Is the soul immortal?

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The Creation Concept

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VI. On the Orthodox Doctrine on the Nature and Destiny of Mankind

VII. On the Possibility that Christendom has Erred on the Doctrine of Human Destiny

VIII. On the Immortality of the Soul

IX. On the Original Constitution of Man



The term 'orthodox' is employed in this connection as the most convenient mode of designating the doctrine which has prevailed in Christendom both most widely and most durably; for, although the Roman, Greek, and Protestant Churches have differed exceedingly on other questions of interpretation, there has existed a singular unanimity between them as to the facts and general principles which underlie what is held to be a correct view of the condition and destiny of mankind.

The Reformation attempted no modification whatever of the basis of theology in respect of the doctrine of the Fall of Man, and its consequences for the human race, The dissident Protestant sects during all their earlier history stood fast on the old ways, and reiterated the principles which have prevailed in the Church-- at least since the age of Augustine. It is in the writings of Augustine that the first full and complete development of this system of ideas respecting God's dealings with men is to be found. There is nothing entirely resembling it either in the New Testament or in the Ante-Nicene Fathers. The central thought of this doctrine springs from a belief, in which we sympathise, in the historical truth of the narrative of the trial and sin of Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis; but it branches out into several subordinate doctrines of vast extent and importance, not so plainly contained in that narrative. It has been held, with the nearly unanimous consent of the ancient theological authorities, and has been embodied as an article of faith in the Judgment of the Church, that Adam the ancestor of mankind was created at first under a complex constitution; endued with a body that could die, which, however, served but as the shrine and tabernacle of a soul that should never die; this immortality of the soul depending ultimately on the will of God.

It has been held that the death threatened to Adam in case of transgression is to be understood in several distinct senses, according to the part of his complex nature which was affected by the judgment of God, and the relations to time or eternity borne by the different portions of the punishment. With nearly absolute unanimity it has been held by all the great historical Churches that when Adam sinned the sentence of death took effect upon his body, by ensuring the physical dissolution of his animal structure. This is technically called temporal death. Next, it is held that as soon as he sinned his soul was separated morally from God, and, since God is the fountain of 'spiritual life,' that apostate condition of Adam's soul is described in sacred language as spiritual death-- a description which is considered to be authorised by the Apostle Paul when he speaks of sinners being 'dead in trespasses and sins' (Eph. ii. 1). And, lastly, it is held that when this life ended, and the naturally never-dying soul went forth into the unseen world of judgment, it was doomed to enter upon a prospect of everlasting suffering in hell, which is termed eternal death.

It has been for ages the fundamental doctrine of Christian theology in Europe that in the original trial of Man in Paradise Adam was thus threatened with temporal, spiritual, and eternal death, this last sense of the term standing for everlasting damnation, or conscious punishment throughout the future eternity. Whether Adam as an individual person actually will undergo this triple condemnation is a wholly different question. But, as a representative man, there is a wonderful concurrence of divines that by his sin he incurred this appalling complex doom.

The Confession of Faith of the Assembly of Divines of Westminster, representing the best thought in theology up to that time, only confirms the general judgment of Roman and Protestant Christendom when it declares, in the sixth paragraph of its sixth chapter, under the title of 'The Fall of Man, of Sin, and of the Punishment thereof'-- that 'every sin, both original and actual, being a transgression of the righteous law of God, and contrary thereto, doth in its own nature bring guilt upon the sinner, whereby he is bound over to the wrath of God, and curse of the law, and so made subject to DEATH, with all miseries spiritual, temporal, and eternal.'

This however is but the beginning of sorrows. For the next universally received doctrine of the orthodox Church was, and is, that this direful destiny descended by inheritance from Adam upon the whole of the human race, so that every human being, under the 'covenant of works,' is born, 1, liable to temporal death; 2, under the curse of spiritual death; and 3, certain to endure the woe of death eternal, or endless mysery. It is held that this is the doom under which every human infant is conceived and born into the world, (thrice happy the unborn!): so that endless misery is its destiny by the law, as the natural result of its descent from Adam, and before it has 'done good or evil.'

The Protestant Articles of Religion, framed herein on the lines of the ancient Church, expressly repudiate the idea that the curse of 'eternal death' comes upon men only in consequence of personal active imitation of the sin of Adam.

It is declared to be a congenital inheritance. Adam by his sin incurred eternal damnation in hell in the sense of endless misery; and this is the curse which has descended as an heirloom on his infant posterity. Let us hear the Church of England in her IXth Article, 'Of Original or Birth Sin.'

'Original Sin standeth not in the following of Adam (as the Pelagians do vainly talk); but it is the fault and corruption of the Nature of every man that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam; whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness (quam lungissime), and is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the spirit; and therefore in every person born into this world it deserveth God's wrath and damnation;' by which the authors of the Article intended endless misery.

The Westminster Assembly of Divines in the sixth chapter of its Confession is even more explicit.

'Our first parents being the root of all mankind, the guilt of their sin was imputed, and the same death in sin and corrupted nature conveyed to all their posterity, descending from them by ordinary generation.

'From this original corruption, whereby we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil, do proceed all actual transgressions.'

Then follows the fore-cited sentence. 'Every sin, both original and actual, doth in its own nature bring guilt upon the sinner, whereby he is bound over to the wrath of God, and so made subject to death, with all miseries, spiritual, temporal, and eternal.'

It thus appears to be unquestionably the orthodox faith of Christendom that, before they have done good or evil, all mankind are born liable to eternal misery through original sin, and that the development of their corrupt nature, whereby they are made 'opposite to all good,' can only aggravate an eternal destiny to suffering already incurred through the transgression of Adam.

The Augustinian divines of the Church of Rome, no small portion of the whole body, and the Calvinistic divines of the Protestant Churches, add to these terrible conclusions the further doctrine of predestination to damnation. The Assembly of Divines (setting forth the present accredited faith of the Church of Scotland) explicitly teach in their third chapter-- that 'By the decree of God, for the manifestation of His glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life, and others foreordained to everlasting death.' And of the non-elect they say, 'The rest of mankind God was pleased, according to the unsearchable counsel of His own will, whereby He extendeth or withholdeth mercy as He pleaseth, for the glory of His sovereign power over His creatures, to pass by, and to ordain them to dishonour and wrath for their sin, to the praise of His glorious justice.'

Since, however, these formidable super-additions are held by but a portion of orthodox Christendom, it is better to leave them out of present view. The statements in which the orthodox Churches are agreed suffice for the present purpose. The sum of the whole is, that mankind is born in a state of everlasting damnation, under a curse of Death, which is to be taken in the three senses, of bodily decease, moral apostasy, and everlasting misery. And from this doom there is no escape except by the grace of God in regeneration. 'Except a man be born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.' All the unregenerate portion of mankind is destined to suffer in 'everlasting fire.'

There can be no question that these are the views under which the historical Churches of Christendom have contemplated the condition and destiny of the human race, and under which they have sought to apply the remedy in missionary enterprise and benevolence. In his letters from India, Xavier speaks only the uniform sense of his Church when he describes the destiny of the unbaptised millions around him as involving the prospect of eternal torment, and maintains that the unevangelised millions of previous ages had descended to that irrevocable doom. In a letter of S. Francis Xavier, written in 1552 (edited in 1873 by Rev. E. Coleridge, of the Society of Jesus), he says, 'One of the things that most of all pains and torments these Japanese is that we teach them that the prison of Hell is irrevocably shut-- so that there is no egress therefrom. For they grieve over the fate of their departed children, of their parents and relatives-- and they often show their grief by their tears. So they ask us if there is any hope-- any way to free them by prayer from that eternal misery, and I am obliged to answer that there is absolutely none. Their grief at this affects and torments them wonderfully-- they almost pine away with sorrow. But there is this good thing about their trouble-- it makes one hope that they will all be the more laborious for their own salvation, lest they, like their forefathers, should be condemned to everlasting punishment.' 'They often ask if God cannot take their fathers out of hell, and why their punishment must never have an end. We gave them a satisfactory answer; but they did not cease to grieve over the misfortunes of their relatives,-- and I can hardly restrain my tears sometimes at seeing men so dear to my heart suffer such intense pain about a thing which is already done with, and can never be undone.'

Not so logically or consistently have some Protestant Divines of recent time sought to mitigate the terribleness of the prospect by tampering arbitrarily with the interpretation of the threatening of Death, on which hangs the system of Augustinian theology. Dr. Payne of Exeter (Congregational Lecturer on Original Sin) speaks indeed the general sense of English theologians of the latter portion of this age when he attempts to discriminate between the various senses of this threatening, and to direct their incidence more mercifully than has been the ancient wont of the Churches; but in so doing he opens the door to the entrance of a principle of interpretation which will inevitably destroy both his own doctrine and the elder scheme of doctrine which he assails.

Smitten to the heart by the terrific dogma of the descent of the curse of eternal death, in the sense of endless suffering, upon the infant posterity of Adam, these 'merciful doctors 'have insisted upon a limitation of the signification of this curse as respects the personally guiltless. The old Roman Divines had found in S. Paul's argument addressed to their own Church (Rom. v. 12) decisive evidence that the Death which 'entered by one offence,' or 'the offence of one,' 'passed upon all men,' without any limitation, 'even,' as S. Paul declares specially, 'upon them that had not sinned after the similitude of Adam's transgression.' Whatever reason, therefore, there was for understanding this threat in the triple sense, so as to include eternal misery for Adam himself (a point of belief on which no one seems to have entertained a doubt), there was exactly the same reason for believing that it descended in its direful integrity upon all his posterity. The case of infants might be indeed fearful, but there was no loophole of escape for them from the system which embraced in its iron grip the whole race of man. To insinuate that for them the 'eternal death' formed no part of the inherited curse was to break up the foundation of faith in redemption, and in the descent of original sin. Accordingly this position was maintained with the utmost firmness by all the Roman theologians, and not less by the Reformers. Augustine had set the example of such firmness. 'It may, therefore, be rightly said (says he) that little ones dying without baptism will be in the mildest damnation of all (in damnatione mitissima). Yet he greatly deceives and is deceived who preaches that they will not be in damnation; since the apostle says, Judgment was by one to condemnation.' (Multum autem fallit et fallitur, qui eos in damnatione predicat non futures.-- Opp. vii. p. 142.)

But that which they dreaded, as fatal to systematic divinity, has been asserted by our English and American divines of recent times. These affirm, apparently without any evidence, except that derived from their own sense of moral fitness, that although the death threatened to Adam himself included the threefold curse with eternal misery, the curse as it descended on the posterity dropt its most fearful signification, and came upon the human race in its birth only as a twofold doom, as temporal death, and an inherited corruption of their nature which is termed 'death spiritual.' Thus, it is supposed, all mankind are born, not under sentence of eternal misery for Adam's sin, but only under a corrupt constitution of nature, by which, when they come to years, they will incur that sentence by their own transgressions. [1]

There is no doubt that this mode of treatment of the language of Scripture offers an immense alleviation. We learn no longer to look upon the countenance of a child, with all our orthodox progenitors, as on a wretched being under sentence of eternal misery for the offence of a distant ancestor. Some would even encourage us to regard the new-born child as born under Redemption, and by its birth into a world where Christ lias died, entitled thereby to regenerating grace and everlasting glory. But this is an extreme view towards which few incline.

The chief objection to this brighter representation of the results of the Fall of Man on the prospects of Mankind is that it proceeds on a method of interpretation which is fatal to the whole fabric of theology which it seeks to uphold.

If, from regard to our supposed sense of right, we operate upon the term death which describes in apostolic language the curse which has 'passed upon' mankind (Rom. v. 12)-- if by an ipse dixit the enlightened Protestant expositor may sweep away at one stroke of his pen the whole tremendous prospect of everlasting misery from before the world of Adam-born children-- what is to hinder, asks the more consistent Roman theologian, the sweeping away of that third sense of death-- or eternal misery, in its supposed application to Adam himself, and all other persons affected by his behaviour? A precedent in interpretation is established which will certainly be acted upon in a larger signification. The difficulty is already great of teaching that the 'death' of the body, in the death threatened to Adam, signified its dissolution, while in the 'Second Death' (or infliction of eternal suffering) the same term, even in reference to the body, is taken for endless misery. But how much greater the difficulty of maintaining that the original curse was designed to convey the meaning of eternal suffering, if at the first occurrence of an objection, occasioned only by our tender compassion for infants, it is held that the word must be stripped of its infinite meaning in its application to them.
The Augustinian system is best defended in its integrity. Take away one of its fundamental definitions, and it falls to the ground. The recent Protestant glosses breathe a compassionate leniency, but they endanger far more than they defend. Augustine and Calvin were solid ligicians, and may be trusted in their estimate of what is necessary to the coherency of their theological system.        

We return, therefore, to the ancient doctrine, which is that the whole multitudinous human race, either through an hereditary curse, or through a transmitted corruption of nature which leads to an ungodly life, is, and has always been, in danger of a Hell never-ending; from which danger it is delivered only by a remedy, so far as the present world is concerned, apparently of most limited application.

'Broad is the road that leadeth to Destruction, and many there be that go in thereat.' If the word destruction is rightly taken for the idea of endless misery, the force of Christ's words agrees with the general and ancient sense of Christendom, that the majority of mankind have in all ages gone forward to endure an eternity of woe.

That such 'woe' will be proportioned to the deserts of the offenders no believer in Divine Justice, not even S. Augustine, can for one moment have doubted or denied. The extreme ignorance of multitudes of wicked men may be regarded with comparative lenity. On the other hand, the offences of the most guilty, because the best informed, would with equal justice be followed by far more awful inflictions. Let us, therefore, now attempt to arouse the reader's mind to consider what it is which Christendom professes in its standards to believe, whether in the case of those most lightly punished, or of those on whom will descend the heavier dooms. The main force of the orthodox doctrine on the effects of the Fall on the condition of mankind lies in the eternity of those effects. Sin brings Death as its wages; and Death signifies eternal misery. It must be, then, a wholesome exercise to strive to realise the prospect. Every divine truth seems to be more true the more we dwell upon it and consider it. Truth unveils itself in its evidence and completeness to those who impartially endeavour to apprehend its bearings. God the Lord also is best known by His works; and if the issue of human life in its overwhelming numbers will be to fix, whether a majority, as most suppose, or a minority, as some few affirm, in an unchangeable state of torment, or misery, or even of darkness and sorrow, it must serve the interests of truth and righteousness, and of theology itself, to follow in the path of the poets and divines who have taught us how to meditate, first of all on future suffering, and, secondly, upon that everlastingness which is the measure of its duration.

The writers who have of late years come forward to maintain the orthodox doctrine agree in their general conclusion. Let us seriously endeavour to understand what that conclusion is.

It is-- that, notwithstanding denial, there is compelling reason to believe that all who die unforgiven shall suffer-- for ever and ever-- in hell. Words easily spoken and written, but which reveal their meaning, or rather a glimmer of their meaning, only to those who set themselves steadily to the task of realising the doctrine. The significance of words is limited also by men's experience, most persons being deficient in the power of vigorously conceiving of either suffering or duration. Those who have endured severe chronic pain for several decades of years, and those who have been visited by the more dreadful forms of mental anguish, are likely to attach a deeper meaning to such a phrase as 'endless misery' than men whose strong health, or unchequered history, or unimaginative natures have concealed from them the more woful experiences of life. The generality of teachers who insist upon a literal eternity of pain seem to have little capacity for picturing to themselves what their doctrine portends. On some it seems to exert a hardening influence. They speak with something like contempt of a 'sensational recoil' from the idea of endless torment-- as if there were nothing in it that ought to cause any difficulty to a devout, considering man. They evince no need of those alleviations by which gentler spirits seek to shade their eyes from the blinding prospect. [2]

The believers in that prospect, indeed, are not agreed upon the degree or kind of suffering which is revealed as eternal; and those who anticipate the deepest horrors might seem, as is natural, to stagger at them less than those who believe in lighter inflictions.

Unwillingly I add a few specimens of the mode of presenting the supposed threatenings of Revelation from approved divines. That holy man, President Jonathan Edwards, says:--

'Here all judges have a mixture of mercy, but the wrath of God will be poured out upon the wicked without mixture, and vengeance will have its full weight. We can conceive but little of the matter. We cannot conceive what the sinking of the soul in such a case is. But to help your conception, imagine yourself to be cast into a fiery oven, all of a glowing heat, or into the midst of a glowing brick-kiln, or of a great furnace, where your pain would be as much greater than that occasioned by accidentally touching a coal of fire as the heat is greater; and imagine also that your body were to lie there for a quarter of an hour, full of fire, as full within and without as a bright coal fire, all the while full of quick sense: what horror would you feel at the entrance of such a furnace! Oh, then, how would your heart sink, if you thought, if you knew, that you must bear it for ever and ever! that there would be no end! that after millions and millions of ages your torment would be no nearer to an end than ever it was! and that you never, never should be delivered! But your torment in hell will be immensely greater than this illustration represents.'-- Vol. iii., p. 260.

Mr. Spurgeon, whose opinions represent in the most vigorous form, and with striking sincerity, the theology of the middle and lower classes of England, does not hesitate to hold before his hearers a prospect of endless physical agony:--

'Only conceive that poor wretch in the flames, who is saying, "0 for one drop of water to cool my parched tongue! "See how his tongue hangs from between his blistered lips! How it excoriates and burns the roof of his mouth, as if it were a firebrand! Behold him crying for a drop of water. I will not picture the scene. Suffice it for me to close up by saying, that the hell of hells will be to thee, poor sinner, the thought that it is to be for ever. Thou wilt look up there on the throne of God,-- and on it shall be written, "For ever!" When the damned jingle the burning irons of their torments, they shall say "For ever!" When they howl, echo cries, "For ever!"
     " 'For ever' is written on their rocks,'
    'For ever' on their chains;'
    'For ever' burneth in the fire,'
    'For ever' ever reigns."
Doleful thought! "If I could but get out, then I should be happy." "If there were a hope of deliverance, then I might be peaceful; but here I am for ever! "Sirs! if ye would escape eternal torments, if ye would be found amongst the number of the blessed, the road to heaven can only be found by prayer,' etc.-- Sermon preached in 1855.

It may be objected that this sermon was preached twenty years ago; but only three years since Mr. Spurgeon declared his adhesion to the former style of discourse on future punishment in these words:--

'We are sometimes accused, my brethren, of using language too harsh, too ghastly, too alarming, with regard to the world to come; but we shall not soon change our note; for we solemnly believe that if we could speak thunderbolts, and our every look were a lightning flash, and if our eyes dropped blood instead of tears, no tones, words, gestures, or similitudes of dread could exaggerate the awful condition of a soul which has refused the gospel and is delivered over to justice.'-- Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit (revised and corrected), p. 186.

A still more graphic style of representation is common among Roman Catholic preachers. Those who believe in the beneficial effect of pictorial horrors on youug and ignorant people might take a lesson from the religious manuals of  the Roman priests. Mr. Lecky quotes the following, in his History of European Morals, from a Tract 'for children and young persons,' called The Sight of Hell, by Rev. J. Furniss; published "permissu superiorum," by Duffy (London and Dublin). It is a detailed description of the dungeons of hell:--

'See on the middle of that red-hot floor stands a girl: she looks about sixteen years old. Her feet are bare. Listen; she speaks "I have been standing on this red-hot floor for years! Look at my burnt and bleeding feet! Let me go off this burning floor for one moment! "The fifth dungeon is the red-hot oven. The little child is in the red-hot oven. Hear how it screams to come out; see how it turns and twists itself about in the fire. It beats its head against the roof of the oven. It stamps its little feet on the floor. God was very good to this little child. Very likely God saw it would get worse and worse, and would never repent, and so it would have to be punished more severely in hell. So God in His mercy called it out of the world in early childhood.'

All this, says Mr. Furniss, is to last for ever.

Such representations would, however, be severely reprehended by the majority of educated orthodox preachers in our own time. To them the eternal hell is of a more spiritual character; but it is still eternal, its pains are to endure as long as the Nature which is unchangeable and divine.

For in addition to these inflictions, whether literal or largely figurative, our divines believe in a spiritual misery of lost souls, which is not figurative, but will consist partly in their remorse for the sins of time, and partly in the fact that, being immortal, they are condemned to sin, and to suffer for fresh sins, throughout ETERNITY.-- But who knows what that means? The duration which is immeasurable! It signifies that all the arithmetical power in the creation, after labouring for millions of years to invent numerical methods of expressing enormous successions of time, would thereby succeed in reaching in imagination only the beginning-- the threshold-- the earlier moments, of that unsearchable futurity which is the lifetime of the NECESSARY BEING,-- and, it is said, the lifetime of the condemned. It means that beyond all such imagined epochs, counted out by human or angelic faculty, there will extend an infinite prospect of misery for sinful beings, in graduated but everlasting pain.

I shall offer some reflections on these beliefs of various types in the language of the late Mr. Foster, author of Essays on Decision of Character, contained in a memorable letter to the writer, in the year 1841. [3]

'Nevertheless,' says Mr. Foster, 'I acknowledge myself not convinced of the orthodox doctrine. If asked, why not?-- I should have little to say in the way of criticism, of implications found or sought in what may he called incidental expressions of Scripture, or of the passages dubiously cited in favour of final, universal restitution. It is the moral argument, as it may be named, that presses irresistibly on my mind-- that which comes in the stupendous idea of eternity.

'It appears to me that the teachers and believers of the orthodox doctrine hardly ever make an earnest, strenuous effort to form a conception of eternity; or rather a conception somewhat of the nature of a faint incipient approximation. Because it is confessedly beyond the compass of thought, it is suffered to go without an attempt at thinking of it. They utter the term in the easy currency of language; have a vague and transitory idea of something obscurely vast, and do not labour to place and detain the mind in intense protracted contemplation, seeking all expedients for expanding and aggravating the awful import of such a word. Though every mode of illustration feeble and impotent, one would surely think there would be an insuppressible impulse to send forth the thoughts to the utmost possible reach into the immensity-- when it is an immensity into which our essential interests are infinitely extended. Truly it is very strange that even religious minds can keep so quietly aloof from the amazing, the overwhelming contemplation of what they have the destiny and the near prospect of entering upon.

'Expedients of illustration of what eternity is not, supply the best attainable means of assisting remotely toward a glimmering apprehension of what it is. All that is within human capacity is to imagine the vastest measures of time, and to look to the termination of these as only touching the mere commencement of eternity.

'For example:-- It has been suggested to imagine the number of particles, atoms, contained in this globe, and suppose them one by one annihilated, each in a thousand years, till all were gone; but just as well say, a million, or a million of millions of years or ages, it is all the same, as against infinite duration.

'Extend the thought of such a process to our whole mundane system, and finally to the whole material universe: it is still the same. Or, imagine a series of numerical figures, in close order, extended to a line of such a length that it would encircle the globe, like the equator-- or that would run along with the earth's orbit around the sun-- or with the outermost planet, Uranus-- or that would draw a circle of which the radius should be from the earth or the sun to Sirius-- or that should encompass the entire material universe, which as being material, cannot be infinite. The most stupendous of these measures of time would have an end; and would, when completed, be still nothing to eternity.

'Now think of an infliction of misery protracted through such a period, and at the end of it being only commencing,-- not one smallest step nearer a conclusion:-- the case just the same if that sum of figures were multiplied by itself. And then think of Man--his nature, his situation, the circumstances of his brief sojourn and trial on earth. Far be it from us to make light of the demerit of sin, and to remonstrate with the Supreme Judge against a severe chastisement, of whatever moral nature we may regard the affliction to be. But still, what is man?-- He comes into the world with a nature fatally corrupt, and powerfully tending to actual evil. He comes among a crowd of temptations adapted to his innate evil propensities. He grows up (incomparably the greater proportion of the race) in great ignorance; his judgment weak; and under numberless beguilements into error; while his passions and appetites are strong; his conscience unequally matched against their power;-- in the majority of men, but feebly and rudely constituted. The influence of whatever good instructions he may receive is counteracted by a combination of opposite influences almost constantly acting on him. He is essentially and inevitably unapt to be powerfully acted on by whatever is invisible and future. In addition to all which, there is the intervention and activity of the great tempter and destroyer.

'I acknowledge my inability (I would say it reverently) to admit this belief, together with a belief in the Divine Goodness--the belief that "God is love," that His tender mercies are over all His works. Goodness, benevolence, charity, as ascribed in supreme perfection to Him, cannot mean a quality foreign to all human conceptions of goodness; it must be something analogous in principle to what Himself has defined and required as goodness in His moral creatures, that, in adoring the Divine Goodness, we may not be worshipping as "unknown God." But if so, how would all our ideas be confounded, while contemplating Him bringing, of His own soverign will, a race of creatures into existence, in such a condition that they certainly will and must,-- must, by their nature and circumstances, go wrong and be miserable, unless prevented by especial grace,-- which is the privilege of only a small proportion of them, and, at the same time, affixing on their delinquency a doom, of which it is infinitely beyond the highest archangel's faculty to apprehend a thousandth part of the horror.

'Can we,-- I would say with reverence-- can we realize it as possible that a lost soul, after countless millions of ages, and in prospect of an interminable succession of such enormous periods, can be made to have the conviction, absolute and perfect, that all this is a just, an equitable infliction, and from a power as good as He is just, for a few short sinful years on earth-- years and sins presumed to be retained most vividly in memory, and everlastingly growing clearer, vaster, and more terrible to retrospective view in their magnitude of infinite evil--every stupendous period of duration, by which they have actually been left at a distance, seeming to bring them, in contrariety to all laws of memory, nearer and ever nearer to view, by the continually aggravated experience of their consequences?

'Yes, those twenty, forty, seventy years, growing up to infinity of horror, in the review, in proportion to the distance which the condemned spirit recedes from them;-- all eternity not sufficing to reveal fully what those years contained!-- millions of ages for each evil thought or word.

'But it is usually alleged that there will be an endless continuance of sinning, with probably an endless aggravation, and therefore the punishment must be endless. Is not this like an admission of disproportion between the punishment and the original cause of its infliction?-- But suppose the case to be so-- that is to say, that the punishment is not a retribution simply for the guilt of the momentary existence on earth, but a continued punishment of the continued, ever-aggravated guilt in the eternal state; the allegation is of no avail in vindication of the doctrine; because the first consignment to the dreadful state necessitates a continuance of the criminality; the doctrine teaching that it is of the essence, and is an awful aggravation, of the original consignment, that it dooms the condemned to maintain the criminal spirit unchanged for ever. The doom to sin as well as suffer, and, according to the argument, to sin in order to suffer, is inflicted as the punishment of the sin committed in the mortal state. Virtually, therefore, the eternal punishment is the punishment of the sins of time.'

'Under the light (or the darkness) of this doctrine, how inconceivably mysterious and awful is the aspect of the whole economy of this human world! The immensely greater number of the race hitherto, through all ages and regions, passing a short life under no illuminating, transforming influence of their Creator; ninety-nine in a hundred of them perhaps having never even received any authenticated message from Heaven; passing off the world in a state unfit for a spiritual, heavenly, and happy kingdom elsewhere; and all destined to everlasting misery.-- The thoughtful spirit has a question silently suggested to it of far more emphatic import than that of him who exclaimed, "Hast thou made all men in vain?" '

It was the absorbing meditation on such conclusions as these in early days which created in the writer the life-lasting purpose of at least striving to enforce them on his fellow beings, if truths they were; or of shaking their pernicious hold on the public mind if one could solidly learn that they were delusions. It is a question in which all that is of profoundest import in the definition of the Divine Attributes of Justice and Goodness is concerned,-- which touches more deeply than any other the springs of faith and unbelief,-- and which clearly has bearings of the utmost moment on the whole system of human thought respecting both this world and the world to come.

If these things plainly are indeed as described by theologians, it is as wicked as useless to palter with the evidence, or to conceal it from the world; and it is nothing better than cruelty to talk of alleviating the prospect. If it be true, let the truth be spoken, and let men recognise the facts of their existence on earth and beyond. Truth needs no alleviations.

But, at all events, these things ought not to be believed except on decisive evidence; for a mistake either way will exert a prodigious influence on the religion of mankind. The danger is not all on one side, as most suppose. For there is nothing less than an infinite difference between a BEING who will so act towards His creatures and one who will not; between a God who will inflict eternal suffering, however slight, whether of mind, or body, or both, on creatures born of a degenerate race, and generally educated in ignorance of divine things, even when intellectually cultivated, and One who will not. A different feeling and a different worship will grow up out of the two systems of thought, just in proportion as they are realised by the worshipper.

And the determination of the question is of equal importance in relation to the Creator's will. If the Eternal Power will act as these writers suppose, it must, as they truly affirm, be highly offensive to Him to deny or dispute it. If true religion consist so largely in the element of fear, as it must on this theory, it is to detract from truth to represent God as less than He really is an object of terror to His creatures. But, on the other hand, if such thoughts never 'entered into His mind,'-- so the Almighty is represented in the book of Jeremiah as exclaiming, in reference to the momentary passage of children through the fire to Moloch,-- if the whole doctrine comes, as many learned and pious men think,-- men as learned and pious as any others,-- from a wresting of the words of Scripture; if it have no surer basis than a determination to maintain the figment of the natural immortality of one part of man's nature, of which the Bible itself never once speaks; if the doctrine of pain that shall never end be the offspring of the combination of a false psychology with the traditionary interpretations of a superstitious and uncritical antiquity, it is easy to see that the Deity must abhor the falsehoods taught in His name, in Europe as in Asia, and will highly commend the work of those who set themselves to overturn this stumbling- block, and to rend the dogma which at once veils from sinful men His real and awful Justice, and from His children so much of the light of the eternal Love.


[1] Mr. Peill, an able representative of this opinion, says, "Thus it is evident from Scripture itself that the second death [or eternal misery] is not included in the penalty threatened against Adam, which began to take effect the day that he sinned. The second death comes only through personal unbelief, and not as the necessary result of the conduct of another. Reason and Scripture are both at variance with the doctrine that eternal death was included in the punishment incurred by Adam's transgression. Reason declares it unjust that one man's eternal destiny should be determined for him by the act of another. Such a view outrages man's moral sense, conflicts with his personal responsibility, and is utterly incompatible with the equitable character of his present trial and its issues.'-- Man's Immortality Proved, p. 38. Mr. Peill, therefore, will doubtless offer no objection to the use of our ' reason ' and ' moral sense ' in still further discriminating the meaning of the threatening of death contained in the Scriptural account of the fall of Adam.

[2] 'Popular conceptions are taken largely from lurid sketches drawn by Dante and the poets. Hence men have come to speak of the lost as in flames. What if much of this teaching is a mistake? The fire that is never quenched may be the burning eagerness with which they cherish perverse desires, an eagerness that blights and blasts everything generous, as it has long since blasted everything holy. There are no doubt positive punishments as there are positive rewards; but the descriptions of each are largely figurative-- "pearly gates," "golden streets," "flaming fire," "ascending smoke." Here again there is some relief.'-- Dr. Angus on Future Punishments.]

[3] Reprinted at length in the Life and Correspondence of John Foster, vol ii.]