Current Denials of Eternal Punishment

 •  16 min. read  •  grade level: 13
THE shades of difference among those who do not believe in eternal punishment are numerous. They have been exposed very fully in F. W. Grant's Facts and Theories as to a Future State, but one or two points have been pressed so as to present the subject in a comparatively fresh way in Scotland, in the public teaching of some ministers of the United Presbyterian denomination. It appears also, from the report of a recent sermon delivered in the Cathedral, Glasgow, that this view is being spread more widely than among the members of a denomination, and therefore some notice of the subject may be seasonable.
This current view of the matter consists mainly of two parts -1st, that belief in the love of God renders it impossible to believe that He can punish forever any of " His erring children;" and 2d, that it is impossible to believe in an " eternity of sinning," but that to believe that " punishment is to be eternal means that sin is to be eternal," understanding sin in that sense of "eternity of sinning."
It seems to me that a very little submission to Scripture serves to show that this view is founded upon a false idea of God's love, that is, of God Himself; and also upon a thoroughly erroneous estimate of sin, which involves, consequently, a denial of the true condition of man as a sinner.
There is also an additional incongruity in this sermon, viz. that of regarding eternal punishment as if it primarily referred to the Christian, or were intended to be a motive to Christian life; while the truth is that it has no relation to him personally at all, because Scripture declares that he "has been delivered from the wrath to come," and " shall not come into judgment."
Perhaps this sermon lets us into a part of the secret of the ready reception of this false doctrine by many Christians, and reveals at the root of it the lurking fear that after all they may have to undergo punishment for sin. But besides a bad conscience, which always Makes us dread correction, it is only the lack of being established in the true grace of God which could permit the thought that one cleansed by the blood of Christ could become a subject of the punishment of sin. Thus either a lack of self-judgment, or a defective gospel preaching, or both, may lie at the root of the success of much of this evil.
1. The thought of God's love, which is now put forward as a reason for non-eternity of punishment, when fully expressed, is, that the Cross reveals His character in such sense as that the gospel of Christ is " the gospel of God's goodwill towards men;" that "His heart can never change towards the sinner or his sin," so that " He must always love the one and hate the other, and deal with the sin He hates so as to do good to the sinner He loves;" that, in other words, God as the Heavenly Father cannot punish "His erring children" after death with everlasting torment; finally, that " eternal love" cannot rest short of the highest good and blessedness of the object loved, and that good will triumph over ill, so that the universe will be purged from sin, and God will be all in all.
Now all this assumes two things, viz. that God is nothing but love as far as man as an object is concerned, and that He is in the relationship of father to men as such. If these are disproved, the whole position falls to the ground.
But the Cross is far more than a revelation of God's love. It does show Him forth in love, His name be praised, as nothing else in the universe does, but inseparably associated with that there is in it also the display of His awful holiness, which made it necessary that sin must be estimated in the light of infinite purity and perfect obedience to God. It is in its entirety that it is a manifestation of God, and so we have no right, besides its being folly, to attempt to divide that display of Him, and accept a part as we please.
His love is indeed manifested in giving His only begotten Son, but all the magnitude of that gift, and all the infinite value and unspeakable preciousness of that Son to the Father declare the terrible necessity for, and extent of; divine judgment against sin, as we perceive that He was forsaken of God on the Cross. What man can measure sin in this way? Who but Jesus possesses infinite holiness and perfect obedience to God? Yet without these, how can there ever be a just estimate of sin on the part of those who are creatures, and as such bound to be subject to God?
But if God were only love,. why the display of His wrath against sin, such that we see it even visited on His Son when in human form and "made sin"? " My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?" was His cry, in the midst of all the anguish of spirit, bodily suffering, and external horrors shown in the Scriptures. And, in His case, time or duration adds no element to the matter, for He then (being such an One as He was) entered in an infinite degree into the full character of and judgment against sin. It is in the nature of things impossible that any mere creature can ever do this. By nothing short of an eternity of suffering that judgment and the consequences of sin can man (apart from grace) ever reach a true estimate of what sin is. So the Lord's. word, "Thou shalt by no means come out thence till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing," acquires a fearfully solemn force under such a consideration.
It is, however, now urged that, because Christ has borne that judgment, therefore God must (or rather people undertake to say He will) give men the benefit of it in all time, and whatever their state. But this is not only gratuitous assumption, but also positive untruth.
It is gratuitous assumption, for God announces in the gospel that He will apply the fruit of the Cross in grace only for a certain time; and how then dare men say that He must always go on applying it, and even to those who refuse it and die impenitent, or are declared disobedient to the gospel, when the Lord appears from heaven? See the solemn words in Luke 13:23-2823Then said one unto him, Lord, are there few that be saved? And he said unto them, 24Strive to enter in at the strait gate: for many, I say unto you, will seek to enter in, and shall not be able. 25When once the master of the house is risen up, and hath shut to the door, and ye begin to stand without, and to knock at the door, saying, Lord, Lord, open unto us; and he shall answer and say unto you, I know you not whence ye are: 26Then shall ye begin to say, We have eaten and drunk in thy presence, and thou hast taught in our streets. 27But he shall say, I tell you, I know you not whence ye are; depart from me, all ye workers of iniquity. 28There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when ye shall see Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and all the prophets, in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrust out. (Luke 13:23‑28); Matt. 25:10-1210And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came; and they that were ready went in with him to the marriage: and the door was shut. 11Afterward came also the other virgins, saying, Lord, Lord, open to us. 12But he answered and said, Verily I say unto you, I know you not. (Matthew 25:10‑12); Acts 17:30,3130And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent: 31Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead. (Acts 17:30‑31); 2 Thess. 1:6-106Seeing it is a righteous thing with God to recompense tribulation to them that trouble you; 7And to you who are troubled rest with us, when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels, 8In flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: 9Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power; 10When he shall come to be glorified in his saints, and to be admired in all them that believe (because our testimony among you was believed) in that day. (2 Thessalonians 1:6‑10).
It is false, because the fruit of the Cross is not even now presented as salvation to any apart from "the obedience of faith " in them. " Whom God has set forth a propitiation through faith in His blood," is what we read in the gospel, and consistently with this it is declared, " if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and believe in thine heart that God bath raised Him from the dead, thou shalt be saved." So the righteousness of God is "towards all," but is only "upon all who believe."
There is no ground whatever then for the idea that God will apply the fruit of the Cross to impenitent sinners; but there is solid ground for the assurance that, when the day of grace has run its course, He will act in the severity of righteous judgment on the ungodly, and in holy wrath against sin and sinners who are, in part at any rate, its living embodiment.
The Cross has not annihilated sin, as these men idly dream.
Such a vindication of God's nature and sovereign character as it affords was rendered necessary by man's rebellion, and its consequences, even apart from the salvation of a single human soul.
If any were to be saved it became doubly necessary, we may say.
But it is entirely of God's grace that it is constituted the basis of blessing to any from among sinful men, all being declared by it to be lost, and so that blessing cannot be theirs except on God's terms. It is also the basis of the cleansing of the present system (" the heavens and the earth ") from sin in the future dispensation, and so sin will be "put away" only as regards this system, and this will be carried out partly by judgment on the ungodly. Sin is not annihilated, however, even then; and Phil. 2:9-119Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: 10That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; 11And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9‑11) cannot be confounded (as Mr. Macrae has attempted) with Eph. 1:1010That in the dispensation of the fulness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him: (Ephesians 1:10) and Col. 1:2020And, having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself; by him, I say, whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven. (Colossians 1:20), for these in speaking of the sphere which is to be " reconciled " and " headed up in Christ," expressly omit the infernal things
(" things under the earth ") of Phil. 2, which will still exist apart, and will be compelled to " bow " to Him, and " own that He is Lord," even though His authority is known there only in righteous retribution.
This is confirmed by the Scriptures, which speak of the time and scene where "God will be all in all," evil being practically excluded. For (1 Cor. 15:23-2823But every man in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ's at his coming. 24Then cometh the end, when he shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father; when he shall have put down all rule and all authority and power. 25For he must reign, till he hath put all enemies under his feet. 26The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death. 27For he hath put all things under his feet. But when he saith all things are put under him, it is manifest that he is excepted, which did put all things under him. 28And when all things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all. (1 Corinthians 15:23‑28)) this comes after the reign of Christ, who "must reign till He hath put all enemies under His feet; " and then, as Rev. 21:1-81And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea. 2And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. 4And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. 5And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And he said unto me, Write: for these words are true and faithful. 6And he said unto me, It is done. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely. 7He that overcometh shall inherit all things; and I will be his God, and he shall be my son. 8But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death. (Revelation 21:1‑8) teaches, there will be a new heaven and a new earth in which righteousness will " dwell " (2 Peter 3), but existing apart from these will be "the lake of fire," the abode then (i.e. at the very time of which it is said " God is all in all ") of " the fearful, and the unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars."
The New Testament makes it abundantly plain that those only are His children who are begotten again by the word of God, and who are the. " children of God by faith in Christ Jesus; " and the frequently-quoted passage in the Old Testament (Psa. 103:1313Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear him. (Psalm 103:13)), which applies the similitude of a father to Him, maintains the distinction between those in that relationship and the rest of mankind " Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear Him," But what about those who do not fear Him, but die hardened rebels against Him? Would these teachers have us believe that there is no difference between them?
2. It becomes plain, from an examination of the current view, that such a thought as the foregoing is really the conclusion to which it tends, and that it is founded also upon a thoroughly false idea of sin. The thought here is, that if sinners are supposed to exist forever as sinners, this is equivalent to our believing that God will uphold, as Himself the energy of it, eternal activity in sin. That " God will sustain in existence to all eternity creatures the sole end of whose existence has become active, implacable, and unchangeable hostility to Himself; " and that there must thus be " an eternity of sinning." Or as again put, " if sin's punishment is to be eternal, it only means that sin is to be eternal-that it is to be possible for a human soul so to harden itself against the love of God as never to be softened, never to be won over from enmity to love, from estrangement to reconciliation."
This is mixed up in the system (as developed by these teachers) with much that shows that immortality is confounded with eternal life (which thus to them means only eternal existence), and that the idea which it attaches to death is self- destructive when we see what Scripture teaches, viz., that it is the wicked who are already " dead " who undergo " the second death." That which the first change of condition, which is called " death," involves (see Luke 16), may therefore be taken in their case as an illustration of the meaning of the "second death" which they are to undergo.
In the view of sin which is referred to, it is looked at as if it were something apart from man, a force acting on him from without, and urging him gradually into a state of hostility to God when he becomes a lost sinner and his case is hopeless. So we are told that " sin is the devil's work," besides hearing about. " the sole end of the existence " of some creatures becoming active hostility to God, and also about the " human soul hardening itself against God so as never to be softened."
Now this is fundamentally false. Sin may be said to be the. devil's work only as regards its introduction into this world in which he was the active agent. But this was by presenting temptation to man. He did not make man a sinner, or compel him to sin. Man made himself such. " By one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin." God chose to create him a being of a certain order, under moral obligation, and with powers and capacities capable of enduring results, whether of good or ill.
It is in the breach of his obligation and the consequent corruption of the moral springs of his being, with the addition of a new and ineradicable capacity, viz. the knowledge of good and evil, that man's constitution as a sinner is found. So that it is now and here, not after an indefinite period of sinning, that. sinners are declared to be God's enemies, " alienated, and enemies in their minds, by wicked works," as being possessors of and characterized by " the mind of the flesh," which "is enmity against God, for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be."
It is, moreover, only now and here in this world that man has liberty to do these acts which manifest his enmity. But suppose that liberty taken away, does this effect any change in the man's, condition morally? Does being shut up in prison even here make a man any less a criminal, or eradicate his desire to do evil? Does, the lack of power to do evil affect the will? Clearly not. So, although " an eternity of sinning," in the proper sense of the word is not possible, we are not therefore forced to conclude that there is nothing between that and pardon without repentance.
But besides the denial that the principle of sin as to man is found in man's will, really within man morally instead of outside him, or merely in his acts, what is denied by this system of noneternity of punishment is human moral responsibility. God is without doubt the sustainer of all things; but the false application of this which is thrust upon us is really destructive of the truth that in creating man He ordained a being in moral responsibility before Him, and necessarily therefore in full view of the unending character of the results of such responsibility. The blow is struck at this responsibility, for man naturally never relishes the thought of it, and there are many devices by which it is attempted to be thrown over on God. God is never the; energy of active sin, either in sinners now or after death-the. thought that He is is blasphemous-but He is the sustainer of the life of responsible beings, whose rebellion is not an easy way to rid themselves of their moral relation to Him (morally responsible because of the way in which He is their source and sustainer of life, see Gen. 2, Acts 17: 28-31), but who must continue forever in that relation, whether in the blessedness which grace provides for the repentant or under the full consequences of their rebellion as such creatures.
Nothing establishes the unchangeable character of the issues of responsibility as does the salvation of God. This is proved by the fact that (as Rom. 3: 21-26 teaches) it is the righteousness of God (and not primarily His love or mercy) that is manifested for sinners in the Cross, and He is thereby declared " just (not good or merciful merely), and the justifier of him that believeth in Jesus." For men are not saved by merely being acted upon from without by goodness, which changes by softening them into loving God and hating sin, simply thus changing the direction of their tendencies and the effort of their wills, but by grace ascribing to them the fruit of the work of the Cross, having first wrought in them the sense of their need as lost sinners, and, on the ground of its judgment being reckoned to them, replacing their old life and its nature by a new one of a different character which is communicated to them. The sentence on sin is not set aside in their case, but borne for them by the One who becomes their substitute.
One consideration alone serves to write confusion on the spurious view of sin which is put forward, and this is that God is holy. But what He is, He is eternally; and holiness is separateness from evil which is known and abhorred. The idea, therefore, that He can have no eternal relation to evil in the way of punishment, which is the expression as well as the consequence of His eternal hatred of it, is simple ignorance or forgetfulness of what He is. Evil has necessarily always such a relation to Him as being that which He hates and is apart from; all that is contrary to Him is evil, and evil cannot be made good. So, when there are beings of an immortal spiritual order created (" the offspring of God" as to their human life), and evil finds its expression in them, they necessarily share the eternal doom of all that is contrary to God.
If sin is the devil's work, looking at its effects in this world, and Christ was manifested to annul his works and himself as to his power to do evil (it is not to save him that He was manifested), yet the lake of fire is not the devil's work, or the means of his purification, but is his doom, with that of every form of evil, and it is never destroyed or even annulled for any who " go away" into it.