How & When The Idea of Eternal Torment Invaded Church Doctrine
We’ve covered quite a bit so far in our discussion on Hell. We looked at every time the word “Hell” is mentioned in scripture (and discovered it basically isn’t… ever) and then we looked at every passage seeming to suggest eternal torment (and found how poorly we understand stuff that wasn’t written to us).
But get excited, because like Jesus distributing wine at a wedding, we’ve saved the best for last.
While our past work has established that the concept of Hell can’t be adequately sourced from the Bible, today, we’ll be looking at Church history to see how Hell lodged itself into Christian beliefs. We’ll show you where on the timeline eternal torment became a thing people believed in, we’ll look at the decidedly non-Biblical sources where it originated, and we’ll even examine why it stuck around.
For our discussion today, we’ve partnered with Julie Ferwerda, author of Raising Hell: Christianity’s Most Controversial Doctrine Put Under Fire. The following article includes excerpts from Raising Hell that have been Brazen Churchishly adapted for you guys!
At the end, we’ll tell you how to get a free copy of Julie’s exhaustively researched and incredibly well-sourced book!
The Irony of “Orthodoxy”
When you begin to study Church history you quickly realize that “orthodox Christianity” is an oxymoron. Merriam Webster defines orthodox as, “conforming to established doctrine, especially in religion.”[i] You might also hear it defined as “right doctrine.”
Orthodox suggests that there are certain truths and doctrines that have always been peacefully and consensually agreed upon, accepted by the majority of “people like us” throughout all the centuries. And as the story goes, various groups of “heretics” have attempted to tamper with this “right doctrine” throughout history, only to fail miserably as the truth remained undiluted over the centuries.
These are the assumptions many of us grew up believing. We were handed an absolute narrative, told that it has withstood the test of time, and invited nicely to never question it ever… or else. Mainstream Christianity wants us to think there has always been a harmonious consensus, and those who question are not simply disagreeing with their pastor… oh no! You are going against 2,000 years of what “those who follow the Spirit of God” have always believed and accepted as truth.
While tradition and orthodoxy have been instrumental in preserving certain truths — and indeed, there is a profound beauty to be found in sacramental liturgy — the reality is that for centuries, Christian Orthodoxy preserved itself through fear and control, opting to protect it’s doctrinal “truth” through the active suppression of opposing ideas.
What’s particularly ironic is that the modern Evangelical Church tries hard to distance itself from the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church while the core of it’s theology comes directly out of the councils, doctrines, and creeds established by the early Roman Catholic and Latin Church.
The truth is that since the very beginning, Church history has been rife with unrest, conflict, and even bloodshed — primarily over matters of establishing orthodoxy. And with today’s easy access to the annals of Church history, it’s time for us churchgoers to rethink the myth of orthodoxy, and begin re-evaluating what we’ve been taught.
For instance, many Christians insist that if you question hell, you are rejecting what has always been agreed upon by the Church, yet the doctrine of eternal torment was not a widely held view for the first five centuries after Christ, particularly in the early Eastern Church, the Church of the early apostles and Church fathers such as Paul, Clement of Alexandria, St. Gregory of Nyssa, Origen, and others.
What we do see during this time is the expansion and proliferation of pagan myths about the afterlife, which were then repackaged as eternal, fiery torment in the Western (Catholic) Church, primarily by Latin theologians and Church leaders from Rome. It seems this was most likely motivated by political expediency. The idea of eternal torment was a prime tool for controlling the average churchgoer with fear and was congruent with secular mythologies of the time. Later, pop culture added fuel to the fire (pun intended) through imaginative works like Dante’s Inferno.
That Awkward Moment Eternity Slipped In
The invasion of Hell into Church doctrine ultimately starts with the invasion of “eternity”. As we discussed in Part 2 of our Hell Series, words like “eternity, eternal, everlasting, etc” don’t truly exist in scripture. Rather, these words are all derived from the root word Aión which means “an Age” or “Eon”.
Take a phrase like aionas ton aionon. This phrase shows up several times in the Greek New Testament (Romans 20:10, for example) and has been traditionally translated as “forever and ever”.
But here’s the problem. Aión means “Age”, not “forever”. And even worse, ton means “of”, NOT “and”. For example, Abraham was the father of (ton) Isaac. ALL THREE WORDS of this phrase are completely mistranslated. What it actually says is “Ages of the Ages”.
We see this root word Aión every time we see “eternal”, “eternity”, “forever”, “everlasting”, etc. All of these words revolve around the concept of Ages.
So why are we telling you this?
Because “Ages” played a crucial role in the way early Church fathers viewed life. It was a highly significant paradigm to how they viewed God, this life, the afterlife, etc.
Due to the history of the Biblical text and the numerous influences in its popular translations, we’ve been left with a very Plato-esque focus on this concept called eternity. But that was not the paradigm of the “orthodox” church until St. Augustine, a student of Plato, funneled Christian doctrine through Plato’s teachings of the “eternal soul”.
Plato made several philosophical arguments that have ironically come to define our mainstream Christian paradigms.
- First, Plato believed that the soul was separate from the body and that the soul was fundamentally pure but tends to become deformed through association with the body.
- Second, like his teacher Socrates, Plato believed that the soul itself was immortal, thus necessitating an eternal destination for the soul after the body dies.
- Third, Plato proposed that good actions result in a reward in this life, but more importantly, a greater reward after death. Similarly, bad actions result in consequences in this life, but even greater punishment after death.
Plato linked some of his ideas to prevailing Greek mythology, including the locations of Hades and Tartarus. In Greek mythology, Tartarus is the location deep below Hades where the Titans were enslaved and the wicked were tormented. According to Plato, this is where divine punishment was meted out.
It is of this philosopher that St. Augustine remarked,
“The utterance of Plato, the most pure and bright in all philosophy, scattering the clouds of error . . .”
These ideas proposed by Plato are not from the Bible. They are Greek philosophy. BUT we have spent centuries reading them into the Biblical text and even translating the Biblical text through their lens.
But if we go back before the time of Augustine, we find 5 centuries of Church fathers who never carried this lens.
(If you’d like a more in-depth look at how “Eternity” weaseled it’s way into scripture, we’ve made a 13,000 word study on the topic available for download at this spot in the article on our website)
How Hell Invaded Church Doctrine
The big point we are building up to here is that the early church fathers DID NOT believe in eternal torment. We aren’t talking about the first guy or two post-Paul. We are talking about the first 5 centuries after Christ.
Let me repeat that, just so we are clear.
Eternal torment was not a pillar of church doctrine for the first 5 centuries after Christ.
Dr. Ken Vincent, retired psychology professor from Houston Community College, and author of over one hundred books in the fields of psychology and religion, notes:
The first person to write about “eternal hell” was the Latin (West) North African Tertullian (160–220 A.D.), who is considered the Father of the Latin Church. As most people reason, hell is a place for people you don’t like! Tertullian fantasized that not only the wicked would be in hell but also every philosopher and theologian who ever argued with him! He envisioned a time when he would look down from heaven at those people in hell and laugh with glee! [ii]
Out of the six theological schools in Tertullian’s day and beyond (170–430 A.D.), the only school that taught the doctrine of eternal torment or hell to its students was the Latin (Roman) school in Carthage, Africa. Four of the other five taught that, through the death and resurrection of Christ, all people would be saved through restorative judgment and reconciliation in a plan of Ages.[iii] This teaching was called, “Universal Salvation” or “Universal Reconciliation.” Dr. Vincent says,
By far, the main person responsible for making hell eternal in the Western Church was St. Augustine (354–430 CE). Augustine…was made Bishop of Hippo in North Africa. He did not know Greek, had tried to study it, but stated that he hated it. Sadly, it is his misunderstanding of Greek that cemented the concept of eternal hell in the Western Church. Augustine not only said that hell was eternal for the wicked, but also for anyone who wasn’t a Christian. So complete was his concept of God’s exclusion of non-Christians that he considered un-baptized babies as damned. When these babies died, Augustine softened slightly to declare that they would be sent to the “upper level” of hell. Augustine is also the inventor of the concept of “hell Lite,” also known as Purgatory, which he developed to accommodate some of the universalist verses in the Bible. Augustine acknowledged the Universalists, whom he called “tender-hearted,” and included them among the “orthodox.”[iv]
Not only was Augustine somewhat the champion of the hell doctrine in the Western Church, he also had a major influence on the onset of religious bigotry and hate campaigns in the following centuries.
In the 1907 book, Lives of the Fathers: Sketches of Church History in Biography, written by Frederick D. Farrar, who was Chaplain in Ordinary to the Queen of England, we read about Augustine:
The advocacy of hell came primarily on the scene with Augustine: In no other respect did Augustine differ more widely from Origen and the Alexandrians [Eastern Church] than in his intolerant spirit. Even Tertullian conceded to all the right of opinion.
[Augustine] was the first in the long line of Christian persecutors, and illustrates the character of the theology that swayed him in the wicked spirit that impelled him to advocate the right to persecute Christians who differ from those in power. The dark pages that bear the record of subsequent centuries are a damning witness to the cruel spirit that actuated Christians, and the cruel theology that impelled it. Augustine was the first and ablest asserter of the principle which led to Albigensian crusades, Spanish armadas, Netherland’s butcheries, St. Bartholomew massacres, the accursed infamies of the Inquisition, the vile espionage, the hideous bale fires of Seville and Smithfield, the racks, the gibbets, the thumbscrews, and the subterranean torture-chambers used by churchly torturers.[v]
Samuel Dawson, author of, The Teaching of Jesus: From Mount Sinai to Gehenna a Faithful Rabbi Urgently Warns Rebellious Israel, says:
Most of what we believe about hell comes from Catholicism and ignorance of the Old Testament, not from the Bible. I now believe that hell is the invention of Roman Catholicism; and surprisingly, most, if not all, of our popular concepts of hell can be found in the writings of Roman Catholic writers like the Italian poet Dante Alighieri (1265–1321), author of Dante’s Inferno. The English poet John Milton (1608–1674), author of Paradise Lost, set forth the same concepts in a fashion highly acceptable to the Roman Catholic faith. Yet none of our concepts of hell can be found in the teaching of Jesus Christ![vi]
Following on the heels of Augustine, the greatest influence on today’s hell theology via most modern Bible translations came from Jerome’s Latin Vulgate. Jerome translated this tainted version of the Scriptures from a very inferior Latin text in the late 4th century:
For over a thousand years (c. AD 400–1530), the Vulgate was the definitive edition of the most influential text in Western European society. Indeed, for most Western Christians, it was the only version of the Bible ever encountered. The Vulgate’s influence throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance into the Early Modern Period is even greater than that of the King James Version in English; for Christians during these times the phraseology and wording of the Vulgate permeated all areas of the culture.[vii]
What was the problem with Jerome’s Bible? It was heavily influenced by Latin hell-inventing theologians like Tertullian and Augustine.
When you realize that the hell doctrine was so late in being adopted by the Church (and hence, Scriptures), the poorly constructed walls of orthodoxy begin to crumble. It was several hundred years after Jesus and the apostles that men began formulating many of these new Church doctrines and creeds, many still a part of Evangelical Christian orthodoxy to this day.
Had our old English Bibles been translated directly out of the Greek instead of Latin, it’s very probable that the doctrine of eternal torment would never have found its way into our modern Bibles and theology at all. Many of these doctrines were strong-armed into the Church through major dissension and even bloodshed, with intolerant, oppressive Church leaders insisting that they were “led by the Spirit” on such matters.
The Afterlife According To Gregory
While we’ve been telling you a lot about what early fathers didn’t believe, I think it would be helpful for us to look at what some of them did believe.
We are going to look briefly at St. Gregory of Nyssa, who lived from 335 to 395 AD. In addition to being canonized, St. Gregory served as the Bishop of Nyssa and is known for his significant contributions to both the doctrine of the Trinity and the Nicene creed.
In other words, this guy is one of the founding fathers of church orthodoxy. If you aren’t aware, the Nicene creed serves to this day as the universal statement of faith for not only the Catholic church, but most anyone who would call themselves “Christians”.
For it is evident that God will in truth be all in all when there shall be no evil in existence, when every created being is at harmony with itself and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord; when every creature shall have been made one body.
St. Gregory, like many in his day, believed that we were on a progression through the ages, where at the end of the Age, those who had purged themselves of evil in this life would enter into the blessedness of the Age to Come, while those who hadn’t would be passed through cleansing fire, after which they would also enter into that same blessedness.
Whoever considers the divine power will plainly perceive that it is able at length to restore by means of the aionion purging and atoning sufferings, those who have gone even to this extremity of wickedness.
And in another quote:
Wherefore, that at the same time liberty of free-will should be left to nature and yet the evil be purged away, the wisdom of God discovered this plan; to suffer man to do what he would, that having tasted the evil which he desired, and learning by experience for what wretchedness he had bartered away the blessings he had, he might of his own will hasten back with desire to the first blessedness …either being purged in this life through prayer and discipline, or after his departure hence through the furnace of cleansing fire.
In other words, St. Gregory is saying that God gave us free will, so that in tasting evil, we would realize how wretched it is and hasten back into a righteous state of blessedness — or as we might say here at Brazen Church, hasten into the abundant life Jesus came to show us — and that this hastening to blessedness will come either in this life, through prayer and discipline, or in the life to come, by passing through cleansing fire.
This isn’t a renegade theologian firing shots at Christendom thousands of years into orthodoxy.
This is a FOUNDER of orthodoxy. This is a man responsible for forging the unifying statement of faith for all of Christianity. This is a man who attended the first ever council of the Church in Nicaea.
And THIS MAN, this founder of the faith, not only shows no traces of a belief in Hell — He actually believed ALL WOULD BE SAVED. And while not all of his contemporaries shared his belief that all would be saved, the opposing belief was that the wicked would be destroyed… NOT tormented forever.
It shocks me to hear people argue that the doctrine of Hell has been the definitive belief of Christendom since the days of the New Testament. Such a claim demonstrates a fundamental ignorance of Church history and is a testament to how extensively St. Augustine’s doctrine influenced the orthodox church.
The idea of eternal torment comes primarily from Greek thought — a merging of mythology and the ramification of belief in an immortal soul.
For 5 centuries, Christian doctrine remained unaffected by Hell until St. Augustine forcibly inserted it into orthodoxy, using a combination of power and violence to ensure it’s survival. Since that time, we’ve seen the gradual evolution of Christian doctrine in and around this concept, until today, the average believer has no idea that the concept of eternal torment isn’t even Biblical.
This doctrine of Hell has been used for centuries to control the masses with fear. Today, it prevents the world, both Christian and non-Christian alike, from seeing a loving Father.
A Christianity with Hell is a Christianity that must inherently be full of fear, and yet 1 John 4:18 tells us:
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.
A Christianity without Hell is a Christianity without fear, and that’s the Christianity I hope our series has freed you to enjoy… or at least freed you to consider
If you’d like to purchase Julie’s book Raising Hell (we’d HIGHLY recommend it), click here to get it in print for $11.99 or on Kindle for just $2.99!
OR if you aren’t able to purchase it, Julie has graciously made a PDF copy available for download via a link in this location on our website.
Sources… Sources Everywhere
Here is a list of Julie Ferwerda’s sources cited in the excerpts we adapted for this article.
[i] “Orthodox,” Merriam-Webster, Inc.: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/orthodox (accessed April 28, 2011).
[ii] Dr. Ken R. Vincent, Ed.D., “The Salvation Conspiracy: How Hell Became Eternal,” http://www.christianuniversalist.org/articles/salvationconspiracy.html (accessed July 1, 2010).
[iii] J.W. Hanson, D.D., Universalism: The Prevailing Doctrine of the Christian Church During its First Five Hundred Years, (Boston and Chicago: Universalist Publishing House, 1899), & The Bible Hell, (1888).
[iv] Dr. Ken R. Vincent, Ed.D., “The Salvation Conspiracy: How Hell Became Eternal,” http://www.christianuniversalist.org/articles/salvationconspiracy.html (accessed July 1, 2010).
[v] Frederick D. Farrar, D.D. F.R.S., Chaplain in Ordinary to the Queen, Lives of the Fathers: Sketches of Church History in Biography (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1907).
[vi] Samuel G. Dawson and Patsy Rae Dawson, The Teaching of Jesus From Mount Sinai to Gehenna: A Faithful Rabbi Urgently Warns Rebellious Israel (SGD Press, June 26, 2009).
[viii] David Daniell, The Bible in English: its history and influence (New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press, 2003), 439.