone astray and denied Jesus through their words or through their works, how that they are punished with grievous torments in unquenchable fire, shall be giving glory to God” (2 Clement 17:7).

“And, looking to the grace of Christ, they 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” (Martyrdom of Polycarp 2:3).

“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” (Martyrdom of Polycarp 11:2).

“When thou shalt despise that which is here esteemed to be death, when thou shalt fear what is truly death, which is reserved for those who shall be condemned to the eternal fire, which shall afflict those even to the end that are committed to it. Then shalt thou admire those who for righteousness’ sake endure the fire that is but for a moment, and shalt count them happy when thou shalt know the nature of that fire” (Epistle to Diognetus 10:7-8).

“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” (Justin Martyr, First Apology 28).

“Thus also the punishment of those who do not believe the Word of God, and despise His advent, and are turned away backwards, is increased; being not merely temporal, but rendered also eternal. For to whomsoever the Lord shall say, ‘Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire,’ these shall be damned forever; and to whomsoever He shall say, ‘Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you for eternity,’ these do receive the kingdom forever” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 4.28.2).

“We are persuaded that when we are removed from the present life we shall live another life, better than the present one, and heavenly, not earthly (since we shall abide near God, and with God, free from all change or suffering in the soul, not as flesh, even though we shall have flesh, but as heavenly spirit), 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. On these grounds it is not likely that we should wish to do evil, or deliver ourselves over to the great Judge to be punished” (Athenagoras, A Plea for the Christians 31).

“Who hath appointed rewards for those that keep them, in order that, when the allotted time of this world has come to an end, He may adjudge to His own worshippers the recompense of eternal life, and sentence the profane to fire equally perpetual and lasting” (Tertullian, Apology 18.3).

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