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.

Did Jesus really exist?

Was Jesus Christ a real, historical person? Did he actually exist? We begin with the most broad of questions regarding Jesus, and it’s one we need to answer. If the answer is no, then the implications are clear. If Jesus is merely a mythical figure—like a unicorn or the tooth fairy—then his story may be inspiring, but he’s not worthy of our faith. A fictitious Jesus can’t do anything about our spiritual condition, he can’t provide a way for us to enter into relationship with God, and he’s unable to resurrect us from the grave. If Jesus was not a real, historical person, then our search ends here and biblical Christianity is a lie. But if the evidence shows the historicity of Jesus, then we can move on from here to explore other questions about him.

In approaching this question, we must first consider the historical context of the first century. There were no hospitals at the time and no birth certificates to be filed somewhere. They also didn’t have the kind of media we do that report widely on all the latest trends and happenings. Today, we expect mountains of documenting evidence for practically everything, but most of our knowledge of ancient people—even very famous ones—comes from relatively few sources.

For example, Tiberius was emperor of Rome from 14-37 CE (or AD), which includes the time when Jesus would have been crucified. This man was Caesar of the whole Roman world, and yet we have only four sources from which to draw the details of his reign. And only one of these sources was actually alive during the time of Tiberius. So our expectations need to match the historical realities. We just don’t have a lot of historical references to even famous people from ancient times.

What kinds of sources do we have to support the historical existence of Jesus? Let’s break them down.

Jewish sources
A very important Jewish source is the historian Josephus. His references are significant for a few reasons. He wrote within the first century (his Antiquities was written around 94 CE). He was a first century Jew, and so he understood the historical and cultural settings. And his subject matter was not primarily concerning the Christian religion. His comments about Jesus are only brief references—not his main point—and so they are written in a neutral manner that appeals to us today.

In Antiquities, he mentions Jesus twice. Later copies of the first reference were corrupted but, thankfully, scholars have determined the text that most agree is genuinely from Josephus:

Around this time lived Jesus, a wise man. He was a worker of amazing deeds and was a teacher of people who gladly accept the truth. He won over both many Jews and many Greeks. Pilate, when he heard him accused by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, [but] those who had first loved him did not cease [doing so]. To this day the tribe of Christians named after him has not disappeared.

There is wording here that no Christian of the period would have used. They would never describe Jesus as merely a “wise man.” Neither would they say that Jesus was “a worker of amazing deeds.” This could apply equally to a sorcerer, which is precisely what their Jewish opponents accused Jesus of being. Christians at this time emphasized Jesus as the Savior, not as a teacher. There is no mention by Josephus of the resurrection, and Christians of this period would never have left this out. And the terminology “tribe of the Christians” was not a Christian expression; however, it fits the context of Josephus quite well. For these reasons, this passage from Josephus is widely regarded as original.

(Remember, we’re not trying to find historical references that affirm the Christian faith in its entirety. We’re only trying to see whether there are ancient sources that confirm Jesus existed, that he was a real, historical person.)

The second reference to Jesus by Josephus is in a section where he’s describing the actions of the high priest Ananus:

He assembled the sanhedrin of the judges, and brought before it the brother of Jesus called Christ, whose name was James, and some others. When he had accused them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned.

Notice the almost casual way Josephus uses Jesus to explain to his readers who James was. This kind of off-hand reference is very valuable to historians. It shows that not only did Jesus exist, he was well known by this time.

Much later, the Babylonian Talmud (dated between 400-500 CE) includes a number of not incredibly kind references to Jesus. Here are some examples:

Jesus the Nazarene practiced magic and led Israel astray.

It was taught: On the eve of the Passover Yeshu (the Nazarene) was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, “He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy.”

Among the many references are what have come to be known as the “ben Pandera” stories (meaning “son of Pandera”). These describe Jesus as being the illegitimate son of Pandera, a Roman mercenary “who begot a child with Joseph’s adulterous wife, Mary, during her menstrual period.”

It may seem strange to use these references to support the existence of Jesus because they’re so obviously hostile. Of course, this fits what we know of this period of history. Many of the Jews at this time were hostile to Christianity and to the person of Jesus. But what’s interesting is that even in their extreme opposition to Jesus they never question his existence, or even that he somehow worked miracles. These accusations actually serve as kind of a backhanded confirmation Jesus existed, that he performed wonders, and even that he was widely reputed to have been born of a virgin.

Now, we’re not getting ahead of ourselves and claiming these wonders and the virgin birth as true just yet. (We’ll discuss these things in a future study.) But the vehemence of the opposition to these ideas does show these were well-established claims. The intensity of the hostility toward Jesus makes us wonder why they didn’t simply question Jesus’ existence, or argue that he never performed miracles at all. Apparently, this was not an option for these Jewish critics.

Roman sources
In his Annals, Tacitus describes the rapidly spreading rumors that Nero himself had burned Rome, and Nero’s attempts to deflect the public’s rage away from himself (written around 116 CE):

But neither human effort nor the emperor’s generosity nor the placating of the gods ended the scandalous belief that the fire had been ordered. Therefore, to put down the rumor, Nero substituted as culprits and punished in the most unusual ways those hated for their shameful acts, whom the crowd called Christians. The founder of this name, Christ, had been executed in the reign of Tiberius by the procurator Pontius Pilate. Suppressed for a time, the deadly superstition erupted again not only in Judea, the origin of this evil, but also in the city [Rome], where all things horrible and shameful from everywhere come together and become popular. Therefore, first those admitted to it were arrested, then on their information a very large multitude was convicted, not so much for the crime of arson as for hatred of the human race. Derision was added to their end: they were covered with the skins of wild animals and torn to death by dogs; or they were crucified and when the day ended they were burned as torches. Nero provided his gardens for the spectacle and gave a show in his circus, mixing with the people in charioteer’s clothing, or standing in his racing chariot. Therefore a feeling of pity arose despite a guilt which deserved the most exemplary punishment, because it was felt that they were being destroyed not for the public good but for the ferocity of one man.

This passage again shows Jesus referred to as an historical figure, and it’s accepted as authentic by all scholars. (There are also references to Jesus by Pliny the Younger and possibly Suetonius.)

Greek sources
Lucian of Samosata, in The Death of Peregrinus, 165 CE, speaking of Peregrinus’ experiences among the Christians, writes:

He was second only to that one whom they still worship today, the man in Palestine who was crucified because he brought this new form of initiation into the world.

And, in another place, writing of Christians:

Having convinced themselves that they are immortal and will live forever, the poor wretches despise death and most willingly give themselves to it. Moreover, that first lawgiver of theirs persuaded them that they are all brothers the moment they transgress and deny the Greek gods and begin worshiping that crucified sophist and living by his laws.

You can see in these quotes how even someone hostile to the Christian faith can provide valuable testimony of the historical existence of Jesus Christ.

Around 175 CE, Celsus wrote True Doctrine, an entire work dedicated to opposing the Christian faith. Around 250, the Christian scholar Origen responded with Against Celsus, in which he answers Celsus point by point. Celsus seemed to draw heavily from the current Jewish critics of Jesus. He ridicules Jesus for being born of a poor family from a poor village. He claims Jesus fabricated the story of his virgin birth, and that he was actually the son of an adulterous woman (who had been driven out by her carpenter husband) and a soldier named Panthera. He says Jesus learned magical arts in Egypt, and that these powers made him so prideful he claimed to be God.

The majority of Celsus’ arguments against Christianity are philosophical, not historical. While again we see someone trying desperately to put Jesus’ history in a negative light, for some reason he never challenges that history. And this makes me ask: Why not? We’ve seen just a few examples of the fierce early opposition to Jesus, yet not one critic ever questioned his existence. It seems they realized the historicity of Jesus was unassailable.

Today, we see much the same thing. Hardly any scholars question the historical existence of Jesus. The few who do are generally viewed as a kind of radical fringe in Jesus studies. Just as we sometimes run across irrational Christians who can make other believers look silly, so non-Christian scholars seem embarrassed by this tiny, but loud, contingent who irrationally deny the historical existence of Jesus. The overwhelming consensus of the broadest sweep of Jesus scholars is that the historicity of Jesus is unquestionable.

You should also notice we’ve quoted from Jewish sources, Roman sources, and Greek sources, but no Christian sources. In limiting ourselves this way, we’ve actually been more narrow in our study than any Jesus scholar would be. Even non-Christian critics, who don’t accept the New Testament Gospels as divine Scripture, believe these early writings about Jesus reveal an actual historical person. But, as we’ve shown above, we have plenty of evidence even if we don’t consider the early Christian documents.

So, to answer the question we began with: Yes, we do know that Jesus really existed. If anyone challenges whether Jesus existed in history, they just show themselves to be ignorant of current scholarship. But were parts of Jesus’ story “borrowed” from other religions? We’ll look at this challenge next week.

Note: to keep these posts as readable as possible, I’m not including footnotes showing my sources for this information. I will happily provide citations for anyone who wants them.

The historical Jesus series:

The search for Jesus

Did Jesus really exist? [see above]

Was the story of Christ copied from other religions?

Why did the early Christians accept the New Testament Gospels?

Why did the early Christians reject the “alternative gospels”?

How reliable are the New Testament Gospels?

What can we know about the historical Jesus?

What good is a dead Messiah?

Did Jesus really rise from the dead?

Millennial match-up

Last week, I wrote that we’d be looking at the three main viewpoints Christians have historically held regarding the return of Christ. I’m sure many of you immediately thought: “pre-, mid- or post-.” (These are slang expressions for different views concerning the rapture. If you aren’t familiar with any of these terms, don’t worry; we’ll explain all of this in a couple of weeks.) But the rapture comes later in our study. There’s actually a bigger issue that has distinguished believers, and it has to do with the millennium.

“What’s a millennium?” you might ask. A millennium is simply a period of one thousand years. Remember Y2K and all the hysteria at the turn of the millennium, when we went from the 1900s to the 2000s? We went from one millennium into another. What does this have to with our Christian faith? Well, the Scriptures specifically refer to a thousand year period in Revelation 20:1-6:

Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven with the key to the bottomless pit and a heavy chain in his hand. He seized the dragon—that old serpent, who is the devil, Satan—and bound him in chains for a thousand years. The angel threw him into the bottomless pit, which he then shut and locked so Satan could not deceive the nations anymore until the thousand years were finished. Afterward he must be released for a little while.

Then I saw thrones, and the people sitting on them had been given authority to judge. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their testimony about Jesus and for proclaiming the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or his statue, nor accepted his mark on their forehead or their hands. They all came to life again, and they reigned with Christ for a thousand years.

This is the first resurrection. (The rest of the dead did not come back to life until the thousand years had ended.) Blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection. For them the second death holds no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him a thousand years.

There’s some very striking, strange imagery in this passage, and we’ll sort through much of it later. But what is the nature of this thousand year period? Christians have historically held to three different viewpoints regarding this millennial period and how it relates to the return of Christ:

Pre-millennial
In the first few hundred years in the history of the church, there were certain, shared beliefs about the return of Christ that were predominant among the early Christian believers. They believed that Jesus’ return will be dramatic and obvious to all. They believed that when he returns, he will usher all of us into a golden era of peace, harmony, health and prosperity. They believed that he will directly reign—on earth—over this kingdom, and that we (his followers) will somehow share in his reign. According to this view Christ returns before this golden age, or millennium, so it’s known as the premillennial view.

Revelation is apocalyptic literature and contains a great amount of symbolism [see Revelation: The story comes full circle], so there were differences of opinion as to whether this millennial period will be a literal thousand years or not. But everyone agreed that it will be a real and extensive period of time with Christ present and reigning on earth. At the end of this time, God will establish a new heaven and new earth, and humanity will enter eternity (Revelation 21-22). Christians who hold this view have generally interpreted certain passages from the Old Testament prophets as referring to this millennial period, such as Isaiah 2:2-4, 11:6-9, and 65:20-25.

Post-millennial
As you might guess, this is a belief that Christ will return after the millennium (hence the view is postmillennial). How did this view spread? Unfortunately, we have a tendency to go beyond the teachings of Scripture and add our own speculative ideas. The premillennial believers began to do this, at times suggesting some fairly strange ideas. The premillennial view also tended to emphasize the place of Israel in end times prophecy, and this was a problem for some. As the church became overwhelmingly Gentile, this Jewish emphasis was unappealing to many Christians. These factors likely encouraged some Christians to reject the predominant premillennial view.

Instead of the common understanding of the return of Christ, these believers stressed that the gospel is to be carried throughout the earth. They believed that, as Christians spread the gospel everywhere, the world will eventually be won for Christ (at least for the most part). They also believed that as society is influenced by the truth of Christ, its institutions will be transformed, and there will be real renewal of government, justice, education, commerce, etc. As culture becomes more and more Christian, humanity will gradually enter this golden, millennial age of general, universal well-being (which will not be a literal thousand years). When this period of peace and harmony reaches its zenith, Christ will return in triumph.

At first, this view seemed to be held by only a small number of believers, but as Christianity was legalized in the Roman empire and then became a real power, the postmillennial view seemed to correspond to what was happening in history. The postmillennial view was adopted by most, and premillennialism was pushed to the fringes of the church. In the 19th century, with the heady successes of science and industry, and the optimistic feeling that humanity could now solve all the problems that had seemed so intractable, postmillennialism was again a perfect match. Many proponents of liberal theology also embraced the postmillennial view.

But then the realism of the 20th century came crashing in: two horrific world wars, the threat of nuclear holocaust, oppressive dictatorships, genocide, famine, pollution, political corruption at the highest levels. The postmillennial view with its optimistic expectations of a continually improving world society all but died out. But the last few years, we’ve seen a resurgence of this view among certain groups of conservative (usually Reformed) Christians.

A-millennial
Those of you who love language may have already figured out the essence of this viewpoint. Let me show you what I mean. If something is moral, it’s good, right? If it’s immoral, that means it’s morally wrong. But if something is amoral, it means it doesn’t involve questions of right or wrong. When you decide whether to have chocolate or vanilla ice cream, this is an amoral choice; it doesn’t involve a question of what is morally right or wrong. This is the way we use the word amillennial. Those who hold to an amillennial view don’t believe in a literal millennial reign of Christ on the earth. They believe that, between Jesus’ first coming and his second coming, he reigns spiritually from heaven.

Beginning with early church teachers such as Origen, and later Augustine, many began to interpret biblical prophecies in a much less literal manner. They saw these prophecies as being fulfilled in a more spiritual, less concrete, way. (I’m using these descriptions in their popular sense, not as they’re used in academic theology.) For instance, they believed many of the Old Testament prophecies that seemed to be specifically intended for the people of Israel were actually fulfilled in the New Covenant people of God—the church. Because of this, they began to question the need for some “golden age” when God’s promises to the Jews would be literally fulfilled.

Many feel Augustine was the first to teach what would later be known as amillennialism. In much of church history, the amillennial viewpoint is often hard to distinguish from the postmillennial view. Neither believes that Christ will literally reign on earth for a thousand years. Both believe that when Christ returns he will immediately usher in the final age, universal resurrection and judgment, and our ultimate, eternal state. On the other hand, amillennial believers disagree with postmillennial Christians that the world will gradually become more and more Christianized.

After the disillusionment of the 20th century, many postmillennial believers adopted an amillennial perspective of the return of Christ. Today, most who are part of the Roman Catholic Church or the Eastern Orthodox Church are amillennial. Many who come from the older, mainline denominations (Lutheran, Reformed/Presbyterian, Anglican, Methodist, etc.) are also amillennial, with a few postmillennial Christians here and there. Those who come from a free church, Baptist, Pentecostal or nondenominational tradition tend to be premillennial in their understanding of end times (although not exclusively so). Many premillennial Christians are even unaware that there are Bible-believing Christians who understand the return of Christ and the millennium differently than they do! They often don’t realize that the question of the timing of the rapture (pre-, mid- or post-)—which can be so consuming for the premillennial—is one that doesn’t really concern postmillennial or amillennial Christians.

This is just one blog post, and so I’ve had to be brief and even a little simplistic in the way I’ve described these views. There is much more rich detail for each of them, and if you’re interested I’d encourage you to do more reading on your own. A great place to begin is Millard Erickson’s excellent book A Basic Guide to Eschatology: Making Sense of the Millennium (although I suggest skipping the first two chapters and beginning with chapter three). Hopefully, you haven’t been able to tell from this post which view I personally hold. This week, I want to just introduce these beliefs and where they came from. Next week, we’ll spend a little more time exploring the nature of the millennium and evaluating these three viewpoints.

The return of Christ series:

The return of Christ: Keeping the main thing the main thing

Millennial match-up [see above]

More on the millennium

Rapture 101

Examining the pretrib rapture: Israel and the church

Examining the pretrib rapture: Removed or protected?

Examining the pretrib rapture: Is the rapture imminent?

Examining the pretrib rapture: Assorted claims

The posttrib rapture

Locusts and dragons and beasts, oh my! (Or the great tribulation)

“Pleased to meet you . . .” (Introducing the Antichrist)

The return of Christ: Odds and ends