What the early church really believed about the immortality of the soul, “hellfire” and its relevance to today, from the life of Justin Martyr — An address delivered to the CIANZ Annual Conference, May 2009.
Justin speaks in various ways of the evildoers’ “punishment in eternal fire” and of “eternal punishment”. He says that “the sword of God is fire, of which they who choose to do wickedly become the fuel.” These are not just “big words and bugbears”, says Justin, as if Christians wished only to scare people into living a virtuous life, rather this punishment reflects the reality of God’s justice. While the language of “eternal punishment” and “eternal fire”, as it is found in Scripture, is adequately explained by Conditionalist writers, either as referring to the result of the judgment, or to its sharing in the quality of the “age to come”, there are, however, some more explicit statements of Justin’s which seem to conflict, and therefore need to be reconciled, if possible, with what we have seen above of Justin’s beliefs.
“For among us the prince of the wicked spirits is called the serpent, and Satan, and the devil, as you can learn by looking into our writings. And that he would be sent into the fire with his host, and the men who follow him, and would be punished for an endless duration, Christ foretold.”
“[Jesus] shall come from the heavens in glory with his angelic host, when he shall raise the bodies of all the men who ever lived. Then he will clothe the worthy in immortality; but the wicked, clothed in eternal sensibility, he will commit to the eternal fire, along with the evil demons”.
“Some are sent to be punished unceasingly into judgment and condemnation of fire; but others shall exist in freedom from suffering, from corruption, and from grief, and in immortality.”
Justin’s use of such words as “unceasing” and “endless” in connection with the future punishment of the wicked may seem to contradict his annihilationist stance. His attribution of “eternal sensibility” to the wicked prevents us seeing this language as referring only to the result of the predicted punishment.
In ordinary conversation, however, we use such terms as “forever,” “eternal,” “ceaseless” etc loosely, without intending to convey the idea of absolute endlessness. This is especially so when we use language more for its rhetorical effect than its scientific accuracy. Thus Jeremiah can speak of a wound being “incurable” and an injury “beyond healing” and but a moment later assert, in the name of the Lord, “I will restore you to health and heal your wounds” (Jer. 30:12, 17).
Without doubt Justin can be numbered among those Fathers who employ, in a limited sense, words that seem to assert the opposite. It needs to be noticed that among the Fathers of the early church there are a multitude of examples where such language is applied to things which are temporary and do in fact come to an end. Not even those in the early church who were Universalists (believing that everyone would eventually be saved) hesitated to use such language to speak of future punishment. This is significant because far from proving the traditional creed, this fact shows that for many in the early Greek speaking church these terms carried connotations of finitude that our English words do not have. It is as if the language is always limited by the nature of the thing in question.
Having looked at what Justin taught on matters which are dear to us I will now draw some conclusions (in more or less reverse order, when compared to my presentation in this article):
1. Justin’s use of such words as “unceasing” and “endless” in connection with the future punishment are taken by some as proof that he believed in the eternal torment of the wicked. In the Fathers, however, there are a multitude of examples where such language is applied to things which are temporary and do in fact come to an end. This shows us that we need to be careful in interpreting Scripture and the writings of the Fathers and not just to seek to confirm therein our own prejudices.
2. Given that Justin, along with most of the Fathers of the early Church, held that the souls of the dead were gathered to some subterranean locality, neither heaven nor hell, to await the resurrection and that they condemned the belief that the dead go immediately to Heaven or Hell, by what right do the so-called “orthodox” of today condemn the Conditionalist for not believing in the traditional view of the church. The proponents of what is today wrongly called “the traditional view” are in fact putting forth what might better be called the Modern or at least the Reformation view. They are as “guilty” (if guilt is the right word) as the Conditionalist of departing from the tradition of the church.
3. Likewise, Justin’s testimony suggests that belief in conditional immortality (or at least belief in the natural mortality of the human soul) was wide spread among Christians in Justin’s day. It may have been the “default” view. If so, it is the notion of the natural immortality of the soul that is in fact a departure from the tradition of the church. Many critics of Conditional Immortality demand that we Conditionalists explain how we can feel free to depart from the traditional view of the church. At this point it is the critics however that have departed from the traditional view of the church and must explain themselves!
4. Given that life in immortality is a gift to the righteous alone, and that the soul, not being innately immortal, exists only as long as God wills it to exist (as Justin argues), will anyone argue that a loving God would wish the soul of any human being alive throughout endless ages for no other purpose than to inflict upon them perpetual torment? Yet the modern believer in eternal torment must accept either that the souls of the wicked are innately immortal such that God cannot destroy the wicked even did he wish to do so; or that the souls of the wicked are actively sustained by God throughout endless ages for no other purpose than to inflict upon them perpetual torment. Neither of these options is consistent with the notion of an all-powerful, all-loving God. The idea of eternal torment thus fails the test of Scripture, theology, history and logic.
5. Justin sought to communicate the Gospel in terms that would make sense to the people of his day. We must do likewise otherwise we lose our ability to communicate effectively. At the same time, we must do so in such a way that our culture does not so influence the way we present the message that the truth gets subtlety distorted.
Justin was chiefly concerned to establish the fact that Christ has come, in fulfilment of the Scriptures, to bring life to the world, not to speculate on matters theological. We too should seek to present Christ as “Life” persuasively not just to win theological arguments.
1A representative sample might include 1 Apology, 12, 13, 45, and 2 Apology, 1, 2, 7 and 8.
2Justin Martyr, 1 Apology, 44.
3Justin Martyr, 2 Apology, 9.
4Justin Martyr, 1 Apology, 28.
5Justin Martyr, 1 Apology, 52.
6Justin Martyr, Dialogue, 45.
7Thomas Allin, Christ Triumphant or Universalism Asserted as the Hope of the Gospel on the Authority of Reason, the Fathers, and Holy Scripture online at: