The Comprehensive and Eternal Retributive View of Hell: Chapter 1 – The Historical Development of the Doctrine of Hell

The doctrine of Hell has been a particularly controversial doctrine as of late, but has it always been as controversial as we find it today? For the first step in our theological investigation as to the Biblical doctrine of Hell we need to look at Church history. We need to ask; how have Christians thought about the doctrine of Hell over the past two millennia of Church history? It may be thought of as odd that we would begin here with Church history and not with the bible; it may seem as if we are letting go of the Reformation’s ideal of Sola Scriptura.[1]Fortunately, there are good reasons for doing historical theology first; reasons that will lead us to be more faithful to the Bible in our interpretation.

In our theological investigations we need to put the Bible first as our authority and let it speak for itself; having it change us and not having our presuppositions distort it. This goal is best served by starting with the historical survey of what Christians have believed in the past. Having a thorough look at historical theology allows someone doing theology to grasp his own presuppositions. If we have been in the Church for any length of time we are going to hold presuppositions; we are going to have an idea of what doctrine we believe. These ideas that we bring to our theological investigation will influence our exegesis;[2] we will bring our presupposed ideas of how a passage is to be interpreted to those passages that we are trying to exegete. Performing historical theology initially allows us to identify what view we currently hold, possibly subconsciously, as well as familiarize ourselves with the other views and their respective advantages and disadvantages. Doing this first will give us a greater grasp of the different interactions of Scripture involved with this doctrine, as well as an understanding of the various difficulties that accompany the interpretation of specific passages. Because we all have presuppositions, it is best for us to identify our presupposition and gain knowledge of the theological alternatives held in the Church. While performing historical theology we will look at cultural and external forces that influenced the doctrine of Hell throughout history and will have a better grasp of why we hold our views, of the cultural influences that formed the views of Hell throughout history, and of our own cultural presuppositions which we may be bringing to the text as we attempt to perform exegesis on the Scriptures. Because Historical theology is a powerful identifier of presuppositions and because it identifies difficult texts that are under debate, doing this research initially will help us be more faithful when it comes to the collection and interpretation of the Biblical data on Hell.

For our historical study of the doctrine of Hell it is best to analyze the Church’s views through four distinct time periods; the era of the Early Church,[3] the era of the Medieval age, the era from the Renaissance through the Reformation, and from the dawn of the Modern age in the Enlightenment to the present.

 

The era of the Early Church was an interesting time in Church history; this was the time when the foundational teachings of Scripture were first being put into creeds and spread across the known world. Christians in this time faced a culture that in many ways was similar to ours. The Roman society of that time was highly pluralistic, worshipping a pantheon of gods and accepting many different religions. As Christians were confronted with the daily issues of life many of them studied Scripture and attempted to systematize it and apply it to the lives of those living in this society. When it came to hell this early body of believers had remarkable uniformity in their beliefs. What is interesting is that the doctrine that most of these church fathers recorded was the antithesis of what you would expect to emerge in the society they were living in.

The majority of the fathers of the early Church era seem to have believed in a literal understanding of Hell, that is; they believed that hell is a place of eternal punishment, consisting of literal hell fire, reserved for Satan, the demons, and all who do not believe in the Gospel. They concluded this despite the pressures surrounding them, despite a culture that called for acceptance and punished dogmatic religions like Christianity and Judaism that refused to conform. These fathers, despite the society in which they found themselves, painted a terrifying picture of hell from their understanding of Scripture. Gehenna[4] was a “reservoir of secret fire under the earth”,[5] in which men faced everlasting punishment as a consequence of their actions.[6] Gehenna, to these early fathers, was a terrifying spectacle; as the damned draw near to the flames they would “see the terrible and excessively glowing spectacle of the fire”.[7] It was a place filled with souls bewailing and “with flames belching forth through the horrid darkness of thick night”.[8] Near the end of the age of the Early Church the preeminent theologian of this time, Augustine, would write many pages on this literal understanding of Hell. In his City of God he wrote on Jesus’ words in Mark 9:43-48 where Jesus says three times that it is better to be maimed and enter Heaven than to be in perfect health and enter Hell; “He[Jesus] did not shrink from using the same words three times over in one passage.  And who is not terrified by this repetition, and by the threat of that punishment uttered so vehemently by the lips of the Lord Himself?”[9] Many took these warnings very seriously and as they became martyrs “they kept before their view escape from that fire which is eternal and never shall be quenched.”[10]

While this view was the predominant one, other views did arise during these formative years of the early Church. A father named Arnobius is believed by some scholars to have taught an early form of what we today call Annihilationism, the view that the souls of unbelievers cease to exist after death. He once wrote; “a cruel death awaits you [unbelievers] when freed from the bonds of body, not bringing sudden annihilation, but destroying by the bitterness of its grievous and long-protracted punishment.”[11] Many scholars see this as an early form of the modern view; Arnobius seems to see souls as being finally destroyed after a long-protracted punishment.

The last view found in this age is similar to modern Universalism, that is; the view that inevitably God’s love will be victorious and all souls will end up in Heaven. The renowned thinker Origen taught that God’s punishment of sinners was restorative and not retributive.[12] Sinners, after they receive their due punishment, may become worthy of entering into Heaven with believers.[13] He thought hopefully “that the goodness of God, through His Christ, may recall all His creatures to one end, even His enemies being conquered and subdued.”[14]Origen’s view evolved out of his theological system—this system was highly influenced by his mentor Clement of Alexandria who was dean of the Alexandrian Catechetical  School and probably also  a universalist[15]—which merged Platonism with Christian thought and involved a hermeneutical method that sought both the literal and then, behind that, the allegorical meaning in the text.[16] Origen’s Universalist teaching was condemned by the Church and the literal/historical view of Hell remained the majority view throughout this period.

 

The historical or literal understanding of Hell remained the primary teaching on the subject throughout the Medieval era, maybe with even more uniformity than in the era of the Early Church. Throughout the Medieval era the Church wielded incredible power, it had extensive influence over the feudal kingdoms of Europe. Because of this influence it had the ability to crush what it saw as heresy through secular authorities; anybody who went against the doctrines established by the church fathers and the ecumenical councils would have to fear the Church. This could very well have contributed to the uniformity of the views on the doctrine of hell throughout this period. The most known divines of this era agreed that Hell was a place of eternal punishment but did not explain what this torment consisted of, whether it was metaphorical or literal flames.[17] The fourth Lateran Council in 1215 likewise proclaimed this view, its attendants agreed that; “Christ will render to every man, be he damned or elect, according to his works. The damned will go into eternal punishment with the devil”.[18] Where these scholars were vague on the nature of this punishment, the artists and writers of this time period were far from it. One of the most known and graphic portrayal of hell from this time is Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. Dante vividly wrote about what he called “the inferno” and described souls screaming in pain with great flakes of flame falling slowly from the sky like snow.[19]  Throughout this era there were almost no other views present, at least among the notable mystics. William G.T. Shedd recorded that “The Mediaeval church was virtually a unit in holding the doctrine of Endless Punishment.”[20] No record of Annihilationist views from this time exists but there is evidence of Universalism. The Irish scholar John Scotus Erigena carried on a platonic form of Universalism through this time and pantheists of a mystic tradition seemed to teach that the “divine spark” in every man will return to its source in God.[21]

 

The Renaissance and the Reformation saw sweeping changes across Europe, especially in the Church, and witnessed the birth, or resurgence, of a variety of views on the Doctrine of Hell. With the reformation came the toppling of Rome’s power and with the Renaissance came an interest in Humanism and the power of man. This opened the door for the eventual flood of different views in the modern age, but even in this era the changes began to be seen. The majority of scholars seemed to still support the understanding of eternal conscious punishment but prominent theologians began to paint different pictures of what eternal punishment looked like. Martin Luther expressed in his writing a belief in the historical understanding of hell, informing his readers that “The fiery oven is ignited merely by the unbearable appearance of God and endures eternally. “[22] Writers like Thomas More emphatically rejected the older ideas of restorative judgment, he wrote that; “in hell pain serveth only for punishment without any manner of purging.”[23] While still holding to eternal conscious punishment the renowned theologian John Calvin believed that the imagery of flames, darkness, and the worm that never died were metaphorical images. He wrote, “It is certain that by such modes of expression the Holy Spirit designed to impress all our senses with dread.”[24] Whether it was by literal or metaphorical flames these divines all held to a belief in eternal conscious punishment for the reprobate, but in this age other views started to make a return.

Among the radical reformers certain Anabaptists embraced Universalist teachings. There was also a Universalist presence among the Morovians and,[25] writing in the late 17th century, the Baptist pastor Samuel Richardson expressed his disagreement with the idea of eternal conscience punishment.[26] This age also saw the first signs of Annihilationism since Arnobius; the teachings of Socinianism expressed explicit belief in the annihilation of unbelieving souls in the final judgment.[27] With the shift of belief in the western world from Christendom to secularization and with the emergence of freedom of religion across Europe and the Americas came a multiplicity of different views on the Doctrine of Hell in the Modern Age.

 

The Modern Age is the first time in the history of the Church where the literal/historical understanding of Hell has been rivaled; within the liberal and emergent circles universalism is common, within the camps of evangelicals Annihilationism has appeared, and Calvin’s metaphorical view of punishment in Hell is at least on par with the literal understanding.

During the Enlightenment, rationalism seemed to lead thinkers away from the historical understanding of hell, but the preeminent American theologian and philosopher of that time, Jonathan Edwards, spoke of a literal Hell in the congregations he preached to. In his most famous sermon he told his audience of the fierce wrath of God poured out in eternal punishment on unbelievers and pictured the fiery flames waiting to consume those who did not believe, who were held above the fire by God.[28] At the end of the 19th century the tremendous orator Charles H. Spurgeon spoke of fire like that we have on earth burning but never consuming the body.[29] Contemporary Theologian John F. Walvoord, while arguing against the opposing views of Hell, denied the allegation that the concept of a literal hell fire is untenable and insisted that sufficient evidence exists to accept the biblical description of hell fire as literal.[30]

Since the days of Calvin the idea that the Biblical imagery of Hell is metaphorical has become widespread; some of the best theologians of contemporary times have embraced it. Defenders of this understanding do not believe that this lessens the severity of Hell’s horrors; on the contrary, they argue that they are worse than we can conceive.[31] Millard J. Erickson seems to argue for this understanding when he writes; “Hell is not so much a place of physical suffering as it is the awful loneliness of total and final separation from the Lord.”[32] Proponents would say on the use of metaphorical imagery, “If heaven is described in the most powerful images available to people of that day, the same is true with hell, only with reverse implications. The images we find are shocking, and again the intent is clear. Hell is a place of profound misery where the wicked are banished from the presence of God.”[33]  Both the metaphorical and literal understandings are consistent with the historical view of Hell as eternal conscious punishment, but in the modern age the views that oppose this understanding have soared in popularity.

During the enlightenment two influential philosophers published books that argued for Annihilationism; both philosophers saw immortality as a gift only for the elect.[34] In the 19th century this view was further supported in the writing of the congregational minister Edward White.[35] None of these writers have been overly influential in the world of contemporary Christianity, but more recently well-known evangelicals have written in support of this view. John R.W. Stott, an influential Episcopalian Minister, wrote that linguistic and other evidence seemed to point in the direction of Annihilationism and that this view should be accepted as a legitimate alternative to the mainstream view.[36] With his support Annihilationism has the possibility of moving from the fringe of cults and questionable sects to the accepted circle of Evangelicalism.

While Annihilationism still maintains the historical belief that the elect and reprobate have two separate final destinations, Universalism says that in the end they will both end up in heaven. Universalism has found increasing popularity since the enlightenment. In the 18th century F.D.E. Schleiermacher reintroduced a doctrine of universal redemption as a result of God’s love, his teaching became the root from which most contemporary Universalism stems.[37] Since then it has received attention from numerous authors in the 19th and 20th century.[38] In the mid-20th century the neo-orthodox theologian Karl Barth proposed the possibility of Universalism, again as a result of God’s love and solely by his grace.[39] Since the enlightenment our culture has come to value tolerance above all else, in this atmosphere the Christian idea of a literal hell is despicable. This could very easily put pressure on the church to water down its doctrine. We can see this in the growth Universalism has received in recent years. It has most recently received a surge of popularity as a result of the book Love Wins. Popular pastor Rob Bell proposed that since God’s desire was for all to be saved and God gets what he wants, He must see this come to fulfilment.[40] Bell pictured Hell as something we experience in this life time[41] and wrote that given enough time “The love of God will melt every hard heart.”[42]

 

The history of the Church reveals a tapestry of different views that have come and gone throughout its long span. But even with the resurgence of interest in Annihilationism and Universalism experienced during the Modern Age, the historical consensus has still been largely dominated by the belief that Hell is a place of eternal conscious torment. From the beginning days of the Church this view has remained remarkably consistent. As history progressed towards the present other views evolved and challenges were raised against the historical view, but its presence as the orthodox view has remained. The views we encountered throughout this survey will serve as a framework for the rest of this paper, for the formulation and defense of the Biblical doctrine of Hell. These views are a framework, but they are not absolutes; if the Biblical teaching on Hell moves in a different direction from that which these views take then we must abandon them and formulate a new statement of the doctrine that will better encapsulate the whole teaching of Scripture.  This survey has prepared us with the historical background of the current understandings of the doctrine of Hell; this understanding has moved us one step further towards answering the questions as to the Biblical teaching of Hell. From this foray into Historical Theology we now must move forward into the discipline of Biblical Theology.

< Table of Contents Glossary >


[1] Sola Scriptura is a Latin phrase that means “Scripture Alone.” To hold to Sola Scriptura is to believe that Scripture is the primary functional authority in the believer’s life. It is to believe that Scripture is our first, and only infallible, source of revelation as to who God is and what His will is for the Church and believers lives.

[2] To perform exegesis is to take out of Scripture what it is trying to say. It is the act of interpretation when we are attempting to be faithful to what the author’s intended to write (if we are being unfaithful and reading into the text what we want it to say it is called Eisegesis, which is to read into something).

[3] These ages are, respectively, from; 100-500AD, 500-1300, 1300-1700, and 1700-present.

[4] This is the Greek word most frequently translated as Hell in the New Testament.

[5] Tertullian, Apology, in Tertullian, The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1978), 52.

[6] Justin Martyr, First Apology of Justin, in Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, The Ante-Nicene Fathers: The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus., ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1977), 166.

[7] Hippolytus, The Extant Works and Fragments of  Hippolytus, in Cyprian et al., The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Fathers of the Third Century: Hippolytus, Cyprian, Caius, Novatian, Appendix., ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 5 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1978), 222.

[8] Attributed to Cyrpian, Treatise on the Glory of Martyrdom, Ibid., 5:584.

[9] Saint Augustine, City of God, in Saint Augustine, Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers: St. Augustine’s City of God and Christian Doctrine, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, vol. 2, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers 1 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Christian Classics Ethereal Library), iv.XXI.9, accessed May 8, 2012, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf208.html.

[10] Martyrdom of Polycarp in Martyr and Irenaeus, ANF01, 1:39.

[11] Arnobius, Against the Heathen, in Gregory Thaumaturgus et al., The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Fathers of the Third Century: Gregory Thaumaturgus, Dionysius the Great, Julius Africanus, Anatolius, and Minor Writers, Methodius, Arnobius, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 6 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1975), 457.

[12] Origen, Against Celsus, in Tertullian et al., The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Fathers of the Third Century: Tertullian, Part Fourth; Minucius Felix; Commodian; Origen, Parts First and Second, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976), 584.

[13] Origen, De Principiis, in Ibid., 4:275.

[14] Ibid., 4:260.

[15] Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, in Hermas et al., The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Fathers of the second century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (entire)., ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1977), 274–276.

[16] Richard J. Bauckham, “Universalism: a Historical Survey,” Themelios 4, no. 2 (January 1979): 49, http://s3.amazonaws.com/tgc-documents/journal-issues/4.2_Bauckham.pdf.

[17] Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Christian Classics Ethereal Library), XP.Q99.A1, accessed January 19, 2013, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/aquinas/summa. Saint Anselm, Monologium (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, n.d.), iv.lxxii, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/anselm/basic_works.

[18] Gregg R Allison and Wayne A Grudem, Historical Theology : an introduction to Christian doctrine : a companion to Wayne Grudem’s Systematic theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2011), 708.

[19] Ibid., 710.

[20] W.G.T. Shedd, The Doctrine of Endless Punishment (Scribner, 1886), 4, http://books.google.ca/books?id=BQspXTu906kC.

[21] Bauckham, “Universalism: a Historical Survey,” 50.

[22] Quoted in; Allison and Grudem, Historical theology, 711.

[23] Thomas More, Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Christian Classics Ethereal Library), ii.xi., accessed January 19, 2013, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/more/comfort. Luther and More were joined in their understanding of a literal hell by the writers Quenstedt and Riissen. Allison and Grudem, Historical theology, 713.

[24] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 1997), III.xxv.12.

[25] F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed. rev (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 397.

[26] Allison and Grudem, Historical theology, 713.

[27] Benjamin B. Warfield, “Annihilationism,” ed. Samuel Macauley Jackson, The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge (Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1908), 185.

[28] Edwards, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, in Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, ed. Edward Hickman, vol. 2 (Carlisle, Pennsylvania: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), 8, 10.

[29] The Resurrection of the Dead in C. H. Spurgeon, The New Park Street Pulpit Sermons, Vol. II (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1856), 104–105.

[30] John F. Walvoord in; William V. Crockett and Stanley N. Gundry, eds., Four Views on Hell (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 1992), 28.

[31] J. I. Packer, Concise Theology: a Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1993).

[32] Millard J Erickson and L. Arnold Hustad, Introducing Christian doctrine (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2001), 414. This is the view that seems to fit best with his comments in both this book and his Christian Theology, but he does talk about eternal fire, no mention of its nature, on page 381 of the former book.

[33] William V. Crockett in; Crockett and Gundry, Four Views on Hell, 57.

[34] Thomas Hobbes, The Leviathan (Corvallis Oregon: Philosophy Department Oregon State University, 1996), http://oregonstate.edu/instruct/phl302/texts/hobbes/leviathan-j.html#CHAPTERXLIV. The Reasonableness of Christianity in; John Locke, The Works of John Locke in Nine Volumes, vol. 6, 9 vols., 12th ed. (London: Rivington, 1824), http://oll.libertyfund.org/title/1438 on 2013-01-19.

[35] Cross and Livingstone, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 397.

[36] Allison and Grudem, Historical theology, 720–721.

[37] Sinclair B. Ferguson, David F. Wright, and J. I. Packer, eds., New Dictionary of Theology, The Master Reference Collection (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 702.

[38] A.T. Robinson and William Newton Clarke are two examples. Allison and Grudem, Historical theology, 717.

[39] K. Barth and H. Gollwitzer, Church Dogmatics (Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), 125–126, http://books.google.ca/books?id=60OEJTH8bhAC.

[40] Rob Bell, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, First Edition (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2011), 101.

[41] Ibid., 71, 73, 79.

[42] Ibid., 107.

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