Church History Question on shifts in emphasis about getting saved/ being a sinner

It seems like the early Christians were a happy and hopeful bunch, even when faced with Roman emperors torturning and brutally killing them en masse. All you had to do was accept Jesus, be baptized, and be good to others and a decent member of the community, and you didn’t have to worry about where you would go when you died.

When and why did this emphasis shift from “happy reward for most Christians” to “most people are miserable scummy sinful worms who will be lucky if God is merciful and doesn’t just cast them aside like something scraped off his shoe”?

The only source I was able to find so far was from the Unitarians and therefore seems inherently biased and unreliable to me. I’m not going to repost it and get it more hits.

Can somebody with expertise in Church history respond?

The only place I hear things like that is from books by the saints but in a mitigated and justified way.

All you had to do was accept Jesus, be baptized, and be good to others and a decent member of the community, and you didn’t have to worry about where you would go when you died.

That’s not at all how the earlier church was like. That’s what the contemporary West wants the early Church to be like, so we can justify our lukewarmness.

most people are miserable scummy sinful worms who will be lucky if God is merciful and doesn’t just cast them aside like something scraped off his shoe

This sounds more like the caricatures of those who ignore how sinful we really are (which is, again, common in the contemporary West). If we could experience the ripple effect in time of one of our minor sins, we would better understand the saintly spirit of contrition.

You should look into Chesterton’s reflections in Orthodoxy on the optimist and pessimist to get a better understanding of how the Gospel reconciles strong pride for humanity and utter shame for it: http://www.gkc.org.uk/gkc/books/orthodoxy/ch5.html

Here’s the website with the whole book and even Librabox recordings (audiobooks), all free: http://www.gkc.org.uk/gkc/books/

Christi pax.

Thanks for your thoughtful response.

I like Chesterton, but do you have a reference specifically about “what the earlier Church was like”?

I’m looking for some historical discussion of how the early Church regarded sin vs. how the church in the Dark Ages and Middle Ages regarded sin. It seems like there was some difference and that the early Christians were more confident of being saved.

Well, going back to the start of it all: We can assume the words of Our Lord Jesus were the same the Apostles preached. With all it’s exigence and stringiness. I’m reminded that all the beauties and difficulties in the Pauline letters would have been the same.

Then, it was a very different world. Those first Christians must have been touched in their hearts, and reason, by the example of the first, and only religion, that preached lifelong marriage and indissolubility. Not only that, but meekness and humility in a world of violence and power.

They also, certainly, saw themselves even more different from the world around them given there were no human rights and inhumane laws&lawlessness being prevalent.

Perhaps even more, it is said both miracles and prophecy were more widespread in the times of the emergent church. For the church at its beginning had greater needs of visible signs and Our Lord operated those signs in favor of His church.

Now, the specific answer: Will we be saved, and did they consider “being saved” easy or only for the selected few? In that heathen surrounding they’d be more sure, yet the demands of moral conduct were still on them. I also tend to believe that the refined Pauline letters wouldn’t have been understood by everyone if preached that way.

So, when I look at the majority of the elderly ladies in my village -who hardly know how to read and write- and with all their defects lead saintly lives, I’d say they wouldn’t be “certain” but express “great faith” meaning they really really hope to go to heaven, and have confidence Our Lord will get them there.

The “sinners are going to hell” simply seems to coexist in catholic literature since Saint Paul. The best words about this are from Jesus. And I do fear the consequences of sin, and still hope in the Lord.

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With the number of martyrs among the early Christians, they likely saw themselves as risking their lives by being a Christian, and therefore perhaps trusting more in God’s mercy and salvation than later generations who were not in fear of their lives from simply practicing the faith. If someone is dying for the faith and often dying a pretty gruesome death, it seems pretty easy to think that God would be likely to welcome that person to Heaven.

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Possibly the 11th or 12 century according to this:

The satisfaction theory of atonement is a theory in Christian theology that Jesus Christ suffered crucifixion as a substitute for human sin, satisfying God’s just wrath against humankind’s transgression due to Christ’s infinite merit. The theory draws primarily from the works of Anselm of Canterbury.


This book review quotes Irenaeus (via New Advent and in the quote below) and mentions other Early Church Fathers so it’s possible no shift occurred:

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 elders 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, (Matthew 26:24) and that it shall be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah in the judgment than for that city which did not receive the word of His disciples. (Matthew 10:15)

Very true Tis_Bear, I didn’t mention the martyrs because I feel they are such a special example my words fall short of doing them any justice. Although, every time I do “the right thing” and it’s a sacrifice or somewhat costly I think along the same lines. [It was only when reading Saint Theresa of Lisieux that I discovered God prefers mercy over sacrifice. And I’m working on those “small works” of mercy. I suppose after a while all Christians reaching some maturity and identifying grace working in them will have a mixture of hope and fear of sin.]

A friend priest told me we should have some peace when we sin and focus on steadfastly continue walking towards Our Lord.

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@Atraveller the bible itself states Christ died to redeem our sins.

So the “satisfaction theory” you reference placed in the 11th or 12th (which I didn’t know about BTW, thanks for that) must haven been a period of specific interest which saw many authors studying and debating that specific aspect of theology. Perhaps even founding (and coining) a specific school of thought or discipline around the particular subject. Or perhaps it coincides to some extant with the “conciliums” taking doctrinal stances and defining dogma (after centuries of debate as is usual…)

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