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.

The question of hell

Photo by Tachina Lee on Unsplash

Most evangelical Christians have believed in a never-ending hell. We’ve believed this because this is what we’ve been taught from Scripture. But regardless of how much we trust what we’ve been taught about hell, when we think of people actually experiencing endless torment, with no possibility of relief, we wrestle with this as reality. Some Christians deal with this unpleasantness by just thinking about it as little as possible. One could even suggest that if someone hasn’t been deeply troubled by the concept of hell, they probably haven’t thought much about it. But, sooner or later, most of us struggle with making some sense emotionally and theologically of hell. And we’re not alone. John Stott once wrote of the idea of eternal, conscious hell:

Emotionally, I find the concept intolerable and do not understand how people can live with it without either cauterizing their feelings or cracking under the strain. 1

J. I. Packer expressed his own struggle with hell: 

Who can take pleasure in the thought of people being eternally lost? If you want to see folk damned, there is something wrong with you! 2

C. S. Lewis wrote of hell: 

There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power. 3

Few Christians relish the thought of unsaved people being subjected to eternal conscious torment (or completely ceasing to exist), but we’re committed to biblical truth and willing to faithfully believe what the Scriptures teach us. Some have shown just how challenging this issue is, though. For instance, read what Denny Burk has to say about the never-ending punishment of hell:

This view of God’s judgment is not a cause for embarrassment for Christians, but will ultimately become a source of joy and praise for the saints as they witness the infinite goodness and justice of God. 4

Even many who believe in an eternal hell will recoil from this picture, but it challenges us to reflect on our own response to hell. After all, hell is a part of God’s plan, something that God himself made part of his ultimate solution for the problem of sin and rebellion. How could we be embarrassed by part of his plan? Are we more loving and merciful than God? But yet, how could we not struggle with the idea of eternal conscious torment? So we need to be very clear about what the Scriptures actually teach, to either be firmly convinced in our mind that this is the teaching of Scripture or to see that maybe this is not what the Bible teaches.

How should we approach this kind of study?

So, how do we approach studying this kind of issue? There are a few things I’d suggest:

First, begin with any necessary background. There’s some information we need to understand before trying to compare different views. So, in the next post, we’ll go over the different words used in Scripture for hell, and what they meant in their original context. After that, we’ll look at some of the history of how the earliest Christians understood hell.

Next, we need to spend some time delving into the exegetical [drawing from the explicit reading of Scripture] case for our traditional view and for any other view. We’ll look at the foundational claims supporting the eternal conscious punishment view. We’ll also carefully, biblically examine the core question: Will some people be eternally lost? The eternal conscious torment view and the annihilation view both say, “Yes, some people will be eternally lost.” The universal reconciliation and restoration view says, “No, no one will be eternally lost. God will ultimately reconcile and restore all of his creation.” We’ll see which scriptural case is the strongest.

After making sure we understand relevant background information and have studied the key biblical passages, we’ll look at broader theological arguments. How does the character of God affect how we understand this issue? Which view best fits what Scripture teaches about the gospel of Christ? Which best fits into the whole span of the biblical story? How do we deal with scriptural themes such as judgment, love, forgiveness, justice, mercy, death, reconciliation, punishment, restoration and victory?

When I compare differing theological views, I’m not looking for merely the one that can marshal the most impressive list of Scripture passages and arguments.  Most views can be presented in a rhetorically effective way, especially if we consider one view by itself. No, what I’m looking for are proponents of one side who can do an even better job explaining the other side’s passages. I’m looking for the view that makes the best sense of all of Scripture, not just a narrow list of proof texts. When observing an exchange between a Calvinist and an Arminian, I want to see if the Arminian can give a better understanding of Romans 9, and if the Calvinist can give a better understanding of Romans 11, and which one can make the best sense of the flow of Romans and the rest of Scripture. So in considering differing views of hell, I want to see who can best explain all of the relevant passages and who can present the most biblically and theologically comprehensive and coherent view.

We want to make sure we’re not basing any belief on our emotional preferences. However, we also can’t divorce our emotions from a study that includes concepts such as the love of God, restoration of relationships, and the suffering of judgment. If we were to remove all the passages in Scripture that speak of emotion or intentionally affect our emotions, we’d be cutting out a huge chunk of the Bible! So we recognize this kind of issue will touch us emotionally, but we don’t make our emotions the court of final appeal.

How does this work? Let me give you one example. I hesitate to use this particular example because I don’t want to alienate any readers, but I think it’s helpful to show the approach I’m describing. So if you happen to disagree with me regarding the issue I’m about to use, please be patient with me, hear my heart and see past the issue itself to the point I’m trying to make.

Before I was able to serve vocationally in pastoral ministry, I worked for years in business management. I worked with female peers and worked for female supervisors. I’ve seen wonderful managers—men and women, and I’ve seen horrible managers—men and women. The effectiveness of any manager never had anything to do with their gender. So I was inclined to accept a more egalitarian view of gender roles in church ministry [with no distinction at all in church leadership roles for men and women]. Especially considering my views on church polity (church leadership by a team of coequal pastoral elders without one senior pastor), it would have been so easy to simply include women in our team of pastoral elders.

And so I’ve read all the major books and articles from the different views on this issue, being perfectly willing to be convinced of the egalitarian view. But I’m not just looking for a view that’s plausible, one that’s convincing enough. For me as a pastor, it not only has to be a view I can accept, it has to be a view I can teach consistently and faithfully from Scripture. And if it’s a view I’d like to believe, I’m even more careful to make sure I’m not simply seeing what I want to see. No, any view has to stand up to the scrutiny through which I know our people will put it when I teach it to them interactively! The more I studied the books and articles presenting the egalitarian view, the more convinced I became of the soundness of the complementarian view [men and women are equal but with different roles in church leadership].

Now, some will strongly agree with me, and others will just as strongly disagree with me. But the issue itself is not my point (and I’m always willing to reconsider any viewpoint). I’m also not holding myself up as some perfect standard of balance, implying that you can trust my conclusions. I’m only saying this is the way I try to process different claims of biblical truth—even to the point of rejecting views I’d like to embrace—and this is the kind of approach I think we all need to take in examining these kinds of issues.

If we’re not willing to consider an alternative viewpoint concerning a belief such as hell, then we’re dangerously close to assuming our own omniscience, that we already have all knowledge and perfectly understand all truth. Of course, that would make us God, and we know that’s not true! We like to say that we “just go by the Bible,” but we always study the Bible from the perspective of our traditions, our preconceptions, and often our lack of knowledge regarding the original context of what’s been written. Nobody “just goes by the Bible,” and it’s actually kind of arrogant for us to think that—in 2,000 years of church history—we’re the ones who automatically have the untainted, unobstructed view of what the Bible is actually saying. This doesn’t mean we can’t come to real, confident conclusions, but we need to make sure we’ve done our homework. That also means we’ve taken the time to truly understand alternative viewpoints before we disagree with them or dismiss them. Ultimately, we may not be convinced of a new view (new to us, that is); that’s fine. But we need to be wiling to change our views if that’s where a careful study of God’s Word leads us. I love the old saying:

If you never have to change your mind,
you’re probably not using it.

So, we’re willing to change our mind, but we’re first going to rigorously examine the differing views—including our own. We’re going to push up our sleeves and do our homework. Amen?

  1. John Stott and David L. Edwards, Evangelical Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 314-315.
  2. J. I. Packer, “Evangelicals and the Way of Salvation” in Evangelical Affirmations, ed. Kenneth S. Kantzer and Carl F. H. Henry (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990) 117.
  3. C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1940) 94.
  4. Denny Burk, “Eternal Conscious Torment” in Four Views on Hell, second edition, ed. Preston Sprinkle (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), 19.

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