History of Hell | Justin Martyr, God’s Philosopher — Part 1

History of Hell Justin MartyrThe History of Hell:

What the early church really believed about the immortality of the soul, “hellfire” and its relevance to today, from the life of Justin Martyr. Who Was Justin Martyr?

Justin (AD 110-165) came from a Greek-speaking Gentile family living in Flavia Neapolis, Biblical Shechem, in Samaria1 . This was near Jacob’s Well where Jesus offered another non-Jewish seeker the “living water” of eternal life, the abundant life that comes only through faith in Jesus Christ as Saviour (John 4:10, 14). A well educated, well travelled young man, searching for truth, Justin attached himself to a succession of philosophical schools, finally content to be called a follower of Plato.2 That was until (about AD 130)3 he met an old man while walking along the seashore. This unknown man of faith pointed out to Justin some weaknesses in his Platonic system. He showed him how the Old Testament predicted the coming of Christ. Seeing the courage of the martyrs in facing death, Justin was convinced. 4 Justin drank for himself from the water of life. Still content to wear his philosopher’s cloak5 , as a token of his belief that Christianity was the “true philosophy”, he dedicated the rest of his life to explaining Christianity to the Greeks and the Romans and defending the faith against its intellectual opponents.

During the reign of Antoninus Pius (AD 138-161), Justin ministered in Rome. There he founded a school that attracted a wide variety of famous students.6 Justin opposed the Cynic philosopher Crescens, the Gnostic Valentinians, and the Marcionites, names and ideas you may or may not be familiar with. Suffice to say he defended the faith against pagans and against those Jews who argued against Jesus being the Messiah of the Hebrew Scriptures. He earned his surname after he was beheaded during the persecution of Christians by the philosopher Emperor Marcus Aurelius (AD 161-180) in about AD 165.7

Introductory Points

Justin’s universally acknowledged writings include his First Apology (c. AD 155), his Dialogue with Trypho (c. AD 158), and his Second Apology (c. AD 161). Several less well known works may be from the hand of Justin.8 We, however, will focus only on those undisputed works, his Apologies and Dialogue.9

  1. Justin’s writings are counted among the most important to have survived from the second century. He was not the first to write in defence of the Christians, but his Apologies are the earliest that have come down to us. They give an insight into the reasons for persecution of Christians by pagans in those days and the Christians’ response. The Dialogue is the first fully worked out exposition of the reasons for regarding Jesus as Messiah and the first systematic attempt to argue against the position of the Jews in regard to Christianity. In all of his writings Justin shows himself chiefly concerned to establish the fact that Christ has come in fulfilment of the Scriptures, to bring life and immortality to life through the gospel (2Tim. 1:10) not to speculate about death and hell. We can learn from his example. Our task is to present Christ persuasively, not to win theological arguments.
  2. As we shall see, Justin’s presentation of Christian truth is influenced by his philosophical background, but to give Justin his due, his intention was to use philosophy as a tool to spread Christianity, rather than to turn Christianity into an academic philosophical system. Justin took the great truths of the faith and tried to package them anew, in ways which “connected” with the culture around him. We must do likewise otherwise we will lose our ability to communicate effectively. At the same time, we must be careful that the culture does not so influence the way we present the message that the truth gets subtlety distorted. Those of us who believe that Scripture teaches what we call Conditional Immortality may judge Justin harshly at this point. Overall, however, Justin did an admirable job of presenting Christ to Greeks and Romans in ways that made sense to them – and he literally backed up his words with his life. We should wish to do no less.
  3. Lastly, by way of introduction, in light of the above, Justin does not set out to systematically address the doctrines of the soul, the “intermediate state”, or the question of final destinies. His beliefs on these matters must be pieced together from comments scattered throughout his works. Such an approach runs the risk of being selective. I have tried as much as possible to be complete (quoting passages that show Justin supporting aspects of Conditional Immortality and opposing it) and yet avoid being repetitive. We must take care. The result, I hope, will be both surprising, enlightening and at the same time avoid the danger of reading into the pages of history exactly what we want to find there.

An Old Man Speaks on the Mortality of the Soul

I now want to look more closely at what Justin says on matters related to Conditional Immortality and turn first to his view of the immortality of the soul (or lack thereof). From the account of the death of Socrates, Plato derived his firm conviction as to the immortality of the human soul, which he passed on to his followers. In his Dialogue with Trypho, Justin records a conversation with an “old man” leading up to his conversion to Christianity. Even after his conversion, Justin was influenced by his philosophical background, particularly by the teachings of Plato and the Stoics. As a result, Justin continues to believe in the separable existence of the soul and that the soul is conscious between death and the resurrection (More about this latter). Now, in relating his discourse with this unnamed Christian mentioned above, Justin tells us that the old man asked if the soul was divine and immortal. Justin’s immediate answer, reflecting his background, is, “Assuredly”.

The old man then laid out his argument to show that the soul is not in its own nature immortal. His argument is so convincing that Justin is driven to conclude that the soul cannot be immortal by nature. Justin quotes the old man at length. His words are recorded thus:

“Now the soul partakes of life, since God wills it to live. Thus, then, it will not even partake [of life] when God does not will it to live. For to live is not its [the soul’s] attribute, as it is God’s; but as a man does not live always, and the soul is not for ever conjoined with the body, since, whenever this harmony must be broken up, the soul leaves the body, and the man exists no longer; even so, whenever the soul must cease to exist, the spirit of life is removed from it, and there is no more soul, but it goes back to the place from whence it was taken.”10

Here, the unnamed Christian says that the soul is not immortal but that it lives only as long as God wills it to live. He speaks of the disconnection of soul and body as causing the man to cease to exist. He also speaks of the soul ceasing to exist. This is conditional immortality.

Justin relates this conversation as it took place, without making any comment on the old man’s words. It seems to me that what the old man believed, what we call conditional immortality, was not in any way remarkable to Justin the Christian, though it was a “revelation” to Justin the unconverted philosopher. That is to say, Justin did not consider the old man’s words so out of order or “heretical” from his latter perspective as an “orthodox” Christian as to require further comment. What Justin himself thought will be gathered from elsewhere in the Dialogue and in the Apologies, but for now I am content to put forward that this conversation suggests that belief in conditional immortality (or at least belief in the natural mortality of the human soul) must have been wide spread among Christians in Justin’s day, else Justin would surely have remarked that the old man was so out of step with his contemporaries.


Part Two

Part Three

  1. Justin Martyr, 1 Apology 1. []
  2. Justin Martyr, Dialogue, 2. []
  3. L.W. Barnard, Justin Martyr, His Life and Thought (Cambridge: CUP, 1967), 13, places the date of his conversion shortly before the Bar Kochba rebellion of AD 132-135. []
  4. Justin Martyr, 2 Apology, 12. []
  5. Justin Martyr, Dialogue, 1; Eusebius, History, 4.11.8. []
  6. His students included Tatian, Irenaeus and Theophilus. []
  7. Those of us that watch more TV than we read Roman history will know this Emperor as the “good” Emperor in the block buster epic movie “Gladiator”, starring New Zealand’s own Russell Crowe. []
  8. The works regarded by some critics as authentically Justin’s include: An Address to the Greeks; A Hortatory Address to the Greeks; On the Sole Government of God; An Epistle to Diognetus; Fragments from a work on the Resurrection; and other Fragments. Works which are unquestionably not the work of Justin though they have at one time been attributed to him include: An Exposition of the True Faith; Replies to the Orthodox; Christian Questions to Gentiles; Gentile Questions to Christians; Epistle to Zenas and Serenus and A Refutation of certain Doctrines of Aristotle.  []
  9. The inclusion of a wider body of materially would keep us longer but not substantially alter our conclusions. []
  10. Justin Martyr, Dialogue, 6. []

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