Chapter 12 - Human Destiny - THE QUESTION ANSWERED

Chapter 12


To the reverent and refined there is something far more awful in the solemn measured language of Holy Writ upon the doom of the lost, than in all the word-pictures framed on it by facile pens or fluent tongues. These serve rather to repel, sometimes even to disgust. The outer darkness, the worm that never dies, the fire that is not quenched, the torment of the burning lake-all this may be but figurative language; but if so, the figures must represent realities still more terrible. It is easy to create a prejudice against the truth by giving prominence to human utterances, often foolish, sometimes coarse and profane, while studiously keeping out of view the great truth - love to a lost world. But it is the same gospel which reveals that love which also declares the coming wrath[1]. Just in proportion, therefore, as redemption is depreciated, the guilt of rejecting mercy will be ignored.

Man claims to be the arbiter of his own destiny, and "reason and conscience" tell him that "finite sin" shall have a finite punishment. But who will dare to call it "finite sin" to kill the Prince of Life? And such is the guilt of sinners who reject Him-" they crucify to themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame."[2] To strike a fellow-man might be an offence, though possibly a trivial one. To strike a parent would be, morally at least, a heinous crime. But to strike a king would be treason, punishable with death. In every case the guilt and penalty are measured, not by the act itself, but by the position of the outraged person and his relationship to the offender. So is it as between God and men. "Half measures are impossible in view of the cross of Christ. The day is past when God could plead with men about their sins. The controversy now is not about a broken law, but a rejected Christ. If judgment, therefore, be our portion, it must be measured by God's estimate of the murder of His Son."[3]

But who are they who shall be held guilty of this direst sin? The answer is with God, and not with us. If any who have heard the gospel can prove that they are guiltless, we may be assured that "the Righteous Judge" will accept the plea. But let no one dare to trade upon a hope of mercy in that day, while putting mercy from him here and now. Men speak as though the gospel were nothing but a dogma which some may fairly doubt, and the many fail to understand, forgetting that the death of Christ is a great public fact which must bring either blessing or judgment to every soul to whom the testimony comes. The question is not of assent to a shibboleth, but of loyalty to a person; not of belief in salvation, but of devotion to a Saviour. But all this is lost in the religious scepticism of the day, which is eating the very heart out of Christianity.

"The Christ of ages past
Is now the Christ no more;
Altar and fire are gone,
The Victim but a dream!"

Hence the deep and widespread conspiracy that exists to make light both of the guilt and the punishment of sin. Self and not God having become the test and touch-stone of all things, sin is palliated and judgment decried. Men speak as though the love of God were on its trial at the bar of "reason and conscience," and as if the verdict must needs be deferred till the sinner's doom shall have been declared.  But the love of God has been once and for ever vindicated by the great sacrifice of Calvary. It is measured by the gift of Christ, not by the lightness of their doom who reject Him. "In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent His only begotten Son into the world that we might live through Him."[4] "God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life."[5]

Here we have reached what is at once the real centre of the controversy and the climax of the argument. The preceding pages are the reflex of the struggle by which one inquirer has escaped from the difficulties set forth in the opening chapter. Perchance the record may prove helpful to others. The destiny of the lost is a great mystery, but it is only one phase of the crowning mystery of Evil. There must be some moral necessity why evil once existing, should continue to exist. Otherwise, the presence of the Serpent in Eden, and all the dismal facts of human history, would be inexplicable. But if the existence of Evil be recognised, its punishment is, in the very nature of things, inevitable. The real question, therefore, is not primarily as to the kind and duration of the punishment, but whether Divine love and equity have been placed beyond the shadow of a doubt. And that question will be answered by each according to his estimate of the gospel.

There is no question as to the Creator's power to extinguish creature existence; and by redemption God has won the undoubted right to restore the fallen race to blessing. But who can tell what moral hindrances may govern the exercise of that power and that right? Scripture assumes the continued existence of the Adam life. The resurrection is a proof of it. Judgment and hell are themselves an overwhelming proof of it. The crowning proof of it is redemption achieved at a cost so priceless. But if the scepticism of the day could be forced to speak out plainly, it would declare that God is to blame for human sin, and therefore redemption is merely the natural outcome of Divine benevolence. Any good man who, through his own default, allowed ruin to overtake others dependent on him, would make any sacrifice to repair the evil. Is man, then, better than God? Will not God make further and unceasing efforts to restore the lost whom love and grace shall have failed to win? Or, if that be impossible, will He not in mercy put an end to their existence?

The only answer to all such cavils is the cross of Christ. Behind that cross there is no concealed reserve of mercy or love. Man has lost through sin the paradise of earth; God bids him welcome to the paradise of heaven. The sin was in spite of all that God had done for man. The blessing is in spite of all the return that man has made to God. Men plead that because of what they are they cannot be what they ought to be; but redemption is for those who are all they ought not to be. Grace is as free as sunlight. God "will have all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth." It is "for the Devil and his angels" that the "everlasting fire" is prepared; God's own heaven is thrown open to the lost of earth. The weakest or the worst of men has but to choose Christ, and not sin, and he will find in Christ a Saviour from sin, and attain to blessing such as unfallen Adam never dreamed of. But what if he choose sin and reject Christ? God declares that the alternative to grace is wrath ; but the religious scepticism of the day will tell him that he may despise grace and yet escape wrath; or, at all events, that the wrath will be tempered and limited according to his own estimate of his guilt.

The possession of a single share in a commercial company is regarded by an English judge as a sufficient reason for leaving the bench if that company be sued; and yet, in rehearsing the Day of Judgment, men claim to sit as assessors with Almighty God, and to adjudicate upon their own destiny.

We conclude, then, that the proclamation of grace in the gospel is final, and that the destiny of all who either receive or reject the message is fixed in this life. In the Lord's own words, "He that believeth on Him is not condemned; but he that believeth not is already condemned."[6] At death, therefore, the unbeliever passes hence to await, not his trial, but his sentence. Further, we conclude that in the case of all mankind the judgment of the great day will be irreversible. But whether those who have been denied a revelation in this world shall find "a place of repentance" in the intermediate state, it is not for us to dogmatise.

To deny that God can give blessing to those whom the voice of revelation has never reached, is to make the value of redemption depend on man's appreciation of it. To assert that the testimony shall be granted to all mankind is to ignore the apostle's statement that "as many as have sinned without law shall also perish without law." What the fate of such will be we cannot tell. That they will reap what they have sown, the Scripture plainly states.[7] And this suggests that in one aspect of it, "future punishment may follow wickedness in the way of natural consequence.[8] Death is the wages of sin. But if there were nothing more in future punishment than this, then, as already urged[9], there would be no need whatever of a day of judgment. Once we pass beyond the general statements of Scripture, we know absolutely nothing of the fate of the lost.

Of course, we can launch out in speculations. There are no idlers in a well-disciplined gaol: in God's great prison-house is idleness to reign supreme? The tread-mill, which in former times served only to grind the air, is in our day used for good and needful purposes: are we to suppose that all the energies of the lost are to be consumed in tasks of aimless punishment? God has told us of their punishment, for that is all we are concerned to know; but nowhere has He said that it is for punishment alone they shall exist. If throughout creation, and even in the world which the microscope reveals to us, every creature seems to have its mission, why should we assume it will be otherwise in hell? It were but folly to press the matter further, and theorise about the possible employments of the lost; but may we not suppose that in the infinite wisdom of God there are purposes to the accomplishment of which even they will be made to minister? If heaven were the fools' paradise of our hymnology, the conventional hell might well be accepted as its counterpart. If the redeemed are to sit in one vast surpliced choir, to spend eternity in song, why should not the lost be battened down in some huge dungeon, with no occupation save to bewail for evermore their doom?

One of the commonest artifices in this controversy is to seize on the popular conception of hell, and then to demand whether existence in such a condition for millions of ages be not incredible. Let any one put his heaven to the same test, and he will be startled at reaching a like conclusion. That an eternal paradise will be eternal happiness the believer is assured. But it is entirely a matter of faith. Reason cannot grasp it. The mind is utterly overwhelmed by the attempt to realise eternity at all.

On this whole subject "orthodoxy" has gone beyond what Scripture warrants, and "heresy" ignores or denies some of its plainest teaching. Our choice, however, does not lie between orthodoxy and heresy, as judged by creeds and Churches, but between revelation on the one hand, and the opinions of men on the other. In a sphere where reason can tell us nothing, we are bound to keep strictly to the very words of Scripture, neither enlarging their scope nor drawing inferences from them. But in contrast with this, the inspired words have been used in such a way as to produce a mental revolt which endangers faith. Divine love is boundless. Christ's redemption is of infinite value. Grace is supreme; and it is "salvation-bringing to all men" - such is its scope and tendency. But even if it were certain that in the underworld God will reveal Himself as a Saviour to those who fail to hear of Him thus on earth, this would only emphasize the truth which is as plain on the page of Scripture as words can make it, that the gospel of His grace is a final revelation to those it reaches.

Man boasts of the proud but perilous dignity of an independent will. He used it in turning away from God. He may use it again in refusing to turn back to God. And what then? The gospel of a free pardon through the death of Christ is "preached in the whole creation under heaven." The amnesty has been proclaimed; and, because God is unwilling that any should perish, judgment waits. But if men despise the grace and reject the Saviour, the sure and inevitable alternative is PERDITION.

Strange it is that they who are most emphatic in asserting that God must give salvation to all men in the next world, are precisely those who dismiss as fanaticism the truth that He gives salvation here and now to those who seek Him.

The Church of Rome denies grace altogether, and represents Divine love as dependent for its display on the human weakness of a traditional Jesus and the womanly tenderness of a traditional Mary. This conception of God has produced the coarse conventional hell of theology, which again has led to the creation of purgatory and masses for the dead, to alleviate the horrors of the system. In asserting the doctrine of justification by faith, the Reformation in great measure restored the lost truth of grace. Mariolatry and purgatory disappeared with the darkness which produced them, but the mediaeval hell remained. Protestantism, however, when separated from spiritual life, is a mere soulless body; and while the religious movement of the present century has deepened faith in the doctrines of the Reformation, those who have resisted its influences are either turning back to Rome or lapsing to infidelity. On the one side, we see a revival of the old errors of intercession for the dead and the power of "æonian fire" to purify the soul. On the other side, the great truths of Christianity are dismissed as narrow cant; the mystery of Divine love to a lost world is degraded to the level of good-natured benevolence to erring creatures; sin is but human frailty, righteousness a myth, and judgment but the appointed means by which the lost of earth shall be fitted for the heaven to which their relationship to God entitles them. In a shallow, and, therefore, a sceptical age, this is the most popular religion. It vaunts itself as the outcome of increased enlightenment; in fact it is but the mingled ignorance and insolence of unbelief.

[3] The Gospel and its Ministry, p. 143

[8] Butler, The Analogy, pt. 5, ch. II, § 2

[9] Page 39, ante.