Transfigured, with a meek and dreadless awe,
A solemn hush of spirit, he beholds
All things of terrible seeming: yea, unmoved
Views e'en the immitigable ministers,
That shower down vengeance on these latter days.
For even these on wings of healing come,
Yea, kindling with intenser Deity;
From the celestial mercy-seat they speed,
And at the renovating wells of love,
Have fill'd their vials with salutary wrath. -- COLERIDGE.
Having considered the sufferings of the innocent, it now becomes necessary to contemplate the punishment of the guilty, in connexion with the infinite goodness of God. This conducts us to the consideration of the most awful subject that ever engaged the attention of a rational being, -- the never-ending torments of the wicked in another world. Though plausible arguments and objections have been urged against this doctrine, we are perfectly satisfied they will not bear the test of a close examination. They have derived all their apparent force and conclusiveness, it seems to us, from two distinct sources, namely: from the circumstance that this appalling doctrine has been too often placed, by its advocates, upon insecure and untenable grounds; and from the fact, that the supporters of this doctrine have too often maintained principles from which its fallacy may be clearly inferred. In the defence of this doctrine, then, we shall endeavour to point out, first, the false grounds upon which it has been placed; secondly, the unsound principles from which its fallacy may be inferred; and, thirdly, we shall endeavour to show the means by which it may be clearly and satisfactorily reconciled with the goodness of the Supreme Ruler of the world.
The false grounds upon which the doctrine of the eternity of future punishment has been placed.
Nothing could be more untenable, it seems to us, than the usual argument in favour of future punishments, which seeks to justify their eternity on the ground that every sinful act, because it is committed against an infinite being, is infinite, and therefore deserves to be visited with endless torments. This argument, which seems but little better than a play on the term infinite, is perhaps calculated to make no impression upon any mind, which is not already fully persuaded of the truth of the doctrine in question. On the other hand, it may be so easily refuted by a multitude of considerations, that it exposes the doctrine, in one of its defences, to the triumphant attacks of its adversaries. We shall not exhaust the patience of the reader by dwelling upon the refutation which may be given of such an argument. We shall dismiss it with a single reply, and that we shall give in the language of John Foster.
|A common argument has been that sin is an infinite evil, that is, of infinite demerit, as an offence against an infinite being; and that, since a finite creature cannot suffer infinitely in measure, he must in duration. But, surely in all reason, the limited, and in the present instance, diminutive nature of the criminal, must be an essential part of the case for judgment. Every act must, for one of its proportions, be measured by the nature and condition of the agent: and it would seem that one principle in that rule of proportion should be, that the offending agent should be capable of being aware of the magnitude (the amount, if we might use such a word,) of the offence he commits, by being capable of something like an adequate conception of the being against whom it is committed. A perverse child, committing an offence against a great monarch, of whose dignity it had some, but a vastly inadequate apprehension, would not be punished in the same manner as an offender of high endowments and responsibility, and fully aware of the dignity of the personage offended. The one would justly be sharply chastised; the other might as justly be condemned to death. In the present case, the offender does or may know that the Being offended against is of awful majesty, and therefore the offence is one of great aggravation, and he will justly be punished with great severity; but by his extremely contracted and feeble faculties, as the lowest in the scale of strictly rational and accountable creatures in the whole creation, he is infinitely incapable of any adequate conception of the greatness of the Being offended against. He is then, according to the argument, obnoxious to a punishment not in any proportion to his own nature, but alone to that infinity of the supreme nature, which is to him infinitely inconceivable and unknown.|(198)
This answer alone, though perhaps not the best which might be made, we deem amply sufficient. Indeed, does not the position, that a man, a poor, weak, fallible creature, deserves an infinite punishment, an eternity of torments, for each evil thought or word, carry its own refutation along with it? And if not, what are we to think of that attribute of justice, which demands an eternity to inflict the infinite pangs due to a single sin? Is it a quality to inspire the soul with a rational worship, or to fill it with a horror which casteth out love?
Another argument to show the infinite ill-desert of some men, is drawn from the scientia media Dei. It is said, that if God foresaw that if they had been placed in various other circumstances, and surrounded by other temptations, their dispositions and character would have induced them to commit other sins; for which they are, therefore, as really responsible as if they had actually committed them. If this be a correct principle, it is easy, we must admit, to render each individual of the human race responsible for a greater number of sins than have ever been committed, or than could ever have been committed by all the actual dwellers upon the face of the earth. Nay, by such a process of multiplication, it would be easy to spread the guilt of a single soul over every point of infinite space, and every moment of eternal duration. But such a principle is more than questionable. To say nothing of its intrinsic deformity, it is refuted by the consequences to which it leads. We want arguments on this subject, that will give the mind, not horrid caricatures of the divine justice, but such views of that sublime attribute as will inspire us with sentiments of admiration and love, as well as with a godly fear and wholesome awe.
The unsound principles from which, if true, the fallacy of the eternity of future punishments may be clearly inferred.
It is a doctrine maintained by Augustine, Calvin, and Luther, as well as by many of their followers, that, in his fallen state, man |is free to evil only.| He can do nothing good without the aid of divine grace; and this, in point of fact, is given to but a very small number of the human race; at least, efficacious grace is given to but few, so that the greater part of mankind cannot acquire or possess that holiness without which no man shall see the Lord. Now, if we take our stand upon this platform of doctrine, it will be found utterly impossible, we think, to defend the eternity of future punishments.
It was upon this platform that John Foster erected his tremendous battery against the doctrine in question; and it is believed, that the more closely the argument is examined, the more clearly it will be seen, that he has either demolished the doctrine which was so obnoxious to his feelings, or else the platform which constituted so essential a part of his own creed. In our humble opinion, |the moral argument,| as he calls it, |pressed irresistibly upon his mind;| because it was drawn from false premises, of whose correctness he seems not to have entertained the shadow of a doubt. He clung to the conclusion, when he should have abandoned the premises. But we shall give his own words, and permit the reader to judge for himself.
After having endeavoured to impress our feeble powers with |the stupendous idea of eternity,| he adds: |Now think of an infliction of misery protracted through such a period, and at the end of it being only commenced, -- not one smallest step nearer a conclusion, -- the case just the same if that sum of figures were multiplied by itself; and then think of man, -- his nature, his situation, the circumstances of his brief sojourn and trial on earth. Far be it from us to make light of the demerit of sin, and to remonstrate with the Supreme Judge against a severe chastisement, of whatever moral nature we may regard the infliction to be. But still, what is man? He comes into the world with a nature fatally corrupt, and powerfully tending to actual evil. He comes among a crowd of temptations adapted to his innate evil propensities. He grows up (incomparably the greater portion of the race) in great ignorance, his judgment weak, and under numberless beguilements into error; while his passions and appetites are strong, his conscience unequally matched against their power, -- in the majority of men, but feebly and rudely constituted. The influence of whatever good instructions he may receive, is counteracted by a combination of opposite influences almost constantly acting on him. He is essentially and inevitably unapt to be powerfully acted on by what is invisible and future. In addition to all which, there is the intervention and activity of the great tempter and destroyer. In short, his condition is such that there is no hope of him, but from a direct, special operation on him, of what we denominate grace. Is it not so? Are we not convinced? Is it not the plain doctrine of Scripture? Is there not irresistible evidence, from a view of the actual condition of the human world, that no man can become good in the Christian sense, -- can become fit for a holy and happy place hereafter, -- but by this operation ab extra? But this is arbitrary and discriminative on the part of the sovereign Agent, and independent of the will of man. And how awfully evident is it, that this indispensable operation takes place only on a comparatively small proportion of the collective race!
|Now this creature, thus constituted and circumstanced, passes a few fleeting years on earth, a short, sinful course, in which he does often what, notwithstanding his ignorance and ill-disciplined judgment and conscience, he knows to be wrong, and neglects what he knows to be his duty; and, consequently, for a greater or less measure of guilt, widely different in different offenders, deserves punishment. But ENDLESS PUNISHMENT! HOPELESS MISERY, through a duration to which the enormous terms above imagined will be absolutely NOTHING! I acknowledge my inability (I would say it reverently) to admit this belief, together with a belief in the divine goodness, -- the belief that 'God is love,' that his tender mercies are over all his works. Goodness, benevolence, charity, as ascribed in supreme perfection to him, cannot mean a quality foreign to all human conceptions of goodness: it must be something analogous in principle to what himself has defined and required as goodness in his moral creatures; that, in adoring the divine goodness, we may not be worshipping an 'unknown God.' But, if so, how would all our ideas be confounded, while contemplating him bringing, of his own sovereign will, a race of creatures into existence, in such a condition that they certainly will and must -- must by their nature and circumstances -- go wrong, and be miserable, unless prevented by especial grace, which is the privilege of only a small proportion of them, and at the same time affixing on their delinquency a doom of which it is infinitely beyond the highest archangel's faculty to apprehend a thousandth part of the horror!|(199)
Now, granting the premises, we hold this argument to be unanswerable and conclusive. But is it not wonderful that it did not occur to so acute a mind as Foster's, that the same premises would furnish a valid argument against the justice of all punishment, as well as against the justice of eternal punishments? Surely, if the utter inability of man to do good without divine grace is any extenuation, when such grace is not given, it is an entire and perfect exoneration. It is either this, or it is nothing. Such are the inevitable inconsistencies of the best thinkers, when the feelings of the heart are at war with the notions of the head. Instead of analyzing this awful subject, and tracing it down to its fundamental principles, upon which his reason might have reposed with a calm and immovable satisfaction, Foster seems to have permitted his great mind to take root in a creed of man's devising, and then to be swayed by the gusts and counter-blasts of passion. Believing that man |must go wrong,| that nature and circumstances impose this dire necessity upon him, his benevolence could not contemplate an eternity of torments as due to such inevitable sin. It was repelled by |the infinite horror of the tenet.| On the other hand, his abhorrence of evil, and sense of justice, shrank with equal violence from the idea that all punishment is unjust; and hence he could say, |Far be it from us to make light of the demerit of sin, and to remonstrate with the Supreme Judge against a severe chastisement.| Thus did his great mind, instead of resting upon truth, perpetually hang in a state of suspense and vacillation between the noblest feelings of his heart and the darkest errors of his creed.
Others, who have adopted the same creed, have endeavoured to extricate themselves from the dilemma in which Foster found himself, not by denying the eternity of future punishments, but by inventing a very nice distinction between the natural and moral inability of man. |He can obey the law,| say they, |if he will;| all that |he wants is the will.| All his natural faculties are complete; only let him will aright, and he is safe. But, after all, the question still remains, How is he to get the will, -- the good will, -- in order to render him acceptable to God? Does he get it from nature -- is it a part of his birth-right? No: from this he derives a depraved will, |free to evil only.| Is it vouchsafed to him from above? Is it a gift from God? Alas! to those who are lost, and perish eternally in their sins, the grace of God is never given! What does it signify thus to tell them, or to tell the world, that they have the natural ability to obey; that none of their natural faculties are lost; that they still have understandings, and affections, and wills? What can all these avail them? Is it not the merest mockery to assure them that they really have hearts, and wills, and feelings, if they |must go wrong,| if they must put forth the volitions for which they shall be tormented forever?
Upon this distinction we shall not dwell, as we have fully considered it in our |Examination of Edwards on the Will.| We shall merely add, that it is not an invention of modern times.(200) It is at least as old as the age of Augustine. |The Pelagians think,| says he, |they know some great thing, when they say, 'God would not command what he knew could not be done by man.' Who does not know this? But he commands what we cannot do, whereby we know what we ought to ask of him. For it is faith which obtains by prayer what the law commands. For true it is that we keep the commandments if we will, (si volumus;) but as the will is prepared of the Lord, we must seek of him that we may will as much as is sufficient, in order to our doing by volition, (ut volendo faciamus.)| Truly, we can keep the commandments if we will to do so; for, as Augustine immediately says, |certain it is, that we will when we will.|(201) But no man can put forth a volition in conformity with the commandments, unless it be given him of God, who |causes us to will good;|(202) and this is never given to the reprobate. How, then, can they be justly consigned to eternal torments? How can they be eternally punished for that which they could not possibly avoid? It is no wonder that a Foster should have shrunk from |the infinite horrors of such a tenet,| as seen from this point of view; the only wonder is, that any one can be found who can possibly endure them.
The same distinction, as we have already said, is relied upon by Edwards in order to show that man has an ability to obey the law of God.(203)
Thus we are gravely taught that we are able to obey the law of God; because if we will to do so, the external act will follow; and because it is certain that if we will we do really will. But how to will is the question. Can we put forth the requisite volitions? No one doubts that if we put forth the volition which the law of God requires, we then obey him, whether the external act follow or not; nor that if we will, then we do really will. But all this leaves the great question untouched, Can we put forth the requisite volitions without divine aid? And after this question has been answered in the negative, and we have been told that such aid is not given to the reprobate, all this talk about a natural ability, which must forever prove unavailing, is the merest mockery that ever entered into the imagination or the metaphysics of man. However the fact may be disguised by verbal niceties, it as really places eternal life beyond the reach of the reprobate, as is the very sun in the firmament of heaven, and makes eternal death as inevitable to them as is the rising and the setting thereof.
The eternity of future punishments an expression of the divine goodness.
We have seen in the first chapter of this part of the present work, that God really and sincerely intended the salvation of all men; and that if any are lost, it is because it is impossible in the nature of things to necessitate holiness; and that the impenitent, in spite of all the means employed by infinite wisdom and goodness for their salvation, do obstinately work out their own ruin and destruction. Omnipotence cannot confer holiness upon them; they do not choose to acquire it; and hence, they are compelled to endure the awful wages of sin. To those who reject this view of the nature of holiness, the world in which we live must forever remain an inexplicable enigma; and that to which we are hastening must present still more terrific subjects of contemplation. To their minds the eternal agonies of the lost can never be made to harmonize with the infinite perfections of God, by whom the second death is appointed. |How self-evident the proposition,| says Foster, |that if the Sovereign Arbiter had intended the salvation of the race, it must have been accomplished.| Having so summarily settled this position, that God did not intend the salvation of the race, the question which admits of no answer, Why did he not intend it? might well spread a mysterious darkness over the whole economy of divine providence. It was that darkness, that perplexing and confounding darkness, by which the mighty soul of Foster was oppressed with so many gloomy thoughts, and filled with so many frightful imaginations.
For our part, if we could believe that God could easily work holiness in the heart of every creature, and that he does not do so simply because he does not intend their salvation, we should not have attempted to vindicate his perfections. We should have believed in them, it is true; but we should have been constrained to confess, that they are veiled in impenetrable clouds and darkness. Hence, if we had not confessed ignorance and inability for all minds and all ages, as so many others have done, we should, at least, have confessed these things for ourselves, and supinely waited for the light of eternity to dispel the awful and perplexing enigmas of time. But we hold no such doctrine; we entertain no such sentiment. We believe that God, in his infinite, overflowing goodness desires, and from all eternity has desired, the salvation of all men. We believe that salvation is impossible to some, because a necessary holiness is impossible, and they do not choose to work out for themselves what cannot be worked out for them, even by omnipotence. It was the bright and cheering light which this truth seemed to cast upon the dark places of the universe, that first inspired us with the thought and determination to produce a theodicy. And it is in the light of this truth, if we mistake not, that the infinite love of God may be seen beaming from the eye of hell, as well as from the bright regions of eternal blessedness. This conclusion we shall endeavour methodically to unfold, and to set in a clear light.
In the first place, then, to begin with our fundamental position, the Creator could not necessitate the holiness of the creature. Hence this holiness, after all the means and the ability were given to him, must be left to the will of the creature himself. All that could be done in such a case was, for God to set life and death before us, accompanied by the greatest of all conceivable motives to pursue the one, and to fly from the other; and then say, |choose ye:| and all this has God actually done for the salvation of all men. Hence, though some should be finally lost, his infinite goodness will be clear. Let us see what objections may be urged against this conclusion.
Supposing it granted, that a necessitated virtue is a contradiction in terms, and that it is indispensably requisite to ordain rewards and punishments in order to prevent sin and secure holiness; it may still be said that the penalty of eternal death is too severe for that purpose, and is therefore inconsistent with the goodness of God. Indeed, after such a concession, this is the only position which can be taken in opposition to the doctrine in question. Let us then look at it, and examine the assumption upon which it rests for support.
If such punishments be too severe, it must be for one of these two reasons: either because no object can justify the infliction of them, or because the end proposed by the Supreme Ruler is not sufficiently great for that purpose.
Let us suppose, then, in the first place, the position to be assumed, that no object can possibly justify the infliction of such awful punishments. Such would be the case, we admit, if such punishments were unjust -- were not deserved by the person upon whom they are inflicted. Hence, it becomes indispensable, in order to vindicate the divine benevolence, to show that eternal sufferings are deserved by those upon whom they fall. Otherwise they would be unjust, and consequently unjustifiable; as the end could never justify the means.
We say, then, that eternal sufferings are deserved by the finally impenitent, not because every sinful act carries along with it an infinite guilt, nor because every sinner may be imagined to have committed an infinite number of sins, but because they will continue to sin forever. It will be conceded, that if punishment be admissible at all, it is right and proper that so long as acts of rebellion are persisted in, the rewards of iniquity should attend them. It will be conceded, that if the finally impenitent should continue to sin forever, then they forever deserve to reap the rewards of sin. But this is one part of the Scripture doctrine of future punishments, that those who endure them will never cease to sin and rebel against the authority of God's law.
Foster has attempted a reply to this defence of the doctrine in question, but without success. |It is usually alleged,| says he, |that there will be an endless continuance of sinning ... and therefore the punishment must be endless.| But |the allegation,| he replies, |is of no avail in vindication of the doctrine, because the first consignment to this dreadful state necessitates a continuance of the criminality; the doctrine teaching that it is of the essence, and is an awful aggravation of the original consignment, that it dooms the condemned to maintain the criminal spirit unchanged forever. The doom to sin as well as to suffer, and, according to the argument, to sin in order to suffer, is inflicted as the punishment of the sin committed in the mortal state. Virtually, therefore, the eternal punishment is the punishment of the sins of time.|(204)
Even according to the principles of Foster himself, the argument is wholly untenable. For he admits, that such is the evil nature of man, such the circumstances around him, and such the influences of the great tempter, he must inevitably go wrong; and yet he holds that he may be justly punished for such transgressions. Now, if every man who comes into the world be doomed to sin, as this author insists he is, and may be justly punished for sins committed in this life, why should he be excused for the sins committed in another state, because he is doomed to commit them? But this argumentum ad hominem is merely by the way, and has more to do with the consistency of the author, than with the validity of his position. We shall proceed to subject this to a more searching and a more, satisfactory test.
His argument assumes, that |it is of the essence of the original consignment, that it dooms the condemned to maintain the criminal spirit unchanged forever.| This is an unwarrantable assumption. We nowhere learn, and we are nowhere required to believe, that the guilty are doomed to sin forever, because they have voluntarily sinned in this life; much less that they are necessitated to sin in order to suffer! The doctrine of the eternity of future punishments is not necessarily encumbered with any such ridiculous appendage; and if any one can be found to entertain so absurd a view of the doctrine, we must leave him to vindicate the creation of his own imagination.
We do not suppose that the soul of the guilty will continue to sin forever, because it will be consigned to the regions of the lost; but we suppose it will be consigned to the regions of the lost, because, by its own repeated acts of transgression, it has made sure of its eternal continuance in sinning. God dooms no man to sin -- neither by his power nor by his providence. But it is a fact, against which there will be no dispute, that if a man commit a sin once, he will be still more apt to commit the same sin again, under the same or similar circumstances. The same thing will be true of each and every succeeding repetition of the offence; until the habit of sinning may be so completely wrought into the soul, and so firmly fixed there, that nothing can check it in its career of guilt. Neither the glories of heaven, nor the terrors of hell, may be sufficient to change its course. No amount of influence brought to bear upon its feelings, may be sufficient to transform its will. |There is a certain bound to imprudence and misbehaviour,| says Butler, |which being transgressed, there remains no place for repentance in the natural course of things.| And may we not also add, nor in the supernatural course of things either; and there only remains a certain fearful looking-for of judgment? As this may be the case, for aught we know, nay, as it seems so probable that this is the case, no one is authorized to pronounce endless sufferings unjust, unless he can first show that the object of them has not brought upon himself an eternal continuance in the practice of sin. In other words, unless he can first show that the sinner does not doom himself to an eternity of sinning, he cannot reasonably complain that his Creator and Judge dooms him to an eternity of suffering.
But it may be said, that although the sinner may deserve to suffer forever, because he continues to sin forever; yet it were more worthy the infinite goodness of God, to release him from so awful a calamity. If the sinner deserves such punishment, it is not only just to inflict it upon him, it is a demand of infinite goodness itself that it should be inflicted upon him, provided a sufficiently great good may be attained by such a manifestation of justice. This brings us to the consideration of our second point, namely: Is the object proposed to be accomplished by the infliction of eternal misery sufficiently great to justify the infliction of so severe a penalty? In other words, Is such a penalty disproportioned to the exigencies of the case?
In his attempt to show, that the infliction of eternal misery is too severe to consist with the goodness of God, Mr. Foster does not at all consider the great ends, or final causes, of penal enactments. He merely dwells upon the terrors of the punishment, and brings these into vivid contrast with the weakness and impotency of man in his mortal state. This, it must be confessed, is a most one-sided and partial view of so profound a subject; much better adapted to work upon the feelings than to enlighten the judgment. All that he seems to have seen in the case, is a poor, weak creature, utterly unable to do any good, subjected to eternal torments for the sins of |a few fleeting years on earth.| Hence it was, that |the moral argument,| which |pressed so irresistibly on his mind,| came in |the stupendous idea of eternity.|
Indeed, according to his theology, there could be no object sufficiently vast, no necessity sufficiently imperious, to justify eternal punishments. The prevention of sin, and the promotion of universal holiness, could not form such an object or constitute such a necessity; for, according to his creed, all this might have been most perfectly attained by a word. Hence, he was puzzled and confounded in the contemplation of what appeared to him so much unnecessary evil. |I acknowledge my inability,| said he, |to admit the belief, (the belief in endless punishment,) together with the belief in the divine goodness -- the belief that 'God is love,' that 'his tender mercies are over all his works.' |
As we have already seen from another point of view, we must come out from his theology if we would see the harmony and agreement between these beliefs. We must take our stand on the position, that Omnipotence cannot necessitate holiness, and must have recourse to rewards and punishments to secure it. Otherwise all evil and all suffering will remain an inexplicable enigma; all rewards and punishments awkward and clumsy contrivances to attain an end, which might be much better attained without them.
On this high and impregnable ground the moral argument of Foster loses all its irresistible force, and |the stupendous idea of eternity| presses with all its weight in favour of endless punishment. If temporal punishments are justified on the ground that they are necessary to meet the exigencies and uphold the interests of temporal governments, surely eternal punishments may be justified on the same ground in relation to an eternal government. The |stupendous idea of eternity| attaches to the whole, as well as to the part; and hence nothing can be gained to the cause of Universalism by the introduction of this idea, except in the minds of those who take only a one-sided and partial view of the subject.
The spectacle of punishment for a single day, it will be admitted, would be justified on the ground that it was necessary to support for a single day a government; especially if that government were vast in extent and involved stupendous interests. But if suffering for a single day may be justified on such a ground, then the exigencies of such a government for two days would justify a punishment for two days; and so on ad infinitum. Hence, the doctrine of eternal punishments in common with the eternal moral government of God, is not a greater anomaly than temporal punishments in relation to temporal governments. If we reject the one, we must also reject the other. Indeed, when we consider not only the eternal duration, but also the universal extent, of the divine government, the argument in question, if good for anything, presses with greater force against the little, insignificant governments of men, than against the moral government of God. One reason why Foster was |repelled into doubt by the infinite horrors of the tenet| is, that he merely contemplated the sufferings of the guilty, and saw not how those sufferings were connected with the majesty and glory of God's universal and eternal empire. It is as if an insect should undertake to set bounds to the punishments which human beings have found necessary to meet the exigencies and uphold the interests of human society.
We are told by writers on jurisprudence, that penalties should be proportioned to offences; but, as has been truly said, how this proportion is to be ascertained, or on what principles it is to be adjusted, we are seldom informed. We are usually left to vague generalities, which convey no definite information, and furnish no satisfactory guidance to our minds. If we can ascertain the precise conditions according to which this principle should be adjusted, even by goodness itself, we shall then be the better able to determine whether the eternal suffering of the guilty and impenitent is not a manifestation of the love of God, -- of that tender mercy which is over all his works.
It is a maxim that punishment should be sufficient to accomplish the great end for which it is imposed, namely, the prevention of offences. Otherwise, if it failed to accomplish this object, |it would be so much suffering in waste.|(205) Now, who can say that the penalty of eternal death is not necessary to this end in the moral government of the universe, or that it is greater than is necessary for its accomplishment? Who can say that a punishment for a limited period would have answered that end in a greater or more desirable degree? Who can say that there would have been more holiness and happiness, with less sin and misery, in the universe, if the punishment of those whom nothing could reclaim had not been eternal? Who can say that it would be better for the universe, on the whole, if the punishment of sin were limited than if it were eternal? Until this question, which so evidently lies beyond the range of our narrow faculties, be answered, it is presumption to object that eternal punishment is inconsistent with the goodness of God. For aught the objector knows, this very penalty is demanded by infinite goodness itself, in order to stay the universal ravages of sin, and preserve the glory of the moral empire of Jehovah. For aught he knows, the very sufferings of the lost forever may be, not only a manifestation of the justice of God, but also a profound expression of that tender mercy which is over all his works. For aught he knows, this very appointment, at which he takes so great offence, may be one of the main pillars in the structure of the intellectual system of the universe; without which its internal constitution would be radically defective, and its moral government impossible. In short, for aught he knows, his objection may arise, not from any undue or unnecessary severity of the punishment in question, but from his own utter incapacity to decide such a point in relation to the universal and eternal government of God.
It may be said that this is an appeal to human ignorance, rather than a reply to the argument of the Universalist. Surely, it is good to be reminded of our ignorance, when we undertake to base objections against the doctrines of religion upon assumptions about the truth of which we know, and, from the nature of the case, must know, absolutely nothing. If the doctrine in question involved any inherent contradictions, or were it clearly at war with the dictates of justice, or mercy, or truth, there might be some reason in our opposition; but to oppose it because we cannot see how it subserves the highest interests of the universe, seems to be an exceedingly rash and hasty decision; especially as we see that such a penalty must powerfully tend to restrain the wickedness of men, as well as to preserve unfallen creatures in their obedience.
It is not at all strange that beings with such faculties as we possess, limited on all sides, and far more influenced by feeling than by reason, should be oppressed by the stupendous idea of eternal torments. It absolutely overwhelms the imagination of poor, short-sighted creatures like ourselves. But God, in his plans for the universe and for eternity, takes no counsel of human weakness; and that which seems so terrible to our feeble intellects may, to his all-seeing eye, appear no more than a dark speck in a boundless realm of light. Surely, if there ever was, or ever could be, a question which should be reduced to the simple inquiry, |What saith the Scripture?| it is that respecting the future condition of the wicked.
It is truly amazing that a mind like Foster's should have put this inquiry so easily aside, and relied with so much confidence upon what he was pleased to call |the moral argument.| This argument, as we have seen, is altogether unsound and sophistical. It bases itself upon the prejudices of a creed, and terminates in dark conjectures merely. He hopes, or rather he |would wish to indulge the hope, founded upon the divine attribute of infinite benevolence, that there will be a period somewhere in the endless futurity, when all God's sinning creatures will be restored by him to rectitude and happiness.| Vain hope! delusive wish! How can they be made holy without their own consent and cooeperation? And if they could be restored to rectitude and happiness, how can we hope that God would restore them, since he has not been pleased to preserve them in their original state of rectitude and happiness?
But perhaps, says he, there will be, not a restoration of all God's sinning creatures to rectitude and happiness, but an annihilation of their existence. Even this conjecture, if true, |would be a prodigious relief;| for |the grand object of interest is a negation of the perpetuity of misery.| Suppose, then, that the universe had been planned according to this benevolent wish of Mr. Foster, and that those who could not be reclaimed should, after a very protracted period of suffering, be forever annihilated; would this promote the order and well-being of the whole creation? How did Mr. Foster know but that such a provision in the government of the universe would oppose so feeble a barrier to the progress of sin, that scenes of mutability, and change, and ruin, would be introduced into the empire of God, from which his benevolence would shrink with infinite abhorrence? How did Mr. Foster know but that the Divine Benevolence itself would prefer a hell in one part of his dominions, to the universal disorder, confusion, and moral desolation which such a provision might introduce into the government of God? Such a conjecture might, it is true, bring a |prodigious relief| to our imagination; but the government of God is intended for the relief of the universe, and not for the relief of our imagination.
Others besides the author in question have sought relief for their minds on this subject, by indulging in vague conjectures respecting the real design of the Supreme Ruler and Judge. Archbishop Tillotson, for example, supposes that although God actually threatened to punish the wicked eternally, he does not intend, and is not bound, to carry this threat into execution. This penalty, he supposes, is merely set forth as a terror to evil-doers, in order to promote the good order and well-being of the world; and after it has subserved this purpose, the Lawgiver will graciously remit a portion of the threatened penalty, and restore all his sinning creatures to purity and bliss. In reply to this extraordinary position, we shall only say that if the Almighty really undertook to deceive the world for its own good, it is a pity he did not take the precaution to prevent the archbishop from detecting the cheat. It is a pity, we say, that he did not deceive the archbishop as well as the rest of men; and not suffer his secret to get into the possession of one who has so indiscreetly published it to the whole world.
Nothing seems more amazing to us than the haste and precipitancy with which most men dispose of subjects so awful as that of the eternity of future punishments. One would suppose that if any subject in the whole range of human thought should engage our most serious attention, and call forth the utmost exertion of our power of investigation, it would be the duration of punishment in a future life. If that punishment be eternal, it is certainly the most momentous question which ever engaged the attention of man, and is to be lightly disposed of only by madmen.(206)