We have stood upon the mountain-top of vision in the times of the Maccabees, and surveyed the mighty river of belief as to future retribution, that bore a nation to victory and independence, through martyrdom and war. We have traced its sources in the Word and the dispensations of God in the Old Testament.

We are now to trace it down to the development of Christianity, and the formation of the system of Christian doctrine under the completed canon of the New Testament.

Diversity of Views.

Up to the point at which we have arrived, we have found a clear belief in the resurrection, and the retributions of a future state, but no definite details as to the nature and duration of the punishment to be inflicted on the wicked. It is, in fact, generally supposed that clear statements on these points are peculiar to Christianity. This, however, is not the fact. It is, indeed, true that authoritative declarations were first made by Christ and his apostles; but, as we have before said, in the interval between the Maccabees and Christianity, all the leading forms of thought on these points which are now found in the Christian community were fully and vividly developed. This was not done, however, in the writings commonly called apocryphal, but in those designated as apocalyptic. The reason why these writings more fully considered these themes is found in the fact that they undertook to set forth in prophetic vision the coming of the Messiah, and the establishment of his kingdom. Of course, this would involve a statement of the rewards of the righteous, and the punishment of the wicked, analogous to the sublime statement found in the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew of the coming of Christ, and the rewards of his faithful followers, and the punishment of his enemies.

Basis of Apocalyptic Writings.

These apocalyptic writings are based on the predictions of the Old Testament, and are intended to be a faithful development of the true system of the Bible. But here, as among modern authors, interpreters of prophecy differ among themselves. Hence, it happens that the winding up of all things is variously represented, so far as the punishment of the wicked is concerned. By some they are represented as finally annihilated, by others as ultimately restored to holiness, and by still others as eternally punished. Hence, before we come to Christ and his statements, we shall find that the public mind of the religious world had been intensely exercised with the investigations on all the leading questions as to man’s eternal destiny.

Influence of Apocalyptic Writings.

Before we enter upon the history of Christian discussions, it is of special importance that we familiarize ourselves with these earlier developments. They not only affected the age in which they were written, but also the Christian ages. Some even of the inspired writings were greatly affected by one of these apocalyptic writings – the book of Enoch. The influence of another, the sibylline verses, is visible in the Church for many centuries, as we shall see.

Other Authorities.

But before we enter upon a direct consideration of the teaching of these works, it is proper to say that these are not the only works by which we can fill up the representation of the thinking of this period. There are two other prominent Jews – Josepheus and Philo – one of whom, as an historian, the other as a philosopher and commentator on Moses, will throw light on the opinions of the age.

General View of the Period.

It is expedient, also, before descending to details, to take a general view of the period of about three centuries between the Maccabees and the formation of the New Testament canon. The influence of the Maccabean age runs across the whole and there is a strange commingling of Jewish and Christian writings. The sibylline verses were begun by Jews and finished by Christians. The Jewish apocalypse of Ezra was provided by Christians with a Christian introduction and close. It was not until the completion of the New Testament canon that all the elements needed for the full development of Christian doctrine in a pure form were in the hands of the Christian community.

Character of the Apostolic Age.

It is natural to suppose that the nearer we come to Christ and the apostles the purer and more full will be our statements of the true Christian doctrine as to retribution. Hence many carefully examine the writings of the apostolic fathers. This implies an utterly erroneous view of the real state of things in the apostolic age, and up to the formation of the canon. The apostolic age was eminently the age of verbal testimony and of oral preaching. And yet very often it happens that the whole New Testament is in imagination carried back to the days of Christ, just as we have it now in one volume. It is not realized that the earliest gospels, as we now have them, were not reduced to writing till between the years 60 and 70 after Christ, and that the earliest epistle, the first of Paul to the Thessalonians, was not written earlier than the year 52. The gospels, epistles, and apocalypse of John, were not written till near the close of the century.

Formation of the Canon.

After the writing of the gospels, and epistles, and other books, another work still remained – to collect them, authenticate each of them, and unite them in a volume, thus forming the canon of the New Testament. This work, too, was to be done for a wide geographical territory – for Europe, for Asia, and for Africa. Westcott, in his elaborate work on the canon, and elsewhere, has shown that this work was virtually, though not completely, done by the year 170 after Christ.

What, then, was the state of things before that time? Beginning with the day of Pentecost, in the year 30 till the year 60, none of our gospels were in existence, and after they were written, for a considerable time, many churches had but one gospel and one or two epistles, the number of each being gradually increased as fast as they could be copied and verified.

If, then, it is asked, how was the gospel at first spread through the world? we reply by the living testimony of the original witnesses, who had been with Christ, and who could testify to the great facts of his life, death, resurrection, and ascension. It was, in fact, through this process of oral teaching that the gospels were finally formed, and by practice and selection condensed into their present limits.

Written Standard.

During this great and long-continued work of oral teaching, before either gospel or epistle had been written, what was the supreme written standard of appeal? It was the Old Testament. The life of Christ was held up as the fulfillment of the Old Testament. Paul and the twelve alike assume this ground, and reason from the Scriptures to prove it. Westcott truly says: “The written gospel of the first period of the apostolic age was the Old Testament, interpreted by the vivid recollection of the Saviour’s ministry. The preaching of the apostles was the unfolding of the law and of the prophets. . . . The knowledge of the teachings of Christ, and of the details of his life, to the close of the second century, were generally derived from tradition, and not from writings. The gospels were not distinguished by this, their prophetic title. The Old Testament was still the great storehouse from which Christian teachers derived the sources of consolation and conviction.” – “Introduction to Gospels,” p. 181.

Great Facts Explained.

This view of the case is important in order to understand the reasons of a great fact, rarely adverted to, and yet undeniable. That fact is this: The account of the last judgment by Christ, and of the consequent retributions of eternal life, and eternal punishment, which in after-ages has exerted more influence on the doctrine of the Church than all other parts of the Bible united, is not referred to at all in the writings of the apostolic fathers, and is prominently brought forward for the first time in writing in the latter part of the second century, by Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. This should not surprise us. This account of the judgment by our Lord is found in but one gospel, that of Matthew, and this particular gospel the apostolic fathers may have never seen.

The general view given of this period may also explain another characteristic fact, namely, the great variety of views held in it as to the final destiny of the wicked. Assuming the Old Testament as a standard, the everlasting life of the righteous is plainly taught. So also the punishment of the wicked in a future state is clearly declared; but the nature and duration of that punishment are not definitely and fully set forth. There are passages in the Old Testament which were regarded of old, and still are by many, as teaching the ultimate annihilation of the wicked. Other passages were regarded as teaching their restoration after punishment, while others were regarded as teaching future eternal punishment.

Having given these general views of the period, I shall set forth the history of opinions in the following order:

1. The doctrine of the annihilation of the wicked.

2. That of the restoration of the wicked.

3. That of future eternal punishment.

It is not necessary to say that the advocates of all of these doctrines hold to the eternal blessedness of the righteous, and to a just punishment of the wicked. But shrinking from endless misery, and regarding a final unity of all things in God as infinitely desirable and reasonable, some seek to gain it, either by final annihilation of the wicked, or by their restoration to obedience.

In the first class I place Philo and the author of the ascension of Isaiah; in the second, the authors of the apocalypse known as the sibylline verses; in the third, the author of the apocalypse of Enoch and of that of Esdras.

To these I shall add the statements of Josephus as to the belief of the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes, in his day.

After this I shall consider the development of the first Christian theological schools, out of which sprang a doctrine of restoration, which led to a controversy of centuries, the effects of which are still universally felt. Finally, I shall speak of the apostolic fathers.

Philo Judaeus and Annihilation.

This eminent Jew was a result of the great intellectual movement of which we have spoken, and the centre of which was Alexandria. He was a native of this city, and was probably born twenty-five years before Christ, and had finished his education under the influence of the schools of Alexandria before Christ appeared. But, as he lived to an advanced age, he not only was developed contemporaneously with him, but survived him, though in all probability he never came in contact with him. Certainly he never recognizes him. He was of a priestly family, and was a Pharisee. He was zealous beyond expression for Moses, and regarded his law as the sum of all wisdom and destined for the human race. And yet he was learned in all the systems of Greek philosophy, but especially an admirer of Plato. He was also a man of influence in political life and in business, as was evinced by the fact that the Jews of Alexandria chose him as their representative to the emperor at Rome, to justify them with reference to a tumult that had taken place at Alexandria. There is no need at this time to speak of his principles of Scriptural interpretation, except to say that they exerted for ages a profound influence on the Church through Origen and the theological school of Alexandria. But these principles have no influence on the question now before us, as he speaks in accordance with the general principles of moral government, and without any mystical interpretation of the Scriptures. Of him Dollinger says, “Philo represents the wicked as perishing with the dissolution of their bodies.” Others quote passages from him, representing the wicked as surviving death and suffering in Hades. There are, however, passages that go beyond this. Hades was regarded as an abyss in the centre of the earth. But Philo held that even the earth itself was to be destroyed, and Hades and the wicked with it, probably as the Stoics taught, by fire. This view is fundamental, and is copiously set forth in his treatise on “Providence,” Section 34. He says:

“There is a Providence that directs the obedient, and places rulers and judges over the disobedient, and by them corrects the contumacy of men, so that by obedience they may obtain honor from God for their virtue.

“But providence is annihilated if the good things of the world are equally distributed so that the wicked always enjoy them.”

I this we see the same line of thought that led the Psalmist, in Ps. lxxiii., to feel the need of retribution on the wicked who prosper in this world. The Psalmist says, accordingly, that they are “cast down into destruction in a moment, and utterly consumed with terrors,” when God awakes to judgment. Philo may have understood this to denote annihilation. At all events this is the final retribution on the wicked which he anticipate, for he proceeds to say:

“But their fairest flower is withered by a just judge, by their destruction when heaven and earth pass away.”

He then shows that the prospect of divine retribution and of so fearful a final doom will destroy all the pleasures of a sinful life. As to the final destruction of the world he thus speaks:

“The destruction of the world is to be ascribed to the judicial retribution of the Creator. Since the folly of sin corrupts the development of the moral nature of sinners, it impels the judge to retribution, although for a time he has judged it proper to sustain and nourish their corrupt and infamous life.”

He then sets forth the benevolent purpose of god in all of this forbearance:

“The eye of the judge does not overlook the burning of the mind set on fire by lascivious and unclean deeds, but rather like a father educating children, now by fear and now by great gifts, he knows how to dissuade from such unjust and aggressive deeds.”

The influence of sinful habit in rendering all this vain is next set forth in striking terms:

“But those who are dissolved in all effeminate pleasures, and deceived by the show of transient joys, since they cannot endure to go without them, are impelled by them to an impious and violent life.”

He then sets forth the final issue, destruction with a burning world:

“Since they have thus entirely withdrawn themselves from the interests of divine Providence in the creation of the human mind, they must undergo that destructive wrath which hangs over all the elements.”

He then justifies this retribution on principles of justice:

“Since they endeavored to destroy this world, this most perfect work of divine Providence, when this most beautiful workmanship of the Creator is destroyed, they will be involved in the destruction. Thus on those who have been disobedient he will inflict a deserved retribution. Then that in and by which they executed their desires, namely, this beautiful world, will be dissolved and destroyed, since, through the absorption of their hearts in sin, all regard to what is honorable and right, and due to God, has perished from among them.”

In his “Questions on Genesis,” Section 51, he exhibits the idea of the annihilation of the spirit in another form. Speaking of the return of man to the earth, from which he was taken, he says, “Man was not made from earth alone, but from the divine Spirit also.” He then says: “If one is inflamed with the love of virtue, which makes the mind immortal, he has obtained a lot wholly heavenly. But he who is absorbed in the love of pleasure, by which the death of the spirit is caused, again gives himself up to the earth. So, then, of a wicked and depraved man the beginning and end are earth, of a virtuous man heaven.”

Such opinions of such a man could not be without influence. Of him Dollinger says: “With the exception of the apostolic circle he was the man most distinguished for intellectual attainments whom the Jew then possessed. He was a man of rare endowments and high cultivation, from his comprehensive studies and intimate acquaintance with Greek literature; his piety was earnest and his faith firm” (p. 398).

Ascension of Isaiah.

That these views did affect some Christians is plain from the fact that they occur in substance in the ascension of Isaiah, a Christian apocalypse of the same class with that of Isaiah, a Christian apocalypse of the same class with that of Enoch. It was written by a Christian Jew, in the years 68 and 69 after Christ. In the fourth chapter occurs the following passage: “There shall also be a resurrection and a judgment in those days. Then the beloved shall cause to ascend from him a fire to consume all the ungodly who shall be as if they had never been created.” The basis of this work is laid in the assumption that Isaiah ascends to the seventh heaven, and reveals the mysteries of the spirit-world and the destinies of the future. It has, of course, to us, no authority, but it clearly reveals what one Christian writer, at that time, believed and taught as to the destiny of the wicked.

Other Advocates.

The doctrine of the annihilation of the wicked will also be found in Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, in the next century, but we shall defer our notice of them to another occasion. The manner in which they arrive at this result differs from that which Philo presents. It will demand and repay careful consideration. 

Our attention will next be directed to the earnest development of the doctrine of the final restoration of the wicked to holiness and to heaven.



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