As we have seen on the blog before, when church leaders were deciding which books should be counted among the Christian Scriptures, to go along with the “Old Testament,” they used a range of criteria: a book had to be written by an apostle or at least by an active companion of an apostle; it had to be widely used throughout the early Christianity communities; and it had to convey teachings that were widely accepted (by the “right” thinkers) as “orthodox.” No false teachings allowed.
And so my question about the Apocalypse of Peter. What went wrong? It was allegedly written by the apostle Peter himself. Check. It was known and used in widespread churches in the second and third centuries – not as much as, say, the Gospels and letters of Paul, but still, more than other books, such as 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and Jude, that eventually made it into the NT. So, widely enough used. Check. And its teachings about eternal torments for sinners and everlasting blessings for the saved were very much in line with what Christian leaders, teachers, and theologians were saying. Check. So what’s the problem?
My sense is that there were a couple of things, most intriguingly …
To see how this thought plays out, you’ll need to read the rest of the post. But to do that, you need to belong to the blog. If you don’t, repent and change your ways! Join the blog. It won’t cost much and all the money goes to charity.
[privaete] … most intriguingly the passage that I cited yesterday, found in the fifth-century Rainer Fragment of the book (NOT, in the Akhmim version discovered in 1886-87 or in the Ethiopic translation). After describing the eternal torments of sinners, the author acknowledges that in fact they were not always eternal. Some lucky souls would get let off the hook.
And (or But?) I will give to my elect and chosen ones whomever they ask of me out of their torment, and I will give them a good baptism for salvation in the Acherousian Lake which is said to be in the Elysian Field.
According to this verse, anyone roasting for eternity in hell will be saved if there is one of the elect who asks Christ to let them go. That certainly was not an acceptable view for later Christian leaders and theologians.
As we have seen, there was one highly dominant view of hell that developed within Christian thinking of the 2nd – 5th centuries, the view that then became the standard view of all time. Once a person dies and is assigned to hell, theystay there forever. Not for the length of time they were cognizant sinners while living; not for the length of their entire life from infancy to death; not for a few thousand years, or a few trillion. Forever.
There was, to be sure, an alternative view that resided at the margins, possibly adumbrated in some of the NT (notably, some of the comments of Paul) promoted most forcefully, as we have seen, by the third-century Origen and picked up sometimes later, principally among his followers, that in the end, if God is truly Sovereign, his plan cannot be trumped and his will cannot be resisted. Eventually, over time – even if it is an “infinity of ages” as Origen seems to have thought (which, of course, cannot technically be right) – everyone will come around, even the worst of sinners, and worship the Lord God. They then will be granted eternal salvation.
But this view was very much a minority opinion and was itself condemned as a false teaching by the later church. The great theologian Augustine – the most influential Christian thinker of all time (apart from Paul I suppose) – spent most of the entire book 21 of his classic The City of God, arguing against anyone who maintained that eternal damnation would not be eternal, including Origen and his followers, but also others who took less than severe views on the matter: anyone who is not a believer in Christ will burn forever.
It is true that even Augustine realized this was not completely fair, since there are some sinners who are worse than others (like the guy across the street). Augustine’s solution was that all sinners will indeed burn forever, but God in his mercy has arranged for some to experience the heat more intensely than others. So, I suppose, for some it will be only 3000 degrees, not 6000. And hey, that’s *something* at least.
The problem with the verse in the Apocalypse of Peter is that some sinners get completely out of the heat and into heaven. Not because of God’s decision to be merciful to sinners in general. And not because they were better than other sinners. They may, in fact, have been much worse. But if there is a saint who would like to see a friend or loved one off the hook, all she or he needs do is ask Christ and the person will be saved and brought into eternal glory. Anyone who doesn’t happen to have a friend or loving family member among the elect, well, as we say, tough cookies. It’s baking forever, with no help of remission.
This is a completely arbitrary and random distribution of justice. The majority view was clear and straightforward: saints who believe in Christ will be saved forever; sinners who do not will roast for eternity. Nothing arbitrary. So too Origen’s view – which itself came to be condemned as being too slack: everyone eventually gets saved. Not some random few who happen to have a merciful relative or next-door-neighbor saint who prays for them.
The view expressed in this verse of the Apocalypse of Peter almost certainly had developed because of concern that there must be *some* leniency and not a hard-fisted, clad-iron application of “justice.” God must show *some* mercy on those who don’t deserve it. And so the solution: a saint who prays for another can get them relieved from the heat. But it’s mind-bogglingly random nature must have seemed completely unacceptable. There has to be some kind of rule applied to all, otherwise justice is not true justice. It’s just arbitrary. Arbitrary enforcement is the opposite of true justice, and so cannot be the way of God.
None of the church fathers who reject the Apocalypse of Peter says what its problem was. But my guess is that this was it. And there is some evidence for that. I mentioned that this passage in ch. 14 of the book is found only in our very oldest witness to it, the fifth-century Rainer fragment. It is almost certainly the original wording of the text. But it is missing from the later editions, both the Akhmim manuscript that dates from the sixth century and the Ethiopic version that, though more reliable, dates from even later. Why is it missing from these versions of the text? Scribes must have omitted it. Why did they omit it? Almost certainly because they found it problematic.
So did the church fathers who read the book. It came at the very end of the description of eternal torments. But it indicated that the torments were eternal only for some. Others could be relieved, if they happened to be chummy with one of the saints. That was a completely unacceptable idea. For orthodox church thinkers, that meant the book could not have been written by one of the apostles. That meant the book could not be accepted as a Scriptural authority.
And so the book was simply left out of the canon. As a result, it was scarcely ever copied. And that’s why we didn’t have it until 1886-87.[/private]