Is Hell Eternal?
Or Will God's Plan Fail
By Charles Pridgeon
Chapter four: Some Insurmoutable Difficulties
There are insurmountable difficulties that stand in the way of faith in the doctrine of endless punishment. It is a fact that, altho its acceptance is accounted by many one of the tests of orthodoxy, it is emphasized at the present day by only a very few. If it really is true, it should be proclaimed by every one; in fact, there should never be any sermon preached without making this doctrine a part of it. Its advocates will admit that there are even whole books in the Bible that contain no mention of it. When we remember that many of these books were issued separately, at first, and that a community might have only one; or two of them, and in them there would be no clear statement of the utter and forever hopelessness of any one dying out of Christ,--this certainly seems surpassingly strange.
If this doctrine were really true, as it is profest, every believer ought to give up all the ordinary pursuits of life, even the necessary ones, and spend his whole time in warning the impenitent; that is what would be done if a fire that threatened every one were to break out in our city or country; but this alarm is rarely, if ever, shown by believers who are in their right minds. The fact is that, altho it is profest by most Christians, it is not believed by them with any conviction or they would act differently. Edwards and Finney did not think that eternal punishment was rightly proclaimed in a community unless some went insane. Indeed, if it were realized in all its horrors and suffering it would make of our religion a hideous nightmare. Most Christians would be victims of melancholia, and the whole world would become either demented or atheistic.
We fear any doctrine that does not commend itself ''to every man's conscience in the sight of God," for such a conscience quickened and illumined by the Holy Spirit is the highest light that man has; and if any so-called truth of God does not commend itself to this kind of conscience, something is the matter with it. Most preachers and teachers who proclaim the doctrine of eternal punishment say again and again, "We wish this were not so," or, "We would change this, if we could." They are by such remarks witnessing to the fact that they do not have the full backing of their own conscience, and unconsciously they are criticizing God's government and character. (See Chapter on Conscience Must Be Satisfied.)
Dr. Albert Barnes, the noted preacher and commentator, thus expresses himself:
"That the immortal mind should be allowed to jeopardize its infinite welfare; and that trifles should be allowed to draw it away from God and virtue and heaven; that any should suffer forever, lingering on in hopeless despair, and rolling amidst infinite torments without the possibility of alleviation and without end; that since God can save men, and will save a part He has not purposed to save all; that on the supposition that the atonement is ample, and that the blood of Christ can cleanse from all and every sin, it is not in fact applied to all. That, in a word, a God who claims to be worthy of the confidence of the universe, and to be a Being of infinite benevolence, should make such a world as this, full of sinners and sufferers; and that when an atonement had been made, He did not save all the race, and put an end to sin and woe forever.
"These and kindred difficulties meet the mind when we think on this great subject; and they meet us when we endeavor to urge our fellow sinners to be reconciled to God, and to put confidence in Him. On this ground they hesitate. These are real, not imaginary difficulties. They are probably felt by every mind that ever reflected on the subject; and they are unexplained, unmitigated, unremoved. I confess, for one, that I feel them, and feel them more sensibly and powerfully the more I look at them and the longer I live. I do not understand these facts; and I make no advance toward understanding them. I do not know that I have a ray of light on this subject which I had not when the subject first flashed across my soul. I have read, to some extent, what wise and good men have written. I have looked at their theories and explanations. I have endeavored to weigh their arguments, for my whole soul pants for light and relief on these questions. But I get neither; and in the distress and anguish of my own spirit I confess that I see no light whatever. I see not one ray to disclose to me the reason why sin came into the world, why the earth is strewed with the dying and the dead, and why a man must suffer to all eternity.
"I have never seen a particle of light thrown on these subjects that has given a moment's ease to my tortured mind; nor have I an explanation to offer, or a thought to suggest which would be of relief to you. I trust other men--they profess to do--understand this better than I do; and that they have not the anguish of spirit which I have but I confess when I look on a world of sinners and of sufferers; upon death-beds and graveyards; upon the world of woe, filled with hosts to suffer forever; when I see my friends, my parents, my family, my people, my fellow citizens; when I look upon a whole race, all involved in this sin and danger; and when I see the great mass of them wholly unconcerned; and when I feel that God only can save them, and yet He does not do it, I am struck dumb. It is all dark, dark, dark, to my soul, and I can not disguise it." (Barnes' Practical Sermons, pp. 123-125).
We could multiply examples, but this will suffice to witness to the recoil of even those who are spiritual from the so-called orthodox doctrine of eternal punishment.
The doctrine of the eternal torments of the wicked blots out a God of love from His world. One preached upon the theme: "The End of the Wicked Contemplated by the Righteous; or The Torments of the Wicked in Hell, no Occasion of Grief to the Saints in Heaven." Only a pitiless logic that practically blotted out a God of love, and effaced the love of God from the hearts of believers, could establish such a theme. In fact, we find this one of the points of that noted sermon by this great preacher. We quote from this sermon:
"The sufferings of the damned will be no occasion of grief to the heavenly inhabitants and they will have so love nor pity to the damned as such. It will be no argument of want of a spirit of love in them, that they do not love the damned; for the heavenly inhabitants will know that it is not fit that they should love them, because they will know then that God has no love to them, nor pity for them; but that they are the objects of God's eternal hatred . . . However the saints in heaven may have loved the damned while here, especially those of them who were near and dear to them in this world, they will have no love to them hereafter."*
*The Works of President Edwards, Vol. iv, page 291 (Robert Carter & Bros., New York. 1881).
One would not think that a godly man could be led by false premises to deny a God of love and hearts of love to prove eternal torments. It is true that he was misled by the popular erroneous translation of certain passages of Scripture and the very word "damned." This word is properly translated "condemned." The Scriptures say, "Love never faileth, . . . now abideth faith, hope and love." God always and everywhere loves all of His creatures, even the most prodigal of them. His love lasts not only for this life. His love is eternal, in His very nature. The eternal punishment of the wicked would be the eternal punishment of God, and the eternal punishment of His saints.
We will mention another insurmountable difficulty against the doctrine of endless punishment, and that is this: that such teaching fosters an unloving and cruel spirit and, in part at least, accounts for much of the persecution in the past; instigated and inflicted by professing Christians. We can see what kind of spirit would be inculcated by the following quotation, and one would not think that the great Tertullian could possibly utter such sentiments on the torments of Hell. He says in addressing the pagans:
"You are fond of your spectacles; but there are other spectacles; that day disbelieved, derided by the nations, the last and eternal day of judgment, when all ages shall be swallowed up in one conflagration; what a variety of spectacles shall then appear! How shall I admire, how laugh, how rejoice, how emit, when I behold so many kings, and false gods in heaven, together with Jove himself, groaning in the lowest abyss of darkness!--so many magistrates who persecuted the name of the Lord, liquefying in fiercer flames than they ever kindled against Christians; so many sage philosophers blushing in raging fire, with their scholars whom they persuaded to despise God, and to disbelieve the resurrection; and so many poets shuddering before the tribunal, not of Rhadamanthus, not of Minos, but of the disbelieved Christ! Then shall we hear the tragedians more tuneful in the expression of their own sufferings; then shall we see the dancers far more sprightly amidst the flames; the charioteer all red-hot in his burning car; and the wrestlers hurled, not upon the accustomed list, but upon a plain of fire."*
*Tertullian's De Spectaculis, Chap. 30. Gibbon's translation. See also Ante Nicene Fathers, Vol.3, page 91 (Christian Lit. Co. N. Y.).
This fiery, unchristian eloquence was especially addressed to the pagans, but how far removed it was from the spirit of Christ and what cruelty and hatred would it inspire!
One of the cruel, persecuting queens of England justified her cruelty by appealing to the supposed example of God: "As the souls of heretics are hereafter to be eternally burning in hell, there can be nothing more proper than for me to imitate the divine vengeance by burning them on earth." In all the persecutions that professing Christians have promoted in the past, they fanatically believed that they were doing their cruel work for God's glory; therefore, the more zealous they were for God, the harder they labored to persecute or slay those they called heretics.
Such persecutions bring the blush to the cheek of Roman Catholic and Protestant alike, for both have been guilty before God, so guilty that sometimes even children ten and twelve years of age joined with their parents in killing the children of heretics for the glory of God! It needs to be remarked here that such cruelty had not its origin in Christianity any more than the doctrine of eternal torment had its origin in Christianity. It came as an importation from paganism. The Jews received many of their conceptions outside the Bible from Egyptian and Babylonian sources, and the cruelty of Greek and Roman and other races was transported into Christianity and read into certain passages of the Bible. In the receiving of whole tribes and nations as profest followers of Christ without requiring a change of heart in them, they paganized and unchristianized the Bible doctrine of rewards and punishments. The pagans used all kinds of cruelties to subdue their ignorant people, and they imagined and invented a diabolical hell to compel obedience. That which seemed like a great day for Christ in declaring the Roman Empire Christian, when Constantine (312-317 A. D.) became a convert, was but the opening of the door for all kinds of worldliness to enter the Church. It prepared the way for the thousand years of gross ignorance and superstition and the period usually called the "dark ages."
The historical argument against eternal torments might be further developed. It is certainly remarkable that no Church Council ever pronounced against the doctrine of the ultimate salvation of all until between five and six hundred years after Christ; and that, in some of the earliest of the Church Councils, the leading spirits were honored men who were known by every one to hold the doctrine of the ultimate salvation of all. It is also worthy of note that the majority of the leaders in the first few centuries who spoke Greek as their native tongue interpreted the Bible as teaching the ultimate salvation of all. It is also true that many of the leaders who did not speak Greek in these early centuries agreed and propagated the same truth. It ought to be said further that even later than this early period the advocates of eternal torment usually held other doctrines which so modified their views of perdition that its awful punishments were greatly mitigated. These facts from Scripture, from conscience, and from history form insurmountable difficulties to the view of an eternal hell as ordinarily profest.
We would add one word more for any one who may read only this Chapter: It is not to be inferred from anything here exprest that the consequences are not tremendous for one who rejects our God and His Christ now. "Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap." The punishment and consequences of sin are terribly real and can not be escaped, but they are sane and commend themselves to every man's conscience. They are better adapted and entirely adequate to deter us from sin; and, beside all this, we can learn that God has attached a beneficent purpose to them that tends to bring one to himself that he may be ready to accept Christ and His salvation. (See Chapter on A Sane and Scriptural Doctrine of Punishment.)
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