Surprised by Hell: The Patristics

When we come to the Patristics, we find that the earliest writers go in three directions. Origen taught a form of universalism. Tertullian taught everlasting torment. But perhaps the earliest of the preserved, uninspired writings teaches annihilation. The Didache 16:13-17 says —

Then shall the creation of men come into the fire of trial, and many shall be made to stumble and shall perish; but those who endure in their faith shall be saved from under the curse itself. And then shall appear the signs of the truth: first, the sign of an outspreading in heaven, then the sign of the sound of the trumpet. And third, the resurrection of the dead — yet not of all, but as it is said: “The Lord shall come and all His saints with Him.” Then shall the world see the Lord coming upon the clouds of heaven.

This work dating from the late First Century to early Second Century, teaches that only the saved will rise again.

In A Treatise on the Soul, Tertullian (writing from 197 – 220 or so) argues that souls are immortal. After all, he assumes, the only alternative would be that the soul dies when the body dies. Because souls necessarily last forever, and because we’re taught the damned will suffer torment in the next age, surely this torment also lasts forever.

By the 5th Century, eternal torment was increasingly the orthodox teaching. Augustine wrote at a time when many still taught annihilation (as he says himself), but he strongly advocated for eternal torment. In so arguing, he was highly influenced by Greek philosophy, particularly Platonism. In Platonic thought, the soul is inherently immortal.

Augustine was hugely influential in Catholicism and Protestantism, as he managed to merge much of the Grecian philosophy of the day with Christian principles. His writings dominated Christian thought in many areas for centuries, including his arguments for an everlasting hell. And his writings remain highly influential.

Indeed, even modern Christians often assume that souls pre-exist birth and are assigned to babies as they are born or conceived. But this is Platonic. Jewish and New Testament thought does not draw such a distinction between body and soul.

You see, the false assumption that we live forever as disembodied souls has led to two errors — that the saved will live in heaven in disembodied bliss and that the lost will live in hell in disembodied agony. But neither view is Biblical. It’s just that the ideas are so old and so deeply rooted in our psyches that few of us have even thought to question them.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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4 Responses to Surprised by Hell: The Patristics

  1. Tim Archer says:

    I'm not sure where to throw this into the discussion, so I'll toss it in here. One passage that bothers me with the annihilation viewpoint is this one:

    “The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.” (Matthew 26:24)

    If Judas would merely return to the same state he was in before being born, in what way was he worse off? Somehow, his eternal fate seems to be worse than non-existence. I have trouble meshing annihilation with this statement by Jesus.

    Grace and peace,

  2. Jay Guin says:

    Interesting question.

    I think the question is resolved by noting two things.

    First, I don't think the Bible teaches any kind of pre-existence of souls. Our existence begins biologically. It was Plato who taught that souls pre-exist conception.

    Second, Jesus is quite clear that that the destruction the damned suffer is agonizing — and that there are degrees of punishment.

    Had Judas not been born, he would not have existed at all. As it is, Judas will be tormented severely when he is destroyed in the lake of fire.

    I mean, the rich man was in agony and his sin was lack of concern for the poor (personified in Lazarus). Imagine how much more Judas will suffer!

  3. rey says:

    Every Christian or Pseudo-Christian writer prior to Tertullian and other than Origen, taught that each soul is newly created directly by God at the point of conception. Origen was the first Christian or Pseudo-Christian to bring over Plato's theory of pre-existent souls, and was not widely followed. Tertullian did not teach pre-existence of souls, nor did Augustine. Tertullian is the first Christian or Pseudo-Christian writer to teach traducianism, the idea that the soul is created naturally in the act of conception (as opposed to directly by God). Augustine followed Tertullian in this, but added an implication to it that Tertullian had never intended, i.e. the notion that children inherit Adam's sins.

    I don't know where you get the idea that most Christians think souls pre-exist. I would have thought that most Christians still believe the initial view, namely that each soul is newly created by God at the point of conception. Of course, Calvinists believe the traducianist view because it helps them propagate the false doctrine of inherited sin (they think).

    But if you would have read Tertullian a little closer you would see that he says the soul is immortal in the sense of never dying in the future, not in the sense of always having been in the past (which seems to be your implication when you mislabel his position as pre-existence of souls).

    Athanasius in his Dei Incarnatione Verbe Dei seems to believe (unlike Tertullian who believe immortality to be inherent to souls) that souls are only immortal by a superadded grace.

    Like Archer, however, I must say that I find it hard to harmonize "It is better to enter into life maimed then be cast into hellfire, where their worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched" with annihilationism. You can't harmonize that with annihilationism, in fact. If the sinner just burns for a long time then is destroyed, then would that not be better than living forever blind or lame or something like that? I think it would. Being blind is not good. Being lame is not good. Now, if we pre-suppose that the maimedness will be taken away as one enters life, the analysis changes. But the passage is not comparing the reality of eternal life with hell, but is comparing an eternity of maimedness (which is only hypothetical) with hell. Living forever blind vs being annihilationed–I think I'd rather be annihilationed. So, it is clear that annihilationism is not being taught by this verse but clearly eternal conscious punishment. As also "their worm dieth not" would indicate. What would it matter if the worms live forever in hell if the sinner is obliterated? The mention of the worms then is pointless. But if he means that the worms will be crawling in them forever as they are consciously being tormented, then this shows the point of saying "their worm dieth not" does it not?

    (The reason I am commenting on a couple of old posts is that I arrived here by a google search on "patristics blog," in case you are wondering.)

  4. Jay Guin says:


    You wrote, "I don’t know where you get the idea that most Christians think souls pre-exist." I said that modern Christians "often assume that souls pre-exist birth."

    Now let's consider Matt 18:8 —

    (Mat 18:8) If your hand or your foot causes you to sin cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire.

    You argue that "life" means eternal life, and I think you're likely right. You also argue that Jesus is ironically speaking of being maimed in the afterlife, although not actually asserting that this would happen. I think that's likely so.

    But you argue, "If the sinner just burns for a long time then is destroyed, then would that not be better than living forever blind or lame or something like that? I think it would. … Living forever blind vs being annihilationed–I think I’d rather be annihilationed."

    Well, speaking as a person with a number of physical problems (you could call me "lame" if not "maimed") and with friends who are blind, you are just as wrong as can be. I'd far rather be maimed and with Jesus than healthy and destroyed in agony. I expect few would disagree. I mean, ask a blind person what choice they'd make. I'm confident they'd prefer life with Jesus. After all, if they agreed with your thoughts, they'd have committed suicide long ago. Your argument sounds too much like "I'd rather be dead than maimed." No you wouldn't.

    Jesus' reference to the worm not dying is taken from Isaiah —

    (Isa 66:22-24) "As the new heavens and the new earth that I make will endure before me," declares the LORD, "so will your name and descendants endure. 23 From one New Moon to another and from one Sabbath to another, all mankind will come and bow down before me," says the LORD. 24 "And they will go out and look upon the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind."

    Verses 22-23 refer to the end times: the new heavens and new earth. But outside there will be a place for those who weren't allowed in — those in rebellion against God.

    But they aren't alive. They are dead. "Dead bodies" translates "peger," which refers to a corpse, not to someone in perpetual torment.

    Hence, the references to worms that don't die and fires that aren't quenched speak to the fact that their rebellion will be evident and remembered forever. Their bodies will always be a reminder of their shame and rebellion.

    The conclusion is supported by Isaiah's prophecy of the fall of Edom —

    (Isa 34:9-10) Edom's streams will be turned into pitch, her dust into burning sulfur; her land will become blazing pitch! 10 It will not be quenched night and day; its smoke will rise forever. From generation to generation it will lie desolate; no one will ever pass through it again.

    Unquenchable fire refers to complete and final destruction — not an ongoing destruction that is never finished. After all, Edom is no longer being destroyed. God was not threatening this nation with eternal torment.

    Just so, Jer. 17:27 predicts the fall of Jerusalem, and promises "unquenchable fire" — meaning a fire that cannot be stopped and that will utterly destroy — not the forever torment of those who rebel.

    Therefore, I take Jesus as knowing his prophets well and as using prophetic metaphors in much the same sense as the prophets who went before him.

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