The Consequences of Sin--Part 1
Oct 27, 2009
Since about the sixth century A.D., official mainstream Church teaching has held that sinners will be tortured in a fiery pit forever. In the past two centuries, however, there has been a reaction to this teaching, where Universalists say that God will judge no man at all. These two extreme positions are held by those who do not understand biblical law.
I am often amused by Universalists who argue long and hard that the term aionian judgment does not mean "eternal," but rather age-abiding--and then they proceed to insist that there is no judgment at all. Those advocating infinite torture become hot under the collar arguing their case. The public is left thinking that the truth is held by one or the other side with nothing in between.
In my view, divine judgment is indeed aionian (pertaining to an age) and hence it comes to an end, as most of the early Church taught until some time after the great controversy arose in the year 400 A.D. Some mistakenly attribute the entire viewpoint of ultimate reconciliation to Origen in the early third century. He certainly advocated it and was by far the most influential theologian of the early Church. But, as the Church historian, Gieseler, wrote,
"The belief in the inalienable capability of improvement in all rational beings, and the limited duration of future punishment, was so general, even in the West, and among the opponents of Origen, that it seemed entirely independent of his system." (Eccles. Hist., Vol. 1, p. 212)
About 364 A.D., Titus of Bostra wrote a book against Manicheanism, which arose in the mid-third century, combining Persian Dualism with Christianity. He argued against the Manichees on the grounds of Universal Reconciliation, saying,
". . . The punishments of God are holy, as they are remedial and salutary in their effect upon transgressors; for they are inflicted, not to preserve them in their wickedness, but to make them cease from their sins. The abyss . . . is indeed the place of punishment, but it is not endless. The anguish of their sufferings compels them to break off from their sins." (Against Manicheans, Book 1.)
Clement of Alexandria, who preceded Origen at the theological school in Egypt, wrote,
" . . . For all things are arranged with a view to the salvation of the Universe by the Lord of the Universe, both generally and particularly . . . But necessary corrections, through the goodness of the great overseeing Judge, both by the attendant angels, and through various preliminary judgments, or through the great and final judgment, compel egregious [blatant] sinners to repent." (Stromata, VII, 2:5-12)
"Fire is conceived of as a beneficent and strong power, destroying what is base, preserving what is good; therefore this fire is called 'wise' by the prophets" (Eccl. Proph. XXV, 4)
"We say that the fire purifies not the flesh but sinful souls, not an all-devouring vulgar fire, but the 'wise fire' as we call it, the fire that 'pierceth the soul' which passes through it." (Stromata VII, 6)
In his Commentary On 1 John, Clement explains:
" 'And in Him is no darkness at all,' that is, no passion, no keeping up of evil respecting anyone; He destroys no one, but gives salvation to all" (On 1 John 1:5)
" 'And not only for our sins,' that is, for those of the faithful, is the Lord the Propitiator does he say, 'but also for the whole world.' He, indeed, saves all, but some He saves converting them by punishments; others, however, who follow voluntarily He saves with dignity of honour; so that 'every knee should bow to Him, of things in heaven, of things on earth, and things under the earth'--that is, angels and men." (On 1 John 2:2)
Theophilus of Antioch (115-181 A.D.) wrote,
"And God showed great kindness to man, in this, that He did not suffer him to continue being in sin for the eon; but as it were, by a kind of banishment, cast him out of Paradise, in order that, having by punishment expiated, within an appointed time, the sin, and having been disciplined, he should afterward be recalled."
I try not to write long sentences like that, but this is how educated people used to write. Some of the Apostle Paul's sentences are like that as well.
These few quotations give us a small sample of the early Church writings on the purpose of divine judgment or "punishment." Even Augustine, the "champion of endless torments," wrote in the fourth century that "very many who, though not denying the Holy Scriptures, do not believe in endless torments." (Enchiridion ad Lauren, ch. 29) And his contemporary, Jerome, wrote:
"I know that most persons understand by the story of Nineveh and its king, the ultimate forgiveness of the Adversary and all rational creatures."
In other words, Jerome, bishop of Bethlehem, admitted that his view was the minority view as late as the fourth century A.D. Before the great controversy arose in the year 400, Jerome himself held to the position of Universal Reconciliation and only changed his view to spite his opponents who held the same view. I told the story in my pocket size booklet, A Short History of Universal Reconciliation, available for $1.50 in print, or you can read it for free online.
Most modern Christians do not realize that many of the "accepted" teachings of the Church were the result of tremendous violence and carnality among the bishops of the past, to say nothing of some of the Church Councils in those centuries. Christians simply accept what is now "mainstream" as if these things were so from the beginning. For this reason it is often helpful to know some Church History. That is why I wrote a 5-volume book, Lessons from Church History. It is not merely a book to tell you what happened, but also draws lessons from the events so that we understand how and why we are in our present situation.
The quotations that I have cited above were selected specifically to focus upon their belief that there really is a future judgment where all sinners will be held accountable for the sins committed in this life. Only those who have the faith to claim Jesus' blood as payment for their sins can turn aside the divine judgment with the simple statement: "Your Honor, those sins have already been paid for by Jesus Christ on the cross."
Those who do not have such a witness will have to suffer the consequences of their sins. Their lack of faith in Jesus Christ will be the cause of their judgment, but they will be judged "according to their works" (Rev. 20:12, 13). In Part 2, I intend to discuss more specifically the nature of divine judgment in the light of the law.
This is the first part of a series titled "The Consequences of Sin." To view all parts, click the link below.
Dr. Stephen Jones