No idea is more universal among men than retribution. The laws of the material world exert a retributive power, rewarding those who regard and obey them and punishing those who disobey. So also the laws of all social organizations involve retribution. It is found in the family, in the school, in the social circle, in business, and in the state.

Retribution, also, has been believed to exist in the various systems of supernatural powers which men in various ages and climes have accepted as true. Under these systems some things are required and some things forbidden, and rewards and punishments are expected in accordance with obedience or disobedience.

If the idea of retribution is carried into a future life, and to this the idea of eternity is added, it becomes a motive of supreme, all-controlling power, for what is this short life compared with eternity?

Moreover, if the power of assigning the retributions of eternal joy or woe is believed to reside in a certain order of men, then this belief invests them with terrific sway. Such was the fearful influence once wielded by papal excommunications and interdicts. The power of priesthoods and governments has for ages rested on such convictions. The most terrible despotisms under which men have ever groaned have had this basis. 

It is, therefore, a matter of great moment to understand the real system of the universe under which we live, and the real retributions which we are to expect. For this true knowledge we are dependent on the Word of God. Nor do we rely upon it in vain. Nothing is more full than divine revelation on this subject. And yet there is far from being unanimity of views among those who follow this standard. And though the subject has been often discussed, yet it is thought by some learned and pious divines that the full energy of investigation in the Church has never yet been put forth on this subject, and that a more profound discussion is needed and is at hand

A Profound Discussion Inevitable.

Prof. Schaff, of Union Theological Seminary, eminent alike for learning and piety, seems to think thus. In his “History of the Apostolic Church” he speaks as follows: “Each period of Church history is called to unfold and place in a clear light a particular aspect of doctrine to counteract a corresponding error; till the whole circle of Christian truth shall have been traversed in its natural order.” He illustrates this as to the Trinity, the person of Christ, the depravity of man, and the system of redemption. He then adds: “In our times the doctrine concerning the Church seems to be more and more challenging the attention of theologians. And finally, Eschatology, or the Doctrine of the Last Things, will have its turn.” There is a profound reason why the radical discussion of future retribution should come last, for that retribution is the final issue of the whole system, and, to explain and justify it, all false conceptions of God must have been exposed and his true character revealed, the highest forms of the principles of honor, justice, sympathy, and love, must have been disclosed and invested with divine authority, and the preceding system as a whole, and in all its parts, have been understood and vindicated. This is the most profound and all-comprehending work to which the mind of man can be summoned. To this all things are now tending. Nothing can be more evident than that a peculiar, profound, and universal interest is felt on the subject of future retribution, and that, to prepare for the coming investigation, a careful review of past discussions and opinions is indispensable. In the common histories of doctrine, such as those of Munscher, Hagenbach, Neander, and Shedd, the history of the doctrine of retribution is not considered at all under this title. Neither is it so considered under any title as to include more than one part of the Scripture doctrine of retribution. So far as it is treated, it is included under the head Eschatology. By this is meant, as stated by Dr. Schaff, the doctrine as to the last things, or the winding up of the present system. Viewed thus it includes death, the world of spirits, the final coming of Christ, the last judgment, and the retributions of the world to come.

Temporal Retribution in the Old Testament.

This mode of viewing the subject is defective, in that it omits a large and important part of the Scriptural doctrine of retribution. The only form of retribution prominently presented in the Old Testament as existing for four thousand years was temporal, and did not refer to the spirit-world and a future state. This, the common histories of doctrine omit, and consider only the doctrine concerning the retributions of the future state.

Of this omission one important effect has been to take from the divine system of temporal retributions the importance and influence which God once assigned to it, and to produce a tendency to entirely overlook it, and to concentrate the thoughts on the retributions of the eternal state. But certainly temporal retributions must have been, in the judgment of God, an element of great power, and well worth of attentive consideration, or he would not have mainly derived the motives of his revealed government from them for four thousand years.

These remarks on the predominance of temporal retributions in the Old Testament are not meant to affirm or imply that there was not some belief in a future state and its retributions, among the Old Testament saints, going beyond any express revelations of the Mosaic law, and disclosing itself in their recorded experience.

What is meant is this: that in the law of Moses, taken as a law, a rule of life, individual and national, there is not one motive derived from a future state and its retributions. All is derived from this world and the present life. The same also is true of the Patriarchal dispensation, and of the world before the flood.

It is true that the Christian Fathers carry back to the retributions of the Old Testament their ideas of future retribution. This is owing to the fact that the analogical relations of this material system to the spiritual world are such that these punishments may be intended as types of spiritual punishments. Thus, natural disease and death may be types of spiritual disease and death; natural defeat and bondage, of spiritual defeat and bondage; natural darkness, of spiritual darkness; natural fire, of spiritual fire. But, even it is so, nothing is expressly said about it in the Law of Moses. The system of temporal punishments is set forth without any express reference whatever to the spiritual world and a future state. Nevertheless, the analogies are often so striking that, in after-ages, they have been extensively regarded as types and shadows of coming events in the spiritual world. Thus the judgments of God on Pharaoh, and the redemption of Israel out of Egypt, have been regarded as types of God’s judgments on the great adversary, and the redemption of the Church. Yet of this the Law of Moses says nothing.

It may have been God’s purpose, as suggested by Fairbairn, since the Mosaic dispensation was typical, to keep always within the typical sphere of the material world, so as not to mingle the two spheres, and anticipate the spiritual dispensation. This may be the reason why no direct reference is made to the spiritual world and the future life, even when otherwise we should expect it. But, whatever that reason may be, I shall not attempt to develop it, but, following Moses, shall, in considering his system, keep within the temporal sphere.

As a general fact, we little realize how long this world was under the system of temporal retributions. It is not yet four thousand years from Abraham to our day. How long is such a period to us! But from Adam to Christ was fully four thousand years. In these years there was a long progress of thought and of revelation. In order to form any distinct conception of it, we need to unfold it somewhat, and not, as is often done, to attempt to present in one comprehensive summary what is called the teaching of the Old Testament.

The four thousand years before Christ, according to the common chronology, may be divided into five periods. The first, of two thousand years, from Adam to Abraham; the second, of five hundred years, from Abraham to Moses; the third, of five hundred years, from Moses to Solomon; the fourth, of five hundred years, from Solomon to the return from the captivity in Babylon; the fifth, of five hundred years, from the return from the captivity to Christ.

Without going into detail, the outline or illustration of temporal retributions during these periods will next be set forth.

Natural Death Pronounced on Adam.

In the first period, the first and most striking instance of retribution was the sentence of natural death pronounced upon Adam and Eve for their transgression. This sentence, as interpreted by Paul, included in its scope all their posterity.

Great efforts have been made under dogmatic influences to carry back the idea of spiritual death to the sentence pronounced on Adam and his race. But that sentence is its own interpreter. “Till thou return unto the ground, for out of it wast thou taken; for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” The Jewish writers of the Alexandrine period and the Greek Fathers took this view, and their interpretation is confirmed by the Apostle Paul. Any other view is contrary to the whole genius of the Old Testament typical dispensation. 

Another instance of threatened retribution was the future punishment of the tempter by the seed of the woman, of which more will be said hereafter. It is the first hint of a redeeming and avenging Messiah, which, in after-ages, was so fully developed as the central theme of revelation.

The deluge, also, was threatened and inflicted by God during this period. To this divine retribution our Saviour emphatically refers as an illustration and warning of coming judgments on Jerusalem.

Temporal Motives Addressed to the Jews.

In the second period occurred the judgment of God on Sodom and Gomorrah, to which our Saviour also refers, as a solemn warning to the men of his age, in view of the impending ruin of Jerusalem. In the third period were the divine judgments on Egypt, the redemption of the Israelites from bondage, and the development of the Mosaic economy in the wilderness, and the establishment of the nation in Canaan. It is not wonderful that the civil and criminal law of the nation thus established should be sustained by temporal retributions. But it is very remarkable that the providential rewards of fidelity to God and his system were derived entirely from the material sphere. If the nation was loyal and obedient, God promised that they should have health, long life, fruitful seasons, military ascendency among the nations, national wealth, honor, and power. If disobedient and idolatrous, God threatened that they should be scourged by famine, disease, defeat in war, captivity, poverty, shame, and contempt. The powers of language are exhausted in giving intensity to these motives. A brief experiment easily made will bring the whole subject before the mind, and for the sake of vividness of conception it is well to make it. Let any one read attentively the twenty-sixth chapter of Leviticus, and then ask, What are the rewards and punishments by which God here sought to induce the Israelites to obey? Is there any allusion to a future life and eternal retributions? Do they not relate to fruitful seasons and health, and victory in war, and the protecting presence of God, on the one hand, and drought, famine, disease, defeat, captivity, and death, on the other? Then read the twenty-eighth chapter of Deuteronomy – a still longer and more earnest and eloquent chapter, full of promises and threatenings – and see if one can be found that does not relate to this life. In that whole chapter we shall find not one reference to a future life, not one motive derived from it. The same is true of the whole law.

During the wanderings of the nation in the wilderness, temporal rewards and punishments were always close at hand, of the most powerful kind. During the period of the Judges, the fortunes of the nation varied with their obedience or rebellion, as God had threatened. The ascendency of the kingdom under David was the result of fidelity and obedience to God. The division and decline of the nation in the fourth period, and their final ruin, were owing to the apostacy of Solomon, and to subsequent relapses into idolatry, till the ten tribes were led captive by the King of Assyria, and the rest by the King of Babylon.

The great prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, in all their warnings of the apostatizing nation, did not refer to future punishments in the spirit-world, or to redemption from them, but to the terrors of the siege, of famine, of the capture of the city, and of captivity in a strange land, or to redemption from such captivity.

In the fifth period, after the return from the captivity until Christ, the system of temporal retributions was still pursued, and finally culminated in the terrible destruction of Jerusalem, in anticipation of which the Saviour wept.

Temporal Retribution Taught by Christ.

It is worth of special notice that, although he had the most vivid conceptions of future punishment, he yet confined himself in his prediction of coming retribution on Jerusalem to the temporal sphere, as did Moses. Listen to his words: “And when he was come near, he beheld the city and wept over it, saying, If thou hadst known, even thou, at least in this, thy day, the things which belong to thy peace! But now they are hid from thine eyes. For the days shall come upon thee, that thine enemies shall cast a trench about thee, and compass thee round, and keep thee in on every side, and shall dash thee to the ground, and thy children within thee; and they shall not leave in thee one stone upon another; because thou knewest not the time of thy visitation.”

In addition to the special theoretical government of the Jews, God represents himself as administering a providential government during the ages over the surrounding nations of Egypt, Assyria, Tyre, Moab, Edom, and the like, and inflicting on them temporal retributions.

But, if we examine this whole governmental system for four thousand years so far as express promises or threats are concerned, we cannot infer from it any knowledge or thought of a future life, or of any retributions beyond this world.

How Was Belief in the Afterlife Developed?

Nevertheless, there was in fact a course of feeling and thought on the subject of a future life, during all these ages, which had finally culminated in well-defined opinions as to retributions in a future life before Christ came. 

It is not often realized, but it is true, that in the last period, during the persecutions of the Jews by Antiochus Epiphanes, one hundred and seventy years before Christ, a spirit of martyrdom was developed, based on an open-eyed vision of the resurrection, a future life, and eternal rewards, which was not exceeded even by the glorious martyrs after Christ. This wonderful development of a full belief of eternal rewards in a future world must have been the result of powerful antecedent causes, the accumulated force of which, during the Old Testament dispensation, was thus finally developed.

Of the facts there can be no doubt. They are fully developed in trustworthy and universally accredited historical records. They are facts that cannot be ignored, and that demand a thorough investigation of the causes of such wonderful results. 

It is necessary now to consider these causes, and the mode of their operation. There is an intimate connection between this inquiry and the development of opinion on the doctrine of retribution, both at and after the days of Christ.

FORWARD>> (Next Chapter: Opinions in the Age of the Maccabees)


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