History of Hell | Hell before Augustine

History of HellImagine if somebody said, “No Christian leaders taught the doctrine of eternal torment prior to Augustine.”

That sounds like a pretty bold statement, right? No teachers taught what is now the traditional view of hell back then? None? And yet, it’s no more bold or over-the-top than many of the claims some theologians make in defense of the traditional view. In the last few years I’ve heard or read a number of people making the extraordinary claim that the Early Church Fathers “unanimously” taught the eternal torments of the damned in hell, or that this was their “consensus.”

Now I’ll admit, the opening line was an intentional overstatement – mainly for the purposes of trying to show how absurd the opposite claim sounds to anyone who knows a bit about the Early Church Fathers (by “early” here I mean prior to Augustine). The truth is that several Early Church Fathers did teach eternal torment, and others may well have believed it without saying so. But to those with a bit of knowledge about early church history I put the question: How many can you think of in the first couple of centuries who actually taught it?

This is where we’ve got to be careful. No matter what side of this disagreement you find yourself on, you know that the Bible uses terms the terms “eternal punishment,” “unquenchable fire” and “eternal fire.” We all agree on that much. One of the things that traditionalists and annihilationists disagree about is what such biblical language means. Traditionalists maintain that the punishment awaiting the lost is some form of conscious torment or misery, so in their mind the phrase “eternal punishment” translates easily into “eternal torment.” In the annihilationist view, the punishment for sin is death in the very literal sense of final destruction, so the phrase “eternal punishment” translates naturally into Paul’s phrase, “everlasting destruction” (2 Thessalonians 1:9). In the traditionalist view, an “unquenchable fire” must burn on forever and ever, and by extension whatever is in the fire must last forever as well, so when the phrase “unquenchable fire” shows up in the New Testament in the mouth of John the Baptist (Matthew 3:12), this is taken as affirmation of a traditional view of hell (although to be honest, I think this understanding of an “unquenchable fire” is driven by a traditional theology of hell, rather than vice versa). Annihilationists on the other hand look at the context of Matthew 3 and see that the “unquenchable fire” here will “burn up” chaff, so even if it refers to hell at all (and it may not), it sounds a lot more like annihilation than perpetual torment, and they also note that the same language of a fire that is never quenched is used to refer to fires that consume their fuel elsewhere in Scripture (e.g. Ezekiel 20:47 describes a raging forest fire). When a traditionalist hears the phrase “eternal fire,” they form a mental connection between this and the picture of hell as a place where fires burn forever to torment the lost. Conditionalists form a connection between different passages of Scripture that use this phrase, for example Jude, who claims (Jude 7) that the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is an example of the punishment of eternal fire. The point is that disagreements about what the Early Church Fathers taught cannot be settled just by asking whether or not they used this terminology, for this would simply perpetuate the disagreement about what this terminology means.

This point is often not appreciated by people who defend the traditional doctrine of hell as eternal torment. Just today I read a blog post claiming that with very few exceptions, the early church fathers taught the traditional doctrine of eternal torment. And what was the evidence? Ignatius of Antioch said that those who corrupt families will “depart into unquenchable fire.” Clement of Rome said that “if we neglect his commandments, nothing will rescue us from eternal punishment.” You get the point. These quotes of biblical phrases are not evidence that the writer interpreted the phrases as referring to eternal torment.

So the question is: Did the Early Fathers offer their own explanation of what the fate of the lost consisted of? If so, what did they say? Here I’m quite willing to concede to the traditionalists that several Early Church Fathers did appear to teach eternal torment, by going beyond the biblical statements and adding to them the notion of universal immortality. In the late second century the trend begins. Tatian (d. 180), for example, made the incredible claim that “We who are now easily susceptible to death, will afterwards receive immortality with either enjoyment or with pain.” And so the punishment for sin is to be immortal but in pain. Contrast this with the New Testament teaching that immortality is a gift to those who are in Christ! Reinforcing the suspicion held by many that the platonic doctrine of the immortality of the soul was the culprit in the rise of the doctrine of eternal torment in Christian theology, Clement of Alexandria (d. 215) said, “All souls are immortal, even those of the wicked, for whom it were better that they were not deathless. For, punished with the endless vengeance of quenchless fire, and not dying, it is impossible for them to have a period put to their misery.” And perhaps most clearly of all, Marcus Menucius Felix wrote (at an uncertain date, perhaps as late as 270), “Nor is there either measure nor end to these torments. That clever fire burns the limbs and restores them, wears them away and yet sustains them, just as fiery thunderbolts strike bodies but do not consume them.” An interesting problem – how do bodies burn and not get burned up? It’s a “clever” fire! It burns them but somehow restores them. Later, Augustine would claim that since the salamander can live in fire, it follows that God can make physical bodies that are susceptible to the pain of fire and yet not be damaged by it.  Augustine was, of course, appealing to a creature of myth that never existed at all! Several other church fathers made similar claims about the marvelous fire that burns but does not damage.

So we have to acknowledge that there were fairly early church fathers who stood out by clearly teaching that the lost will be immortal (some of them admitting outright that this is because all souls are immortal), and so will suffer forever in hell. But it would obviously be a hasty generalisation to infer from this that this was the view of the early Church Fathers. Many of them said nothing at all about what hell is like beyond simply using the biblical language. What should we assume about them – that they agreed with those who taught eternal torment? Why make that assumption? The majority of the early church fathers cannot be claimed as supporters of the traditional view – in fact none of the “Apostolic Fathers” said anything to support the traditional view, instead speaking of the punishment of the lost as death or destruction, as the biblical writers before them did. Given that I think the biblical language, on its own, originated in a context where it was meant to teach the final death of the lost (namely, in the Bible!), I’m inclined to suspect that many of the Early Church Fathers who simply reproduced the biblical language were annihilationists after all – although I realise that our traditionalist brothers and sisters will be very resistant to that suggestion!

But the fact is, a number of early church fathers made it pretty clear that they did not accept the doctrine of eternal torment at all, and they really did teach annihilationism instead. The prominence of these particular Fathers should at least make it plausible that many of the Fathers who did not specifically indicate that they held to the doctrine of eternal torment may well have been annihilationists as well. I’ll use four examples in chronological order.


The Apostolic Fathers

As already noted, while some Early Church Fathers revealed that they interpreted the biblical language to refer to eternal torment, the Apostolic Fathers nowhere did this. However, on at least a couple of occasions the Apostolic Fathers gave us a glimpse into how they interpreted the teaching of Jesus and the writers of the New Testament. One good example is Ignatius of Antioch, a student of the Apostle John. Ignatius wrote a letter to the Ephesians in which chapter 17, “Beware of false doctrines,” reads as follows:

For this end did the Lord allow the ointment to be poured upon His head, that He might breathe immortality into his church. Be not anointed with the bad odour of the doctrine of the prince of this world; let him not lead you away captive from the life which is set before you. And why are we not all prudent, since we have received the knowledge of God, which is Jesus Christ? Why do we foolishly perish, not recognising the gift which the Lord has of a truth sent to us?

Less than a century later Tatian wrote that the lost will be “immortal,” and those who affirm the doctrine of eternal torment have no trouble recognising what he was saying: That the lost would be alive forever, albeit in a terrible state. Ignatius here claimed, by contrast, that immortality is Christ’s gift to his church, and that to “perish” means to not receive the gift. If traditionalists interpret immortality to mean the same thing in both cases, they must conclude that while Tatian thought that the lost would live forever, Ignatius did not.

Ignatius confirms that this was his view in his letter to the Magnesians in chapter 10, exhorting them, “Let us not, therefore, be insensible to His kindness. For were He to reward us according to our works, we should cease to be.” It is impossible to reconcile the view that the lost will not receive immortality and the reward of sinful deeds is to cease to be on one hand with the view that the lost will be punished for their sin with eternal torment in hell on the other. Knowing that this teaching was alive and well among the Apostolic Fathers makes it all the more likely that the writer of the Epistle of Barnabas was making the same point in chapter 21:

It is well, therefore, that he who has learned the judgments of the Lord, as many as have been written, should walk in them. For he who keeps these shall be glorified in the kingdom of God; but he who chooses other things shall be destroyed with his works. On this account there will be a resurrection, on this account a retribution. I beseech you who are superiors, if you will receive any counsel of my good-will, have among yourselves those to whom you may show kindness: do not forsake them. For the day is at hand on which all things shall perish with the evil [one].

There are clear echoes here of biblical language, but the writer adds more. The strongest echo is from 1 Corinthians 3:11-15.

For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

“The day,” said Barnabas, was at hand – when people’s works would be destroyed. Whether or not he was right about whether or not the day was at hand, he develops Paul thoughts further. Every now and then somebody who rejects conditional immortality will ask me, “What’s the point of God raising people to life again just to destroy them again,” as though this is an obviously silly thing to do. The idea did not seem silly to Barnabas, who said that the destruction of the lost with their works (and with all “evil”) was the very reason for their resurrection. In Paul’s description of works that will be “tested,” some work will be “burned up,” using language that everybody interprets to mean straight-forward, complete destruction. And yet Barnabas said that it would not simply be the works that will be destroyed, but in the case of those who “choose other things” than God’s kingdom, it is a fate that would befall the works as well as those who do them.

While the Apostolic Fathers, then, say almost nothing beyond simply reproducing the language of Scripture, where they do give glimpses of how they interpreted that language, annihilation, rather than eternal torment, is what we find.


Irenaeus of Gaul (d. 202), perhaps the most important Christian theologian of the second century, had a slightly earlier career than Tertullian (d. 225), who wrote of the torments of hell as ghoulish entertainment for Christians as they watch their persecutors tormented in fire. Irenaeus, however, spoke of no such thing.

Like other early church fathers, Irenaeus used the biblical phrase “eternal fire,” along with biblical images like a “furnace of fire” and the “outer darkness.” He also quoted Isaiah’s depiction of the slain enemies of God, whose “worm does not die” and whose “fire is not quenched.” Because of this, a number of theologians who advocate the traditional view of hell as eternal torment have jumped to the conclusion that Irenaeus must have shared their view. As discussed earlier, this is a mistake, since annihilationists today are well aware that Scripture uses these terms, yet they interpret them as referring to the final destruction of the lost.

Like most Christians since his time, Irenaeus believed that when our bodies die our souls live on. But unlike some of the other early church fathers, Irenaeus didn’t believe that everyone lives forever. In chapter 34 of his book Against Heresies, Irenaeus explains his view on the soul by denying that souls move on to another body after death, but that they do live on after death (a claim that he defends by using the story of the rich man and Lazarus). But just how long should a person expect to live after death? Irenaeus’s answer was straightforward: For as long as God decides! He compares our own longevity to that of the heavenly bodies:

For as the heaven which is above us, the firmament, the sun, the moon, the rest of the stars, and all their grandeur, although they had no previous existence, were called into being, and continue throughout a long course of time according to the will of God, so also any one who thinks thus respecting souls and spirits, and, in fact, respecting all created things, will not by any means go far astray, inasmuch as all things that have been made had a beginning when they were formed, but endure as long as God wills that they should have an existence and continuance.

While we might not share Irenaeus’s view that the soul lives on after the body dies (I do not), this principle seems fair enough, given a Christian view of the world. We are created, just as everything else in the universe is, so the soul is dependent on God for its existence each moment. For as long as God allows the moon (for example) to have “continuance,” it continues to exist, and the same is true of us. If God did not grant continuance to us – or the moon – we, like it, would simply stop existing.

But look what comes next: “He thus speaks respecting the salvation of man: ‘He asked life of Thee, and Thou gavest him length of days for ever and ever;’ indicating that it is the Father of all who imparts continuance for ever and ever on those who are saved. For life does not arise from us, nor from our own nature; but it is bestowed according to the grace of God.” But wait a minute. Irenaeus is talking about the fact that it is God who imparts continuance – that is, ongoing existence – to everything, whether stars, the moon, or the human soul. And now he has claimed that continuance forever (and not “continuance in happiness”) is a gift, something bestowed by God’s grace to “those who are saved.” That means that those who aren’t saved won’t continue forever, doesn’t it? Irenaeus is consistent here, and his answer – as it must be, given the logic of his argument – is yes, that is what it means.

And therefore he who shall preserve the life bestowed upon him, and give thanks to Him who imparted it, shall receive also length of days for ever and ever. But he who shall reject it, and prove himself ungrateful to his Maker, inasmuch as he has been created, and has not recognised Him who bestowed [the gift upon him], deprives himself of [the privilege of] continuance for ever and ever. And, for this reason, the Lord declared to those who showed themselves ungrateful towards Him: “If ye have not been faithful in that which is little, who will give you that which is great?” indicating that those who, in this brief temporal life, have shown themselves ungrateful to Him who bestowed it, shall justly not receive from Him length of days for ever and ever.

Irenaeus has argued directly from the fact that immortality is conditional on the grace of God to the conclusion that those who reject God will cease to exist. (I am grateful to Rethinking Hell contributor Chris Date for bringing the example of Irenaeus to my attention.)


Arnobius of Cicca (d. 330) is the least well-known of the fathers discussed here. Like Irenaeus, Arnobius’s thinking about human destiny is closely tied to his views about human nature. His comments about eternal punishment are inseparable from his comments about the immortality of the soul. Arnobius wrote Against the Heathen to combat the beliefs of pagan Greeks. One of the convictions of his intended audience was the immortality of the soul, while one of Arnobius’s convictions was that the lost would one day be finally destroyed. In chapter 2 of Against the Heathen he confronts those who mock the idea of the resurrection. Immediately after this, he turns to those who reject the idea of the final destruction of the lost, pointing out that even they revere people (like Plato) who spoke of the punishment of souls after death.


Do you dare to laugh at us when we speak of hell, and fires which cannot be quenched, into which we have learned that souls are cast by their foes and enemies? What, does not your Plato also, in the book which he wrote on the immortality of the soul, name the rivers Acheron, Styx, Cocytus, and Pyriphlegethon, and assert that in them souls are rolled along, engulfed, and burned up? But though a man of no little wisdom, and of accurate judgment and discernment, he essays a problem which cannot be solved; so that, while he says that the soul is immortal, everlasting, and without bodily substance, he yet says that they are punished, and makes them suffer pain.

But what man does not see that that which is immortal, which is simple, cannot be subject to any pain; that that, on the contrary, cannot be immortal which does suffer pain?

The point here is a philosophical one. Many Greeks, like many Christians today, believed that the soul was a simple immaterial substance, meaning that it is not composed of parts, and also it cannot be destroyed – it is immortal. But this doesn’t make sense if we believe that souls suffer after death, says Arnobius. An immaterial, immortal being could not suffer pain. Pain tells us that we are being harmed – we are suffering damage. But a simple immaterial substance cannot be damaged without disappearing altogether. It can’t have parts broken off or destroyed without the whole being destroyed, since there are no parts of which it is made. It makes sense to think of our bodies suffering pain, because we have all sorts of parts: skin cells, nerve receptors and neural pathways that provide sensation and so on. But you can’t injure a ghost!

However, Plato was partly right, says Arnobius, even if Plato did not believe everything we do (like the resurrection of the dead). There is indeed a punishment after death.

And yet his opinion is not very far from the truth. For although the gentle and kindly disposed man thought it inhuman cruelty to condemn souls to death, he yet not unreasonably supposed that they are cast into rivers blazing with masses of flame, and loathsome from their foul abysses. For they are cast in, and being annihilated, pass away vainly in everlasting destruction. For theirs is an intermediate state, as has been learned from Christ’s teaching; and they are such that they may on the one hand perish if they have not known God, and on the other be delivered from death if they have given heed to His threats and proffered favours. And to make manifest what is unknown, this is man’s real death, this which leaves nothing behind. For that which is seen by the eyes is only a separation of soul from body, not the last end—annihilation: this, I say, is man’s real death, when souls which know not God shall be consumed in long-protracted torment with raging fire, into which certain fiercely cruel beings shall cast them, who were unknown before Christ, and brought to light only by His wisdom.

“Certain fiercely cruel beings” here are demons, as it was often said (by Origen in the third century, for example) that demons would throw people into hell and torment them there. But that is not the final state.  “Man’s real death,” as Arnobius put it, is final. It leaves nothing behind. It is annihilation.

A number of traditionalists have made the claim that Arnobius was the first well-known Christian to defend the doctrine of annihilationism. This admission is often made while pointing out that he really wasn’t a very well-known father, and besides, he held some strange ideas (as did many of the fathers, I’d want to remind us all!). As we’ve seen, however, this is not the case at all. Arnobius was teaching what others had taught before him.


The lives of Athanasius (d. 373) and Augustine (b. 354) overlapped, but Augustine was not baptised as a Christian convert until after Athanasius’s death. On this subject, the transition from Athanasius to Augustine marked a permanent change in Catholic thinking about hell. On other issues, and in particular the doctrine of the Trinity and the deity of Jesus, Athanasius is probably the most influential of all the church fathers (himself having a huge impact on Augustine’s writing on these subjects), held out as a shining example of orthodoxy. This fact makes his comments on humanity, sin and mortality all the more striking.

In Athanasius’s work On the Incarnation of the Word, he starts out by explaining why God came to us in Christ, firstly by describing the state of humanity prior to sin. “Man,” Athanasius wrote, was “created above the rest, but incapable of independent perseverance” (from the heading of chapter 3). In the same chapter, Athanasius explains that God gave mankind a gift, creating him in God’s image and “giving them a portion even of the power of His own Word; so that having as it were a kind of reflexion of the Word, and being made rational, they might be able to abide ever in blessedness, living the true life which belongs to the saints in paradise.” Human beings were made to reflect the perfection of the Word – Jesus. But what would happen if they did not reflect the Word, but instead rebelled? Athanasius’s answer was that death and corruption would follow:

He brought them into His own garden, and gave them a law: so that, if they kept the grace and remained good, they might still keep the life in paradise without sorrow or pain or care besides having the promise of incorruption in heaven; but that if they transgressed and turned back, and became evil, they might know that they were incurring that corruption in death which was theirs by nature: no longer to live in paradise, but cast out of it from that time forth to die and to abide in death and in corruption.

Of course, proponents of the doctrine of eternal torment are familiar with the language of “death,” both in Scripture and in the church fathers, and believe that it refers to a state of wretchedness, rather than literal death and dissolution. But the more Athanasius elaborates on what he means, the more he makes it clear that this is not at all what he meant. In chapter four things start to come askew for those who would count him as a traditionalist:

For transgression of the commandment was turning them back to their natural state, so that just as they have had their being out of nothing, so also, as might be expected, they might look for corruption into nothing in the course of time. For if, out of a former normal state of non-existence, they were called into being by the Presence and loving-kindness of the Word, it followed naturally that when men were bereft of the knowledge of God and were turned back to what was not (for what is evil is not, but what is good is), they should, since they derive their being from God who IS, be everlastingly bereft even of being; in other words, that they should be disintegrated and abide in death and corruption.

Turning back into the nothing that they were before they were created? Bereft of being? Disintegrated? This is the end of the human race if God does not save it? Could Athanasius really have meant this? As it turns out – yes! He repeats this several times in the book, again in chapter 6:

The human race then was wasting, God’s image was being effaced, and His work ruined. Either, then, God must forego His spoken word by which man had incurred ruin; or that which had shared in the being of the Word must sink back again into destruction, in which case God’s design would be defeated. What then? Was God’s goodness to suffer this? But if so, why had man been made? It would have been weakness, not goodness on God’s part.

This is what would have happened, and this is why God came to us in Christ – humanity would sink “back again into destruction,” that state that existed before we were created. Here Athanasius expresses the very idea that today traditionalists reject outright – that without salvation from their plight, those who rebel against God will one day cease to exist.

The only escape that we now have from this fate, taught Athanasius in chapter eight, is for people to put on incorruption through the resurrection, and the only reason that is possible is that Christ, the Word made flesh, took our place in death.

And thus taking from our bodies one of like nature, because all were under penalty of the corruption of death He gave it over to death in the stead of all, and offered it to the Father — doing this, moreover, of His loving-kindness, to the end that, firstly, all being held to have died in Him, the law involving the ruin of men might be undone (inasmuch as its power was fully spent in the Lord’s body, and had no longer holding-ground against men, his peers), and that, secondly, whereas men had turned toward corruption, He might turn them again toward incorruption, and quicken them from death by the appropriation of His body and by the grace of the Resurrection, banishing death from them like straw from the fire.

Although some have found this a little hard to swallow, maintaining that Athanasius thought that Jesus’ death made all people immortal whether righteous or wicked – so that some could live forever with him, and some could live forever in hell, Athanasius nowhere suggests this. The resurrection to immortality here is called “grace.” If this grace is given to all, then, to use Athanasius’s own words, the law involving the ruin of men would be undone for all, contradicting the traditionalist view that hell is eternal “ruin.” Elsewhere (Discourse 3 Against the Arians, chapter 29), Athanasius limits the reception of immortality to those who receive Christ (notice the interesting view here that Jesus, unlike other human beings, could become separate from his body, being God):

For man dies, not by his own power, but by necessity of nature and against his will; but the Lord, being Himself immortal, but having a mortal flesh, had power, as God, to become separate from the body and to take it again, when He would. Concerning this too speaks David in the Psalm, ‘Thou shalt not leave My soul in hades, neither shalt Thou suffer Thy Holy One to see corruption.’ For it beseemed that the flesh, corruptible as it was, should no longer after its own nature remain mortal, but because of the Word who had put it on, should abide incorruptible. For as He, having come in our body, was conformed to our condition, so we, receiving Him, partake of the immortality that is from Him.

There are snags in Athanasius’ thought. In other works he affirms that the soul outlives the body and is immortal (especially in Against the Heathen). But if this were the case, then Athanasius was wrong to say that humans, through death, were returning to the nonexistence that prevailed prior to their creation. Athanasius famously rejected the idea that the human soul existed prior to our existence on earth, so he knew that the existence of the disembodied soul was not the state we were in prior to creation (and he could not have thought of a living, immortal soul as “non-being”). Perhaps if anything this shows us a man who held to two beliefs in tension, as many do. When speaking on human nature, he was heavily influenced by his philosophical pedigree (and it is well established that he had an education deeply rooted in Plato). But on the question of the redemption of sinners through Christ, Athanasius, as the saying goes, had a “goodly heritage” in Christian thought, traceable back to the Apostolic fathers and, I think we can safely say, to Scripture.


Augustine gets a bad rap for a lot of things (and here I am contributing to that), but any fair assessment acknowledges that he was a brilliant man. His contribution to Christian thought was immense, writing 93 books on theology, philosophy, Scripture and ethics, and on virtually every subject that he wrote about, he has become hugely influential.

The subject of hell is no different. In chapter twenty-one of the City of God (written soon after the year 410), Augustine became the first Christian theologian to write a biblical defence of the view that the lost will suffer forever in hell, and he offered responses to a number of objections. Some of those objections, as it turns out, were objections used by previous church fathers to argue that the lost will finally be destroyed! First he considers the objection that fire hurts people because it is destroying them and not for any other reason, so if people were really immortal in hell after the resurrection, why would they suffer pain? This was actually one of Arnobius’s arguments: That which can suffer pain is not immortal. How does Augustine answer it? Several ways. Firstly, he says – the demons might suffer in their bodies (he appears to assume that they have bodies), so the objection fails. Apparently it did not occur to Augustine that his opponents could simply reply that demons too will die! He also argues that his opponents are overlooking one crucial thing: “there is something which is greater than the body,” namely the soul. This is his key response: “For the spirit, whose presence animates and rules the body, can both suffer pain and cannot die. Here then is something which, though it can feel pain, is immortal.” Contrary to the protests of some traditionalists, the doctrine of the immortality of the soul was crucial to Augustine’s case for eternal torment. He then adds the mistaken claim that even the salamander can live in flames but is not killed by them, and throws in an anecdote about peacock meat lasting for a very long time after being cooked! In the chapters that follow, Augustine declares that as for the bodies of the lost, God will miraculously preserve them alive so that they can suffer endlessly in the flames of hell. He argues that the physical flames of hell will torment immaterial evil spirits. He argues that the punishment will not be temporary because the Scripture calls the punishment “eternal.” It is here in Augustine’s City of God that the now familiar list of proof texts for the doctrine of eternal torment was first amassed. Read chapters twenty and twenty-one for yourself. If you’re familiar with the way that previous church fathers – even those who believed in eternal torment – wrote, you’ll recognise that this is something new. This was almost a systematic case for eternal torment, and due to its length (compared with anything that had come before) and Augustine’s major influence, it became the standard. It took some time for dissenters to again be heard with any significant volume against this backdrop.

But prior to Augustine this was not the case. Yes, a number of Christians believed what is now the traditional doctrine of hell (although most modern believers would take issue with their literalness when it came to the fires). Many did not make their thoughts clearly known one way or the other. And a number of them did not believe this view, teaching instead that immortality is to be found in Christ alone, and that those who reject Christ will one day be no more. It would be a mistake to think that these were isolated views. These teachings date from the earliest times, and the people noted here were teachers in the church, with the Apostolic Fathers being read alongside Scripture by Christians everywhere, and teachers like Irenaeus and Athanasius holding considerable sway. If this is what the leaders were teaching, we can be sure that many in the Christian communities taught by them also believed. With the rise in the number of Christians today who affirm these teachings, we may well be seeing a resurgence of early Christian theology.

Glenn Peoples


About Dr. Glenn Andrew Peoples

Dr. Glenn Peoples runs Right Reason, a popular blog featuring the Say Hello to my Little Friend podcast on theology, philosophy and social issues. You can also find him at Rethinking Hell


  1. Hi Glenn,
    Your article caught my eye because I have previously responded to a paragraph from another article on this site on the same topic. I was intrigued by your use of quotes from both Ignatius of Antioch and Irenaeus of Gaul, because my reading of their work (limited though my reading is) is that they don’t teach annihilationism. I hope you don’t mind if I explain that quickly here.

    Firstly, you say Ignatius said those who corrupt families will “depart into unquenchable fire” but that you argue that meaning of this phrase is not as traditionalists understand it. However, the chapter that phrase comes from provides a context that justifies that meaning. First, Ignatius says those who corrupt families suffer death, not unquenchable [everlasting] fire. It is false teachers who corrupt the faith of God who “shall go away into everlasting fire”. Then Ignatius emphasizes this contrast again:

    ….Do not err, my brethren. Those that corrupt families shall not inherit the kingdom of God.And if those that corrupt mere human families are condemned to death, how much more shall those suffer everlasting punishment who endeavour to corrupt the Church of Christ, for which the Lord Jesus, the only-begotten Son of God, endured the cross, and submitted to death!
    Letter to the Ephesians, Chapter XVI.—The fate of false teachers.

    If death equals annihilation and everlasting punishment equals annihilation, the contrast is ridiculous. Therefore, contrary to your brief comment on the Ignatius quote about “unquenchable fire”, the context supports the traditional understanding.

    I found your adoption of Irenaeus to support the annihilationist’s cause confusing. The last quote you used does seem to support an annihilationist understanding, but in the chapter immediately before (book 2 chapter 33) he says:

    …all those who have been enrolled for life [eternal] shall rise again, having their own bodies, and having also their own souls, and their own spirits, in which they had pleased God. Those, on the other hand, who are worthy of punishment, shall go away into it, they too having their own souls and their own bodies, in which they stood apart from the grace of God. Both classes shall then cease from any longer begetting and being begotten, from marrying and being given in marriage; so that the number of mankind, corresponding to the fore-ordination of God, being completed, may fully realize the scheme formed by the Father.

    Reading chapter 33 and chapter 34 one after the other answers this seeming contradiction by showing us the following points:
    1. Irenaeus was writing against a specific heresy which taught a form of reincarnation. Therefore, when Irenaeus says “it is plainly declared that souls continue to exist, that they do not pass from body to body”, he is not referring to passing from a mortal body to an immortal one, he is refuting reincarnation.
    2. Irenaeus then argues against people who may say that only those who have no beginning can be immortal whereas those who have a beginning cannot. Irenaeus argues for the immortality of created things, dependent on God and uses both the inanimate, souls, and then salvation life as examples.
    3. There is a distinction in Irenaeus’ mind between the soul and life which is confirmed in the section following your last quote. A sample: “the soul, and the life which it possesses, must be understood as being separate existences”.

    This third point is important. It is clear that Irenaeus’ main concern in chapter 34 is the existence of the soul after bodily death and before resurrection. If we jump to book 5 chapter 27, Irenaeus explains that his understanding of life is communion with God and death is separation from God and all his benefits. This death is not annihilation because Irenaeus goes on to say:

    “Those, therefore, who cast away by apostasy these forementioned things [life, light and benefits], being in fact destitute of all good, do experience every kind of punishment. God, however, does not punish them immediately of Himself, but that punishment falls upon them because they are destitute of all that is good.”

    So, as with Ignatius, I think there has been a serious misreading of Irenaeus. He cannot be used to support annihilationism.

    I could not say right now if there are writings from before Augustine that support annihilationism, but the case made for the support of the writings of these two men makes me cautious in accepting other candidates.

    • Hi Alistair, and thanks for you comments.

      Your objection to my use of Ignatius boils down to this:

      “If death equals annihilation and everlasting punishment equals annihilation, the contrast is ridiculous.”

      But in the first place, nobody said that, in Ignatius’s view, the first death equals annihilation, so I am not sure why you posed the contrast this way. But more to the point, I think the contrast is clearly not ridiculous at all. If you are correct, then as an annihilationist I ought to think that the second death is no more serious or fearful than the first death. But this is clearly not the case, for the simple reason that – withing a Christian framework – death is not forever. Christians believe that Christ will return and the dead will be raised. Even though we die, we may still have eternal life through the resurrection. However, if we are lost, then we face the second death, which, unlike the first death, is forever.

      So there’s no reason at all to think that this contrast is “ridiculous.” On the contrary, it makes perfectly good sense. Thus, there is no reason to think that Ignatius denied annihilationism, and in this blog post I presented evidence (evidence on which you offered no comment, I would add) that he taught annihilationism.

      What about Irenaeus, then? Here, you point out a couple of other things that Irenaeus said – things with which we can all agree. Yes, he rejected the doctrine of the transmigration of souls (that souls move from one body to another). Yes, he said that only God had no beginning. You also add , as though it was important in some way, that Ignatius said that the lost will experience punishment and that God does not “punish them immediately of Himself, but that punishment falls upon them because they are destitute of all that is good.” But it is not at all clear why this changes anything. We can all affirm all of these things, but that is no reason to overlook what Ignatius explicitly claimed about who would live forever and who would not. Why is any of this a problem? In short, it is not. You say that the last quote here shows that the death Irenaeus had in mind was not annihilation, but it isn’t clear why you would think this. The lost will experience punishment, yes (no problem here for annihilationism). The punishment will fall on them because they are destitute of goodness, no problem (again, compatible with annihilationism).

      But none of this should distract us from the way that Ignatius contrasts the fate of the lost with that of the saved. Here’s the structure of Irenaeus’ thought:

      Chapter 33: Transmigration is false. The argument here is from memory: Souls do not remember former lives, but they would surely do so if there had been one. Consequently, when they rise int he judgement, they will do so with the one body that was theirs in life.
      Chapter 34:- Souls so exist after death. That they are immortal in this sense (i.e. they can survive death) does not mean that they had no beginning, however. God made all things, so they had a beginning but will last for as long as God sustains them. The same is true of human souls, which will exist for as long as God gives them continuance.
      – God will give eternal life, continuance forever, to the saved.
      – But “those who showed themselves ungrateful towards Him” (no separating of body and soul here) will not receive continuance, or length of days forever.

      So clearly the point here is not just the intermediate state. If it were, Irenaeus would be saying that the saved will live forever in the intermediate state, which is not the case.

      In context the point is really quite clear. Jumping over to another chapter, where Irenaeus affirms that the lost will be punished, does not nullify this. In fact, you cut your quot from 5:27 off too soon. Had you quoted more of the context, we would have seen that for Irenaeus, the punishment is only eternal because the thing that people shall lose is eternal: “Now, good things are eternal and without end with God, and therefore the loss of these is also eternal and never-ending.” This is precisely how annihilationists understand eternal punishment.

      So there’s no reason at all to suppose that Irenaeus’s comments about eternal life, continuance and length of days forever mean anything other than what they appear to mean at face value. He was an annihilationist.

      • Hi Glenn,
        Thanks for such a quick response, something I have not been able to give in return. I apologise for that, and more, that this will be only a comment on Ignatius – Irenaeus will have to come later.
        First, I did not look at the flavour of annihilationism you adhere to. In fact, I incorrectly drew from your post a flavour of annihilationism that may not even exist! So, you are correct. The Ignatius quote I refer to can be read in an annihilationist way, assuming that the phrase “unquenchable/everlasting fire” is interpreted with an annihilationist slant, (the disputed meaning of which was, if I recall correctly, your original point).
        You did incorrectly say that Ignatius said “those who corrupt families” will go to unquenchable fire, but that did not materially affect your point. My mistake defeated my point, and while I still interpret unquenchable fire in the traditional way, my argument above was careless and wrong and I apologise.
        As for Irenaeus…well, I’m afraid I will have to address that later when I have more time…

        • “You did incorrectly say that Ignatius said “those who corrupt families” will go to unquenchable fire,”

          Yes, quite right. That was a case of dittography – haplography – something else? One of those things, where I skipped ahead a line in my reading. I appreciate your gracious reply. 🙂

  2. P.S. Glenn, I posted my comment above as a post on my blog and used your avatar picture as the feature picture. I hope that’s okay. Let me know if I have step over the line.

  3. Fascinating post. I was wondering though, how we can reconcile the statements in your post with those on the following sites:


    The quotes from Irenaeus and Ignatius are or particular note. I’m curious, if they were conditionalists, why did they say that the wicked would go into “eternal fire” and not “eternal death”? I have read the comments above and I can see that “eternal fire” does not necessarily mean eternal torment in your mind. But do you know if there are any more quotes from these early Christians that shed any further light on how they viewed “eternal fire”?

    It is interesting that although Arnobius is clearly an annihilationist, he still believes that the wicked are “shall be consumed in long-protracted torment with raging fire” before being destroyed. Do you think that it is plausible that Irenaeus and Ignatius possibly had similar views?

    I’m a conditionalist myself, but I was wondering what you thought.

  4. An interesting article indeed! It seems that annihilationism is in fact more traditional than traditionalism itself, since the tradition of annihilation goes back to the apostolic fathers, which is something that can’t be argued about eternal torment tradition with the same ease and persuasiveness.

    Also, when it comes to the fathers who allegedly support traditional understanding of hell, some of them were actually universalists, such as Clement of Alexandria. His true position is made clear by e.g. this quote: “And how is He Saviour and Lord, if not the Saviour and Lord of all? But He is the Saviour of those who have believed, because of their wishing to know; and the Lord of those who have not believed, till, being enabled to confess him, they obtain the peculiar and appropriate boon which comes by Him.” (Stromata VII, chapter 2) And so when he says, as quoted above, that the wicked are “punished with the endless vengeance of quenchless fire, and not dying, it is impossible for them to have a period put to their misery”, he is likely just resorting to scare tactics, which is what other fathers who too believed in restitution of all things might have often been doing as well.

    Speaking of universalism, I have read a quote from Athanasius that suggests he was a universalist: “When, then, the whole creation shall meet the Son in the clouds, and shall be subject to him, then, too, shall the Son himself be subject to the Father, as being a faithful Apostle, and High Priest of all creation, that God may be all in all.” It was taken from his work Sermo Major de Fide but unfortunately I managed to find only the Greek version of it on the internet and because I can’t read Greek I’m not able to look at the context or anything. I guess the quote could be in harmony with annihilationism supposing all demons and sinners cease to exist. On the other hand, universalism in Athanasius wouldn’t be surprising since he was a bishop of Alexandria at the time when Didymus the Blind (an Origenist) presided the Alexandrian catechetical school, and as far as we know these two got along just fine. Anyway, could someone competent please take a look at the Athanasius’ sermon I mentioned and share what he finds out?

  5. Well, to put it in this way: in the article are used filters that come from todays thought. I just mention: universalist and annihilation. Prior to all, I do not see any references to the greek language, the language that mastered the christian thought the first centuries. It would be interesting to distinguish what Athanasios means with the word ψυχή and what the average english speaker with the word “soul”. Last but not least should we rethink that the Church (before its domination in the west by the german tribes) does NOT take each writing of christian Fathers as granted but ONLY the Canons of the Ecumenical Councils. The person is holy but his/her works are influenced from time, place, personality and other factors. The Church does not go on because of some writings (the Bible is the product of the Church, not the opposite) but because of its common life and experience. After the germanization of christianity in the west, became christianity “Religion of the Book”. This is why almost all todays Germans who became muslim, are ex protestants. They search a written verification, not a common experience and liturgical faith.


  1. The Workshop says:

    […] interesting piece has been authored by Dr. Glenn People’s over at afterlife.co.nz called, History of Hell: Hell before Augustine. Glenn argues that there is evidence that at least some (and implicitly the majority) of the […]

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  4. […] I was considering addressing what the historical church believed about judgement prior to Augustine. But I think that Glenn did it better than I would over on AfterLife. […]

  5. […] look at the existence of hell and what hell may or may not be, I found an interesting blog titled, History of Hell… Hell before Augustine for another perspective. It contends that hell may not be eternal dying (punishment, torment), but […]

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