Hell in the early church: What did early church leaders believe about hell?

This is the third post in a series on the nature of hell. The series begins here.

Most evangelical Christians aren’t that familiar with early church writers and teachers, and that’s unfortunate (for many reasons). Because of our lack of historical awareness, we tend to assume the early Christians worshiped pretty much the same way we do every Sunday, and that they believed all the same things we do. When we’re thinking of hell, for instance, even many pastors assume that the vast majority of early church pastors and leaders believed in eternal conscious torment as do the majority of evangelicals today. Is this true?

If pressed, some of us may have some vague recollection that the early Christian scholar Origen held to some form of universalism. And we might even be aware that annihilationists or conditionalists claim Irenaeus as an early proponent of their view. But we would usually consider these people to be outliers in the early history of the church, brilliant theologians who may have been a bit eccentric in some of their beliefs, but overall were exceptions that prove the rule in an otherwise consistently held—and familiar—view of hell. But is this actually the case? It might be good to make sure the early consensus to which we refer did, in fact, exist.

The desire by many to go back and see what these early Christians actually wrote about their beliefs regarding hell has proved a challenge to this common assumption. It’s not that this has never been done before, but there is definitely a renewed—and growing—interest in understanding with greater clarity who believed what about final judgment. Ilaria Ramelli is a respected scholar of historical theology (among other things). In 2013, she published the results of 16 years of painstaking research of early Christian views concerning universal salvation and restoration (apokatastasis in the Greek). [She later published a more affordable, more accessible book covering much of the same material: A Larger Hope?: Universal Salvation from Christian Beginnings to Julian of Norwich (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2019).] 

Ramelli’s work was widely hailed not only for its impressive span and depth, but also for the great care she took in evaluating these ancient authors’ statements in the context of their larger bodies of work, in light of Scripture, and in their historical contexts. Many of her fellow scholars now view her book as a new benchmark on the subject of universal salvation in the early church. (She handily dispatched the challenges of one scholar who attempted an extensive critique of her work, showing his conclusions to be unsupported by the actual historical data.) Ramelli corrected the overreach of some earlier universalists who had tried to show universalism to have been the standard view in the early church. But she also surprised almost everyone by documenting just how extensive belief in universal salvation actually was. Christian universalism was not merely the extreme minority view of one or two isolated thinkers; it was widely held, and taught by many of the people we consider to be great heroes of the early Christian faith.

Origen was by no means the first Christian universalist. Before him were Bardaisan of Edessa and Clement of Alexandria. (There are also indications of belief in universal salvation in Christian writings preceding these teachers. We don’t know the view of many early church leaders because they either didn’t address the issue or didn’t make clear their view.) We shouldn’t move too quickly past Origen himself, though. Possessing an imposing intellect, he’s the only Christian thinker in the first centuries who produced more writing on theology and biblical exposition than did Augustine.

It would take far too long to go through all of the early Christian leaders who believed in universal salvation, but we should comment on a few highly significant examples. Some may be aware that Gregory of Nyssa firmly held a belief in universal salvation and restoration. This is clear in his writings and has been well-documented. Again, this is worth noting because Gregory of Nyssa was one of the most respected theologians of the 4th century, one of the famous “Cappadocian fathers” [the early church leaders are often referred to as the “church fathers”], and honored by the Second Council of Nicea as “father of fathers.” Gregory’s views on universal salvation were well-known, running through virtually all of his writings, and apparently did nothing to hamper the respect or acclaim he garnered. 

Ramelli shows that, while not as clear or outspoken as Gregory of Nyssa, we should include the other Cappadocians, Basil of Caesarea and Gregory Nazianzen, as revered theologians in the early church who evidenced belief in universal salvation. We even see good reason to include the great champion of the Trinity Athanasius among the universalists! Even Augustine believed in universal salvation until later in life (as was also true of Jerome), and he later commented on how prevalent the belief still was at that time. This is just a sampling of a much longer list of prominent Christian theologians in the first 500 years of the history of the church whose theological work incorporated belief in universal reconciliation and restoration.

It’s telling that none of the early creeds include anything at all concerning eternal damnation in hell. And, until the time of Augustine, the fact that Christian leaders and theologians held differing views regarding hell didn’t seem to them cause for debate. Even Augustine didn’t condemn those who disagreed with the view of hell he had come to adopt (eternal conscious torment). We should also note the large number of early church leaders and thinkers who spoke and wrote in Greek who believed in and taught universalism, and the fact that those who advocated for eternal conscious torment tended to be those who spoke and wrote in Latin. This is important because the meaning of the Greek in Scripture became one of the distinguishing points between the views, and the understanding of the early Greek-speaking scholars would have carried much more weight than those who weren’t as conversant in Greek. We’ll look at this in much greater depth in the next post.

So does any of this tell us which view is right and which is wrong? No, it doesn’t. We still have a lot of examining to do linguistically, exegetically and theologically. But looking at this background does keep us from falsely claiming any one view as the overwhelmingly dominant view in the early church. Some overeager proponents of universalism have tried to make it the virtually universal view of early Christians. There’s simply not enough evidence to back up this claim. But we have even less to suggest that eternal conscious torment was the predominant view in the early church, especially among the Greek-speaking believers. However we may debate the specific view of any particular scholar of the early church (and these debates will continue), it seems incontrovertible that the early church of the first five centuries included varying understandings of hell and final judgment. This means we can’t just assume one view as the Christian view, and it makes our continuing study even more necessary if we want to understand what the Bible actually teaches us about hell.

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