Notes on Irenaeus

Readers of this blog will no doubt want to know what St Irenaeus thought about the Final Judgment. Here is a key passage:

And to as many as continue in their love towards God, does He grant communion with Him. But communion with God is life and light, and the enjoyment of all the benefits which He has in store. But on as many as, according to their own choice, depart from God, He inflicts that separation from Himself which they have chosen of their own accord. But separation from God is death, and separation from light is darkness; and separation from God consists in the loss of all the benefits which He has in store. Those, therefore, who cast away by apostasy these forementioned things, being in fact destitute of all good, do experience every kind of punishment. God, however, does not punish them immediately of Himself, but that punishment falls upon them because they are destitute of all that is good. Now, good things are eternal and without end with God, and therefore the loss of these is also eternal and never-ending. It is in this matter just as occurs in the case of a flood of light: those who have blinded themselves, or have been blinded by others, are for ever deprived of the enjoyment of light. It is not, [however], that the light has inflicted upon them the penalty of blindness, but it is that the blindness itself has brought calamity upon them.

And therefore the Lord declared, “He that believeth in Me is not condemned,” that is, is not separated from God, for he is united to God through faith. On the other hand, He says, “He that believeth not is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only-begotten Son of God;” that is, he separated himself from God of his own accord. “For this is the condemnation, that light is come into this world, and men have loved darkness rather than light. For every one who doeth evil hateth the light, and cometh not to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved. But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that he has wrought them in God.”

Inasmuch, then, as in this world some persons betake themselves to the light, and by faith unite themselves with God, but others shun the light, and separate themselves from God, the Word of God comes preparing a fit habitation for both. For those indeed who are in the light, that they may derive enjoyment from it, and from the good things contained in it; but for those in darkness, that they may partake in its calamities. And on this account He says, that those upon the right hand are called into the kingdom of heaven, but that those on the left He will send into eternal fire for they have deprived themselves of all good. (AH 5.27.2-3)

Note the key dynamic: those who freely separate themselves from God, who is life and light, enter into a condition of death. This is their divinely ordained punishment, yet not in the sense that God is imposing a punishment external to their sin. The sin itself, namely, separation from the Good, is the punishment. This separation brings with it all the consequences and calamities. St Irenaeus’ view is both similar and dissimilar to the river of fire construal of damnation now popular among the Orthodox. He agrees that the sinner damns himself and thus brings upon himself the consequential suffering. But whereas the river of fire exponent maintains that perditional suffering is due to an inability and refusal to enjoy the light and love that God perpetually shines upon all, Irenaeus locates the suffering in the alienation and darkness that has been chosen by the sinner, which God eternally ratifies: “But on as many as, according to their own choice, depart from God, He inflicts that separation from Himself which they have chosen of their own accord”—not so much a contradiction but a difference in emphasis.

Irenaeus appears to affirm eternal damnation: “Now, good things are eternal and without end with God, and therefore the loss of these is also eternal and never-ending.” One has to wonder what the original, now lost, Greek text said, but certainly the Latin translator appears to have read Irenaeus as affirming an infernalist position. On the other hand, Irenaeus has also been interpreted as advancing an annihilationist postion. Consider this passage:

For life does not arise from us, nor from our own nature; but it is bestowed according to the grace of God. And therefore he who shall preserve the life bestowed upon him, and give thanks to Him who imparted it, shall receive also length of days for ever and ever. But he who shall reject it, and prove himself ungrateful to his Maker, inasmuch as he has been created, and has not recognised Him who bestowed [the gift upon him], deprives himself of [the privilege of] continuance for ever and ever. And, for this reason, the Lord declared to those who showed themselves ungrateful towards Him: If you have not been faithful in that which is little, who will give you that which is great? indicating that those who, in this brief temporal life, have shown themselves ungrateful to Him who bestowed it, shall justly not receive from Him length of days for ever and ever. (AH 2.34.3)

Annihilation, i.e., return to nothingness, seems a reasonable inference, given the logic of Irenaeus’ understanding of damnation as self-exclusion from the Good.

(Return to first note)

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One Response to Notes on Irenaeus

  1. Ed says:

    On the other hand, Ramelli quotes the following from the Greek fragments of “Against Heresies” (fragment 4):

    “Christ will come at the end of the times in order to annul everything evil, and to reconcile again all beings, that there may be an end of all impurities.”

    Can’t say that I know what to make of all this.


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