Patristic Evidence: Apokatastasis or Annihilationism?…The Council Begins

Saints: Origen (Top Left), Barnabas (T. Right), Mathetes (Bottom L.), & Irenaeus (Bottom R.).


Throughout church history, the notion of hell has always been speculated and disputed for centuries. At some point, there were three schools of thought for universalism, one school for everlasting torment, and another school for total annihilation. This triune dispute has remain even unto this day. The topic today will exclude eternal conscious torment; it has an advantage in face-value translations but beyond such surface appearance, it has no substantial justification. The closest dispute that conditional immortality seems to have would be in the flexible usages of the Koine Greek, except when such a language is read by her native speakers, it becomes improbable for it to be justified as genuine doctrine. Anyway, let’s review the evidence for patristic universalism (not interfaith or pantheistic universalism) among the church fathers.

The Accusation of Origen Inventing Universalism (Debunked)

This is the biggest issue with many competitors and skeptics against universalism. People like Chris Date, Jay Dyer, or the author of the Devil’s Redemption either accuse Origen of inventing the doctrine or Gnosticism. They might blame both for such a view yet claim that Origen might have tweaked it a bit. Actual patristic scholars like Dr. Ilaria Ramelli, David Bentley Hart, and Father John Behr would contend against such historical and analytical nonsense. Gnosticism had no concept of universal salvation, but rather their salvific approach was only for the elect or enlightened ones. Why does that sound familiar? Gnosticism in a sense and to a degree would be the antecedent of Calvinism (so-called Reformed theology). Only humans born of a spiritual state (or perhaps psychical state) could achieve secret knowledge as a means for salvation instead of those born of a material state. So it’s very much like unconditional election except with the classification of three modes of ontology and identity (i.e. spirit, soul, and body).

Back to Origen, there is no valid reason to suggest that Origen derived universal salvation simply from his philosophical pursuits. He was a man of philosophy (or love of sophia) but he was also a devoted exegete of scripture. In other words, he respected the scriptures as well as philosophy. Surely, if annihilationism were embedded in the apostolic writings, he would have found a means to justify it or augment it morally in hopes of defending such a “apostolic” view from harsh skeptics like Celsus and such. But the question lingers still in the conscious mind reading this: did Origen invent such a doctrine? The answer is no. There are writings that indeed affirm universalism or purgationism (i.e. my label of this view) before Origen.

Firstly, Clement of Alexandria was of the view that hell was neither retributive, nor permanent but remedial and temporal. He asserts in the following: “And, as I think, the Savior also exerts His might because it is His work to save; which accordingly He also did by drawing to salvation those who became willing, by the preaching [of the Gospel], to believe on Him, wherever they were. If, then, the Lord descended to Hades for no other end but to preach the Gospel, as He did descend; it was either to preach the Gospel to all or to the Hebrews only. If, accordingly, to all, then all who believe shall be saved, although they may be of the Gentiles, on making their profession there; since God’s punishments are saving and disciplinary, leading to conversion, and choosing rather the repentance instead of the death of a sinner” (Stromata: Book 6, Chapter 6). If he insists that post-mortem salvation is possible and that God’s judgement is redemptive by intent, then no other conclusion can be attributed to him except universal salvation. But one might object that these men were both from Alexandria; thus, unreliable sources for orthodoxy due to their involvement with Greek philosophy. However, Paul the apostle was involved with Greek philosophy as well. The conception of the soul is of a Greek origin yet we believe it due to its self-explanatory power. I believe some philosophy founded by the Greeks to be inspired, of course.

Anyway, let me mention the next proponent of universal salvation, that is, the author of the letter to Diognetus. The biggest issue with this epistle is the English translation of chapter 10, verse 7 and 8. The mistranslated reading states: “which is reserved for those that shall be condemned to the eternal fire that shall punish those delivered over to it unto the end”. Now any person of honest rationality would fathom this text to be paradoxical. How can the fire be eternal if there is an end to it? This paradoxical translation should have notified the translator, but due to bias or doctrinal ignorance, it seems he didn’t wish to acknowledge the proper reading of the patristic text. The term used would be aionios which never conveys an endless duration, and it has many applicable meanings that range from antiquity to the quality of an age or anything else. The blind insistence of ‘eternal’ onto this verse is simply fictitious and desperate to conceal a purgationist/universalist reading. Imagine how many Fathers are twisted by translators and both proponents of each view! The reading in Greek actually says: “[It] is reserved for those who shall be sentenced to the great-abiding fire, which shall discipline and imprison them to it until an end” (Mathetes 10:7). The rest before these verses were omitted to explain the fundamental expression of hell, which can be summarized as the author warning Diognetus of a real death that surpasses the physical level of death. Some aren’t convinced by the change in verse 7, but when you read the next verse, you’ll see the irrefutable premise. Verse 8 says: “Then you shall marvel at those who endure the seasonal fire, which is for the sake of righteousness, and you shall consider them blessed when you know what the fire does.” Now, is Mathetes distinguishing the just from the unjust? He is not since the conjunction he uses is consequential instead of being a distinctive conjunction like ‘but’ or ‘however’. While the text states “for the sake of righteousness,” this is to mean for the purpose of righteousness. The original English translation says “for righteousness’ sake,” which doesn’t convey the idea that the fire is temporal based on their righteous works (because bias men will assume this is in reference to the elect). Aside from the English text, the Koine Greek states that the fire is for the sake of redeeming their moral welfare, and nothing more in case anyone bothers me on this textual reading. So then, authors like Mathetes and Clement of Alexandria disprove the theory that Origen or the Gnostics invented universal salvation.

The pseudo-Barnabas and the Didache (Reviewed)

The claim of conditional immortality for “so-called” Barnabas might be disputable, because it could be simply rhetoric for living in apparent vices. The patristic text reads: “But the way of the Black One is crooked and full of a curse. For it is a way of eternal death with punishment wherein are the things that destroy men’s souls — idolatry, boldness, exhalation of power, hypocrisy, doubleness of heart, adultery, murder, plundering, pride, transgression, treachery, malice, stubbornness, witchcraft, magic, covetousness, absence of the fear of God…” (Barnabas 20:1). I would agree that living in sin is socially destructive and self-inflicting to the soul, but not to the degree of causing the soul to vanish from total existence. Though it seems he could be teaching a total destruction of the soul since he includes the notion of sinners perishing with their works (21:1). However, this author isn’t too reliable as other Christian writers (including Jesus) since he uses foreign terms in describing the punishment of the soul with words like ανταποδομα (antapodoma) and τιμωριας (timorias). None of the apostolic writers, Gospel testimonies, and noteworthy patristic writers use these terms to convey the retribution as well as the torment of the soul in regard to post-mortem punishment. Even if they took Barnabas as a highly reliable source, they would also have to acknowledge his rejection of the literal submission to the commands of the Torah in favor of the symbolic teachings derived from it, and recognize his loose quotations of scripture coupled with his somewhat failure in using typology for affirming Christ. “Barnabas” has some useful content, but his epistle can be open to question concerning serious doctrines like the teaching of hell. Regardless, “Barnabas” gives no indication that he was taught by the apostles, nor does he give off a high rank of confidence in teaching essential doctrines. Although, it is possible that he used the doctrine of reserve — that is — the justification for lying, or omitting some information as a means to keep the doctrine of universalism from being abused by immature believers.

The Didache carries more merit than the epistle of Barnabas since it was acknowledged and used by Christian communities. It reads as follows: “Then all created mankind shall come to the fire of testing, and many shall be offended and perish; 16:12 {but they that endure} in their faith {shall be saved} by the curse itself” (Didache 16:11, 12). The proponents of conditional immortality will assume due to the usage of ‘perish’ that souls vanish from existence; however, this certain term in Koine Greek is ἀπολοῦνται (apolountai) which either means to destroy or to lose. And a translator (i.e. Kirsopp Lake) renders ἀπολοῦνται as ‘lost’ instead of ‘perished’. Also, to lose something simply means a loss of total possession of something like how Jesus uses the parable of the lost sheep to describe the spiritual state of those who live apart from God. The curse is simply having a lost identity and broken relationship with God since John 17:3 asserts that aionios life is to personally know God. The curse itself is also the state of still being enslaved to sin. But the opposed Christian might assert that this verse has no plain reading for the redemption of the lost, yet there are subtle hints of a universalist reading based on the literary context, Paul’s writings, and the very specific choice of words.

In continuation to the topic, the same verse reads as “[mankind] shall come to the fire of testing”. The first Greek term used that conveys as fire would be πύρωσιν (pyroo) which instills the impression of purification, but this is not the full argument. The next Greek term used is δοκιμασίας (dokimasias) which means an examination or trial. Now, when these terms are combined, it instills the idea that the fire is intended to purify such a person through an examination of this person’s life. In the view of patristic universalism, the aim of the fire is to discipline, correct, and even interrogate the person, so that the person may reach a realization of his(her) grave errors. Though, when moral correction is brought to the person, he or she react with offense. The aim of correction is redemptive rather than abusive. But aside from this explanation, if the author of this work intended an annihilationist reading, why then, did he not follow the example of “Barnabas”. The author of that epistle didn’t use terms that are embedded with hidden impressions of purification and examination; he rather uses terms that plainly suggest a destructive and retributive notion. In fact, the terminology of the Didache is in linguistic harmony with John’s usage of terms retaining the ideas of purification, calcination, and testing. John uses “lake of fire” to express the imagery of a crucible, in order to convey the intention that the fire is meant for purifying and testing the person. He even uses βάσανος (Basanos) which originally conveyed the idea of using a touchstone to determine the purity of a metal. Because he uses the imagery of a crucible, the most probable intent when using Basanos for the victim of the fire would be testing or trialing them. With notions like everlasting torment or total destruction, they fail to explain the imagery of the crucible since sulfur is used to purify an alloy from its metallic counterpart (e.g. like the separation between iron and copper as a mere illustration). The crucible imagery of John becomes meaningless, especially if you instill annihilationism into the biblical text. Someone argues that Basanos must mean ‘torment’ since everywhere else in the scriptures convey that meaning, except this is a stupid argument rooted in fundamentalism. The Bible doesn’t always convey the full usage of a Greek word, so exceptions must be taken into light, and to say everywhere else conveys the latter meaning would be an assumption from ignorance. So then, the linguistic impression of the nature of hell for humans from the Didache and John’s Revelation is more likely to be a purgative and corrective fire instead of a destructive and vengeful flame.

Although, I know others won’t find the linguistic argument to be effective in believing a purgative hell, so I’ll drop it out of the discourse for now. Though, this next argument will add more merit to the one used prior. According to the text, the wicked are offended and “lost” in the fiery trial of testing. If we are to assume that the wicked have been destroyed in this instance, we would have a problem. Why? Because a verse after that is another verse teaching that some will be resurrected instead of all. Now, we know that before the wicked are resurrected, the holy saints are raised up (Revelation 20:5, 6; 1st Corinthians 15:23, 24). So then, what is the state of the wicked in this case? Are they never raised since they have been finally destroyed? Or are they supposed to be raised again and vanish a second time? The Didache in Chapter 16 is describing events in sequential order instead of merely listing them. It’s in chronological order because it says “And ‘then shall appear the signs’ of the truth. First the sign spread out in Heaven, then the sign of the sound of the trumpet, and thirdly the resurrection of the dead: but not of all the dead” (Didache 16:6, 7). It seems the second resurrection for the wicked is omitted in the Didache, which suggests that the author omits certain doctrines as he intends. What does this prove? It proves that the author of the Didache uses the doctrine of Reserve to conceal offensive doctrines like the complete redemption and resurrection of the wicked. If he believed that the wicked would be destroyed after the resurrection, why did he not simply state it? It is because he didn’t believe it, and logically, it would only make sense to omit their resurrection if he was actually hinting at patristic universalism. Origen (a proponent of the doctrine of Reserve) says, “But that there should be certain doctrines, not made known to the multitude, which are (revealed) after the exoteric ones have been taught, is not a peculiarity of Christianity alone, but also of philosophic systems, in which certain truths are exoteric and others esoteric” (Against Celsus I, vii). The most probable cause for his omission of the second resurrection (i.e. of the wicked) is due to their eventual redemption and transformation from the purgative fires just as Mathetes states in his letter. Conclusively, Barnabas sides with annihilationism but the Didache plainly sides with no one unless there is a subtle implication of patristic universalism, and deducible evidence for the doctrine of Reserve at work. Yet in highest probability, the Didache secretly communicates patristic universalism to the more enlightened and mature Christian based on the arguments of doctrinal omission and purgationist undertones; therefore, confirming the use of the doctrine of Reserve.

However, before I proceed to the next section regarding Irenaeus and Justin, there are some objections. The first objection is the idea that both the just and the unjust will be raised on the same day. They cite verses like Matthew 27:52–53 to profess that this is the same resurrection mentioned in Revelation 20:5, but this objection is easily refuted by verse 4. The fourth verse in Revelation makes it apparent that those who were risen were martyred Christians based on the reading: “I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image…” It is clear that John was writing an epistle regarding the Early Church’s present and ongoing persecutions instead of some singular event recorded in Matthew. Though their deaths took place already, their resurrection will transpire in the future. I know people will use John 5:29 to affirm a one-time resurrection of both parties, but this is arguably a generalized statement instead of a detailed statement. The term anastasis can alternatively mean a recovery or a rising up for general welfare, rather than exclusively meaning a physical recovery of the body. The next objection is the idea that everyone in the Early Church knew that the wicked would be resurrected sometime in the future, but this is based on assumptions. If otherwise, why did Polycarp affirm that no one will be resurrected unless they do the will of God? “Now ‘He who raised Him’ from the dead ‘will also raise us up’ if we do His will, and walk in His commandments and love the things which he loved…” (Polycarp 2:2 to the Philippians). The resurrection according to Polycarp was conditional instead of unconditional, but still eventual since all will have His heart at some point in time. It is possible that some believers weren’t aware of the eventual resurrection of the wicked, but it is more plausible to suggest that the basic dogma revealed by the Corinthian creed was known to all believers whether mature or immature (1st Corinthians 15:3–5). Even the letter of 3rd Corinthians (possibly authentic and framed as forgery) suggests that the wicked will have no part in the resurrection but in the fire due to resistance, “Those who say there is no resurrection of the flesh shall have no resurrection,…but those who refuse this rule, fire shall be with him and those who followed him” (3rd Corinthians 2:24, 37). This letter isn’t affirming an absolute truth, instead it is suggesting an alternative situation for the wicked. This is due to the lack of terms implying ‘forever,’ ‘always,’ and ‘never’. He gives the implication that their resurrection could be conditional but not negated forever. When reading such texts, we need to be cautious in attributing absolutes because the author could be implying a conditional or circumstantial truth (e.g. Proverbs, Ecclesiastes).

The ‘Legs’ of Annihilationism? (i.e. Arnobius, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr)

In one of these websites, they claim that Arnobius of Sicca was an annihilationist. Though, I haven’t heard or studied this man under scrutiny, I will hand this man over to their alleged claim that he taught annihilationism. Why? Because whatever this man taught is irrelevant. He is just as irrelevant as St. Augustine, Tertullian, or Taitan teaching everlasting torment as a doctrine for hell. None of these men, including Arnobius fathomed the Koine Greek language which would provide a linguistic advantage; thus, they have no accurate assessment of the apostolic scriptures. Instead writers like Origen, Clement, and Gregory of Nyssa have a linguistic advantage for teaching Christian orthodoxy from the Scriptures since the Latin poorly translates Greek rhetoric and terms. At this point, it is meaningless and unnecessary to even mention Arnobius to be a genuinely good interpreter of the scriptures since Latin is his native language (not Greek), and the vast majority of Christians don’t even know him as a reliable source. If the Latin Fathers don’t comprehend the Greek like Origen or Clement, they simply fail to be reliable sources for successively interpreting the Scriptures. It seems Arnobius is a mere desperate attempt to continue this annihilationist narrative being around the Church. I mean, at least they mentioned “Barnabas” since he understood the Greek, but still not a top rank source for Christian orthodoxy as reasons mentioned prior.

The famous saint Irenaeus of Lyons is quoted as believing conditional immortality; however, this is very disputable. There even seems to be passages that support him being either as an Infernalist, Annihilationist, or as a Purgationist. One could argue that maybe he flirted with such ideas in his theology, and wavered around for a time yet this is hard to justify somewhat. I guess if there are no means to reconcile every passage under each hell view, then I guess the theory of theological wavering could be justified for Irenaeus. Though, the biggest issue with Irenaeus is that most of his works were preserved in Latin instead of Greek, so we have no way of knowing whether he used such terms or not unless by the provision of a Greek fragment (which is often rare and small). But I’ll try to demonstrate his universalist undertones or prove he was a universalist (or perhaps a private universalist). In 1st Corinthians, Paul teaches a universal awakening and resurrection for everyone (15:22). Well, Irenaeus faithfully bases his theology on Paul’s universalist theology by writing, “God drove Adam out of Paradise, and removed him far from the tree of life, in compassion for him, that he might not remain a transgressor always, and that the sin in which he was involved might not be immortal, nor be without end and incurable. He prevented further transgression by the interposition of death, and by causing sin to cease by the dissolution of the flesh * * * that man ceasing to live to sin, and dying to it, might begin to live to God” (Book 3, Ch. 23, P6). Notice, not only does he base his statements on Paul’s universalist theology, but he consistently speaks of the redemptive plan of God for all humankind and not merely the elect. Then we must ask ourselves, why then does the destruction of the flesh help produce the cessation of sins and the moral revival of the soul? According to apokatastasis, the purgative fires are aimed at renewing the souls of the lost whereas the souls of the righteous are renewed by the sprinkling of the Lord’s blood — that is — the grand display of His love on the Cross (1st Corinthians 3:15, 5:5; 2nd Corinthians 5:14, 15). There is a purgative correspondence for both groups based on the operation of blood and fire being outside the gates of a city (Hebrews 13:12; Revelation 22:14, 15).

However, the website of conditionalists will assume the opposite for Irenaeus. This is their citation: “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 recognized Him who bestowed [the gift upon him], deprives himself of [the privilege of] continuance for ever and ever. And, for this reason, the Lord declared to those who showed themselves ungrateful towards Him: “If ye have not been faithful in that which is little, who will give you that which is great?” indicating 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” (Against Heresies: Book 2 Chapter 34). The problem with this reading of Irenaeus is the suggestion of immortality as only being defined as some force offering ontology; however, immorality has another meaning according to Irenaeus. Remember, John 17:3 says that aionion life is to know God personally or socially instead of the continued existence of the soul, and Irenaeus being educated in the scriptures would not contend with, nor would he be ignorant of this kind of immortality. Irenaeus writes, “But communion with God is life and light, and the enjoyment of the benefits within Himself…But separation from God is death, and separation from light is darkness” (Against Heresies: Book 5, Chapter 27). This kind of immortality is a social quality rather than the ontological kind. Though, it states that separation from God is death yet it also says separation from light (i.e. God) is darkness, which doesn’t imply a state of annihilation but a depraved and inferior state of existence. It is not to be taken as literal elements, but figuratively representing an inferior state of existence. Irenaeus writes in addition, “And separation from God consists in the loss of these benefits within Himself. Therefore, those who are cast away by apostasy in these fore-mentioned things, being in fact devoid of [these benefits], do experience every kind of [corrective] chastisement” (Against Heresies: Same as beforehand). The term in the lost Greek text that Irenaeus uses is a variation of kolasis (kolazontos/Κολάζοντος), which never implies a retributive or vengeful chastisement, but a corrective and compassionate (i.e. a redemptive intention) course of action. Even in the Wisdom of Solomon 12:27, this term is used to express a corrective chastisement for the wicked rather than for the purpose of vengeance (i.e. intents to merely destroy well-being), “While they were being punished because of the creatures they had worshiped, they became angry with those creatures and finally realized that you are the only true God, even though they had always refused to worship you. All this explains why they were punished so terribly.” Irenaeus speaks of divine correction intended for one’s redemption rather than punishments intended to gratify a person’s sense of justice. Of course, a certain Infernalist will assume that he held to Eternal Separation based on this reading: “Now, good things are eternal and without end with God, and therefore the loss of these is also eternal and never-ending.” However, this is a translation from the Latin version instead of the Greek. Based on a Greek record of Irenaeus’ choice of words, it seems he used αιωνια and άτελεύτητα. If this version of aionion conveyed eternal, then Irenaeus would be repeating this concept due to his use of ateleftita (assuming the literal sense of this other word). It would read as, “Now good things with God are forever and without end…” However, the rendering of this patristic text could denote a sense of quality and quantity of the benefits instead of a mention of duration. Because aionia or aionion can express a quality of something, it is possible that ateleftita could express a quantity of something. Therefore, it could be rendered as: “Now good things with God are great in quality and quantity, and therefore, the loss of these are also great in quality and quantity”. I know the rhetorical sense of these two terms are speculative but possible since AEterna is falsely equated with aionia, and the extended usage of aionion and aionia. If aionion is able to convey the qualitative measure rhetorically, then the next term is also able to convey the quantitative measure. This same and unfamiliar Greek term in the modern Greek system has been used to reference a quantitative measure, which seems possible for this ancient term to have conveyed such an additional meaning. Though, I know this is speculative to suggest yet possible and non-contradictory.

Contrary to what is being presented, Irenaeus is formulating a hypothetical argument to disprove that the soul is innately everlasting apart from God’s will, but this isn’t suggesting that wicked souls will soon disappear into oblivion. So then, the immortality that Irenaeus speaks of is again, a sociological kind rather than an ontological kind. Because Irenaeus’ theology states that “obedience to God is identified with life as the possession of the Spirit while disobedience is identified with sin and death,” according to Vassilios Bebis. As for Ben C. Blackwell, he writes, …divine immortality [in sources contemporaneous with Irenaeus] does not necessarily entail a corresponding ontology…because immortality could be social [i.e. qualitative] as well as ontological. For instance,…when early Greek poetry honoured its heroes, this ‘immortality’ had nothing to do with ontology. Similarly, Wisdom argues that the righteous will be immortal because they are remembered by the community (Wis 3–4, esp. 4.1, 7–9, 18–19). As such, social immortality mediated through honour, fame, and remembrance continued to play a role in the Hellenistic honour-shame culture.” Another time he says, “Irenaeus appears to draw from this conceptuality of immortality and power as characterising deity. For instance, with his quotation of Wis 6.19 in 4.38.3 (‘Incorruption brings one near to God…’), he makes his association between incorruption/immortality and divinity clear. At the same time, in 4.11.2 we remember how Irenaeus distinguishes between God and humanity: God makes, humanity is made. Thus, with his use of immortality language Irenaeus shows that believers are drawn into a divine manner [i.e. quality] of being, but the difference from creation shows the difference between humanity and the divine. Returning to 3.19.1, his identification of believers as ‘gods’ due to their experience of immortality indicates that he is probably working with this Greek taxonomy in mind.” In other words, Irenaeus was by no means an annihilationist, but rather contrary to it. The Gnostic Christian, that is, Valentinus’ disciple Heracleon, in his commentary on the Gospel of John, writes:

Soul and body are destroyed in Gehenna. [Footnote: See Matthew 10:28] The soul is not immortal but only has a disposition to salvation. It is the perishable that robes itself in imperishability, and the mortal that robes itself in immortality, when its death was swallowed in victory. See 1 Corinthians 15:53–55].

Such Information found on this Website:

Saint Irenaeus seems to be in contradiction towards the annihilationist understanding of the soul. It also seems probable to conclude that annihilationism wasn’t foreign or contrary to certain Gnostic teachings. Although, what was the actual view of Irenaeus? It is possible to suggest that he believed in the restoration of all things as the fragments (#39) attributed to him says, “Christ, who was called the Son of God before the ages, was manifested in the fullness of time, in order that He might cleanse us through His blood, who were under the power of sin, presenting us as pure sons to His Father, if we yield ourselves obediently to the chastisement of the Spirit. And in the end of time He shall come to do away with all evil, and to reconcile all things, in order that there may be an end of all impurities.” How can there be an end of all impurities if there is a perpetual state of evil existent upon lost humans? Conclusively, Irenaeus should be regarded more as a purgationist or universalist rather than as an infernalist or annihilationist. This is to be continued…

(Because this story is too long, I would like to save Justin Martyr for a future post named: Patristic Evidence: Apokatastasis or Infernalism? I know annihihlationism has nothing to do with infernalism but it will only be briefly mentioned in this future medium post while attacking every infernalist argument for the Fathers.)



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