"As we assemble the teachings of these first church leaders, several patterns emerge related to the nature of Hell. The Early Church Fathers, with very few exceptions, agree with the teaching of the Bible in the way they describe Hell:
1. Hell is a place of judgment for those who have rejected God and denied Jesus as their Savior
2. Hell is a place of separation from God
3. Hell is a place of torment in which the rebellious are in anguish and pain
4. Hell is a place where the rebellious are tormented forever and are CONSCIOUS of this torment for all eternity (In fact, the eternal duration of their torment is often compared o the eternal duration of the reward of the saved)
At the same time, the earliest Church Fathers are ambiguous on those areas where the Bible s ALSO ambiguous.
1. The exact nature of the torment of the rebellious is unknown
2. The manner in which the rebellious are kept alive in spite of ‘deathly’ anguish is also un-described.
What They Wrote
From the earliest days of Christianity, the first believers wrote about the nature of Hell. Here is a very brief assessment of their understanding related to the final resting place of the damned:
From “The Epistle of Barnabas” (70-130AD)
The author of the Epistle of Barnabas is unknown, but many consider him to simply be who he said he was, Barnabas, the associate of Paul who is mentioned in the Book of Acts. The letter was written to new converts to Christianity:
The way of darkness is crooked, and it is full of cursing. It is the way of eternal death with punishment. (“Epistle of Barnabas”)
From “Second Clement” (150AD)
This epistle was written by an Early Church Father as a recorded sermon (ascribed to Clement of Rome). Clement was bishop of Rome from 88 to 98AD, and his teaching reflects the early traditions of the Church:
If we do the will of Christ, we shall obtain rest; but if not, if we neglect his commandments, nothing will rescue us from eternal punishment (“Second Clement” 5:5)
From Justin Martyr (151AD)
An early believer and apologist for the Christian faith, Justin Martyr was born in Palestine and was martyred in Rome under Marcus Aurelius. He wrote several important defenses of Christianity, addressed to leaders of the Roman Empire:
No more is it possible for the evildoer, the avaricious, and the treacherous to hide from God than it is for the virtuous. Every man will receive the eternal punishment or reward which his actions deserve. Indeed, if all men recognized this, no one would choose evil even for a short time, knowing that he would incur the eternal sentence of fire. On the contrary, he would take every means to control himself and to adorn himself in virtue, so that he might obtain the good gifts of God and escape the punishments (“First Apology” 12).
We have been taught that only they may aim at immortality who have lived a holy and virtuous life near to God. We believe that they who live wickedly and do not repent will be punished in everlasting fire (“First Apology” 21).
[Jesus] shall come from the heavens in glory with his angelic host, when he shall raise the bodies of all the men who ever lived. Then he will clothe the worthy in immortality; but the wicked, clothed in eternal sensibility, he will commit to the eternal fire, along with the evil demons (“First Apology” 52).
From “The Martyrdom of Polycarp” (155AD)
This work was written by an Early Church Father (unknown author) and is dated very early in the history of Christianity. It describes the death of Polycarp, a disciple of the Apostle John, and also describes early teachings of the church:
Fixing their minds on the grace of Christ, [the martyrs] despised worldly tortures and purchased eternal life with but a single hour. To them, the fire of their cruel torturers was cold. They kept before their eyes their escape from the eternal and unquenchable fire (“Martyrdom of Polycarp” 2:3)
From Tatian (160AD)
Tatian was an early Assyrian believer who moved to Rome as a pagan and eventually became a Christian. Interestingly, he read the Jewish Scriptures and from these became convinced that other pagan ideas about the world were simply false. He was a student of Justin Martyr and wrote about the unreasonableness of paganism and the truth of Christianity:
We who are now easily susceptible to death, will afterwards receive immortality with either enjoyment or with pain.
From Athenagoras of Athens (175AD)
Athenagoras was a philosopher and citizen of Athens who became a Christian (possibly from Platonism) and wrote two important apologetic works; “Apology” or “Embassy for the Christians”, and a “Treatise on the Resurrection”:
We are persuaded that when we are removed from the present life we will live another life, better than the present one...or, if they fall with the rest, they will endure a worse life, one in fire. For God has not made us as sheep or beasts of burden, who are mere by-products. For animals perish and are annihilated. On these grounds, it is not likely that we would wish to do evil. (“Apology”)
From Theophilus of Antioch (181AD)
Theophilus was the Patriarch of Antioch from 169 to 183AD. He was born a pagan and converted to Christianity after reading the scriptures. He was very zealous about protecting the orthodoxy of the earliest believers and he wrote a defense of the faith to a man named Autolycus:
Give studious attention to the prophetic writings [the Bible] and they will lead you on a clearer path to escape the eternal punishments and to obtain the eternal good things of God. . . . [God] will examine everything and will judge justly, granting recompense to each according to merit. To those who seek immortality by the patient exercise of good works, he will give everlasting life, joy, peace, rest, and all good things. . . . For the unbelievers and for the contemptuous, and for those who do not submit to the truth but assent to iniquity, when they have been involved in adulteries, and fornications, and homosexualities, and avarice, and in lawless idolatries, there will be wrath and indignation, tribulation and anguish; and in the end, such men as these will be detained in everlasting fire (“To Autolycus” 1:14)
From Irenaeus (189AD)
Irenaeus was bishop of Lugdunum in Gaul (now Lyon, France) at the end of the second century. He was a discplie of Polycarp and a notable early apologist for the faith. He wrote several volumes defending the faith against Gnosticism and other early heresies of the Church:
[God will] send the spiritual forces of wickedness, and the angels who transgressed and became apostates, and the impious, unjust, lawless, and blasphemous among men into everlasting fire (“Against Heresies” 1:10:1)
The penalty increases for those who do not believe the Word of God and despise his coming. . . . t is not merely temporal, but eternal. To whomsoever the Lord shall say, ‘Depart from me, accursed ones, into the everlasting fire,’ they will be damned forever (“Against Heresies” 4:28:2)
From Clement of Alexandria (195AD)
Titus Flavius Clemens was the first significant and recorded Christian from the church of Alexandria, Egypt. His parents were Greek and he was raised with a solid, formal Greek education. While he had a tendency to blend Greek and Christian philosophies, his view on the issue of Hell was derived from the scriptures:
All souls are immortal, even those of the wicked. Yet, it would be better for them if they were not deathless. For they are punished with the endless vengeance of quenchless fire. Since they do not die, it is impossible for them to have an end put to their misery. (from a post-Nicene manuscript fragment)
From Tertullian (197AD)
Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus was a Romanized African citizen who was born in Carthage (now Tunisia). He became a Christian and was a powerful and influential apologist for the faith, writing prolifically in defense of the doctrines of orthodoxy:
After the present age is ended he will judge his worshipers for a reward of eternal life and the godless for a fire equally perpetual and unending (“Apology” 18:3)
Then will the entire race of men be restored to receive its just deserts according to what it has merited in this period of good and evil, and thereafter to have these paid out in an immeasurable and unending eternity. Then there will be neither death again nor resurrection again, but we shall be always the same as we are now, without changing. The worshipers of God shall always be with God, clothed in the proper substance of eternity. But the godless and those who have not turned wholly to God will be punished in fire equally unending, and they shall have from the very nature of this fire, divine as it were, a supply of incorruptibility (“Apology” 44:12–13).
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