WHAT SHOULD BE DONE?
To this inquiry I reply by referring to the statement of Dr. Schaff, quoted at the opening of this history. The import of that is, that the whole energy of the Church, in the highest state of holiness and communion with God, has never been brought to bear upon this subject, so as to result in a thorough and reliable investigation of the whole great question. And do not the facts show it? For, since the time of the miserable decision of Justinian, there has never been in the Church an investigation of this subject worthy of the name. True, since the Reformation, individuals have defended universal restoration or annihilation, but there has been in the great organized churches a fixedness and immobility which is not the result of any antecedent profound investigation, but simply of unreasoning inertia and uninquiring tradition. This great apathetic mass should be penetrated by a profound interest in all that is involved in this greatest of all questions. For it is a question that more distinctly involves the character of God than any other, and it cannot be settled merely by quoting texts.
The Previous Question.
There is a previous question to be settled, and that is, What is the doctrine of endless punishment as it is in fact held by the Church? This can be decided only by ascertaining whether there is in fact any other doctrine inseparably connected with it, and on which its whole moral character depends.
The doctrine of future endless punishment can be held as it is presented in the book of Enoch, as based on the fall of the angels, or it can be held as it is presented in the apocalypse of Ezra, as growing out of the fall of Adam, by a divine law of transmission of evil. As it is now generally held by the Church, the view of Ezra is modified, but still the fall in Adam, and original sin thence resulting, are regarded as the fundamental facts that called for the interposition of Christ.
It is a noteworthy fact that at the time of Justinian’s decree, establishing endless punishment, the Augustinian doctrine of original sin, through the fall in Adam, was imposed on the Latin Church for the first time, and through her on European and American Christendom. This doctrine, in all its forms, so changes the doctrine of endless punishment as to darken the divine character, and fill the mind with anguish. It was this doctrine that caused the lamentations of Ezra, which I have quoted, in view of the doom of man, and his declaration that no system would be better than such a system, and this feeling has revealed itself in every age. Yet, by Augustine, the doctrine of eternal punishment, against most impassioned protests, was based on the fact that all men sinned in Adam, and were condemned in him, and lost their power to all good. This has been modified by Dr. Hodge, of Princeton, into a representative sinning, but with the same results. But Dr. Shedd adheres to Augustine. New England has modified the system, but has not removed the difficulty.
All admit that there are acts supposable, which would be unjust, merciless, unfeeling, and cruel, in God.
Now, what must be directly looked in the face is this, that, even if the doctrine of endless punishment were true, and actually revealed in the Bible, yet it is possible to connect it with such statements as entirely to reverse its character, and make it an infinite dishonor to god. If this were in fact done, not intentionally, but really, then to prove the doctrine, so connected, by any number of texts, is not to prove the truth, but falsely to cast infinite dishonor on God.
Now, when it is said that God regards men as guilty of an act which they never committed, and which was done before they had a being, and for it declares them guilty, and out of communion with god, and incapable of any holy action, and dead in sin, and sure to reach endless misery if not regenerated by God, and when it is added that the majority are not so regenerated, it certainly seems that these acts are unfeeling, unjust, cruel, merciless; and yet these acts are by orthodox men indissolubly connected with the doctrine of eternal punishment. Now, if these acts are, in fact, what they seem to be, then to prove the doctrine of eternal punishment by Scripture texts is to make the Bible impute to God the greatest dishonor in the universe. Has it ever been proved that these acts are not what they seem to be? No. Dr. Hodge expressly declares that the system thus stated “cannot be explained on the common-sense principles of moral government. The system which Paul taught was not a system of common sense, but of profound and awful mystery.” Dr. Woods makes the same confession as to the New England theory. “Here,” he says, “our wisdom fails. We apply in vain to human reason or human consciousness for an answer.” Nay, more: he even admits that such conduct is “contrary to the dictates of our fallible minds.” Dr. Hodge has exposed the baselessness of Dr. Shedd’s defense of God, in his review of Dr. Baird, and Dr. Baird has exposed that of Dr. Hodge. Dr. Schaff, in his “Commentary on the Romans,” dissents from Dr. Hodge. He says, “How can an infinitely just and holy God punish countless millions of human beings simply and solely for the sin of another, in which they had no part whatever?” For relief he resorts to the equally absurd theory of Augustine, that all men virtually, or potentially, though not personally, sinned in Adam. But even this does not give rest, and harmonize the leaders of the Church. Dr. Schaff sets forth their division between three theories, and then adds, “Or they look for a still more satisfactory solution of the difficult problem by a future Augustine, who may be able to advance, from a deeper study of the Scriptures, the knowledge of the Church, and reconcile what now seem to be irreconcilable contradictions.” Think of it! This is the result of the toil of centuries, to vindicate God from the charge of the most atrocious injustice and cruelty that the mind of man can conceive.
The acts seem to be unjust, merciless, unfeeling, and cruel, in God. No one has shown, or can show, that they are not; the leaders acknowledge that they cannot do it, and yet the whole doctrine of eternal punishment is based on this transaction; it grows out of it, and is indissolubly connected with it.
Now, what I wish to impress upon the minds of all is, that if there is a great responsibility, as is alleged, in denying the doctrine of future eternal punishment, there is a still greater responsibility in affirming it on such a basis. It does not dishonor God to declare that he will not punish sinners forever. It does infinitely dishonor God to assert that he will punish sinners forever if he has dealt with them as this doctrine of sinning in Adam teaches.
It is a well-known fact that this doctrine so connected with eternal punishment has produced infidels – God only knows how many. The poet Shelley was one.
It has tended also to produce a false conception of God, as absorbed in himself, unsympathizing, intent on his own glory, and sacrificing his creatures to it. The almost universal denial of the suffering of God from the sins of his creatures, and the neutralizing of his sympathetic character in general, has resulted from such systems.
No discussion of the doctrine of future eternal punishment can be thorough that does not meet the doctrine in all its connections and relations. And, although the inertia of that vast body called the Church is almost unconquerable, when God’s time comes, when the Church is holier and in more intimate communion with him, their apathy will pass away, and they will penetrate the whole subject to its very depths.
Meantime I will only say that the doctrine of eternal punishment is a heavy weight to bear in itself, and in the best manner in which it can be presented, but on the common basis of Christendom it is a crushing burden that cannot be borne. The Lord will remove such a burden in his day.
It is only a question of time. That result is sure to come. The whole system is based on a false interpretation of only one passage, which, properly interpreted, declares that, to make Adam a type of Christ, God passed on him a sentence of natural death, which fell on his posterity also. It declares this, and no more. The proof of this may be seen in the “Conflict of Ages,” pp. 410-423. The argument there stated remains unanswered.
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