Eisegesis isn’t just a problem for reading the Scriptures, it can also be a problem in reading the early church fathers. While I am by no means an early church scholar, I have read widely enough now on a few topics in the fathers to come across some troubling misreadings. I’m not sure I have encountered any, however, as problematic as David Powys’ characterization of Irenaeus’ views of eternity and hell.
In ‘Hell’: A Hard Look at a Hard Question (1997), Powys, a conditionalist, begins an academic and in-depth study on hell by considering the views on the eternity of the unrighteous in a number of early church fathers, including Irenaeus, Gregory of Nyssa, and Augustine. His purpose at this stage of the book is to suggest that there was in these formative years a great variety of opinions on eternity and judgment, thus making way for his own (historically unorthodox) claims. Powys claims that Irenaeus views immortality as something granted only to the righteous. In other words, any hell or eternal fire for Irenaeus is for the purpose of the extinction of the wicked, not their eternal suffering. He states that hell is described in Irenaeus, “in terms of destruction, ruin, and loss of life and divine care” (p3). He admits, “At times there is a more heightened suggestion of infliction, though this is not common, and may be attributable to rhetorical factors” (p3). Powys summarizes,
When all this evidence is put together and considered in the light of Irenaeus’s conviction that life is not unending, but a gift extended to whom God wills, a conclusion may be drawn as to what Irenaeus considered to the fate of the unrighteous. He anticipated that while the unrighteous would experience post-mortem survival, retribution, resurrection and Christ’s judgment, these would all lead eventually to destruction. The unrighteous will not live for ever: they will cease to be.(p3-4)
At the book’s conclusion, he summarily states that Irenaeus was a proponent of conditional immortality (p412).
There is no question that there are threads of thought in Irenaeus that appear at first glance to support Powys’ interpretation (and not surprisingly, his overall thesis) that Irenaeus believes that only the righteous are granted to subsist eternally. What is staggering, however, is that he is seemingly ignorant of the vast data in Irenaeus which clearly and emphatically states that the wicked will be punished eternally.
The following are quotations from Against Heresies:
1. The Church, though dispersed throughout the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father “to gather all things in one,” and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Saviour, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, “every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess” to Him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all; that He may send “spiritual wickednesses,” and the angels who transgressed and became apostates, together with the ungodly, and unrighteous, and wicked, and profane among men, into everlasting fire; but may, in the exercise of His grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept His commandments, and have persevered in His love, some from the beginning [of their Christian course], and others from [the date of] their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory.
That eternal fire, [for instance,] is prepared for sinners, both the Lord has plainly declared, and the rest of the Scriptures demonstrate. And that God fore-knew that this would happen, the Scriptures do in like manner demonstrate, since He prepared eternal fire from the beginning for those who were [afterwards] to transgress [His commandments]; but the cause itself of the nature of such transgressors neither has any Scripture informed us, nor has an apostle told us, nor has the Lord taught us. It becomes us, therefore, to leave the knowledge of this matter to God, even as the Lord does of the day and hour [of judgment], and not to rush to such an extreme of danger, that we will leave nothing in the hands of God, even though we have received only a measure of grace [from Him in this world].
2. To which course many nations of those barbarians who believe in Christ do assent, having salvation written in their hearts by the Spirit, without paper or ink, and, carefully preserving the ancient tradition, believing in one God, the Creator of heaven and earth, and all things therein, by means of Christ Jesus, the Son of God; who, because of His surpassing love towards His creation, condescended to be born of the virgin, He Himself uniting man through Himself to God, and having suffered under Pontius Pilate, and rising again, and having been received up in splendour, shall come in glory, the Saviour of those who are saved, and the Judge of those who are judged, and sending into eternal fire those who transform the truth, and despise His Father and His advent.
And this same thing does the Lord also say in the Gospel, to those who are found upon the left hand: “Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, which my Father hath prepared for the devil and his angels;” indicating that eternal fire was not originally prepared for man, but for him who beguiled man, and caused him to offend—for him, I say, who is chief of the apostasy, and for those angels who became apostates along with him; which [fire], indeed, they too shall justly feel, who, like him, persevere in works of wickedness, without repentance, and without retracing their steps.
1. Inasmuch, then, as in both Testaments there is the same righteousness of God [displayed] when God takes vengeance, in the one case indeed typically, temporarily, and more moderately; but in the other, really, enduringly, and more rigidly: for the fire is eternal, and the wrath of God which shall be revealed from heaven from the face of our Lord (as David also says, “But the face of the Lord is against them that do evil, to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth”), entails a heavier punishment on those who incur it,—the elders pointed out that those men are devoid of sense, who, [arguing] from what happened to those who formerly did not obey God, do endeavour to bring in another Father, setting over against [these punishments] what great things the Lord had done at His coming to save those who received Him, taking compassion upon them; while they keep silence with regard to His judgment, and all those things which shall come upon such as have heard His words, but done them not, and that it were better for them if they had not been born,3 and that it shall be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrha in the judgment than for that city which did not receive the word of His disciples.
2. For as, in the New Testament, that faith of men [to be placed] in God has been increased, receiving in addition [to what was already revealed] the Son of God, that man too might be a partaker of God; so is also our walk in life required to be more circumspect, when we are directed not merely to abstain from evil actions, but even from evil thoughts, and from idle words, and empty talk, and scurrilous language: thus also the punishment of those who do not believe the Word of God, and despise His advent, and are turned away backwards, is increased; being not merely temporal, but rendered also eternal. For to whomsoever the Lord shall say, “Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire,”6 these shall be damned for ever; and to whomsoever He shall say, “Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you for eternity,” these do receive the kingdom for ever.
And it was He who rained fire and brimstone from heaven, in the days of Lot, upon Sodom and Gomorrah, “an example of the righteous judgment of God,” that all may know, “that every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit shall be cut down, and cast into the fire.” And it is He who uses [the words], that it will be more tolerable for Sodom in the general judgment than for those who beheld His wonders, and did not believe on Him, nor receive His doctrine.7 For as He gave by His advent a greater privilege to those who believed on Him, and who do His will, so also did He point out that those who did not believe on Him should have a more severe punishment in the judgment;
4. But God, foreknowing all things, prepared fit habitations for both, kindly conferring that light which they desire on those who seek after the light of incorruption, and resort to it; but for the despisers and mockers who avoid and turn themselves away from this light, and who do, as it were, blind themselves, He has prepared darkness suitable to persons who oppose the light, and He has inflicted an appropriate punishment upon those who try to avoid being subject to Him. Submission to God is eternal rest, so that they who shun the light have a place worthy of their flight; and those who fly from eternal rest, have a habitation in accordance with their fleeing. Now, since all good things are with God, they who by their own determination fly from God, do defraud themselves of all good things; and having been [thus] defrauded of all good things with respect to God, they shall consequently fall under the just judgment of God. For those persons who shun rest shall justly incur punishment, and those who avoid the light shall justly dwell in darkness. For as in the case of this temporal light, those who shun it do deliver themselves over to darkness, so that they do themselves become the cause to themselves that they are destitute of light, and do inhabit darkness; and, as I have already observed, the light is not the cause of such an [unhappy] condition of existence to them; so those who fly from the eternal light of God, which contains in itself all good things, are themselves the cause to themselves of their inhabiting eternal darkness, destitute of all good things, having become to themselves the cause of [their consignment to] an abode of that nature.
1. It is therefore one and the same God the Father who has prepared good things with Himself for those who desire His fellowship, and who remain in subjection to Him; and who has prepared the eternal fire for the ringleader of the apostasy, the devil, and those who revolted with him, into which [fire] the Lord has declared those men shall be sent who have been set apart by themselves on His left hand. And this is what has been spoken by the prophet, “I am a jealous God, making peace, and creating evil things;” thus making peace and friendship with those who repent and turn to Him, and bringing [them to] unity, but preparing for the impenitent, those who shun the light, eternal fire and outer darkness, which are evils indeed to those persons who fall into them.
2. If, however, it were truly one Father who confers rest, and another God who has prepared the fire, their sons would have been equally different [one from the other]; one, indeed, sending [men] into the Father’s kingdom, but the other into eternal fire. But inasmuch as one and the same Lord has pointed out that the whole human race shall be divided at the judgment, “as a shepherd divideth the sheep from the goats,” and that to some He will say, “Come, ye blessed of My Father, receive the kingdom which has been prepared for you,” but to others, “Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, which My Father has prepared for the devil and his angels,” one and the same Father is manifestly declared [in this passage], “making peace and creating evil things,” preparing fit things for both; as also there is one Judge sending both into a fit place, as the Lord sets forth in the parable of the tares and the wheat, where He says, “As therefore the tares are gathered together, and burned in the fire, so shall it be at the end of the world. The Son of man shall send His angels, and they shall gather from His kingdom everything that offendeth, and those who work iniquity, and shall send them into a furnace of fire: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then shall the just shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” The Father, therefore, who has prepared the kingdom for the righteous, into which the Son has received those worthy of it, is He who has also prepared the furnace of fire, into which these angels commissioned by the Son of man shall send those persons who deserve it, according to God’s command.
This list could be extended with further quotes, but I don’t think any person could understand Irenaeus to be stating that the wicked are not punished eternally but merely extinguished, unless they first presupposed that the wicked being sent into “eternal fire” cannot mean eternal torment. Irenaeus’ argument in 4.28.1–2 is particularly resistant to a conditionalist interpretation, as it states that while God’s vengeance in the Old Testament was momentary and more moderate (being the cutting off of life), His vengeance under the dispensation of Christ is enduring and more rigid, “for the fire is eternal.” The eternal fire is defined here by Irenaeus as enduring in contrast to the momentary punishments that only brought about physical death, like in Sodom and Gomorrah.
Powys would do well to consider Massuet’s observation, as noted in Adv. Haer. 2.34.3 in ANF, that “this statement is to be understood in harmony with the repeated assertion of Irenæus that the wicked will exist in misery for ever. It refers not to annihilation, but to deprivation of happiness.”