Antiquated Annihilationism

A common argument against the Annihilationist view of hell is that “NO ONE in the early church held to this view.” It’s probably safe to say that maybe the majority of professing Christians (at least here in the USA) haven’t ever read early church writings. So, this argument might sound convincing. And usually when people begin to quote early Christians on this topic it becomes apparent that, for the most part, these earlier Christians have limited themselves to Biblical language. In other words, they pretty much just quote what Scripture says on the issue. And so, someone could say, “See! He says ‘eternal!’ And we all know what that means! He’s obviously supporting my view!” The annihilationist could easily do the same thing. But this limitation to quoting the Scriptures isn’t always the case amongst early believers. Sometimes their teachings are explicit. Let’s briefly take a look at a few, and see if the argument that ALL held to this view has warrant. Ask yourselves if their teachings are implicit or explicit. I bolded particular text for emphasis.

Ignatius of Antioch (35 or 50 AD) – (98 to 117 AD)
to the Magnesians

Chapter X

“Let us not, therefore, be insensible to His kindness. For were He to reward us according to our works, we should cease to be.”

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Justin Martyr (103–165 AD)
Dialogue with Trypho

Chapter 5

“‘These philosophers know nothing, then, about these things; for they cannot tell what a soul is.’

“‘It does not appear so.’

“‘Nor ought it to be called immortal; for if it is immortal, it is plainly unbegotten.’

“‘It is both unbegotten and immortal, according to some who are styled Platonists.’

“‘Do you say that the world is also unbegotten?’

“‘Some say so. I do not, however, agree with them.’

“‘You are right; for what reason has one for supposing that a body so solid, possessing resistance, composite, changeable, decaying, and renewed every day, has not arisen from some cause? But if the world is begotten, souls also are necessarily begotten; and perhaps at one time they were not in existence, for they were made on account of men and other living creatures, if you will say that they have been begotten wholly apart, and not along with their respective bodies.’ “‘This seems to be correct.’

“‘They are not, then, immortal?

“‘No; since the world has appeared to us to be begotten.’

“‘But I do not say, indeed, that all souls die; for that were truly a piece of good fortune to the evil. What then? The souls of the pious remain in a better place, while those of the unjust and wicked are in a worse, waiting for the time of judgment. Thus some which have appeared worthy of God never die; but others are punished so long as God wills them to exist and to be punished.’

Chapter 6

Now the soul partakes of life, since God wills it to live. Thus, then, it will not even partake [of life] when God does not will it to live. For to live is not its attribute, as it is God’s; but as a man does not live always, and the soul is not for ever conjoined with the body, since, whenever this harmony must be broken up, the soul leaves the body, and the man exists no longer; even so, whenever the soul must cease to exist, the spirit of life is removed from it, and there is no more soul, but it goes back to the place from whence it was taken.’

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Irenaeus of Lyons (130–202 AD)
Against Heresies

Book II, Chapter 34

And again, He thus speaks respecting the salvation of man: He asked life of You, and You gave him length of days for ever and ever; indicating that it is the Father of all who imparts continuance for ever and ever on those who are saved. For life does not arise from us, nor from our own nature; but it is bestowed according to the grace of God. And therefore he who shall preserve the life bestowed upon him, and give thanks to Him who imparted it, shall receive also length of days for ever and ever. But he who shall reject it, and prove himself ungrateful to his Maker, inasmuch as he has been created, and has not recognised Him who bestowed [the gift upon him], deprives himself of [the privilege of] continuance for ever and ever. And, for this reason, the Lord declared to those who showed themselves ungrateful towards Him: If you have not been faithful in that which is little, who will give you that which is great? indicating that those who, in this brief temporal life, have shown themselves ungrateful to Him who bestowed it, shall justly not receive from Him length of days for ever and ever.

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Arnobius of Sicca (253–327 AD)
Against the Heathen

Book II, Section 14

“Do you dare to laugh at us when we speak of hell, and fires which cannot be quenched, into which we have learned that souls are cast by their foes and enemies? What, does not your Plato also, in the book which he wrote on the immortality of the soul, name the rivers Acheron, Styx, Cocytus, and Pyriphlegethon, and assert that in them souls are rolled along, engulphed, and burned up? But though a man of no little wisdom, and of accurate judgment and discernment, he essays a problem which cannot be solved; so that, while he says that the soul is immortal, everlasting, and without bodily substance, he vet says that they are punished, and makes them suffer pain. But what man does not see that that which is immortal, which is simple, cannot be subject to any pain; that that, on the contrary, cannot be immortal which does suffer pain? And yet his opinion is not very far from the truth. For although the gentle and kindly disposed man thought it inhuman cruelty to condemn souls to death, he yet not unreasonably supposed that they are cast into rivers blazing with masses of flame, and loathsome from their foul abysses. For they are cast in, and being annihilated, pass away vainly in everlasting destruction. For theirs is an intermediate state, as has been learned from Christ’s teaching; and they are such that they may on the one hand perish if they have not known God, and on the other be delivered from death if they have given heed to His threats and proffered favours. And to make manifest what is unknown, this is man’s real death, this which leaves nothing behind. For that which is seen by the eyes is only a separation of soul from body, not the last end— annihilation: this, I say, is man’s real death, when souls which know not God shall be consumed in long-protracted torment with raging fire, into which certain fiercely cruel beings shall cast them, who were unknown before Christ, and brought to light only by His wisdom.”

Book II, Section 35

“For if we all agree that there is one Father of all, Who alone is immortal and unbegotten, and if nothing at all is found before Him which could be named, it follows as a consequence that all these whom the imagination of men believes to be gods, have been either begotten by Him or produced at His bidding. Are they produced and begotten? They are also later in order and time: if later in order and time, they must have an origin, and beginning of birth and life; but that which has an entrance into and beginning of life in its first stages, it of necessity follows, should have an end also.”

Book II, Section 36

“But the gods are said to be immortal. Not by nature, then, but by the good-will and favour of God their Father. In the same way, then, in which the boon of immortality is God’s gift to these who were assuredly produced, will He deign to confer eternal life upon souls also, although fell death seems able to cut them off and blot them out of existence in utter annihilation.”

Book II, Section 62

“None but the Almighty God can preserve souls; nor is there any one besides who can give them length of days, and grant to them also a spirit which shall never die, except He who alone is immortal and everlasting, and restricted by no limit of time. For since all the gods, whether those who are real, or those who are merely said to be from hearsay and conjecture, are immortal and everlasting by His good-will and free gift, how can it be that others are able to give that which they themselves have, while they have it as the gift of another, bestowed by a greater power? Let Etruria sacrifice what victims it may, let the wise deny themselves all the pleasures of life, let the Magi soften and soothe all lesser powers, yet, unless souls have received from the Lord of all things that which reason demands, and does so by His command, it will hereafter deeply repent having made itself a laughing-stock, when it begins to feel the approach of death.”

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Athanasius of Alexandria (293–373)
On the Carnation of the Word

Chapter 1, Section 4

“For God had made man thus (that is, as an embodied spirit), and had willed that he should remain in incorruption. But men, having turned from the contemplation of God to evil of their own devising, had come inevitably under the law of death. Instead of remaining in the state in which God had created them, they were in process of becoming corrupted entirely, and death had them completely under its dominion. For the transgression of the commandment was making them turn back again according to their nature; and as they had at the beginning come into being out of non-existence, so were they now on the way to returning, through corruption, to non-existence again. The presence and love of the Word had called them into being; inevitably, therefore when they lost the knowledge of God, they lost existence with it; for it is God alone Who exists, evil is non-being, the negation and antithesis of good. 

By nature, of course, man is mortal, since he was made from nothing; but he bears also the Likeness of Him Who is, and if he preserves that Likeness through constant contemplation, then his nature is deprived of its power and he remains incorrupt. So is it affirmed in Wisdom: ‘The keeping of His laws is the assurance of incorruption’. 

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One thought on “Antiquated Annihilationism”

  1. Ezekiel 31 –

    14 All this is in order that no trees by the waters may grow to towering height or set their tops among the clouds, and that no trees that drink water may reach up to them in height. For they are all given over to death, to the world below, among the children of man, with those who go down to the pit.

    15 “Thus says the Lord God: On the day the cedar went down to Sheol I caused mourning; I closed the deep over it, and restrained its rivers, and many waters were stopped. I clothed Lebanon in gloom for it, and all the trees of the field fainted because of it. 16 I made the nations quake at the sound of its fall, when I cast it down to Sheol with those who go down to the pit. And all the trees of Eden, the choice and best of Lebanon, all that drink water, were comforted in the world below. 17 They also went down to Sheol with it, to those who are slain by the sword; yes, those who were its arm, who lived under its shadow among the nations.

    18 “Whom are you thus like in glory and in greatness among the trees of Eden? You shall be brought down with the trees of Eden to the world below. You shall lie among the uncircumcised, with those who are slain by the sword.

    “This is Pharaoh and all his multitude, declares the Lord God.”

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