FUTURE ETERNAL PUNISHMENT IN THE APOCALYPSE OF EZRA
We have set forth future eternal punishment as it is presented in the Apocalypse of Enoch. We have seen that the basis of the system of which it was a part was the fall of the angels through the love of the fair daughters of men, spoken of in Gen. vi. 2, and the corruption thence originating. In the Apocalypse of Ezra the doctrine of future eternal punishment is retained, but this basis of the system disappears. And no reference is made to evil angels at all. Even the devil utterly disappears. An entirely new basis comes in sight. This fact deserves more attention than it has ever received.
This new basis, however, is not quite so remote from modern thought as the other. Indeed, it is likely to meet a very general recognition, for it is nothing else but the doctrine of the fall in Adam.
This is not, however, in the Augustinian form of the identity of Adam and his posterity, and their guilt for his sin, nor in the form of Dr. Hodge, of Princeton, of a covenant with the race through Adam as their representative head, so that his sin is reckoned as their sin. It is the doctrine that, by an inscrutable law of evil through Adam’s sin, original righteousness passed away from the race; and the same evil heart that was in Adam reappears in all his posterity, and results in the eternal perdition of the great majority of the human race, not by annihilation, but by endless misery. This is set forth as emphatically announced by God, and is assumed by Ezra. The condemnation of men is justified on the ground that they are, notwithstanding, free moral agents, knowing their duty, and wickedly refusing to do it.
Mode of Discussion.
This doctrine is discussed in a kind of dialogue, in which the speakers are God, Ezra, and an angel. The doctrine is defended, not by Ezra, but by god or by the angel who is God’s representative and sometimes speaks as God himself, and is so addressed. On the other hand, Ezra presents very serious objections to the doctrine as set forth, and protests against it with great keenness on moral and rational grounds. Indeed, as the case is presented, he has altogether the advantage as to moral impression. Nor is this all. He repudiates the doctrine as based on the fall of Adam with the highest and most affecting forms of moral and sympathetic emotion. On the whole, the Apocalypse of Ezra must be regarded as one of the most remarkable productions of antiquity.
It seems to present the doctrine of future eternal punishment based on the fall of Adam as true, according to the statements of God and the angel, and yet as entirely unsatisfactory to Ezra on moral and rational grounds. And the marked feature of the case is that, though Ezra seems to have decidedly the best of the argument, yet, without retracting anything, he simply submits to God.
Origin of the Book.
The book professes to have been written by Ezra, in the thirtieth year after the Babylonish captivity. Luche, Van der Vlis, Laurence, and Hilgenfeld, place its composition in the latter part of the century before Christ. Other eminent scholars place it somewhat later. But all agree that a Jew was the author. As it stands in the Apocrypha of our English Bible, it is called the Second Book of Esdras. But there is decisive evidence that the two opening and two concluding chapters are a Christian interpolation, and that a whole chapter has been omitted at vii. 35, which Archbishop Laurence has restored from the Ethiopic and Arabic translations of the book. Laurence has also given a new translation in English and Latin of the whole. It is upon the Apocalypse of Ezra, thus restored to its original form and newly translated, that our remarks are based.
The book was extensively read, and exerted great influence among the fathers. By Clement of Alexandria it was ascribed to the prophet Ezra, and regarded as inspired and canonical. With him Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Ambrose, agreed. Indeed, Ambrose made large quotations from it as of divine authority. The book deserves, therefore, attentive study, by reason of its influence on ancient thought. It does not open with a consideration of eternal punishment. It begins with a consideration of the doctrine of original sin in its relations to God’s dealings with Israel in the captivity.
Ezra’s Opening and Rejoinders.
Ezra was convinced that if an evil heart was derived to all men in Adam, it was so deeply at the foundation of all history that everything needed to be explained and justified in the light of it in order to understand it truly and thoroughly.
He recounts, therefore, the facts of history to God – the wickedness that called for the flood; the speedy apostacy after the flood, and again, after the giving of the law, and again, after the building of the temple; and he declares that the deep cause of all these apostacies was the evil heart, derived from Adam, which God caused and did not take away. To this he recurs again and again through his book. He earnestly calls on God to justify his dealings with his people from this standpoint.
He is met by the assertion of the angel that to understand this doctrine of the evil heart is beyond his capacity, and that it is an immodest boldness for him to undertake it.
He is not intimidated by this repulse, but gives a bold and profound reply. He says, “It were better not to exist than thus to live under the power of the law of sin, and to suffer for it, and yet not to know how or why it is.”
The angel then tells him: “God only in heaven can understand such high things; you are a man on earth and cannot do it. Why aim at such high mysteries?”
Ezra boldly replies, “Why, then, are we endowed with a reasoning soul?” He adds: “I was not asking as to high things, but as to things taking place daily before us. I am inquiring into God’s dealings with us from this standpoint.”
Final Relief Promised.
This boldness is not further precede; it is rather yielded to. Ezra is told that the end of the world and the final judgment are near, and that in their light even the mysteries of Adam’s sin can and will be explained. After many questions as to the time and to the signs of the day and what shall precede it, the judgment itself is described. Nothing is taken from the New Testament descriptions of the day. It is the view of a Jew familiar with the Old Testament, and in some things it widely differs from the New Testament.
The Resurrection and the Judgment.
The resurrection and the judgment are thus set forth to Ezra: “The earth shall restore those that are asleep in her, and so shall the dust those that dwell in silence; and the secret places shall deliver those souls that were committed unto them. And the Most High shall appear upon the seat of judgment, and misery (of the good) shall pass away, and the long-suffering shall have an end. But judgment only shall remain, truth shall stand and faith shall wax strong, and the work shall follow, and the reward be shewed, and the good deeds be of force and wicked deeds shall bear no rule” (vii. 32-35).
(At this point the omitted and restored chapter begins.)
“Then shall the deep pit of condemnation lie open before the region of consolation, and the furnace of hell appear before the paradise of joy. On that day shall the Most high say to the wicked who are risen: ‘Look and understand who it is that you have denied, whom ye would not obey and whose commands ye have despised. Before you on one side joy and consolation, on the other judgment and fire.’ Thus shall he speak to them in the day of judgment.”
In view of this result, so favorable to the good, Ezra does not, as might have been expected, express joy. On the other hand, he grieves because the number of the good is so small. On account of Adam’s sin he sorrows that so few are saved, and so many condemned. The evil heart, he says, derived from Adam, leads to sin and ruin. This is true almost universally.
To this God in substance replies: “That which is scarce is most valuable. Gold is more scarce than silver, iron, lead, clay, and therefore more valuable. So shall I rejoice in the few that live, for in them I am glorified. Nor do I grieve on account of them who perish, for, like a fire and smoke, they burn, rage, and are extinguished.” This seems to be a very cold-hearted reply.
The reply of Ezra to this deserves particular notice. It is in effect this: The possession of responsible free agency under such a system is not a blessing but a curse. To be an irresponsible animal is far better than to be an accountable free agent under such a system.
“Then I answered him and said, Surely it would have been better not to have had an understanding heart formed in us than to have had it formed, and to increase with us, and yet an account of this to be condemned; for we know that we must perish.”
Ezra’s First Lament.
Then follows an expression of sorrow over the sad condition and destiny of man, unparalleled in theological literature: “Let the human race lament, while the beasts of the field rejoice. Let all who are born of woman weep, while all the flocks of cattle bound for joy. For their condition is much better than ours. No judgment awaits them, nor are they obnoxious to punishment. Nor do they hope for life after death. What profit is our life to us? All who are born are immerged [sic] in sin, full of iniquity and laden with transgressions. Truly it would have been better for us if we had not been capable of being judged after death.”
The reply put into the mouth of God does not meet the point of this appeal. It simply states the fact that God, from the beginning, determined that men should be responsible to judgment, and they are. They know their duty, and do not do it, and therefore they shall be punished. “He replied, when the Most High created the world, Adam, and his posterity, he previously ordained judgment and punishment. Now then learn wisdom from they own words, for thou saidst an understanding heart has increased within us; therefore will all who inhabit the earth be punished, because they are conscious of their crimes. Knowing, they have not obeyed. Having understood his law, they have broken it. What can they say when judged?”
Questions of Ezra.
Ezra is silent and does not pursue the discussion further at this point, but inquires as to the state of the soul after death. He is told that all souls return to God, and then are assigned places where they anticipate the judgment-day; and the various sources of suffering to the wicked, and joy to the righteous, during the interval, are pointed out.
He then asks whether the righteous can effectually intercede for sinners after the judgment – fathers for children, children for fathers, friends and relatives for each other – and he is told that they cannot. No man can assist another. No man can cast his burden on another. Every man must bear his own burden. (Here the omitted and restored chapter ends, and vii. 36 proceeds.)
Ezra then refers to many cases of effectual intercession of the saints in the Old Testament, and asks why should it not be so after the judgment? He is told that this world is not a final and fixed state, but the world to come is. In this world, therefore, they have effectually interceded for sinners. But the day of doom is the end of this state and the beginning of immortality. Then shall no man be able to save him who is destroyed, nor to overcome him who hath gotten the victory.
Ezra’s Final Reply.
The final reply of Ezra is as remarkable as anything that has preceded. I answered them and said: “THIS IS MY FIRST AND LAST SAYING, THAT IT HAD BEEN BETTER NOT TO GIVE THE EARTH UNTO ADAM; OR ELSE, WHEN IT WAS GIVEN HIM, TO HAVE RESTRAINED HIM FROM SINNING.” The import of this is plain. No system, blank non-existence of rational beings in this world, would be better than such a system as is based on the fall of Adam. It deserves notice, also, that this is after he has heard the defense ascribed to God –i.e., that men are intelligent beings and know their duty, and cannot justify themselves for their crimes. Ezra goes beneath all this, and calls in question the rectitude of the system itself which could terminate in such results. Nothing can be bolder than his reply.
Ezra’s Second Lament.
After this he bursts out into a loud and moving second lament over the inevitable results of the system, as seen in the certain sinfulness and ruin of the vast mass of mankind:
“O thou, Adam, what has thou done? For though it was thou that sinned, thou art not fallen lone, but we all who come of thee. For what profit is it to us if there be promised us an immortal life, whereas we have done the works that bring death? That there is promised to us an everlasting hope, whereas we, being most wicked, are hopeless of it? And that there are laid up for us dwellings of health and safety, whereas we have forfeited them by wicked lives? And that the glory of the Most High defends such as have led a holy life, whereas we have walked in the most wicked ways of all? And that thou should be shewed a paradise whose fruit endureth forever, wherein is security and health, since we shall not enter into it? And that the faces of those who have abstained from sin should shine above the stars, but our faces shall be blacker than darkness? For while we lived and committed iniquity we considered not that we should begin to suffer for it after death.”
The reply to this in the name of God is based on a repeated assertion of the free agency, responsibility, and disobedience, of man:
“Then answered he me and said, This is the condition of the battle which man who is born upon the earth shall fight; that if he be overcome, he shall suffer as thou hast said; but if he gain the victory, he shall receive the reward as I say. For this is the life whereof Moses spoke unto the people while he lived, saying, Choose life, that thou mayst live. Nevertheless, they believed not him, nor yet the prophets after him; no, nor me, who have spoken unto them, that there should not be so much sorrow for their destruction as joy over those who are persuaded to salvation.”
Spirit of the Book.
The book then proceeds to consider at great length the signs of the times and future developments, in which we cannot follow it.
In form it defends, by the authority of God, the doctrine of future eternal punishment, as based on the fall of Adam. On the other hand, the moral influence of Ezra’s protest against it is very great, and is met by no adequate reply.
What the author actually meant is not clear. The book is an enigma; yet it has generally been accepted as a defense of the doctrine. One thing is sure – it goes down to the very depths of human thought and feeling on this great theme. In every age the doctrine of the fall in Adam has been felt to add a new horror to the doctrine of endless punishment, and to make the system utterly indefensible.
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