Chapter 11 - Human Destiny - THE QUESTION DISCUSSED.

Chapter 11

THE QUESTION DISCUSSED

THE record of the Augustinian doctrine of the damnation of infants is one of the darkest chapters in theology.[1] If we distinguish between what is doubtful and what is doubted, the question is not open to discussion. No language can be plainer than that in which the Epistle to the Romans teaches that Christ's redemption is as far-reaching in its effects as Adam's sin. It is not that all shall be saved through the death of Christ, but that, in virtue of that death, no one shall be lost save by reason of personal guilt.[2] It is certain, therefore, that the infant dead, whether of heathen or of Christian lands, shall be reckoned among the number of the redeemed.

And where does Scripture teach that those who live and die in heathen darkness shall not hear of Christ after they pass away from earth? Either to assert or to deny that such shall find a "place of repentance" in the underworld is the arrogance which springs from ignorance; and in this sphere all arrogance is profane. It may be urged that if the sinners of the days of Noah have since received a gospel message from the Lord Himself,[3] all others who have been denied a revelation upon earth shall have mercy offered them beyond. On the other hand, it may be argued that as "the exception proves the rule," so the special mention of the sinners who perished in the Flood implies that their case was peculiar, if not unique. The fact is, the Bible was not written to gratify curiosity in matters which in no way concern us. As regards the destiny of those it fails to reach, it is absolutely silent. The fate of the heathen is with God.[4]

There is one passage, indeed, which unfolds with definiteness the principles of judgment applicable to all mankind. The reference, of course, is to the second chapter of the Epistle to the Romans, and the apostle's statements are of such importance here that it may be well to quote them fully. He speaks of "the righteous judgment of God, Who will render to every one according to his deeds : to them who by patient continuance in well-doing, seek for glory and honour and immortality, eternal life; but to them that are contentious, and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish upon every soul of man that doeth evil, of the Jew first and also of the Gentile; but glory, honour, and peace to every one that worketh good, to the Jew first and also to the Gentile. For there is no respect of persons with God. For as many as have sinned without law shall also perish without law, and as many as have sinned under law shall be judged by law, in the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ."

Here are principles of universal application: who will deny their equity? Many seem to think that salvation by faith sets all this aside; but such thoughts are wholly false. When appealed to by the people to give some clear light to guide them in the life of well-doing, the Lord's answer was explicit, "This is the work of God, that ye believe on Him Whom He hath sent."[5] The standard of well-doing was changed by His advent, but the principle was the same. Allegiance to a banished prince may show itself in many ways; but once he appears within the realm, personal homage becomes the test and touchstone of loyalty. So is it as between God and men. Some live in nature's darkness: some in the blaze of gospel light. But whether it be merely "the candle set up within them," or the full revelation of the Son of God, "to obey the truth" is to tread the path of blessing. The heathen will not be damned for ignorance of Christ; while, on the other hand, in Christendom no amount of seeming "well-doing" will avail, if personal loyalty to Christ be wanting. The word spoken retrospectively of His life on earth shall still hold good when He returns to judgment: "To as many as received Him, to them gave He the right to become children of God."[6]

But, it will be answered, this is evading the real issue, which is as to the equity, not of the judgment, but of the sentence. If everlasting torment be the penalty of sin, such must be in fact the doom of the vast majority of the heathen. It is idle to theorise upon the supposed statistics of the Day of Judgment, though the popular belief is largely based upon wilful and deliberate rejection of Scripture testimony about coming ages of blessing upon earth.[7] But where does Scripture teach that everlasting torment is the penalty of sin? DEATH is the penalty of sin. Instead of absolute equality, Scripture indicates an infinite inequality in punishment.  There will be the "few stripes" and the "many stripes." God "will render to each according to his deeds." Surely the distinction is obvious and simple between the general penalty of sin, which depends on the essential character of a God Who cannot tolerate evil in His presence, and the special kind and measure of punishment which the Righteous Judge will impose on each, according to the degree and nature of his guilt. It is of the Antichrist and his adherents - the enemies of Christ in the awful days to come - that the Word declares they "shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever."[8]

And this disposes of a difficulty which has been used with such success in the interests of error. Sin's penalty has indeed been borne by Christ. His resurrection was the public proof that every claim of righteousness was satisfied and all who by faith become identified with Him are justified from sin. But the sufferings of the Sin-bearer did not include the consequences of rejecting the atonement. When, therefore, it is demanded whether Christ endured "everlasting torment," the best reply is to expose the latent error in the question. To speak even of His bearing the punishment of sin is to use unscriptural language; and the statement is untrue, if punishment be intended to embrace all the consequences, both providential and penal, which follow upon transgression.

The attempt to eliminate all element of mystery from the atonement is impious and vain. Redemption is, in fact, the crowning mystery of revelation. But it is mainly in the imputation of sin that the mystery consists. It is not, as so often stated, "the innocent dying for the guilty," for that would be immoral, and impossible with God; but the innocent passing into the place of the guilty, and, as guilty, dying to expiate the guilt imputed to Him. If any one still insists upon the inquiry, How could sin be so imputed to the sinless as to make a vicarious death justifiable? He may seek to reason out the answer; but, as Bishop Butler says, "All conjectures about it must be, if not evidently absurd, yet at least uncertain." "Nor," he adds, "has any one reason to complain for want of further information, unless he can show his claim to it."[9] The fact is plain - and this alone concerns us - that “He Who knew no sin was made sin for us.”

"During all His ministry on earth, albeit it was spent in humiliation and reproach, no hand was ever laid upon the Blessed One, save in importunate supplication or in devout and loving service. But when at times His enemies would fain have seized Him, a mysterious hour to come was spoken of, in which their hate should be unhindered. 'This is your hour, and the power of darkness,' He exclaimed, as Judas and the impious companions in his guilt drew round Him in the garden. His hour He called it when He thought of His mission upon earth; their hour, when, in the fulfilment of that mission, He found Himself within their grasp."

“The agonies inflicted on Him by men have taken hold on the mind of Christendom; but beyond and above all these the mystery of the Passion is that He was forsaken and accursed of God. In some sense, indeed, His sufferings from men were but a consequence of this; therefore His reply to Pilate, 'Thou couldest have no power at all against Me, except it were given thee from above.' If men seized and slew Him it was because God had delivered Him up. When that destined hour had struck, the mighty hand drew back which till then had shielded Him from outrage. His death was not the beginning, but the close of His sufferings; in truth, it was the hour of His triumph."[10]

To be "forsaken and accursed of God" - this is death in its deeper spiritual significance. And the fact is clear, however it be explained, that once the Lord had passed into that condition, the only way of escape from it was by laying down His life. If the penalty of sin be "natural death" merely, the agony of Gethsemane and "Immanuel's orphan cry" upon the cross can in no way be accounted for. If it be annihilation, then the death of Christ was a defeat and not a triumph, and, as already shown[11], His resurrection was a fraud. Faith grasps the fact that the death of the Sin-bearer, in all which it implies, is an equivalent to the sinner's doom, but how it is so is a mystery which reason seeks in vain to solve.

Experience teaches us that even in this world the consequences of sin are disastrous and abiding. And Scripture leaves no doubt that in the world to come sin's punishment shall be real and searching. We know that it will entail banishment from God; and further we know that infinite love and perfect justice shall measure the cup which each must drink. But beyond this we know absolutely nothing. The pride of intellect which lured our first parents to their ruin is abnormally developed in their posterity; but man's vain boast of knowledge beyond what is revealed serves only to awaken echoes which proclaim his folly.

What concerns us is not to theorise about the penalty of sin, but to take heed that we escape the "sorer punishment" of despising grace. It were otherwise if Christianity gave those who reject it the alternative of falling back on the position held by all whom the revelation has never reached. But no such choice is ours. The Gospel shuts men up either to accept the blessings it bestows, or else to await the doom of which those shall be "thought worthy" who have "trodden under foot the Son of God."[12] To cease to exist is to become as though one had not been; but a fate worse than this awaits the Christ-rejector and the apostate - "Good were it for that man, if he had never been born."



[1] The more one studies the Fathers the wider appears to be the gulf which separates their writings from the inspired Scriptures.  This remark applies with full force to Origen, whose writings are appealed to so confidently in this controversy.

[2] On Rom. 5 see App., p. 78 post.

[3] 1 Peter 3:19, 20.  I am here assuming that such is the meaning of the passage, although I own to having serious doubts upon the point.  As Dean Alford says, the literature of the passage is almost a library in itself.  His own note is an admirable summary of that library.  Dean Plumptre’s book is somewhat disappointing on this particular passage, from which it derives its name.

[4] Passages such as Psalm 9:15-20, which may seem an exception, do not speak of the final state at all, but only of the God’s providential judgments.  The “hell” of the passage is hades.  “The wicked shall be turned into sheol, and all the nations that forget God.”

[7] The Bible is full of promises and prophecies of a time to come when God shall be known and feared from pole to pole. For aught we know, the population of the world will then be ten, or perchance a hundred times greater than at present. If we take this into account, together with the facts and possibilities of redemption noticed in the last few pages, is it so clear on which side the majority of mankind shall ultimately be found? It may be said that this is an appeal to our ignorance. True, but the prejudice I seek thus to break down is based entirely on our ignorance. The one is a set-off against the other: faith will ignore both, and leave the issue with God.

 

[8] Rev. 14:11, 20:10.  On the word “torment,” see App., p. 96 post.

[9] The Analogy, part 2, ch. 5, § 6.

 

[10] The Coming Prince (2nd ed.) pp. 116-17.  The passage proceeds:  “The midnight agony in Gethsemane was thus the great antitype of that midnight scene in Egypt, when the destroying angel flashed through the land.  And as His death was the fulfillment of His people’s deliverance, so it took place upon the anniversary of ‘that self-same day that the Lord did bring the children of Israel out of Egypt by their armies.’”  And attention is also called to the fact that the crucifixion was likewise the anniversary of the promise to Abraham.  So the resurrection was the anniversary of the crossing of the Red Sea, and also of the resting of the ark on Mount Ararat.

[11] See p. 51 ante.