Mercy And Judgment by Canon F.W. Farrar
Put into electronic form by Tentmaker Ministries and Publications, Inc. Copyright 200 May not be reproduced without permission.
MERCY AND JUDGMENT.
THE TEACHING OF THE NEW TESTAMENT ON FUTURE RETRIBUTION
"Dear friend, I am as thoroughly persuaded as I am of my own existence that God will not be overcome of evil, but will overcome evil with good, and I am therefore not much disturbed by one or two difficult passages which seem to point to a different result." — Letters of Thomas Erskine, p. 145.
"Just guessing, through their murky blind
Few, faint, and baffling sight,
Streaks of a brighter heaven behind,
A cloudless depth of light."
Let us turn to the New Testament.
The existence of hell, - if the meaning of that word be limited to the single conception of a retribution beyond the grave, - is revealed. It is the natural sequence of that doctrine of immortality which Christ brought to light. Even an endless future retribution is so far revealed that its possibility seems to be dimly implied in certain passages if they be taken alone. What is not revealed is the dreadful series of human inferences and imaginations which have now for centuries been conglomerated into the meaning of "hell," but which hardly came into definite existence till the fifth century, and which constitute such a belief as the Church has never at any time required.
The necessity for these imaginations and inferences is absolutely denied. "If in revelation," says Bishop Butler, "there may be found any passages, the seeming meaning of which is contrary to natural religion, we may most certainly conclude such seeming meaning not to be the real one." It may be said, with less ambiguity, that where our unsophisticated moral intuition pronounces a doctrine, as popularly set forth, to be unworthy of our reason and abhorrent to our sense of justice, it is less likely that our moral intuition should be wrong than that our interpretation of Scripture should be mistaken. "Of all our faculties," as Professor Jellet says, "the moral intuition is least likely to err. The moral intuition of the middle ages was blunted by the supposed revelation of the accretions which we reject. The more it becomes enlightened, the more loving and merciful the heart of man becomes, the more emphatically and indignantly will it pronounce, that men have wronged and distorted by perversion, and misinterpretation, and most unwarranted addition, the words and metaphors of Christ."
And in interpreting these texts I cannot forget the intensity of God's love for man, which is the very essence of the Gospel message. That love is not quenched by our sinfulness, but only mingled with grief. "The Living Word showed forth this grief; the Written Word is full of its utterance. There is no living relationship which the Prophets have not used to give vent to this unutterable sorrow — a father's heart-broken indignation, a mother's pitiful yearning, a lover's agonized relentings, a husband's outraged honour, a friend's broken confidence, a master's insulted dignity, - nor mutual human relationships only….The trouble of the shepherd over one sheep strayed from his charge, the disappointed expectation of the husbandman, add some tones to the great lament." This grief, this love, are manifested even to impenitent sinners. What is there in the Gospel to lead us to suppose that God will inflict endless and irremediable torments on any whom His love can reach even beyond the grave? Where are we told that the love of God who changes not will be changed into hatred, fury, and implacable vengeance by the moment of death? "Is it the great crime of dying which can quench the love that our enmity and our sin could not quench? No! Love never faileth."
The principal passages bearing on the subject are found in the Gospel of St. Matthew.
a. It would be quite needless to enter upon any examination of mere general threatenings of temporal or other consequences expressed by the metaphor of "fire". Fire consumes and fire purifies; the notion of a material miraculous fire, meant to keep men alive in pain without destroying them, is a human fiction derived from the literalising of figures ill understood. When St. John Baptist says, "He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire," he is using a metaphor of chaff being burnt up and consumed, to illustrate the work of the Messiah who should in that age, by an immediately impending judgment, purge the good elements of the nation from the bad, by the political and physical destruction of the Jewish race.*(1) If these passages, and the figures of the burnt tares in the parable, the bad fish cast away, the dead branch burnt, the faithless servant cut asunder, are indeed meant to be taken literally and not as figures, and if they are interpreted to imply future torments, not earthly ruin to the Jews to whom they were addressed, nothing can be clearer than that what they imply is not hopeless misery, but total destruction.*(2) In my view these parabolic metaphors imply neither endless torments nor annihilation, but they are metaphors of the natural laws which are the Divine laws of retribution by which all evil is punished, until it is repented of, both in this world and beyond the grave.
*(1) Keble clearly caught this meaning.
"Caught from that blaze by wrath divine,
Lost branches of the once-loved vine,
Now wither'd, spent, and sere,
See Israel's sons, like glowing brands,
Toss'd wildly o'er a thousand lands,
For twice a thousand year."
- Fifth Sunday in Lent.
*(2) The same inference would naturally be drawn from Matt. x. 28, where the Apostles are bidden to fear, not those who kill the body, but Him who is able to destroy both body and soul in hell. It refers to the undoubted power of God to deprive man of the immortality which He has Himself bestowed. It is an allusion to God's omnipotence, not a declaration of His intention.
b. It is not, therefore, needful to examine once more the Parables of Judgment.
There is at least a general truth in the remark of Archbishop Whately, that "the only truth that is essential in a parable is the truth of the moral or doctrine conveyed by it." That these parables are full of awful warning — that they dwell on the warning and not on the hope — I freely admit. It is on this very ground that I cannot teach that all souls will be saved. But yet I think that the inferences from these parables are far less demonstrative than is sometimes supposed.
The wicked husbandmen who are cast out mean primarily the Jews who lose their land and their privileges, and on whom heavy temporal judgments fall. Their fate cannot prove any doctrine of endless torments; nor can that of the one single guest who is cast out of the banquet; still less that of the unwise virgins, of whom it is certainly not hinted that they suffered hopeless misery because they were too late for the Bridegroom's feast. The external scenery of these and other parables may indeed be interpreted of great general principles. They certainly imply most solemn and awful warnings, of immediate and future retribution on sloth, faithlessness, and sin. But when their details are pressed into the service of systematic eschatology, they are used to ends for which they never were intended, and such a misapplication of them can only lead to contradiction and confusion. No dogmatic truth can be proved by such methods. The vineyard, the wedding banquet, the king's supper, are emblems of the Kingdom of Heaven into which Gentiles should enter, from which Jews would be excluded in the present Messianic Age. None can ever enter it who refuse the first requisite conditions. When men accept those conditions the doors are opened wide.
Nor must it be forgotten that if the details of these parables be sternly pressed to the most remorseless logical inference, there are at least as many parables which, in accordance with the whole drift of Scripture, we have fully as much right to press into the higher service of hope and mercy. Such are those which tell us that the Good Shepherd will not cease to search for His wandering sheep until He find it; that the imprisonment of the unforgiving debtor is only to last until the last farthing of his debt has been paid, - which debt for sinners is paid as soon as they accept the ransom freely offered; that the leaven is at last to leaven the whole of the three measures of meal; that there is joy in Heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety-and-nine just persons which need no repentance; that God accepts the repentance of His prodigals even when it has been only wrung from them by misery and shame.
Turning to passages of which the meaning is supposed to be distinctly in favour of the popular view, we shall find how rashly and how extravagantly their meaning has been pressed.
I. There is, for instance, the passage, Matt. v. 21, 22, which ends by saying, "Whosoever shall say, thou fool, shall be in danger of the Gehenna of fire."
The ordinary interpretation of this passage is so strange that the general acceptance of it only shows the otiose state of mind in which men languidly accept the most startling misinterpretations. Our Lord is speaking of three degrees of sinful anger, and telling His hearers that it had been a law for their fathers that a murderer was liable to the "judgment" — i.e. the decision, whatever it might be, of the Beth Din, or local court (Deut. xvi. 18). He came to give a more searching law, which would trace to its very source, in evil thoughts and words, the guilt of murder. In His law, whoever is angry with his brother*(1) is as guilty as if he thereby came under the cognizance of the Beth Din with its sentence of death by the sword*(2); if he lets his anger burst forth in the contumelious word "worthless,"*(3) he is as guilty as if he came under the cognizance of the Sanhedrin, or Supreme Court of Jerusalem; if his rage is still more ungovernable, and he uses the furious taunt of "rebel"*(4) (the word which cost so sad a punishment to Moses and Aaron),*(5) he morally deserves the severest form of Jewish sentence, the sentence which ordered his body to be burnt and then flung forth and consumed in the Burning Valley.*(6) Thus, as Bengel says, the general meaning is that by these forms of anger a man practically makes himself a homicide in the first, second, or third degree. What possible connexion has this with endless torments, the introduction of which renders the whole passage unintelligible? The primary reference of the "Gehenna of fire" is here, beyond all question, to a form of temporal punishment which had especial horror to the Jewish mind, on the ground, among others, that they, like all ancient nations, attached intense importance to burial rites.*(7) When we find that Jewish writings abound in similar turns of phrase, which were intended to inculcate deep moral truths in the most striking form, but in which no one dreamed of confusing the essential meaning by attaching literal importance to the form, we can feel no doubt that our Lord was using language which all His hearers would readily understand.*(8)
*(1) [please insert Hebrew text from book here] B. Vulg. and many Fathers omit the words "without a cause," which are, however, a fair gloss.
*(2) Jos. Antt. iv. 8, 14.
*(3) [please insert Hebrew text from book here]. w anqrwpe kene — James ii. 20.
*(4) [please insert Hebrew text from book here]. It involved the imputation of conduct punishable with death. Deut. xxi. 18-20.
*(5) Numb. xx. 10.
*(6) Death by burning was a recognized punishment of the law. (Lev. xx. 14.) The flinging forth of the body into Gehenna rests on tradition only. Compare a very similar triple gradation in Kiddushin, f. xxviii. I. If a man calls another "slave" he deserves excommunication; if "bastard" he deserves forty stripes; if "impious" he deserves death. (See Meuschen, Hor. Hebr. p. 34.)
*(7) Ecc. Vi. 3. "If a man begat an hundred children…and also he have no burial, I say that an untimely birth is better than he." Comp. 2 Kings ix. 35; Is. xiv. 19, 20; Jer. xxii. 19.
*(8) See Niddah, f. 13; Shabbath, f. 33, I; and other passages in Meuschen, &c.
2. In the same chapter (Matt. v. 29, 30, comp. xviii. 8, 9) occurs the passage in which our Lord says that it is better to cut off the right hand and to pluck out the right eye rather than let them be the means and instruments of sin, since it is profitable that one of the members should perish, and not that the whole body should be cast into Gehenna. None but persons of disturbed reason have ever supposed that the passage ought to be taken literally. Any literal acceptance of it has been emphatically condemned by Church decrees. The general meaning is distinct. It is that the severest self-denial is often the highest self-interest, and that it would be better to incur any amount of personal loss and suffering, and so to enter into relationship with God, by accepting Christ, than to be led into sins so awful as those which involved the casting forth of the body of the criminal into the Burning Valley, which was the severest punishment for crimes against the law. "The whole passage," as Baumgarten-Crusius says, "must not be understood of the punishments of hell." At any rate, the allusion to future punishment is only indicated in a dim and indefinite manner, on which no elaborate system can be built. The Rabbis said, using a very similar turn of phrase, "It is better for a man to throw himself into a furnace than to make any one blush in public"*(1)…The truth thus expressed is admirable; yet would any sane man, except Biblical literalists, be so absurd as to understand it literally?
*(1) Berachoth (Schwab, p. 404).
3. The passage finds its best illustration from the parallel passage in Mark ix. 41-50; and if in that passage its sterner aspects are emphasized, so too is the less terrible line of interpretation abundantly supported. The Beloved Disciple, in the exclusive spirit which always marks an erroneous tendency and an imperfect Christianity, had forbidden one who was casting out demons in Christ's name without having joined the body of the disciples. Christ, after gently rebuking this sectarian pride, proceeds to teach His disciples that the smallest kindness done in His name and for His sake to one of His children, shall gain a reward; and that, on the other hand, it were better to have a millstone hung round the neck and be drowned than to lead His little ones into sin by placing stumbling-blocks in the path of their truth and holiness. Then follows the passage about cutting off the right hand and plucking out the right eye as being a less terrible loss than to be cast into Gehenna. Does not this parallel throw a very different light on the common notions of being cast into Gehenna? It were better to be drowned at once than to put a stumbling-block in the path of the weak; it were better to make a present sacrifice, however costly, than to incur such guilt as was punished by the most ignominious and terrible sentence of the Jewish law — the denial of the rites of burial and the casting of the body into the Burning Valley. What parallel would there be between a moment of drowning agony and endless torments in material fire?
The particulars which are added to the description of the Burning Valley enhance the awful picture of such a doom. They are "to be cast into Gehenna, into the unquenchable fire [words of doubtful genuineness], where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched."
Probably the misunderstanding of this verse has been one main cause of the unscriptural views of the future which have so fatally darkened the souls of many Christians. It is the verse on which St. Augustine lays his main stress. It has been relied upon by those who have accepted the worst aspect of his "hell," and have rejected the mercy of his "purgatory". It is so impossible to eradicate the errors and prejudices of centuries — it is so impossible to impart by a few words that sense of the true meaning and application of phrases which can only come as the result of lifelong culture and literary training — that to many every endeavour to put the words in their true light will always wear the aspect of explaining them away. When the Roman Catholic lifts up his eyes to the dome of St. Peter's, and sees the glittering and colossal inscription, "I say unto thee, thou art Peter, and on this rock will I build my Church," no amount of Protestant argument will shake his conviction that the grounds on which he argues for the supremacy of his Church are based on the express teaching of Christ; and he will treat as so many willful sophisms all endeavours to explain their true import. When Luther was wearied out with the arguments brought against the doctrine of the Real Presence, he thought it sufficient to end all controversy by again and again repeating the words, "This is my body," and no reasoning as to the true bearing of symbolic expressions would have sufficed to shake his obstinate literalism. When the Calvinist has quoted some text in which the word "elect" occurs, or in which allusion is made to Pharaoh and Esau, he thinks it little short of willful atheism to reject his system of theology. So again, all the rest of Scripture will often fail to put in its due perspective the true doctrine of justification by faith when that expression has been changed from a living truth into a dead shibboleth; and there was a gleam of partial insight in Swedenborg's vision of Melanchthon incessantly employed in the next world in writing down, "The just shall live by faith," while the words disappeared every time that he wrote them down. All the vast weight of the moral and spiritual revelations which have made men reject such pictures of hell as I have quoted, are powerless against those who are unable to coordinate with the rest of God's revelations the literal meaning of a few texts. The superstitious and arbitrarily invented theory of "verbal dictation" is the source of countless errs, miseries, and wrongs, and will always be a fatal hindrance to the right reception of divine truths.
And yet, thank God, multitudes of the wisest and holiest of mankind are at last beginning to understand more of the true explanation of these metaphors. That the repetition of this verse about the worm and flame in verses 45-48, is due to some tampering with the text is now admitted.*(1) But it is further beginning to be recognized  that "the quenchless fire" and "undying worm" are simply descriptions of what the Valley of Hinnom became after the days of King Josiah, because worms bred in the corruption and fires were burnt to consume the refuse and purify the air;  that so far as they refer to any future retribution they are metaphors, since not even the dullest imagination has supposed that there are literally deathless worms;  that, like so many of the New Testament metaphors, they are borrowed from the page of ancient prophecy;  that in the passage of Isaiah from which they are borrowed, and are somewhat softened in the borrowing, they refer to temporal judgments;  that as in that passage the worm and flame feed on dead corpses, and are descriptive of temporal judgments, so there must be the very strongest probability that here also they are a general picture of just retribution, whether in this life or in that to come, but that they are wholly inadequate of themselves to support — even if they have the least bearing on — the doctrine of the endlessness of torment.
*(1) These verses are omitted by the best MS. ([please insert Hebrew character from book here]. B. C. L. D . &c.). If it be asked what temptation there could have been thus to heighten the supposed luridness of the metaphor by repetition and reiteration, the answer is that to a certain class of minds there is a positive fascination in dwelling on the most frightful supposed features of anguish and horror in a doom which they reserve for others. For instance, who fearfully common in the coarse terrorism of revivalists is the use of the phrase "hell-fire". What is the Scriptural authority for it? It is a complete mistranslation of the phrase "the Gehenna of fire", which occurs exactly twice in the whole Bible (Matt. v. 22, xviii. 9), and there primarily as a literal description of a particular valley! The addition "of fire" is not found in the parallel passages. Here in Mark ix. 46, 47, the "fire" is a heightening interpolation not found in the best MSS.
And difficult as is the passage with which our Lord's discourse concludes — the recovery of the true reading being alone a matter of very considerable uncertainty — it is full of a most precious hopefulness, which, alas! has also been terribly perverted. After warning us that any present self-denial is better than the ultimate consequences of unrepented sin, our Blessed Lord adds, "For every one shall be salted with fire." I will venture to say that no thought could have been more distant in this passage from the tender love of the Blessed Redeemer than that truly "sickening thought," which even Keble was so misled by the hard misinterpretations of human fancy as to bid us "hold fast." Can anything be more reckless than the inference that we should be "salted with fire" in order to preserve us alive in interminable and unutterable agonies! Such a fancy (which Augustine has to support by the analogies of worms in hot springs, and salamanders which live in flame!) could not but have been impossible to the mind of Him who came "to save sinners," "to be a propitiation for the sins of the whole world." No! "Salt is good," and fire too is good. It is (as the whole context shows) a purifying fire — the "purification and consecration wrought by wisdom" — which shall do the work of salt when salt has failed.*(1) It is the refiner's fire of the day of the Lord*(2) which shall purify and purge us as gold and silver. For it is not only those who have refused to make the great earthly sacrifices — not only the offenders of Christ's little ones — but "every one" who shall be "salted with fire". If the words "salted with fire" do indeed —
"Seem to show
How spirits lost in endless woe
May undecaying live,"
Then they are a universal threat; - as much a threat of those undecaying torments for the Pharisee as for the Publican. But that they should ever have been so interpreted, that the actual words and context of the passage and the entire bearing of its symbolism*(3) should thus have been wrenched from their true, blessed, and consoling applications, and impressed into the service of the most terrible of all conceivable theories, is but too grievously characteristic of that tormenting fear which is the natural antithesis of true love to God. Of all interpretations of the passage the least tenable, even on grammatical and exegetical grounds, is that which applies these two verses to endless torments. So far from aggravating the awful significance of the retribution which is symbolized by "Gehenna," they throw on that symbolism a gleam of blessed light; they are an additional argument in favour of understanding Gehenna — even when it is used as a metaphor of future retribution — as being what the Jews normal held it to be, a purifying and terminable retribution; and we must probably find the key to their solution in that fire which, St. Paul tells us, shall try every man's work, of what kind it is, and from which the workman may be saved, so as by fire, even when his work is burned. Fire in Scripture is the element of life (Is. iv. 5), of purification (Mal. iii. 3), of atonement (Lev. xvi. 27), of transformation (2 Pet. iii. 10); - and, at the worst only of total destruction (Rev. xx. 9); never of preservation alive for the purposes of anguish.
*(1) In our version we read, "And every sacrifice shall be salted with salt," and popular religionism delights to claim this for the elect, and leave the torment-preserving fire for reprobates. But the clause is probably spurious, not being found in [please insert Hebrew character form book here]. B. L. D .
*(2) Mal. iii. 2.
*(3) For "salt" see Matt. v. 13; Luke xiv. 34; Col. iv. 6; Lev. ii. 13. For "fire" see Matt. iii. II; I Cor. iii. 13; I Pet. i. 7; Mal. ii. Any one who will observe the scores of different manners in which this passage has been interpreted will see how little suitable it is to be made the basis of the "sickening thought" of Keble. Euthymius Zigabenus explains it of "the fire of faith in God, or of love to man." Luther says that "the Gospel is a fire and a salt; the old man is crucified, renewed, salted." Even Meyer, who takes the darkest view of it, admits that the diversity of interpretation proves the obscurity of the passage, and that the clue to the true meaning is perhaps lost.
4. The passage most relied upon is Matt. xxv. 41-46. It is the close of the parable concerning the last judgment, and the final separation made between the sheep and the goats. All nations are summoned before the bar of Christ. He divides them as the shepherd divides his flock, setting the sheep on His right hand and the goats on His left. To those on His right He says, "Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world." The reason assigned for this reward of blessedness is that they have done deeds of kindness to the sick, and the hungry, and the naked, and the prisoners, and in so doing have done kindness to Him. For their neglect of these deeds of kindness, and for no other specified cause, those on the left hear the awful words, "Depart from Me, ye cursed, into aeonian fire, prepared" — not for them, but — "for the devil and his angels."…"And these shall go away into aeonian punishment, but the righteous into aeonian life": - that is, they shall go respectively into the "correction" and the "life" of the "age to come".
The words, therefore, denounce a stern judgment on those who are unmerciful and hard-hearted. That we are dealing with language which cannot be pressed into close details is manifest from the fact that the decision is represented as turning solely on the fulfillment or neglect of one single virtue — active benevolence. When the true meaning of the word "aeonian" is restored, the passage ceases entirely to prove the doctrine of "endless torments", even if these other features of it did not exclude such an explanation.
But the scene described is not the judgment of the dead at all, but of the living. It is the trial of "all the Gentiles"*(1) at the second coming of Christ. So little of certainty can there be in the details of its eschatology that such commentators as Keil, Olshausen, and Greswell confine its application to Gentiles only, whereas Grotius and Meyer confine it to Christians only. We cannot then assert with confidence that it is meant to shadow forth the ultimate doom of individual men, but the judgments and losses which follow on the exclusion from the kingdom of Christ. It is a description, based on Old Testament metaphors, of that which shall happen to those Gentiles who, at Christ's coming — His Parousia at the close of the old dispensation — shall be found rejecting Him and persecuting His children. The fire which burns for them is that fire which ever burns against sin, and which is therefore described as prepared for the devil and his angels. There is nothing to indicate that this "fire of the age to come" may not cease when that age is merged into the great, the final, and the blessed consummation.
*(1) ponta ta eqnh. Rom. xv. 21-12, &c.
Further, our Lord could hardly have used the metaphor of the shepherd separating the sheep from the goats without direct reference to the thirty-fourth chapter of Ezekiel. In that chapter God, indignant with the idle and selfish shepherds, says, "Behold I judge between cattle and cattle, between the rams and he-goats"; or perhaps rather "between other cattle and the rams and the he-goats." But the sheep and goats are alike clean; they alike form part of the common flock*(1); and in the passage of Ezekiel are all under one loving shepherd, and the words used by our Lord for goats — "eriphia" — literally "kidlings", - has nothing in itself which points to final exclusion or implacable indignation.
*(1) See Tristram, Nat. Hist. of the Bible, p. 89.
5. Only one passage remains for our consideration in the Gospels. It is the solemn sentence of warning which our Lord addressed to Judas, Matt. xxvi. 24 (Mark xiv. 21). "Woe unto that man through whom the Son of Man is betrayed; good were it for that man if he had not been born."
i . A word or two may first be said on the actual phraseology.
a. First it should be observed that the "Woe unto that man", is not, as is usually supposed, an anathema, but, as Stier says, "the most affecting and melting lamentation of love, which feels the woe as much as holiness requires or will admit". The woe is, as in Matt. xxiv. 19, and expression of the deepest pity.
b. The latter clause, which is omitted in the parallel passage of St. Luke, is expressed in a manner which, though scarcely noticed by any commentator, is at least susceptible of another interpretation. It runs literally, "good were it for him ( autw ) if he had not been born — that man ( o anqrwpo s ekeino s)."*(1) But for dogmatic objections to such a translation, the verse would seem naturally to require the rendering, "It were good for Him ( autw ), the Son of Man — who has last been mentioned — if that man (Judas) had not been born." The words, "that man" ( o anhr ekeino s), at the end of the clause, look as if they were added, so to speak, by an after-thought, lest there should be any confusion in the grammar as to the nominative of the verb ( egenhqh ). The words would then mean, "For me, as the Son of Man, with that awful abyss of sorrow and agony before Me, into which I must now descend, it were good if that man, who is, humanly speaking, the guilty cause of My sufferings, had not been born. From the depths of My heart I pity him for the sin which he is now committing." And the reason why such a view is not at once to be pronounced untenable is that we find that our Lord did shudder at the cup, which yet He drank because it was His Father's will; that He prayed that, if possible, it might pass from Him; that "He offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto Him that was able to save Him from death and was heard in that He feared."*(2) If therefore His words be interpreted according to ordinary rules of grammar, there would be no difficulty at all in understanding Him to mean that, though His sufferings had been fore-ordained, yet (humanly speaking) it were good for Him if the traitorous disciple had never been born.*(3)
*(1) The peculiar structure of the clause kalon hn auty ei mh egenhqh o anqrwpo s ekeino s is not noticed in our version, but it is preserved in the Vulgate, Wiclif, Tyndale, Luther, the Rhemish, &c.
*(2) Matt. xxvi. 36-44; Mark xiv. 36-39; Luke xxii. 42; Heb. v. 7.
*(3) The real objection to the grammatical rendering of the word arises from the fact that "it were good for him not to have been born" was a common Jewish phrase (Eccl. vi. 3; Berachoth, f. xvii. I.; Chagigah, f. xi. 2, &c.).
c. But it perhaps more important to observe that "good were it for him" ( kalon hn autw ), to whomever applied, are far from necessarily meaning the absolute best. "God has many bests." What is "good" for a man in one aspect, may yet through God's infinite mercy not be so when the whole is considered. There may be a better than this good. Our Lord said that "it is not good ( kalon ) to take the children's bread and cast it to dogs" (Mark vii. 27), yet He did the deed of mercy which, to try the gold of the woman's faith, He had so described. Peter on the mount said, "It is good ( kalon ) for us to be here"; and so it was, but there was something better. St. Paul, in I Cor. vii. 8, says that it is "good" ( kalon ) to live a life of absolute celibacy; and so under conditions and circumstances it is. Yet this abstract "good" did not prevent St. Paul from recommending marriage as an ordinary "better".*(1)
*(1) I Cor. vii. I, 8, 26.
d. I do not, therefore, think that this verse can be used without hesitation as bearing on the unending future of any man, even of Judas. So far from sanctioning the popular views of hell in all their terror, the verse seems to me to be full of mercy. For our examination of the phrase, "it were good for him", has shown that it by no means excludes every blessed alternative of God's goodness. It is not a phrase which is by any means equivalent to "it is a frightful curse to him that he was ever born". It does not demand severer interpretation than that — regarding him in the light of his unutterable crime — it were better for him not to have been born. It does not by any means necessarily imply what men have harshly interpreted it to mean, that Judas was to be shut out for ever from every ray of the grace of God*(1). Let us not distort and exaggerate the words of Him who came to seek and save the lost. While we are not called upon to speculate as to the place and lot of Judas, let us remember that there were some in the early Church who saw in the remorse of his suicide the germs of a possible repentance, and thought that the wretched man hurried into the next world that he might there implore his Lord for that forgiveness which Peter, who in the hour of danger had denied Him with curses, lived to gain on earth.*(2)
*(1) The phrase was common enough — Job iii. II, x. 18; Ecclus. xxiii. 14; Luke xxii. 29. See former note.
*(2) Orig. in Matt. tr. xxv. See supra, p. 79.
e. The words of Christ, and the phrases He used are best interpreted by their meaning in other parts of His discourses. Let us then take the closest parallel we can find to His use of this phrase. It is in the passage which I have just examined — Mark ix. 42: "And whosoever shall cause to offend one of the little ones who have faith, it were better for him" [the expression is stronger] "if a great millstone hung about his neck, and he had been cast into the sea."*(1) No one can mistake the general sense of such language. It means that "it were better to be struck dead than to commit deadly sins." It means what Queen Blanche of Navarre meant when she said tat she had rather see her son St. Louis dead at her feet than see him live to commit a mortal sin. Yet how utterly far is the statement of such general principles from being identical with a threat of "hell-fire". Did not David cause the enemies of God to blaspheme, and yet did he not die a holy man? Have not many caused Christ's little ones to offend — have not many great Church doctors even cast stumbling blocks before the childhood of the world? — and yet, though to do so be a grievous thing — though in the abstract it were better to die than so to have done — though previous death would have saved them, mayhap, a pain and shame worse than death — do we deny them all chance of repentance? Do we even deny that, in other aspects, their lives may have been blessed with elements of good? And as for criminals, there has been many a criminal, like the Moloch-worshipping Manasseh, of whom men have often said that he had better have never been born, and for whom that saying is perfectly true, when we look at their crimes alone, who have yet lived to find that God forgives. Again and again must we insist that "the law speaks in the tongue of the sons of men"; that Scripture is to be interpreted according to the ordinary usage and interpretation of finite human speech; and that to those who persist in ignoring this plain and obvious principle it must remain in great measure a sealed book, a book which they will be liable to misuse as terribly to the wrong and injury of mankind as it has been misused again and again by the ignorance of rulers and the tyranny of priests.
*(1) kalon estin auty mallon. (In Matt. xviii. 6 it is sumferei aurf. )
ii. To me I confess that these stern, sad words to Judas are full of hope. Judas, by the common consent of mankind, was guilty of the most heinous sin which was ever committed. Yet all that our Blessed Lord said even of him (if indeed that interpretation of the words be true) was, "Good were it for him that he had not been born". Take the words in their severest aspect — stretch them to the utmost conceivable extent — and they fall very far short of a threat to Judas of the popular hell. No such interpretation can, even at the worst, be forced from them. For certainly they would have been true to the fullest extent if Judas had died at that very moment, and never suffered one pang more. The words neither do, nor can, contain in themselves a prophecy that he should suffer endless agonies. There is many a wealthy and prosperous man living at this moment in ease and luxury of whom one might still say that even if death were extinction, "Good were it for him that he had not been born." It requires no fire or worm to make that judgment true. Many even of God's saints have exclaimed at moments of sorrow that they wished they had not been born. The author of Ecclesiastes says that "an untimely birth" — that is, death at the moment of birth — is better than to "die and have no burial" (Eccl. ix. 3). Has any one dreamt of understanding those words otherwise than as an expression of the deep importance which the Jews attached to burial? Why is one passage of Scripture to be taken literally, while another is treated according to the ordinary limitations of human speech?
iii. But then, lastly, it was Judas alone of all living men of whom these words were spoken. Had the popular teaching about hell been true they would indeed have been amazing in their unexpected mildness. Why, if that popular teaching had been true, it were good for millions and millions of mankind, it were good for the vast majority of the human race — it were good for all but one "little flock" — if they had not been born! If those writers have taught the truth, then for most men the awful conclusion of Schopenhauer is irresistible, and mankind is a failure and a mistake, and it were better that it had never been. But of one man only has this been said, and even in his case the language is quite indefinitely mild compared with what men have dreamed. "Awful as the words were, they have their bright as well as their dark side". In thus applying them to the case of the traitor in its exceptional enormity there is suggested the thought that for others whose guilt were not like his, existence even in the penal suffering which their sins have brought on them may be better than never to have been at all.
6. And another passage used by Dr. Pusey and others to support the Augustinian view of hell is also full of hope by what it implies and full of hope from the mercy and limitation of what it actually says. In Mark iii. 29, the Pharisees — that is the representatives of the religionism of Christ's day — had tried to persuade the people that He had an unclean spirit. To speak thus was a fearful and a willing blasphemy. It was deliberately to identify the divinest holiness with demoniac guilt. Our Lord therefore first makes the glorious statement that "all sins shall be forgiven unto men, and blasphemies, however greatly (leg. osa ean ) they shall blaspheme, but whosoever shall blaspheme against the Holy Spirit hath no remission for the aeon, but is guilty of an aeonian sin ( amarthmato s)". The substitution of "judgment" for sin in many MSS. Is due to the "pious fraud" of some scribe who feared consequences more than guilt; and the rendering of "judgment" by the "damnation" is one of the worst faults of our English version. And how grievously has the passage been abused by an inferential exegesis! Our Lord says that every sin but one shall be forgiven: that broad and blessed promise has been ignored. The one sin which He says is alone "aeonian" — that is, of which alone the effects must cling to a man in the future aeon — is like that alluded to in Heb. x. 29 — the deliberate rejection of divine grace, and the willing substitution of evil for good. Certainly the words mean that there is one sin so heinous that its effects last for even invisible periods beyond the grave. But if this be asserted so emphatically of one sin, does it not necessarily imply that other sins are not so hopeless? It is doubtful whether it is meant that even this sin can never be repented of, either here or in the world to come. There is nothing in all the Bible which says that other sins may not be repented of after death. The theory of an endless hell caused by endless accumulation of sins after death is the figment of those who felt that they could only blush for the ordinary pleas as to the abstract justice of endless woes for finite transgressions. In all Scripture there is not a word about the possibility of committing sin beyond the grave. That theory is the gratuitous invention of despairing traditionalists. And what is said of this "aeonian sin"? It is implied that it must produce aeonian loss, but as to endless torments not a syllable is breathed.
I pass to the writings of St. Paul. There is but one passage in all St. Paul's Epistles — forming as they do the bulk of the New Testament — which can be wrested to support the common view of endless torments. It is in almost his earliest epistle, 2 Thess. i. 9. Speaking of the Second Advent in a manner to which he scarcely ever — if ever — reverted in his later writings, he says that the Lord Jesus "shall be revealed in flaming fire, assigning retribution to them that know not God [i.e. Gentiles], and to them that obey not the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. And they shall pay a penalty — aeonian destruction from the face of the Lord, and from the glory of His power, when He shall come to be glorified in His saints."
The whole meaning which the passage can bear is that at Christ's Advent — and primarily at the close of old dispensation — the guiltily ignorant Gentiles and the faithlessly disobedient Jews will, as a penalty, suffer that aeonian punishment which is defined as "destruction from" (i.e. cutting off from) "the presence and glory of God" — aeonian exclusion from the privileges of the kingdom of Heaven. Neither here nor in any other passage of St. Paul, if the passage be explained on the analogy of Scripture language, is there anything about torments, or a word to show that the aeon of this exclusion can never end. In point of fact, these words, were written at a moment of extreme exacerbation against the Jews of Thessalonica, and what is here denounced upon them is a punishment like that of Cain — the poena damni — the being cut off form the presence of God — the rupture of the old Covenant relation.
In estimating its force we must remember that the words rendered "taking vengeance" mean rather "inflicting retribution"; that the "flaming fire" is not the penal flame of Gehenna, but the Shechinah splendour of the Advent; that those who are to be judged are not ordinary sinners such as are found among the myriads of mankind, but obstinately unbelieving Gentiles, and obstinately disobedient Jews; and that the retribution of aeonian exclusion is inflicted at the First Advent, not at the final Judgment Day.*(1)
*(1) See my Life of St. Paul, i. 607. The word "apoleia" must be taken in close connection with the following words — destruction from the Lord's Presence.
With regard to the general views of St. Paul it is quite clear that while he speaks of "the perishing", and always insists on the awful certainty that all sin involves, both here and hereafter, retribution and suffering, yet his whole philosophy of Divine history as sketched especially in Rom. viii., xi., and in I Cor. xv., points to a final consummation of unclouded splendour and blessedness. He speaks of the abolition of all powers hostile to God, and of the absolute subjection of all creatures to Christ. These words have been understood of a crushing of sinners into agonized and blaspheming impotence; but the annihilation of evil beings is the victory, not of good over evil, but of strength over weakness. The only true victory of good over evil is the conversion of evil beings into good beings.*(1)
*(1) See Erskine's Letters, p. 237.
That the eschatological perspective of the Apostle, as Pfleiderer truly says*(1), embraces the whole universe, is notably attested by his assertion of the final redemption of the "whole creation" from "the bondage of corruption" into "the liberty of the glory of the children of God". I do not see how those who elsewhere insist so passionately upon the literal acceptance of all the inferences which may be pressed out of metaphorical language can resist the literal acceptance of so plain and unconditional a statement. If hell be still peopled to the end of al the aeons with even half or one-fourth of the human race, in what sense can it be true that God is either all or in all? For literalists I see no possible escape from the magnificent comprehensiveness of these prophecies except in the theories of either Universalism or Annihilationism. Throughout the writings of St. Paul the universality of death in Adam is contrasted with the universality of the resurrection of Christ; the universality of man's disobedience with the universality of God's mercy in Christ. Is it possible to resist the conclusion that St. Paul, when he speaks out of the fullness and depth of his absolute view of God's dealings with the universe, looks forward to a final restoration? The dualism of predestination seems to lose itself (Rom. ix.-xi.) in the final unity in which we can only suppose that those who are now "the perishing" shall then have been rescued, - in which the dead shall be alive again and the lost be found. If these passages, though they always occur in the very climax of St. Paul's greatest and most triumphant arguments, are not to go for everything, surely the humble Christian student may claim that they should not count for nothing in his views of eschatology!
*(1) Paulinismus, ad fin.
It has been the custom to urge many expressions of St. Paul which a moment's thought will show to be irrelevant. Of what use, for instance, is it to say that a larger hope can be refuted by the teaching that certain classes of sinners — drunkards, fornicators, &c. — shall not enter into the kingdom of Heaven? Is there any one who has ever supposed that they can enter there while they remain what they are? "St. Paul warns us", says Bishop Wordsworth, that "they who live in the indulgence of fleshly lusts and do not repent shall not inherit the kingdom of heaven." But if it be legitimate, nay necessary, to interpolate a clause so important as "and do not repent", when speaking of this life, what is there to prevent our saying that neither in this life nor beyond the grave shall flagrant sinners — while they continue to be such — enter the kingdom of God? Any number of such texts do not touch the question before us. That question is simply this: "Have we any right to teach as a dogma of the faith that the issues of man's destiny are finally and irrevocably uniform after the few short years of life, and that God's mercy cannot reach any soul beyond the grave?"
I might well decline the task of examining any of the passages which are alleged on behalf of this dogma from the Apocalypse. Like most of such passages, they apply to nations and classes, not to individuals; and primarily to temporal and earthly, not to future and endless judgments. Without in any way weakening its canonical authority, I might (if need were) claim to coordinate its teachings with the later wisdom of St. John's riper and more loving age in the Gospel and Epistles. It is obvious that a book respecting the interpretation of which the Church has never agreed; a book of which the strange symbols have been understood by devout and learned students in hundreds, if not in thousands, of different ways; is less suited from any other to furnish "texts" for the basis of dogmas which find from all the rest of Scripture so very small a measure of support.*(1) It is obvious too that this book, if its weird metaphors have given rise to endless speculations as to the horrors of Hell, furnishes us also with passages which (as is the case with the rest of Scripture) seem to tell of a glorious final consummation. Until men have approximately agreed as to whether, on the authority of that book, there is or is not to be on earth a literal reign of Christ for a thousand years; until they have settled whether they are going to be Praeterists or Futurists, or neither; until they have come to a reasonable certainty as to whether the main symbolism of the Book points to a progressive history of the Church for hundreds of years, or only to the events which should precede and accompany the coming of Christ in the close of the old dispensation and the destruction of Jerusalem; until they can give us some finally decisive criterion as to the interpretation of this prophetic imagery, and in what cases it is to be taken in the sense of temporal judgments, and in what other cases of everlasting doom, - it is obvious that we are building the popular doctrines upon the sandiest of foundations if we rely for their proof on passages taken from so mysterious a book: -
"Nil agit exemplum quod litem lite resolvit."
*(1) "To handle a prophetico-poetic book, composed in allegories, as if it were a work of literal meaning, is manifestly an utterly unreasonable and mischievous procedure…If an interpreter know that an allegorical composition should be explained as such, and if he, nevertheless, in order to illustrate certain school opinions, torture that allegorical composition until its language seems to be that of the latter, his conduct is a moral scandal." — Lange, Preface to Apocalypse.
Take, for instance, the vision of Rev. xiv., which is the vision of the harvest of the world and the vintage and winepress of the wrath of God. It is the chapter from which has been deduced the pernicious belief — a belief more liable than any other to deprave and harden the character of so many professing Christians — that the blest will exult in the torments of the damned. That passage is as follows: -
"If any man worship the beast…he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the angels, and in the presence of the Lamb; and the smoke of their torments ascendeth up for aeons of aeons, and they have no rest days nor nights, who worship the beast."
Perhaps it is hardly wonderful that, educated as most men are in ignorance of all the principles which apply to the true appreciation of Scripture language, and in the vanity which makes them think their interpretations infallible, they should take this literally, and apply it to endless torments, though one cannot but wonder at the pure arbitrariness which would, I suppose, refuse, a few verses later, to take literally the river of blood rolling out of a winepress bridle deep for a length of one hundred miles. But meanwhile what becomes of such applications after we have noticed one or two facts?
First of all the judgment obviously has a very limited primary application, because, beyond all shadow of doubt the Apocalyptic Beast is, in the first instance, Nero.*(1) Here then we at once get the true bearings of the verse. Those who worship the beast, are doomed to terrible catastrophes, such as actually did befall Rome during that epoch; and these calamities are compared to being tortured with fire and brimstone. Even Mr. E. B. Elliott, in his elaborate Horae Apocalypticae, comes to the conclusion that, so far from revealing the endless torments of the wicked, the whole vision refers to temporal judgments in this present world. These earthly catastrophes are indicated in strong Jewish metaphor, not untinged with the natural feelings inspired by an epoch of horrible persecution, and the Lamb and His angels are (in human language), represented as cognizant of the earthly overthrow and punishment of those who vainly war against them.*(2) And this is to be twisted into the delight of the blest at the shrieks and writhings of the lost, among whom may inevitably be some of those who were sweetest and dearest to them on earth! The whole passage is a symbol as unlike as possible to the inferences which have been deduced from it. And to interpret of interminable agony the expression, "the smoke of their torment ascendeth for aeons of aeons" is doubly erroneous; for first, the phrase is borrowed partly from Gen. xix. 28, and partly from Is. xxxiv. 10, both of which refer to temporal judgments, and of which the second furnishes a strong proof of the false results of an unreasoning literalism. Of the land of Idumaea, Isaiah says, "The streams thereof shall be turned into pitch, and the dust thereof into brimstone, and the land thereof into burning pitch. It shall not be quenched night nor day; the smoke thereof shall go up for ever." Interpreted in the light of the prophecy, and of subsequent history, it is clear that "fire" and "brimstone", and "smoke ascending for ever", are terms which, in the highly impassioned and figurative language of prophecy, may be applied to temporal catastrophes, without the remotest allusion to the state of souls in the world beyond the grave.*(3) But if the most learned and approved of all the Evangelical commentators on the Apocalypse tells us that the vision has no reference to the life to come, what guarantee have we that any of the other visions are not similarly inapplicable to future torments?
*(1) On this point all recent criticism — worth the name — of every school alike has now passed a unanimous verdict. See my article on "The Beast and his Number", in the Expositor, May, 1881.
*(2) The word enwpion, which had been stretched on the rack of inferential "theology", after the whole bearing of the rest of the text has been perverted, is merely the Hebrew [please insert the Hebrew characters here from book], as in Luke i. 15, 17; Heb. xiii. 21; James iv. 10, &c.
*(3) Thus in Jude 7 we are told that the cities of the plains are "set forth as an example suffering the vengeance of aeonian fire". The "aeonian fire" is the temporal overthrow in which those cities perished, and which left its traces on the scathed soil. The only word said about any ultimate punishment of their inhabitants is our Lord's remark that it should be better for them in the Day of Judgment than for Chorazin and Bethsaida. He said that if they had heard His message they would have repented; pointing to the direct inference that the chance of repentance should still be given them; and moreover there is an express prophecy that Sodom should hereafter "return to her former estate" (Ezek. xvi. 55; see supra, p. 391).
And here I will furnish another proof of our liability to misinterpret entirely the daring metaphors of Eastern imagination. We think "a lake of fire and brimstone", and "a fiery oven", and a "burning, fiery furnace", images far too frightful and intense to represent temporal calamities, or anything but the most inconceivable anguish. If we took the trouble to search the Bible, instead of reading into it our own fancies and those of the Fathers, it would remove all misconceptions by throwing the plainest possible light on its own symbols and figurative forms of expression. Thus in Deut. iv. 20 Egypt is said to have been to the Israelites an "iron furnace"; and the same terrible metaphor is repeated in Jer. xi. 4, and in I Kings viii. 51 ("Thy people which Thou broughtest forth out of Egypt from the midst of the furnace of iron"). And yet the metaphors imply a condition so far removed from intolerable torments that the children of Israel said, "It was well with us in Egypt", and positively sighed for that which they describe as a land of sensual ease! "We remember the fish that we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlick". Until we take the trouble to learn something of the hyperbolic character of Eastern and prophetic metaphor, it is certain that we shall be led continually into wild mistakes.
Instances so decisive will probably be sufficient for many competent and candid readers. They will see how little we can build dogmas on such metaphors as the Devil being cast with the Beast (Nero and the Roman world-powers) and the false prophet (?) "into the lake of fire and brimstone, and tormented by day and by night for the aeons of the aeons"*(1); into which also are cast two such abstract entities as "Death", and "Hades". At any rate he will see that this lake of fire is on the earth, and that immediately afterwards we read of that earth being destroyed, and a new heaven and a new earth in which there is to be no more death or curse. In the Book of Revelation there are infinitely great and precious truths, but certainly no method which has ever yet been applied to it justifies us in regarding the notions of future retribution which have been founded on the literalising of its symbols as other than in the last degree precarious and wrong.*(2)
*(1) Rev. xx. 10.
*(2) "To make language which applies to religious sects or nations in their temporal relation apply to individual men in their eternal destinies — to make fire literal when it is only a figure — to go on exhausting the resources of an arithmetical imagination, and saying that after trillions of years 'it will but be breakfast time in hell', is to speak beyond the Word; it is to vulgarise God's righteous judgments, and beget a sense of exaggeration and untruth in the hearer's mind which will surely promote infidelity and induration of heart rather than reverential fear of God's holy, and just, yet also, in the largest sense, merciful indignation." — ALEX. BROWN.
Further, let me say once more that if any one could prove the impossible thesis that these passages must be taken literally, or even quasi-literally, the argument of those who derive from them a belief in the future annihilation of the wicked is absolutely irresistible. When they argue with those who accept similar methods of interpretation to their own — with those, therefore, who still cling to a mediaeval style of exegesis — they have most triumphantly the best of the argument. No demolition can be so logical and so complete as that which Mr. White, Mr. Minton, and others have inflicted on the arguments hitherto brought against them by those who think that these questions require nothing for their decision but the shuffling and manipulations of a few phrases and texts. The devout believers in conditional immortality are perfectly right in insisting that if we bind ourselves by the literal meaning of the greatest number of Biblical expressions there is ten times more in the Bible which points to extinction as the final doom of the wicked than there is which points to their future existence in everlasting agonies. If I am not drawn in the smallest degree to their views it is because I derive my belief, not from the literal meaning of certain words and phrases, but from many wider and deeper considerations, and especially from the judgment which I form on the principles by which human language is to be interpreted, and on the entire drift and tenor of Scripture as a revelation of the love and fatherhood of God.
It is then the reverse of the truth to assert in the style so dear to theological controversialists, that eternal torments are "indisputably taught in twenty-six passages of the New Testament." They are not indisputably taught in so much as one. So far as I can see I say, with Dr. Issac Watts, that I cannot find one single "text" in all Scripture which, when fairly interpreted, teaches, as a matter of faith, or in a way even approaching to distinctness and decisiveness, the common views about "endless torments". Most of those which are quoted in this connection including the "upwards of a hundred" adduced years ago by Bishop Horbery, and appealed to by Bishop Ryle, are entirely irrelevant; others are mistranslated and misexplained; others are pressed to an extent of inference which, if applied to other passages, would lead to the most pernicious absurdities. Explained by the known usage and meaning of words, their argumentative force in favour of the mediaeval "hell" crumbles to dust. Thousands of half-informed writers, inflated with a very mistaken belief in their own infallibility, will probably go on repeating them in order still further to stereotype the prejudices of those who seek nothing but the confirmation of their existing belief. But in the course of time they will cease to be thus misapplied, because such a method of explaining them will only cause a smile. And "it is morally inconceivable if it had been the intention of Heaven to convey to mankind…the threatening of a torment which should be absolutely endless, that such a threatening would be, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, expressed in terms which literally signify something wholly inconsistent with such a destiny; and that the announcement should be dubiously ascertainable only from passages in which it is difficult to distinguish metaphors from simple terms, and where the terms employed are themselves undoubtedly employed by Jewish Rabbis and in the Bible to denote a limited period of duration in punishment. A question so vast as the eternal destinies of the human race cannot be determined on the evidence of a few poetic or prophetic phrases".
The abuse of texts has been a dreadful curse in the history of Christendom. To foster it has been a masterpiece of Satanic ingenuity. By means of it a large part of the Bible has been torn away from the service of God and placed at the disposal of the wiles of the devil. It has given tenfold force to the cunning of his deceits. By means of it he has, in generation after generation, arrayed many of the clergy against the advance of knowledge, and on the side of ignorance and sin. The Old Testament was quoted against our Lord and against His Apostles; the Old and the New alike have been quoted times without number against the wisest teachings of the saintliest men. The martyrs of science have been mostly slain, the reformers of religion have been mostly murdered, by the enginery of isolated texts. The tyranny of tyrants has been defended by the supposed sanction which texts gave to the duty of passive obedience; and tyrannicides have none the less been defended by other texts which seem to imply approval of Ehud and of Jael. Wars of extermination have been justified out of the Pentateuch and the Book of Judges. The Inquisition has had its handful of favourite texts. Slavery has quoted its texts. Modern religious hatred defends itself by texts. Persecution, intolerance, subterfuge, oppression, ignorance, have all appealed to the texts whose abuse has been suggested to them by the glozing tempter. How deep was the insight into this truth of our greatest poet when he wrote:
"The devil can quote Scripture for his purpose.
And evil soul producing holy witness
Is like a villain with a smiling cheek;
A goodly apple rotten at the core;
What damned error but some sober brow
Will bless it and approve it with a text,
Hiding the grossness with fair ornament."
I say again, that I care but little in any controversy for the stress laid on one or two isolated and dubious expressions, snatched here and there from the sacred literature of fifteen hundred years and explained with no reference to the language in which they were formulated, or the history in the midst of which they arose. They may be torn from their context; they may be distorted; they may be misunderstood; they may be in direct apparent contradiction to other texts more numerous and more weighty; they may reflect the ignorance of a dark age or the fragments of an imperfect revelation, or the bitterness of a human passion; they may be an unwilling concession to imperfection, or a temporary stepping-stone to progress. "In reading the Scriptures", says Bishop Ruse, "we are not to understand any text in such sense as is not plain in Scripture, or is contrary to Scripture, or contrary to the law of nature, or against the general goodness of God to mankind; or to lessen the goodness of God, or contrary to the gracious spirit and mercifulness of a saint; or contrary to the mind of Christ which He declared when on earth; or contrary to the fruits of the Blessed Spirit, or that shall tend to contradict or lessen the glory of God, or lessen the greatness and riches of His grace". What the Bible teaches as a whole — what the Bibles teach as a whole — for History, and Conscience, and Nature, and Experience, these too are sacred books — that, and that only, is the clear revelation and immutable will of God.
And now if any reader thinks that there has been any "explaining away" of these texts let him consider whether the advocates of the popular view will not have to "explain away", not only multitudes of passages in the Psalms of David and in the Old Testament, but also in the New Testament? If the following passages be calmly and humbly considered, with no attempt to minimize their natural significance, is there nothing in them which necessitates a modification of the current teaching?
xviii. II. "The Son of Man is come to save that which was lost."
xiii. 33. "Till the whole was leavened."
ix. 56. "The Son of Man is not come to destroy men's lives, but to save them."
xii. 48. "But he that knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes." [This verse seems to prove that there is such a thing in the life to come as a terminable retribution. Can "few" be synonymous with "endless"?]
xix. 10. "The Son of Man is come to seek and to save that which was lost."
xv. 4. "What man of you having a hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth he not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which was lost, until he find it?" [John x. II; Ps. cxix. 176; Is. liii. 6.]
i. 29. "Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away ( o airwn ) the sin of the world."
iii. 16. "God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world but that the world ( o kosmo s) through Him might be saved."
iii. 35. "The Father loveth the Son, and hath given all things into His hands." [Comp. xiii. 3; Matt. xi. 27; xxviii 18; Heb. ii. 8.]
iv. 42. "This is indeed the Christ, the Saviour of the world."
xii. 32. "And I, if I be lifted up from the earth will draw all men unto Me."
xii. 47. "I came not to judge the world, but to save the world."
ii. 2. "He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world."
iii. 8. "The Son of God was manifested that He might destroy ( ina lush ) the works of the devil."
iv. 14. "The Father sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world."
iii. 21. "Until the times of restitution of all things."
Rom. v. 20. "Where sin abounded, grace did much more abound." [See the entire argument of the chapter.]
viii. 22. "The creature itself also shall be delivered from corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God." [See verses 19-24.]
xi. 32. "God hath concluded them all in unbelief that He might have mercy upon all." [See the argument of the whole chapter.]
xiv. 9. "To this end Christ both died, and rose and revived, that He might be the Lord both of the dead and the living." [And consider the drift of the entire Epistle.]
I Cor. xv. 22. "As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive." [Consider the entire drift of the argument.]
xv. 28. "That God may be all in all" ( panta en pasin ).*(1)
*(1) Dr. Pusey's attempt to explain away these glorious words is one of the most singular pieces of exegesis which I have ever read. I cannot suppose that any human being will be convinced of it.
2 Cor. v. 19. "God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them."
Eph. i. 10. "That He might gather together in one all things in Christ."
Phil. ii. 10, 11. "That in the name of Jesus every knee should bow of beings in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth." [Compare Rev. v. 13.]
Col. i. 19, 20. "It hath pleased the Father….by Him to reconcile all things to Himself."
I Tim. ii. 4. "Who willeth all men to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth."
ii. 6. "Who gave Himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time."
iv. 10. "The living God who is the Saviour of all men, specially of those that believe."
Heb. ii. 9. "That He by the grace of God should taste death for every man," or reading cwri s Qeon, "that He should taste death for every man (for every thing), except God." [Compare verses 14, 15.]
ix. 26. "Now once in the end of the world hath He appeared to put away sin ( ei s aqethsin amartia s) by the sacrifice of Himself."
*** END OF CHAPTER XV ***