Eternal Punishment by J. P. Arendzen - Chapter 4

Eternal Punishment in Tradition

This Scriptural teaching has been continuously, unhesitatingly, and emphatically proclaimed by the Church throughout all ages. It would be difficult to find a Christian dogma which, historically speaking, is more undoubtedly an integral part of the Christian revelation than the eternity of punishment for the reprobate. The supreme alternative between final salvation and final reprobation constitutes, and has always constituted, the very warp and woof of the Christian ethical system. The work of Christ in atonement and redemption has always been taken as that of a rescue from eternal damnation, never merely from a temporary punishment. The rejection of Christ has never been regarded as something which involved, indeed, a terminable period of distress, but not a final condemnation by God. The awfulness of the Christian appeal has always lain in the final choice between life and death, not in a reversible choice of a more or less lengthy period of happiness or sorrow. The whole of its moral system, the whole of its soteriology or its scheme of salvation, is essentially, intrinsically bound up with the conviction that this life is a period of trial deciding an eternal issue.

One point, however, may be noted in reading the Fathers: that several, both Greeks and Latins, believed in a postponement of hell till the day of final judgement. Hell in the full sense of the word would begin, both for demons and damned, only after the sentence of Christ on the last day. Meanwhile the devils and the wicked would, indeed, undergo some punishment, but a punishment not complete, unchangeable, and final. In fact, some Fathers were confused in mind how to reconcile four points of divine revelation: first, the existence of purgatory, or the temporary punishment for some; secondly, the absence of the bodies of the damned till the final resurrection, and therefore the incompletion of their damnation; thirdly the freedom of the devils to roam about the world for the ruin of souls, and their subsequent inclusion in the pit of hell afterwards; finally, the exact bearing and purpose of Christ's sentence at the General Judgement and its relation to the fixing of a man's destiny at death.

In consequence, a few passages may be found which on first reading seem to involve a hesitancy or ambiguity about the eternity and immutability of a sinner's state after death. On second reading, however, it becomes clear that there is no denial of the existence and eternity of hell, as a final, unchangeable state for demons and damned.

There are but few names amongst those of the Fathers which can be quoted as in some sense supporting the possible cessation of hell. Clement of Alexandria seems sometimes to dally with the thought, but the matter must remain obscure. On the one hand he states in a great number of passages the eternity of hell for the wicked, on the other hand he speaks of the medicinal punishments of God, and it is not quite certain that in all these passages he refers only to punishments during this life or at least previous to the last judgement. Scholars are divided on this question. Tixeront holds that Clement was probably unorthodox, Atzberger holds that most certainly he was not.

Origen was undoubtedly in grave error, and in consequence his doctrine roused the most vehement opposition throughout the Church. Origen was not consistent in his teaching. On the one hand he held that there would be "a restoration (apokatastasis) of all things," a final triumph of Christ by the conversion of the wicked; on the other hand he held the permanent freedom of the will in its choice between good and evil, so that neither heaven nor hell were essentially eternal, but were subject to cycles. The restoration and completion of all was again followed by a fall, a trial, and a restoration, a conception which savours more of Buddhism than of Christianity. It must be marked, however, that even Origen does not give this as the teaching of the Church, but tentatively as his opinion on a question, discussion of which was still permissible. He gives it as a matter of possible speculation, and it seems that even he exempted some evil spirits from this general restoration or conversion.

About the year A.D. 300 Arnobius, a layman, in fact only a catechumen, wrote a defence of Christianity against the Pagans, in which he asserts the final annihilation of the wicked after long torments. His zeal made him rush into publicity before his knowledge of Christianity was very perfect. He founds his assertion not on any teaching of the Church, but on a philosophic theory that what is subject to fire must be composite, but that nothing composite can be eternal.

Origenism, which contained many errors besides that of the non-eternity of hell, caused the most violent disturbances everywhere. The great genius and the obvious sincerity of Origen, who had died in the bosom of holy Church, raised him many friends and defenders. Condemnation of an author after death seemed a graceless and unworthy thing to many. It could, however, not be doubted that the seductive talent of so great a writer was a danger to the integrity of the faith. Finally, the Emperor Justinian, at the request of Pelagius, the Papal nuncio, and Menas, the patriarch of Constantinople, published a condemnation of Origen, which they had submitted to him. The Edict ended with ten anathemas, the last of which reads: "If anyone says or thinks that the punishment of the demons and the wicked will not be eternal, that it will have an end, and that then shall take place a restoration (apokatastasin) of the demons and of the wicked, let him be anathema." This was signed by Pope Vigilius, by the Synod of Constantinople of 543, and by the whole East, and in fact by the whole Christian world, at least within the dominions of Justinian. Ten years later Origen was condemned in the Fifth General Council, and the condemnation was renewed in the Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth General Councils.

The doctrine of eternal reprobation is therefore one of those which has been held explicitly from the very beginning, and the unanimous assent to which was only disturbed during a short period when a few, led astray by the great name of Origen, dreamt of a possible cessation of punishment at least for some of the lost.

We must bear in mind that the solemn definitions and the unanimous consent hitherto mentioned refer to the existence and the eternity of hell. With regard to the precise character of the pains of hell, there exists no solemn definition of Pope or Council, but the teaching of the ordinary magisterium of the Church cannot be in doubt. The Athanasian Creed, which dates probably from the fifth century, and which within a few generations afterwards received universal recognition by its practically universal use throughout the Church, ends with the words: "Those who do evil, shall go into eternal fire. This is the Catholic Faith, which unless a man faithfully and firmly believes, he cannot be saved." There can be no doubt that the fire here mentioned was ever understood as some objective reality. The great Pope Innocent III, in his letter of A.D. 1201 to Humbert, the Archbishop of Aries, states that "the punishment of original sin is the lack of the vision of God, but the punishment of actual sin is the torment of everlasting hell." Although this letter was not issued with such formality as to make it formally an utterance of Papal infallibility, yet it was inserted in the Decretals, and by this fact became an authentic declaration of the ordinary teaching of the Church. This statement of Innocent III necessarily implies that the punishment of the damned does not exclusively consist in the mere lack of the Beatific Vision, but in something which is described as "perpetuae gehennae cruciatus." This same truth was implied in the approval which the General Council of Lyons (A.D. 1274) gave to the profession of faith of Michael Paleologus, which said that the souls of those who departed in mortal sin or in original sin only, forthwith after death go down to hell, to be punished, however, with dissimilar pains (Paenis disparibus). And again Pope Pius VI in 1794 condemned the Synod of Pistoia for rejecting the doctrine concerning "the netherworld, in which the souls of those who depart in original sin alone are being punished with the pain of loss to the exclusion of the pain of fire." It is therefore of Catholic Faith, though not as yet solemnly defined, that the damned suffer something else besides the mere loss of the vision of God.

Finally, the decree of the Papal Penitentiary ordering refusal of absolution to those who pertinaciously assert that the fire of hell is only metaphor for the mental sorrows of the damned, obviously implies real punishment besides that of loss.

Beyond the assertion that hell-fire is a reality, distinct from the pain of loss, the official and authoritative teaching of the Church does not go. Of the views held by theologians concerning the precise nature of this fire, something has already been said in an earlier chapter.