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The Doctrine of Endless Punishment
By William G. T. Shedd
The strongest support of the doctrine of Endless Punishment is the teaching of Christ, the Redeemer of man. Though the doctrine is plainly taught in the Pauline Epistles, and other parts of Scripture, yet without the explicit and reiterated statements of God incarnate, it is doubtful whether so awful a truth would have had such a conspicuous place as it always has had in the creed of Christendom. If, in spite of that large mass of positive and solemn threatening of everlasting punishment from the lips of Jesus Christ, which is recorded in the four Gospels, the attempt has nevertheless been made to prove that the tenet is not an integral part of the Christian system, we may be certain that had this portion of revelation been wanting, this attempt would have been much more frequent, and much more successful.
The Apostles enter far less into detailed description, and are far less emphatic upon this solemn theme, than their divine Lord and Master. And well they might be. For as none but God has the right, and would dare, to sentence a soul to eternal misery, for sin; and as none but God has the right, and would dare, to execute the sentence; so none but God has the right, and should presume, to delineate the nature and consequences of this sentence.
This is the reason why most of the awful imagery in which the sufferings of the lost are described is found in the discourses of our Lord and Saviour. He took it upon himself to sound the note of warning. He, the Judge of quick and dead, assumed the responsibility of teaching the doctrine of Endless Retribution. "I will forewarn you whom ye shall fear: Fear him, which after he hath killed hath power to cast into hell; yea, I say unto you, Fear him." "Nothing," says Dr. Arnold, "is more striking to me, than our Lord's own description of the judgment. It is so inexpressibly forcible, coming from his very own lips, as descriptive of what he himself would do" (Stanley's Life of Arnold, I. 176).
Christ could not have warned men so frequently and earnestly as he did against "the fire that never shall be quenched," and "the worm that dieth not," had he known that there is no future peril fully corresponding to them. That omniscient Being who made the statements respecting the day of judgment, and the final sentence, that are recorded in Matthew 25:31-46, could neither have believed nor expected that all men without exception will eventually be holy and happy. To threaten with "everlasting punishment" a class of persons described as "goats upon the left hand" of the Eternal Judge, while knowing at the same time that this class would ultimately have the same holiness and happiness with those described as "sheep upon the right hand" of the Judge, would have been both falsehood and folly. The threatening would have been false.
For even a long punishment in the future world would not have justified Christ in teaching that this class of mankind are to experience the same retribution with "the devil and his angels"; for these were understood by the Jews, to whom he spoke, to be hopelessly and eternally lost spirits. And the threatening would have been foolish, because it would have been a brutum fulmen , an exaggerated danger, certainly in the mind of its author. And for the persons threatened, it would have been a terror only because they took a different view of it from what its author did-they believing it to be true, and he knowing it to be false!
The mere perusal of Christ's words when he was upon earth, without note or comment upon them, will convince the unprejudiced that the Redeemer of sinners knew and believed, that for impenitent men and devils there is an endless punishment. We solicit a careful reading and pondering of the following well-known passages:
"When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory; and before him shall be gathered all nations; and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment" (Matt 25:31-33,41,46).
"If thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched; where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. And if thy foot offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter halt into life, than having two feet to be cast into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched; where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire: where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched" (Mark 9:43-48).
"What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? What is a man advantaged, if he gain the whole world, and lose himself, or be cast away?" (Mark 8:36; Luke 9:25).
"The rich man also died, and was buried, and in hell he lifted up his eyes being in torments" (Luke 16:22,23).
"Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell" (Matt 10:28).
"The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; and shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth" (Matt 13:41,42).
"Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name?...Then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity" (Matt 7:22,23).
"He that denieth me before men shall be denied before the angels of God...Unto him that blasphemeth against the Holy Ghost it shall not be forgiven" (Luke 12:9,10).
"Woe unto you, ye blind guides. Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?" (Matt 23:16,33).
"Woe unto that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! it had been good for that man if he had not been born" (Matt 26:24).
"The Lord of that servant will come in a day when he looketh not for him, and at an hour when he is not aware, and will cut him in sunder, and will appoint him his portion with the unbelievers" (Luke 12:46).
"He that believeth not shall be damned" (Mark 16:16).
"Thou Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shalt be brought down to hell" (Matt 11:23).
"At the end of the world, the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the just, and shall cast them into the furnace of fire" (Matt 13:49,50).
"Then said Jesus again unto them, I go my way, and ye shall seek me, and shall die in your sins: whither I go, ye cannot come" (John 8:21).
"The hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, and shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation" (John 5:28,29).
To all this, add the description of the manner in which Christ will discharge the office of the Eternal Judge. John the Baptist represents him as one "whose fan is in his hand, and he will throughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire" (Matt 3:12).
And Christ describes himself as a householder who will say to the reapers, "Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them" (Matt 13:30); as a fisherman casting a net into the sea, "and gathering of every kind: which, when it was full, he drew to shore, and sat down, and gathered the good into vessels, but cast the bad away" (Matt 13:47,48); as the bridegroom who took the wise virgins "with him to the marriage," and shut the door upon the foolish (Matt 25:10); and as the man travelling into a far country who delivered talents to his servants, and afterwards reckons with them, rewarding the "good and faithful," and casting the unprofitable servant into outer darkness, where "there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matt 25:19-30).
Let the reader now ask himself the question: Do these representations, and this phraseology, make the impression that the future punishment of sin is to be remedial and temporary ? Are they adapted to make this impression? Were they intended to make this impression? Is it possible to believe that that Holy and Divine Person who uttered these fearful and unqualified warnings, eighteen hundred years ago, respecting the destiny of wicked men and devils, knew that a time is coming when there will be no wicked men and devils in the universe of God, and no place of retributive torment?
Did Jesus of Nazareth hold an esoteric doctrine of hell-a different view of the final state of the wicked, from that which the common and natural understanding of his language would convey to his hearers, and has conveyed to the great majority of his readers in all time? Did he know that in the far-off future, a day will come when those tremendous scenes which he described-the gathering of all mankind, the separation of the evil from the good, the curse pronounced upon the former and the blessing upon the latter-will be looked back upon by all mankind as "an unsubstantial pageant faded," as a dream that is passed, and a watch in the night?