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Does Eternal Punishment Even Make Sense?

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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How Do We Know What Was Originally in the Apocalypse of Peter?
Eternal Torment Even for Christians?



  1. jbskq5  January 15, 2019

    This has been a highly entertaining and fascinating thread. I can’t wait for that book!

  2. AstaKask  January 15, 2019

    Plato at least has a discussion of how punishment should always be for the benefit of the punished. The God of St. Augustine and others of his ilk just seems like he’s a sadist.

    • godspell  January 18, 2019

      That’s the penal system, not hell. The Greeks believed in eternal punishment in the afterlife long before Christianity got to it.

      And looking at what we’ve done with Plato’s suggestions with regards to prison improving people–how has that worked out?

      “I’m locking you up with murderers and rapists because you sold marijuana or loose tobacco cigarettes–but it’s for your own good!”

      At least Jesus said you had the choice of whether or not to leave your family to follow him. Plato said the Guardians would have to forcibly confiscate all small children from their parents to raise them properly. Yeah, that would have worked great.

      Oh damn, we’re doing that now, aren’t we?

      Well, I don’t think the President has read Plato. “Is that the Disney dog?”

      • Petter Häggholm  January 27, 2019

        The American penal system is quite retributive in nature. For systems more oriented toward benefiting society, look to Scandinavia, e.g. Norway, where the recidivism rate is less than a third of the USA’s.

  3. NulliusInVerba
    NulliusInVerba  January 15, 2019

    I wonder if Augustine borrowed “passes all understanding” from Philippians 4:7. And that caused me to wonder if the phrase is original to Philippians or was a later addition. Can you shed any light on this?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 17, 2019

      That’s a great question — but I don’t know off hand. Maybe someone else on the blog does?

  4. flshrP  January 15, 2019

    Ah, the “City of God”. I went to a Jesuit university on a 4-year academic scholarship. As such, I was expected to sign up for the Honors Program. One of the parts of that program was a great books discussion course (1 or 2 credit hours). We spent one semester on the City of God. The priest running that program kept it informal–we met off-campus at the apartment of one of the students in the evening.
    My overall reaction was “what a waste of a great mind”. Yes, Augustine is considered to be the greatest theologian of early Christianity. But to spend his time thinking and writing about the afterlife and eternal punishment led him to produce such nonsense as noted in your post.

    I felt the same about the professors in my theology classes (mandatory at my university). Most of them had several PhDs, could read/write/speak several languages, and had published books and technical papers on arcane theological issues of interest to nobody but their colleagues. Many of them could have made major contributions in fields that directly benefit society (medicine, natural science, engineering, history, economics). Again what a waste.

    • godspell  January 18, 2019

      Ever occur to you some of them might have been saying the same about you?

      Roman Catholicism has around 1.2 billion adherents. It has influence in almost every corner of the globe. Is it really such a bad thing that there are serious scholars and scientists in the ranks of its clergy? (And there are many scientists among them).

      Damned if they value education, damned if they don’t. But don’t damn them for censoring science and history textbooks, as some other religions try to do. There was a time that happened, but now many of them could write good ones themselves, and only bring God into it if that’s the subject being examined.

      All academic disciplines, without exception, produce quite a lot of material–most of it!–that is only of interest to themselves. Publish or perish, remember?

      How exactly would speaking several languages help you write papers in medicine or engineering? You’d need to learn quite a bit else, I’d think. It’s not for you to tell them their true vocation, anymore than they could tell you yours.

  5. epicurus
    epicurus  January 15, 2019

    Given that Satan is supposed to have been a super being in heaven and in God’s presence and still rebelled, as well many other angels, it seems being in heaven in god’s presence is not a guarantee of long term satisfaction. So maybe humans might get a bit restless too, eternity is a long time. I’m sure theologians have written why this could nver happen. But I’m not sure.

    • hoshor  January 17, 2019

      I agree! I’ve always made this argument with Christians and have never received anything close to a satisfactory answer.

  6. Victorsalazar  January 15, 2019

    Greetings from México.
    These are ancient ideas. The religion was develop by people that in our social educational standards , would be pointed as ignorants. A dream will inspire them .

    Yes Dr. Ehrman . It makes no sense . I see very contradictorial the moral standars of the judeo-christian god. In Romans 5-13 “No law , no pushinment” And yet he punished before delivering the Law.

  7. godspell  January 15, 2019

    What most distinguishes Augustine’s worldview from that of Jesus and his early followers?

    Augustine was a Roman citizen, and proud of it. Paul may have been a citizen as well (hard to be sure), but Paul clearly felt no loyalty to Rome, used his citizenship rights to promulgate a faith Rome then rejected and despised.

    Augustine, living in an age when Rome had been converted to Christianity, and stood not only for social order, but the triumph of the true faith, felt quite differently about Rome–and like many other citizens, was deeply concerned about the future of that source of centralized authority and security. (The fall of which would have only pleased most Jews in Jesus’ time).

    So how can order be preserved? Clearly man’s nature is corrupt. Augustine explains this through the infection of original sin. And only God’s grace, freely accepted, can bring man back to his proper pre-fall nature.

    Augustine sees Rome as his model for God’s Kingdom on earth. Hierarchical, with ins and outs, those in favor, and those who are punished for their disobedience and disloyalty. That’s his City of God.

    Jesus saw something very different. Based on different models, and much vaguer ones. He can’t get that specific about it, because only God could know what it would look like. He only knows who will inhabit it. Those who are without vanity, without selfishness, without cruelty, without hate, without fear. Those who live for others, not themselves.

    In a word, the sheep, and I suppose that’s his model. And God sends a shepherd, the Son of Man, to make sure they are not molested or preyed upon. His disciples will be leaders of the flock, in the same way a herd has dominant members (often ewes) to make sure the herd doesn’t go astray.

    Jesus probably never saw a great city other than Jerusalem, which he seems to have viewed with a countryman’s deep distrust of the urban landscape, and in any event, he may never have seen it until his ideas were already well-formed. Augustine was far more cosmopolitan, and on the whole preferred city life. So this all makes sense.

    Eternal punishment doesn’t–except it’s hard to scare hardened city folk with a finite punishment.

  8. Hon Wai  January 15, 2019

    “Eternal punishment comes for sins against an eternal God.”
    This line of argument is common among conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists (on occasions when they attempt philosophical argumentation, rather than cite biblical proof-texts).

    Has any theologian prior to the modern era attempted to refute Augustine’s argument for the justice of eternal punishment?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 17, 2019

      I’m sure there were, but I’m not familiar with the arguments of universalists after his day.

  9. fishician  January 15, 2019

    Jesus used the analogy of weeds being thrown in the fire, which suggests quick annihilation, and many other verses in the NT suggest destruction, not an eternal existence for the unbelievers (does John 3:16 even make sense if nobody perishes but everybody has eternal life?). I find it troubling that so many Christians from Augustine onward choose to believe in eternal torment in hell for those who fall outside their definition of the saved. But the alternative sounds like it’s not much better: spending eternity praising a god who thinks it is just to let people be in torment for eternity when they didn’t have the advantages of His favored ones, who got personal appearances, witnessed miracles, had direct communication from God, etc. He didn’t even leave us a book that would unite his followers rather than divide them. Funny how many people who believe in this scenario complain if the church service runs too long!

    • Bart
      Bart  January 17, 2019


    • godspell  January 18, 2019


      I’ve met many a nonbeliever in God who still loves the idea of hell–for people he/she doesn’t like.

      That’s the real problem, right there. Hell as revenge. That wasn’t Jesus’ idea, it wasn’t how early Christians thought. But if you study history, you’ll see variants of this cropping up where Christianity is not the source. We get angry when people won’t agree with us, won’t behave as we think they ought, and we look for some way to punish them after death, if not before. (Frequently before.)

      This idea was not originated by Christians, and would have occurred no matter what. And will recur, until we accept that idea about getting the log out of your own eye first.

      • fishician  January 18, 2019

        Yes, if I condemn the one with a speck in his eye, where does that leave me with the log in mine?! I think Jesus’ point is that I should always see them with a speck and me with the log.

      • godspell  January 19, 2019

        And there’s the downvote. Proving me right. Appreciate the help. 🙂

        • Pattylt  January 20, 2019

          I gave you the down vote. I have been reading your posts for a long time and most of them are very good and thought provoking, until you have to get your jab in about atheists. If you don’t really have contempt for atheists then please stop writing comments that sound like you do.

          • godspell  February 8, 2019

            I hadn’t seen this until now. I don’ t know if you’ll ever read my response, but what the hell.

            1)By the standards of most Christians, I would be considered an atheist. I don’t consider myself one, in part because I have found most people who refer to themselves on the internet (in real life, it almost never comes up) as such to be quite narrow-minded, judgemental, and quite frankly, not that well informed about the subject of religion (and many other subjects besides). Also because when they get power, atheists tend not to behave so well, borrowing much from their theist enemies, which would be funny if it didn’t involve so much death and torture. I feel the same way about Christians who have that type of personality and approach to belief, and lots of them do. I look at the person, much more than the ideology, because I believe personalities matter more than belief systems. I do not believe all or most people who don’t believe in God are bad. Nor do I believe they are any smarter, on average than theists. Many who leave Christianity and similar faiths, as you must know, simply switch over to more personal but equally non-empirical belief systems.

            2)I didn’t use the word atheist in my post. You inferred a hell of a lot from very little, which would imply I hit a nerve.

            3)It is a fact–as I know from my own experience–that people who don’t believe in God often still cherish the idea of hell for those they hate. And that, as Bart is making clear, is because hell isn’t a specifically Christian idea, and Jesus probably never believed in it. It was adopted from outside sources after the majority of Christians were of pagan heritage. Impossible to say who came up with it first.

            4)Since I continue to believe anonymous downvotes–or even downvotes with a name attached to them–are a rather unsatisfactory way of taking revenge on people who say something you don’t want to hear–I shall turn the other cheek. I don’t upvote much either, but since we are limited to three posts a day, I do sometimes make use of them to express agreement. Disagreement is more complex (what precisely are you dissenting from?), and just saying “I didn’t like that” doesn’t really say anything at all.

  10. RonaldTaska  January 15, 2019

    Hmm? What would someone like Augustine say about how he knows what he knows? Would he claim that he is being inspired by God? Or that he got all of this from the teachings of Jesus or from reading the Bible or from logical reason or as an answer to his prayers?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 17, 2019

      He sees his views based on a deep understanding of the Bible (and his personal relationship with God). His reflections on these things is found in his Confessions.

  11. Steve Clark  January 15, 2019

    I’m with Isaac Asimov on this one : “The concept of an eternal hell is the drooling dream of a sadist, crudely affixed to an all merciful god.”

    Do you think early Christians saw what an effective recruiting tool instilling a fear like this was in the listener and found it simply to powerful to give it up ?

    Thanks Bart

    • Bart
      Bart  January 17, 2019

      Yes indeed. I’m thinking about writing about that as a chapter in my next book!

    • godspell  January 20, 2019

      Asimov had some pretty wacky dreams himself, you know. I’ve read a lot of him, remain a fan–but of all my favorite SF authors, he’s one who hasn’t aged well.

      In any event, the concept of a dismal unending afterlife existed long long before Christianity, as he should have known. It was not the invention of any one mind, but rather occurred independently to many, all over the world.

      Rather than dismiss it, maybe we should try to understand it. That would be the scientific approach.

  12. Pattylt  January 15, 2019

    Augustine may have been a brilliant philosopher but he was still defining Heaven and Hell into existence! 😂

    The Christians created their own problems when it came to miscarriages and stillborn and they still haven’t resolved these problems. Limbo isn’t dogma and it really isn’t very comforting to a mother’s loss. It is still a separation from God. They basically state that they don’t know and depend on Gods mercy! For a religion that has ALL the answers, you’d think they’d come up with one?

    Dr. Ehrman, when did limbo develop?

  13. chixter  January 15, 2019

    Thank you Dr. Ehrman, this has been a very informative series. I have studied the views of modern Universal Salvation for a while in the past. A good resource is a site called Tentmaker.org. It’s founder Gary Amerault (RIP), seemed to be a gentle and loving person who out of his fundamentalist hell fire background, began studying scriptures and Greek and Hebrew, and came to the conclusion of Universal Salvation. It’s strange but even during my childhood in a Catholic school, I used to wonder why if Jesus died on the cross for us, was it only for believers or in my case Catholics? What about everyone else? My 5th grade mind thought of African tribes in the jungle, and Native Americans on the plains, and jeez China was so far away. Why would these people spend eternity in torture and fire? Needless to say, whenever I asked that question, the most common response was that it was my duty to pray for them. I also consider myself an agnostic atheist even though as recently as 10 years ago, I began investigating the theology of the Universalist. So what then kept me out of the doors of a Universalist church one may ask? Well, there are few of them only 1 within reasonable travel, and I live in New Jersey! But more importantly, they also believe the bible is the inspired word of G~d, they just interpret it differently than say Baptists. I also learned that like most Christian denominations there are several “sub species” of Universalist ranging from “All are eventually saved” to those that are not, are just annihilated…they either stay dead with no resurrection or they die ‘again’ after the GWT judgement I just do not see any hand but the hand (and mind) of man when studying religious texts such as the bible. Thanks to the talent and work of folks like Dr. Ehrman, these things become even clearer.

  14. Rita Gomes  January 15, 2019

    Would this have first step towards indulgences?

  15. Rick
    Rick  January 15, 2019

    Professor, is there a course in the schools of Theology about what to do when you have written yourself into a corner?
    Maybe the answer is declare another miracle available only to those who don’t ask questions?

    So once you’ve scared everyone with the thought of eternal hell if they are “bad” your pretty well stuck with promising eternal life to those who are “good”. (Although personally I cant see whats wrong with .. you get to go to sleep and not worry about all this..) But, then surely someone is going to say ‘I’ve been good, what is it going to be like?” So Augustine comes up with “spend eternity gazing on and adoring God” and “be perfectly and magnificently contented, [doing that] forever.” To which the reader cannot reply “well that sounds like an awful bore” without admitting to being unworthy in the first place….

    • Bart
      Bart  January 17, 2019

      No, but there should be!

    • AstaKask  January 17, 2019

      It’s not a coincidence that the torments of Hell are so much more detailed than the pleasures of Heaven. There’s something called Pessimism Bias, which appears to be a human universal. We view losses as much worse than gains, even when they are objectively the same (so, we view the loss of $20 as much worse than the gain of $20). The evolutionary rationale seems to be that when you live on the edge of survival (which would be where we evolved), it is much more dangerous to lose a little than to gain a little. There’s a field called Positive Psychology which aims to find out what makes us happy rather than what makes us miserable, to find paths to health rather than paths to sickness. I think it’s worth inspecting.

  16. leesal  January 15, 2019

    Jesus got beat up, was spit upon, a crown of thorns stuck on his head, bled, nailed on a cross, dies according to plan and then a couple hours later is resurrected and ascends to heaven exactly as prophesied. Doesn’t seem like much of a sacrifice!!! Couple hours discomfort in exchange for being seated at the Father’s right hand for eternity. Oi, oi, oi, such a deal!!!

    If Jesus was truly a savior and died in the place of sinners than as savior/substitute, shouldn’t Jesus suffer eternal punishment like those for whom he is allegedly a savior?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 17, 2019

      I think the idea is that their earthly suffering was termporary too.

    • Sami  January 24, 2019

      My thoughts exactly! And Jesus didn’t even suffer that much: he died so quickly on the cross that it surprised the romans. You’d expect that the process of suffering that is supposed to atone the sins of all of humanity would take a little longer…

  17. Stephen  January 15, 2019

    A nice turn of phrase, “varying levels of ecstatic forevers”.

    Just curious, has there ever been anyone who thought Heaven was not eternal?


  18. ksgm34  January 16, 2019

    I wonder how much the modern churches reflect on the impact of development in thinking and teaching about Hell on the growth of Christianity/ its success in keeping people in the fold…

  19. paul.wright  January 16, 2019

    Here is a link to an article by Eastern Orthodox scholar David Bentley Hart. It is mostly anti-Augustine, but in the process it makes the case for universal salvation. His view is that Augustine, who never mastered Greek, was led astray by bad Latin translations. His “mistakes” persist in the Western thought (Catholic and Protestant) to this day (e.g., original sin, eternal punishment, predestination). It’s an interesting perspective. By the way, Hart is a great fan of Origen.


    • ksgm34  January 17, 2019

      Thomas Talbott provides a similar exegesis of Romans. Shame God has let so many labour under a misapprehension for so many centuries, at great psychological cost I might add!

  20. jdub3125  January 16, 2019

    In this series of posts regarding the afterlife and salvation, did you provide one or more definitions of what is meant by “salvation” as used in the NT? Is it being saved from punishment for sins, or from the natural results of evil doing, or from wanting to do evil, or from actually doing evil in the first place, or what exactly are we to be saved from? Perhaps it varies depending on the particular author.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 17, 2019

      Yes, different authors use the term diffreently. For Paul, for example, it was none of the above. It meant being delivered from the wrath of God that was going to strike the planet in the impending apocalypse.

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