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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 8

Endless Punishment

Endless Punishment.

In the few remarks we are about to offer on this subject we shall refrain from disputing with those who claim for the dogma of the eternity of future suffering the sanction of Scripture. It will, we think, be conceded, by all candid and discerning minds, that the Bible, in many passages, distinctly affirms the existence of a place of excruciating torment, where the souls of sinners are destined to suffer everlastingly for sins done in the body; so that, if the Bible is to be regarded as a supreme and final authority in such matters, there is nothing for it but to consider the question of the probability of Endless Punishment as authoritatively settled in the affirmative. There is, however, in the present day, a large and increasing class of thinkers to whom this arbitrary and off-hand manner of dealing with theological difficulties is an insuperable stumbling-block. Men are at length beginning to see that, in determining the deepest problems of thought and the gravest issues of human destiny, Reason and Nature are not thus to be ousted from their legitimate seat by an assumed infallible standard of opinion, of which no stronger defence is offered than that those concerned in the framing of it "spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost." Any Revelation, we say it advisedly, which professes to transcend. Nature, instead of reverently interpreting what she has to say to us, is both a solecism and a snare.

To establish, then, the probability of the eternity of future punishment from something analagous in the system of nature, what kind of evidence should we require? Clearly the infliction upon sentient beings of endless and irremediable pain. Pain of page 224 one kind or another is, of course, to be met with in abundance. It confronts us at every turn. Such palpable facts as that carnivorous animals prey upon other animals in obedience to a law of their organisation, and that some tribes of animated beings are by nature so prolific as to necessitate the thinning of their numbers by starvation or by violence, are in themselves sufficient to prove that pain, per se, is not incompatible with the supreme wisdom and benevolence. And the same may be said of the misery caused by the flood, the fire, the hurricane, the earthquake, and other such disaster-producing phenomena of nature. In either case, however, the pain inflicted is, as a rule, of the shortest duration. The antelope struck down by the spring of the lion, and the dove in the talons of the hawk, probably suffer very little pain. And as for disasters by flood, fire and tempest, they are no sooner over than Nature, like the spider whose web has been swept away, begins to rebuild and restore. So far, then, we find nothing in nature analagous to the hell of orthodox Christianity.

Of quite another order are the pains which men, as rational and responsible beings, bring upon themselves by their actions. And, as it happens, the ruin which pursues and crushes the bad man is the very illustration employed by Bishop Butler to prove the eternity of future punishment. After remarking how bad men, despising remonstrance and entreaty, deliberately go on in their mad career from bad to worse, he says: "At length the bad consequences of their follies break in irresistibly like an armed force; repentance is too late to relieve, and can only serve to aggravate the distress; the case is become desperate; and poverty and sickness, remorse and anguish, infamy and death, overwhelm them beyond possibility of remedy or escape." It is curious that a reasoner so acute as the author of the Analogy of Religion should have failed to sec how signally his argument fails in one point. He shows, what no one would deny, that misery may be irremediable; but that it is therefore endless is surely a palpable non sequitur. Even the hardened debauchee, in whom Nature's tendency to restoration is hopelessly counteracted by the virulence of disease, soon reaches the termination of his miserable course. He dies, and to all appearance his pain is over. What comes after death we cannot say; but the point to be remembered is, that to establish anything like an analogy between the pains of this life and those of the next, there must be produced the impossible case of one, the virulence of whoso physical sufferings forces him to long for death without permitting him to die. Nor, as we may show by an illustration, is it otherwise with nations. The ancient Roman, in the palmiest days of the Republic, was, perhaps, the superbest specimen of the fighting man the world has ever seen. Proud and self-possessed, taking temporary defeat as only an incentive to greater exertion, with an inborn love of order and great aptitude for page 225 organisation, he went forth conquering and to conquer. Extension of conquest, however, only served to corrupt and enervate the empire: what should have been the great middle class of its subjects died fighting in distant lands; while the upper-class Roman at home, enriched with the plunder of the conquered provinces, wholly surrendered himself to sleep, refection, and the arena. Of science he had none; of art and literature not much that was original; and his sports, as is well known, were replete with coarseness and brutality. Thanks to the law of progress which controls the affairs of our world, such a state of things was not permitted, as it never will be permitted, to last. Yet, when the mighty but debilitated empire of the Cæsars succumbed to the attacks of its barbarian assailants, what seemed complete and irremediable ruin was but the birth-hour of a civilisation to which, as represented by the leading nations of modern Europe, Rome never could have attained.

The moral growth of a man of high principle is of slow development. Accepting the guidance of reason and conscience, his path from clay to day grows smoother; self-denial loses its irksomeness; his animal appetites, habitually checked, grow less urgent; his mind and heart expand to the gradual suppression of foolish judgments and unworthy aims; until, like Paul, he can feel, in his declining years, that he has fought a good fight and finished his course. But, then, this moral progress may be reversed. A man, all his life long, may, consciously or unconsciously, be doing his utmost to smother the nobler impulses of his soul in sensual pleasure—sinking lower and lower in the rank of moral beings as the good man rises higher and higher. What, then, if the soul exhibiting this sad declension, this degrading disavowal of priceless rights and opportunities, should, like the withered kernel of a blighted nut, be fated to perish with the body, and lose the immortality which is its potential privilege. We shall not follow up this thought, at least beyond saying that we consider the doctrine which consigns the sinner to annihilation far preferable to that which affirms that conscience will be miraculously revived, too late for repentance and reformation, but not too late for remorse; and that the body, reconstituted and endowed with immortality, will be an instrument for the infliction of everlasting torture.

Punishment, we take it, may be regarded from one of three points of view. It may be reformative—with a view to the well-being of the sinner himself; or admonitive—with a view to its effect upon others; or retributive—with a view to the law

"Which binds together guilt and pain,"

and, by an unerring sequence of cause and effect, afflicts the sinner to the full extent of his misdoings. That our human nature is a by no means uncertain reflection of this retributive principle is evinced by the satisfaction men feel in the "poetical page 226 justice" which, in the hands of the poet or dramatist, eventually discomfits the knave and brings the good man to the front, as well as by the summary justice which men, moved by sudden impulse, will at times inflict upon criminals of unusual atrocity. With punishment, however, of the retributive sort, judges, magistrates, and others, who are directly concerned in the maintenance of social order, have nothing whatever to do. We punish the offender, not for the sake of involving him in the retributive penalty of his sin, but in the hope of making him a better man and of deterring others from following his example. Now, to pass from this world to the next, it is clear that the rewards of heaven and the punishments of hell cannot be considered as tending either to reform or to deter; for with allotment of these at the judgment, as orthodoxy teaches, humanity will have ceased to exist. To the inhabitants of Mars or Jupiter—sinners, perhaps, like ourselves, and therefore doomed to destruction, unless rescued by a redeemer, an atonement, a justification by faith, and the rest of the theological apparatus—the spectacle of our naughty earth disclaiming its connection with the solar system and disappearing in a sudden outburst of flame, would, forsooth, did they but know the rights of it, be alarming and, perhaps, reformative and admonitive in the extreme. We may rest assured, however, that as their ignorance of our affairs is at least as profound as our ignorance of what goes on in Mars or Jupiter, so the burning and dispersion of our planet, however interesting from a scientific point of view, would not be invested by them with any judicial significance.

Shall we say, then, that future punishment is essentially and characteristically retributive? Let us think for a moment. Compensation, no doubt, is the law of the universe. To commit sin is to involve ourselves in suffering; nor can we hope—do what we may in the shape of penance, or receive what we may in the shape of absolution—to evade the consequences of our iniquities. They punish us here as, admitting the doctrine of a future life, they will assuredly punish us hereafter. But, surely, as a matter of justice, the retributive suffering should be proportionate, or at least not inconceivably disproportionate, to the sin which it follows. Suppose that at the formal apportioning of human lots which, as we are told, is to take place at the judgment there shall have existed three hundred generations of men, each generation consisting of a thousand millions, each individual living a hundred years,—we use round numbers for convenient calculation,—and that some great sinner who has been instrumental in blasting the happiness or in diminishing the usefulness of every member of the vast human family, is sentenced to suffer a hundred-fold the misery he has caused. His punishment would in that case extend over 3,000,000,000 millions of years! And yet this immense period is as nothing compared with the eternity during which God, as most Christians believe, will page 227 compensate Lazarus with unutterable bliss for his seventy years of poverty, and Dives with unutterable woe for his seventy years of comfortable ease! How people can entertain this conception of God, and refrain, in so doing, from regarding him as a hideous monster of injustice, we are unable to understand.

Nor can we fathom the state of mind that can adjust the doctrine of endless suffering to the tokens of boundless wisdom and goodness of which the universe is full. Great, no doubt, would be our amazement, if, after inspecting some splendid mansion, exhibiting the highest phases of art and refinement, we should suddenly discover, in some recess, a collection of rubbish displaying every stage of nastiness and putridity? Yet this is what theologians teach of the God whose universe, from the tiniest shell in the depths of the ocean to the vastest orb that rolls through space, teems with the evidences of divine love and goodness, but has, nevertheless, its recess, where the mass of his rational offspring are to be finally located, and the smoke of their torment is to go up for ever and ever. How, then, should we rejoice that this priestly blasphemy against the God of Justice and of Love is, with the progress of religious thought, about to disappear.

A writer says: "Had no other change taken place in theology than this, had we discarded no other ancient error, it would be enough to make our century blessed among the ages, that it has witnessed the last preaching of the doctrine of the eternal perdition of souls. No longer shall the spontaneous love of happy youth to the Giver of life's joy, the Maker of this beautiful universe, be checked and snapped like a flower in its bud by the threats of endless torture, to be inflicted by that same Being who is now shedding mercies like the sunbeams around. No more shall the heart of earnest manhood, and woman's sensitive conscience, shrink and tremble at the thought that perhaps No honesty of purpose, no carefulness of duty, may suffice to save from a doom which courage itself could not face nor piety endure. No more shall the student pursue his studies into the mysteries of God's glorious creation, as with the sword of Damocles over the book of Nature, ready to slay him if he find not in its pages the foregone conclusion of an obsolete philosophy. No more shall parent or wife, hanging over the grave of child or husband, feel that the agony of separation itself is but light in comparison of the yet darker terror that the soul so dear is gone to no happy realm where Death will yet re-unite the several links of love, but to a world of endless, remediless, unutterable woe. No more shall the aged, sinking slowly out of life, and feeling day by day the tide of strength go down, look forward fearfully and tremblingly to the inevitable future, like the prisoner whose iron cage closed hourly around him to crush him at last; and cry with failing breath, not the triumphant words meet for the close of a life of fidelity, 'God, I come to page 228 Thee!' but the wail of terror unassuaged, 'Oh, save me from the bitter pains of eternal death.'

Kings have ordered many a Te Deum for victory over their enemies. Had I my will, all the cathedrals of Christendom should resound with a thanksgiving for the conquest of faith and reason over the belief in Hell! No splendid discovery of distant clusters of suns by the astronomer, no revival of buried wilds by the geologist, no invention of steam or telegraphy, no political reform, no abolition of slavery, no change amid all the thousand changes of our day is truly greater or more blessed than this liberation of our souls. Now, at last, may we look beyond the grave to a world where, not we ourselves only, or only those who have shared our creed, but all men, all of every age and clime, all whom we have loved or honoured or pitied or mourned, shall sit down in the Kingdom of God, with none cast out. Now, at last, may we with our whole hearts love the Lord or God; and trust our souls, and all souls, fearlessly in His hand, whose universe may contain a million worlds of trial and joy, but never a world of Reprobation. Sit laus Deo."