The Origin and History of the
Doctrine of Endless Punishment

Chapter I. The Period Before the Lamp.

Thomas B. Thayer, 1881: The following two positions will be admitted without question, it is believed, by all Christians.

1st. If the doctrine of endless punishment be as affirmed by its believers, absolutely and indispensably necessary to the preservation of virtue, and to perfect obedience to the laws of God; if this be the salutary and saving influence of the doctrine, then it constitutes one of the strongest possible reasons for its being revealed to man at the very earliest period of the world's history.

2d. If endless punishment be true, it is terribly true to all those who are in danger - and if true, all mankind are in danger,- wherein is found another powerful reason why it should have been made known in the clearest manner, on the very morning of creation! In the clearest manner: it should not have been left in doubt and obscurity, by the use of indefinite terms; but it should have been proclaimed in language which no man could misunderstand, if he would. Rather than that there should even be the possibility of a mistake in a matter of such vast and fearful moment, it should have been graven by special miracle into every soul that God sent into the world.

Let us, then, proceed to inquire if we have any such revelation of the doctrine. When God created Adam and Eve, and placed them in the garden of Eden, did he announce to them any law for their observance, having attached to it the penalty in question? Surely justice demanded, if he had forced them into being subject to this awful peril, that he should set out before them both the law and its punishment in the most specific manner. Did he do this? Where is the record of it? Read diligently the first and second chapters of Genesis, and see if anything of this sort is recorded there, in connection with the creation of man.

In Genesis 2:15-17, we have this statement: "And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die."

This is the only record we have bearing on the subject; but there is no moral law here, which is declared as the future rule of life for them, and for all their posterity. They are simply commanded not to eat of the forbidden tree. Now, whether this is understood in a literal or allegorical sense, we cannot suppose that we have here the formal announcement of a divine law, which claimed the obedience of all mankind on the penalty of endless torment. We certainly cannot believe that God would open the great drama of our life on this earth, involving such infinite consequences, in such brief and doubtful language, and with so little specification where so much was needed.

As regards the penalty of disobeying the commandment, do we find any statement which can he mistaken for endless punishment? God says, "In the day thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die;" but this is very far from saying, "thou shalt, after the death of the body, be subjected to the torments of an endless hell."

We are told, to be sure, that this means "death temporal, death spiritual, and death eternal;" but where is the proof of it? So terrible a doctrine must not be assumed, but demonstrated by unquestionable evidence. Who can believe that God would reveal so frightful a punishment in language so easily misunderstood - by the single word "die," a term employed in such a variety of senses, capable of such a wide latitude of usage?

Would any earthly parent, if the immortal salvation of his children were at stake, have been as careless of his speech? Would he have chosen language so liable to be mistaken? Would he not rather have announced the awful truth in words which would admit of no possible doubt? Beside, if the terrors of this punishment are so effectual in preventing transgression, this was another reason for a specific declaration of the consequences of disobedience. If the argument on this point is good, a plain, open threat of endless woe at the very gate of Eden, as they entered, might have kept them back from the forbidden tree, and saved them and our race from the dreadful evils which followed the introduction of sin into the world.

But let us turn now to the record of their transgression, and of some other examples, where, if the doctrine is of divine origin and authority, we may surely expect to find it announced, and the weight of its awful curse brought down upon the guilty victims.

1. The first transgression. Gen. 3:1-16. As this is the beginning of the sorrowful tragedy of evil, we may look for some distinct revelation of the doctrine in review, if it is of God; yet not one word is said in reference to it, nor is there any threat of punishment that can be mistaken for it!

The serpent is cursed, and the ground is cursed; but neither the man nor the woman! And observe carefully all the words of the sentence, and while mention is made of evils to be endured in this life, not the most distant allusion is made to any evil or punishment beyond this life. Now, if the doctrine of interminable torment after death be true, how are we to account for this? Can it be possible that God would be so careful to mention all the lesser evils, and wholly omit all mention of the terrible woes that are to have no end?

Who can believe that a just lawgiver and ruler would deal thus with his people? And of all things who can believe that the divine Father would deal thus treacherously with his own children?

But how differently the case stands, when we come to the doctrine of a present retribution for sin. In the very outset God warns our first parents against transgression, and in the most positive terms declares to Adam, "In the day thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die." Is not this clear enough? In the very day of transgression they should die, or suffer the punishment of their sin, and this surely, beyond question or doubt. And was this assurance of God fulfilled? Most certainly; for they had no sooner sinned, than the retribution began, and they died to the peace and joy of innocence. The day of transgression was the day of judgment, They found that the wages of sin were death, or, in other words, misery, fear, anguish, and all the direful consequences of wrong. And that their case may profit their posterity, a careful statement of the mournful consequences of the transgression is made up, and put on record as a warning to future generations.

2. Cain; or the murder of Abel. Gen. 4:1-16. Here we have an example of the greatest of all crimes, murder - the murder of a brother! Surely we may now expect the doctrine of endless punishment to be revealed; and it would seem that, if true, there is no possible way to avoid mention of it. This was the first instance of this awful crime, and, Cain standing exposed to the fearful penalty, this was the time to roll the thunder of its terrors through the world, as a warning to all coming generations! This must have been done, if true; and yet in the whole account we have not a single word on the subject, not the slightest intimation that any such punishment was threatened.

The whole record is as follows: "And the Lord said unto Cain, The voice of thy brother's blood crieth unto me from the ground! And now art thou cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother's blood from thy hand. When thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength; a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth."

This is all we have in the way of punishment or threatenings; and is there anything here that looks like endless torments beyond this life? Anything that would suggest the idea of such a judgment? Nothing at all; the guilty man is cursed from the earth, which is to refuse her fruits to his culture, and is driven out a vagabond; and there is the end of the account.

And it is evident that Cain did not understand the threats of judgment as implying endless woe, for his fears are all confined to the earth - the dread of revenge, of being killed, and the horrors of the life of an outcast and a vagabond. "And Cain said unto the Lord, My punishment is greater than I can bear. Behold, thou hast driven me out this day from the face of the earth - and from thy face shall I be hid; and I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth; and it shall come to pass that every one who findeth me shall slay me," These are all the evils of which Cain makes mention; and in view of them he exclaims, "My punishment is greater than I can bear."

Now; we put the question, can it be that, beside the punishments here named, Cain was to be subjected to endless torments after death, and yet be left wholly ignorant of the dreadful fate that awaited him? And if the guilty and wretched man thought the punishment actually denounced greater than he could bear, what would he have said, if, in addition to this, there had been threatened the agonies of an endless Hell?

And is it possible to believe, if this was the purpose of God, that he would be wholly silent in regard to it? Was it right to be silent, if the terrible fate of Cain could have served as a warning and a restraint to all who should come after him?

But again; it is said in verse 15, "Therefore, whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold." If infinite, endless torment is the punishment of Cain, how can sevenfold more than this be inflicted on another? Yet so it is written, and, therefore, either Cain's punishment was not endless woe, or there can be such a thing as sevenfold endless woe!

3. The deluge, or the destruction of the old world, Gen, 6-8. Here we have one of the most remarkable examples of wickedness and judgment recorded in the Bible; and if ever anything is to be said on the subject of endless punishment, we may look for it here with the certainty of finding it. The description of the exceeding wickedness of the people who were destroyed in the flood may be seen in verses 5, 11, and 13, of chapter 7. The heart was given to evil, and "only evil continually;" the earth was filled with violence, and all flesh had corrupted his way upon the earth." Here, then, was precisely the time, here the circumstances, which required the revelation and preaching of endless punishment, if, as affirmed, its influence is restraining and saving. This was the occasion, of all others, to make it known, that, through its terrifying and subduing power, the depraved and corrupted people might be turned from their sins, and the world thereby saved from the overwhelming horrors of the flood.

And yet here, too, not one word is said on the subject in the whole account. Noah, who was "a preacher of righteousness," was not a preacher of endless punishment. No mention is made of his ever having breathed a syllable in reference to it; nor is there a single line in the record of this event, showing that God threatened this, or that any attempt was made to restrain or reform the people. through its influence. If the doctrine exerts the favorable influence ascribed to it, did God do all he might have done to reform and save them?

But again; in the account of their judgment we are told that they were destroyed by the flood from the face of the earth, everything that had breath; and with this the record closes, - 6:11-17; 7:10-24, Now if, as asserted, they were not only destroyed by the flood, but were afterwards subjected to the tortures of the world of ceaseless woe, is it not passing strange that no mention is made of this - not even an allusion to it? Is it possible that everything else should be carefully related, even to the height of the waters above the mountains, and the number of days they prevailed, and yet that the endless and indescribable torments of hell, the most terrible part of the judgment, and the most important to the world and to us, should be wholly omitted, and that without one word of explanation?

4. Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Gen. 18, 19. Here we have another instance of remarkable wickedness, and of terrible judgment. Yet, on examination, we find no warning given to the Sodomites of an endless fire, to which the soul would be subjected, after the fire by which the body should perish. The extreme wickedness of the people is set forth with graphic power, in the scene described in chapter 18:23-33; and it would seem a proper occasion for a revelation of endless punishment, if true; for such, if any, must certainly be its victims. But, if we turn to the record, chapter 19:24, 25, we find it contains no hint of the matter, neither in the way of warning to the Sodomites, nor of history for restraining future transgressors. If true, how is this omission to be explained in harmony with the acknowledged principles of justice, to say nothing of mercy?

What would we say of a ruler who should publish a law, affixing to it the penalty of ten stripes for every transgression; and then, having inflicted this, should proceed to burn the offender over a slow fire, till he sank under the torture and died? And what should we think, if, with devilish ingenuity, he should contrive to keep every one of his victims alive for a whole year, for ten years, in order that the slow torture might be lengthened out that time - and all this kept secret when the law was published, and the trivial penalty of ten stripes declared as the punishment?

Yet this is precisely the state of the case in the judgment under review, if the Sodomites were sent into endless torments.

The difficulty is not removed by reference to Jude 7. For, in the first place, the expression, "suffering the vengeance of eternal fire," does not establish the point of endless suffering, - "eternal" fire and endless fire being two things, quite distinct from each other. The original word means simply indefinite time, In the second place, it is said, they are "set forth as an example, suffering the vengeance," etc. Now the very argument is based on the fact, that the history of the overthrow of Sodom does not furnish an example of endless torment, since not one word is said on the subject by Moses, from beginning to end of his account! Where, then, is the example?

Admitting the common interpretation of Jude to be correct, it is involved in inextricable difficulty; for, 1st. It states a falsehood, since the Sodomites were not set forth as an example of endless punishment in the invisible world, as no record of it is given by Moses, or the prophets, or any sacred writer. 2d. How is it that all mention of the matter should have been omitted until the time of Jude, and then be introduced, as it clearly is, incidentally, in the way of illustration? If there is any restraining power in the example, why was it concealed from the world more than two thousand years? Why was not the awful fate which awaited them revealed to the victims in the first place? It might have saved them. Why did not the sacred historian give account of it, that the millions who lived and perished between the event and the time of Jude, might have bad the benefit of the example? If he was inspired, did he not know it? and if so, why was he silent?

But, as an example of divine judgment on the wicked here, in this world, visible to all future generations of men, the destruction of Sodom was worthy of special note, and exactly to the point of Jude's argument. And it is under this light that it is seen by some of the best-informed orthodox commentators.

Benson, in his note on the place, says: "By their suffering the punishment of eternal fire, St. Jude did not mean that those wicked persons were then, and would be always, burning in hell-fire. For he intimates that what they suffered was set forth to public view, and appeared to all as an example, or specimen, of God's displeasure against vice. That fire which consumed Sodom, etc., might be called eternal, as it burned till it had utterly consumed them, beyond the possibility of their ever being inhabited, or rebuilt."

Whitby's remarks are similar: "They are said to suffer the vengeance of eternal fire, not because their souls are at present punished in hell-fire, but because they, and their cities, perished by that fire from heaven, which brought a perpetual and irreparable destruction on them .... Nor is there anything more common and familiar in Scripture, than to represent a thorough and irreparable visitation, whose effects and signs should be still remaining, by the word aionios, which we here render eternal."

Gilpin says: "The apostle cannot well mean future punishments, because he mentions it as something that was to be a visible example to all." And others to the same effect; - see Paige's Selections on the place.

And thus we might follow out the inquiry in regard to every case of exceeding wickedness, or of great crimes; and we should find a specific statement, in every case, of the judgments inflicted on earth, up to the article of death, but the same marvelous silence in regard to the additional judgment of endless torment after death. We have accounts of the Builders of Babel, Joseph's Brethren, the Destruction of Pharaoh and his host, Lot's Wife, etc., but not a word in any of these of any judgment kindred to endless woe - not a word of any judgment after death. If these sinners were given over, after suffering the punishments recorded in the Bible, to infinitely, greater punishments to be perpetuated without end, then the most studied concealment has been purposely maintained in regard to the subject by the Scripture writers, or else they, were as utterly ignorant of the whole matter as we are.

But no conceivable reason can be imagined for concealing this tremendous fact, if it were a fact, but every reason for revealing and affirming it to all the world. If they had known or believed anything of the sort, they could not have been silent. The only possible inference is, that the people before the Law certainly knew nothing about the doctrine of endless torments after death. If true, it had not been revealed in the long period of two thousand five hundred years, from the creation to the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai. It is impossible to believe that, if true, God would have kept his children in the dark all this while; that no hint of it, no allusion to it, should have found place in His revelation to the Patriarchs; that He should never have threatened anything bordering upon it, in such cases of extreme wickedness as that of Cain, the Sodomites, and the corrupt inhabitants of the old world.

The just and inevitable conclusion then, is, that for twenty-five centuries, God had no design or thought of inflicting so dreadful an evil as endless punishment on His children. And, therefore, if we find it revealed in any subsequent portion of the Bible, it will be evident that it is a purpose which He has formed since the Patriarchal period; that it was not a part of His original plan of the world, but something which He has incorporated into it since.

The next step, therefore, in this inquiry, is to make examination of the Law records, in order to ascertain if we have any revelation of the doctrine there.

Do sinners burn forever in hell fire?...

The Origin and History of the
Doctrine of Endless Punishment

by Thomas B. Thayer, New and enlarged edition. Boston: Universalist Publishing House. 1881.


Why this book was written.
Chapter I. The Period before the Law of Moses.
No Law announced to our First Parents with the Penalty of Endless Punishments annexed
Not revealed in the History of their Transgression, nor in that of Cain, the Deluge, or Sodom and Gomorrah
Chapter II. The Period under the Law of Moses.
Sect. I. - Endless Punishment not taught by Moses in the Law nor is it mentioned anywhere in the Bible History of the Jews
Sect. II. - Testimony of Orthodox Critics and Theologians to this Point
Sect. III. - Old Testament Doctrine of Hell, Sheol
Sect. IV. - General Application of the Argument
Sect. V. - Objections to the foregoing Argument answered
Chapter III. Endless Punishment of Heathen Origin.
Sect. I. - Description of the Heathen Hell, its Location, Inhabitants, and Punishments; compared with Church Doctrines
Sect. II. - The Doctrine invented by Heathen Legislators and Poets; shown by their own Confession. Its Egyptian Origin
Chapter IV. The Jews Borrowed the Doctrine from the Heathen.
The Historical Argument on this Point
Chapter V. Endless Punishment Not Taught in the New Testament.
Sect I. -Salvation of Christ not from this
Sect. II. - New Testament Doctrine of Hell
Sect. III. - Unquenchable Fire; how used in the Scriptures; how used by Greek Writers
Sect. IV. - Everlasting, Eternal and Forever, not Endless
Testimony of Lexicographers and Critics
Usage of Greek Authors
Scripture Usage
Sect. V. - The Second Death
Chapter VI. The Introduction of the Doctrine into the Christian Church
The general Corruption of the early Church
First Appearance of the Doctrine - its Form
First, The Wicked not raised from the Dead, or Underworld
Second, Raised and Punished
Third, Future Punishment ending in Annihilation
Fourth, Endless Punishment
Condemnation of Universalism, and Endless Punishment decreed Orthodox, A. D. 553
Chapter VII. The Doctrine Creates a Cruel and Revengeful Spirit - Illustrated from History.
Influence of Faith on Character
Tertullian's Exultation
Catholic Crusades against the Albigenses
Massacre of St. Bartholomew
The Catholic Inquisition
The Spanish Inquisition; its Influence on Society
The Influence not confined to Catholic Believers of the Doctrine
Chapter VIII. The Comparative Moral Influence of Belief and Disbelief in Endless Punishment - Historical Contrast.
Its Influence on the Morals of the Heathen; Greeks, Romans, Burmans
The Character of the Pharisees and Sadducees contrasted in reference to this Point
Chapter IX. The Influence of the Doctrine on the Happiness of its Believers - Illustrated from their own Confessions.
Testimony of Saurin, Stuart, Barnes, Henry Ward Beecher, etc.
Chapter X. Additional Testimonies on the Questions Discussed in the Preceding Chapters.

Go to Literature Index Page

This URL is