How could the church have got doctrine x wrong?

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Doctrinal revisionism is in the air, and unsurprisingly it makes people nervous. Currently it appears that many of the fundamental tenets of modern Protestant orthodoxy are being subjected to critical re-examination from the inside—among them justification by faith, penal substitutionary atonement, the subordination of women, the second coming, heaven as the final destination of the saved, hell as the final destination of the lost. How come? How can that be good? How can the church have got so much wrong?

Steven Opp recently raised this basic concern with regard to the claim that the supposed “hell” texts in the New Testament refer not to a state of conscious post mortem torment but to acts of divine judgment within history—and ultimately to the destructive power of death.

I dismissed Rob Bell’s book, but after reading your thoughts I am reconsidering the doctrine of hell. My biggest hangup is that I have always asssumed that it has been part of the Church’s beliefs since the time of Christ (correct me if I’m wrong). How do you answer someone who is very cautious to go against what most of the church believes and has believed for so long? In other words, how could we be wrong about such an important issue for so long?

This is partly a question of historical theology, partly a matter of how the church holds its beliefs, partly a matter of exegesis. I can only really give a very rough personal response here, but it is certainly worth stepping back from the detailed disputes to consider the larger picture. I don’t think a series of bloody pitched battles over prominent and controversial issues is really the best way forward.

In answer to Steven’s question I would make the following quick points:

  1. We have no absolute theological reason to suppose that the church could not have got its beliefs about the afterlife somewhat skewed; indeed, we ought to assume that the dominant Western intellectual tradition got many things wrong.
  2. Belief in eternal conscious punishment developed, I suspect, as the thoroughly Jewish New Testament was uncritically reinterpreted within the Greek-Roman world; it is not the only notion that got bent out of shape in the process.
  3. The church has got a lot of things wrong over the millennia and not just in the area of beliefs; it reflects rather badly on the modern church that we worry more about defending the integrity of dogmatic tradition than the integrity of behaviour; some humility would not go amiss.
  4. We have to follow the exegetical trail wherever it leads us; if traditional theology is going to resist such developments as this, it must at least show that it has listened to and understood the historical-exegetical arguments; but I think it will struggle to do so.
  5. The specific argument about hell is only one among several revisions that are taking place in response to a widespread recovery of lost historical perspectives; I think that the whole New Testament story needs to be told differently.
  6. The real issue here is the whole garment and not some arm or collar or cuff of doctrine that we cut or tear from it; the proposed re-reading of the “hell” passages is simply one symptom of a far-reaching hermeneutical realignment.
  7. The narrative-historical approach, which takes full account both of the historical context and of the Old Testament background to New Testament thought, offers a much more credible frame for interpretation than the fluctuating and fissiparous theological interests of European Christendom and the modern church.
Paul Johnston | Thu, 09/08/2011 - 22:53 | Permalink

Hi Andrew,

First of all I am not a theologian by any means, I have no formal training whatsoever. Secondly if this question is too simplistic forgive me. This might sound crazy but I think I am 'afraid' not to think of hell as a place of 'eternal punishment.' My thinking goes along the lines of, if there is not hell as traditionally held then does that notion invalidate the work the Jesus did on the cross, ergo, why do I need a Saviour?

Love your writing by the way as it challenges my thinking, and again apologies if this is a bit of a daft question.

Best Regards,


@Paul Johnston:

I think if there is no hell (and not sure if I believe this) it would be a RESULT of the death of Jesus on the cross. Without Jesus' death there would be no possibility other than hell and eternal estrangement from God. With his death we have the option of heaven. Hence rather than invalidating Jesus death, from this perspective, Jesus death is the required antecendent of having a "no hell" option. I can't see a difference whether that option will be given to all or only to a bounded set. Jesus death is the foundation upon which it is possible. 


I think we need to state that there is a hell for Scripture clearly tells us there is a hell.  What is at stake in reality is what happens in hell. The NT vision of hell is the final designated place for the devil and his henchmen. 

However - no where does Scripture claim that humanity will be cast into hell for eternal concious torment, rather it will be the devil who will live in torment surrounded by death. For the wages of sin is death - the gift of God eternal life. 

The early church and earliest church forefathers never taught the doctrine of hell as is commonly taught today...rather that doctrine is a result of medieval catholocism and has never been reformed. 


Without Jesus’ death there would be no possibility other than hell and eternal estrangement from God.

Pamela, I would make the same basic response here as I did to Paul. Your argument makes sense given the personalistic premise of modern theology. I don’t think it makes the same sense in relation to a New Testament mindset that considers, in the first place, the condition and fate of a people.

The idea of estrangement is certainly there in the Gospels—the threat of being cast out into the darkness, where there is wailing and gnashing of death. But this is part of the argument against Israel. It describes a corporate alienation of disobedient Israel from YHWH. For individual Jews in first century Judea this may well have meant death and destruction. But it does not introduce ideas of personal estrangement after death.

@Paul Johnston:

I’ve been on the move a bit and not had the chance to deal with the questions until now. Apologies (to all).

My thinking goes along the lines of, if there is not hell as traditionally held then does that notion invalidate the work the Jesus did on the cross, ergo, why do I need a Saviour?

In the first place, I would take issue with the premise of your question—that Jesus’ death solves the problem of your personal salvation. It does, but first it solves the problem of Israel’s salvation, and it is at this point in the argument that the classic “hell” passages become relevant.

Admittedly, this is a very different way of reading the New Testament, but I think it is sound and increasingly unavoidable. Jesus died to save his people—or at least a remnant of his people—from the final destruction of the war against Rome, which culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. The “hell” passages in the Gospels describe this catastrophe, using language and imagery drawn mostly from the Old Testament.

So the cross is absolutely necessary for the continuation of the story of God’s people. Jesus does not save his people from a punishment after death; he saves them from the punishment of death.

The same is true for us: the wages of human sinfulness is not punishment after death but the punishment of death. We have been incorporated into a people that was historically saved (and transformed in the process) by the death of Jesus as an atonement for the sins of Israel. We have become part of a people of life, a new creation people, who will ultimately participate in a new heavens and new earth that is no longer subject to the last enemy, death.

Two thoughts on the "revision" of the "traditional" doctrine of hell in particular:

1) Has the "traditional" understanding of hell ever been universal (pun intended)? Hasn't there always been a minority voice that rejects the notion of a permanent place or state of conscious torment--from Paul to Origen to Barth to Perriman?

2) Do some Christians cling to hell because they fear that without it their churches will lose people? It seems likely that one of the reasons conservative evangelical churches have fared better numerically than other churches is that they promise better rewards. I'm calling people to follow Jesus in order to be a life-giving presence in God's world so loved. The church down the road is promising them escape from endless torment.

@Josh Rowley:

Josh, I’m sure the traditional view has not been universal, but I can’t back that up at the moment.

Your second comment is interesting and superficially appealing. I don’t know how you would prove it, one way or the other, but to my mind it is both biblically and ethically wrong to threaten people with eternal conscious torment if they don’t believe in Jesus. The scripture is about life and death, not life and torture.

Doug Wilkinson | Fri, 09/09/2011 - 07:29 | Permalink

The history of theology as it speaks to what we are supposed to believe is a very tricky issue in my opinion.  I tend to think that people in good standing who commented on their beliefs around the time of wrting tend to have a bit of authority in interpreting scripture.  So, when you track Patristic soteriology (a good exposition of which is "Moral Transformation" by Wallace and Rusk) you should be very challenged to find out that they don't hold to anything recognizable as Reformed Theology.  It's worth going back to the scriptures to prove these things out, but these writings are better guides than modern commentaries in my opinion.

When it comes to the doctrine of hell you have the added complication of Hellenized Judaism in the 1st Century.  It's not enough to say that the Jews of 2nd Temple Judaism believed XYZ if they were under condemnation by Christ for being apostate.  In fact, maybe we should assume that they were 180 degrees wrong on everything until proven otherwise given Christ's condemnation of that generaion.  Part of the problem the Jews faced was that when the Septuagint was written it exposed Greek philosophy to Judaism in a radical new way, which resulted in both of them being polluted in some sense (see Philo).  I think we are safer on this one with comparing scripure to scripture since the Patristics were generally Greeks who didn't understand Hebrew theology very well sometimes.  Also in play is the problem of translations of the Patristic writings.  If we find out that our interpretation of the Greek NT has changed because of discoveries related to the Greek language, then we should also be careful to make sure that the Greek language Patristic writings benefit from our new knowledge.  I suspect that on occasion we are reading ideas back into those texts because of assumptions we had about the language and culture that we've fixed in the Biblical translations (the translation of "ge" as "land" versus "earth" might be an example).

Another associated issue is eschatology.  The early church fathers were generally partial preterists when it came to the Olivet Discourse.  By the time of Eusebius and his comments on the success of the conversion of Rome you start to wonder what is left to fulfill.  Historical events aside, all of them sound a lot like full preterists when you consider their take on the conquering of death, going to heaven after death, etc.  It's important in all of these topics to look at a spectrum of Christian traditions (not just those somewhat "reformed" from the Roman Catholics) such as the Eastern Orthodox and the Church of the East.  In both of those cases they put very little effort into eschatology, almost as if it doesn't matter anymore.

The last 150 years has been very good to early church doctrinal history and anthropology.  Hopefully, this continues.  We already know from this that much of the "reformation" accomplished in Europe was a tragic mistake of bad translations and ignorance of early church writings.  Hopefully the next formation gets a little closer to the mark.

paulf | Fri, 09/09/2011 - 16:57 | Permalink

It is easy and natural for doctrine to change as culture changes., and this is a good example of a topic in which beliefs have evolved significantly over time.

The vast majority of the Hebrew bible (OT if you will) doesn't contemplate an afterlife. "The dead know nothing" sums up the dominant Jewish position. The covenant involved following God's will and the reward was blessing on this earth.

Sometime in the second century BCE, persecuted Jews wondered why they were not blessed when they followed the law as prescribed. The answer developed that maybe there was a reward for the righteous after death. So they invented a resurrection of the righteous that would occur at the time that God's kingdom was established.

At the time of Jesus, Saducees were the conservatives. Their scripture was the Pentateuch, which contained no afterlife. Pharisees and others (including the writers of the NT) were inclined toward the resurrection of the saints.

The idea of immortal souls infiltrated the church when it became increasingly gentile and its tehologians came from a Greek rather than Jewish background.  The devils with horns and eternal torture memes developed even later.

Rick C. | Tue, 09/13/2011 - 12:05 | Permalink

Greetings, Andrew, et al,

Andrew wrote: 2 .Belief in eternal conscious punishment developed, I suspect, as the thoroughly Jewish New Testament was uncritically reinterpreted within the Greek-Roman world; it is not the only notion that got bent out of shape in the process.


I agree that many Early Fathers probably had knew little about first centruy Jewish beliefs.  Especially after around Justin Martyr time, who seems to have had a basic knowledge of what Jews believed.  Speaking of which...

During the Intertestamental Period (roughly 200 BCE through 200 CE), both Jews and Jewish-Christians held a very wide variety of alternating beliefs on these matters, and didn't agree with each other.  Some believed in eternal conscious torment, some were conditionalists (and/or annihilationists), others were universalists.  Their views  varied as to the length of the interregnum (millennium in NT).

Josephus, writing in the late first century, wrote that Pharisees believed that only the righteous had a hope of being resurrected: ""they hold the belief that an immortal strength belongs to souls, and that there are beneath the earth punishments and rewards for those who in life devoted themselves to virtue or vileness, and that eternal imprisonment is appointed for the latter, but the possibility of returning to life for the former" -Josephus Ant. 18.1.3

Since Paul was a Pharisee--and it appears that Jesus and Paul agreed with Pharisees about resurrection--does Josephus' description of the Pharisees' belief, at least as written about (above); is this what we should also believe?  Or might this be, yet, another revision of the time, just one of many conflicting views, and perhaps of only some Pharisees?  

Jesus, in Matt 10:28, warned his contemporaries of a coming judgment that happened in 70 CE.  You don't see Jesus talking about a "final judgment at the end of history" (as we now know it) here.  This is my view on this text too, though I used to see it as a "prooftext" for conditional immortality.  If Jesus' rebellious enemies were to be resurrected and judged again, he didn't say that in Matt 10:28.   

What am I getting at here?  First, that there wasn't a consensus about the exact nature and details of "an after-life" among Jesus' contemporaries (Jews).  Secondly, when Christianity became more Gentile-dominated, it appears they took on just one of these Jewish views (eternal conscious torment) , implementing it as the majority "orthodox" doctrine.  At the same time, there were a significant number of Early Fathers who seemed to believe in conditional immortality.  Universalism seems to be a late arriver (a minority in Augustine's time, and with  Origen).

Lastly, I no longer believe Revelation 20 refers to a future "final judgment day" and that we believers need to do a lot more work on this chapter.  

Btw, thanks for your link to Martin Scott's Eschatology podcasts. I highly recommend 30. and 31. (which go further into this).








@Rick C.:

Quickly on Early Church Fathers, specifically from around Irenaeus, ff. 

There were all kinds of weird speculations on who "the antichrist" would be.  Some, if not most of these ECFs believed it/he would be a future Pope; laying the groundwork, as it were, for what the later Reformers believed.  Some of these speculations are funny, though not nearly as odd as modern dispensationalist theorizing!

I personally think the "man of sin," "the antichrist," (2 Thess 2:3-4) was the last leader of the Jewish Revolt (70 CE).  This might be N.T. Wright's take on this(?).  I've seen videos where Wright, at least, identifies the man Titus captured at the end of the war who had "taken charge" of the Temple: John of Giscala.



Having read your work, "Coming of the Son of Man" (which is good, by the way), I noticed you still keep in intact the basics of christian futurism (end of history, finality, etc).  What happens, is that heterodox groups sieze upon posts like yours and say, "see, we have a license to overturn it all!"  Of course, the slogan, "semper reformandi" means always examining our beliefs in the light of Scripture, as well as within a consensus of history, and today.  The question is, then, where does this modern mindset (read, old mindset and the radical Reformation that seeks to throw it all off) end?  Did the Church get (have) anything "right"?  How do we know?  Thanks,

Sam Frost

@Sam Frost:


“see, we have a license to overturn it all!”


That's a strawman.  I don't think these "heterodox groups", as you call, them do any such thing.  They, just like Andrew, study the Scriptures in their historical settings and realize the "Church" got many many things wrong.  They, merely see others coming to the same conclusions and respond by spreading the news.


When will it stop?  It will probably never stop just as your statement, “semper reformandi” means always examining our beliefs in the light of Scripture", states Besides, do you honestly think man will ever get it all figured out?  Correctly?  With no mistakes?



@Rich Duncan:

I wish it were a straw man.  But, I have seen it done too many times.  Semper Reformandi does not suggest and infinte progress - never arriving at the truth process.  It means the Truth has been deposited and we must always strive to go back to it, because we often slip away from it.  It ASSUMES that there is Truth to be known, written down, and formulate in a way that generally acceptable to the Church.  No one denies that the Church has mistaken notions on matters.  no on claims "omniscience".  And, it's a strawman to suggest that because we don't have al "jot and tittles" figured out, we have no truth at all.  It's a difference between "major" and "minor" and the proper procedure for going about "correcting" something that "may" be mistaken.  If we went simply by "every individual" with their Bible, how many individual denominations would we have?  Far more than 20,000!  Bible interpretation must include, then, history (the arm cannot say to the leg...).  "New interpretations" are immediately suspect, and have to go through the process that any other "accepted" doctrine goes through: time, criticism, review, and then do it all over again.  This is the process of "one anothering" instead of "I have a new view!  The church has been wrong!  Follow me!"  Rather, I submit to the Church, and play my cards, and if I have struck upon something new, I submit  it and hear the criticism.  I submit it again with humility.  And hear more criticism.  I am not "quick" and "rash" to make up my mind based on initial attractiveness of a proposed solution to an age old problem.  This stuff takes time....heck, the Trinity doctrine took a couple hundred years!  That's all I'm saying....

@Sam Frost:



I have a problem conceding that Reformed theology has any authoritative opinion on this, as if Christian doctrine should be washed against what was written by the Reformers to see if it is “traditional”. The unique characteristics of Reformed doctrine are heterodox compared to what the church initially believed. The early church (Ante-Nicene) would not have agreed with limiting the free will of man the way Reformed Total Depravity does. Augustine added that doctrine hundreds of years later because he didn't know Greek and relied on a bad Latin translation and his background in Gnosticism to derive doctrine on the topic. The Ante-Nicene church would have scratched their head as well at eternal security, predestination, limited atonement, irresistible grace, immediately effective final justification, and Augustinian immutability. Your only hope on the matter is to come up with a systematic way of explaining why the early church was completely wrong about all of soteriology. In other words, how, after being personally instructed on the matter only a generation before, could everyone in the early church (their opinions, strangely, all seemed to agree on these issues of soteriology) get all of these subject 180 degrees backward? As you argued in “Misplaced Hope”, the high ground should be given to the early church unless we can prove otherwise. If you'd apply your approach on eschatology to the topic of soteriology I think you'd be very skeptical of Reformed theology.


Doug Wilkinson

@Doug in CO:



I won't respond to the factual inaccuracies (which is part of the problem) here.  You have it all so nice and neat (like a good conspiracy theory usually does, with its black and white "cause and effect" argument-structure).  Unfortunately, history ain't that neat.  Good try, though.  It also seems to assume that there is no "development" of doctrine.  It also seems to assume that we have "all" what the "early church" believed.  We don't.  In fact, your response misses the entire point of what I was asking of Andrew, not Full Preterists like yourself and Rich Duncan.  Bee down that road and got on a better one.   Blessings.

@Sam Frost:

"It means the Truth has been deposited and we must always strive to go back to it, because we often slip away from it.  It ASSUMES that there is Truth to be known, written down, and formulate in a way that generally acceptable to the Church."

Yes, truth has been deposited.  No one has said to the contray.  You're changing the structure of the argument as you always do.  We are talking about the interpretation of it, and how the Church in the past interpreted it.  Also, it's interesting you state, "we must always strive".  Sounds like infinite progress to me.


"No one denies that the Church has mistaken notions on matters.  no on claims “omniscience”.  And, it’s a strawman to suggest that because we don’t have al “jot and tittles” figured out, we have no truth at all."


I never suggested because the Church hasn't every jot and tittle figured out and that we have no truth.  Again you're changing the argument.  We are merely revisiting established doctrine and realizing those before got much wrong.


"It’s a difference between “major” and “minor” and the proper procedure for going about “correcting” something that “may” be mistaken.  If we went simply by “every individual” with their Bible, how many individual denominations would we have?"

Oh, I see.  We're allowed to question minor but not major doctrine.  Well, who gets to determine what is major?  You sound like the Chatholic Church in its early days.

What exactly is the "proper procedure", and who gets to dictate what is the proper procedure?  I have the Scriptures, I can read and study, and I will determine what I believe.  Period.  If you wish to go submit yourself to a bunch of men and their interpretation, be my guest.  No man will dictate what I believe.


"The church has been wrong!  Follow me!

Again, changing the argument.  I see no one saying "follow me", outside crazies like Koresh.   I see people like Andrew studying and finding the Church has it wrong.  And he then writes about it and others read it.  He does not have to get some man's approval.  You merely disappove of his method.  You demand he submit it to some body of men who then gets to approve of disapprove it.  Sounds like you need to take shelter in the Catholic Church.  Your statement, "Rather, I submit to the Church, and play my cards, and if I have struck upon something new, I submit  it and hear the criticism" says it all.  What is also clear to me, in reading your post here and there is your statement "I submit to the Church" means the Reformed Church.  You have merely swapped the established Catholic authority (a body of men) for another body of men.  Doug's responce stated it well.

I would also argue by Andrews posting his articles on the web for the Christian world to read, he is submitting his arguments to the "Church".  The Church is reading, and many are agreeing.  What it really shows it you don't like the method the Church in using these days to make their arguments.  Again, shows you have a certain body of men in mind that gets to approve or disapprove.  I say if people like Andrew convinces Christendom via the Internet, where he does get criticism, then the process "that any other “accepted” doctrine goes through: time, criticism, review, and then do it all over again" is working just fine.


I’m having a hard time following this dispute, which shows all the signs of having been imported from somewhere else. And why is it that when Preterists show up, they are always in such a quarrelsome mood? 

@Andrew Perriman:



Haha.  You've noticed, eh?  But thanks for answering my question above.  "Consensus" does not "prove" a doctrine correct, but does lend a "help" (to cite the Westminster Confession), and it certainly places the onus probandi on the newest innovation.  Yes, Luther was a man with his Bible that marked "alone" in Romans 4 - but that mark quickly, very quickly, registered with the Spirit in the Church - I depend on no man for salvation save the Man Christ Jesus.  You have a wonderful day.

MoGrace2u | Sat, 09/17/2011 - 19:09 | Permalink

Hi Andrew,

I too think the narrative-historical approach is the best to use.  And that can only be as good as our understanding of the story and the history we are given that establishes it.  But it is the story that has suffered in the Church's history as the Jewish perspective diminshed and Greek philosophy grew.  And while these things color our understanding of observable history, they can also be corrected with a better understanding of the biblical narrative.  Every man does have a bible to access these days and we are no longer at the mercy of the theologians & scholars, nor of the traditions they established - good as they may be.  And since no man can be the conscience for another, it is a good thing that we question what we have been spoon fed and not just swallow all without chewing!  This is nothing different than the so-called theologians have done themselves - for even the Bereans could do so when testing the things the inspired apostle Paul said.  Perhaps it is this ability that has been 'lost' and needs to be recovered foremost; so no man might be led astray from Christ unawares unto another gospel which he had not received.  Traditions have always died hard, but truth lives forever!

Good article, blessings - Robin



Robin, I don’t think it’s enough to pit individual interpretation against tradition. The Bereans tested Paul’s teaching, but they did so on the basis of some sort of shared understanding with regard both to what scripture was saying and how it was to be read. They are not representatives of the autonomous critical intellect objectively evaluating an interpretation of scripture.

I would suggest that the crucial missing component in the debate in the comments above between Sam and Doug is the hermeneutical one—the pre-understanding that is brought at any particular point in time and space to the interpretation of scripture. The dominant modern hermeneutic encourages individual interpretation—the sort of thing you are advocating; and it does so for the reasons you advocate. But it is generally blind to the broad set of historical and epistemological assumptions that it necessarily brings to the task of interpretation—assumptions about the nature of truth, the relation of meaning to texts, and so on.

This is true for every era and every tradition. There is no way to wipe the slate clean and start again; there is no way to compensate fully for the distortions of our intellectual conditioning. But I do think that a consistent commitment to historical understanding gives us the best opportunity to recover an authentic biblical starting point for theology.

@Andrew Perriman:


Thanks for responding.  Let me add, for the sole sake of clarification, since you do not know me, that I am currently working on my Th.M.  I say that only because I understand your point about "pre-understanding" (I would use the term "presupposition"). And, I most certainly agree with you on this.  Historical "consensus" is a matter of great importance that is simply too often thrown off because this one or that one has a "new insight" into a text.  I am sure you are familiar with the Full Preterist community, having written a "blurb" for Don Preston.  Preston published one of my books as I was one of the teachers/authors in that movement for almost ten years.  I left that movement recently (last year) and the dialogue we have together has not altogether been pretty (witness here).  I am sympathetic to Full Preterism, but at this point, have found some glaring holes that cannot be patched, and have moved back to the historical "framework".  Look forward to more conversation on this, if your time permits.  Blessings.


@Sam Frost:


One of the primary problems I have with Reformed theology is that cannot coherently describe how it got from the Patristic writers and their presuppositions to its current form.  Simply saying that I'm wrong won't do.  Please describe how the Patristic authors (specifically, the Ante-Nicene authors regarding the topics on which there is consensus such as free will and conditional salvation security) got key doctrines 100% wrong within 30 years of learning from the Apostles.  Also, since none of the believers for the first 1,500 years understood the mechanics of soteriology correctly according to you, and since the application of those mechanics through a "faith alone in Christ alone" prayer or something similar is required to be saved, it might be helpful for you to describe whether or not you think anyone could have been saved in the first 1,500 years and why.  If you won't condescend to explain the history of your doctrine, so you can't be annoyed at me if I don't buy your assertions.

Doug Wilkinson