Has Hell Always Been Forever?

I’ve been putting up Christian history "news" posts on my Christian History for Everyman site. That’s not really a blog, though, and I’m learning there are some benefits to the blog setup.

So I’m moving those here, and I’ll just link to them from my Christian history site.

Today, Google Alerts informed me of a blog that I immediately liked (and subscribed to). It turns out the guy, George Sarris, is a professional speaker as well as a trained theologian, so it’s not surprising he’s so interesting. In fact, he has an excellent blog post on the Nicene Creed and unity, a subject on which I wrote an entire book.

But the post I wanted to comment on is called Hell: It Hasn’t Always Been Forever. In it, he writes:

Actually, Origen was not the first or most noted “universalist” in the early years of the Christian Church, and the belief was not a minority view held only by him and a few isolated followers. According to nineteenth century pastor and theologian Edward Beecher (1803-1895) – son of Lyman Beecher, brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, and one time pastor of Park Street Church in Boston – four of the six theological schools in the ancient church favored some form of ultimate restoration, while only one favored endless punishment.

I can’t blame Mr. Sarris for this deceptive piece of information. He did get it from someone else, but this paragraph paints, in my opinion, a very inaccurate picture.

The blog goes on to mention Clement of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa, Basil the Great, and Gregory Nazianzus as fellow universalists, along with Origen.

Let’s take a look at what that really means.

Origen … of Alexandria

Origen belongs to the first half of the 3rd century. Basil and the two Gregories belong to the middle and late 4th century. Further, Basil was the brother of Gregory of Nyssa, and all three were friends. They are also all from the Middle East shortly after the Council of Nicea when the teachings of the church in Alexandria, the place where Origen was trained as a teacher, reigned as the supreme example of intellectual orthodoxy.

Clement of Alexandria was a lot closer to Origen’s time, preceding him by one generation. However, Clement of Alexandria directly trained Origen, who spent most of his adult life in Caesarea only after he was excommunicated by the church in Alexandria. (He was excommunicated for teaching in Caesarea at the invitation of the church in Caesarea. Apparently the bishop of Alexandria at that time was a slave of jealousy. Too bad, a long line of truly gifted and gracious men came after him.)

Clement was one of the most notable teachers of his time, and he helped make Origen one of the most notable teachers of his time. In fact, throughout the third century the church of Alexandria was famous for its scholarly nature and its great teachers, who were all acquainted with and highly influenced by Origen’s writings.

The Influence of Alexandria on Fourth Century Scholars

Thus, it is no surprise, really, that the great controversy which led to the Council of Nicea began in Alexandria. After Nicea, the leader of the orthodox party was Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria. All eastern scholars had to be acquainted with the Alexandrian way of thinking, and those eastern scholars would have included three leading teachers, the friends Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory Nazianzus, and Basil the Great.

The point of all this is that it does no good whatsoever to add the names of Clement, the two Gregories, and Basil to Origen’s name as supporting universal reconciliation. That is not "four schools out of six," but is one stream of thought beginning with Clement and spreading because of the influence of Origen.

Reading History Without Wishful Thinking

If someone wanted to really answer the question of what early Christians believe without muddying the waters by throwing out fancifully speculated numbers like "four schools out of six," he would address Origen’s position in his own time. The fact is, only Clement and Origen make any suggestions of universal reconciliation in their time. There are at least a dozen writers still extant from between A.D. 150 and 250, and it would be no problem to gather quotes proving that all of them believed in eternal punishment after death for the majority of human beings.

These authors can be shown to represent Christianity in general much more than Clement or Origen, who are both known to be willing to speculative on a wide range of subjects. Irenaeus, for example, was raised up under the teaching of Polycarp in Smyrna in Asia Minor, but later was highly influential and involved with many of the western churches because of his stature after he became a missionary to the Gauls in what is now Trier, Germany.

Irenaeus’ apologetic writings are an attempt to keep church leaders holding to the apostolic faith against the powerful influence of mystical, self-centered gnosticism.

Justin Martyr wrote apologetic writings defending Christianity against Roman paganism, and as a traveler he was widely familiar with the faith of the European churches. Theophilus was bishop of Antioch in Asia Minor, the apostle Paul’s home church. His work is an explanation of Christianity written to an unbeliever.

On and on the other writings of Clement and Origen’s time can be shown to have no purpose than to describe and defend Christianity as it was understood by all the apostolic churches in harmony.

Not so Clement and Origen. They were teachers writing instructional books to other believers in which they clearly felt free to interpret the Scriptures as they felt led.

In general, this was not a problem, nor were they under obligation to avoid doing so. Irenaeus, whom I mentioned above, makes it clear in his writings that outside the basics of the apostolic faith, teachers should feel free to speculate as long as they don’t change the nature of the faith itself.

Did Clement and Origen go too far?

Did Clement and Origen go too far by suggesting that the will of God is that all should be redeemed in eternity?

I think so. I think they overstepped their bounds, and I believe that any honest historian has to conclude that they stood alone on several of their views, including the subject of universal reconciliation.

I should point out that at this point, having read most of what Clement of Alexandria has written, I am not prepared to admit that Clement allowed for universal reconciliation, despite the quotes given. Such quotes are easily misinterpreted. I have not yet had the time to read back through Clement’s writings to verify things on my own yet.

That is not bias on my part. Even by modern standards, I could be labeled a liberal. Personally, I cannot agree with the thought that God would eternally torture people for any reason, and especially not for sins committed during a temporal period on earth. Further, I am a huge fan of Origen. He was one of the most committed, godly men who ever lived, and he was tortured for his faith. He was reliable, faithful, and slow to anger despite opposition from both the world and supposed friends (like the bishop of Alexandria who excommunicated him over jealousy against the will of the church in Caesarea).

Historical (and Apostolic) Christianity

On the other hand, the teaching that only a few find the gate of life came from Jesus himself. I do not believe that any Christian teacher, no matter how gifted, is free to change such basics of the faith. I personally don’t feel free to do so, either. The early churches universally believed that only a few would find the gate of life, and they considered part of the definition of the faith. (e.g., Irenaeus, Against Heresies, I:10:1).

Whether you agree with me on that or not, the point I want to make in this post is that the historical facts say that Origen was alone in his view of universal reconciliation in his time. Adding the names of Clement of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa, Basil the Great, and Gregory Nazianzus to Origen’s and then acting as though this changes anything is an act of historical dishonesty, all the more repugnant because so few Christians are in a position to be able to defend themselves against such chicanery.

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4 Responses to Has Hell Always Been Forever?

  1. Bob Duggan says:

    Thanks Shammah, I’m really enjoying your posts lately.
    I am a would be universalist but I have found peace in the “mere” virtue of hope instead of falling into the dangers that Frances Chan points out. I also suscribe to a vein of philosophy that sacrifices neither free will of God’s creatures nor the Omnipotence of God Himself. What lies beyond such philosophy is a spirituality of the Gospel which relies on the 3 “theological virtues” of faith, hope, and love. “And the greatest of these is Love.” What is left for me is the amazing revelation that God does not simply permit evil and hell but that in Christ He shows us that He himself suffers these with his creation. ” And neither height nor depth, nor heaven nor hell……. can separate us from the love of God which is in Jesus Christ our Lord”. There is a rational “theodicy” and a theodoicy of experience which can never ascribe atrocity to God and yet with Christ and the inestimable power and value of the Cross can see with the eyes of faith that even the most profound injustices can be transformed by Christ and his believers to be the most beautiful and perfect things. Suffering death, injustice and hell can never have the final word with such a God. The theodicy of experience sees all as coming from His hand in such a way.

    While I also don’t think that we are incapable of coming to the knowledge of whether (or how) hell is eternal or how God can in the end “allow” such tragedy and therefore don’t always feel comfortable with chalking up such deep questions to the authority of mystery, I also find that human language does not easily convey those things which are beyond our experience. So even the things that the Lord teaches (and subsequently, the Church) in relation to eternity, though they may not be clearly symbolic are still teachings about realities (whether metaphysical or personal) that can not be confined understood so easily. There is not always an easy translation between the irrational, the rational, and the super-rational. Which is why, we as the Church must not be afraid to acknowledge every man’s deep questions about the nature of God and eternity. All the while, we adhere to the teachings of Christ and the Apostles as “limited” as they may seem knowing that if we ask just questions (Such as the universalist and atheist honestly do) while recognizing our limitations and remaining faithful to Christ and His Church that we are also growing as the Holy Spirit leads us into knowledge of all things.

  2. Jackson Baer says:

    This was a great read. Do you mind if I write a blog about it on my site and link to it?

    Thankfully he was speaking in a parable and it wasn’t to be taken literally. I’m glad the Scriptures don’t teach eternal punishment. That wouldn’t fit with a God whose love and mercy endures forever.

    • Shammah says:

      Jackson, your use of pronouns is overwhelming!

      “**This** was a great read,” you said. I assume **this** is my post here. That one wasn’t too hard. Thank you, and it’s perfectly alright to blog about this issue or my post about this issue and link to it. That’s what I did with the guy I quoted. Bloggers like to be quoted and get links, even if we’re quoted unfavorably. Links are a good thing and successful bloggers are usually dialoguers, not monologuers. (I’m not sure those are words.)

      The next one’s much harder. You wrote “Thankfully, **he** was speaking in a parable.” Who is “he”?

      Finally, I suspect a lot of my readers won’t agree with you that the Scriptures don’t teach eternal punishment. In fact, I don’t agree. I think the Scriptures *do* teach eternal punishment. I just don’t believe they necessarily teach eternal *torture* or eternal *conscious* punishment, except for the Beast and the False Prophet, and even that is in a highly symbolic book.

      I understand Rob Bell’s thinking in _Love Wins_, but I agree with Frances Chan when he says that we have to be very careful about thinking we’re kinder or more merciful than God or that we understand judgment and mercy well enough to make confident judgments and assertions about what *could not possible be* merciful or kind. I’m not saying we can’t make such judgments and assertions; I’m saying that we ought only to do so with extreme care and a healthy distrust of ourselves and our human assessments of righteousness. I don’t think we have a limited understanding of what would or wouldn’t “fit with a God whose love and mercy endures forever.”

      I left your links. You’ll have opportunity to have your say.

  3. Jason Fitzpatrick says:

    Thank you. Great article. Once again we see a person trying to deny apostolic tradition instead of saying “this is what the majority believed, I can´t bring myself to believe that or enforce this”. That is dishonestly and the sad part is dishonesty sells faster to fantasy prone humans.

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