ACQUIRING AN INFORMED VIEW
First let me say that truth always matters. In the two thousand years of the church age, we have seen biblical truth branded as heresy and we have seen grave error advanced as the truth and the swing of that pendulum, in either direction, has had its dire consequences.
The recognition of biblical truth and error are so important that hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of people have been persecuted, exiled, tortured, or killed because they held on to biblical truth that had been labeled false doctrine or they rejected error in favor of the truth of God’s Word.
What we have set out to examined in these pages and the conclusions we are drawing are at odds with what has been a part of the creeds and the doctrinal statements of many church organizations for a long time. Our laws of religious freedom keep persecution from happening again, but if experience teaches us anything, it is that consequences often follow departures from orthodoxy. If the significance of this topic does not compel us and if a sincere desire to discover what is the truth of God’s Word on the subject is lacking, then the historical and sociological importance of the subject is significant enough to justify the time spent acquiring an informed view.
There are those that have claimed that hell in the Bible is a fabrication of the ante-Nicene church (AD 100 – 325), engineered for the purpose of controlling the behavior of the masses. The second century philosopher Celsus, in his treatise, The True Word, a pagan philosophical attack on Christianity, charged that Christians believed that their God was a wrathful old man who lived in the sky. Origen, the third century church father and early Christian scholar, answered the accusation in his defense against Celsus (Contra Celsum) and spoke to statements in the Bible promising that the wicked will be punished with fire by insisting, “…[Christ] accommodating [Himself] to what is appropriate to the masses who will read the Bible, wisely utters threatening words with a hidden meaning to frighten people who cannot in any other way turn from the flood of iniquities.”1
I am not suggesting that this is the case because the development of this plagiarized version of the afterlife took over a thousand years to evolve. As we saw in the last chapter, this error was a thousand years in the making. Because, as much as the influence of the church fathers has contributed, the masterful imagery of both Dante’s Inferno (circa AD 1320) and Milton’s Paradise Lost (AD 1667) served to bring depth to the description of this place called hell and to cement it firmly into our religious thought.
The doctrines of the infernal punishment of the soul and that of original sin began to be more fully developed in the mid-third century AD2 and it was not until then that widespread infant baptism began to be practiced3. It is not a curious thing that these three should emerge at the same time given that they are intertwined. It could be that as these scholarly philosophical thinkers of the early church age grappled with what would become the authorized doctrine of the church, they had to fill in the gaps from time to time. One such gap was the question of the untimely death of children. Would they not be consigned to hell because of “original sin”? Without some sort of remedy parents of children who died would be in anguish at the thought of their baby languishing in flames.
There is little evidence of widespread infant baptism until after AD 200. After all, what need of baptism does an infant have outside of original sin and a place called hell. The Greek’s underworld may then have factored heavily into the institution of infant baptism and later, into the doctrines of limbo and purgatory, the prayers for the dead, the lighting of candles for the dead and so on. All of these became sources of income for the orthodox church. So, it can be readily seen why a cynic would assign a nefarious motive to the church’s invention of hell. Again, I am not suggesting that control and money were the impetus of the invention of hell by the early church fathers but, invent it they did.
Of course, hell is still pervasive in our religious thought today, even among Evangelical, Pentecostal and traditional Protestant denominations and to significant harm:
Some Christians invoke hell to persuade individuals to repent of their sins. Such rhetoric is holdover from a different time and place, when scaring people into faith seemed like a good idea.
I am not so sure that a conversion out of fear instead one out of love for Christ is conducive to a healthy relationship with our Savior, but one fostered in dread. Add to this the erroneous picture of God painted by the creations of the men we discussed in the last chapter and one can understand the bewilderment of someone who might be a true seeker but for a few questions that create honest doubt.
Then you have those that consign people to hell for all kinds of “transgressions,” whether they are sin or not, revealing they do not understand our fallen nature nor the grace that abounds, making the cross of Christ of no effect.
The existence of hell creates a dangerously inconsistent eschatological theology, putting punishment before judgement and creating a false environment where people are thought to be abhorred by God and hanging by a thread over the fires of perdition.
It is not long before Christians begin to manifest that abhorrence in hate as evidenced by church groups that demonstrate with banners and placards that read, “God hates homosexuals”, shouting slurs and hurling hateful epithets at women at abortion clinics. These depictions of a place called “hell” bring out what is vile and disgusting in the human heart.
Is this really what we believe? Apparently, it is.
The doctrine of immortal souls has led to abuses in the church such as the veneration of saints to the point of the worship of relics and the sale of trinkets, the creation of purgatory, the selling of indulgences (remission of sins to gain the liberation of a loved one’s soul from purgatory) and payments for the lighting of candles and prayers for the dead.
Many of these abuses have been called out and abolished but that still leaves nearly a thousand years during which the visible church of Jesus Christ was ruling with a heavy hand, selling church offices to the highest bidder and implanting its hand firmly into the pockets of a terrorized constituency. All of this, instead of preaching the gospel of salvation.
Today we have books authored, TV shows produced, and screenplays written that advance a wide variety of notions about the state of the dead. Money is still being made peddling the fabrication of the human soul that started with Plato and has been made more sophisticated over the more than two millennium since at the cost of the truth of God’s Word. How many hearts have sought after the ghost of one departed for comfort rather than seeking after the comfort of Jesus Christ Himself?
Imagine where we would be if the early church fathers would have just accepted the simple Biblical teaching that the dead are dead until the resurrection of the dead.
This, is why it matters.
1Trigg, Joseph Wilson, Origen: The Bible and Philosophy in the Third-Century Church, Atlanta, Georgia: John Knox Press, ©1983, p. 224, in Wikipedia, “Contra Celsum (retrieved 5/20/2020) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Contra_Celsum
2“Original Sin” in Daniel Patte (ed.). The Cambridge Dictionary of Christianity, Two Volume Set. Wipf, ©2019, p. 882, and “Original Sin” in Cross, Frank Leslie, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Oxford University Press, ©166, p. 994.
3Evidence of infant baptism as a standard practice points to the 3rd century as being the earliest that Christians although some preferred to postpone baptism until late in life, so as to ensure forgiveness for all their preceding sin. “Infant Baptism: Scriptural and Reasonable”, archived from the original on 9 May 2008.; “What does the Bible teach about the subject of baptising of infants?” by Don Matzat, archived 11 March 2008 at the Wayback Machine, “Infant Baptism in Early Church History”, archived 8 March 2008 at the Wayback Machine, “Christian Heresies of the Sixteenth Century”.