The Early Church teaching about Fire
Nov 23, 2011
The biblical meaning of FIRE in Scripture is quite clearly a symbol of cleansing and purification. All biblical judgment must be seen in that context and within those parameters, because God does not judge apart from Love, which is WHO HE IS.
God also has the ABILITY to make the necessary corrections in the earth so that His plan does not fail. He did NOT create the earth so that most of it could be destroyed. The plan was to restore all things. Though most Christians today seem to doubt His ability to accomplish His original purpose, He is not a failure. To fail is to sin, because the Hebrew word for sin is kata, "to fail to hit the mark or to reach one's goal."
God is not a failure; therefore, He is not a sinner.
The wisdom of God is also manifested in the entire plan. By His wisdom all things were created (Prov. 8:22-31). When He created fire, He was wise enough to give it good purpose to reflect His character of Love. Hence, the early Christian leader, Clement of Alexandria, wrote in the second century:
"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 'pierces the soul' which passes through it." [Stromata, VII, vi]
He makes a distinction between the fire of God and "vulgar fire," which is the type of fire that we see on earth. He writes in another place:
"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, iv]
About the nature of God's punishment upon sinners, he writes:
"Punishment is, in its operation, like medicine; it dissolves the hard heart, purges away the filth of uncleanness, and reduces the swellings of pride and haughtiness; thus restoring its subject to a sound and healthful state." [The Instructor, Vol. 1]
It is plain that Clement understood the purpose of God's fire to be beneficial to sinners in that it was designed to correct them and to restore them to a right relationship with God. Its purpose was to bring about the restoration of all things. In 1 Tim. 4:10, Paul tells Timothy, "we have fixed our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of believers." Clement comments on this, saying,
"Wherefore also all men are His; some through knowledge, and others NOT YET SO.... For He is the Saviour; not the Saviour of some, and of others not... And how is He Saviour and Lord, if not the Saviour and Lord of ALL? But He is the Saviour of those who have believed, and the Lord of those who have NOT believed, till, being enabled to confess Him, they obtain the peculiar and appropriate boon [blessing] which comes by Him. The First Administrator of the Universe, who by the will of the Father, directs the salvation of all...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 attendant angels and through various preliminary judgments, or through the great and final Judgment, compel egregious sinners to repent." [Stromata, VII, vi]
Clement also wrote a Commentary on 1 John. In this book, he commented on 1 John 2:2, which says,
"And He Himself is the propitiation [expiation] for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world."
His comment says this:
"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 and 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."
No one can argue the fact that Clement believed in the restoration of all things. There is no argument about his belief that "punishment" and "fire" are designed to save sinners, not to destroy them.
Alexandria, Egypt was first evangelized by the Apostle Thomas. There is a Gospel of Thomas that goes by his name, but it is not likely that he wrote it himself. It was common in those days to write under the name of a more well-known person in order to give credibility to one's own book. Nonetheless, it shows that the people in those days knew that Thomas was the original evangelist that came to Egypt.
After him arose Pantaenus, who started a private Christian school in Alexandria. He refused to put his teachings in writing for future generations. When he left Alexandria to become a missionary in India, he left the school in the hands of Clement, who was the first to write down the things that had been passed down for a century already.
When persecution broke out in the year 202 A.D., Clement fled to Antioch. The following year, the bishop appointed Origen to replace him as head of the Theological School, though he was only 18 years old at the time. Origen was the first true Christian theologian and the most prolific of all the early Church writers. His writings were beloved everywhere and copied extensively. By the time Origen died in 253 A.D., he was the most well-known and respected theologian in the Christian world.
In The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. VI, p. 3, we read this testimony by church historians,
"Alexandria continues to be the head of Christian learning... We have already observed the continuity of the great Alexandrian school; how it arose, and how Pantaenus begat Clement, and Clement begat Origen. So Origen begat Gregory, and so the Lord has provided for the spiritual generation of the Church teachers, age after age, from the beginning. Truly, the Lord gave to Origen a holy seed, better than natural sons and daughters."
Besides the school in Alexandria, there were five other schools established in the main cities: Caesaria, Antioch, Carthage, Ephesus, and Edessa. The one in Carthage was a Latin-speaking school which taught endless torments for all unbelievers. The school in Ephesus taught that the sinners would be annihilated by the fire. The other four taught the Restoration of All Things.
It is most significant that the final four were schools that used Greek as their native tongue. They were in a better position to understand the New Testament writings. Of particular importance is that they understood the term aionian to mean a limited period of time. Hence, when they read about "aionian punishment," they did not take this to mean ENDLESS punishment.
This is one of the main keys to the dispute regarding the duration of time that sinners must spend in "the lake of fire." If it is an endless punishment, then it has no beneficial purpose but merely tortures or destroys the sinner. But if it is aionian (or "age-abiding,"), then it must eventually come to an end when the divine judgment has succeeded in its good purpose.
Dr. Stephen Jones