GENERAL COUNCILS ON FUTURE RETRIBUTION
It was indicated, in my opening remarks, that I have had reference in this history to the existing world-wide discussion as to future endless punishment. I propose, accordingly, to consider what some of the results of the facts stated may be.
Is It An Open Question?
The important facts stated may raise the inquiry, “Why should not the question as to the nature and duration of punishment in the world to come be an open question, as it was in the best of the early ages of the Church?”
If anything has been proved beyond all rational question, it is that in the days of Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Origen, and his first great circle of friends, and hearers, and readers, it was so. Each of the three theories as to future retribution was held by eminently pious men, without alarm, protest, or prosecution. Who ever assailed Justin Martyr, that zealous advocate of Christianity, who boldly defended the cause of Christ in two pleas addressed to the two Antonines, and who sealed his testimony with his blood, or Irenaeus, the great defender of Christianity against the delusions of the Gnostics, because they taught the annihilation of the wicked? Who ever in his own age assailed Origen, that eminent Christian, excelled in devoted piety by no man in the history of the Church, and the intellectual leader of his own age, because he taught the restoration of all men to holiness? In subsequent miserable years he was assailed for this; but when Eusebius and Pamphilus wrote their apology for him, and stated all the charges against him that they could find, this wasn’t one. Even Epiphanius, in his earliest assaults, does not mention it.
If any man had been professedly an earnest defender and champion of endless punishment in this age, he would not have suffered odium for it, but there was no such man. True, some eminent men did avow their belief of it, and appeal to it as a motive, but no man zealously defended it as the established doctrine of the Church, the only catholic doctrine – not even Augustine did this. This was reserved for a more degraded age, and for such divines as the despotic emperor Justinian, who, if he had not seasonably died, would have been involved in the gross heresy of Aphthartodocetism, which tended to neutralize or annihilate the purely human element in Christ. He was preparing to enact it by a law, when, fortunately for the peace and reputation of the Church, he died (see Neander, “Church History,” ii., 772, Torrey). In view of such facts the inquiry will naturally arise, “Why should we not in this respect follow the earliest development of the primitive Church?” An appeal to the example of the early Church is often made with great solemnity and emphasis. The inquiry will naturally arise, “Why should we not follow their example in this respect also?”
Is It Safe?
But there are those who fear the result of relaxing the stringency of belief in the doctrine of eternal punishment. Man, they tell us, is deeply depraved, and needs the power of infinite motives to deter him from sin, and turn him to God. It is also said to be necessary, in order to teach the infinite demerit of sin, to assign to it an endless punishment.
It is impossible not to respect the sincerity and the motives of those who thus reason. But this is not the time and place to enter into such a discussion. I wish simply to say that the facts stated in this history will be looked on by thoughtful men in their bearings on that question. These statements clearly show that all who held to universal restoration in the early ages were, as a universally-conceded fact, eminent and devoted Christians. Nor is this all. They were peculiarly distinguished for the excellence and loveliness of their Christian character. I will not repeat the eulogium of the calm and judicial Mosheim on Origen, as the most eminent saint of any age. It is easy to turn to it, and read it on pp. 182, 3. In like manner Gregory of Nyssa and his sister Macrina were among the most beautiful and lovely Christians of that age. The same is true of others; and as to missionary zeal, those who revered and followed the great Theodore of Mopsuestia were distinguished for their intelligence, liberality, zeal in the cause of education, and enthusiasm in missionary enterprise, and were immeasurably in advance of the debased Church of Justinian and his successors, by which they were excommunicated and anathematized. In short, I do not know an unworthy, low, or mean character in any prominent, open, and avowed restorationist of that age of freedom of inquiry, which was inaugurated by Alexandrian school and defended by Origen. As to Theodore of Mopsuestia, who introduced the doctrine of universal restoration into the liturgy of the Nestorians, it would be well once more to read Dorner’s eulogium of him, which I will not here repeat. It may be found on page 193. It may not be true that these results were owing mainly to the doctrine of universal restoration. It may be that their views of Christ and the gospel, which were decidedly orthodox exerted the main power to produce these results. But one thing is true: The doctrine of universal restoration did not hinder them. If not, then the inquiry will arise, “Why should it now?”
But besides this it is true, and their works show it, that these ancient believers in final restoration lived and toiled and suffered in an atmosphere of joy and hope, and were not loaded with a painful and crushing burden of sorrow in view of the endless misery of innumerable multitudes. It is also worthy of notice that in Dwight’s “Travels in the North of German,” published in New York, 1829, coincident facts are stated, as to evangelical German restorationists. He says: “So far as an opinion can be formed of them from their reputation and from their conversation, we must look in vain for brighter examples of piety than they exhibit. They certainly manifest a greater spirit of love for those who differ from them than is found in most of our sects, and they feel very unwilling to shut the gates of heaven against those who do not believe every article of their creed. In this charity and love, the Christians of most Protestant countries would do well to imitate them” (p. 423). He also makes very strong statements as to the extensive prevalence of these views among the evangelical Christians of Germany.
Is It Fundamental?
The inquiry will also arise in view of the historical facts which have been developed, “Is the doctrine of endless punishment a fundamental doctrine?” By this is not meant, is it a part of the general belief or creed of a denomination, but is it essential to accomplish the work for which Christ died? What is that work? To regenerate and sanctify men by faith in Christ. If this is so, then the most fundamental truths are those which relate to human depravity, and regeneration, and the atonement of Christ, and the influences of the Holy Spirit, and the life of Christ as the great exemplar of the Christian life. These are of fundamental importance. For, if the nature and depth of the disease are unknown, how can a radical cure be effected? And how can it be effected except by faith in Christ and his atonement by the regenerating influences of the Holy Spirit. But if these are held and faithfully used to convince men of sin and turn them to God and a holy life through faith in Christ, the inquiry will arise, “Why should differing views as to the exact nature and duration of the retributions of the future state prevent their successful operation?”
The words of the very orthodox Dr. George Hill, of Scotland, whom Dr. Chalmers followed as his guide in his own theological lectures, are weighty on this point. He says: “The great doctrine which theology clearly teaches, with regard to the future condition of men, is this, that by the righteousness of Jesus Christ there is conveyed to all who believe a right to eternal life. This is the only point which it is of any importance for us distinctly to understand.” At the close of the chapter he adds a few words on the question of eternal punishment. They amount to this: “That on subjects so infinitely removed beyond the sphere of our observation” we should speculate with extreme caution; that that view of the love of God, and its efficacy, which is implied in the doctrine that hell-torments are not eternal “naturally creates a prejudice in favor of it,” but as the happiness of the righteous and the punishment of the wicked are described by the same term, “it seems to teach us that both are of equal duration.” If, now, he had been convinced that aionios does not designate duration, but the scene of the life and punishment of the world to come, this well-poised man might have been still less inclined to make the doctrine of eternal punishment a fundamental doctrine. Robert Hall, who believed it, openly declared that it was not fundamental, and many of the most eminent Christians of modern times have not held it, and yet, so far as we can judge, have not suffered in their Christian character by reason of the denial.
The English and American Episcopal Church do not regard it as fundamental. It was once in the articles of the mother Church, but after mature consideration it was removed. It never was in the Articles of the American Church, and a belief of it is not requisite for ordination.
Is The Question Insoluble?
The view of that learned scholar and eminent orthodox divine, Dr. Tayler Lewis, that aionian punishment does not mean endless punishment, but “the punishment of the world to come,” and the proof that has been given that in the early ages the words were so understood, will naturally raise the inquiry, “Since Christ has not decided the duration of future punishment, can it be proved at all?” Indeed, it has already raised the inquiry. An anonymous writer in Massachusetts, understood to be an eminent Congregational clergyman, in good standing, has undertaken in an able work to show, on these grounds, that the question is insoluble, and that neither of the three theories can be proved, clearly and decidedly, from Scripture, and that a man questioned on his belief as to endless punishment, or annihilation, or universal restoration, has a right to say, “It is not revealed which is true, and I do not know, and no man or body of men has a right to impose on me a positive belief of either of the three current answers to the question.”
The question will arise – nay, it has arisen –“If a man takes this ground, and yet says that there will be a fearful punishment hereafter, from which God has warned men in earnest words to escape, by faith in Christ, shall he be excluded from Christian fellowship, and a regular ministerial standing in the Congregational denomination?” As yet, no steps have been taken to put the clergyman spoken of, out of fellowship, and probably none will be. Very probably, the words of Dr. George Hill, as to salvation by faith in Christ, which have been quoted, will be applied to such a case: “This is the only point which it is of any importance for us distinctly to understand.” If the punishment is regarded as fearful, and so great in the sight of God, that he gave his Son to die for us to save us from it, the inquiry will arise, “Is not that enough?” How it will be answered remains to be seen.
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