Saturday, September 22, 2018

Irenaeus vs. The Annihilationists

by Hiram R. Diaz III 

§ I. Introduction 

Among the many church fathers the annihilationists mistakenly claim for themselves, we find not only Athanasius1 but his biggest influence, Irenaeus of Lyons. This is largely due to the presence of words central to the annihilationist doctrine which are also present throughout Irenaeus’ writings. For instance, given that Irenaeus states 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,”2 annihilationists believe he is denying that the wicked will exist eternally. This coupled with the fact that Irenaeus repeatedly stresses that immortality is conferred upon the righteous provides the annihilationists with a case that is superficially impressive. Yet a comprehensive reading of Irenaeus demonstrates that his understanding of immortality is much different than that of the annihilationists. What is more, a proper understanding of Irenaeus in his historical context reveals that his theological opponents, the Gnostics, were the ones who actually embraced a form of annihilationism that is very similar to that of present day annihilationists. 

The present article, therefore, will mainly deal with secondary scholarly literature as regards several key Irenaen themes pertinent to the question of immortality, and demonstrate that in Irenaeus’ theology the true immortality conferred upon the righteous encompasses the ontological immortality of the body, soul, and spirit, as well as the qualitative immortality acquired only by grace through faith in Christ, via participation in the life of God. 

These key themes are – 

1. Irenaen Anthropology vs. Gnostic Anthropology 
a. The Whole Man as Divine Image [Irenaeus]  
b. The Spirit as Wholly Divine [Gnosticism] 

2. Ontological & Qualitative Psychical Immortality 
a. Universal Ontological Psychical Immortality  
b. Particular Qualitative Psychical Immortality 

3. Universal Ontological Somatic Immortality 
a. Particular Qualitative Somatic Immortality
Once given due explanation, we will then demonstrate that because it is the case that Irenaeus did not hold to the same notion of immortality as held by the annihilationists, arguments that appeal to his numerous statements about immortality being a gift which the righteous only receive from God, are fallacious by virtue of equivocation. It will further be demonstrated that the annihilationists in Irenaeus’ day were actually the Gnostic heretics who affirmed that the lost would be annihilated in the fires of Gehenna, whereas only the righteous would receive any form of ontological immortality.