The Origin and History of the
Doctrine of Endless Punishment

Chapter VI. The Intoduction of the Doctrine into the Christian Church

Thomas B. Thayer, 1881: That the first Christians brought many of their old opinions and errors with them into the Church, the New Testament itself abundantly shows. The Jewish converts clung to the [Pharisaic interpretation of the] Mosaic Law with strongest grasp, and sought to make it the gate through which all must enter into the Gospel kingdom.

The account given in Acts 15, and the debates in the apostolic council at Jerusalem, show how powerful were the influences from this quarter. And even Peter requires the teachings of a special vision, the sheet let down from heaven with all manner of beasts, and fowls of the air, and creeping things (Acts 10), before he can see that the law of Jewish [Pharisaic] ordinances is no longer in force, and that Jews and Gentiles must stand on the same level of faith and grace.

The epistles to the Romans and Galatians were written by Paul, the apostle of the Gentiles, expressly to combat this Jewish [Pharisaic] tendency among the first converts, and to show that salvation was not of the Law, but of grace, through faith. The impression among many of the first disciples was, that the Gospel was only a kind of expanded or perfected Judaism, that the Messiah was to establish the authority and dominion of the Law, and that all who refused to conform to the Mosaic faith and ritual, would be excluded from the privileges and blessings of his kingdom.

As we have seen, the Jews had already grossly corrupted the religion of the Law, at least the Pharisees, and the body of the people who followed them, and had adopted, among other Pagan notions, that of endless punishment. This was to be the portion of all who rejected the Law, or, in other words, of the Gentiles generally. Of course, the Jewish converts, entering the Christian church with the impression that it was only the completion of the [Pharisaic interpretation of the] Law, the flowering of their own religion, would take this exclusive spirit and doctrine with them, and apply them as we have seen they did in the writings already named. In Acts 15, for example, it is written: "Then rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees, which believed (that is, converts to the Gospel), saying, that it was needful to circumcise them (the Gentiles), and to command them to keep the Law of Moses."

Speaking of the "Judaism of the infant church," Milman justly says that these "old prejudices and opinions even Christianity could not altogether extirpate or correct in the earlier Jewish proselytes, nor the perpetual tendency to contract the expanding circle, the enslavement of Christianity to the provisions of the Mosaic Law, and the spirit of the antiquated religion of Palestine."

At a later period "that exclusiveness still remained which limited the divine favor to a certain race, and would scarcely believe that foreign branches could be engrafted into the parent stock, even though incorporated with it, and still obstinately resisted the notion that Gentiles, without becoming Jews, could share in the blessings of the promised Messiah - or in their state of uncircumcision, or at least of insubordination to the Mosaic ordinances, become heirs of the kingdom of heaven."

Again he says: "A kind of latent Judaism has constantly lurked in the bosom of the Church. During the darker ages of Christianity, its sterner spirit harmonized with the more barbarous state of the Christian mind .... while the great characteristic of the old religion, its exclusiveness, its restriction of the divine blessings within a narrow and visible pale, was too much in accordance both with pride and superstition, not to reassert its ancient dominion."

(Milman's Hist. of Christianity, Book iii,chap. ii. See also the same in substance in Neander, vol. i., p. 3, 4, etc.; Mosheim vol. i, cent. 1; and Conybeare's Life and Epistles of St. Paul, vol. i., pp. 441-459. Chrysostom complains that the Christians of the 4th century, even, are half Jews. [Unfortunately, Chrysostom himself was contaminating Christianity with paganism.] Between the two corrupting forces, Jewish and Pagan, the pure doctrines of the Gospel had little chance of coming out of the conflict unharmed; and the facts show that they did not.)

The same statements hold good with regard to the Gentile or heathen converts. They could not in a moment divest themselves of the opinions and traditions in which they had grown up from childhood. And many of them were only half-converted, and but partially understood the doctrines and spirit of the Gospel.

St. Paul had frequent conflicts with Pagan notions both of the vulgar sort, and those that came from Oriental and Greek philosophy. His epistles abundantly show this, sometimes warning against these errors, and sometimes elaborately confuting them. "O Timothy, keep that which is committed to thy trust, avoiding profane and vain babblings, and oppositions of science [gnosis, not modern science], falsely so called; which some professing have erred concerning the faith." 1 Tim. 6:20, 21. "Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ," Col. 2:8. See, also, the "worshipping of angels," verse 18; and the "endless genealogies" and "fables" mentioned in 1 Tim. 1:4.

Then there were some also in the church of Corinth who even denied the resurrection: "How say some among you there is no resurrection of the dead?" 1 Cor. 15. Others there were who denied that Christ came in the flesh, or, in other words, that he had a real human body of flesh and blood; affirming that his body was only an appearance, and not a reality. John speaks of these in strong terms, 1 John 4:3; 2 John 7. And in Revelations there is mention of the Nicolaitanes, a sect who mixed Pagan and Christian things together, and were half idolaters, Rev 2:6, 15, 2 Pet. 2. Beside these, there were "false teachers,"' who set themselves up in the church in direct opposition to the apostles, denying their authority and doctrine.

These facts show how, even while the personal disciples of Jesus were yet alive, errors and false doctrines crept into the church from the Pagan side, as well as from the Jewish. The first converts of course accepted the great historical facts of the Gospel history, but they retained also many of their old opinions, some of which were in direct opposition to the genius and doctrines of Christianity, The apostles, by their diligent watch and ready refutation, kept these Pagan tendencies measurably in check; but when they had all departed, the corruption became more rapid, and the mixture of Pagan doctrines with those of the Gospel more complete.

"Very soon after the rise of Christianity," says Enfield, "many persons, who had been educated in the schools of the philosophers, becoming converts to the Christian faith, the doctrines of the Grecian sects, and especially Platonism, were interwoven with the simple truths of pure religion. As the Eclectic philosophy spread, Heathen and Christian doctrines were still more intimately blended, till, at last, both were almost entirely lost in the thick clouds of ignorance and barbarism which covered the earth." (History of Philosophy, Preliminary Obs. See also Book vi., ch. ii., where he repeatedly states "the fathers of the church departed from the simplicity of the apostolic age, and corrupted the purity of the Christian faith," "disseminated Platonic notions as Christian truths," etc.)

If the four gospels and the apostolic writings had not been preserved to us in their integrity, it would be impossible to tell what sort of a Christianity we should have had by this time. Surely it is easy enough to see how, in such a general corruption of doctrine, such a confused mixing up of Christian, Jewish and Pagan opinions and dogmas, the doctrine of endless punishments would get introduction to the church, and foothold in the creed. Both Jews and Pagans believed it; and, as we have seen, they brought with them into the church many of their old errors and heathenish superstitions and traditions, and this even in the life-time of the immediate disciples of Christ; how much more so, then, at a later period; for this amalgamation of truth and falsehood, this unseemly union of Christ and Belial, grew worse and worse from century to century.

I have not room to quote many authorities. One or two citations from Mosheim must suffice, with this prefatory remark, that one of the chief causes of the adaptation of Christian doctrines and rites to the Pagan standard was the hope of alluring them in this way into the church, "Among the Greeks and the people of the East nothing was held more sacred than their Mysteries. This led the Christians, in order to impart dignity to their religion, to have similar mysteries, or certain holy rites concealed from the vulgar. And they not only applied the Pagan terms, but introduced also their rites. A large part, therefore, of the Christian observances and institutions, even in this century (the second) had the aspect of the Pagan mysteries."

Speaking of the 5th century, he says, "As no one objected to Christians retaining the opinions of their Pagan ancestors respecting the soul, heroes, demons, temples, and the like; and as no one proposed utterly to abolish the ancient Pagan institutions, but only to alter them somewhat and purify them; it was unavoidable that the religion and the worship of the Christians should in this way become corrupted. This I will also add, that the doctrine of the purification of souls after death by means of some sort of fire, which afterwards became so great a source of wealth to the clergy, acquired in this age more development and a more imposing aspect."

Finally, he says, "The barriers of ancient simplicity and truth being once violated, the state of theology waxed worse and worse; and the amount of the impure and superstitious additions to the religion of Christ is almost indescribable. The controversial theologians of the East continued to darken the great doctrines of revelation by the most subtle distinctions, and I know not what philosophical jargon. Those who instructed the people at large made it their sole care to imbue them more and more with ignorance, superstition, reverence for the clergy," etc. (Murdock's Mosheim, cent. ii., iv., v., vi. History of Theology. See also Neander's History of Christianity, vol. i 248-254.)

Tytler has the following: "As the Christian religion was received, at first, by many, from the conviction of its truth from external evidence, and without a due examination of its doctrines, it was not surprising that many who called themselves Christians should retain the doctrines of a prevailing philosophy to which they had been accustomed, and endeavor to accommodate these to the system of revelation which they found in the sacred volumes. Such, for example, were the Christian Gnostics, who intermixed the doctrines of the Oriental philosophy concerning the two separate principles, a good and evil, with the precepts of Christianity, and admitted the authority of Zoroaster as an inspired personage, equally with that of Christ. Such, likewise, were the sect of the Ammonians, who vainly endeavored to reconcile together the opinions of all the schools of Pagan philosophy, and attempted, with yet greater absurdity, to accommodate all these to the doctrines of Christianity. From this confusion of the Pagan philosophy with the plain and simple doctrines of the Christian religion, the church, in this period of its infant state, suffered in a most essential manner." (Tytler's Universal History, Book vi, chapter iv)

Other writers bear similar testimony to the manner in which Christianity was disfigured and corrupted by the introduction of Pagan dogmas and rites, and of philosophical speculations, into the place of the pure doctrines of Christ. Many of the converts to the Gospel, who had studied in the schools of heathen philosophy, entered upon the office of Christian teachers, and taking their philosophy with them, they unconsciously, in many cases, mingled it with the teachings of their new faith, "Under the bias of a strong partiality for Plato and his doctrine, many of them," says Enfield, "tinctured the minds of their disciples with the same prejudice, and thus disseminated Platonic notions as Christian truths; doubtless little aware how far this practice would corrupt the purity of the Christian faith, and how much confusion and dissension it would occasion in the Christian church." "A union of Platonic and Christian doctrines was certainly attempted in the second century by Justin Martyr, Athenagoras and Clemens Alexandrinus [Clement of Alexandria], in whose writings we frequently meet with Platonic sentiments and language, and it is not improbable that this corruption took its rise still earlier."

These testimonies are sufficient to show how openly, and to what extent, the doctrines and speculations of Paganism were, at an early period, incorporated into the common faith of Christians, And surely it would be surprising if the doctrine of punishments after death, of endless punishments, which had acted so important a part in the ancient theology and politics, should not have found place among these manifold corruptions. It would be strange enough if the old fables of Hades and Tartarus were not introduced as a means of governing the ignorant multitude, and used as engines of terror against their enemies and persecutors.

And, yet, it must be confessed that we meet with very much less of this than might be expected. It is certainly a matter of wonder that we do not find the departure, on this point, from the simplicity of apostolic teaching earlier and greater than it really was. On other points the corruption of Christian doctrine began much sooner, and spread more rapidly, than on this of future endless punishment. Among the immediate successors of the apostles, either there is no allusion to it at all, or it is in a very vague and questionable manner, or coming in some other shape than that of torment.

The first Christian documents extant after the New Testament, are the writings of the apostolical fathers, or what pass under that name. It is proper to say that there is a difference of opinion among scholars as to the genuineness of a portion of these. It is generally conceded that the [first] epistle of Clement of Rome is genuine [85 A.D.-110 A.D.]; and that of Polycarp, [105-170 A.D.] with the exception of one or two interpolations. The epistle of Barnabas [80-130 A.D., possible, 95-100 A.D. probable] is exceedingly doubtful, and it seems certain that it could not have been the production of that Barnabas who was the companion of Paul. The Shepherd of Hermas [90-150 A.D.] was not written by the Hermas mentioned in Rom. 16:14, but by a brother of Pius, Bishop of Rome, about the middle of the second century. The seven epistles of Ignatius [100-130 A.D.] exist in two forms, one copy very much shorter than the other, and both of them probably either forgeries outright, or largely interpolated [ - modern scholars now accept the shorter form as authentic]. (I have used these writings of the so-called apostolic fathers, in argument, elsewhere; but a more careful inquiry into their authority has shaken my faith in their genuineness, or their purity, to the extent named above.)

And, even if they were all allowed to be genuine, large allowance would be necessary in regard to the statements made in them. As Jortin remarks in regard to the Christian fathers generally, they "are often poor and insufficient guides in matters of judgment and criticism, and in the interpretation of the Scriptures, and sometimes in points of morality also, and of doctrine; as Daille, Whitby, and Barbeyrac have fully showed."

A.D. 90. Clement of Rome. The [first] epistle of Clement contains nothing to our point. It says not a word even of future punishment, unless he refers to it in the following passage: "Shall we think it to be any very great and strange thing for the Lord of all to raise up those that religiously serve him in the assurance of a good faith?" Ch. xii., Wake's Trans. [sec. 26 in Staniforth's "Early Christian Writings"]. This might be supposed to intimate that the righteous only would be raised up by the Lord of all; but a comparison with Paul's epistle to the Romans (8:11), shows that this is not necessarily his meaning, as Paul certainly believed in the resurrection of all, just and unjust.

A.D. 110. Ignatius. Supposing the epistles ascribed to this father to be genuine, and the date given correct, we find in them nothing definite on the question in review. Speaking of those who "by wicked doctrine corrupt the faith of God," he says: "He that is thus defiled shall depart into unquenchable fire; and so also shall he that hearkens to him." Ignatius to the Ephesians. iv. (Staniforth's 16).

Of course, nothing of endless or of future punishment can be predicated of the expression "unquenchable fire;" as our previous examination of the phrase showed its application to judgments and things of an earthly and temporal character.

The author evidently believed that the wicked would be denied a resurrection, though not annihilated, but left as disembodied spirits in Hades or the realms of the dead. He says of those who denied that Christ had a body of real flesh and blood, the same whom St. John mentions 1 John 4:2, 3, and 2 John 7: "As they believe so shall it happen to them; when, being divested of the body, they shall become mere spirits." Again he says "They die in their disputes; but much better would it be for them to receive the Eucharist, that they might one day rise through it" - that is, through the body of Christ. (Epistle to the Smyrneans, chapts. i. 8, ii. 17. Wake's Translation. Compare with Epistle to Trallians and Romans.)

These passages indicate that the writer thought that the wicked and unbelieving would not rise through Christ, but continue in the underworld as "mere spirits". This opinion bears mark of its Jewish origin; and it is worthy of special notice, that, so far as we know; the doctrine of future punishment makes its appearance in the Christian church in precisely the same form in which it first appeared in the Jewish church! (see Chapter iv). This is certainly a curious coincidence; and it is the more remarkable from the fact that at this time the doctrine of punishment after death had assumed a more positive form both among Jews and Gentiles.

A.D. 112. Polycarp. The only thing bearing on our inquiry in the epistle of this father is the following: "Whosoever perverts the oracles of the Lord to his own lusts, and says that there shall be neither any resurrection, nor judgment, he is the first-born of Satan." (Epistle to Philippians, ii. Compare this passage with what Paul says of the same class, 1 Cor. 15:12, and 2 Tim. 2:18.)

This passage implies the belief of Polycarp in a judgment after the resurrection; and, though nothing specific is given, it probably involved some sort of punishment to the wicked, but what sort the epistle does not hint, whether denial of a resurrection, annihilation, or positive infliction of torment.

A.D. 130-140. Barnabas. The epistle bearing the name of this father is undoubtedly a forgery. One can hardly believe that the apostle so often mentioned in the New Testament as the friend of Paul, could write such crude and childish things as are found in this production.* (See Norton's Genuineness of the Gospels, Note F., on the Apostolical Fathers.)

It has a passage which says: "The way of darkness is crooked, and full of cursing; for it is the way of eternal death with punishment, in which they that walk meet with things that destroy their own souls." (Epistle of Barnabas, chapters xv, iv).

What the author means by "eternal death with punishment," I cannot tell; unless he believed, with Justin Martyr and others, that the wicked would be punished, and then annihilated. The phrase "destroy their own souls" may seem to confirm this supposition. He believed that Christ, after the resurrection, would judge the world, rewarding the righteous and punishing the wicked.

A.D. 150. Shepherd of Hermas. This is one of the most childish and puerile productions of the early church. It was written at Rome by a brother of Pius, then bishop of the church there. It is full of pretended visions and interview's with an angel, and the conversations on both sides, of man and angel, are as weak and insipid as the talk of those unfortunate persons called "simple."

It teaches plainly the doctrine of punishment after death, and uses the word "forever" or "eternal" in connection with it. But this, as we have seen, is not decisive of duration.

This is the sum of the evidence furnished by what are called the writings of the Apostolical Fathers. Though not all genuine, yet, if the dates have been correctly determined, they are good authority for showing the opinions of at least a portion of the Christian believers during the first half of the second century. And though we find that the doctrine of future punishment had by this time, perhaps, made its way into the church, we have no testimony to show that this punishment was believed to be endless.

On the other hand, side by side with the orthodox party, represented by these fathers, was another party known by the name of Gnostics, and regarded as heretics. They mixed up the speculations of Pagan philosophy with Christian doctrines, till the compound was as unintelligible as the speech of a lunatic. I refer to them only to show to what extent some of the early converts brought their old opinions and superstitions into the profession of Christianity. They differ from the orthodox party only in degree, the latter bringing less of the heathen element with them into the church. In some respects they were much nearer the simplicity of the Gospel than their opponents.

(If I were to institute a comparison between the two parties at this period, it would be something like this: That the faith of the Orthodox party was one half Christian, one quarter Jewish, and one quarter Pagan; while that of the Gnostic party was about one quarter Christian and three quarters philosophical Paganism. It is to be remembered, however, that all we know of the Gnostics comes to us through the writings of their enemies, and that, therefore, large allowances are to be made for misrepresentation. [We now have the Nag Hammadi scrolls, written by the Gnostics themselves.]

It is curious, however, to note among them the doctrine of transmigration, of which we have spoken so largely in connection with the Jews. The Basilidians and Carpocratians are supposed to have believed that those who faithfully follow the Saviour, ascend immediately to heaven; but that the disobedient and wicked will be punished by being sent into other bodies, of men or animals, till, purified by this transmigration, they shall be prepared to join the spirits of the blessed, and so all, at last, be saved,

And it is also worthy of notice that, though we have nothing definite from the orthodox party during this period (A.D. 90-150), respecting either endless punishment or universal restoration, they never attack the Gnostics on the score of their Universalism. They were in continual warfare with them on other points, on which they were accused of heresy; and it is fair to infer that, if this had been regarded as heresy by the orthodox party, it would have been attacked accordingly.

A.D. 140-166. Justin Martyr. This celebrated personage was a Grecian philosopher, and the first professed Christian scholar whose writings have come down to us. He was converted some thirty or forty years after the death of St. John, and entered zealously into the advocacy of the new religion, having presented two apologies, or elaborate defenses, one to the Emperor Antoninus Pius, A.D. 150; and the other to Marcus Antoninus, his successor, A.D. 162. His learning and reputation gave him a prominent place and great influence among the Christians, though be lacked judgment, was credulous, and often exceedingly absurd in his interpretation of Scripture. He suffered martyrdom at Rome about A.D. 166, and hence he is called Justin Martyr.

His conversion did not destroy his individuality, nor entirely redeem him from the bondage of the past. He retained many of his early heathen notions, and the dress and profession of a Platonic philosopher; and in some respects his creed was a sad mixture of Pagan falsehoods with Christian truths.

With regard to the subject of our inquiry, he uses the following language: "Every one is stepping forward into everlasting misery or happiness, according to his works." "Moreover we say that the souls of the wicked, being reunited to the same bodies, shall be consigned over to eternal torments, and not, as Plato will have it, to the period of a thousand years only," "Satan, with all his hosts of angels and men like himself, shall be thrust into fire, there to be tormented world without end, as our Christ hath foretold."

(First Apology, translated by W. Reeves, London, 1709, pp. 26, 31, 59. I do not know how far the translation is reliable, and have no means at hand of comparing with the original the expressions "world without end," "everlasting misery," etc., but suppose the Greek in these cases to be aion and its derivations.)

These passages are strongly phrased, and might be taken as evidence that Justin believed in endless punishment, if there was nothing in his writings to conflict with them. The contrast between the "thousand years" of Plato and the "eternal torments" believed by the Christians of his time, would seem to indicate that "eternal" was to be taken in the sense of absolute eternity. Still it was not, evidently, so intended; for Justin did not believe in endless torments, but in the final annihilation of the wicked, as the following will show:

"Souls are not immortal," says he, ... "I do not say that all souls will die. Those of the pious will remain (after death) in a certain better place, and those of the unholy and wicked in a worse, all expecting the time of judgment. In this manner, those which are worthy to appear before God never die; but the others are tormented so long as God wills that they should exist and be tormented. Whatever does or ever will exist in dependence on the will of God, is of a perishable nature, and can be annihilated so as to exist no longer. God alone is self-existent, and by his own nature imperishable, and therefore he is God; but all other things are begotten and corruptible. For which reason souls (of the wicked) both suffer punishment and die." (Dialogue with Trypho, cited in the Ancient History of Universalism, p. 58, 1st edit.)

This shows us that Justin believed that the punishment of the wicked after death, which he describes by the terms "eternal," "world without end," etc. - and which he contrasts with the Platonic thousand years in a way significant of endless, - after all, terminated in annihilation, and was not, therefore, endless. Nothing, I think, can more conclusively demonstrate the uncertainty of all these forms of expression, or illustrate more forcibly the latitude of their use, and the futility of attempting to build upon them the doctrine of absolutely endless punishment.

(Justin acknowledges that the doctrine of a future "just retribution of rewards and punishments was a current opinion in the world," and that God was "pleased to second this notion by the prophetic spirit." This is a curious confession; that God was not the original mover, but only seconded the motion! With singular inconsistency he says, in another place, that "the philosophers and poets took their hints of punishment after death, etc., from the prophets." We have already shown that they make not the slightest allusion to any such thing. First Apology, p. 79)

A.D. 140-150. The Sibylline Books. These were pretended oracles of the famous heathen Sibyl, or prophetess, forged by some Christians about this period, for the purpose of converting the Pagans to the church. They are a miserable mixture of heathenism and Christianity, and are valuable only as evidence of the state of opinion among a portion of Christian believers at the date given.

They repeatedly declare the punishment of the wicked to be "everlasting," and yet distinctly assert that the wicked will finally be restored. After describing the horrible torments of the damned, they declare that "God will confer another favor on his worshippers, when they shall ask him; he shall save mankind from the pernicious fires and immortal agonies. This he will do. For having gathered them, safely secured from the unwearied flame, and appointed them another place," etc.

(Ancient History of Universalism, p. 52; Murdock's Mosheim, i. 130; and especially Milman's History of Christianity, B. ii. chap. 7.)

The description of this "other place," which he calls the "Elysium of the immortals," shows a large admixture of Pagan elements; which was probably necessary to the purpose of the composition, viz., the conversion of Pagans. The language is adapted to their capacity and tastes - the same error which led to the monstrous corruptions alluded to in the beginning of this chapter.

A. D. 160-190. During this period we have several productions which employ the usual phrases in regard to the subject, such as "everlasting fire," "eternal punishment," and their equivalents. The last date brings us to the distinguished Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, in France. He taught that the wicked would be cast into inextinguishable and eternal fire. And yet he did not believe that they would be punished endlessly, for he undoubtedly adopted the doctrine of the final annihilation of the disobedient and unrighteous. He says: "The principle of existence is not inherent in our own constitutions, but is given us of God - and the soul can exist only so long as God wills. He who cherishes the gift of existence, and is thankful to the Giver, shall exist forever; but he who despises it, and is ungrateful, deprives himself of the privilege of existing forever." .... "He who is unthankful to God for this temporal life, which is little, cannot justly expect from him an existence which is endless." (Ancient Hist of Universalism, chap. ii., sec. xi., where the references are given to the work against the heretics.)

These extracts from his work against heretics, are clear proof that he was of the same opinion with Justin Martyr, that the souls of the wicked will be annihilated after a period of punishment in everlasting fire." For he believed they would be sent into this fire after the judgment, which was to succeed the resurrection, according to his creed. His words are: "Evil spirits, and the angels who sinned and became apostates, and the impious, and the unjust, and the breakers of the law, and the blasphemers among men, he will send into everlasting fire."

A.D. 200-220. Tertullian. This father was originally a Pagan; by birth, an African, and a lawyer by profession. He seems to have believed in the strictly endless punishment of the wicked, and to have argued against the doctrine of their annihilation, or, to use his own words, against the doctrine that "the wicked would be consumed, and not punished," that is, endlessly.

He is the first, as far as can be ascertained, who expressly affirmed, and argued the question, that the torments of the damned would be equal in duration to the happiness of the blessed.

Tertullian was of a fierce and fiery temper, when provoked, and seems a fitting personage to stand godfather in the infernal baptism by which this doctrine was received into the Christian church. He discourses on the subject of hell-torments in the following exultant strain:

"You are fond of your spectacles," said he to the Pagans; "but there are other spectacles; that day disbelieved, derided by the nations; the last and eternal day of judgment, when all ages shall be swallowed up in one conflagration; what a variety of spectacles shall then appear! How shall I admire, how laugh, how rejoice, how exult, when I behold so many kings, and false gods in heaven, together with Jove himself, groaning in the lowest abyss of darkness! - so many magistrates, who persecuted the name of the Lord, liquefying in fiercer flames than they ever kindled against Christians; so many sage philosophers blushing in raging fire, with their scholars whom they persuaded to despise God, and to disbelieve the resurrection; and so many poets shuddering before the tribunal, not of Rhadamanthus, not of Minos, but of the disbelieved Christ! Then shall we hear the tragedians more tuneful in the expression of their own sufferings; then shall we see the dancers far more sprightly amidst the flames; the charioteer all red-hot in his burning car; and the wrestlers hurled, not upon the accustomed list, but upon a plain of fire."

(Guizot attempts to soften the translation of Gibbon, but Milman frankly owns that "it would be wiser for Christianity, retreating upon its genuine records in the New Testament, to disclaim this fierce African, than to identify itself with his furious invectives, by unsatisfactory apologies for their unchristian fanaticism." Decline and Fall, chap. xv., Note 72 and the text.)

(Jortin says: "Tertullian had no small share of credulity; he proves the soul is corporeal from the visions of an illuminated sister, who told him she had seen a soul! (Probably a `medium'. Here is a touch of the delusion of our day, in which Tertullian seems to have been a believer.) He affirms roundly that a fine city was seen for forty days suspended in the air over Jerusalem." Remarks on Eccl. Hist. vol, ii. 81.)

(Whether such a man's belief of endless punishment is of any importance, as regards the question of its truth or divine origin, the reader can judge.)

The man who could write this may well be allowed the honor of giving to the monstrous doctrine of endless torments a place in the Christian church; and we should have selected him, of all others, as its fitting representative in spirit, and in the savage and vindictive character of his feelings towards his enemies.

And now that we have the foul thing fairly introduced among the professed followers of the Gospel, let us note the steps of its progress, and mark its growth from the first departure from the simplicity of Christ, to the full development of the monster in the time of Tertullian.

First. The denial of a resurrection to the wicked and unbelieving, the soul remaining in Hades as a disembodied spirit. A.D. 110, or some ten years after the death of St. John.

Second. The judgment after death, and the punishment of the unbelieving and wicked. A.D. 112-140.

Third. The future torment, and final annihilation, of the souls of the wicked. A.D. 140-190.

Fourth. The future endless torment of the wicked, as set forth by Tertullian. A.D. 200- 220.

(It will be observed that just in the ratio the church departs, in time, from Christ, and becomes corrupt and heathenish, just in that ratio the punishment of the wicked increases in cruelty. Compare the first doctrine and date, A.D. 110, with the fourth, A. D. 220, when the abomination is complete.)

These seem to be the steps forward, the method of growth, which marked the reception of the old Pagan doctrine into the faith of the Christians. And the great wonder is that, considering the extent to which this dogma was received among both Jews and heathens, it did not get foothold in the church before; especially when we remember how rapidly other philosophical speculations and Pagan notions prevailed to the corruption of the pure doctrines of Christ. And yet it takes a hundred and seventy years from the death of Christ, and a hundred from the last of his personal disciples, to establish this abomination as a part of the Christian creed.

Nay, this is granting more than the facts will warrant, for it cannot be said to have been established as an article.of belief at this period, but only that it was received by some Christians. Others did not receive it at all - and the Gospel doctrine of universal restoration was held by some of the most eminent of the Christian fathers at the same time Tertullian and others avowed their faith in endless punishment.

But slowly the corruption spread, and little by little the Pagan dogma gained upon the Christian doctrine, till at last, partly, in consequence of personal quarrels among those concerned, the primitive teaching on this point was condemned in a Church council held A.D. 553 (or 540) - and the doctrine of endless punishment sanctioned as a fundamental article of Christian faith. I repeat again, it is truly wonderful, considering the general corruption of the church in these centuries, that it should take five hundred years for this favorite Pagan dogma to yet itself established as orthodoxy! Yet such is the fact.

(It may edify the reader, and enable him to put a just value on the wisdom of this council, to know that the same decree which established the orthodoxy of endless punishment, also established, as a fundamental article of Christian faith, that "mankind, in the resurrection, will rise in an erect posture!")

In order to prevent all misunderstanding on the point in question, and for the purpose of shutting off any misrepresentation of the real position here assumed, I must call attention again to the fact, already mentioned in chapter v. section iv, and partly illustrated in this chapter, that the early writers of the church frequently speak of "everlasting" or "eternal punishment." But these expressions are used just as freely by those who are known to believe in the annihilation of the wicked, and by those who are acknowledged on all hands as believers in universal redemption; so that these phrases are no evidence of a belief in endless punishment. There is a great difference, as the Scriptures show, between "eternal" or "everlasting," and "endless."

For example: Justin Martyr and Irenaeus say the wicked will be condemned to everlasting punishment, and after this will be annihilated. So the author of the Sibylline Oracles, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Titus the Bishop of Bostra, Gregory, etc., use the phrase "everlasting" or "eternal punishment" without reserve, though they were acknowledged Universalists. It is plain, therefore, that aionios or "eternal" was not employed by them in the sense of endless; and that the use of this phraseology among the early Christians is no evidence of their belief in endless torments.

Augustine, who flourished about A.D. 400 to 430, was the first to argUe that aionios signified strictly endless. He attempted a criticism on the original word, maintaining at first that it always meant endless; but this being so bold and palpable a blunder, he was compelled to abandon it, admitting that it did not always mean endless, but did sometimes; and he brings Matt. 25:46, as proof, arguing that if the "everlasting punishment" was not endless, the "eternal life" was not. And this criticism has been handed down from his time to the present, and is still employed with great confidence, notwithstanding it forces into the spiritual world a judgment which the Saviour expressly declared should take place in that generation, before some then living should die. Matt. 24:30-34; 16:28; Luke 9:26, 27.

I have now followed the inquiry respecting the origin of the doctrine of Endless Punishment and its introduction among the Jews and Christians, as far as the purpose I have in view seems to require. The object has been to furnish the reader with an outline, simply, of the argument, to present the method of inquiry, and facts and authorities enough to justify the conclusions. It is possible that the facts and citations may be new to many believers in this doctrine, not accustomed to examine the foundations of their belief; and it may induce some to enter into an inquiry on the general subject, more thorough and critical than the narrow limits assigned to this sketch would allow.

Only one thing remains to complete the plan originally proposed to myself, and that is to illustrate briefly, from history and facts, the influence of the doctrine on society, and on the morals and happiness of its believers. It is a just rule established by the Saviour, that "the tree is known by its fruits;" and though great caution should be used in any attempt to connect conduct directly with faith, as an evidence of its moral tendencies, yet I think in this case the connection and dependance are so obvious, there is little danger of any serious error. The history of the doctrine of Endless Punishment, in its effects on the character and action of those believing it, is one of the most painful and shocking in the annals of mankind; and I know of nothing which exposes with a more terrible eloquence the shallowness of the remark so often made, that "it is no matter what a man believes, if he only lives right."

If he lives right! - but, in order to live right, he must believe right, or at least he must not believe wrong. Always, as history witnesses, the disposition, character and practices of the individual, or of a people, have been formed, or in all important features modified, by the character and spirit of their religion or of the deity or deities worshipped by them.

This I shall illustrate in respect to the doctrine in review - and, shall endeavor to show that, with the Christian as well as with other men, a savage creed, if left unchecked to do its legitimate work, will beget a savage temper and a corresponding conduct; or, in one word, that "a corrupt tree cannot bring forth good fruit."

The importance of the subject presented in this chapter will justify the additional proofs which follow. No one familiar with the internal history of the Church in the centuries immediately following the apostolic age will require any farther proof than this knowledge will afford him, that it was scarcely possible that the dogma of endless punishment should not find its way into such a mass of superstition and wickedness, such a sink of theological and moral corruption. The following is from an article in the Contemporary Review on "The Corruption of Christianity by Paganism:"

"That a vast revolution actually took place in very many of the doctrines, and in all the external usages, of the Church, between the age of Constantine [325 A.D.] and that of Justinian [550 A.D.], is a simple matter of history. The truth is too patent to be denied, account for it how we will. The explanation which seems most probable is that which ascribes the change in Christianity to its gradual fusion with the Paganism of the empire."

"The revolution had, like most others, various predisposing causes, which long wrought in silence before their effect became visible. Three are enough to mention: The irresistible tendency of the age towards superstition; the familiar intercourse between the heathen populace and the lower order of Christians; and, lastly, the credulity and false philosophy of most of the learned Christian divines, and their well-meant but mistaken policy in dealing with corruptions introduced by the ignorant. The condition of the Roman world from the very beginning of Christianity was extremely unpropitious to the preservation of its purity; and, as the ancient civilization declined through misgovernment and social disorganization, it became increasingly difficult for the Church to struggle against the mischievous influences that beset her on every side."

"No doubt many Pagan customs were adopted without any bad intention, or, as in the recommendation of Gregory the Great to Augustine of Canterbury [597 A.D.], with the good object of winning the heathen to the gospel. The ceremonial and legendary system of Paganism had many romantic charms which are still retained by them under their Christian dress. But, though some admixture of Pagan ideas and practices might be innocently tolerated, it is quite another matter when we see a vast structure of errors, such as apostles and martyrs died to withstand, superadded to the faith once delivered to the saints." (Reprinted in Littell's Living Age for April 23, 1870. Other testimonies may be seen in Mosheim, i. 115, 125, etc.; Enfield's Hist. Phil. ii. 27 1, 281, etc., and in Church historians generally.)

The facts which are gathered into the note below are painful enough; but it is necessary to give place to them in order that the inquirer may fully understand how so abominable a doctrine as that of endless punishment, and so hostile to the spirit of the gospel, should have found its way into the creed of the Christian Church.

(The great ecclesiastical historian, Eusebius, heads chap. xxxi. Of Book 12 of his Evangelical Preparation thus: "How far it may be proper to use falsehood as a medicine, and for the benefit of those who require to be deceived." And he undertakes to defend the propriety of using falsehood by appealing to pretended examples in the Old Testament. Origen avowed the same principle (Mosheim's Dissertations, p. 293), Bishop Horsley, in his controversy with Dr, Priestley, states the same fact. At page 160, he says, "Time was, when the practice of using unjustifiable means to serve a good cause was openly avowed; and Origen himself was among its defenders." Chrysostom, Bishop of Constantinople, defended the same doctrine (Mosheim Diss.., p. 205). Gregory of Nazianzen (A.D. 360-390), renamed "the Divine," says, "A little jargon is all that is necessary to impose on the people. The less they comprehend, the more they admire. Our forefathers and doctors of the Church have often said, not what they thought, but what circumstances and necessity dictated to them.")

Synesius (A.D. 400-420) Bishop of Ptolemais, says, "The people are desirous of being deceived. We cannot act otherwise respecting them." And a little further on he says, "For my own part, to myself I shall always be a philosopher; but in dealing with the mass of mankind I shall be a priest" (Cave's Eccl. p. 115).

St. Jerome (A.D. 380) says, "I do not find fault with an error which proceeds from hatred towards the Jews, and pious zeal for the Christian faith (Opera, iv. p. 113), Mosheim "especially includes in the same charge" Ambrose (A.D. 270), Bishop of Milan, Hilary, Bishop of Poitiers, and Augustine (A.D. 400), Bishop of Hippo, "whose fame," says Mosheim, "filled, not without reason, the whole Christian world. We would willingly," he adds, "except them from this charge; but truth, which is more respectable than these venerable fathers, obliges us to involve them in the general accusation."

Dr. Chapman, in his Miscellaneous Tracts, p. 191, says, "The learned Mosheim, a foreign divine, and zealous advocate for Christianity, who by his writings has deserved the esteem of all good and learned men, intimates his fears, that those who search with any degree of attention into the writings of the fathers and most holy doctors of the fourth century will find them all, without exception, disposed to lie and deceive whenever the interests of religion require it."

The learned Dodwell, in a work published by him, "abstains from producing more proofs of ancient Christian forgeries," "through his great veneration for the goodness and piety of the fathers," what a strange and inconsistent reason was this! Universalist Book of Reference, p. 359.

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.

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