Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Early Christians Believed in Hell - Refuting John Lilley

I was recently directed to a website belonging to John Lilley, an author of at least three books on Christianity. One of those books is titled “Hell is a Mistranslation”. One article on his website, titled “The Early Christians did not Believe in Hell” served as a sort of prologue to the book, explaining why Lilley believes “hell” to be a mistranslation and explaining that neither Christ nor the early Christian writers from the first several centuries believed in “hell” as we understand it today.

I have attempted several times to re-access his webpage lately, but have been unable. I continue to get a message that the webpage ( has expired. Whether the page will come up again, I do not know. What I do know is that there are at least a handful of people who have recently read his article and were misled by it, and so I am going to refute it. Actually, I’m going to let Jesus and the early Christians refute it; I’ll just post their words. Christ, Himself, as well as the early Christian writers, believed in “hell” as we understand it today: everlasting and unquenchable fire and/or eternal separation from God.
Mr. Lilley, if you happen to be reading this, I welcome you to answer any of the questions I will ask throughout this article, and address the direct quotes from the original source materials which flatly refute your article…quotes from the very Christians of whom you said that an eternal punishment would be a foreign concept.

To start, Lilley says that if we go by the original Greek in which the New Testament letters were written, we will see that the word “hell” is nowhere to be found. Now, I’m not a Greek scholar, but let’s pretend, for the sake of argument, that Lilley is correct. The word “hell” is not in the original language of the Bible. Why does that matter? Mr. Lilley, why does it matter what name is given to the “eternal fire” and “eternal punishment” (Mt 25:41,46) that *is* in the Bible? Are we to assume that, just because it bears a particular name that is recognizable in the common language, that this “eternal fire” no longer exists?

So, if “hell” isn’t actually in the Bible, what is? Since Mr. Lilley prefers the Greek, let’s look at the Greek words for “hell” that *are* in Scripture. The Greek “Hades”, “Tartarus”, and “Gehenna” are used in various ways in the Bible and in the writings of the early Christians. “Gehenna”, which is found multiple times in the Scriptures, is always used to refer to the “eternal separation from God” or “everlasting fire/punishment”. “Hades” can ALSO be used for that place of eternal separation from God which we, today, simply call “Hell” (cf. Lk 16), but it isn't always.
Here are some examples of “Gehenna”, translated in English to “hell”, being used to describe what we call “Hell”, or an eternal separation from God:

But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell* of fire” (Mt 5:22). *This refers to Gehenna, and some translations simply use “fires of Gehenna” here.

If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell” (Mt 5:29-30, cf. Mk 9:43-48). If this “hell” were not eternal, why would it be better to remove a part of your body rather than end up there? If you are going to end up in Heaven anyway (eventually), why not just keep that eye or that hand?

Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Mt 10:28, cf. Lk 12:5).

And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell” (Mt 18:9).

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are… You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? ” (Mt 23:15, 33).

The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell” (James 3:6).

Other verses, such as Revelation 19:20, 20:10 and Mt 13:42, continue to describe what is to be understood of “Gehenna”, such as “lake of fire” or “furnace of fire”. Mark 9:48 tells us that Gehenna is a place where “the worm that eats them does not die, and the fire is not quenched”. Mt 25:41, 46 calls this hell “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” and “eternal punishment”, and that many people, even among whom called Him “Lord”, will end up there (Mt 25:31-46, cf. Mt 7:21-23).
Mr. Lilley, if Jesus says that this “Gehenna” is eternal, who are you to say that it is not? Should I take your word over Christ’s?

And look at Revelation 14:10-11, which vividly describes “Hell” as we know it, beyond any claim of semantics: “…they will also drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured unmixed into the cup of his anger, and they will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image and for anyone who receives the mark of its name.”
Mr. Lilley, Scripture says that a place of eternal torment and fire is real, and that some people will go there. Is Scripture wrong? Does it matter if I call this place "Hell" or "Gehenna" or long as I mean exactly what Scripture conveys here?

Scripture could not be any clearer, and most of these are quoted from Christ, Himself.
We could stop right there, because the Scriptures flatly refute Lilley’s claims. But let’s look at the early Church Fathers, including some of the Greek speaking ones, who Lilley said would have found “an eternal hell” to be a foreign concept. You will find, in their own words, a direct refutation to what Lilley has claimed about them. 
Mr. Lilley, did you ever consider the fact that the Christians who still use ancient Greek in their liturgy (the Greek Orthodox) ALSO teach about eternal hell?

Ignatius of Antioch
"Corrupters of families will not inherit the kingdom of God. And if they who do these things according to the flesh suffer death, how much more if a man corrupt by evil teaching the faith of God for the sake of which Jesus Christ was crucified? A man become so foul will depart into unquenchable fire: and so will anyone who listens to him" (Letter to the Ephesians 16:1–2 [A.D. 110]).

Second Clement
"If we do the will of Christ, we shall obtain rest; but if not, if we neglect his commandments, nothing will rescue us from eternal punishment" (Second Clement 5:5 [A.D. 150]).

"But when they see how those who have sinned and who have denied Jesus by their words or by their deeds are punished with terrible torture in unquenchable fire, the righteous, who have done good, and who have endured tortures and have hated the luxuries of life, will give glory to their God saying, ‘There shall be hope for him that has served God with all his heart!’" (ibid., 17:7).

Justin Martyr
"No more is it possible for the evildoer, the avaricious, and the treacherous to hide from God than it is for the virtuous. Every man will receive the eternal punishment or reward which his actions deserve. Indeed, if all men recognized this, no one would choose evil even for a short time, knowing that he would incur the eternal sentence of fire. On the contrary, he would take every means to control himself and to adorn himself in virtue, so that he might obtain the good gifts of God and escape the punishments" (First Apology 12 [A.D. 151]).

"We have been taught that only they may aim at immortality who have lived a holy and virtuous life near to God. We believe that they who live wickedly and do not repent will be punished in everlasting fire" (ibid., 21).

"[Jesus] shall come from the heavens in glory with his angelic host, when he shall raise the bodies of all the men who ever lived. Then he will clothe the worthy in immortality; but the wicked, clothed in eternal sensibility, he will commit to the eternal fire, along with the evil demons" (ibid., 52).

The Martyrdom of Polycarp
"Fixing their minds on the grace of Christ, [the martyrs] despised worldly tortures and purchased eternal life with but a single hour. To them, the fire of their cruel torturers was cold. They kept before their eyes their escape from the eternal and unquenchable fire" (Martyrdom of Polycarp 2:3 [A.D. 155]).

"When you know what is the true life, that of heaven; when you despise the merely apparent death, which is temporal; when you fear the death which is real, and which is reserved for those who will be condemned to the everlasting fire, the fire which will punish even to the end those who are delivered to it, then you will condemn the deceit and error of the world" (Letter to Diognetus 10:7 [A.D. 160]).

"[W]e [Christians] are persuaded that when we are removed from this present life we shall live another life, better than the present one. . . . Then we shall abide near God and with God, changeless and free from suffering in the soul . . . or if we fall with the rest [of mankind], a worse one and in fire; for God has not made us as sheep or beasts of burden, a mere incidental work, that we should perish and be annihilated" (Plea for the Christians 31 [A.D. 177]).

Theophilus of Antioch
"Give studious attention to the prophetic writings [the Bible] and they will lead you on a clearer path to escape the eternal punishments and to obtain the eternal good things of God. . . . [God] will examine everything and will judge justly, granting recompense to each according to merit. To those who seek immortality by the patient exercise of good works, he will give everlasting life, joy, peace, rest, and all good things. . . . For the unbelievers and for the contemptuous, and for those who do not submit to the truth but assent to iniquity, when they have been involved in adulteries, and fornications, and homosexualities, and avarice, and in lawless idolatries, there will be wrath and indignation, tribulation and anguish; and in the end, such men as these will be detained in everlasting fire" (To Autolycus 1:14 [A.D. 181]).

"[God will] send the spiritual forces of wickedness, and the angels who transgressed and became apostates, and the impious, unjust, lawless, and blasphemous among men into everlasting fire" (Against Heresies 1:10:1 [A.D. 189]).

"The penalty increases for those who do not believe the Word of God and despise his coming. . . . [I]t is not merely temporal, but eternal. To whomsoever the Lord shall say, ‘Depart from me, accursed ones, into the everlasting fire,’ they will be damned forever" (ibid., 4:28:2).

"After the present age is ended he will judge his worshipers for a reward of eternal life and the godless for a fire equally perpetual and unending" (Apology 18:3 [A.D. 197]).

"Then will the entire race of men be restored to receive its just deserts according to what it has merited in this period of good and evil, and thereafter to have these paid out in an immeasurable and unending eternity. Then there will be neither death again nor resurrection again, but we shall be always the same as we are now, without changing. The worshipers of God shall always be with God, clothed in the proper substance of eternity. But the godless and those who have not turned wholly to God will be punished in fire equally unending, and they shall have from the very nature of this fire, divine as it were, a supply of incorruptibility" (ibid., 44:12–13).

"Standing before [Christ’s] judgment, all of them, men, angels, and demons, crying out in one voice, shall say: ‘Just is your judgment!’ And the righteousness of that cry will be apparent in the recompense made to each. To those who have done well, everlasting enjoyment shall be given; while to the lovers of evil shall be given eternal punishment. The unquenchable and unending fire awaits these latter, and a certain fiery worm which does not die and which does not waste the body but continually bursts forth from the body with unceasing pain. No sleep will give them rest; no night will soothe them; no death will deliver them from punishment; no appeal of interceding friends will profit them" (Against the Greeks 3 [A.D. 212]).

Minucius Felix
"I am not ignorant of the fact that many, in the consciousness of what they deserve, would rather hope than actually believe that there is nothing for them after death. They would prefer to be annihilated rather than be restored for punishment. . . . Nor is there either measure nor end to these torments. That clever fire burns the limbs and restores them, wears them away and yet sustains them, just as fiery thunderbolts strike bodies but do not consume them" (Octavius 34:12–5:3 [A.D. 226]).

Cyprian of Carthage
"An ever-burning Gehenna and the punishment of being devoured by living flames will consume the condemned; nor will there be any way in which the tormented can ever have respite or be at an end. Souls along with their bodies will be preserved for suffering in unlimited agonies. . . . The grief at punishment will then be without the fruit of repentance; weeping will be useless, and prayer ineffectual. Too late will they believe in eternal punishment, who would not believe in eternal life" (To Demetrian 24 [A.D. 252]).

"[T]he sacred writings inform us in what manner the wicked are to undergo punishment. For because they have committed sins in their bodies, they will again be clothed with flesh, that they may make atonement in their bodies; and yet it will not be that flesh with which God clothed man, like this our earthly body, but indestructible, and abiding forever, that it may be able to hold out against tortures and everlasting fire, the nature of which is different from this fire of ours, which we use for the necessary purposes of life, and which is extinguished unless it be sustained by the fuel of some material. But that divine fire always lives by itself, and flourishes without any nourishment. . . . The same divine fire, therefore, with one and the same force and power, will both burn the wicked and will form them again, and will replace as much as it shall consume of their bodies, and will supply itself with eternal nourishment. . . . Thus, without any wasting of bodies, which regain their substance, it will only burn and affect them with a sense of pain. But when [God] shall have judged the righteous, he will also try them with fire" (Divine Institutes 7:21 [A.D. 307]).

Cyril of Jerusalem
"We shall be raised therefore, all with our bodies eternal, but not all with bodies alike: for if a man is righteous, he will receive a heavenly body, that he may be able worthily to hold converse with angels; but if a man is a sinner, he shall receive an eternal body, fitted to endure the penalties of sins, that he may burn eternally in fire, nor ever be consumed. And righteously will God assign this portion to either company; for we do nothing without the body. We blaspheme with the mouth, and with the mouth we pray. With the body we commit fornication, and with the body we keep chastity. With the hand we rob, and by the hand we bestow alms; and the rest in like manner. Since then the body has been our minister in all things, it shall also share with us in the future the fruits of the past" (Catechetical Lectures 18:19 [A.D. 350]).

The concept of eternal punishment, what we call “Hell” today, was certainly not foreign to the early Christians, as Lilley stated. They believed and taught it, and rebuked those who rejected that teaching. Lilley is wrong in his statements regarding Scripture and regarding the early Christians. Their words, and the words of our Lord, speak for themselves.

Lilley’s book says “hell” is a “mistranslation”. I would say, rather, it is using the common language to convey the message to the common man. Call it what you want to, but “Hell” is real, and it is eternal. Anything less is not a Christian belief.


  1. If you read his book, it answers all of your questions above.

    1. David, do you mean to tell me that he actually explains how, despite the fact that Christ and the early Church Fathers EXPLICITLY teach the exact thing that we today call "Hell", they didn't really teach that? The only possible way he could arrive at such a conclusion is if he goes the route of "they didn't use the exact word "hell", therefore it doesn't count". You'll also notice I asked him why that matters above. His problem is going to be, if he is a Trinitarian Christian, explaining why he believes in the Holy Trinity without completely contradicting himself.
      If he's not a Trinitarian Christian then, while he's wrong, I would at least grant that he's consistent.
      Of course, he's also going to have to explain why a word must be found in the Bible in order for something to be true. And I can pretty much guarantee you that he doesn't explain that one in his book, at least not from the Bible. ;-)

  2. If you have access to the book, and study the scripture that he uses to put forward his argument, that will be the best way for you to get answers to the questions that you are asking. I could try to condense his whole thesis and type it out here, but that would be a huge undertaking. The book is a free pdf, you should be able to find it online.

    1. Why do I need to read a "huge undertaking" that tries to explain why Jesus didn't really say what Jesus explicitly said. Jesus clearly said it. That's enough for me.
      I've chased down these types of things before, and it has always ended up in me reading hours and hours of someone talking around the topic and not actually addressing any facts, at all, and ending with an opinion that is completely the opposite of what is explicitly in the Bible. No thanks.

      There is no possible way for Mr. Lilley to logically conclude the exact opposite of what the Scriptures and Christ and the ECF's explicitly say. This isn't one of those things where "interpretation" might cloud the true meaning. This is so explicitly clear, *using Lilley's own favorite sources/language*. It's almost comical, except that it's sad.
      The ONLY way he could draw the conclusion which he has drawn is to completely rely on deception (logical fallacy) and completely ignore the very writings he contests. I'm not interested in reading that.

      -He said the ECF's didn't believe in an eternal punishment of fire...that it would be a foreign concept for them. The *very same* ECF's he wants to use as reference taught EXACTLY that...explicitly. Lilley is wrong. His own sources prove him so.

      -He said the Bible and Jesus never taught eternal punishment for sins. The Bible and Jesus teach EXACTLY that, explicitly...word for word. There is no way around that. Lilley is wrong. His own sources prove him so.

  3. Hi Dave, I don't know if Lilley is right, but I do know what he believes that the bible says on this subject. In his book he discusses all of the different words that are translated into "hell", I believe there are 5 of them. I'll go with Gehenna since that is the one you talked most about in your first post. He believes that Jesus was referring to the physical place in Jerusalem (Gehenna=the Valley of Gehinnom), where corpses will be burned by a physical fire after the white throne of judgement. He also believes that the word "eternal" is also mistranslated in the bible He believes that the greek word eon or eonian should be translated into "age" or "ages". Anyway, I'm not going to do a full book report, but there is a lot of detail and there are lot of bible verses to look at. Hopefully now you can understand why he believes that the bible doesn't teach eternal punishment, even though that may be what most bible translations say. Take care.

    1. Except, David, that Scripture actually explains what is meant by the word when it explains what hell is in Rev 14:10-11. Who do you suppose has a better grasp of that ancient Greek, and its proper understanding and usage, when it was used to translate the Scriptures? The men who spoke it and understood it, the same men who explicitly taught an eternal punishment of hell? Or Mr. Lilley, here in the 21st century who suddenly found a novel "truth" that Christ's Church simply got wrong for 2,000 years?

  4. Yes, that is the question... If you assume that the original translators from Greek to English were free from error in their beliefs, then obviously they should have a better grasp on the translation. Lilley believes that some Pagan beliefs contaminated Christianity, and that the translators probably didn't intentionally mistranslate. They simply translated/taught what they believed.

    1. Yes, that pretty well gets to the heart of the matter, doesn't it? Either Jesus was serious when He promised that the Spirit of Truth would lead His Church to ALL Truth for ALL time, or He wasn't. Either Jesus told the Truth when He said the gates of hell would never prevail against His Church, or He didn't.
      No, I do not believe that Christ's Church can teach error, because the Spirit which was promised to guide His Church cannot teach error. No, paganism did not influence the Sacred Apostolic Traditions of the Church which came from Christ...because they had been completely delivered to us by the time of the Apostles, "whether by word or by letter of [theirs]".
      And I also believe that any novel belief of a man (Lilley's explanation of hell, for example) which contradicts a teaching of Christ's Church, must certainly contain error.
      The Church, not John Lilley, is the pillar and bulwark of Truth. I trust God's Word on that matter. So when a man comes along contradicting the pillar and bulwark of truth, he must certainly be wrong.

  5. Jesus also taught his disciples that many people would come saying He was the Christ, yet deceiving many, and to see to it that they are not deceived.

    I believe that scripture is the pillar of truth. The Church is made up of people, and I believe that people are fallible. I believe that the original scripture is truth and infallible, but mens translations can be fallible.

    Mr. Lilley doesn't claim to be the truth, he explicitly tells his readers not to simply believe him, but to test what he is saying using scripture. Here is a quote from the book:

    Now, before you call me a heretic, I exhort you to do as the Bible commands in 1 Thessalonians chapter 5, verse 21: “Test everything, hold on to what is good”. And Proverbs 18:13 says, “He who gives an answer before he hears, it is folly and shame to him.”

  6. Amen, David Henry! So when a man comes along with a novel belief contrary to the teachings of Christ's Church, I see to it that I am not deceived, and I look to the Church to settle any such dispute, just as Jesus tells us to in Mt 18.

    People are indeed fallible, but Jesus' *Church* is not, because Jesus said that the *Church* is guided to all truth, for all time, speaking with Jesus' very voice (Jn 16:13; Jn 14:26; Lk 10:16).
    You might see the Scripture as the pillar of Truth, but SCRIPTURE says that the *Church* is (1Tim 3:15).
    -Do you not believe what the Scriptures say there?
    -Do you believe that the men who wrote and compiled the Scrpitures were fallible? In other words, is there a chance that the Bible you have contains some wrong books/letters, information? If not, how do you know that?

    -Do you believe that John Lilley is fallible, and could be wrong in his interpretation/understanding of Scripture? I do. I tested what he said against the Scriptures AND against the teachings of the Apostles handed down through the ages AND against historical writings. And ALL of the above show that he is patently wrong (as I showed in the article above). But are you (and he) telling me that I am still wrong in believing hell exists and that Christ and the early Fathers taught this, even though Scripture and history could not be more clear (as shown above)?
    If I am wrong, on what basis am I wrong? Are you suggesting that I am just misunderstanding the original Word of God? I already said that I used what Lilley believes to be the original (even though Christ spoke in Aramaic, not Greek...but anyway...). So, why od you believe Lilley understands it better than I do, if we are using the same sources? IS it because you see Lilley as some "authority"? If so, where did he get this authority?

  7. Lilley doesn't have any more authority than you, I, or any other human being on earth. Certainly he is fallible, just as we all are. He could be wrong, I'm not sure yet as I am still testing what he has written in his book. I'll just leave it at that. Thank you for the discussion.

    1. You are most welcome, and thank you as well for both the discussion and for visiting the blog. :-)
      In Christ,