polycarp and iraneus talk of everlasing hell


I really want universalism to be true so I am doing some rigourous research into it so I can be certain. One of the arguments for universalism says that the early church taught it. However, when I read the writings of people who were around before Origen and Clement of Alexandria, I read about eternal fire and torture. Does anyone know if this is just translation bias as is the case in the new testament? did the original writings use the word aoinian and maybe when they were translated they were phrased in such a way that reflected the beleifs of the translator?


Firstly, welcome to the board! :slight_smile:

I can’t recall reading or hearing that either Polycarp or Iraneaeus taught anything along the lines of ECT. Indeed my (often inaccurate) A level Philosophy of Religion textbook says that he thought everyone would end up in heaven.

Could you provide us with more direct quotations, please?


I did a bit of a search, but did not find “eternal fire” in any of Polycarp’s works. However, I did find it in the letter to the church at Smyrna ABOUT Polycarp’s martyrdom. This is believed to have been written around 150 A.D. In chapter 11, we find the word which Polycarp is purported to have said to his torturers, “You threaten me with the fire which burns for an hour and after a little is extuingished, but you are ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and of eternal fire.”

In English translations we find the phrase “eternal fire” in English translations of the very early “Letter to Diognetus” In Justin Martyr’s “Dialogue with Trypho”, and in Irenæus. I have the Greek text only of the letter to Diognetus. The word from near the end of chapter 10, translated as “eternal” in the clause “when you shall fear what is truly death, which is reserved for those who shall be condemned to the eternal fire”. The Greek word is “ἀιωνιος”, the same word which is translated “eternal” in the New Testament with regard to “eternal punishment” and “eternal life”. The word does not mean “eternal”. It’s the adjectival form of the noun “ἀιων” which means an “age”. I suppose it should strictly be translated as “agey”, but that were a word, it may not have much significance. There is an English word which has been derived from “ἀιωνιος”; it is “æonian”. The first definition if Wikpedia is “Of or pertaining to an eon” and in Webster’s “lasting for eons”. There IS a Greek word for “eternal”. It is ἀιδιος". It is found in Romans 1:19 where Paul speaks of God’s “eternal power and deity.” However, I have NEVER found this word, either in the New Testament, nor in early Christian writings with reference to the future punishment of the lost.


great! Thanks for your reply! Its what I was hoping for!!! It is very interesting then, that even in these writings they all use the word for ‘age’ and not unending (aidios or any of the other words that could be used.)
The fact that they say ‘there will be no escape’ fits perfectly with Jesus quote of ‘you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.’ But prisioners on earth in our justice system serve limited sentences but they certainly cant escape. So no escape does not mean endless.


The link is here: you have to look under Polycarp and Iraneus:


I don’t get it. No escape means escape? Huh?


There is a bit in one of the works I was referring to which says ‘the eternal fire from which there will be no escape.’


References to “aionios fire” do not necessarily imply never ending punishment. I briefly discuss the Greek word “aionios” in my draft. Go to May I have feedback on my CU drafts?

In a nutshell, there is a Biblical tradition for using “fire” as a metaphor for purification, and Jesus even says that “gehenna fire” (i.e. “hell fire”) is purifying/ remedial. That is what Jesus said. This is significant because Jesus also makes a direct parallel between gehenna fire (which purifies/salts) and “aionios fire”, ** which means that aionios fire also purifies**. One can also make a connection between gehenna fire and the “lake of fire and brimstone”, and there is good evidence that the lake of fire also purifies. See my draft.

Aside from that, I think one can make a good case that “aionios” could at least sometimes meant something like “pertaining to the age to come”, but I don’t think that translation is necessary for universalism. Either way, it is a very complicated word and my main point is that church father references to “aionios fire” do not automatically imply that those churchmen believed in never-ending punishment. Clement of Alexandria and Gregory of Nysaa also believed in aionios punishment, and yet they were explicit universalists (Gregory of Nyssa suggested that aionios fire was a means to universalism). Of course, some early church fathers did indeed believe in never-ending punishment, but so what? That fact by itself is no evidence at all for the idea that never-ending punishment is true.

best wishes

  • Pat


“In a nutshell, there is a Biblical tradition for using “fire” as a metaphor for purification, and Jesus even says that “gehenna fire” (i.e. “hell fire”) is purifying/ remedial.”

When did Jesus say that? The salted with fire statement? I don’t see the word Gehenna mentioned there (is it and I am missing it?)


Yes, but you’d have to read the whole passage. Below is Mark 9:42-49:

Below is from my draft. Emphases won’t show up because I’m copying and pasting and don’t feel like adding all of the emphases:

As I also show in my draft, Gehenna fire is said to be the same as aionios fire, which suggests that aionios fire also purifies.

Aside from that, there are hints within the texts that point in this direction (e.g. the use of maggots and sulphur, which had medicinal functions). See my draft, which admittedly still needs major work.

best wishes

  • Pat


Although this is an OT reference and not mentioning Gehenna it sheds some light on the fire of God

This would seem to embody the language of fire wood and destruction (perishing) found in the NT. Here it is clear that the word in the mouth (perhaps we could just say the use of the uttering of the ultimate truth/reality - which sets free possibly?) is the fire (nothing physical there) that destroys the people (wood). Maybe the only result of all this destruction is the circumcision of the heart which seems to be the ultimate objective of God towards human beings.

Just a thought.


seirwyn, have our comments helped you at all?

  • Pat


Catching up with previous comments (finally!). Don’t really have much to add, except:

1.) I don’t consider “eonian” to be about time at all, but to be about the One Who is over, above and beyond time, the Everlasting (a Jewish euphamism for God; but the word was also used this way by Greek philosophers trying to talk about God in their own way.)

2.) Jeff, your note works even better in reference to Isaiah 6 and the purification of Isaiah.


Thanks to all who have replied. My internet has been down for ages and I jhave also been on holiday so Ive not been able to reply for a while. Your comments have been great! I am still on the journey towards being fully conviced but I now realise that the church may have got it wrong. It is funny ow we can be brainwashed into beleiving something just because all our leaders say its true! Then we dont read the bible properly and try to fit all the odd verses into our theology and some of them just dont fit!
I have discovered some amazing stuff in the bible now that I dont read it against a backdrop of a certain viewpoint.


This idea is gaining popularity in our day. But it can’t be true. For the word is used frequently in koine Greek, the common language of the people from 300 B.C. to 300 A.D. with no reference to God.

For example, Paul wasn’t thinking about God at all when he wrote to Philemon concerning his slave Onesimus:

Perhaps because of this, [Onesimus] was separated from you for awhile, so that you might have him back αἰωνιος (Verse 15)

What does “αἰωνιος” have to do with God in this sentence?

Here is an appropriate translation:

Perhaps because of this, [Onesimus] was separated from you for awhile, so that you might have him back permanently (Verse 15)


What are your thoughts on Jason Pratt’s discussion of that verse? Re: The Essential Role of Free Will in Universal Reconciliation


Jason’s thoughts about God sending Onesimus back seems to me a stretch in order to justify what he believes to be the meaning of “αἰωνιος”.

One can look at other passages to see that “αἰωνιος” simply means “permanent” or “enduring”. Here is an example from the Septuagint translation of Isaiah 61:4

They shall build up the αἰωνιος ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations. Isaiah 61:4

These were permanent ruins or enduring ruins. But they could be built up nevertheless. Of course, if you accept Jason’s meaning of “αἰωνιος”, you can always say they were “ruins from God”. You can say that no matter what reference I should give. But there is nothing in the context of Isaiah 61:4 to indicate that the ruins were “from God”.


Here are some passages from the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament:

**Genesis 21:33 And Abraham planted a field at the well of the oath, and called there on the name of the Lord, the αἰωνιος God.

Let’s see. Permanent or enduring God? or “God from God” hmmmmm…

**Exodus 31:16 And the sons of Israel shall keep the sabbaths, to observe them throughout αἰωνιος generations. **

Perpetual generations or “generations from God”?

Psalms 24:9 Lift up your gates, you princes; and be ye lift up, you αἰωνιος doors; and the king of glory shall come in.

Permanent or enduring doors? Or “doors from God”?

Psalms 76:4 You wonderfully shine forth from the αἰωνιος mountains.

Permanent or enduring mountains? Or “mountains from God”?

Psalms 77:5 I considered the days of old, and remembered αἰωνιος years.

Enduring years? Or “years from God”?

Psalms 78:66 And he smote his enemies in the hinder parts: he brought on them a αἰωνιος reproach.

Enduring reproach? or “reproach from God”?


Except that I’m not using that verse as justification for what I believe to be the typical meaning of {aio_nios} in the New Testament. In fact your specific topical question had nothing to do with justification rationale but about feasibility of application: “Okay, it may make sense, but is that what Paul meant to say? Was Onesimus with God for awhile, and now he was to return to his master Philemon? I don’t think so.”

Consequently, my discussion was about how the meaning could fit into that verse. (And not in the sense that Onesimus was with God for awhile and now he was to return to Philemon.)

Moreover, in a subsequent comment shortly afterward in that thread, I self-critically corrected a common error of mine regarding a habit of thinking “eonian” refers to “mystery” and not to “times” grammatically in Rom 16:25 – a correction I went into some detail about!

Permanent or enduring ruins that aren’t actually permanent or enduring? Not a meaning I would care to apply to “life eonian”! (Much less to “God eonian”, per your next example!)

Whereas, I’m pretty sure everything in the preceding (and subsequent) contexts of Isaiah 61 indicate that God was responsible for those ruins. :slight_smile: The whole point to the promise in Isaiah 61 is that God won’t keep punishing Israel for her sins but will eventually restore her. It isn’t about how, for example, Satan created eonian ruins of Israel against everything God could and did do to stop it, but God will make sure that Satan’s version of eonian isn’t really eonian while ensuring His own version of eonian really is eonian.

Already discussed (in the link Kav provided) in regard to the one use of the phrase in the NT (Rom 16:26). Where I noted that “God from God” might be a problem for some (though not even all) non-Trinitarians, but wouldn’t be a problem either for Trinitarians nor for a pre-Trinitarian belief in YHWH being His own greatest agent, appearing visibly (and somehow distinct in person) as the Angel of the Presence, the Shekinah, etc.

(Which, as I noted in that 76 page summary analysis I posted up a few months ago, the OT is packed with references to, including in many of the most famous OT stories. Including very overtly in the previous incident involving YHWH’s promise about Sarah soon going to conceive, directly related to this verse, back in chapter 18. Where, not incidentally, the visible YHWH, Who cannot be the same person as the invisible YHWH Who has never been and cannot be seen by the eyes of man, goes on after eating supper with Abraham and Sarah to rain fire down from YHWH-in-heaven upon Sodom and Gomorrah.)

Can there be perpetual generations that are not from God?! (Certainly not testified to anywhere in the OT!–nor in the NT, for that matter.)

Moreover, since it became blatantly obvious that the sons of Israel did not in fact keep the sabbaths (perpetually, permanently, or in any other such way), the expectation soon came to be that this would be fulfilled as a prophecy of the Day of YHWH to come. Fulfilled by Who, Savior of Israel?

Are there permanent or enduring doors that are not from God?! Surely not in Psalm 24, which speaks of the Lord as the Creator of all, and pretty much has to be referring to the gates either of Jerusalem, the City of God’s Peace, or of the Temple–more likely the former if the author was David, but either way we’re talking about something manifestly from God: that’s practically the whole religious point to Jerusalem (not to say the Temple), especially in an eschatological sense.

This one is (providentially?) even better; because {aio_nios} is often understood in translations of this verse, to apply to God, not to the mountains. (NASV: Thou art resplendent, more majestic [or majestic from] the mountains of prey. JPS Tanakh: You were resplendent, glorious, on the mountains of prey. HCSB: You are resplendent and majestic [coming down] from the mountains of prey. NIV: You are resplendent with light, more majestic than mountains rich with game. NIV literal Hebrew: one-giving light you majestic more-than-mountains-of game. Green’s literal: You are glorious more excellent than mountains of prey. Green’s super-literal: glorious You, excellent than-the-mountains-of prey.)

There are exceptions, of course, such as the version you gave. Another would be Werner’s translation: “You enlighten the noble mountains with prey.” Which is notable for not being based on the LXX, yet agreeing with your translation, sort of, in that the adjective ADYK (related to ADN, Lord, and clearly the word being translated as {aio_nios} in the LXX) should be applied to those mountains and not to God.

But even if this is correct, exactly one Psalm previously the Earth and all its inhabitants dissolve without God avowedly keeping the foundations firm. Whatever eonianosity those mountains have (if indeed they’re being said to have any), obviously comes from and is utterly dependent upon the One Who Is Eonian. It’s still directly and specially from God.

This is the most difficult of your examples, on the face of it, because Hebrew poetic parallelism might tend to indicate that the second phrase should be another way of stating the first one. On the other hand, sometimes the poetic parallelism is set up as an a fortiori, in which case the second phrase would have to be greater than the first. There is a concept in the OT and the NT both, to the effect that God has His own time superior to natural time; and that would fit this phraseology being an “even moreso then” example.

Does the context bear this out? Well, unless {aio_nios} years is now supposed to mean like, say, 10 years ago or the past few months (weeks/days); then the first immediate reference to “recalling at night their jibes of me”, or (much more probably) a tacit implication that sometime in the (relatively) recent past things were better for Asaph, would more likely apply (in topical parallel) to “days of old”. Obviously the jibing didn’t occur for perpetually enduring and/or permanent years, because there was a time (which the Psalmist wistfully remembers) when there wasn’t jibing! Nor did that time perpetually endure (permanently or otherwise), because now there is jibing–and, far more importantly, now there is punishment from God upon the Psalmist. (Who is composing in a standard Davidic lament-mode, and comparing his sufferings analogically to that of Israel over generations.)

In fact, once again, the whole point of the Psalm is that the singer is recalling promises from the heart of God of blessings and such, and is depressingly worried that God has decided to forego those promises in lieu of keeping the punishment going instead (for Asaph specifically in the small scale and for Israel generally on the larger scale). Will the Lord reject “forever”?–and never again show favor? Has His faithfulness disappeared forever?! Will His promise be unfulfilled for all time?

The first word (though not the second) that I’ve translated “forever” above is the same as the one being translated into {aio_nios} in the LXX, btw. But if the former instance couldn’t have meant “forever”–and by its context it absolutely couldn’t–then maybe it doesn’t mean “forever” here, either. If the reference is actually to the Everlasting One (in plural, as is common when an OT author is referencing God, by the way), then “Will the Lord reject forever” would mean something more like “Will the Lord reject the Lords by Whom He swore that He would restore His fallen beloved ones?” The answer to this is, duh, of course He won’t; the complaint (in this interpretation) would be a rhetorical device to remind the singer that despite how bad things look, God did swear upon Himself (in good divine plural mode!) to restore His beloved even after punishing His beloved for their sins. (A rhetorical device that ought to be very familiar to readers of the OT, even in English translations.)

And so the Psalmist recalls the deeds of God, His wonders “of old” (not the same root word under discussion above, by the way). And which deeds were those? Redeeming Jacob and Joseph, one from sin and one from (quite literally) the pit of despair. Manifesting His strength to His people. What kind of manifestation? Not surprisingly, the reference goes on to be about the visible manifestation of YHWH in leading Israel out of Egypt: a topic which is, not-incidentally, strongly related to the notion of YHWH promising to YHWH things concerning Israel and then bringing them about. (And which might be being echoed in the story of Jesus walking on the water during stormy weather in Matt, Mark and John’s accounts: an incident that impressed the guys in the boat to worship Him, if only briefly.)

So when the contexts are examined, the evidence does in fact weigh more toward that term being a reference to God somehow, than to perpetually unending years that nevertheless did end and didn’t endure. (Much less to those eternal years being in the Psalmist’s own recent past.)

This, on the other hand, seems kind of a ‘duh’ question: the first part of the verse you quoted explicitly notes that the reproach is yes coming from God! (As if the whole rest of this fairly lengthy Psalm didn’t indicate otherwise.) Whereas, it ought to be obvious that God has no intention of the disgrace on the family of Joseph and Ephraim being permanently enduring. (See previous Psalm 77, reffed by you just previously, to give one of hundreds of examples in the OT. Or Psalm 79, to give the other most immediate example available.)

If the reproach is not in fact permanently enduring, and is in fact from God, then does it make more sense to translate that phrase “permanently enduring reproach” or “reproach from God”? I don’t think I’m making much of a logical reach on this one! :laughing:

I would like to point out that I don’t mean that I believe {aio_nios} (or whichever Hebrew/Aramaic terms the translators were translating into that Greek adjective) always has to, in principle, mean “Godly” or “from God” or something of that sort. I do find as a matter of exegetical study that it always either surely or plausibly means this in the NT (with St. Paul perhaps including a literal time-reference pun in the Philemonic use, as I noted in that other thread Kav directed you toward); maybe I would find the same thing in the LXX, or not. When I check the actual contexts of the examples you’ve given here, the contexts (with one exception) weigh heavily in favor of the underlying term meaning something like “from God the Everlasting” and heavily not in favor of the term meaning that some not-God entity or condition is permanently enduring. (The Psalm 77:5 quote I would say still weighs heavily against the latter, and moderately but perhaps not heavily in favor of the former.) But if you provided other examples, I might or might not arrive at similar results.

What I think is interesting, though, is that you provided those examples (or maybe it only seemed that way?) as if the usage in each case pretty obviously had to refer to a permanently enduring not-God entity or situation that wasn’t in fact permanently enduring, and as though the usage wasn’t obviously about the object of the adjective coming specially from God in any case.

To me, though, the context in (almost) every case is blatantly obviously the other way around.

Annnnd, now back to ‘work’ work. :slight_smile:


Just a wee clarification.

Jason, in reading your reply I got the impression that for you the use of the word “permanent” is tantamount to the use of the word “everlasting”. In most applications of the word, that is not the case.

Healthwise, I have had a permanent bronchial condition since I was a child. But I will no longer have that condition if

  1. A cure is discovered and applied.
  2. I receive a miraculous healing.
  3. I die

You can have a permanent driver’s licence, but that does not mean that you will always have it. For example, you won’t retain it if you

  1. break a major traffic law
  2. become blind
  3. die

Though your driver’s license if permanent, this does not imply that you will retain it for a long time. You could lose it tomorrow given the appropriate conditions.

In Jonah’s prayer, according to the Septuagint, he spoke of his new position in the fish’s belly as “αἰωνιος barriers” [Jonah 2:6]. Yet he was within those barriers for only three days (They probably seemed permanent to Jonah).

I think in every case of the use of the word “αἰωνιος”, there is a reference to a condition enduring for period of time (an eon), not necessarily long, but without a break, without intermittent periods where there is freedom from the condition. Thus, I still maintain that “permanent” or “enduring” are good translations of the word.