Is Hell Eternal?
Or Will God's Plan Fail
By Charles Pridgeon
Chapter Thirteen: A Sane and Scriptural Doctrine of Punishment
The text, "Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap" (Gal. 6:7), contains many of the principles that obtain in a true doctrine of punishment. We will note some of these principles.
The Certainty of Punishment. One of the elements that makes punishment effective is its certainty. If a man thinks that there is a chance for him to escape the punishment for wrong doing, he may take that chance. Every one needs to learn that this law of certainty has no exceptions. There is no chance about it; what you sow, you reap. Every sin has its certain consequences. This is true even of the wrongdoer who thinks that he has escaped the working of this law. He is mistaken. The evil has already wrought damage to his character and one day its direful consequence will be manifest, unless divinely dealt with. Every offer of salvation; every presentation of more or new light; and every opportunity proffered, brings added responsibility. Every rejection increases guilt and multiplies the consequences as a punishment. From this law there is no escape. When this principle of punishment is understood, it furnishes one of the strongest deterrents to evil doing and also to the rejection of light.
The Measure of Punishment. The normal harvest exceeds by many fold the sowing. This is a wise provision in reference to punishment. The enjoyment or gain that comes through sin is very small in proportion to the evil consequences that naturally come to the one who so yields. This is one of the natural laws of the harvest. God means this law to cause men to halt and to cease from sin. Sin costs the sinner too dear, it cost God His Only Begotten Son.
The Limitations of Punishment. The harvest is limited by the quantity and character of the seed. Punishment is graded in proportion to light and opportunity. The law of justice will obtain. Some will be "beaten with few stripes" and some with "many." "And that servant, which knew his lord's will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he that knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes. For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required; and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more" (Luke 12:47,48). Punishment, as well as reward, is to be graded. A finite sin will have a finite punishment: nothing else would be justice. God Himself has set bounds to the consequences of evil, whereas to good there are practically no limitations. In the Commandments, given to Israel (Ex. 20:5,6), we find written, "visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate Me; And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love Me, and keep My commandments." The reason for the advantages of the blessings of righteousness over wickedness, lies in the fact that the consequences of sin are under the laws of fallen nature, and that in righteousness God has introduced His eternal and unbounded nature that never fell.
How low may erring souls descend?
I ask my troubled heart.
Only as deep as depth of sea,
Or to earth's lowest part.
How high may trusting souls aspire?
I asked my spirit free.
The boundless steeps of heaven high
Are surely meant for thee.
O love of God, how great! how good!
That holds the wrong in bounds
And offers right the heights of bliss,
Where God with glory crowns.
The Kinds of Punishment. "Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap," implies that the punishment will be of the same kind as the sins. Sins of the flesh bring forth consequences in the flesh. Sins of the mind beget mental suffering. Sins of the heart bring forth blasted affections and emotions. Sins of the spirit blight our highest nature on its Godward side. This law is certainly one of the harvest laws and is also in accord with the principles of justice. Jacob cheated his brother Esau, and he himself was deceived ten times (Gen. 31:41). Israel failed to keep God's law of the sabbaths and they reaped seventy years of captivity as a consequence (Jer. 17:27; 25:11; 2Chron. 36:20,21). When we think that every thought, word and deed will bring forth a harvest after its kind, we certainly need to take warning, to "flee from the wrath to come," and to bring forth "fruits of righteousness."
An old treatise on Law concerning crimes and punishments sounds very modern and confirms the principles that we have thus far discovered:
"Crimes", it says, "are more effectually prevented by the certainty than the severity of the punishment. Hence, in a magistrate, the necessity of vigilance, and in a judge, of implacability, which, that it may become a useful virtue, should be joined to a mild legislation. The certainty of a small punishment will make a stronger impression than the fear of one more severe, if attended with the hopes of escaping; for it is the nature of mankind to be terrified at the approach of the smallest inevitable evil, whilst hope, the best gift of heaven, hath the power of dispelling the apprehension of a greater; especially if supported by the examples of impunity, which weakness or avarice too frequently afford.
"If punishments be very severe, men are naturally led to the perpetration of other crimes, to avoid the punishment due to the first. The countries and times most notorious for severity of punishments are also those in which the most bloody and inhuman actions and the most atrocious crimes are committed; for the hand of the legislator and assassin were directed by the same spirit of ferocity; which, on the throne, dictated laws of iron to slaves and savages, and, in private, instigated the subject to sacrifice one tyrant to make room for another.
"In proportion as punishments become more cruel, the minds of men, as a fluid rises to the same height as that which surrounds it, grow hardened and insensible; and, the force of the passions still continuing, in the space of a hundred years, the wheel terrifies no more than formerly the prison. That a punishment may produce the effect required, it is sufficient that the evil it occasions should exceed the good expected from the crime; including in the calculation the certainty of the punishment, and the privation of the expected advantage. All severity beyond that is superfluous, and therefore tyrannical."*
*Beccaria on Crimes and Punishments, quoted in Thomas C. Upham,
A Philosophic and Practical Treatise on the Will, page 184. (Published by William Hyde, Portland, 1834). For translation of this treatise of Beccaria see J. A. Farrar's Crimes and Punishments.
That is simply studying the subject of punishment from the standpoint of the ordinary law, and those punishments and the principles there enunciated are the principles that commend themselves "to every man's conscience," and are the very principles we find in God's book.
The Author of Punishment. God is not the author of punishment, even tho He is over all and makes everything that happens serve His purposes in the government of His universe. It is the creature who is the author of sin and is thus responsible for its consequences. Sin has its origin in the creature's acting independently of God. God is not the author of anything that is evil. He never made any of the consequences of sin any more than He made the sin. God's creature is the only one to blame. God did not make a fallen nature. It resulted from the fall of angel and man. God never made a punishment for sin. Every punishment for sin is manufactured by the one committing the sin, "Whatsoever a man soweth." Our punishment springs from our own sowing. This consideration dispels all detraction in reference to God's character and Word. The place of punishment referred to in Matt. 25:41 as "prepared for the devil and his angels," may be better translated, "prepared by the devil and his angels." Wicked men share this punishment because their sins were similar to those of the evil angels, and they cooperated with the evil angels and followed their suggestions.
The Purpose of Punishment. We gather from the preceding consideration some of God's purposes in punishment. God's original law was framed to increase the fruitage of goodness by the creature's sowing goodness. When nature and man fall, God's law still works, but on the lower plane of punishment. Even on this plane all punishment in God's economy is:
According to justice. There is no vindictive wrath in God Himself, but the working of fallen nature sometimes has that appearance! It is only in appearance. God always and only purposes good to every creature of His. Accordingly, He has twined about the very consequence of sin high, holy, and beneficial purposes.
1. He uses the punishment of sin as a preventive. This is for the breaker of His law, that he may be prevented from other infractions of it. God also has in mind the deterring of others who may learn or witness the terrible consequences of sin.
2. Punishment is also disciplinary. The root-meaning of one of the chief words for punishment is that of pruning. The Lord of the harvest never prunes to kill, but to help. The persistence of the consequences of sin long after the sin is forgiven by God is doubtless intended so to deepen and burn in the lesson that the cause of punishment may be cured. God purposes to establish in righteousness, that the creature, even if he could, would not yield to sin.
3. Punishment is also meant by God to be self-corrective. This is exprest in Jer. 2:19, "Thine own wickedness shall correct thee, and thy backsliding shall reprove thee." This still is disciplinary, but it implies that in the punishment itself is a self-corrective element. The fermentation of liquids tends to their own purification. The principle of the modern disposal plant is that one germ of impurity devours another till all their malignity is destroyed. God tells us what the harvest of sin is; "The wages of sin is death" (Rom. 6:23). This denotes all kinds of death, answering to the different kinds of sin. Sin always attempts to kill God. Its culmination was reached when it slew the Christ, but His death overcame "him (Satan) that had the power of death" (Heb. 2:14). And through our Lord's death all death has been potentially destroyed, and will be actually and historically destroyed before the end of the ages, when the Son hands over the kingdom to the Father: "The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death." God has thus limited the extent of the consequences of evil. It, in one sense, wears itself out. Let no one say however that Christ, the Savior, is not needed. We have already indicated that slaying Him only promoted His plan of redemption. It cut away all our nature of flesh and blood that He had taken, and in Him we and the whole creation were potentially set free from all corruption and all harvests that are the consequence of sin and sins. "The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death" (Rom. 8:2).
What more does any one want than a punishment for sin that is fully adequate; that accords with absolute justice; that has the strongest sanctions that can be imagined, because not only of their greatness, but also because of their continuance even after forgiveness; a punishment that is not unnatural and unreasonable but that grows out of the creature's selfish actions; a punishment that so closely and continuously disciplines its author that the release can come only by an utter and forever putting away of the cause; a punishment that is not manufactured by an angry God, but whose cause and development depend entirely upon the creature and a fallen nature; a punishment that vindicates God's character for goodness, for He makes sin, even against its will, work for righteousness and also destroy its own harvest of all kinds of death, through the death that it wrought in His only and first begotten Son! This is a Sane and Scriptural Doctrine of Punishment. "For God hath shut them all up for unbelief, that He might have mercy upon all. O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments, and His ways past finding out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been His counsellor? Or who hath first given to Him, and it shall be recompensed unto Him again. For out of Him, and through Him, and unto Him, are all things: to whom be glory for the ages. Amen" (Rom. 11:32-36, literal).
Back to Is Hell Eternal? Index
Back to Scholars Corner