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.

Different evangelical views on the nature of hell

Photo by Chris Barbalis on Unsplash

We recently posted the article below on our church website.

There’s an old saying that the church should be “reformed and always reforming.” This means that we’re “reformed” in the sense of holding to the authority of God’s Word above all else, and we’re “always reforming” by not assuming any doctrine is true simply because it’s traditional for us. Instead, we seek to be good Bereans (Acts 17:11) by searching the Scriptures to see what’s true. We want to be so committed to biblical truth that we’re willing to reexamine any particular teaching in light of Scripture to make sure it really is biblical.

The right for each believer to scripturally examine teachings and to determine for themselves the biblical soundness of any view is a sacred one given to us by God. Because of this, we strive to protect the freedom of people in our church—as much as possible—to hold sometimes differing views. Of course, we must be united in our commitment to the biblical gospel of Jesus Christ for us to be a Jesus-following church. And there are certain issues about which we have to be reasonably on the same page to be able to function as a cohesive church (for example, issues such as speaking in tongues or baptizing infants). But we try hard to not unnecessarily encroach on the freedom and conscience of each Christian.

The Orchard is part of an association of churches, the Evangelical Free Church of America, that’s committed to a similar approach. Because the EFCA is not an individual church, but an association of churches, we can actually be less dogmatic about these kinds of issues at the association level than individual churches can. So, for instance, the EFCA doesn’t have an official position on such issues as predestination, the security of the believer, spiritual gifts, baptism, the timing of the rapture, the age of the universe, etc. We leave these issues up to each church in the association to work out for themselves. This “majoring in the majors instead of the minors” has long been part of the heritage of the Evangelical Free Churches. Early in our history, this was referred to as the “significance of silence.” The idea is that, as an association, we remain “silent” about these kinds of secondary issues in the sense of refraining from make any official, denominational pronouncements (but we continue to study and discuss together any issues concerning Scripture, theology and the life of the church).

Some beliefs can become so traditional that Christians end up unaware there even are other viewpoints. When Martin Luther and other reformers began challenging certain traditional beliefs, these beliefs had been the accepted teaching of the church for over 1,000 years. Most Christians at that time weren’t even aware there could be a biblical alternative. It’s not quite as dramatic, but many of us can remember when most of the people in our churches weren’t aware there’s any biblically viable view of the rapture other than the belief it would happen before the tribulation, seven years prior to the return of Christ. [I’ve written a series of blog posts on this topic beginning here.] This was true in the EFCA, as well. In the early 1980s, the churches in the EFCA had to reexamine the issue of the rapture and decide whether we would allow Christians and churches in the denomination to hold differing views. (At that time, we didn’t allow any other view except the pretrib or “Left Behind” view.) Ultimately we decided we would allow people to hold differing views, and now a large number of people, including pastors and leaders, in our association hold views on the rapture of the church that differ from the “traditional” view of a pretrib rapture.

Another belief about which Christians have historically held differing views is the nature of hell. This is another issue where many of us are surprised to learn that other biblical views even exist! Even for pastors, it can be illuminating to learn that 1st century Jews (during Jesus’ life on earth) didn’t hold just one default view on the nature of hell, but had multiple, differing views. We can also be surprised to learn that for the first 600 years of the history of the church, pastors and leaders held differing views regarding hell, that this wasn’t a point of great debate or controversy, and that it’s very unlikely that our traditional understanding of hell was the dominant view during this time. Throughout the history of the church there have been leaders and groups of Christians who held different views than the current traditional view. And now the question of the nature of hell has again become a topic of discussion the last two decades, and increasingly so the last few years. Just what are these differing views that believing Christians have held over the centuries? Here’s a very brief description of each view:

Eternal Conscious Torment (or Punishment)
This is the belief that’s probably most familiar to all of us. It’s the teaching that those who have not placed their faith in Christ will go to hell, where they will suffer for eternity without hope of any release or end to their torment.

Annihilationism (or Conditionalism)
This is the belief that when the Bible describes the wages of our sin as “death,” it means death in the sense of actually ceasing to exist. It’s the teaching that those who have not placed their faith in Christ will go to hell, where they will suffer for a certain amount of time but will be ultimately consumed, they will finally die and will cease to exist.

Universal Reconciliation and Restoration
This is the belief that God not only loves each person and desires that each person be saved, but that he will ultimately accomplish his desire by bringing each individual person to salvation through faith in Christ, completely triumphing over hell and death. It’s the teaching that those who have not placed their faith in Christ will experience the judgment of hell, but that hell is both loving and redemptive, that it accomplishes God’s purpose of bringing even the most recalcitrant sinner to the point of repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, and thus God will completely restore his creation.

Two of these views may be completely new to many, and even sound very strange. Notice that each view includes the reality of hell and judgment. Each view also insists on faith in Jesus Christ as absolutely essential for salvation. None of the views contradict any core, essential teaching of historical, biblical Christianity, and proponents of each view build their case drawing directly from Scripture. Where they differ is in how they understand, in light of Scripture, the purpose and final outcome of hell. As we previously noted, leading Christian pastors and leaders of the first 600 years of the church held these differing views on this issue without any major controversy. The early creeds produced by the church didn’t address the nature of hell at all. Throughout church history there have been pastors and teachers who held these views concerning hell. And there are solid, reputable evangelical pastors and scholars today who hold these same views. After much prayer and multiple studies and discussions, our church has decided that—while we may not all completely agree regarding this issue—all of our people, including our pastors and leaders, should have the freedom to hold these differing views on the nature of hell.

We acknowledge that the Statement of Faith of the EFCA explicitly pronounces a belief that God will assign unbelievers to “eternal conscious punishment.” While we don’t repudiate or exclude this belief from The Orchard, we do not exclusively hold to this interpretation of the scriptural passages regarding judgment and hell. Many of the people in our church, including pastors and leaders, have different understandings of this biblical issue. Our pastors and teachers are free to teach from Scripture other interpretations regarding hell, being careful to distinguish their personal views from the official position of the EFCA. 

As always, we pray that the way we address this issue would result in God being glorified, that the church would be edified and strengthened, and that we would be faithful witnesses of God’s truth and love to the world around us.

I plan to write more on this subject, but if you’d like to check out books that compare these differing views on hell, you could begin here:

All You Want to Know about Hell: Three Christian Views of God’s Final Solution to the Problem of Sin by Steve Gregg

Four Views on Hell, second edition by Preston Sprinkle, Denny Burk, John Stackhouse Jr, Robin Parry, and Jerry Walls

Perspectives on Election: 5 Views by Chad Owen Brand, Jack Cottrell, Clark Pinnock, Robert Reymond, Thomas Talbott, and Bruce Ware