#26 – A Brief History of Hell

If you have, perchance, managed to suffer through all the blogs in this series on hell, then I would like to applaud you; for you must have an incredibly high tolerance for pain! 😉  But in all seriousness, if you have read each blog and find the evidence compelling then you must be wondering how our modern idea of hell became part of accepted Church Doctrine?

Its no debate that our concept of hell has changed since the early days of the Church.  One of the first professions that the Early Church formulated, the Nicene Creed, declares, amongst other things, that, “Jesus descended into Hell…  But its obvious to any Christian that He did not descend into a place of future woe and torment!?  That begs the question, what exactly was their concept of hell?

This blog will answer those two questions,

“How did the Church incorporate the concept of endless torment as hell?”


“What exactly was the original concept of hell within the Church?”

The answers that I present, however, are going to be my perspective as I understand it.   I’m not going to give a history of hell as it evolved amongst the heathen nations (except for a few quick comments) but strictly  as it concerns God’s peculiar people.

One day I hope to write a well documented article on the history of hell.  As of right now, however, I do not have the adequate resources to do so with any kind of academic integrity.  What I present here I want to label strictly as “my opinion” simply b/c I will not be providing sources to prove what I share (although I have no doubt concerning its veracity).  I say this b/c I do not expect anyone to believe something simply b/c I say it.   I, therefore, feel compelled to offer this disclaimer.  It will be up to you if you want to cross check my facts to see if these things actually are true.

Egyptian Book of the Dead

So to begin, the concept of endless torment for the wicked is first recorded in the Egyptian Book of the Dead.  This book deals with many aspects that the Egyptians believed concerning death and the afterlife.  It is interesting to note that Moses was “educated in all the learning of the Egyptians;” (Acts 7:22) he therefore was most assuredly aware of such a doctrine.  Yet he remained conspicuously silent about it throughout the whole presentation of the Law and all its punishments for sin and the wicked.

This concept of endless torment for the wicked was also embraced by followers of Zoroastrianism which was also a major religion during those times.

The nation of Judah, however, firmly held to the rather obscure and mysterious concept of Sheol – believing that when a person died their soul went to sleep until sometime in the future where there would be a great resurrection of both the good and the bad (see my 2 part blog on Sheol).  This changed somewhat during the Inter-Testamental period, due in large part to the Jew’s exposure to Babylonian beliefs during their 70 + years of captivity there.  It was also during this time when the oral teachings  of well renown Rabbis began to be compiled into what was called the Talmud.  Their commentaries on the Law and Prophets contain numerous references to a place and period of judgment for the wicked in the next life/age.  However, almost none agreed on its duration, many, having been influenced by the doctrines of Babylon, claimed it would be endless; while many others limited judgment to a short period of time (varying in range from 7 days to 12 months depending on the Rabbi), after which the sinner would be purged and restored to peace.

And so by the time of Christ a certain sect of prominent religious Jews (the Pharisees) had begun to embrace the idea of endless torments, due mostly in part to the Rabbi’s that they endorsed.  Very similar to how people hold to Arminianism vs. Calvinism.  Josephus records in several places that the Pharisees specifically taught the doctrine of endless suffering for the wicked (see my blog on Greek words that DO mean endless; part of the previous series on “eternal” and “forever”).

However, despite what was passed down by the Rabbis through the Talmud or what the Pharisees believed, there was still no “official” Divine Revelation concerning a future place of judgment, for the Old Testament was silent concerning that point.  But with the advent of the New Testament it was revealed that the judgment of the wicked after they rise from the dead would be a place of refining – in the Lake of Fire (the next series on judgment will cover this in great detail).  And that refining would only last “for the ages” (see the previous series on “eternal and forever”).

This was in direct contrast to what the Pharisees taught and it was on purpose that Christ and His disciples refrained from using the words and descriptions that the Pharisees employed.  Instead of using words that meant “endless” they used words that meant “for the age” or “ages” depending.

It is not surprising then to discover that ALL of the early Church Fathers for the first 400 years of Church History believed and taught Universal Reconciliation!  If you think about it, that is a very weighty body of support against the idea of Endless Torment as being a Biblical concept.  They were the closest to Christ and His disciples and they most likely believed what had been handed down to them from Christ.  I have heard people claim that the truth was perverted quickly…which I could grant perhaps…but the idea that 2000 years later, somehow WE have managed to find the truth when the Apostle’s direct disciples lost it?!!  That is one of the most illogical and absurd claims I have ever heard.  Not to mention the sheer arrogance of it!

Anyways, there was one Church Father who didn’t believe in U.R.  His name was Tertullian and if you have read his writings you can taste the bitterness with which he wrote.  He was persecuted during his early years and became violently resentful.  He reveled in the thought that he would get to watch his enemies writhe in agony for all eternity from the comfort and safety of heaven.  I need not point out how contrary this is to the gospel.  Christ did not come and die on the cross to teach us that we should hate our enemies and derive pleasure from their suffering.  He came to show by example that we are to love our enemies and lay down our lives FOR them; to forgive any offense and to bless and pray for those who persecute us.  Tertullian no doubt must have overlooked this principle.  Which is not surprising seeing how easily bitterness blinds us to its poison.  Only God knows the heart, but it seems likely that Tertullian held to the idea of endless hell simply b/c he was harboring un-forgiveness.

Nevertheless, all of the rest of the Church Fathers believed that hell was only a refining place.  They obviously rejected the Pharisee’s doctrine of endless torments.  Hell as a place of refining and limited duration continued unabated for well over 400 years.  It wasn’t until Augustine comes along that things began to change.  The story is not without its irony b/c Augustine as it turns out was the ONLY Church Father who COULD NOT read either Greek or Hebrew!  Peter Brown, in his book, Augustine of Hippo, remarks about this fact,

“Augustine’s failure to learn Greek was a momentous casualty of the Late Roman educational system; he will become the only Latin philosopher in antiquity to be virtually ignorant of Greek.” (pg. 36)

Augustine was thus unable to read the Scriptures in their original language.  He had to rely upon the Latin translation (the Vulgate).

On top of this was the condition of the Church in which Augustine found himself.

Augustine’s Dilemma

Persecution of the Church began almost from its inception.  Christianity was protected for a few years behind the mask of being just another sect of Judaism.  But by the time Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD it had clearly separated from Judaism and as such it lost any semblance of protection that it had from Rome and Rome’s zero tolerance policy for any religion other than Emperor worship (Judaism was the one allowance).  For the most part to be a Christian was, if not a death sentence, a life of suffering.  This made the convert seriously count the cost of such a choice.

Fierce persecution continued until the time of Constantine (312 AD) when just before a pivotal battle Constantine saw a vision – a cross in the sky – and it was accompanied by the words, “In this sign – conquer.”  Constantine ended up winning the battle and dedicated the nation to the God of Christianity.  This marked the end of the persecution of Christians for Constantine declared Christianity to be the legal religion.

Many believe this was an act of God.  While I do not doubt that God is behind all of history, I believe this vision had a much darker source, for several reasons.  Number 1 – the Gospel does not encourage the taking of our enemies’ life, but the laying down of our life for our enemy.  With the advent of Christ warfare became spiritual and the sword became a message – preaching.  The Word of God is now the Sword of the Spirit by which He conquers people (Ephesians 6:17; Hebrews 4:12; Revelation 1:16, 19:5).  God no longer condones physical warfare.  The sign that Constantine saw was not a cross, but a sword, and it was in the spirit of the sword (violence) that he conquered.

Number 2 – nothing strips the Church of spiritual power better or quicker than complacency.  Where there is no persecution there is very little cost involved in becoming a Christian.  At this point an authentic Christian is no longer known by having given up his life and having counted it all as loss.  When there is no persecution a Christian can be fooled into thinking that he or she can keep THIS world AND gain heaven…or to put it another way, keep this life as well as the next.  At this point a Christian is known only by words (“I’m a Christian”), rather than manifesting the life of Christ as He demonstrated it on the cross.  Actions speak louder than words as they say, for words are no proof of authenticity (see Titus 1:16 and Matthew 7:15; 24:5; Revelation 2:2,9; 2 Corinthians 11:13).

When there is persecution the Church seems to explode.  Every time a Christian was thrown to the lions for sport, there would be many spontaneous conversions amongst those watching. Thus began the old proverb that, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”  Perhaps this is why China has the largest number of Christians in the world?  And so it is no surprise that when persecution came to an end many Christians fell into complacency; and the numbers began to fall.

Almost a century after Constantine legalized Christianity Augustine arrives on the scene.  At this point there had passed 85 years of peace and comfort for Christianity.  Think about it, 2 entire generations of people had passed who had not experienced persecution.  The Church was in a much poorer state than it was in the past and Augustine was visibly upset about it.

He eventually concluded that they best way to get people into church and keep them there was through fear.  He proposed that the Church change its position on the final state of sinners – from restoration to never ending damnation.  It was quite a task Augustine undertook, for even he admitted of the mass of Christians that,

“very many who, though not denying the Holy Scriptures, do not believe in endless torments.” (Enchirid. ad Laurent. chapter 29).

But despite the prevailing mindset he eventually managed to change the theological position of the Church at Rome, which earned him the title of “The Champion of Endless Torments.”  However, there were still other schools of Theology that remained faithful to Universal Reconciliation.  There were 6 schools of theology in Augustine’s time, 4 of which taught U.R., 1 taught Annihilation of the wicked and Augustine’s school changed their tune to one of Endless Torments.

The Roman Catholic Church

In case you haven’t put it together yet, Augustine’s school (located in Rome) was the Roman Catholic Church.  History students will immediately recognize the significance of this, b/c it was in Rome, shortly after this time in history, when the Roman Catholic Church began its terrible descent into the dark ages of manipulation, deception and perversion.  I’m sure I need not point out how many other horrifying, doctrines and practices they instituted; not to mention the terrible atrocities they eventually committed in the name of God.  Its no wonder that the horrifying doctrine of Endless Torment was first instituted by them.

In an interesting side note their later practice of burning heretics, or those who refused to convert, was justified on the grounds that if God is going to burn them forever in the unimaginable fires of hell, then burning them here on earth would be no crime at all.

It took many more centuries for this doctrine to encompass the entire known Christian world, but as the Roman Catholic Church began to conquer their enemies and subjugate nations, they also managed to squelch opposing doctrines.  Due to their tyrannical rule, the world was thrust into the dark ages, which took the world almost a thousand years to escape from.   If you ask me, if someone wanted to thwart the kingdom of God, they could not have come up with a more brilliant plan.  It was a sheer stroke of genius, and I am sure we are all aware of the unmatched cunning of our adversary (see 2 Corinthians 2:11, 11:14; Ephesians 6:11).

Nevertheless, U.R. was never condemned in any Church Council against heresies; and many faithful saints have continued to hold fast to it throughout the centuries despite the eventual overwhelming adherence to Endless Hell.

The concept of Endless Hell itself also changed quite drastically even within Christendom: from its being the domain of Satan and his throne where he and his demonic minions tortured the wicked, to its modern version where angels are the tormenters of the wicked (including Satan).  There are many great works that deal very effectively and in great detail on the evolution of Hell through Church History.  My intention here was merely to provide the background to how it became a doctrine of Endless Torment within the Church.


It is my hope that readers find freedom and encouragement in this history, should they believe in U.R.    And if you do not, then I hope that you now have the information necessary to escape the darkness of that horrifying false doctrine.  Scripture warns us that God’s people are destroyed for a lack of knowledge (Isaiah 5:13; Hosea 4:6), so take what I’ve shared here and check it out for yourself.  Perhaps you will escape from the veil that lies over the minds of those who hold to the traditions of men.

We will now move into the next series which will be on “Judgment.”  We will cover all the concepts/words that are used in the New Testament to describe judgment in the next life, such as The Lake of Fire, Death (or the Second Death), Destruction, Judgment, Punishment and Wrath.  I think you will be as equally surprised to see what Scripture declares concerning these issues as you hopefully have been with the previous series on “Eternal and Forever” and this present series on “Hell.”

Thank you for reading.

Luke Kessler

About Luke Kessler

Luke Kessler has a bachelor's degree in Biblical Studies (not that that matters to God) and spent some time as a missionary in Asia. It was there, through unique circumstances that God began to reveal His glorious plan to save all men. God brought his time of missions to an end and Luke now works in Construction on the Central Coast in California. He enjoys spending his free time studying God's Word and the signs of the times, and sharing what God has shown him every opportunity he has. If you can figure the following out, feel free to contact him by email (his Yahoo account spelled out so as to avoid spam is "luke" then "land" then the number "7") :)
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