This will be my last post on the understandings of hell in early Christianity. There is a lot more to be said, of course, but for our purposes this is enough. I’ve been trying to show that there was a minority view held by some prominent thinkers – and possibly a lot of other Christian folk; there’s no way to tell – that said in the end everyone would be saved. The dominant view, though, was that for non-believers and sinners, there would be hell to pay. This would involve eternal torment.
Once Christianity became a massive and widespread phenomenon – when there was no more persecution, and when philosophically oriented intellectuals had positions of authority in the church — highly trained Christian thinkers could engage in reasoned and intellectual reflections on the fate of souls after death, and none did so more influentially than Augustine (354 -430 CE), the greatest theologian of Christian antiquity. Augustine chose to conclude his great work, The City of God, with three books describing how the reality of God manifest in this world would reveal itself in the world to come. The basic premise of the chapters stands in continuity with much that had been long believed in Christian circles: there will be eternal punishment, with real pain, for the wicked, matched by the real, tactile, joy of the saved. Unlike some of his predecessors, however, Augustine does not fill his account simply with detailed descriptions of the gore and the glory; he was a thinker, and he reflects deeply on what it might mean to be damned or saved.
In book 21 Augustine deals with the punishments of hell. Always the philosopher, he is especially interested, at the outset, with the conceptual problems involved. Is “eternal pain” even possible? Wouldn’t it …
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