Back to Back Issues Page Ezine: Hell and Hades from Ignatius
July 04, 2010

The Letters of Ignatius of Antioch

To put it in modern terms, Ignatius was the head pastor of the apostle Paul's home church ... quite possibly the very first one after Paul went off to trial in Rome.

Makes him kind of important, don't you think?

I'm doing a series of posts on his letter to the Ephesians—yes, the very same Ephesians Paul and Jesus (Rev. 2:1) wrote to. It's going up almost daily at my blog..

Ignatius wrote seven letters, six to churches and one to Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna. They were written on his way to martyrdom in either A.D. 107 or 166.

Conveniently enough, my blog is down at the same time that my Early Church History Newsletter is due out! So this next installment on Ignatius' letter is just yours!

My blog is back up now, so you can see the rest of the commentary on the epistle to the Ephesians there.

This ezine is a taste of the commentary you get on Ignatius at the blog ...

Letter to the Ephesians: Chapter One

Let's begin by letting you see the chapter!

There was a short intro by Ignatius before this chapter. Comments to that are on the blog. I've also already commented on the the first third of the first chapter, which you are about to read.

Topics covered in those commentaries were ...

  • Did the Ephesians repent after being rebuked so severely by Jesus in Rev. 2?
  • The Trinity (not the comment on "the blood of God" in this first chapter)
  • The Atonement

Ignatius' Letter to the Ephesians: Chapter One

I have become acquainted with your name, much beloved in God, which you have acquired by the habit of righteousness, according to the faith and love in Jesus Christ our Saviour. Because you are the followers of God and have stirred yourselves up by the blood of God, you have perfectly accomplished the work which was fitting for you. For [you hurried to see me] when you heard that I had come bound from Syria for the common name and hope.
     I am trusting through your prayers to be permitted to fight with beasts at Rome, so that by martyrdom I may become the true disciple of the One who gave himself for us as an offering and sacrifice to God.
     I received, therefore, your whole multitude in the name of God through Onesimus, a man of inexpressible love and your bishop in the flesh, whom I ask you by Jesus Christ to love, and that you would all seek to be like him. Blessed be the One who has counted you worthy to be given such an excellent bishop.


It is interesting that the early Christians believed that martyrs went straight to heaven.

The reason it's interesting is because they believed that everyone else didn't.

Don't worry. This is not as heretical or strange as it might seem. Though you have probably never heard it (well, I take that back; if you're reading my ezine, then you probably have heard it) your church almost certainly believes, and teaches in seminary, something very similar about heaven and ... no, not hell ... Hades.

Hell and Hades

There's a difference between hell and Hades???

Sure there is. Listen to this verse from the Revelation of John ...

And death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. (20:14)

Hell is a rough word to work with in Scripture (and an even rougher place to be in!). Hades is sometimes translated hell, and so is the Greek word gehenna. And then there's the lake of fire that we just saw mentioned.

What are we supposed to do with this?

First, quick definitions ...

  • Gehenna was the name of a valley with a constantly burning garbage dump that could be seen from Jerusalem. Jesus used that word to represent where the evil dead are punished several times.
  • Hades was a general word referring to anywhere the dead go, even just to the grave. The term came from Greek mythology (and so was surely not used until after Christ's death and the preaching of the Gospel to the Gentiles).
  • The lake of fire is mentioned for the first time in Rev. 19:20, then three times in chapter 20, but it is surely the place "prepared for the devil and his messengers" mentioned in Matt. 25:41.

There's a way most modern denominations understand the relationship between these three, and there's a way the early church understood it. Very similar, but with a crucial difference ...

Hell, Hades, and the Holding Place Beyond the Grave

Hades, in both the modern and early Christian understanding, is what is described by Jesus in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). Both the rich man and Lazarus go there, but they are in different sections and can see each other.

Lazarus, however, is in comfort with Abraham, while the rich man is tormented in flames.

According to modern Christians—including, most likely, your denomination, even if they only talk about it in seminary—everyone went to Hades, whether the good or the bad side, until Jesus died. Then, when Jesus rose, he emptied the good side of Hades.

The Scripture most commonly used for this is Eph. 4:8: "When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive."

That also is the typical explanation for the bewildering comments by Peter that the Gospel was preached to "the dead" and "the spirits in prison" (1 Pet. 3:19; 4:6).

As far as the bad side of Hades—where the rich man and other unsaved people are in flames—we moderns believe it is emptied at the final judgment as it is written in Revelation 20:13, "And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them."

The early Christians agree about the bad side of Hades. But they believed that the good side is emptied then, too.

Ramifications of the Early Christian Theory

There's some interesting side notes to what the early Christians believed.

  • Their view opened the door to a belief in purgatory centuries later. Since Hades won't be emptied until the judgment, and no one (except martyrs) goes to heaven before the judgment, then there could still be hope for those on the bad side of Hades. Perhaps their time spent in flames would serve as sufficient punisment, and they would be saved at the judgment.
  • Martyrs get to precede everyone else to heaven, based on Rev. 6:9-11 and 20:4-6.

All of this brings us back to Ignatius' letter to the Ephesians. Ignatius mentions being a true disciple based on his martyrdom.

Ignatius and Martyrdom

There's two ways Ignatius "true disciple" comment can be understood ...

  1. He could be a true disciple because Jesus gave his life and now Ignatius was giving his as well. The best disciple is the one who fully follows his Master.
  2. Two, Ignatius could mean that he was ensuring his salvation by becoming a martyr.

Likely, he meant both. He certainly meant the second based on other things he wrote.

For if ye are silent concerning me, I shall become Godís; but if you show your love to my flesh [i.e., by appealing for his deliverance from martyrdom], I shall again have to run my race. (Letter to the Romans 2)

Which View is Correct?

To be honest, I'm not sure how much this matters, and I certainly don't know how to answer that question for you. I do want to say something general, though.

The Christians of the 2nd century were an amazing lot. They were united, and not by some large church hierarchy. They stood during persecution, shared all things, and were known for their holy lives.

Today, we disagree on almost everything, and most of us have no idea of what's important to God.

So in most cases, I lean towards the early Christian view as a lot more likely to be true. I do not just dismiss their views because they sound strange to our ears.

There are also the following reasons they are more likely to have held better doctrine than ours ...

  • They were closer to the source; apostles were teaching in their churches with in the previous century.
  • Jesus said to judge by fruit, and their fruit was far better than ours is (Matt. 7:14ff).
  • The 2nd century Christians were Greek-speakers; the New Testament was completely written in their original language.
  • The 2nd century Christians lived in the same culture and were experiencing nearly the same battles as the churches the apostles directed their letters and messages to.

That is not to say that the early Christian writings should be made into an authoritative Bible. Nonetheless, seeing that all four of the things above are true, it seems foolish to ignore them—

... especially when we need so much help!

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