Your Questions Answered: Is It Heresy to Reject a Literal Hell?

Question MarkQUESTION:

You mention in RetroChristianity that rejecting belief in hell is heterodoxy, not heresy. But why? Why wouldn’t that be heresy? Jesus spoke of hell more than heaven, we are told. And the apostle’s creed says he descended into hell.


It is definitely true that the view of a literal conscious place of eternal torment for the lost is the overwhelming view of most orthodox Christians, in most places, at most times. However, it has never been the universal position, nor has it ever been dogmatically articulated in an ecumenical creed. Passages that speak of fire and smoke and darkness and “forever and ever” have been read by Christians throughout history in different ways ranging from literal and metaphorical. However, even those who have tended to read the language metaphorically have still affirmed a literal conscious torment that is indescribable. Nevertheless, some have read the language as a metaphor for universal purification by fire or as a figure for absolute irreversible annihilation as if by fire.

So, is a non-literal view of the fires of hell heresy or heterodoxy?

Part of this confusion may be how narrowly I apply the word “heresy.” When I use the term “heresy,” I mean damnable doctrine, that is, “If you believe this, you cannot be saved.” When I use the word “heterodoxy,” I mean, “If you believe this, be careful! You’re holding to something very few Christians have held and you’re standing against the vast majority of thinkers throughout history, and this view has sometimes led to more dangerous doctrines.”

So, I call the views of universalism and annihilationism “heterodoxy” rather than “heresy” because: 1) there has never been a complete agreement on how to understand those hell passages even among those who hold to eternal conscious torment; 2) there has never been a universally adopted creed that reflects a clear teaching on this matter one way or another; and 3) those errors in personal eschatology don’t necessarily and directly distort the Trinitarian creation/redemption story or the person and work of Christ.

I think rejecting eternal conscious torment of the lost fits the category of heterodoxy the best. And not a heterodoxy of the harmless kind, like whether angels have actual wings. Rather, I think those who deny a view of hell as eternal conscious torment and instead hold to annihilationism or universalism are sailing in dangerous waters. Pushing those views too hard could cause them to capsize or shipwreck, distorting other important doctrines. But if a figure in history or even today held firmly to all the other essential tenets of orthodoxy but flirted with a figurative interpretation of hell, I would not put that person in the category of a heretic. I reserve that label for those who reject the fundamentals of the faith like Arius, Pelagius, or Joseph Smith.

One more note with regard to the creedal language. The Creed states that Jesus descended to “hades,” which in the early centuries was a reference simply to “the place of the dead.” Throughout history there has been no complete consensus on what was meant by the term; all acknowledged it was a term borrowed from Greek after-life concepts, so it meant, simply, “Jesus went to the place dead people go when they die.” Some took it as referring to His physical place of burial, so “hades” = “the grave.” Others took it to mean the place of the departed righteous, thus, “hades” = “Abraham’s bosom” or “Paradise.” Others took it to refer to the place of the wicked spirits, including demons, so Christ descended there and proclaimed victory over the spirits of wickedness. In any case, there was no clear consensus on the descensus ad infernos, as it is called, and, in fact, not all of the articulations of the Regula fidei (“Rule of Faith”) and the various baptismal confessions contained that line. So, it is not a good place to go to affirm a universally binding orthodox view of a literal fiery eternal hell. The mention of Christ’s descent to hades was not intended to affirm anything about the literal fires of hell.


“Don’t Walk on Those Graves!”: The Christian View of Resurrection

GraveOne day when my kids and I were visiting a historic family cemetery in Mesquite, Texas, my boys, Lucas and Nathan, were running to and fro over century-old graves. I called them to me and passed on to them the instruction that had been given to me as a little boy: “Don’t walk on those graves.”

Lucas looked puzzled. “Why not?”

Good question. In fact, I had never thought about it myself. “Because . . . er . . .” I fumbled for a reasonable answer. I couldn’t come up with one. Chances are I was just relaying some relic of superstition that my mother herself had received. But somehow I just couldn’t break the chain and say, Oh go ahead, then, walk all over those graves. Trample on them. It doesn’t matter. They’re deader than dead anyway.

Instead, I threw together the best ad hoc explanation I could come up with at such short notice: “Because,” I explained, “if the resurrection were to happen you’d get knocked over!”

It was true. At some point the graves themselves will burst open. Whatever remains of the dead that are still lying in the ground will be transformed and restored in a glorious new body that shares the characteristics of Jesus’ own glorious body. Nothing of the old will remain in the grave. All things would be made new. Yes, that decomposed matter lying under the ground has a future in God’s plan of redemption.

Sadly, far too many Christians believe their bodies are mere shells that contain the real “me,” as if God never intended for us to have a physical presence, a bodily existence, a permanent means of interacting with the creation He fashioned for us. However, the promise of bodily resurrection completely contradicts this notion. The belief in the redemption of our physical bodies has always been a central hope of the Christian faith (Rom. 8:23). When Christ returns, He “will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body” (Phil. 3:21), no longer subject to mortality and death. Note, though, that this is a transformation of our present body, not a recreation of an entirely different body. Jesus did not leave his old body in the grave when He rose—instead, that old body was raised and transformed into the glorious body of His resurrection. Our transformation will follow the same pattern.

This has been the unbroken, unchanged teaching of the Christian faith since the beginning. In the second and third centuries Church Fathers like Irenaeus or Lyons, Athenagoras of Athens, and Tertullian of Carthage argued vigorously for a literal resurrection of the body against Greek scoffers on the one hand and “Christian” Gnostics on the others. The only people challenging the doctrine of the resurrection of our physical bodies as an essential truth were unbelievers and heretics!

Throughout the history of the church, the teaching of the future resurrection of our fleshly bodies continued to be articulated and defended. Consider the following quotations spanning the centuries:

Boethius, On the Catholic Faith (6th century): “This is a firm principle of our religion, to believe not only that men’s souls do not perish, but that their very bodies, which the coming of death had destroyed, recover their first state.”

John of Damascus, An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith 4.27 (8th century): “We shall therefore rise again, our souls being once more united with our bodies, now made incorruptible and having put off corruption.”

Anselm of Canterbury, Why God Became Man (Cur Deus Homo), 2.3 (11th century): “If he had not sinned, man was to have been transformed into incorruptibility with the very body that he possessed. When he is restored, then, he must be restored with his own body in which he lives in this life.”

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (16th century): “We must hold, as has already been observed, that the body in which we shall rise will be the same as at present in respect of substance, but that the quality will be different.” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1 vol. ed., trans. Henry Beveridge [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989], 2:271)

Jonathan Edwards The Final Judgment 4.2 (18th century): “However the parts of the bodies of many are divided and scattered; however many have been burnt, and their bodies have been turned to ashes and smoke, and driven to the four winds; however many have been eaten of wild beasts, of the fowls of heaven, and the fishes of the sea; however many have consumed away upon the face of the earth, and great part of their bodies have ascended in exhalations; yet the all-wise and all-powerful God can immediately bring every part to his part again.” (Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, rev. ed., vol. 2 [Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1974], 194)

In direct opposition to both the clear teaching of Scripture and the consistent teaching of every branch of the Church—Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant—I too often hear people speak of “dying and going to heaven.” Or they speak of departed loved ones as “finally healed” from their maladies. Or they belittle the body as a mere shell, or a prison, or a burden. Or they believe God will simply discard their present fleshly bodies and replace them with a quasi-physical body either in heaven or at the return of Christ. In short, they essentially exchange the biblical, Christian doctrine of the resurrection of their flesh for the Greek Platonic or Gnostic belief that the physical body has no part in salvation and eternal life. But to reject the resurrection of the body is not simply to reject the unchanged teaching of the Christian church. Rejection of the bodily resurrection is a rejection of Christianity itself!

But why? Why would God bother restoring what has been laid to rest? Can’t He just create a completely new body out of nothing? Of course! However, by opening the graves and tombs and transforming our dead and decomposed bodies into glorious, incorruptible bodies, God declares once and for all: “O death, where is your victory” (1 Cor. 15:55). As Paul explained, “When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory’” (1 Cor. 15:54). By snatching our mortal dust and ashes from the grave and transforming them into something eternal and glorious, God will demonstrate that Satan’s attempt at destroying humanity failed. Humans, who had been created with body and spirit in the image of God, will be not only rescued from death and restored to life, they will be crowned with glory and honor (Ps. 8:5).

So, next time you find yourself walking on somebody’s grave, watch out! You could end up getting knocked over if the resurrection happens!


[Adapted from the forthcoming Exploring Christian Theology: The Church, Spiritual Growth, and the End Times, ed. Nathan D. Holsteen and Michael J. Svigel (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2014).]



“This Should Be Me”: Christ, Our Passover

The sound of bleating lambs and shuffling footsteps filled the temple. With three trumpet blasts, the priests announced the start of the Passover sacrifices. Worshipers responded to the priests’ psalms with “Hallelujahs” as each man offered his household’s sacrifice to God. As the disciple John raised the knife to the throat of the lamb he’d brought, he thought, “This should be me.” With one quick motion of his hand, the lamb’s bleating stopped, and John watched its blood drain into the bowl held by the priest. The priest emptied the bowl at the base of the altar, adding to the smell of blood that hung in the air.

Christ’s Final Passover

Why did a lamb have to be sacrificed on Passover? The Jewish feast was meant to remember and retell the story of Israel’s Exodus from Egypt. The lamb sacrificed that afternoon became the main course of the Passover meal, representing the price paid for the protection of Israel and their redemption from Egypt. God had “passed over” the homes of those Hebrews who had applied the lamb’s blood to their doorways (Exod. 12:12-27). With the lamb, the Jews also ate unleavened bread and bitter herbs, recalling the agony of bondage in Egypt and the food God provided for the Israelites during the Exodus (12:39). By partaking of the sacrificed lamb, the Hebrews not only remembered, they also retold the Passover story to others.

Yet on the night John partook of the Passover lamb with Jesus and the other disciples, things changed. Although Jewish custom prohibited eating anything after the Passover meal, Jesus broke sharply with tradition. He took bread, gave thanks, and said to His disciples, “Take and eat. This is My body” (see Mark 14:22). John partook with the rest, then Jesus took up the third of four cups of wine traditionally drunk at the Passover, the “cup of redemption.” To John’s surprise, their Rabbi said, “This is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many” (14:24). The traditional fourth cup—the “cup of consummation”—remained untouched. Jesus explained, “I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God” (14:25).

In remembering and retelling the Hebrew Passover, Christ followed the requirements of the law, but He transformed and fulfilled the meaning of the lamb, the bread, and the wine. However, one thing remained the same: the need for a substitute as a sacrifice in place of the guilty sinner.

Christ Our Passover

The following day Jesus was brutalized and executed on a Roman cross. To those who watched, the murder seemed senseless, but from God’s perspective it completely paid the cost of redemption. Isaiah had prophesied that, like a lamb led to the slaughter, the Messiah would be pierced for our transgressions, and the punishment due us would fall upon Him (Isa. 53:5-7). Paul said that Christ Himself is the Passover lamb, sacrificed for our sins (1 Cor. 5:7). All who consider the sufferings of Jesus should be haunted by these four words: “This should be me.”

The Bible says that all have sinned and deserve one punishment: death. The blood, gore, stench, and wails of the animal sacrifices reminded Old Testament Israelites daily of the wages of sin and cost of redemption. But Paul told us the good news that comes through Christ, the sacrificial Passover Lamb who died to forgive all of our sins: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23).

Making Christ Your Passover

In the Old Testament remembering meant more than just thinking; it meant responding with specific actions. During this Easter season, how will you remember and retell Christ’s Passover story?

Perhaps your church has a special service of remembrance, partaking of the Lord’s Supper or retelling the story of Good Friday and Easter through music or drama. Maybe you have a special family tradition that centers on Christ and His final payment for sin as the spotless Lamb of God. There are many great opportunities for you to remember and retell the story through Scripture and discussion on specific days of Easter week.

Like the Hebrews during Passover, your own tangible expression of remembrance and retelling will focus your heart away from kitschy Easter eggs and pastel bunnies toward the cleansing blood of the Lamb, “for Christ our Passover . . . has been sacrificed” (1 Cor. 5:7). This year, center your thoughts and actions on the true meaning of the Hebrew Passover, applying the blood of Christ to the doorposts of your life with the proper attitude: “This should be me.”


[Originally posted April 5, 2012 at This essay adapted from Michael J. Svigel and Suzanne Keffer, “This Should Be Me,” Insights (March 2005): 1-2. Copyright © 2005 by Insight for Living. All rights reserved worldwide. Used by permission.]

Limited or Unlimited Atonement? (Yes)

Let me begin by giving one reason I confess what is commonly called “limited atonement.” I could go into a long treatise on the internal logical and theological consistency of a Calvinist approach to salvation, but instead I’ll just keep this simple and mention one verse. In Ephesians 5:25, Paul wrote, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her.” What did Paul mean by “Christ gave Himself up” for the church? In 5:2, Paul had already explained, “Walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma.” Thus, by sacrificing His life as an offering to God, Christ gave Himself up for the church, that is, the elect.

How does this touch on the doctrine of limited atonement? Well, in Ephesians 5:25 Paul used Christ’s self-sacrificial love for the church as a model of a husband’s love for his wife—and vice versa. I contend that the sense of Paul’s exhortation to husbands requires the doctrine of limited atonement. Because if we confess that Christ’s love and sacrificial death applied equally and universally to all people, whether believers or unbelievers, then Paul’s entire argument for a husband’s exclusive, faithful love for his wife would collapse. Paul did not write, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her and for all people everywhere, equally and without exception.” The very nature of Paul’s exhortation demands that he perceived the sacrificial death of Christ to have been limited in its redemptive intension—focused specifically on the elect of the church.

There are other passages I could highlight that limit the scope of Christ’s death to “us,” to believers, to the church, to the elect, and to those “in Christ.” But I frankly don’t see the need to pile up proof-texts, especially in light of where I’m going in this essay. I believe the point of Ephesians 5:25 is sufficiently clear to show that in some sense—however that may be expressed—the self-sacrificial love of Christ for the church is qualitatively different than the love that Christ has for the unsaved world in general.

But this now brings me to the second part of my confession. I also confess that Christ died for all.

I hold this not merely because the New Testament teaches a universality of God’s love (John 3:16), but also because certain passages are quite difficult to interpret apart from the death of Christ having a universal benefit and scope. Although I personally believe 1 John 2:2 may be a reference to the global catholicity of the Christian faith rather than the universality of Christ’s propitiatory offering (see my article on this subject here), I believe 2 Peter 2:1 teaches that Christ’s death paid the price of redemption for non-elect heretics. Peter wrote, “There will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves.” Though I have heard all the arguments to the contrary, I cannot get around two basic assertions in this passage: 1) the false teachers denied the Lord and taught heresy—marking them as outside the body of the elect; 2) these heretics had nevertheless been “bought” by the Lord. Thus, in some sense, the penalty of sin for the non-elect was paid by the death of Christ.

So, I confess both unlimited and limited atonement. Although Christ’s death paid the penalty for all, the saving effect of His death is limited only to the elect.

Even though the non-elect are not the object of God’s redemptive intention, this does not mean they do not receive real benefit from the death Christ died in their place. I believe that God’s general grace toward all humans is granted on the basis of Christ’s propitiatory death and the resulting gracious and merciful disposition of God toward the world in general. The forms of this general grace include the preservation of the world for the sake of the elect, the blessing of unbelievers in conjunction with the blessing of the elect, and, in fact, all good gifts from God that are bestowed upon humans in general, as well as the withholding of judgment and wrath for the purpose of executing His program of grace and mercy in the present age. Furthermore, because believers are raised on the basis of Christ’s resurrection, I also hold that unbelievers will be raised on the basis of Christ’s resurrection (see John 5:29; 11:25; and context). This is not a strange or novel idea. Calvin himself wrote in Institutes 3.25.9:

We know that in Adam we were deprived of the inheritance of the whole world, and that the same reason which excludes us from eating of the tree of life excludes us also from common food. How comes it, then, that God not only makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, but that, in regard to the uses of the present life, his inestimable liberality is constantly flowing forth in rich abundance? Hence we certainly perceive, that things which are proper to Christ and his members, abound to the wicked also; not that their possession is legitimate, but that they may thus be rendered more inexcusable. Thus the wicked often experience the beneficence of God, not in ordinary measures, but such as sometimes throw all the blessings of the godly into the shade, though they eventually lead to greater damnation. Should it be objected, that the resurrection is not properly compared to fading and earthly blessings, I again answer, that when the devils were first alienated from God, the fountain of life, they deserved to be utterly destroyed; yet, by the admirable counsel of God, an intermediate state was prepared, where without life they might live in death. It ought not to seem in any respect more absurd that there is to be an adventitious resurrection of the ungodly which will drag them against their will before the tribunal of Christ, whom they now refuse to receive as their master and teacher.

In short, Calvin said the blessings of God through Christ—intended for the elect—overflow in abundance and affect the wicked. However, because they are recipients of some blessings of Christ’s death, their failure to respond to God in worship and glory results in even greater guilt and condemnation.

I believe that from God’s perspective of actualized redemption, the scope and purpose of Christ’s death was limited to the elect. Yet from the perspective of his general love for humanity expressed by His general grace, and also from the theological perspective of the inexhaustible potential redemptive value of the God-man’s sacrificial death, I must confess that the benefits of Christ’s death can not be limited only to the elect.

Thus, I confess that Christ died for all. I also confess that Christ died only for the elect. This is neither a mystery nor a paradox. I believe in limited atonement when referring to God’s eternal perspective and purpose of salvation; and I believe in unlimited atonement when referring to the benefits bestowed on humanity in general in spite of their unbelief. These are real, intentional benefits of the atonement, but not intended for eternal salvation.

I’m generally irenic in my approach to theological dialogue, but I do not applaud artificial attempts at finding a via media at all costs, so I am not highly motivated by being labeled a “moderate.” It’s great to be “moderate” when being moderate is right, but if it’s simply a compromise for its own sake, I don’t find this commendable. So, in stating my current position on limited and unlimited atonement, the result has probably not been to satisfy both Calvinists and non-Calvinists simultaneously. Rather, I’ve probably just offended both. Of course, the latter effect was not my intention (I’m not a controversialist) . . . . but neither was the former.

Bible Foregrounds 2: “Falling Away” in Hebrews 6:4–6

Many passages of Scripture have been tirelessly debated not only in light of the meaning of the words and grammar, but also in light of the historical context or “background.” However, scholars often neglect the historical “foreground”—that is, the exploration of which interpretations make the most sense in light of what followed the apostolic period. The apostles and prophets who wrote the books of the Bible also taught large numbers of Christians who carried on their oral teachings in their own ministries (see 2 Timothy 2:2). So we should expect that the correct reading of Scripture may “echo” forward into the writings of second and third generation teachers. In part 1 of this series of essays, I examined the identity of the “restrainer” in 2 Thessalonisn 2. In part 2, I will explore a more weighty problem passage.


Mention the reference “Hebrews 6” and many Bible-believers bristle—especially those who hold that true believers can never lose their salvation. The most difficult portion of the problem passage reads, “For in the case of those who have . . . fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance (Hebrews 6:4, 6). The problem is not in the fact that some fall way, but in the description of the people replaced by the ellipses, for in a surface reading the passage seems to indicate bona fide believers. So, does Hebrews 6 teach that true believers can lose their salvation by falling away?

This passage has been variously interpreted. Some say it does, in fact, teach that a person can lose their salvation. The people described in Hebrews 6:4–6 were actually once born again, but they do something (or fail to do something) that causes them to fall back into a state of damnation. Those who believe in eternal security often argue against this interpretation of Hebrews 6 by simply jumping ship and latching on to “more clear” passages that suggest a person is eternally saved. But one person’s “clear” passage can easily become another person’s problem passage, and the debate over the meaning of Hebrews 6 never really gets resolved.

Another view is the “false believers view.” Like the “apostates” described in 1 John 2:19, these people appeared to be true believers by outward confession and actions, but were demonstrated to be false brethren by their ultimate apostasy. Had they been true believers, they would have persevered in the faith until the end.

Some view the passage as referring to true believers who, by falling away from sanctification and good works, render their testimonies tainted and their lives useless. Though they themselves are still saved and will see heaven, they lose their reward, as seems to be the case in 1 Corinthians 3:15. Thus, some argue that there comes a point in a carnal Christian’s life that they will become so numb to the Spirit’s conviction that they can no longer repent.

Another view is the “stagnated growth” view. The people described had begun down the Christian path through baptism and early instruction, but fell aside and became stagnant. Since it’s impossible to start the Christian life over again (repentance), they are being encouraged to get back on the path and advance toward maturity. The implied warning in this passage is that if they don’t get on the path, but drift farther from the path, they may, in fact, prove to be false believers or will lose their reward, in which case the second or third views above would apply.

With such a great variety of views (and these are just a sampling of the many variations), how can Bible foregrounds inform our understanding of the passage?

Bible Foregrounds

First, we must look at the broad purpose of the passage. The point is a contrast between immature novices and mature teachers, those who lack discernment and those who are trained and experienced. The point of the writer is not to warn about losing salvation, or how to tell when somebody is not really saved, or even to give assurance to those who have all the right signs of salvation. The point is to encourage spiritual infants to grow toward spiritual maturity.

Second, we must understand the actual meaning of the verb in Hebrews 6:6, “to fall away.” The word is not the normal term used for “apostasy” or “falling away” (aphistemi), but a unique word used only here in the New Testament—parapipto. It literally means “to fall beside a person or thing; to slip aside; hence, to deviate from the right path, turn aside, wander.” The concrete visual image associated with its use in ancient literature can best be illustrated by an example in Polybius’s Histories 3.54.5. That ancient author writes: “For the path down was narrow and precipitous, and the snow made it impossible for the men to see where they were treading, while to step aside (parapipto) from the path, or to stumble, meant being hurled down the precipices.” The image is that of a person wandering off a path, thus “falling aside”— not falling “away,” but falling beside “a way” or path.

Given this background of the term, is there anything in the historical context to suggest that the author of Hebrews had a “path” or “road” metaphor in mind when he used this term? I believe there is.

In Hebrews 5:11 the writer says that his readers had become “dull of hearing.” They should be teachers, but they need somebody to re-teach them the basics, the “elementary principles of the oracles of God.” They need “milk and not solid food” (5:12). This implies that the readers had already gone through the basics and should now be teachers.

In Hebrews 5:13, the writer explains that because they are babes in their understanding, they cannot chew on the meaty doctrines of the Christian faith. They are immature, they lack discernment, and they cannot handle advanced teaching (5:14). However, the writer desires to leave “the elementary teaching about the Christ” and to “press on to maturity” (6:1). (Note: The phrase “elementary teaching about the Christ” argues that these are Christian teachings, not the teachings of pre-Christian Judaism.) This elementary, or “basic” Christian instruction includes repentance from dead words and faith toward God, teachings concerning baptisms, laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment (6:1–2).

A key term in this list of basic Christian teaching is the word “instruction,” which is the Greek word didache. It means “doctrine” or “teaching.” Those familiar with early Christian literature outside the New Testament know that this is the title of a book—written in stages throughout the first and second centuries—that calls itself simply the “teaching of the twelve disciples,” or, for short, the Didache. That ancient book really functions as a manual of church instruction, probably compiled and edited for the church of Antioch. Some scholars say certain parts of the book were written perhaps earlier than some of our written gospels, though some sections were added perhaps as late as A.D. 150. Either way, the book contains an instruction about the “two paths” that lie before each person—the path of life and the path of death. Each person is called to choose which path to follow, and once a person chooses the path of life, they begin the journey of life by the initiation of water baptism. Thus, the Didache serves in part as an early teaching manual for new believers, preparing them for baptism and instructing them on the elementary principles of the Christian faith.

Because similar themes are found in other early Christian literature, we have good reason to believe that many churches—not just Antioch—followed a similar pattern of early Christian instruction as that found in the Didache. In fact, it is my belief that this type of early instruction, or didache, stands behind the thought of Hebrews 6, and plays off of the “two paths” image presented to potential converts to Christianity.

For example, Hebrews 6:1 mentions “teaching of baptisms.” And in Didache 7.1–4 we read the following instruction regarding different legitimate types of baptism:

Now concerning baptism, baptize as follows: after you have reviewed all these things [the way of life and the way of death], baptize “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” in running water. But if you have no running water, then baptize in some other water; and if you are not able to baptize in cold water, then do so in warm. But if you have neither, then pour water on the head three times “in the name of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit.” And before the baptism, let the one baptizing and the one who is to be baptized fast, as well as any others who are able. Also, you must instruct the one who is to be baptized to fast for one or two days beforehand. (Didache 7.1–4)

Regarding the “laying on of hands,” which is a sign of the ordination to ministry and leadership, Didache 11.3 says, “Now concerning the apostles and prophets, deal with them as follows in accordance with the rule of the gospel,” and then describes how one can distinguish a true from a false prophet, gives instructions on dealing with leadership, and tells how to discern good and bad leaders (Didache 11.4–13.7). In light of Paul’s admonition to Timothy to “not lay hands upon anyone too hastily” the “laying on of hands” in Hebrews 6:1 likely refers to instructions concerning legitimate leadership in the local church.

Hebrews 6:2 also refers to “the resurrection of the dead and eternal punishment.” Interestingly, the last section of Didache contains instructions about the end times.

The Solution

Read in light of the early Christian teaching (didache) that prepared people for baptism, as well as the basic instruction that followed baptism, the author of Hebrews appears to have been referring to the Christians’ early instruction in the faith—“Christianity 101.”

In Hebrews 6:3 he said that if God permits, they will leave behind the “elementary teachings. Then, in describing converts to Christianity who have stagnated in their progress, the author of Hebrews refers to elements of ancient Christian instruction and initiation. He says that these people “have once been enlightened and had tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit” (6:4). Interestingly, “enlightenment” was actually an early reference to a person’s response to the gospel through water baptism. Around A.D. 155, Justin Martyr wrote in his defense of Christianity: “And this washing [baptism] is called illumination, as those who learn these things are illuminated in the mind. And he who is illuminated is washed in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and in the name of the Holy Spirit, who through the prophets foretold all the things about Jesus” (Justin, 1 Apology 61).

The reference to the “heavenly gift” in Hebrews 6:4 probably refers to the Lord’s supper, or communion. In fact, the Didache says, “Let no one eat or drink of your thanksgiving meal except those who have been baptized into the name of the Lord, for the Lord has also spoken concerning this: ‘Do not give what is holy to dogs’” (Didache 9.5). It then suggests the following prayer to be recited after the communion meal: “We give you thanks, Holy Father, for your holy name which you have caused to dwell in our hearts, and for the knowledge and faith and immortality which you have made known to us through Jesus your servant; to you be the glory forever.” (Didache 10.2). This language is conceptually similar to the experiential references in Hebrews 6:4, that is, tasting the “good word of God” and becoming partakers of the Holy Spirit.

Then, when the writer of Hebrews finishes describing the details of early Christian instruction and the experiences of the Christian after submitting to baptism, he gives the following warning. If they are baptized, taught, and partake of the rights and privileges of membership in the church, “and [then] have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God, and put Him to open shame” (Hebrews 6:6).

In the context of the Bible foregrounds, the reference to “repentance” here indicates the original conversion that placed them on the “path of life.” That’s the repentance of the convert, which takes places at their baptism. This is not repentance of the believer as he or she turns away from sin. The word “again” refers back to the previous mention of repentance in Hebrews 6:1—that is, their initial conversion to Christ by faith, represented and sealed by water baptism. That “repentance” set them on the “path of life,” from which there was no going back.

In light of this, the writer to the Hebrews appears to be drawing on the “path of life” image found in ancient Christian baptismal instructions. In essence, he’s saying this: You’ve been enlightened, baptized into the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ as a sign of repentance, and therefore initiated into the church, partaking of its full benefits and learning all the fundamentals. You started walking down the path of life. But you’ve become dull. You’re acting like a “trainee” again, like somebody who needs to be instructed prior to baptism! You should be teaching and baptizing, but you’re acting like you need somebody to teach and baptize you. But that’s impossible! Once a person has been enlightened and gone through the baptism of repentance . . . if they fall aside from the path, they can’t go back again to the baptism of repentance and start all over.

The exhortation, then, is clear: get back on the path of life and move toward maturity! You can’t be converted again, so start acting like a convert!


The evidence from Bible foregrounds, primarily from the first and second century document, the Didache, suggests that the writer of Hebrews had in the front of his mind an image and pattern of early Christian instruction with which his readers would have been familiar: the “path of life” that began with repentance, faith, and baptism as the initiation into the church. They had “fallen aside” from the path and were dwelling in an infant state, as if they were still being prepared for baptism. But because they can not be “re-baptized,” they need to get back on the path and head toward maturity. Thus, in light of the Bible foregrounds, the “stagnated growth” view of Hebrews 6 seems to be the most reasonable.