Hell: Across the Spectrum of History

The following are quotes, both contemporary and historic, about the doctrine of hell. It is “across the spectrum”, so it is not necessarily meant to support just one view. Some universalists, annihilationalists, and traditionalists are all represented. I hold to the traditional doctrine of hell and believe that it is an established doctrine in Christian orthodoxy, but I think it is a wonderful discussion to have.

Let’s just get this out of the way: Can a true believer deny the reality of Hell?

I have to be very careful with these type of minimalistic questions. I don’t like their implications. It is like when my depressed sister came to me and asked if she committed suicide could she still go to heaven. How do you give an honest answer to that when you believe the answer is yes? Nevertheless, here is my answer: Yes, someone could recognize their sin, call on Christ for mercy, and then have a divergent view on the punishment of the wicked. However, they would definitely fall outside the realm of historic orthodoxy on this issue.  

Across the Spectrum of History on Hell

“Let me say at the outset that I consider the concept of hell as endless torment in body and mind an outrageous doctrine, a theological and moral enormity, a bad doctrine of the tradition which needs to be changed. How can Christians possibly project a deity of such cruelty and vindictiveness whose ways include inflicting everlasting torture upon his creatures, however sinful they may have been? Surely a God who would do such a thing is more nearly like Satan than like God, at least by any ordinary moral standards, and by the gospel itself… Surely the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is no fiend; torturing people without end is not what our God does.”

(Clark Pinnock, “The Destruction of the Finally Impenitent,” Criswell Theological Review 4/2 (1990) 246-247).

“Is it not folly to assume that eternal punishment signifies a fire lasting a long time, while believing that eternal life is life without end? For Christ, in the very same passage, included both punishment and life in one and the same sentence when he said, “So those people will go into eternal punishment, while the righteous will go into eternal life” (Matt 25:46). If both are “eternal,” it follows necessarily that either both are to be taken as long-lasting but finite, or both as endless and perpetual. The phrases “eternal punishment” and “eternal life” are parallel and it would be absurd to use them in one and the same sentence to mean: “Eternal life will be infinite, while eternal punishment will have an end.” Hence, because the eternal life of the saints will be endless, the eternal punishment also, for those condemned to it, will assuredly have no end.”

(Augustine, City of God, 21.23-24).

“But if you pay no regard to our prayers and frank explanations, we will suffer no loss. For we believe that every man will suffer punishment in eternal fire according to the merits of his deed. . . . Sensation remains to all who have ever lived, and eternal punishment is laid up.”

(Justin Martyr, 160 AD, First Apology, 1.168, 169)

“The fire itself is termed “eternal” and “unquenchable,” but it would be very odd if what is thrown into it proves indestructible. Our expectation would be the opposite: it would be consumed for ever, not tormented for ever. Hence it is the smoke (evidence that the fire has done its work) which “rises for ever and ever.”

(John Stott, Evangelical Essentials, 316).

“[O]ur expectation would be that the smoke would die out after the fire had finished its work. How could the smoke from the fire rise forever if its fuel had been consumed?”

(Robert A. Peterson Vol. 37: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society Volume 37. 1994, p. 560)

“He has prepared darkness suitable to persons who oppose the light, and He has inflicted an appropriate punishment upon those who try to avoid being subject to Him. . . He has prepared the eternal fire for the ringleader of the apostasy—the devil—and for those who revolted with him. The Lord has declared those who have been set apart by themselves on His left hand will be sent into this fire.”

(Irenaeus, 180 A.D. Against Heresies, 1.523)

” John’s use of the symbol [of the lake of fire] shows that he views it as the alternative to the city of God, the new Jerusalem (see 21:7f.). Its significance for humanity thus begins with the new creation. That it does not have the meaning of annihilation is indicated by 20:10. The lake of fire signifies not extinction in opposition to existence, but torturous existence in the society of evil in opposition to life in the society of God.”

(G. R. Beasley-Murray, Revelation, p. 304)

“Further, the magnitude of the punishment matches the magnitude of the sin… Now a sin that is against God is infinite; the higher the person against whom it is committed, the graver the sin—it is more criminal to strike a head of state than a private citizen—and God is of infinite greatness. Therefore an infinite punishment is deserved for a sin committed against him.”

(Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica)

“Objection 10:
An eternal hell seems to mean that God is not totally or finally victorious over evil. Heaven and hell seem coeternal forever. But this is Manichaean dualism, where good and evil exist as equal and opposite warring ultimates. In that case God is not omnipotent.

This contradicts both Scripture and reason. It contradicts Scripture because Scripture says God will, in the end, be totally victorious over evil, and will be “all in all” (1 Cor 15:12–28, 54–57). It contradicts reason because it is inherent in the nature of evil to be self-destructive, not to last forever.

Reply: This objection, like objection 8, wrongly assumes that hell implies an eternal coexistence of good (heaven) and evil (hell). But coexistence implies a common field of some kind of time and/or place in which to coexist. But neither heaven nor hell are in time, in history. They are at the end of history. A parallel: another person’s death can occur in my life’s time, but my own death cannot. My own death ends my life’s time. Whatever eternity is, it is not time, not even endless time.

Scripture is quite clear both that hell is eternal and that there is no eternal Manichaean dualism, no stalemate between good and evil, only God’s final triumph. How both these doctrines can be true may not be clear from Scripture, but that they are both true is clear. This is given as our data, just as both divine predestination and human free will and responsibility are both given as data, but not how the two are to be reconciled. In both cases, our limited understanding of time and eternity prevents us from seeing the answer clearly.

(Peter Kreeft, Handbook on Christian Apologetics, p. 306-307)

“As regards the fate of the wicked …, the general view was that their punishment would be eternal, without any possibility of remission.”

(J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrine, p, 56-57)

Everlasting punishment of the wicked always was … the orthodox theory.

(Phillip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, p. 273–74)

“A person may fear to die, who from this death will pass over to a second death. He may fear to die, whom on his departure from this world eternal flames will torment with never-ending punishments.”

(Cyprian, 250 A.D. Nicene Church Fathers, 5.472)

The punishment inflicted upon the lost was regarded by the Fathers of the Ancient Church, with very few exceptions, as endless.

(William G. T. Shedd, A History of Christian Doctrine, p. 414)

“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 vengence of quenchless fire. Since they do not die, it is impossible for them to have an end put to their misery.”

(Clement of Alexandrea, 195 A.D. Fragment, 2.580)

“With regard to a complementary doctrine, the unconditional immortality of mankind has generally been universally accepted both in and outside of the church. . . . We have found that so far back as we can penetrate there is evidence of the fact that it has been natural to man to believe in some sort of existence after death. From the fifth century A.D. until the latter half of the nineteenth century, no orthodox leader seriously challenged the doctrine of hell.

(Richard L. Mayhue, “Hell: Never, Forever, or Just a Little While?” MSJ 9:2 (Fall 98) p. 133)

“You should fear what is truly death, which is reserved for those who will be condemned to the eternal fire. It will afflict those who are committed to it even to the end.”

(Letter to Diognetus, 125-200, 1.29.

“It is doubtful that there is a doctrine in the Bible easier to prove than that of eternal punishment.”

(S. Lewis Johnson, “God Gave Them Up,” BibSac 129 (April-June 1972): p. 131)

“The history of the doctrine of universal salvation (or apokatastasis) is a remarkable one. Until the nineteenth century almost all Christian theologians taught the reality of eternal torment in hell. Here and there, outside the theological mainstream, were some who believed that the wicked would be finally annihilated (in its commonest form this is the doctrine of ‘conditional immortality’). Even fewer were the advocates of universal salvation, though these few included some major theologians of the early church. Eternal punishment was firmly asserted in official creeds and confessions of the churches. It must have seemed as indispensable a part of universal Christian belief as the doctrines of the Trinity and the incarnation. Since 1800 this situation has entirely changed, and no traditional Christian doctrine has been so widely abandoned as that of eternal punishment. Its advocates among theologians today must be fewer than ever before. The alternative interpretation of hell as annihilation seems to have prevailed even among many of the more conservative theologians. Among the less conservative, universal salvation, either as hope or as dogma, is now so widely accepted that many theologians assume it virtually without argument.”

(Richard Bauckham, “Universalism: A Historical Survey“, Themelios January 1979)

“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)

“We, however, so understand the soul’s immortality as to believe it to be “lost”—not in the sense of destruction—but of punishment, that is, in Gehenna.”

(Tertullian, 210 A.D., 3.569)

“I am a convinced universalist. I believe that in the end all men will be gathered into the love of God.”

(William Barclay: A Spiritual Autobiography, pg 65-67)

“The apostolic teaching is that the soul . . . after its departure from the world, will be recompensed according to its deserts. It is destined to obtain either an inheritance of eternal life and blessedness (if its actions will have procured this for it) or to be delivered up to eternal fire and punishments (if the guilt of its crimes will have brought it down to this).

(Origen, De Principiis, 4.240)

“As far as we can tell, therefore, Origen never decided to stress exclusive salvation or universal salvation, to the strict exclusion of either case.”

(Fredrick W. Norris, The Westminster Handbook to Origen, 2004)

“Only thorough-going Universalists—and they are few—believe in universal salvation and in the restoration of all things in the absolute sense of the word.”

(Louis Berkhof, The History of Christian Doctrines, 269)

“Will everybody be saved, or will some perish apart from God forever because of their choices? Those are questions, or more accurately, those are tensions we are free to leave fully intact. We don’t need to resolve them or answer them because we can’t, and so we simply respect them, creating space for the freedom that love requires.”

(Rob Bell, Love Wins, 115)

27 Responses to “Hell: Across the Spectrum of History”

  1. I find it interesting that you use John Stott – who holds to the doctrine of Annihilation.

  2. With regard to a complementary doctrine, the unconditional immortality of mankind has generally been universally accepted both in and outside of the church

    That’s right! Although overstated, Mayhue here identifies with clarity the spring from which the erroneous doctrine of eternal torment flows :)

    Our expectation would be that the smoke would die out after the fire had finished its work. How could the smoke from the fire rise forever if its fuel had been consumed?

    It’s disappointing that Peterson is unaware (and to this day refuses to acknowledge) that such language is borrowed directly from OT judgment texts, where it is clearly not used to communicate eternal torment.

    That Peterson has somehow become the standard bearer for the traditional view is at once disappointing and encouraging.

  3. Yeah, it is across the spectrum of some important comments about hell, whether the believed in the traditional doctrine or not. Notice, I start with Clark Pinnock!

  4. Perhaps I am wrong but I thought the point of this post was to show that although there is a large majority mainstream of thought concerning eternal punishment, there has been throughout church history a spectrum of minority views. These minority views may have been held by otherwise acceptable persons. Therefore Stott, Pinnock, Barclay and “some major theologians of the early church” are clearly appropriate inclusions.

    In this light, while we may disagree with some of the views, we should be careful about “throwing people out of the Christian boat.” This is a very interesting ongoing discussion.

  5. @ John Metz…Well said… The reason why I questioned Stott is that it could be said the quote was out of context.

    For myself I don’t see the doctrine of eternal conscious punishment as an essential…rather its Christ and him crucified / raised which is the essential.

  6. I thought John Stott held to annihilation?

  7. Well, my main hope of this post is to expose people to some significant quotes about hell. Not necessarily to stack a deck one way or another.

    I include Stott and Barclay (and I could add JAT Robertson) because the represent a fly in the ointment. However, I would not parallel, generally, Bell with these guys…He would fit better in the mix of some of the 19th century liberals.

  8. Eternal punishment was firmly asserted in official creeds and confessions of the churches. It must have seemed as indispensable a part of universal Christian belief as the doctrines of the Trinity and the incarnation.
    (Richard Bauckham, “Universalism: A Historical Survey“, Themelios January 1979)

    Anyone know when eternal punishment first appeared in an official creed? It’s not really in the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed. It’s “creed-ification” was certainly later than that of the Trinity and Incarnation, but I’m not sure when. I briefly looked around on and the first clear reference I found was near the end of the Quicumque, in the section that also seems to affirm salvation by good works.

  9. Also, please note that I updated the intro for this post.

  10. John, I agree with Craig, well said.

  11. If the doctrine of hell is clearly taught in the Scripture, then why does it matter that some of these theologians missed the mark on it? This isn’t like the discussion on tongues or “baptism of the dead”, where the text is difficult to understand, thereby giving rise to multiple interpretations.

  12. This is a helpful list!

    3 quick comments:

    1. Here is a list of Universalism quotes from The Church Fathers: Including Augustine’s: ” There are very many in our day, who though not denying the Holy Scriptures, do not believe in endless torments”

    2. I think it’s worth mentioning that Irenaeus & Justin Martyr didn’t believe in immortal souls as such so for them assignment happens on Resurrection as noted here:

    3. Finally Stott in Evangelical Essentials pg 327 states: ““I am imbued with hope. I have never been able to conjure up (as some great Evangelical missionaries have), the appalling vision of the millions who are not only perishing but will inevitably perish. . . . I cherish the hope that the majority of the human race will be saved. And I have a solid biblical basis for this belief.”

    Thanks for the forum.

  13. Thank you for the improved introduction and a good question to consider. While the destiny of unbelievers is an important teaching (and vitally important to an unbeliever!), a particular belief along this line does not qualify as an essential of the faith, that is, a matter that we must believe to be saved. For the record, I am not a universalist nor an annihilist; I probably align well with the majority belief on this one.

    Ironically, we may owe gratitude to Rob Bell for bringing this subject to everyone’s attention!

  14. hart,

    I don’t know who put together that list but it is terrible. Most of them have nothing to do with hell.

  15. Yes Michael- I don’t know the author of the list either but these are quotes that I have noted in my studies. Also yes, some of them don’t specifically reference ‘hell’ but rather have to do with sin, evil and wrath in general(which I would suggest correlate) BUT here is my question- how would you respond to the Augustine quote? Or even the first quote on the list from St. Basil the Great: “The mass of men (Christians) say there is to be an end to punishment and to those who are punished” ?

    Btw- even though this is my 1st time commenting. I do read this blog regularly and find it helpful!

  16. I thought Hart’s list was pretty good, with only a couple seeming like a stretch. Some may not have referenced Hell directly, but certainly spoke to universalism or annihilationism.

    CMP, tonight my small group met for session 6 of TTP Intro to Theology. So where do you place this issue on your concentric circles of essential/non-essential beliefs?

  17. Paige-Patric Samuels March 17, 2011 at 7:51 am

    The Problem with the doctrine of Eternal Torment, is not really about orthodoxy or dogma , it is the hermeneutics of the grammatical historicity of nuance of particular Greek words. the Greek for eternal is Aion, this does not express endlessness, in all the Lexicons and Greek grammars, none define Aion as endlessness. As a matter of fact when transliterated you have the english equivalent Eon and the plural eons and the adjective eonian that which relates to the eons. This is longest duration of time, each of which is marked off by judgment. If we by way of observation, note that there is not one scripture that really teach eternal torment. For this them questions the character of God, as the God of Love. As judge he must do right in the earth and as a judge He it is that makes the decision as to the fate of humanity. Judges in the human prescetive do not punish, they correct , by righting the wrong, by making a decisions as to the fate of the offender. It is not up to us to do that

  18. Its a pity this thread has stopped. I hope it is temporary as I have a question based on my reading of the following by William Barclay in his defence of universalism:

    “Further, it is claimed that universalism does away with free-will. Early on in his thought Origen has the astonishing picture of a universe in which the free-will always obtains and in which to the end of time a man can fall from heaven and rise from hell; but in the end he came to think in terms of a final decision. What is forgotten is that God has eternity to work in. It is not a question of God, as it were, rushing a man into heaven. It is a question of God using an eternity of persuasion and appeal until the hardest heart breaks down and the most stubborn sinner repents.””

    To my mind, Barclay’s conclusion simply does not make sense. Is it realistic to believe that a poor wretch that has been writhing in unspeakable agony over aeons to suddenly believe that God’s treatment of him is born out of love?

  19. St Isaac the Syrian says the following:

    “As for me I say that those who are tormented in hell are tormented by the invasion of love. What is there more bitter and violent than the pains of love? Those who feel they have sinned against love bear in themselves a damnation much heavier than the most dreaded punishments. The suffering with which sinning against love afflicts the heart is more keenly felt than any other torment. It is absurd to assume that the sinners in hell are deprived of God’s love. Love is offered impartially. But by its very power it acts in two ways. It torments sinners, as happens here on earth when we are tormented by the presence of a friend to whom we have been unfaithful. And it gives joy to those who have been faithful.”

    I have a feeling that the author of this blog is assuming that what all the above authors mean by hell is the same as what he means by hell. The teaching concerning hell is one that is orthodox. The teaching that hell is a torture chamber is not as universal as the Reformed would like to think.


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