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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 8

No. I Eternal Punishment

No. I Eternal Punishment.

"For this cause was the Gospel preached also to them that are dead."—1 Pet, iv., 6.

When I spoke from this place last Sunday on the question, "Is life worth living?"—when I preached three Sundays ago on heaven, some of you may possibly have thought, "This is all very well for true Christians—all very well if, in this world, there were only taints; but the saints arc few in number, and the world is full of sinners. See what a spectacle it presents I Look at the coarseness and the foulness exhibited at every turn in the streets around us! Walk at night in squalid purlieus, not far even from this Abbey, where glaring gin-palaces are busy, and, amid the reek of alcohol, you may hear snatches of foul oaths and odious songs — streets where women sit shuddering in wretched garrets, to think of the brutal hands that will strike, of the brutal feet that will kick them when the drunkard staggers home, and where the young lads of the schools, over which we spend so many millions of money, are being daily ruined and depraved by being lured into low haunts of gambling and degradation. Or walk, attain, in the thronged haunts of commerce, where myriads are utterly and recklessly absorbed in that hasting to be rich who shall not be innocent; or judge, from the stage and the opera that vice in higher places is none the less dangerous because it is more gilded and perfumed. Look at all these facts, and then tell us—not in an ideal world, but in this world which looks too often as though it wore a world without souls—in a world where there is so much of cruel elfishness, of degraded purpose, of serpentine malice and insane desire—oh, tell us, in such a world as this, how does it, this that you have said apply? Alas! the vast majority of men and women whom we see are not saints but sinners, and too often contented with their sins; and covetousness, and drunkenness, and lust, and lying, and dishonesty, and hatred, claim each their multitudes of votaries and of victims. Have you, then, any right to paint the world in rose colour? Is it not mere insincerity, mere clericalism, to shut your eyes to patent facts? We who, by our very presence in this sacred place, shew that we do not belong to the classes openly and flagrantly irreligious, are yet, many of us, great sinners. Even when there is no dread crime upon our consciences, many of us are far from God. Our hearts are stained through and through by evil passions. We are tied and bound with the chain of our sins. You bid us repeat; but how many do repent? You, the clergy, who stand often by the bed-sides of the dying, who know how men live, and that in nine cases out of ten they die as they have lived, if your theory of life is to be entertained, if it is not to be a mere professional sham, what do you think about the future? Tell us about the lost.

My brethren, you have the fullest right to ask these questions, and it is our bounden duty to answer them; and I, for one, in all deep humility, yet now and always asking God for fearless courage and perfect honesty, will try to give you such answer as I can. If it be but the fragment of an answer, it is because I believe it to be God's will that no other should be possible; but, at least, I shall strive to speak such truth as is given me, and to answer no man according to his idols. Those who take loose conjectures for established certainties, these who care more for authority than reason and conscience, those who pretend to dignify with the name of Scriptural argument the ever-widening Spirals of dim and attenuated inference out of e narrow aperture of single texts, those who talk with the glib self complacency of an ignorance which takes itself for knowledge, as though they alone had been admitted into what, with unconscious blasphemy, they call the council-chamber of the Trinity; they, perhaps, may speak readily of fire and brimstone, and may feel page 2 the consolatory glow of a personal security as they dilate upon the awfulness and the finality of the sufferings of the damned. But those who so faith must have a broader basis than hollow representation—than the ambiguousness of opposing tests—those who grieve over the dark shadows flung by human theologians over God's light; those who believe that reason and conscience and experience, no less than "Scripture, are also books of God, and that they, too, must have a direct voice in these great decisions; they Mill not be so ready to snatch God's thunder into wretched and feeble hands. They will lay their mouths in the dust rather than make sad the hearts which God hath not made sad. They will take into account the grand principles which dominate through Scripture, no less than its isolated expressions; and, undeterred by the base and feeble notion that virtue would be impossible without the horrors of an endless hell, they will declare their trust that even after death, through the infinite mercy of the loving Father, the dead shall be alive again, and multitudes, at any rate, of the lost be found.

I cannot pretend, my brethren, to exhaust in one sermon a question on which, as you know, whole volumes have been written. There are some of the young in this congregation—many of you, I regret to see, are standing. I am reluctant ever to trespass too long upon your attention, and I cannot, therefore, profess to day to meet and to silence all objections. But one thing I can do, which is to tell you plainly what, after years of thought on the subject, I believe; and what 1 know to be the belief of multitudes, and of yearly increasing multitudes, of the wisest and the most learned in our Church. What the popular notion of hell is, you, my brethren, are all aware. Many of us were scared with it in our childhood. It is, that the moment a human being dies, at whatever age, under whatever disadvantages, his fate is sealed hopelessly, and forever; and that, if he die in unrepeated sin, that fate is a never-ending agony, amid physical tortures the most frightful that can be imagined; so that when we think of the future of the human race, we must conceive of a vast and burning prison in which the lost souls of millions writhe and shriek forever, tormented in a flame that never will be quenched. You have only to read the manuals—you have only to look at the pictures—of the Roman Catholics on the one hand, and of Nonconformists on the other, to see that such has been and is the common belief of Christendom. You know how Dante, in his vision, comes to a dark wall of rock, and sees, blacker in the blackness, the chasm of hell's colossal portal, and over it in characters of gloom, the awful line, "All hope abandon, ye who enter here"; and how, passing through it, they reach a place where, in this mere vestibule, sighs and wailings tremble through the starless void, and the sound of voices, deep and hoarse, and of hands smitten wildly together, whirls always through that stained and murky air. But it is even more awful to find such things in our own great writers, who had no belief, like Dante, in that wailing agony of purgatory into which poor souls might gladly plunge, assured that they too, redeemed and purified, should at last pass into their Paradise rest. Bead how the great Milton, after telling us of the super-eminence of beatific vision, plunges at once into this dreadful sentence—That "they who have been wicked in high places, after a shameful end in this life, which God grant them, shall be thrown down eternally into the deepest and darkest gulf of hell, where, under the trample and spurn of all the other damned, and in the anguish of their torture, they shall have no other ease than to exercise a bestial tyranny over them. They shall remain in that plight forever, the basest, the lowermost, the most dejected, the most underfoot and downtrodden vassals of perdition." Or read Bishop Jeremy Taylor's sermon on Christ's advent to judgment, and see how his imagination revels in the Tartarean glare which he pours over his lurid page, as he tells us how God's hand shall press the sins and the intolerableness, the amazement, and the disorder, the smart and the sorrow, the guilt and the pain of all our sins, and pour them into one chalice, and mingle them with an infinite wrath, and make the wicked drink off all the vengeance, and force it down their unwilling throats with the violence of devils and accursed spirits. Or, once more, read in Henry Smith, the silver-tongued Platonist of Cambridge, how, "when iniquity hath played her part, all the furies of hell shall leap on the man's heart as on a stage. Thought calleth to fear, fear whistleth to horror, horror beckoneth to despair, and saith, ' Come and help me to torment this sinner.' Irons are laid upon his body like a prisoner. All his lights are put out at once." Can we wonder that, receiving and believing such doctrines as these one of our poets wrote:—

"Place me alone in some frail boat.
Amid the horrors of an angry sea,
"Where I, while time say move, shall float;
Descrying neither land nor day.
Or under earth my youth confine.
To the night and silence of a cell,
Where scorpions with my limbs may twine,
O, God, so Thou forgive me hull."

Or that Shakespeare exclaims—

"It's too horrible!
The weariest and met loathed earthly life,
That age, ache, penury, imprisonment
Can lay on nature, It a paradise
To what we dream of death."

Well, my brethren, happily the thoughts and hearts of men are often far gentler page 3 and nobler than the formula; of their creeds; and custom and tradition provent even the greatest from facing the full meaning and consequences of the words they use. When Milton talks as I have read to you of hell, he is but giving form and colour to his burning hatred of irresistible tyranny and triumphant wrong, and when Jeremy Taylor and other great divines and poets write thus of it, they give us but the ebullient flashes from the glowing cauldron of a kindled imagination. What they say is but, as it were, the poetry of indignation. It is only when these topics fall into the vulgar handling of hard and narrow bigots,—it is only when they reek like acrid fumes from the poisonous crucible of mean and loveless hearts, that we sec them in all their intolerable ghastliness. I know nothing so calculated to make the whole soul revolt with loathing from every doctrine of religion, a3 the easy complacency with which some cheerfully accept the belief that they are living and moving in the midst of millions doomed irreversibly to everlasting perdition. Augustine dared to say that infants dying unbaptised would certainly be damned, though only with a qualified damnation. Thomas Aquinas lent his saintly name to the abominable fancy that the bliss of the saved may be the keener because they are permitted to gaze on the punishment of the wicked; and another writer talk of God as holding up the wicked in hell with one hand, and tormenting them with the other. Now, even when a saint of God speaks like this he sins, and no language can be stern enough to reprobate the manner in which these elder brothers of the prodigal have turned God's Gospel of plenteous redemption into anathemas, and all but universal perdition.

Which of us has not heard sermons or road books to the effect that if every leaf of the forest's trees, and every grain of the ocean's sands stood for billions of years, and all those billions of years were exhausted, you would be no nearer the beginning of eternity than you were at the first; and that (pardon me for reproducing what I abhor) if you could conceive of an everlasting toothache, or an endless cautery, or the incessant scream of a sufferer under the knife, that would give you but a faint conception of the agony of hell; and yet, in the same breath, that the majority of mankind are doomed to hell by an absolute predestination? Which of us has not heard teaching which implied, or did not shrink from even stating this; and dare any one of you regard it as other than blasphemy against the merciful God ? If you are not unaffected when the destitute perish of hunger, or the dying agonies in pain, is there any human being worthy of the dignity of a human being who does not revolt and sicken at the notion of a world of worm and flame? Someone, who is not of us, wrote yesterday to the Times, how—standing in that Parisian prison where the Girondists held their last supper, whence Danton passed to the scaffold, where Robespierre lay, on the night before his execution, in his blood, where Mario Antoinette poured out her soul on the last evening of her life—he saw an exquisite crucifix of ivory left since she had left it there. That queen and mother had clung to it all night in her last agony. And he then adds, that, "in such a scene, all logic, doctrine, politics, severity of judgment are hushed, and human nature asserts its preeminence, and claims the whole field of thought for pity. In presence of that agonising figure upon the cross, the whole soul revolts against judicial terrorism in whatsoever name, by whatsoever tyrant, committed."Ho is speaking, of course, of earthly tyrants; but, my brethren, "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?"And shall the image of the crucified Redeemer inspire in one who rejects His divinity the noble pity which seems as if it were alien to many of His sons ? I can at least sympathise with the living poet who cries, in contemplation of such thoughts:

"Were it not thus, O King of my salvation,
Many would curse to Thee, and I for one,
Fang Thes Thy bliss and snatch at Thy damnation.
Scorn and abhor the shining of the sun.
Ring with a reckless shivering of laughter,
Wroth at the woe which those have seen so long
Question if any recompense hereafter
Waits to atone the intolerable w.oag."

St. Paul again and again flings from him with a "God forbid"the conclusions of an apparently irresistible logic, We, surely, who have no irresistible logic of any kind against us in this matter, but only, in great part, spiritual selfishness and impenetrable tradition, do we not, in the high name of the outraged conscience of humanity, nay, in the far higher name of the God who loves us, of the Saviour who died for us, of the Holy Spirit who enlightens us; do we not hurl from us representations so cruel, of a doctrine so horrible, that every nerve and fiber of our intellectual, moral, and spiritual life revolts at it ? Ignorance may, if it will, make a fetish of such a doctrine; Pharisaism may write it broad upon its phylacteries; hatred may inscribe it instead of "holiness to the Lord"; sacerdotalism may set it forth in doctrines in which it simulates and degrades the name of Love; but here, in the presence of so many living, and in this vast mausoleum of the glorious dead,—here, amid the silent memorials of the men of fame and the fathers who beat us, of whom many, though not saints, were yet noble though erring men; and whom, though they and we alike shall certainly suffer, and suffer bitterly, both hero and hereafter, the penalty of unrepeated sin, we cannot and will not think of as condemned to unutterable tortures by page 4 irreversible decrees. I repudiate these crude and ghastly travesties of the holy and awful will of God. I arraign them as mercilessly ignorant I impeach them as a falsehood against Christ's universal and absolute redemption. I denounce them as a blasphemy against God's exceeding and eternal love. More acceptable, I am very sure, than the rigidest and most uncompromising orthodoxy of all the Pharisees who have ever judged their brethren since time began,—more acceptable by far to Him who, on His cross, prayed for His murderers, and who died that we might live—more acceptable, I say, than the delight which, amid a deluge of ruin, hug the plank on which itself alone is saved, would be the noble and trembling pity which made St. Paul declare himself ready to be anathemaed from Christ for the sake of his brethren—which made Moses cry to God at Sinai, "Oh, this people have sinned a great sin; yet now, if Thou wilt forgive their sin;—and if not, blot mo, I pray Thee, out of Thy book which Thou hast written."

But I would ask you believe, my brethren, that I speak now not with natural passion, but with most accurate theological precision, when I say that, though texts may be quoted which give prima facie plausibility to such modes of teaching, yet, to say nothing of the fact that the light and love which God Himself has kindled within us recoil from them, those texts are, in the first place, alien to the broad unifying principles of Scripture; that, in the next place, they are founded on interpretations demonstrably groundless; and in the third place, that, for every one so quoted, two can be adduced on the other side. There is an old, sensible, admitted rule of theology—Theologia parabolica non est demonstrativo—in other words, that phrases which belong to metaphor, to imagery, to poetry, to emotion, are not to be formulated into necessary dogmas, or crystallised into rigid creeds. If this rule be used to test them, nine-tenths of the phrases on which these views are built fall utterly to the ground. But even where it otherwise, once more, in the name of Christian light and Christian liberty—once more, in the name of Christ's promised Spirit, I protest against the ignorant tyranny of isolated texts, which has ever been the curse of Christian truth, the glory of narrow intellects, and the cause of the worst errors of the worst days of the most corrupted Church. Ignorance has engraved texts upon her sword, and oppression has carved them upon her fetters, and cruelty has tied texts about her faggots; and ignorance again has set knowledge at defiance with texts woven on her flag. Gin-drinking has been defended out of Timothy, and slavery has made a stronghold of the Epistle to Philemon. The devil, you know, can quote Scripture for his purpose, and quoted texts against Christ Himself; and when St. Paul fought the great battle of Christian freedom against the curse of the law, he was anathematized with a whole Pentateuch of texts. But, my brethren, we live under the dispensation of the Holy Spirit, and our guide is the Scriptures' of God in their broad outlines—the revelation of God in its glorious unity, the books of God in their eternal simplicity read by the illumination of that Spirit of Christ which dwelled in us except we be reprobates. Oar guide is not, and never shall be, what our Saviour called, "the letter that killeth"—tyrannous realism of ambiguous expression, the asserted infallibility of isolated words.

But if this great and awful doctrine of the state of the dead in the future is to be made simply and solely a matter of texts; if, except as a dead anachronism, yon do not really mean what you say when you say, "I believe in the Holy Ghost"; if we prefer our sleepy shibboleths and our dead traditions to the living promise, "I will dwell in them and walk in them,"then, by all means, let this question be decided by texts alone. But then, first, you must go to the inspired original, not to the erroneous translation; and, secondly, you must take words and you must interpret words in their proper and historical significance, not in that sense which makes thorn convey to you a thousand notions which did not originally belong to them. Now, I ask you, my brethren, very solemnly, where would be the popular teachings about hell if we calmly and deliberately erased from our English Bible the three words "damnation,""hell,"and "everlasting?"Yet I say unhesitatingly—I say, claiming the fullest right to speak with the authority of knowledge—I say, with the calmest and most unflinching sense of responsibility—I say, standing hero in the sight of God and of my Saviour, and it may be of the angels and spirits of the dead, that not one of those words ought to stand any longer in our English Bibles, and that being in our present acceptation of them, simply mistranslations, they most unquestionably will not stand in the revised version of the Bible if the revisers have understood their duty. The verb "to damn"in the Greek Testament is neither more nor less than the verb "to condemn,"and the word translated "damnation,"or rather the two words, are simply the words which, in the vast majority of "instances, the very same translators have translated, and rightly translated, by "judgment"and "condemnation."The word "aionios,"translated "everlasting,"is simply the word which, in its first sense, means "ago long"or eoneon,"and it is, in the Bible itself, applied and over again to things which have utterly and long since passed away; and, in its second sense, it is something above and beyond time—something spiritual, as when page 5 the knowledge of God is said to have eternal or "eoneon" life. So that when, with your futile billions of years, you foist into the word "aionios"the fiction of an endless time, you do but give the lie to the mighty oath of that great angel who set one foot on the sea and the other on the land, and, with one hand uplifted to heaven, sware, by Him that liveth for ever, that time should be no more.

And, finally, the word rendered hell is in one place the Greek word Tartarus, borrowed, as a word, for the prison of evil spirits, not after, but before the resurrection. It is in five places hades, which simply means the world beyond the grave, and it is in twelve place gehenna, which means primarily the Valley of Hinnon, outside Jerusalem, into which, after it had been polluted by Moloch worship, corpses were Hung, and where fires were lit; and, secondly, it is a metaphor, not of final and hopeless, but of that purifying and corrective, punishment which, as we all believe, docs await impenitent sin, both here and beyaond the grave. But, be it solemnly observed, the Jews to whom, and in whose metaphorical sense, the word was used by our blessed Lord, never did, either then, or at any period, attach to that word gehenna which lie used, that meaning of endless torment which we have been taught to apply to hull. To them, and, therefore, on the lips of our blessed Saviour who addressed it to them, it meant not a material and everlasting lire, but an intermediate, a metaphorical, and a terminable retribution.

Thus, then, my brethren, finding neither in Scripture nor anywhere, anything to prove that the fate of every man is at death irrevocably determined, I shake off the hideous incubus of atrocious conceptions attached by false theology to the doctrine of final retribution. But neither can I dogmatise on the other side. I say nothing to uphold the Romish doctrine of purgatory. I cannot accept the spreading belief in conditional immortality. I cannot preach the certainty of what is called universalism—that is, the view that all will finally be saved. That last doctrine—the belief that good shall fall at last, far off, yet at last, to all—does indeed derive much support from many passages of Scripture; and it, or a view closely analogous to it, was held by : Origen, the greatest and noblest, by Gregory, of Nyssa, the most fearless, by Clement of Alexandria, the most learned, by Justin, one of the earliest of the leathers. It was spoken of in some places with half approval, and in others with very modified reprobation, by theologians like St. Ambrose, St. Irenaeus,—oven in his better moments, by that man who has cost so dark a shade over theology—St. Augustine himself; and in modern times, among many others, that doctrine has been held by grand and most orthodox theologians like Bunsen and The luck among the Germans, and the saint of God among ourselves, like Thomas Erskine of Linlathan, and Bishop Ewing of Argyle. And further, whatever may have been the motives which influenced them, it is, at any rate, a fact that the Reformers struck out of the Prayer-book that article which originally decreed "All men shall not finally be saved."I care but little for individual authority in such matters; but this much is proved, at least, by these different theories of wise and holy men—that God has given us no clear and decisive revelation on the final condition of those who have died in sin. It is revealed to us that God is love, and that Him to know is eternal life, and that it is not His wish will that any should perish, and that "as In Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive but how long even after death, man may continue to resist His will, how long he may continue in that spiritual death which is alienation from God that is one of the secret things which God has not revealed. But this much, to any rate, that the fate of man is not finally and irreversibly and necessarily sealed at death, you yourselves—unwittingly, perhaps, but none the less certainly—admit and declare and confess every time you repeat the Apostles' Creed; for thru you say that Christ descended into hell; and the sole passage which proves that article of the Creed is the passage in which St. Peter tells a3 that Christ went and preached to the spirits in prison, who sometime were disobedient. St. Peter tells you in so many words, in the passage which I have chosen for my text, that the Gospel was preached to them that are dead; and if, as the Church in every ago has held, the fate of those dead sinners was not irrevocably fixed by death, then it must be clear and obvious to the very meanest understanding that neither of necessity is ours.

There, then, my brethren, is the solo answer which I can give you to your question, "What about the lost my belief is fixed upon that living God who is the Saviour of all men. My answer is, with Thomas Erskine of Linlathan that we are lost hero as much 03 there, and that Christ came to seek and to save the lost; and my hope is that the vast majority of the lost will at length be found. If any hardened sinner here, shamefully loving his sin and despising the long-suffering of his Saviour, triflo with that doctrine, it is at his own deep and awful peril. But if, on the other hand, there should be souls among you (and are there not ?)—souls very sinful indeed, but yet not hardened in sin—souls that feel, indeed, that ever amid their failing they long, and pray, and love, and agonise, and strive to creep nearer to the light, then to you I say, have faith in God. There is hope for you-hope page 6 for you even if death overtake you before the final victory is won; hope for the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven; hope for the mourners, for they shall be comforted; though you, too, if you should continue in sin, may have to be purified in that go henna of eoneon fire beyoud the grave. Yes, my brethren, "Say ye to the righteous that it shall be well with him, for they shall eat the fruit of their doings. Woo unto the wicked! t shall be ill with him, for the reward of his bauds shall be given him."But say also, as Christ's own apostles said, that there shall be a restitution of all things; that God willeth not that any should perish; that Christ both died and rose and revived that Ho might be the Lord both of the dead and of the living; that as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive; and that the day shall come when all things shall be subdued unto Him that God may be all in all.