John Loftus recently posted an article [as of 2006] on Hell that makes a lot of misleading claims and ignores a lot of relevant evidence. I think that some of his errors in evaluating the Biblical evidence should be easy for most readers to discern, but a comment he made about the early church, apparently a reference (in part or entirely) to the church fathers, may not be as easy for most readers to evaluate. Loftus writes the following, though it's unclear whether he's quoting somebody else or writing in his own words:
"L.E. Froom claims that conditional immortality was generally accepted in the early church until its thinkers tried to wed Plato’s doctrine of the immortality of the soul to the teaching of the Bible.' [The Conditionalist Faith of Our Fathers, Herald Pub., 1966]."
I don't know what Loftus has in mind when he refers to "conditional immortality". A person can believe that God needs to extend a life in order for the person to exist eternally, yet also believe that every life is so extended. It's also possible to define "immortality" as eternal life, in contrast to eternal death. Both the person with eternal life and the person with eternal death will exist forever, but one existence is portrayed positively as "life" and the other is portrayed negatively as "death". The life in question has to do with the quality of the existence, not existence itself. This is seen, for example, in the many Biblical and extra-Biblical references to unregenerate men as spiritually "dead". A term like "immortality" can be used differently in different contexts. A reference to the need for God to extend people's lives in order for them to be immortal or a reference to people attaining immortality doesn't necessarily imply that some or all people will cease to exist.
The early patristic sources suggest that belief in a Hell involving eternal consciousness was the general belief, not annihilationism. Somebody like Origen will sometimes express a different view, whether as a speculation or as a belief held with confidence, but that doesn't mean that such a view was widely held. Below are several examples of early expressions of a belief in eternal conscious existence in Hell, and more examples could be cited.
When Polycarp, a disciple of the apostles (more than one apostle, not just the apostle John) was martyred, an account of that martyrdom was written by his church. The account expresses the views of both Polycarp and his church. In that account, we read of the contrast between suffering in a temporary fire and suffering eternally:
"And, looking to the grace of Christ, they [Christian martyrs] despised all the torments of this world, redeeming themselves from eternal punishment by the suffering of a single hour. For this reason the fire of their savage executioners appeared cool to them. For they kept before their view escape from that fire which is eternal and never shall be quenched...Polycarp said, 'Thou threatenest me with fire which burneth for an hour, and after a little is extinguished, but art ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and of eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly. But why tarriest thou? Bring forth what thou wilt.'" (The Martyrdom Of Polycarp, 2, 11)
In contrast to Loftus' distortions of the view of Hell presented in the book of Revelation, notice that both Polycarp and his church (the church of Smyrna, addressed in Revelation 2) were in contact with the author of Revelation, the apostle John. And the passages quoted above make more sense in light of a Hell of eternal consciousness. The eternal fire is being compared to the temporal fire in terms of suffering, not annihilation. If annihilation was in view, we'd expect references to how a temporal fire can't annihilate the soul, whereas the eternal fire can. What Polycarp and the authors of this document seem to be focusing on is the suffering, the burning, associated with fire. It's more natural, then, to read the references to eternality as references to an eternal experience of such suffering, not annihilation or temporal burning followed by annihilation.
Justin Martyr wrote:
"For among us the prince of the wicked spirits is called the serpent, and Satan, and the devil, as you can learn by looking into our writings. And that he would be sent into the fire with his host, and the men who follow him, and would be punished for an endless duration, Christ foretold....For the prophets have proclaimed two advents of His: the one, that which is already past, when He came as a dishonoured and suffering Man; but the second, when, according to prophecy, He shall come from heaven with glory, accompanied by His angelic host, when also He shall raise the bodies of all men who have lived, and shall clothe those of the worthy with immortality, and shall send those of the wicked, endued with eternal sensibility, into everlasting fire with the wicked devils....And in what kind of sensation and punishment the wicked are to be, hear from what was said in like manner with reference to this; it is as follows: 'Their worm shall not rest, and their fire shall not be quenched" (First Apology, 28, 52)
Irenaeus illustrates some of the points I made near the beginning of this post. He writes of how God's creation continues to exist only because God so wills:
"For as the heaven which is above us, the firmament, the sun, the moon, the rest of the stars, and all their grandeur, although they had no previous existence, were called into being, and continue throughout a long course of time according to the will of God, so also any one who thinks thus respecting souls and spirits, and, in fact, respecting all created things, will not by any means go far astray, inasmuch as all things that have been made had a beginning when they were formed, but endure as long as God wills that they should have an existence and continuance." (Against Heresies, 2:34:3)
And he continues:
"And again, He thus speaks respecting the salvation of man: 'He asked life of Thee, and Thou gavest him length of days for ever and ever;' indicating that it is the Father of all who imparts continuance for ever and ever on those who are saved. 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." (Against Heresies, 2:34:3)
Surely this passage supports John Loftus' argument, right? No, because we know, from the surrounding context of Irenaeus' writings, that he believed in eternal consciousness in Hell. As the editor of the edition of Irenaeus quoted above comments:
"As Massuet observes, this statement is to be understood in harmony with the repeated assertion of Irenaeus that the wicked will exist in misery for ever. It refers not annihilation, but to deprivation of happiness." (note 307)
For example, elsewhere Irenaeus writes:
"Inasmuch, then, as in both Testaments there is the same righteousness of God displayed when God takes vengeance, in the one case indeed typically, temporarily, and more moderately; but in the other, really, enduringly, and more rigidly: for the fire is eternal, and the wrath of God which shall be revealed from heaven from the face of our Lord (as David also says, 'But the face of the Lord is against them that do evil, to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth'), entails a heavier punishment on those who incur it, - the ciders pointed out that those men are devoid of sense, who, arguing from what happened to those who formerly did not obey God, do endeavour to bring in another Father, setting over against these punishments what great things the Lord had done at His coming to save those who received Him, taking compassion upon them; while they keep silence with regard to His judgment; and all those things which shall come upon such as have heard His words, but done them not, and that it were better for them if they had not been born, and that it shall be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrha in the judgment than for that city which did not receive the word of His disciples." (Against Heresies, 4:28:1)
As the references to Sodom and Gomorrah suggest, Irenaeus is referring to degrees of suffering, not annihilation. Thus, what Irenaeus seems to view as enduring forever is the suffering of the wicked, not non-existence.
And elsewhere Ireneaus suggests that experience of "every kind of punishment" will last forever, in contrast to being annihilated forever:
"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." (Against Heresies, 5:27:2)
Irenaeus seems to have viewed the afterlife of the wicked as something consistent. It would endure forever. They wouldn't experience suffering for a while, then cease to exist.
Theophilus of Antioch approvingly quotes the Sibyl, applying these words to the unregenerate:
"Therefore, upon you burning fire shall come, And ever ye shall daily burn in flames, Ashamed for ever of your useless gods. But those who worship the eternal God, They shall inherit everlasting life, Inhabiting the blooming realms of bliss, And feasting on sweet food from starry heaven." (To Autolycus, 2:36)
Theophilus refers to the people in Hell being "ashamed for ever", which would involve consciousness. Notice, also, that Theophilus, like the Biblical authors and other early patristic sources, parallels the eternality of Hell with the eternality of Heaven.
Athenagoras contrasts the temporal life of animals with the eternal existence of humans:
"For if we believed that we should live only the present life, then we might be suspected of sinning, through being enslaved to flesh and blood, or overmastered by gain or carnal desire; but since we know that God is witness to what we think and what we say both by night and by day, and that He, being Himself light, sees all things in our heart, we are persuaded that when we are removed from the present life we shall live another life, better than the present one, and heavenly, not earthly (since we shall abide near God, and with God, free from all change or suffering in the soul, not as flesh, even though we shall have flesh, but as heavenly spirit), or, falling with the rest, a worse one and in fire; for God has not made us as sheep or beasts of burden, a mere by-work, and that we should perish and be annihilated." (A Plea For The Christians, 31)
"Think of these things, too, in the light of the brevity of any punishment you can inflict - never to last longer than till death. On this ground Epicurus makes light of all suffering and pain, maintaining that if it is small, it is contemptible; and if it is great, it is not long-continued. No doubt about it, we, who receive our awards under the judgment of an all-seeing God, and who look forward to eternal punishment from Him for sin, - we alone make real effort to attain a blameless life, under the influence of our ampler knowledge, the impossibility of concealment, and the greatness of the threatened torment, not merely long-enduring but everlasting, fearing Him, whom he too should fear who the fearing judges, - even God, I mean, and not the proconsul....When, therefore, the boundary and limit, that millennial interspace, has been passed, when even the outward fashion of the world itself - which has been spread like a veil over the eternal economy, equally a thing of time - passes away, then the whole human race shall be raised again, to have its dues meted out according as it has merited in the period of good or evil, and thereafter to have these paid out through the immeasurable ages of eternity. Therefore after this there is neither death nor repeated resurrections, but we shall be the same that we are now, and still unchanged - the servants of God, ever with God, clothed upon with the proper substance of eternity; but the profane, and all who are not true worshippers of God, in like manner shall be consigned to the punishment of everlasting fire -that fire which, from its very nature indeed, directly ministers to their incorruptibility. The philosophers are familiar as well as we with the distinction between a common and a secret fire. Thus that which is in common use is far different from that which we see in divine judgments, whether striking as thunderbolts from heaven, or bursting up out of the earth through mountain-tops; for it does not consume what it scorches, but while it burns it repairs. So the mountains continue ever burning; and a person struck by lighting is even now kept safe from any destroying flame. A notable proof this of the fire eternal! a notable example of the endless judgment which still supplies punishment with fuel! The mountains burn, and last. How will it be with the wicked and the enemies of God?" (Apology, 45, 48)
"Nor is there either measure termination to these torments. There the intelligent fire burns the limbs and restores them, feeds on them and nourishes them. As the fires of the thunderbolts strike upon the bodies, and do not consume them; as the fires of Mount Aetna and of Mount Vesuvius, and of burning where, glow, but are not wasted; so that penal fire is not fed by the waste of those who burn, but is nourished by the unexhausted eating away of their bodies. But that they who know not God are deservedly tormented as impious, as unrighteous persons, no one except a profane man hesitates to believe, since it is not less wicked to be ignorant of, than to offend the Parent of all, and the Lord of all. And although ignorance of God is sufficient for punishment, even as knowledge of Him is of avail for pardon, yet if we Christians be compared with you, although in some things our discipline is inferior, yet we shall be found much better than you." (The Octavius Of Minucius Felix, 35)
"There is no faith in the fear of God, in the law of righteousness, in love, in labour; none considers the fear of futurity, and none takes to heart the day of the Lord, and the wrath of God, and the punishments to come upon unbelievers, and the eternal torments decreed for the faithless." (On The Unity Of The Church, 26)
The historian Philip Schaff wrote:
"There never was in the Christian church any difference of opinion concerning the righteous, who shall inherit eternal life and enjoy the blessed communion of God forever and ever. But the final fate of the impenitent who reject the offer of salvation admits of three answers to the reasoning mind: everlasting punishment, annihilation, restoration (after remedial punishment and repentance)....Everlasting Punishment of the wicked always was, and always will be the orthodox theory....the majority of the fathers who speak plainly on this terrible subject, favor this view....The generality of this belief among Christians is testified by Celsus [an opponent of Christianity who wrote in the second century], who tells them that the heathen priests threaten the same 'eternal punishment' as they, and that the only question was which was right, since both claimed the truth with equal confidence." (History Of The Christian Church, 2:12:157)
The patristic scholar J.N.D. Kelly wrote the following about the later patristic sources:
"As regards the fate of the wicked (that of the blessed will be treated in the next section), the general view was that their punishment would be eternal, without any possibility of remission. As Basil put it, in hell the sinful soul is completely cut off from the Holy Spirit, and is therefore incapable of repentance; while Chrysostom pointed out that neither the bodies of the damned, which will become immortal, nor their souls will know any end of their sufferings." (Early Christian Doctrines [New York: Continuum, 2003], p. 483)
Allen Clayton writes:
"Some scholars have argued that a notion of the annihilation of the wicked, and not eternal punishment, is present in the writings of such thinkers as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Arnobius. The textual evidence, however, does not seem to bear the weight of this conclusion. The overwhelming majority of Christian writers held that the wicked were to be eternally punished." (in Everett Ferguson, editor, Encyclopedia of Early Christianity [New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1999], p. 517)
G.S. Shogren writes:
"If the extant literature is any indication, then an overwhelming majority within the ancient church were persuaded that damnation leads to everlasting, conscious suffering." (in Ralph P. Martin and Peter H. Davids, editors, Dictionary Of The Later New Testament & Its Developments [Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1997], p. 461)
The beliefs of mainstream professing Christians were sometimes different from the beliefs of the church fathers, and the fathers themselves held a variety of views of the afterlife in general and Hell in particular. However, the concept that Hell involves eternal consciousness for every person who goes there is a Biblical concept and is supported by the best patristic evidence. We see it early, in many locations, and advocated by people with a variety of backgrounds and personalities. The reason why men like Justin Martyr and Irenaeus can be quoted out of context to make them seem to have opposed a Hell of eternal consciousness is because their affirmation of the concept was accompanied by some reservations and some of the common philosophical beliefs of their day. Still, they did affirm the concept of eternal consciousness in Hell, and the best explanation for that affirmation is that it was a concept taught by Jesus and the apostles.