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Eternal Torment Even for Christians?

I have been discussing the “universalistic” strand in parts of Christianity in the early centuries, which said that ultimately, everyone will be saved.  This was very much a minority opinion.  Most Christians continued to think that non-believers would be damned, forever, to some very nasty torments that would never end.

In fact, in many circles, more and more people came to be subject to the fires of eternity in the Christian imagination.  In the fourth and fifth centuries, with a massive influx of converts there also came large numbers of less-than-devoted souls.  And the blessings and punishments of eternity almost inevitably came to be modified as a result.   By the end of the fourth century, when Christianity was well on the road to becoming the dominant religion of the empire, some Christian writers started to maintain that heaven was not the destination of all members of the church, or hell the fate reserved only for those outside of it.  On the contrary, Christian sinners too could be subject to the eternal wrath of God.  Especially to be wary were Christian leaders who did not practice what they preached.

The most popular and influential portrayal of the realms of the blessed and the damned comes to us in a book called …

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Does Eternal Punishment Even Make Sense?
The Happy News! No One Stays In Hell!



  1. Avatar
    Nichrob  January 14, 2019

    The author should have created a lower realm to be reserved for all the authors, ministers, religions, etc, that have produce psychological stress, torment, and emotional damage on others…. Now that would be a big place……

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    AstaKask  January 14, 2019

    Was it Eusebius who said that the greatest pleasure in Heaven was to see the unbelievers fry?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 15, 2019

      Tertullian has something like this, but I’m not familiar with it in Eusebius.

      • Avatar
        AstaKask  January 15, 2019

        I was thinking of Tertullian. Thank you.

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    gwayersdds  January 14, 2019

    I have always felt that God would not create all of humankind simply to condemn them to a hell. Since Christianity is not the majority of the earth’s population, that means that the majority is condemned to eternal punishment. I can’t accept that. As a Methodist, I agree with John Welsey who said that God speaks to us as we are each best able to understand him. To me that means that Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, etc. etc. who worship God as they understand him are not condemned. I read a book called “Razing Hell” by Sharon Baker that essentially says that after death we are purified by fire and all the evil is consumed. What is left goes on to eternal reward. If you are totally evil, you are completely consumed. Also, since we are here for a very short geological time why should there be eternal punishment. It doesn’t make sense. Punishment for all eternity when we are on this earth for such a short time? Any way that is the “Gospel According to Me”.

  4. Avatar
    fishician  January 14, 2019

    Of course, people who preach such punishment for others (even today) never think they themselves will be among those punished! Do you think Paul’s comment in 1 Cor. 3:15 suggests he had such thoughts, or maybe it served as a seed for later teachings about punishment of the believers: “If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.”?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 15, 2019

      My sense is that he’s talking about *other* preachers who have built some kind of false edifice on the true foundation of faith that Paul and others have laid down. Their work will be burned, but they’ll still be saved.

  5. Avatar
    AggieGnostic  January 14, 2019

    Reading this, I’m reminded of the joke about one of the newly conscripted getting a tour of heaven from Peter himself. He sees majestic halls filled with people of all types – Hindus, Catholics, Muslims, Buddhists, etc., all basking in the glory of heaven. Peter then whispers to him, “And in this hall is where the evangelicals are.” When the man asks why he is whispering, Peter softly replies, “Because they think they are the only ones here.”

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    Pattylt  January 14, 2019

    All of the torments seem to be physical. Were there any mentions of psychological torments? Did they have any understanding of a psychological torment being worse than a physical one?

    Also, were there any mentions of God’s ability to transcend time…see the past and future all at once as envisioned of God now?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 15, 2019

      No, they appear not to have had a category for what we think of as psychological torment. And their view of time was not ours either: they certainly thought God was the same throughout eternity, but they didn’t wrestle with the philosophical issues connected with time.

  7. Avatar
    doug  January 14, 2019

    I wonder how many Xian groups of differing beliefs claimed that the members of the other Xian groups would receive sadistic eternal tortures. Each group trying to scare the other groups with hell.

    • Avatar
      godspell  January 15, 2019

      In modern times, many.

      Back in the very early days, I doubt that happened. For one thing, they didn’t really talk about hell in the early days. They were still talking about the Kingdom, and they probably believed all Christians would get to enter the Kingdom (maybe with some individual exceptions).

      Hell and Heaven couldn’t become a thing until they realized the physical world wasn’t going to change, at least not for a while.

      And while they argued with each other a lot, they still saw each other as comrades, for as long as they were united by persecution and the fact that there were so few of them.

      Anyway, has it ever been different with any belief system? Haven’t revolutionaries and ‘New Atheists’ done the same thing in a different form? “You believe Jesus was a real person? Dupe! I’m unfriending you on Facebook!” Now the flames are rude internet posts. 😉

  8. Avatar
    godspell  January 14, 2019

    To be a Christian in the early days–when persecution was at least an intermittent possibility, and everybody blamed you for angering the pagan gods when things went wrong–was to be a member of an elite. No doubt even then, not all Christians were such of unimpeachable character (Judas was a charter member, after all), but in practical terms, it’s hard to get people to sign on if you’re still threatening them with the same afterlife punishments as unbelievers (or worse).

    So it makes sense that once most people were Christians, the torments of hell would all of a sudden become a way of keeping a now numerous and far-flung membership in line.

    Except this only works for so long as the Roman Empire remains a unitary political entity. Once that unity cracks, alternate authority systems spring up, and much as the church may try to fill the gap left by the demise of Rome, that wasn’t going to hold up indefinitely either. Ultimately, you get rival Popes excommunicating each other, followed by the Reformation.

    They don’t think of it this way–as the stick to go with the carrot–but that’s how institutions work. Membership has its privileges, but you still have to pay your dues.

  9. Avatar
    ddorner  January 14, 2019

    what do you think Jesus would think of what people believe about him today?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 15, 2019

      He wouldn’t believe it.

    • Avatar
      Kirktrumb59  January 16, 2019

      The answer is expressed in Woody Allen’s “Hanna and Her Sisters” by Max von Sydow: “…he’d never stop throwing up.”

  10. Avatar
    JoeS  January 15, 2019

    It’s always been interesting to me how big of a role food (and hunger) plays in Christianity. Even in the Apocalypse of Paul, the author seems to omit interesting details about a day in the life of an occupant of Heaven in favor of a description of what’s on the menu.

    Are we left to assume the occupants just live typical fourth-century lives only minus bad neighbors, and with fancier walls and nicer weather? How about clothes? Are they still a thing or are we back to Adam and Eve pre-sin days of nudity?

    No account I’ve heard of Heaven seems to tell us much of anything about what it was really supposed to be like, but if I’m wrong about that I’d be interested in finding out. Instead the author of the Apocalypse of Paul is preoccupied with food! He’s pretty much saying… Here’s a brief overview of some nice infrastructure in Heaven, but enough of that — let me tell you about the all-you-can-eat buffet!

    I guess means that hunger is still an issue, even in Heaven? It seems it gets satiated with rivers of abundance for the righteous, but they still aren’t really freed from it. Seems a bit weird to me, since the first sin was an eating-related offense, but also seems to back up view that the author assumes a sort of physical existence in the afterlife rather than some kind of a spiritual one.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 15, 2019

      I think the issue is that in a world of massive poverty and hunger, one of the prime features of a “paradise” would be where everyone had an abundance of glorious food and drink. Unimaginable to the hungry masses — i.e., most people.

      • Avatar
        meohanlon  January 15, 2019

        Since my time in the Bay Area, my own idea of heaven includes an all-you-can-eat Indian buffet full of many ever-fresh delicacies that never leave one full, fat, broke, hungry or without the appetite needed to enjoy it!

        • Bart
          Bart  January 17, 2019

          Indian food is the worse: how can you possibly not over-order or over-eat. Impossible!

        • Avatar
          JoeS  January 18, 2019

          Agreed! There’s an Indian lunch buffet place near my house, and if I made it to Heaven and one of those food rivers wasn’t flowing with chicken tikka masala, I might be a bit disappointed. Honey is great and all, but I’d be hanging out by Curry Lake.

          As for the invention of hunger in the first place and its persistence into the afterlife…
          For me, teeth and eating always seemed strange inventions for a loving God to place in his universe, since each meal requires its own little murder (w/ possible exception of vegans) and since those meals are things that can bring us such joy. Being made in the image of a god with teeth seemed a frightening and Lovecraftian thing to me, back in the days I was concerned about such things. Made me wonder what a god might eat. At the time, I didn’t think I’d want to know.

  11. Robert
    Robert  January 15, 2019

    “The city [of Christ or Trump] is made of gold and is surrounded by twelve concentric walls, each as distant from the next as the earth is from heaven. …  the interior walls [are] higher than the one before it, separating one part of the city off from the next. … As fantastic as the outer realms of the city are, the inner beggar description. … outside the city … the torments of ‘the souls of the godless and sinners’.” 

  12. Avatar
    Hon Wai  January 15, 2019

    It appears the Apocalypse of Paul was never high on the list of contenders for entry into the NT canon. So to what extent did these lucid (in case of heaven) and lurid (in case of hell) ideas of differentiated levels of rewards and punishments permeate into official church theology after the patristic era? Or did these ideas circulate largely as folk tales? As I understand it, the contemporary official Catholic teaching is that there is only one level of heaven and one level of hell, but different levels and durations of purgatory.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 17, 2019

      Before the Reformation there were lots of Christians who were heavily influenced by non-canonical apocryphal tales, in both Gospels and other kinds of books.

  13. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  January 15, 2019

    There just has to be something badly wrong with whomever made up all of this torture, don’t you think?.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 17, 2019

      I think they certainly don’t share my own view of the world and reality!

  14. Avatar
    Eric  January 15, 2019

    “No true Scotsman…”

    That’s how you know the persecuted have now “made it.”

  15. Avatar
    AngeloB  July 7, 2020

    Did the Gnostics believe in hell? If so, how was their belief in hell similar to and different from orthodox doctrine?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 7, 2020

      In the sense that when a person died their soul could/would go there. No.

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