The History of the Doctrine of Endless Punishment

History of the Doctrine of Endless Punishment

William G. T. Shedd,
The Doctrine of Endless Punishment,
Chapter 1, The History of the Doctrine.

Early Church.

The common opinion in the Ancient church was that the future punishment of the impenitent wicked is endless. This was the catholic faith; as much so as belief in the trinity. But as there were some church fathers who deviated from the creed of the church respecting the doctrine of the trinity, so there were some who dissented from it in respect to that of eternal retribution.

The deviation in eschatology, however, was far less extensive than in trinitarianism. The Semi-Arian and Arian heresies involved and troubled the Ancient church much more seriously, than did the Universalism of that period. Long controversies, ending in ecumenical councils and formulated statements, were the consequence of the trinitarian errors, but no ecumenical council, and no authoritative counter-statement was required to prevent the spread of the tenet of Restoration. Having so little even seeming support in scripture and reason, it gradually died out of the Ancient church by its own intrinsic mortality. Neander (2:737), speaking of the second period in his arrangement (312-590), when there was more Restorationism than in the first, says:

The doctrine of eternal punishment continued, as in the preceding period, to be dominant in the creed of the church. Yet, in the Oriental church, in which, with the exception of those subjects immediately connected with the doctrinal controversies, there was greater freedom and latitude of development, many respectable church teachers still stood forth, without injuring their reputation for orthodoxy, as advocates of the opposite doctrine, until the time when the Origenistic disputes caused the agreement with Origen in respect to this point also [i.e. Restorationism] to be considered as something decidedly heretical.

Hagenbach (History of Doctrine, Section 78) says of the period down to A.D. 250: “Notions more or less gross prevailed concerning the punishment of the wicked, which most of the fathers regarded as eternal.

The principal deviation from the catholic doctrine of endless retribution was in the Alexandrine school, founded by Clement and Origen. The position taken by them was, that “the punishments of the condemned are not eternal, but only remedial; the devil himself being capable of amelioration” (Gieseler. 1-214). Thus early was the question raised, whether the suffering to which Christ sentences the wicked is for the purpose of correcting and educating the transgressor, or of vindicating and satisfying the law he has broken—a question which is the key to the whole controversy. For, if the individual criminal is of greater consequence than the universal law, then the suffering must refer principally to him and his interests. But if the law is of more importance than any individual, then the suffering must refer principally to it.

Origen’s Restorationism grew naturally out of his view of human liberty. He held that the liberty of indifference and the power of contrary choice, in. stead of simple self-determination, are the substance of freedom. These belong inalienably and forever to the nature of the finite will. They cannot be destroyed, even by apostasy and sin. Consequently, there is forever a possibility of a self-conversion of the will in either direction. Free will may fall into sin at any time; and free will may turn to God at any time.

This led to Origen’s theory of an endless alternation of falls and recoveries, of hells and heavens; so that practically he taught nothing but a hell. For, as Augustine (City of God, 21-17) remarks, in his refutation of Origen, “heaven with the prospect of losing it is misery.” “Origen’s theory,” says Neander (1-656), “concerning the necessary mutability of will in created beings, led him to infer that evil, ever germinating afresh, would still continue to render necessary new processes of purification, and new worlds destined for the restoration of fallen beings, until all should again be brought back from manifoldness to unity, so that there was to be a constant interchange between fall and redemption, between unity and manifoldness.

Traces, more or less distinct, of a belief in the future restoration of the wicked are found in Didymus of Alexandria, the two Gregories, and also in Diodore of Tarsus, and Theodore of Mopsuestia — the leaders of the Antiochian school. All of these were more or less under the influence of Origen. Origen’s opinions, however, both in trinitarianism and eschatology, were strongly combated in his own time by the great body of contemporary fathers, and subsequently by the church under the lead of Epiphanius, Jerome, and Augustine.

Medieval to Reformation.

The Medieval church was virtually a unit in holding the doctrine Endless Punishment. The Reformation churches, both Lutheran and Calvinistic, adopted the historical and catholic opinion.

Since the Reformation, Universalism, Restorationism, and Annihilation, have been asserted by some sects and many individuals. But these tenets have never been adopted by those ecclesiastical denominations which hold, in their integrity, the cardinal doctrines of the trinity and incarnation, the apostasy and redemption, although they have exerted some influence within these denominations. None of the evangelical churches have introduced the doctrine of Universalism, in any form of it, into their symbolical books. The denial of endless punishment is usually associated with the denial of those tenets which are logically and closely connected with it—such as original sin, vicarious atonement, and regeneration. Of these, vicarious atonement is the most incompatible of any with universal salvation; because the latter doctrine, as has been observed, implies that suffering for sin is remedial only, while the former implies that it is retributive. Suffering that is merely educational does not require a vicarious atonement in order to release from it. But suffering that is judicial and punitive can be released from the transgressor, only by being inflicted upon a substitute. He, therefore, who denies personal penalty must, logically, deny vicarious penalty. If the sinner himself is not obliged by justice to suffer in order to satisfy the law he has violated, then, certainly, no one needs suffer for him for this purpose.

Modern Annihilationists.

Within the present century, Universalism has obtained a stronger hold upon German theology than upon any other, and has considerably vitiated it. It grew up in connection with the rationalism and pantheism which have been more powerful in Germany than elsewhere. Rationalism has many of the characteristics of deism, and is vehemently polemic toward evangelical truth. That it should combat the doctrines of sin and atonement is natural.

Pantheism, on the other hand, has to some extent been mingled with evangelical elements. A class of anti-rationalistic theologians, in Germany, whose opinions are influenced more or less by Spinoza and Schelling, accept the doctrines of the trinity, incarnation, apostasy, and redemption, and assert the ultimate recovery from sin of all mankind. Schleiermacher, the founder of this school, whose system is a remarkable blending of the gospel and pantheism, has done much toward the spread of Restorationism. The following are the objections which this theologian (Glaubenslehre, Section 168, Anhang) makes to eternal damnation:

1. Christ’s words in Matthew 25:46; Mark 9:44; John 5:29, are figurative.

2. The passage 1 Corinthians 15:25-26, teaches that all evil shall be overcome.

3. Misery cannot increase, but must decrease. If it is bodily misery, custom habituates to endurance, and there is less and less suffering instead of more and more. If, on the other hand, it is mental suffering, this is remorse. The damned suffer more remorse in hell than they do upon earth. This proves that they are better men in hell than upon earth. They cannot, therefore, grow more wretched in hell, but grow less so as they grow more remorseful.

4. The sympathy which the saved have with their former companions, who are in hell, will prevent the happiness of the saved. The world of mankind, and also the whole universe, is so connected that the endless misery of a part will destroy the happiness of the remainder.

These objections appeal mainly to reason. But the two assumptions, that hell is abolished by becoming used to it, and that remorse is of the nature of virtue, do not commend themselves to the intuitive convictions.

Besides the disciples of Schleiermacher, there are trinitarian theologians standing upon the position of theism, who adopt some form of Universalism. Nitzsch (Dogmatics, Section 219) teaches Restorationism. He cites in support of it only two passages out of the entire scriptures—namely, 1 Peter, 3:19, which speaks of the “preaching to the spirits in prison;” and Hebrews 11:39-40: “These received not the promises.” These two passages Nitzsch explains, as teaching that “there are traces of a capacity in another state of existence for comprehending salvation, and for a change and purification of mind;” and upon them solely he founds the sweeping assertion, that “it is the apostolical view, that for those who were unable in this world to know Christ in his truth and grace, there is a knowledge of the Redeemer in the other state of existence which is never inoperative, but is either judicial or quickening.

Rothe (Dogmatics, Th. 2, Abth., 2 Sections 46-49, 124-131) contends for the annihilation of the impenitent wicked, in the sense of the extinction of self-consciousness. Yet he asserts that the aim of penalty is requital, and the satisfaction of justice—an aim that would be defeated by the extinction of remorse. Julius Muller (Sin, 2:191-418-425) affirms that the sin against the Holy Ghost is never forgiven, because it implies such a hardness in sin as is incapable of penitence. But he holds that the offer of forgiveness through Christ will be made to every human being, here or hereafter.

Those who have never in this life had an opportunity of knowing the way of salvation will certainly be placed in a position to accept and enter upon this way of return, if they will, after their life on earth is ended. We may venture to hope that in the interval between death and the judgment many serious misconceptions, which have hindered men from appropriating truth in this life, will be removed.

The use of the term “misconception” would seem to imply that some who had the offer of salvation in this life, but had rejected it, will have the opportunity in the next life to correct their error in this. Dorner (Christian Doctrine, 4:416-428), after giving the arguments for and against endless punishment, concludes with the remark, that “we must be content with saying that the ultimate fate of individuals, namely, whether all will attain the blessed goal or not, remains veiled in mystery.” His further remark, that “there may be those eternally damned, so far as the abuse of freedom continues eternally, but, in this case, man has passed into another class of beings,” looks in the direction of annihilation—suggesting that sin will finally destroy the humanity of man, and leave him a mere brute. Respecting the future offer of mercy, Dorner asserts that “the final judgment can take place for none before the gospel has been so addressed to him that free appropriation of the same was possible” (Christian Doctrine, 3, 77).

Bad Exegesis.

Universalism has a slender exegetical basis. The Biblical data are found to be unmanageable, and resort is had to human feeling and sympathy. Its advocates quote sparingly from scripture. In particular, the words of Christ relating to eschatology are left with little citation or interpretation. Actual attempts by the Restorationist, to explain what the words, “Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels,” really mean, are rare. The most common device is to dismiss them, as Schleiermacher does, with the remark that they are figurative. Some words of St. Paul, on the other hand, whose views upon sin, election, and predestination, however, are not especially attractive to this class, are made to do yeoman’s service. Texts like Romans 5:18, “As judgment came upon all men unto condemnation, so the free gift came upon all men unto justification;” and 1 Corinthians 15:22, “As in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive;” are explained wholly apart from their context, and by vocalizing the word “all.” When St. Paul asserts that “the free gift came upon all men unto justification,” this is severed from the preceding verse, in which the “all” are described as “those which receive abundance of grace, and of the gift of righteousness.” And when the same apostle affirms that “in Christ shall all be made alive,” no notice is taken of the fact mentioned in the succeeding verse, that not all men are “in Christ“—the clause, “they that are Christ’s, at his coming,” implying that there are some who are not “Christ’s at his coming.”

The paucity of the texts of scripture that can with any plausibility be made to teach Universalism sometimes leads to an ingenuity that is unfavorable to candid exegesis. The endeavor to escape the force of plain revelation introduces unnatural explanations. A curious example of caprice in interpretation is found in Ruetschi’s Kritik vom Sandenfall (p. 281). To prove his assertion, that sin by its very nature finally ceases to be, he quotes Romans 6:23, “The wages of sin is death.” This means, according to him, that sin ultimately consumes and abolishes itself, and this is its “wages” or punishment. This Essay actually obtained the prize offered by the Hague Association for the defense of the Christian Religion. This specimen of Biblical interpretation is matched by that of a recent advocate of “Conditional Immortality,” who contends that Satan taught the natural immortality of the human soul when he said to Eve: “Ye shall not surely die;” and that God taught its natural mortality in the words: “Thou shalt surely die.”

Further Reading:

A Traditionalist Response to John Stott’s Arguments for Annihilationism by Robert A. Peterson.

Annihilation or Eternal Punishment? by Robert A. Peterson.

Why Annihilationism is Wrong by J. I. Packer.

A Course of Lectures on Future Punishment by W. C. Rider.


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