This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 44, number 01 (2021). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
In our secular age of materialism coupled with the ubiquitous denial of personal sin, the historic Christian teaching about hell is increasingly attacked even from within the Church. Universalism can encompass a variety of beliefs about the afterlife, ranging from leaving the question of hell unanswered, to various ideas about purgatory, annihilation, or no holds barred instant access to heaven for everyone. Generally common to all these positions is the claim that the traditional view of hell is insensitive and incompassionate and thus cannot be true. Although the doctrine of hell is not popular, it features prominently in Jesus’ teaching. The biblical verses that speak of unending punishment have been scrutinized and assigned different interpretations by universalists, who argue that punishment may refer merely to a corrective pruning or a helpful discipline; and rather than “everlasting,” its duration may be merely “age-long.” To properly interpret the meaning of Scripture, I employ lexical studies, contextual analysis of a passage, analysis of context within the historical period and culture, and I examine the Church Fathers and councils. These disciplines point to an overwhelming consensus on the Church’s historic and traditional teaching that all will not be saved, and hell’s punishment for those who “neglect so great a salvation” (Heb. 2:3) is everlasting and conscious.
If we close off our hearts to God and thereby destroy our ability to change, repent, grow, and respond to His love, we will suffer throughout the endless ages locked in the suffocating sin we have freely chosen. The misery of the damned will be the final result of sin that, like a cancer, ate away all that was human, leaving behind only implacable rage, throbbing lust, and screaming rebellion. As C. S. Lewis said, “What is cast (or casts itself) into hell is not a man: it is ‘remains.’”
The Church’s teaching about hell shares with its teaching about Satan and the demonic the dubious distinction of being tremendously unpopular today and the object of scorn and derision. It is not hard to see why: in an age when materialism clothes itself in the (borrowed) vestments of science, there is little room for any of the bodiless powers, whether holy or unholy. And in an age that has lost the sense of sin, which former ages retained (be they pagan or Christian), the notion of eternally definitive retribution is also sure to lack credibility. It’s a little odd when you step back and think about it, given that the twentieth century has arguably seen more sin, horror, war, torture, and genocide than most other centuries combined. But the twentieth century is nothing if not a little odd.
For whatever reason, the Church’s traditional teaching about hell (or “Gehenna” to give its biblical name, which is distinct from Sheol/Hades, the land of all the dead in the Old Testament) has lately come under attack — including from Christian writers uncomfortable with the thought of anyone suffering forever. Older writers (including presumably the Church Fathers) are deemed by these modern authors too vindictive and insensitive, and lacking in moral compassion. These older writers, I think, would in turn suggest that their modern critics were being too squeamish. But, however the charges and counter-charges are configured, there are currently lots of books on the Christian market offering an alternative doctrine, often called “universalism,” which asserts that eventually everyone will be eternally saved — or at least that no one will be eternally damned.
The new teaching comes in a variety of forms. Some writers (such as Metropolitan Kallistos Ware1 and Hans Urs von Balthasar2) merely hope for the salvation of all and declare the question to be an open one. Some others assert that everyone goes to heaven immediately after death. Yet others posit a period of post-mortem suffering and purgation before entering into eternal bliss. Some authors write in a popular vein (such as Rob Bell3 and Brad Jersak4); others write in a more multi-syllabic and strident vein (such as David Bentley Hart5). Some (such as Edward Fudge6) even suggest that although everyone may not be saved, the lost are annihilated at the Last Judgment so that they will cease to exist. Common to all these modern authors is a distaste for, and emphatic rejection of, the Church’s traditional doctrine about hell.
Words of Christ
This doctrine, though not always popular, is not hard to define since it features so prominently in the teachings of Jesus. A few quotes, selected more or less at random, must suffice to illustrate His repeated and emphatic instruction. From Matthew 13:41–42: “The Son of Man will send forth His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all stumbling blocks, and those who commit lawlessness, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”7 From Mark 9:43: “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed, than, having your two hands, to go into [Gehenna], into the unquenchable fire [Greek: εἰς τὸ πῦρ τὸ ἄσβεστον / eis to pur to asbeston].” From Matthew 25:41, 46: “Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, you accursed people, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels….These will go away into eternal punishment [Greek: εἰς κόλασιν αἰώνιον/ eis kolasin aionion], but the righteous into eternal life [Greek: εἰς ζωὴν αἰώνιον / eis zoen aionion].”
There need be little debate about the retributive nature of the word “punishment/ kolasis”: it was the word used in Ezekiel 14:3 (LXX) to describe the doom that overtook idolaters for their sins; it was the word used in Wisdom 11:13 for the plagues that destroyed Egypt; and it was the word used in 2 Maccabees 4:38 describing the death of the sinner Andronicus. In 2 Peter 2:9, it was the verb8 used to describe the divine punishment destroying Sodom and Gomorrah. Suggestions that the word simply describes a corrective pruning or discipline are simply wrong, given that the punishment in these texts proved fatal to those being punished.
“Age-long” or “Everlasting”?
But what about the cheery notion that aionios (αἰώνιος) merely means “age-long” and not “everlasting”?9 The adjective aionios comes from the noun aion (αἰών), which means “age” or “world.” It can mean simply “age” (and not eternity) — in Romans 16:25–26, Paul uses the word to describe the previous ages (of obviously limited duration) prior to the coming of Christ. And in Hebrews 11:3, the word is used to describe the (large yet limited) worlds that God made.
But the word is also used by Paul in 1 Timothy 6:16 to describe God’s dominion — presumably, an everlasting dominion. And Philo, in Noah’s Work as a Planter, writes of “the unending [ἀíδιος/aidios] word of the eternal [αἰώνιου/ aioniou] God.”10 The sometimes suggested contrast between aionios (as meaning only “age-long”) and aidios (meaning truly “everlasting”) is invalid, since Philo used the words as synonyms — unless one wants to posit that Philo meant that God’s word is “everlasting” whereas God Himself is merely “age-long.”
But how then can one determine its meaning in passages such as Matthew 25:46? Long ago, Church Fathers East and West, such as St. Basil11 and St. Augustine,12 pointed out that the same word aionios (αἰώνιος) was used to describe both the punishment of the wicked and the life of the righteous in the age to come; and they concluded that if the life of the righteous was everlasting, then sound exegesis determined that the punishment of the wicked must be everlasting as well.
The matter, then, cannot be fully resolved simply by consulting lexicons. As Hart obligingly pointed out in his book promoting universalism, “plucking individual verses like posies here and there from the text is no way to gain a proper view of the entire landscape.”13 To avoid “plucking posies,” one must situate a text within its time and culture — in this case, within the time and culture that produced such works as 2 Esdras, 2 Baruch, the Assumption of Moses, the Book of Jubilees, and the Book of Enoch. The question is: given the culture of their time, how would Christ’s hearers have understood His apocalyptic sayings about the fates of men in the age to come? These pseudepigraphal books provide the answer: Christ’s hearers would have understood Him as teaching what these other works were saying as well — that the punishment of the wicked will be everlasting conscious suffering.
Clear Teaching of the New Testament
This teaching is clear, which is doubtless why the rest of the New Testament is filled with the assertion that the wrath of God that will descend upon the wicked at the Last Judgment will be terrible and eternal. Thus, to take one example from the epistles, 2 Thessalonians 1:7–9: at the Second Coming, “the Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, dealing out retribution to those who do not know God, and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. These people will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power.”
Consider also Revelation 14:9–11: “If anyone worships the beast…he also will drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is mixed in full strength in the cup of His anger; and he will be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment ascends forever and ever; they have no rest day and night.” These are terrible passages. But they are terrible because their meaning, however unwelcome to some, is terribly clear.
Early Church Fathers
The teaching of the New Testament was also clear to the Church Fathers. There are quite a number of them who echoed the New Testament’s doctrine regarding eternal punishment. For example, St. Basil, in his Rules Briefly Treated, answered a question about whether the passage in Luke 12:47–48, which mentions varying degrees of punishment in the age to come, means that the punishment of hell will not be eternal. He answered,
Although these and the like declarations are to be found in numerous places of divinely inspired Scripture, it is one of the artifices of the devil, that many men, as if forgetting these and other statements of the Lord, ascribe an end to punishment so that they can sin more boldly. If however there were going to be an end of eternal punishment, there would likewise be an end to eternal life. If we cannot conceive of an end to that life, how are we to suppose there will be an end to eternal punishment?14
For St. Basil, the matter was clear: the universalist view that hell’s punishment will have an end is “an artifice of the devil.”
And St. Basil was not alone. In his sermon on Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians, St. John Chrysostom said:
There are many men, who form good hopes not by abstaining from their sins, but by thinking that hell is not so terrible as it is said to be, but milder than what is threatened, and temporary, not eternal….But that it is not temporary, hear Paul now saying, concerning those who know not God, and who do not believe in the Gospel, that “they shall suffer punishment, even eternal destruction” [2 Thess. 1:9]. How then is that temporary which is everlasting?….His coming only to some indeed will be Light, but to others vengeance.15
These were hardly isolated voices. Indeed, “time will fail me if I tell of” the letters of Ignatius of Antioch, 2 Clement, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Epistle to Diognetus, the Martyrdom of Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Tatian, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Minucius Felix, Cyprian of Carthage, Dionysius of Alexandria, Lactantius, Anthony the Great, Ephraim the Syrian, Cyril of Jerusalem, Jerome, Augustine, John Cassian, and others.16
Against such an overwhelming consensus of Church Fathers from the East and the West, men from the earliest pre-Nicene centuries to the centuries after Nicaea, one can produce only a handful of dissenting voices — voices so often cited by universalists that one is tempted to refer to them as “the usual suspects” — men such as Origen, Evagrius, Gregory of Nyssa, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Diodore of Tarsus, and Isaac of Nineveh. And perhaps, with the exception of Gregory of Nyssa and maybe Isaac of Nineveh, the appellation is not entirely unwarranted, for they fell under conciliar condemnation for their works.
But what of St. Gregory of Nyssa, a revered father of the Church? Here, an Orthodox theologian will remember that the Fathers are not items on a historical menu, from which one can pick and choose. What matters is the consensus of the Fathers, established over the centuries and upon which the Church finally set its seal. And how can that seal be discerned? By the decisions of the Church’s ecumenical councils, and by its spiritual culture, expressed in its hymnography and its icons.
The Church definitively set its conciliar seal on the teaching that all will not be saved but that hell’s punishment is eternal. Thus, the universalism of Origen and Evagrius was anathematized at the Fifth Ecumenical Council in 553 (as admitted by Brian Daley in his comprehensive survey, The Hope of the Early Church17). Origen was also condemned by name along with Evagrius and Theodore of Mopsuestia in the first canon of the Council in Trullo in 692.
St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote and opined in a day before the Church made up its mind to bypass his opinions and to set its seal on the contrary doctrine, the one expressed by the overwhelming majority of the Fathers before and after him. I suggest that St. Gregory, being a man of humility, would be the first to declare that one should prefer the collected and conciliar wisdom of the Church throughout the centuries to the opinions of a few. Be that as it may, now that the Church has spoken through its councils and produced centuries-worth of hymnography expressing that theology (such as its hymns for the Sunday of the Last Judgment just prior to Great Lent), the views of St. Gregory of Nyssa are no longer live options for us.
More Compassionate Than Christ?
But, a tender heart will still cry out, how can one bear the thought that the wicked will suffer forever? It seems so unfair: an eternity of misery for a mere seventy years or so of misbehavior! Thoughtful men and women of every generation have felt this pang. Indeed, St. Basil complained that many in his day felt that Gehenna could not be eternal in duration, for the thought was too much for them to bear. He was, of course, not referring to the polled views of the Church’s teachers and theologians, but the common sentiments of the masses. St. Augustine also knew of such people in his own congregation, whom he called (perhaps a little sarcastically) “those compassionate Christians,”18 the ones who “moan over the eternal punishment, and perpetual, unintermitted torments of the lost, and say they do not believe it shall be so.”19
St. Basil and St. Augustine would have said (and did say) that one must adhere to the teaching found in Scripture, even if we cannot now see how it is consistent with the actions of a loving God. It is a matter of humility: we may not be able to see how hell could exist in the plan of God, but there is rather a lot we are not able to see. Now I see in a glass darkly; only in the age to come will I know as I have been fully known (1 Cor. 13:12). Until then, I must submit my little, partial, and groping insights to the teaching of Christ and Scripture. Christ clearly taught that hell will be eternal — do I imagine that I am more compassionate than Christ?
Consumed by Sin
Yet a humble heart may still offer a provisional answer of sorts to the question, “How could it be fair to punish a few years of rebellion with an eternity of misery?” Note that smuggled into this question is the unstated and unproven assumption that the persons who will be lost are exactly like the persons we knew in this age, that the Uncle Joe who will suffer in hell is exactly like the Uncle Joe we knew at family reunions — not a pious man, but still a decent enough guy, a guy with a sense of humor who liked watching hockey on Saturday night. We cannot bear to think of Uncle Joe in the flames and suffering eternally.
But what if the sin he refused to part with will finally consume him, eating up from the inside all the goodness, humor, and decency that we knew and experienced? The lurid picture of the damned writhing in a divinely-built torture chamber to satisfy the demands of justice is not the only one on the traditional market. At least some theologians (C. S. Lewis was among them) offer another picture of the damnation of the lost: their misery will be the final result of sin that, like a cancer, ate away all that was human, leaving behind only implacable rage, throbbing lust, and screaming rebellion. To quote Lewis, “What is cast (or casts itself) into hell is not a man: it is ‘remains.’”20
Unending Existence for Everyone
But what of the terrible discrepancy between the comparatively insignificant number of the sinner’s rebellious years and the resultant eternity of misery he suffers through endless ages? How could that be just? Here, one again must refocus: it is not the case that God decides to punish x amount of sin with x amount of misery. God does not look at the seventy or so years of the sinner’s life and conclude that justice decrees that he must suffer an eternity of misery for it. The sufferings of the damned last eternally not because God has decided that is how long the punishment should last, but because everyone, including the lost, will exist eternally. The post-resurrection existence is unending for everyone. The only question is whether that unending existence will be one of joy or misery — of life or death. The lost have made themselves incapable of joy, and so their misery lasts forever because they will last forever. In the same way, the joy of the saved lasts forever because they also will last forever, not because God has decided that for their comparatively few years of righteousness they will have an eternity of joy.
Time is the foundation for eternity — what we do to our hearts here and now will determine in the age our ability or our inability to come to experience God’s love. If we close off our hearts to God and thereby destroy our ability to change, repent, grow, and respond to His love, the eternity we experience will be terrible — but not because God has measured out suffering like a school principal deciding how many blows of the strap will be administered. The damned suffer forever because throughout the endless ages they remain locked in the suffocating sin they have chosen, a tiny airless space that allows the intrusion of no light or joy. As Lewis finely said, “the doors of hell are locked on the inside”21 (emphasis in original).
An Essential Doctrine
The Church’s traditional teaching about hell is not an insignificant part of its message. One may hold a variety of views on, for example, the nature of the Millennium or the authorship of the Epistle to the Hebrews. But the Church’s teaching on man’s final destiny is more basic to a Christian worldview than these things. Embracing universalism involves parting with the clear teaching of the New Testament, the consensus of the Fathers, the settled teaching of the Church, and the monastic tradition of spiritual struggle. Universalism represents, in fact, “a different gospel” (Gal. 1:6). These two views of man’s final destiny are incompatible with each other, and if universalism is consistently embraced, it will produce a very different kind of spiritual life and approach to spiritual warfare. The stakes are very high. We must take care what we choose.
Fr. Lawrence R. Farley, formerly an Anglican priest, is pastor of St. Herman of Alaska Church, under the Orthodox Church of America. Fr. Lawrence has written a number of books, including Unquenchable Fire: The Traditional Christian Teaching about Hell (Ancient Faith Publishing, 2017). Fr. Lawrence has a podcast each weekday on Ancient Faith Radio, the Coffee Cup Commentaries, and a podcast of his weekly blog, No Other Foundation
- Kallistos (Ware) of Diokleia, “Dare We Hope for the Salvation of All?” in The Inner Kingdom: The Collected Works, vol. 1 (SVS Press, 2000).
- Hans Urs von Balthasar, Dare We Hope: “That All Men Be Saved”? With a Short Discourse on Hell (Ignatius, 1988).
- Rob Bell, Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2011).
- Bradley Jersak, Her Gates Will Never Be Shut: Hell, Hope, and the New Jerusalem (Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2009).
- David Bentley Hart, That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019).
- Edward Fudge, The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment, third edition (Cascade Books, 2011).
- Unless noted otherwise, Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible.
- Participle κολαζομένους, meaning “under punishment.”
- Hart, for example, translates Matthew 25:46, “And these will go to the chastening of that Age [εἰς κόλασιν αἰώνιον/ eis kolasin aionion], but the just to the life of that Age [εἰς ζωὴν αἰώνιον / eis zoen aionion].” David Bentley Hart, The New Testament: A Translation (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017), 53.
- Philo, Noah’s Work as a Planter, section 8, author’s translation. Greek: λόγος δέ ό ἀíδιος θεοϋ τοϋ αἰώνíου. Philo, vol. 3, trans. F. H. Colson and G. H. Whitaker (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988), 216.
- Basil, Rules Briefly Treated 267.
- Augustine, City of God 21.23.
- Hart, That All Shall Be Saved, 88–89.
- Basil, Rules Briefly Treated 267, quoted in William A. Jurgens, The Faith of the Early Fathers, vol. 2 (Collegeville MN: Liturgical Press, 1979), 26.
- John Chrysostom, Homily 3 on 2nd Thessalonians, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, vol. 13., ed. Philip Schaff (1886–1889; repr., Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), 384–85.
- Hebrews 11:32ff. In his book, That All Shall Be Saved, Dr. Hart admitted that the teaching of “the eternal torment of the damned” (p. 78) is “the traditional majority Christian view of hell” (65), the position of “the majority of Christians throughout history” (73), “down the centuries” (74, 75), not that “of a few marginal, eccentric sects within Christian history” but “the broad mainstream” (75), “a body of received opinion” that is “invincibly well-established” (4), an idea that is “deeply fixed at the heart of almost all Christian traditions” (78). If that does not describe a consensus of Orthodox Church Tradition, what does? For a detailed refutation of Hart’s book, see Fr. Lawrence Farley, “David Bentley Hart’s That All Shall Be Saved: A Review and Rejoinder,” No Other Foundation blog, January 11, 2021, Ancient Faith Ministries, https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/nootherfoundation/david-bentley-harts-that-all-shall-be-saved-areview-and-rejoinder/.
- See Brian E. Daley, Hope of the Early Church: Handbook of Patristic Eschatology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 190.
- Augustine, City of God 21.17, in St. Augustine, Concerning the City of God against the Pagans, trans. Henry Bettenson (London: Penguin Books, 2003), 995.
- Augustine, The Enchiridion on Faith, Hope and Love 112, trans. J. F. Shaw, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, vol. 3, ed. Philip Schaff (1887; repr., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 273.
- C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1973 [orig. 1940]), 113.
- Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 115.