Theophilus of Antioch
One of the earliest church fathers from Antioch whose writing remains is Theophilus of Antioch. Theophilus, who is venerated as a saint in both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, was Patriarch of Antioch from approximately 169-183 A.D. although not all sources are in exact agreement, since detailed records of the chronology of the bishops of Antioch appear to be lacking (Wikipedia and Bacchus). Regardless, his testimony is significant as a representative of the early church in Antioch. Marcus Dods, in his Introductory Note to Theophilus of Antioch, expresses admiration for him, while highlighting his great importance to the early church:
He was one of the earliest commentators upon the Gospels, if not the first; and he seems to have been the earliest Christian historian of the Church of the Old Testament... Theophilus occupies an interesting position, after Ignatius, in the succession of faithful men who represented Barnabas and other prophets and teachers of Antioch, in that ancient seat, from which comes our name as Christians… For him it was Christ to live… He was of Antioch; and was content to be, simply and altogether, nothing but a Christian. (Dods)
Acts 11:26, referenced by Dods above, tells us that the title “Christians” was first used of believers in Antioch, showing that the Christians of Antioch, including Theophilus, traced their faith back to the apostles. By Dods’ assessment, Theophilus was a direct successor to this apostolic faith, a faithful man whose very identity was hidden in Christ so fully that he was happy to be known for nothing else.
Dods further extols Theophilus, stating that “he evidently had a profound acquaintance with the inspired writings, and he powerfully exhibits their immense superiority in every respect over the heathen poetry and philosophy” (ibid).
Jerome also tells us that he was a staunch promoter of orthodox theology who wrote against the heresies of his time and defended the Christian faith:
Theophilus, sixth bishop of the church of Antioch, in the reign of the emperor Marcus Antoninus Verus composed a book Against Marcion, which is still extant, also three volumes To Autolycus and one Against the heresy of Hermogenes and other short and elegant treatises, well fitted for the edification of the church. (Jerome, De Viris Illustribus)
It is clear from this appraisal as well that Theophilus was well-respected and considered to be a defender of Christian truth, even many years after his death. Given his influence and devotion to the Christian faith, it seems very worthwhile to examine his views on God’s judgment and His purposes in judging people.
In his only extant work, a letter to his pagan friend Autolycus in defense of Christianity, Theophilus gives us a glimpse into his thoughts on such matters. In a chapter titled “God's Goodness in Expelling Man from Paradise,” he explains that the purpose of punishment exhibits God’s goodness and kindness toward man.
And God showed great kindness to man in this, that He did not allow him to remain in sin for ever; but, as it were, by a kind of banishment, cast him out of Paradise, in order that, having by punishment expiated, within an appointed time, the sin, and having been disciplined, he should afterwards be restored. (To Autolycus, Book II, Chapter 26)
It is noteworthy that Theophilus viewed the punishment of mankind as disciplinary and purposeful, not retributive. It is, in fact, the means by which humanity is prevented from remaining in sin forever. Genesis 3:22, which he is referencing, says, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” The idea here that Theophilus is highlighting is that God did not deny immortality to man because of malice, but rather because of benevolence. Immortality is indeed part of God’s plan for man, but immortality without righteousness would be a horrible nightmare. Herein we find the purpose of the banishment from Eden. The objective of this punishment is to purge mankind of sin and to restore us to right relationship with God.
Wherefore also, when man had been formed in this world, it is mystically written in Genesis, as if he had been twice placed in Paradise; so that the one was fulfilled when he was placed there, and the second will be fulfilled after the resurrection and judgment. For just as a vessel, when on being fashioned it has some flaw, is remoulded or remade, that it may become new and entire; so also it happens to man by death. For somehow or other he is broken up, that he may rise in the resurrection whole; I mean spotless, and righteous, and immortal. And as to God's calling, and saying, Where are you, Adam? God did this, not as if ignorant of this; but, being long-suffering, He gave him an opportunity of repentance and confession. (To Autolycus, Book II, Chapter 26)
Beginning with a somewhat unique interpretation of the two creation accounts in Genesis, Theophilus here argues that man was placed twice in Paradise, and that the second account is, in fact, describing his restoration after the resurrection and judgment. This line of thought, by its very nature, implies that a final restoration of humanity was the end game of God’s plan from the very beginning, and that resurrection and judgment are both tools that accomplish this end. Regardless of our current views on the exegetical merit of such an interpretation, it seems plain this was Theophilus’ perspective.
Additionally, we see that Theophilus viewed even the punishment of death itself as a benefit. Like vessels in the hands of the Potter, we are remoulded by our Father. Our flaws are removed and we are refashioned to be spotless, righteous, and immortal through the punishment of death. A vessel destroyed by the Potter is destroyed so that it can be “remoulded or remade, that it may become new and entire.”
Furthermore, it seems likely that Theophilus is not only referring to Adam in his train of thought, but rather recognizing Adam as representative of all mankind. This is implied by his use of the word “anthropos” for man throughout this paragraph. According to HELPS Word Studies, "There are two words in Greek which mean 'man,' anēr, which refers to a male individual of the human race, and anthrōpos, which is the racial, generic term, and which has the general idea of 'mankind'." Because of this, and because Theophilus is specifically highlighting the universal punishment of death as connected to complete restoration for man, a universal restoration is strongly implied, “for as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22).
Thus, we see punishment, judgment, and death as all part of a broader redemptive scheme, as tools that make us spotless, righteous, immortal and whole ultimately, when God is “all in all” in fulfillment of His “plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him” (1 Corinthians 15:28 and Ephesians 1:10).
This perspective does not deny the necessity of punishment for evil. Rather, Theophilus states that “evil-doers must necessarily be punished in proportion to their deeds” (To Autolycus, Book II, Chapter 37). This concept of proportional punishment is deeply biblical (see Romans 2:6, 2 Corinthians 5:10, Colossians 3:25, Psalm 62:12, Revelation 20:12 etc.). Curiously, the traditional doctrine of hell seems to deny this fundamental principle of justice. It seems quite impossible to rationally argue that a punishment of never-ending agony for any and all sins could be considered “proportional.” Ted Bundy and a kind Buddhist getting the same punishment clearly contradicts not only Theophilus’ assertion that “evil-doers must necessarily be punished in proportion to their deeds,” but also any common sense, reasonable understanding of justice.
Unending punishment in hell also runs directly counter to God’s will as expressed repeatedly in the Bible, for God does not desire destruction for sinners but rather repentance. This desire of God is fundamental to His goodness, as Theophilus makes abundantly clear using many Scripture references:
And when the people transgressed the law which had been given to them by God, God being good and pitiful, unwilling to destroy them, in addition to His giving them the law, afterwards sent forth also prophets to them from among their brethren, to teach and remind them of the contents of the law, and to turn them to repentance, that they might sin no more. But if they persisted in their wicked deeds, He forewarned them that they should be delivered into subjection to all the kingdoms of the earth; and that this has already happened them is manifest. Concerning repentance, then, Isaiah the prophet, generally indeed to all, but expressly to the people, says: Seek the Lord while He may be found, call upon Him while He is near: let the wicked forsake his ways, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord his God, and he will find mercy, for He will abundantly pardon. (Isaiah 55:6) And another prophet, Ezekiel, says: If the wicked will turn from all his sins that he has committed, and keep all My statutes, and do that which is right in My sight, he shall surely live, he shall not die. All his transgressions that he has committed, they shall not be mentioned unto him; but in his righteousness that he has done he shall live: for I desire not the death of the sinner, says the Lord, but that he turn from his wicked way, and live. (Ezekiel 18:21) Again Isaiah: You who take deep and wicked counsel, turn, that you may be saved. (Isaiah 31:6) And another prophet, Jeremiah: Turn to the Lord your God, as a grape-gatherer to his basket, and you shall find mercy. (Jeremiah 6:9) Many therefore, yea rather, countless are the sayings in the Holy Scriptures regarding repentance, God being always desirous that the race of men turn from all their sins (To Autolycus, Book 3, Chapter 11).
Fundamental to Theophilus’ conception of God is His goodness, and fundamental to that goodness is His mercy and forgiveness. It is because God is “good and pitiful (meant in the archaic sense of being “full of pity” or compassionate), that He is unwilling to destroy lawbreakers. God is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). Theophilus backs up his assertion that God is “always desirous that the race of men turn from all their sins” with abundant scriptural references. Theophilus puts no limit on this desire; God always desires the human race to repent of all sin. Biological death does not alter this desire. Indeed, as we saw earlier, it is a method used by God to break us up and remould us, making us “new and entire… spotless, and righteous, and immortal.” There is no artificial time limit imposed on repentance by Theophilus; if the wicked ever turn from their wickedness, they will find mercy and abundant pardon and their sins will be remembered no more, for God’s character and desire for redemption never changes.
Admittedly, Theophilus does not make a direct, explicit claim that all people will be saved. Nevertheless, his philosophy of punishment, death, justice, and God’s nature strongly implies that there will be a time of the “restoration of all things” as described in Acts 3:21. It must, however, be acknowledged that some of his statements (as translated in English), sound like they are referring to “eternal” punishment for unbelievers. But, since this seems at odds with his assertions that God punished man in order to prevent him from remaining in sin forever, that death is used to remould people as righteous, that punishment is disciplinary and results in restoration, and so on, we must look into the matter more closely.
Consider, for example, the following statement of Theophilus, who is trying to convince his friend Autolycus to believe the gospel, “lest if now you continue unbelieving, you be convinced hereafter, when you are tormented with eternal punishments” (To Autolycus, Book I, Chapter 14). On the surface, this may seem indicative of a belief in eternal conscious torment for unbelievers, but this is only true superficially. In the original Greek, Theophilus is making no such claim. Rather, we see a persistent pattern in English translation resurfacing yet again that obscures the nuances of the Greek word aionios. In fact, every “eternal” reference in chapter 14 that would be used by those who wish to claim Theophilus as a believer in eternal conscious torment is an inflection of aionios. We have spent a great deal of time debunking the false notion that aionios means, of necessity, “eternal” in earlier chapters. It does not.
But you should not take my word for it. Instead, let’s examine a couple more scholarly sources (in addition to the ones we have already looked at in earlier chapters), from Cambridge University (which I hear is a pretty good one). The following comes from the Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges commentary on Matthew 25:46 by A. Carr.
The adjective aiônios (eternal) = of or belonging to (1) an aiôn or period, (a) past, (b) present, (c) future, or (2) to a succession of aiôns or periods. It does not, therefore, in itself=“unending.” But life eternal, which is “to know the true God and Jesus Christ” (John 17:3), can only be conceived of as unending and infinite…
punishment] (Greek, kolasis), not “vengeance,” but punishment that checks or reforms. (Carr, Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges on Matthew 25:46)
Here we see yet another scholarly source confirming that aionios does not mean “unending” or eternal in the way that English-speakers normally take it. It is best defined as Carr aptly observes that Jesus himself defined it, which is “to know the true God and Jesus Christ.” This qualitatively different abundant life is endless, but not because of the innate meaning of aionios. Instead, aionios implies endlessness in this instance only because of the noun it is modifying, which is the life gained by the knowledge of the only truly infinite Being, God Himself. Such a life does in fact seem as if it should be endless, because God himself is endless. Aionios, like all adjectives, derives the full force of its meaning from the noun it modifies, which brings up another very important point.
Notice that Carr appropriately defines the Greek word for punishment (kolasis) as “punishment that checks or reforms.” This is very significant because Matthew 25:46 is one of the most popular passages used to claim that divine punishment is eternal. It is also one of the Greek terms for punishment that Theophilus employs in chapter 14 of To Autolycus that is translated as “eternal punishments” (in Greek: αἰωνίους κολάσεις). If, however, we apply our understanding of how adjectives function, it is obvious that “eternal” punishment is a poor translation of the Greek phrases kolasin aionion and aionious kolaseis (found in in Matthew 25:46 and Chapter 14 of To Autolycus respectively). The idea of neverending punishment “that checks or reforms” is absurd. This would simply be divine punishment that fails to achieve its purpose, and God, I am convinced, does not fail to achieve His purposes.
Theophilus also seems convinced that God will not fail in His punishments to achieve a good purpose. Consider, once again, his words to his unbelieving friend. He attempts to convince him to believe now, “lest if now you continue unbelieving, you be convinced hereafter, when you are tormented with eternal punishments” (To Autolycus, Book I, Chapter 14). It is apparent that Theophilus views aionios punishments as purposeful. They convince the unbeliever to believe, and “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). So, while such punishments are certainly worth avoiding, they ultimately result in reformation and salvation.
So, we have seen that translating aionios as “eternal” obscures its meaning. But this begs the question: since we have no equivalent word in English that really captures aionios, how should we define it? On this question, The Cambridge Bible Commentary, by A. W. Argyle, has the following useful explanation regarding, once again, Matthew 25:46:
eternal punishment, i.e., punishment characteristic of the Age to come, not meaning that it lasts for ever.
eternal life, i.e., the life that belongs to the Age to come, the full abundant life which is fellowship with God.” (Argyle, as cited here and here)
According to Argyle, aionios means “characteristic of the Age to come” and does not mean that it lasts forever. In short, the only word that is used to argue for the eternality of punishment in the Bible does not mean eternal. For this reason, using this word as “proof” that ancient church fathers (like Theophilus) believed in eternal conscious torment of all unbelievers is totally unconvincing. As rightly stated by F.W Farrar (former Archdeacon of Westminster and Dean of Canterbury Cathedral), “To quote the mere phrase "eternal," in proof that an ancient writer meant endless, is to waste time. If the use of these expressions, especially in perfectly general and often purely rhetorical passages, is to be held decisive, then no one has ever been an Origenist, not even Origen himself” (Mercy and Judgment, Chapter 9). The reason why bringing up such proof texts is pointless is that they almost always are erroneously translated as “eternal” from aionios. As such, even the most staunch, unambiguous advocates of universal restoration (like Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, etc.) discussed aionios punishment, aionios fire, and so on as realities while clearly advocating the ultimate salvation of all.
Punishment of the Age to come has a very different sense from eternal punishment and is in no way contradictory to ultimate, complete reconciliation. This is why so many of the early church fathers espoused both, for both are certainly found in Scripture. And this way of defining aionios as pertaining to the Age to come is not unique to Cambridge University. Eminent scholars David Konstan of Brown University, and Ilaria Ramelli of the Catholic University of Milan, explain aionios in a very similar way in their thorough academic survey of its usage in classical and Christian texts:
Apart from the Platonic philosophical vocabulary, which is specific to few authors, aiónios does not mean “eternal”; it acquires this meaning only when it refers to God, and only because the notion of eternity was included in the conception of God: for the rest, it has a wide range of meanings and its possible renderings are multiple, but it does not mean “eternal.” In particular when it is associated with life or punishment, in the Bible and in Christian authors who keep themselves close to the Biblical usage, it denotes their belonging to the world to come. (Ramelli and Konstan, Terms for Eternity… p. 238)
Thus, we see once again that aionios does not mean inherently mean eternal, but rather only takes on this meaning when referring to God. Instead it means “belonging to the world to come,” essentially corroborating Argyle’s analysis, albeit in slightly different language.
Although Theophilus does not explicitly claim that all people will be saved, his thoughts on the nature of God’s judgment as corrective, on the role of death as reformative, and on the character of God as always merciful, strongly imply that such a hope is well-founded. Any texts that might be used by detractors of this hope rely on poor translations of aionios and hence cannot reasonably be used to “prove” that Theophilus believed in everlasting hell. Instead, Theophilus suggests that the punishments of the Age to come are designed to convince the unbeliever of the truth of the gospel. God’s great neverending mercy and desire for the repentance of all of the human race, as exposited by Theophilus, further imply that his view was that mercy would indeed triumph over judgment, as Scripture itself teaches.
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- Citations and Notes
Argyle, A. W. The Cambridge Bible Commentary: The Gospel According to Matthew. Cambridge University Press, 1963. (as cited at these two locations: https://www.gods-kingdom-ministries.net/teachings/books/the-judgments-of-the-divine-law/chapter-5-the-eonian-judgment/ and http://makepeacewithjesus.org/11-aionian-life-life-in-the-age)
Bacchus, Francis Joseph. "Theophilus." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 14. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. 31 Jan. 2019. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14625a.htm.
Carr, A. The Gospel According to St. Matthew: the Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges. Cambridge University Press, 1893, The Cambridge Bible For Schools and Colleges, https://biblehub.com/commentaries/cambridge/matthew/25.htm.
Dods, Marcus. “Introductory Note to Theophilus of Antioch.” Bible Study Tools, Salem Web Network, www.biblestudytools.com/history/early-church-fathers/ante-nicene/vol-2-second-century/theophilus-of-antioch/introductory-note-to-theophilus-of-antioch.html.
Farrar, Frederic William. Mercy and Judgment. Macmillan and Co., 1904, Tentmaker, www.tentmaker.org/books/mercyandjudgment/mercy_and_judgment_ch9pt1.html.
Ramelli, Ilaria, and David Konstan. Terms for Eternity: aiônios and aídios in Classical and Christian Texts. Gorgias Press, 2013.
Theophilus of Antioch. “To Autolycus, Book II.” Translated by Marcus Dods, CHURCH FATHERS: To Autolycus, Book II (Theophilus of Antioch), Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885., www.newadvent.org/fathers/02042.htm.
Theophilus of Antioch. Ad Autolycus (Greek Text). Ruslan Khazarzar, http://khazarzar.skeptik.net/books/theophig.htm.
Here is chapter 14 in Greek (from the source cited above) with the uses of inflections of aionios in bold, for your convenience:
14. <Μὴ> οὖν <ἀπίστει, ἀλλὰ πίστευε>. καὶ γὰρ ἐγὼ ἠπίστουν τοῦτο ἔσεσθαι, ἀλλὰ νῦν κατανοήσας αὐτὰ πιστεύω, ἅμα καὶ ἐπιτυχὼν ἱεραῖς γραφαῖς τῶν ἁγίων προφητῶν, οἳ καὶ προεῖπον διὰ πνεύματος θεοῦ τὰ προγεγονότα ᾧ τρόπῳ γέγονεν καὶ τὰ ἐνεστῶτα τίνι τρόπῳ γίνεται καὶ τὰ ἐπερχόμενα ποίᾳ τάξει ἀπαρτισθήσεται. ἀπόδειξιν οὖν λαβὼν τῶν γινομένων καὶ προαναπεφωνημένων <οὐκ ἀπιστῶ, ἀλλὰ πιστεύω> πειθαρχῶν θεῷ· ᾧ, εἰ βούλει, καὶ σὺ ὑποτάγηθι πιστεύων αὐτῷ, μὴ νῦν ἀπιστήσας πεισθῇς ἀνιώμενος, τότε ἐν αἰωνίοις τιμωρίαις.
Ὧν τιμωριῶν προειρημένων ὑπὸ τῶν προφητῶν μεταγενέστεροι γενόμενοι οἱ ποιηταὶ καὶ φιλόσοφοι ἔκλεψαν ἐκ τῶν ἁγίων γραφῶν, εἰς τὸ δόγματα αὐτῶν ἀξιόπιστα γενηθῆναι. πλὴν καὶ αὐτοὶ προεῖπον περὶ τῶν κολάσεων τῶν μελλουσῶν ἔσεσθαι ἐπὶ τοὺς ἀσεβεῖς καὶ ἀπίστους, ὅπως ᾖ ἐμμάρτυρα πᾶσιν, πρὸς τὸ μὴ εἰπεῖν τινας ὅτι οὐκ ἠκούσαμεν οὐδὲ ἔγνωμεν.
Εἰ δὲ βούλει, καὶ σὺ ἔντυχε φιλοτίμως ταῖς προφητικαῖς γραφαῖς· καὶ αὐταί σε τρανότερον ὁδηγήσουσιν πρὸς τὸ ἐκφυγεῖν τὰς αἰωνίους κολάσεις καὶ τυχεῖν τῶν αἰωνίων ἀγαθῶν τοῦ θεοῦ. <ὁ> γὰρ <δοὺς στόμα εἰς τὸ λαλεῖν καὶ πλάσας οὖς εἰς τὸ ἀκούειν καὶ ποιήσας ὀφθαλμοὺς εἰς τὸ ὁρᾶν> ἐξετάσει τὰ πάντα καὶ κρινεῖ τὸ δίκαιον, <ἀποδιδοὺς ἑκάστῳ κατὰ ἀξίαν τῶν μισθῶν. τοῖς> μὲν <καθ' ὑπομονὴν διὰ ἔργων ἀγαθῶν ζητοῦσι τὴν ἀφθαρσίαν δωρήσεται ζωὴν αἰώνιον>, χαράν, εἰρήνην, ἀνάπαυσιν καὶ πλήθη ἀγαθῶν, <ὧν οὔτε ὀφθαλμὸς εἶδεν οὔτε οὖς ἤκουσεν οὔτε ἐπὶ καρδίαν ἀνθρώπου ἀνέβη>· τοῖς δὲ ἀπίστοις καὶ καταφρονηταῖς καὶ <ἀπειθοῦσι τῇ ἀληθείᾳ, πειθομένοις δὲ τῇ ἀδικίᾳ>, ἐπὰν ἐμφύρωνται μοιχείαις καὶ πορνείαις καὶ ἀρσενοκοιτίαις καὶ πλεονεξίαις καὶ ταῖς <ἀθεμίτοις εἰδωλολατρείαις>, ἔσται <ὀργὴ καὶ θύμος, θλίψις καὶ στενοχωρία>· καὶ τὸ τέλος τοὺς τοιούτους καθέξει πῦρ αἰώνιον.
Ἐπειδὴ προσέθηκας, ὦ ἑταῖρε, “Δεῖξόν μοι τὸν θεόν σου”, οὗτός μου θεός, καὶ συμβουλεύω σοι φοβεῖσθαι αὐτὸν καὶ πιστεύειν αὐτῷ.