Do the early Christians think God is more just and determined to punish or more merciful and determined to forgive?

I deal with the matter in one of the chapters in my next scholarly book,  Journeys to Heaven and Hell: Tours of the Afterlife in the Early Christian Tradition, coming out in April with Yale University Press.  The book has been done for months now, and I am right now reading through the final page proofs sent to me by the press – making final corrections of typos before it heads into production.  (It’s a very long process: usually a book doesn’t get published for about a year after the author has finished writing it and sent it to the publisher.  This always reminds me of the famous poem of John Donne, “Hymn to God the Father,” with its celebrated refrain (about God forgiving sin):  “When thou has done, thou hast not done, for I have more.”).

The book is written for scholars, but with a few helps non-scholars will be able to get the vast majority of it.  Here’s the beginning of the chapter on the relation of God’s justice and mercy, an issue obviously of huge important to any discussion (or journey to!) heaven and hell.

The chapter is called “The Justice and Mercy of God in Textual Conflict.”  To understand this part, a couple of helps:

  • “katabasis” (plural “katabaseis”) literally means “going down,” but is commonly used for ancient journeys by mortals to the realms of the dead.
  • “eschatological” means “understanding of what happens at ‘the end’ – either the end of the world or the end of life. Or, I suppose, the end of a book.
  • “Akhmim” refers to the place where a copy of the Apocalypse of Peter was discovered in the 1880s
  • “paranetic” means “giving advice or exhortation”



Chapter Five

The Justice and Mercy of God

The theological investments of Christian katabaseis are not merely eschatological or, as we saw in the previous chapter, Christological.  At the most fundamental level they concern the character of God, in particular two unusually important divine qualities:  justice and mercy.[i]  Christian history has been replete with attempts to balance the two.  God is both severe and gracious; he strictly judges and he mercifully forgives.  But which attribute is dominant?  Theologians may argue: neither. God is both infinitely just and infinitely merciful.  But when it comes to the individual – say to the individual sinner — does mercy triumph over judgment or judgment over mercy?  This has never been a purely disinterested inquiry.

For most of its history, a large majority of the Christian community has affirmed, sometimes with startling alacrity, the ultimate and eternal damnation of anyone outside the Christian faith and, indeed, even of many within it.  But minority voices have always appealed to the witness of the New Testament itself to argue that, in the end, all will be saved.  In this view God is indeed a judge to be respected and feared.  He does have laws, commandments, requirements, and demands, and violating them brings punishment.  But he is also, even more fundamentally, a loving being who cares for those he created and understands them completely, not just superficially, and is intent on bringing them back to the ways of righteousness.  Since he is the Almighty Sovereign, and since this is what he desires, it is what he will do.  Even though judgment awaits sinners, in the end, love will triumph over all: in one way or another, God will restore everyone and be reconciled with all.   Even sinners will be saved.

It is no surprise that the ancient debate over universal salvation played itself out in various Christian tours of the afterlife, and sometimes within the manuscript tradition of a single text.  In this chapter I will return to the oldest known form of the Apocalypse of Peter and argue that it endorsed a universalistic view, but that the passage in question suffered a scribal intervention.  The alteration was much smaller than the complete rewriting attested in the Akhmim edition discussed in ch. 4.  But the theological effect of the change was even more significant.  By changing just a few short lines, later scribes managed to alter the perspective of the account as a whole – to reverse it, in fact.

This part of my argument is not new, although I will provide it with significant additional support.[ii]   More important, I will be mounting an argument for why the change was made, broadly similar to what we saw in the previous chapter, to make a Petrine pseudepigraphon more suitable for Christian reading.   But in this case I will be making a stronger claim that a scribe changed the text of the Apocalypse of Peter specifically to facilitate its acceptance as part of the Christian canon of Scripture.


The Apocalypse of Peter and the Question of Canon

Once again I approach the question from a possibly unexpected perspective, by framing the discussion of the Apocalypse in relation to its canonical history and by doing so in relation to another  Petrine pseudepigraphon with strikingly similar theological and parenetic concerns even if, at first glance, the similarites are not obvious. The book of 2 Peter does not present a katabasis  but like the Apocalypse it does focus on an eschatological question, the ultimate divine judgment of sinners.  It is striking that even though 2 Peter was scarcely known during the first three Christian centuries, let alone revered, it became part of Scripture, whereas the Apocalypse of Peter, which was both better known and revered, disappeared into oblivion.  Understanding this reversal of fortunes will shed some light on the textual problem of Apocalypse of Peter 14, which, in its oldest form, indicated that at the end Christ will deliver all sinners from their torments in hell.


[i] Naturally they involve a large range of other theological issues as well, including, for example, what it means to be human, the nature of evil, and ecclesiology.

[ii] See, for example, M. R. James, “The Rainer Fragment of the Apocalypse of Peter,” JTS 32 (1931) 270-74.