It Will be noticed that, as we took the era of the Maccabees as a point of vision before Christ, so we took the era of Origen, A.D. 230, for the same purpose after Christ. But from this point of vision we have not as yet surveyed the early ages, as we proposed to do. True, in our survey of theological schools, we noticed the school of John in Asia Minor, and Irenaeus, its representative. We also fully considered Justin Martyr, as coinciding with him in the doctrine of the annihilation of the wicked. But of the other writers of this period no adequate notice has as yet been taken. In particular, those who are called the Apostolic Fathers have not been formally considered. In this I have departed from the usual course, which has been to attempt to present some recorded, established, and settled system of belief as existing in immediate connection with the apostolic age. I mentioned four conflicting systems in the interest of which this field of history has been surveyed, and declined to enter into the conflict, for want of adequate materials, and because I was sure that no definite established doctrine could be found on the main points now in controversy. But now, from our point of vision, I propose to survey that field.

Historical Character of the Period.

But before we attempt to make positive statements in the history of doctrine, it is well for us to form a clear conception of the historical character of this period. It is set forth in a striking manner by Stanley in his “Eastern Church,” p. 36. In answer to the question, How was the transition effected from the age of the apostles to the age of the fathers? he says: “No other change equally momentous has ever since affected the fortunes of Christianity, yet none has ever been so silent and so secret. The stream in that most critical moment of its passage from the everlasting hills to the plain below is lost to our view at the very point where we are most anxious to watch it; we may hear its struggles under the overarching rocks; we may catch its spray on the boughs that overlap its course; but the torrent we see not, or see only by imperfect glimpses. It is not so much a period for ecclesiastical history as for ecclesiastical controversy and conjecture. A fragment here, an allegory there; romances of unknown authorship; a handful of letters, of which the genuineness of every portion is contested inch by inch; the summary examination of a Roman magistrate; the pleadings of two or three Christian apologists; customs and opinions in the very act of change; last, but not least, the faded paintings, the broken sculptures, the rude epitaphs, in the darkness of the catacombs, these are the scanty though attractive materials out of which the likeness of the early Church must be reproduced, as it was working its way.” Though the genuine works of two Apostolic Fathers and others under their name are not particularly specified here, yet, as a general view of the scanty historical materials of the age, it is a true picture. We have no historian till Eusebius, A.D. 330. This state of things is, moreover, a warning against all pretentious attempts to make out histories of doctrines for which the materials do not exist. 

The fundamental thing in history is to criticise thoroughly the original sources of evidence. The most recent and thorough critical English work, as to the Apostolical Fathers and other ante-Nicene writers, is that of James Donaldson, entitled “A Critical History of Christian Literature and Doctrine from the Death of the Apostles to the Nicene Council” (London, 1866). In this and in the work of Hefele on the Apostolical Fathers will be found a thorough discussion of the written sources of authoritative history on this early period.

Writers of the Period.

Let us now briefly survey the writers of the period before Origen, as was originally proposed, with some care.

These writers may be divided into two classes. In the first are those generally called the Apostolic Fathers. In the second are those generally known as the Apologists. The idea of an Apostolic Father is one who was alive in the days of the apostles, and had intercourse with them, or was even one of their disciples. Of these the names of six are given: Barnabas, the companion and fellow-laborer of Paul; Clement, of Philippi (Phil. iv. 3), afterward regarded as Bishop of the Church of Rome; Hermas, saluted by Paul in Rom. xvi. 14; Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch; and Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna. These last two are not mentioned in the New Testament, but are stated in the martyrdom of Ignatious to have been fellow-disciples of John. Irenaeus also testifies that Polycarp, whom he well knew, was a disciple of John.

The Apologists.

The Apologists are those who undertook to plead the cause of the Christians in days of persecution under the emperors. They were generally converted philosophers, and men of a higher grade of education than the Apostolic Fathers. Of these the works of some have perished. Those whose works have survived, and are available in our investigations, are Justin Martyr; Tatian, his disciple; Theophilus, Bishop of Antioch; and Athenagoras, said to be of Athens. To these may be added the letter to Diognetus, and, in the Latin Church, Tertullian. Of Irenaeus, the great opponent of the Gnostics, we have spoken; Justin, also, has been fully considered.

Apostolic Fathers – Who?

If, now, the reputed five Apostolic Fathers were what they have been held to be, and if they had undertaken to give historical narratives of the course of events or general views of the Christian system, or discussions of particular doctrines, their writings would be of unspeakable value. But as a matter of fact two of the five, Barnabas and Hermas are not the persons spoken of in the New Testament, and who they are cannot be decided. The letters of another, Ignatius, and the narrative of his martyrdom, are distrusted by Neander as devoid of verisimilitude and unhistorical, or, at least, much interpolated. Donaldson, in his learned and critical work, decidedly transfers them to a later age, and, though many eminent scholars receive them, yet they cannot, without clearer evidence, be relied on as trustworthy documents of an Apostolic Father. What, then, have we left that is sure? Simply the first epistle of Clement, and that of Polycarp. These can stand the test of thorough criticism.

What is called the second Epistle of Clement, though often quoted, is decidedly spurious. It is probably the part of a later homily.

As to the Apologists, the works of those whose names have been mentioned are genuine and reliable. But they do not profess to be either historical or doctrinal. They are vindications of Christians against slanderers and persecutors. Materials of history and of doctrine can be extracted from them, but these are incidental and not systematic.

General View.

Let us now proceed to inquire what light can be derived from the writers of these two classes on the subject of retribution.

In the first place, it may be said that until we come to the Apologists, and especially Justin Martyr, there is no reference at all to our Saviour’s account of the judgment and the doom to aionian fire and aionian punishment. The contrast between them and Justin Martyr in this respect is very striking. He refers repeatedly to the words of Christ in both of his Apologies, and in his debate with Trypho, and all his language is colored by them. But in the letters of Clement and Polycarp they are not referred to at all, though they often speak of retribution. The same is true of the works under the name of Barnabas and Hermas, which were ancient, though not apostolic. It is also true of the letters of Ignatious, at whatever time and by whomsoever they are written.

It is true that in the account of the martyrdom of Polycarp the words of Christ are referred to. But of this the historical reliability has been thoroughly shaken by Donaldson. He proves that though the church of Smyrna in all probability wrote an account of the martyrdom of Polycarp, yet by successive copyists various interpolations have been inserted in it. He then asks, “How do these interpolations affect the historical character of the work?” His reply is: “In our opinion they completely damage it. We have no security for any one fact in it, because we have no means of eliminating what was written by the Church in Smyrna from what was fabricated by Pionios and other transcribers. . . . And we are confirmed in this when we see the various efforts made by Tillemont, Jortin, and others to reconcile the various statements or elicit the truth” (vol. i., p. 176).

Particular Authors – Clement.

Let us now come to particular authors. What, then, can we learn from the letter of Clement to the Church of Corinth? It was written not as a theological treatise, but for a definite practical end, to secure the restoration of certain presbyters whom that church had unjustly deposed, and to heal the division thence resulting. He rebukes the spirit of those who had caused the schism, and warns them of coming retribution unless they repent and reform. But whence are all his examples of retribution and all threats of it taken? I answer, from the Old Testament. Hence, they do not refer to a future world. True, he speaks of the rewards of the good in a future life, after the resurrection, in glowing terms, but of the doom of the wicked hereafter he says nothing definite. Parts of his letter have been construed as proving the salvation of all. They prove only that the forgiving love of god is great and immeasurable, but not what it will finally effect. (See chapters xxi., xix., pp. 86, 82, Hefele). 


The letter of Polycarp to the Church of Philippi is not doctrinal, but is a general exhortation to godliness, in all the relations of life. It speaks in general terms of the rewards of the righteous, and the punishment of those who do not believe in Christ. Of Christ he says, “He comes as the judge of the living and the dead, and his blood god will require of those who do not believe in him” (chapter ii.). Of those who believe and live holy lives he says that he will raise them from the dead, and they shall reign with him (chapter v.). Of eternal punishment, or of restoration, or of annihilation, he says literally nothing. These, then, are the two genuine works of Apostolical Fathers, and this is all that they contain on the subject in question.


Let us next come to Barnabas and Hermas, whose works are ancient (about A.D. 140), though not written by Apostolic Fathers. Barnabas, in chapter xviii. 21 (Hefele’s edition), describes the two ways of light and of darkness. Of the way of darkness he says: “It is crooked and full of cursing; for it is the way of aionian death, with punishment, in which they that walk meet those things that destroy their own souls” (chaper xx.). Of him who chooses the side of sin he says: “He shall be destroyed, together with his works. For this cause there shall be both a resurrection and a retribution” (chapter xxi.).

Again he says, “The day is near in which all things shall be destroyed with the wicked one” (chapter xxi.). What he says may be understood of the annihilation of the wicked. But it may also be explained otherwise; for the nature of the destruction here spoken of he does not unfold; nor can we decide whether he believed in the final annihilation of the wicked after punishment or not. His views are not fully developed.


In the work of Hermas we find something more like a system, presented in the form of an allegory. The Church in the form of a woman, and the angel of repentance in the form of a shepherd, present the characters of the allegory to Hermas. They represent the Church as the great end of God in all things, and set forth the formation of it by the building of a tower (Vis. iii. and Sim. ix.). In this tower Christians are stones. Those who enter the Church and prove unfit are represented as cast out, to remain out permanently, unless they are refitted to enter by repentance. The work is designed to warn and excite backsliding or apostatizing Christians. He sets forth about twenty classes of such, and says clearly that unless they repent and reform they will die forever; yet he teaches the possibility of repentance and delivery from punishment, even after this life, to some who do not enter the tower here. So he is understood by Rothe, Hefele, and the editors of the “Bib. Max. Patrum,” and clearly with good reason. Other scholars deny it (see book i., Vis. iii., Section 7, Hefele). Of the heathen, outside of the Church, he says little. The book is not addressed to them. He briefly says they are to be burned, like dry trees, for not recognizing and worshiping [sic] God (book iii., Sim. iv.). But he regards the guilt of sinners in the Church as greater than theirs, and deserving a twofold punishment. “These Christians who have known the Lord, and seen his wonderful works, if they live wickedly, shall be punished twofold, and shall die forever” (Sim. ix., 18 Hefele). But this is merely a restatement of our Lord’s decision that the servant who knew not his lord’s will and did it not shall be beaten with few stripes. Whether burning means annihilation Hermas does not say. The same burning is also assigned in the same place to sinners in the Church who do not repent. The language generally used to denote the state of the lost is that they never repent, but die forever. There are also statements that life consists in holy action and emotion, and death in unholy action and passions. If we take this view of the import of his language, Hermas does not teach the annihilation of the wicked, but an eternity of sinful action and suffering to all who do not repent after death. But his views are not clearly and sharply developed. There had been no controversy.


We came now to the so-called letters of Ignatius. They say very little on the points at issue. The most decided expression is in the letter to the Ephesians. Of certain corrupt, false teachers, he says, “such a one shall go into unquenchable fire, and in like manner all who hear him” (chaper xvi., Hefele). He also says of those who make schisms that they shall not inherit the kingdom of God. Of Christians he speaks as having true life and immortality in Christ. But he does not say positively that the wicked shall be annihilated. He may mean that they shall die in their sins forever; yet in some cases the idea of annihilation is suggested. The truth is, that he did not fully develop his views on this point, the same is true of all whom we have considered thus far. There had been no sharp controversy on the points now at issue, and therefore their statements are undeveloped and indefinite.

Justin Martyr.

We come now to the Apologists. Of Justin Martyr we have formerly spoken as teaching the annihilation of the wicked. 

In Athenagoras, Tatian, and Theophilus, there is much less found on the subject of retribution than in Justin Martyr.


Athenagoras, however, in his Apology, denies the annihilation of the wicked, and says that while the holy enjoy a better and heavenly life, the wicked shall pass a worse one in fire (chapter xxxi.). He states this to Aurelius to prove that the views of the Christians deterred them from an impure and sinful life. Of restoration he says nothing. 


Theophilus, in his treatise to Autolycus, in three instances applies aionios to denote the fire and the punishment of sinners. He says of Christians that they are taught to abstain from sins that they may escape aionian punishments. Again, i., 14, he says to Autolycus: “Believe now, lest you should be made to believe by the torments of aionian punishments. . . . Study the Scriptures that you may escape aionian punishments, and obtain aionian blessings of God.” Again he says, “God will give to those who persist in good, immortality and aionian, i.e., heavenly life.” To sinners, wrath, and finally aionian fire, shall receive them. 

He thus agrees with Irenaeus in ascribing immortality only to the good, but does not like him expressly teach the annihilation of wicked. There is no reason to deny that he used aionios, as did Irenaeus and Justin Martyr, to denote a long and indefinite period or age, and in one passage (ii., 26) he seems to teach universal restoration. It is quoted by A. St. John in Ballou’s “History,” p. 46, note: “As a vessel, which, after it has been made, has some flaw, is remade or remoulded, that it may become new and right, so it comes to man by death. For in some way or other he is broken up, that he may come forth, in the resurrection, whole – I mean spotless, and righteous, and immortal.”



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