Chapter 7 - Human Destiny - "ETERNAL LIFE IN CHRIST."

Chapter 7


IN the wide and increasing field of literature on this question there is one volume which enjoys a well-deserved preeminence. It has now been forty years before the public, and during that time it has been subjected to the severest criticism. In the light of that criticism it was rewritten eleven years ago, and since then it has been again revised with the most scrupulous care. Its pages are characterised by reverent piety, competent scholarship, and intellectual power of no mean order; and in fact it is justly deemed the standard work on the subject of which it treats. Every statement it contains has evidently been weighed, and seeming omissions will be accounted for, not by the author's ignorance of anything which others have written, but because in his judgment their arguments are either unfair or unwise. To this book we turn for the most complete and favourable answer possible to the difficulties which have just been stated.

The author frankly acknowledges that the views he opposes are "supported by the general authority of nearly all Christendom for at least fourteen centuries"; and that they have been accepted by "instructed divines who are to be counted by hundreds of thousands, belonging to all Churches, in every successive century of Christianity." Nevertheless he opposes them. "According to the Bible" (he declares) "man is essentially a complex being, consisting of body and soul;" not a soul without a body, any more than a body without a soul. Adam was such a being. The warning, "In the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die," implied not liability to "temporal death," still less to endless misery, but death itself, "the utter destruction of Adam's nature as a man," and that literally on the very day of his sin. The threatening "was intended to signify a literal, immediate, and final dissolution of the nature of Adam as a man; his death in the ordinary sense of the word, without any reference whatever to the state, or even to the survival, of the spirit beyond." "The humanity is the living organism, including body and soul. When that complex organism is dissolved the man is no more." The death, therefore, threatened to Adam, and which he was to suffer on the very day of his sin, was the absolute extinction of his being.

Such, moreover, the author maintains, as he is bound to maintain, is "death in the ordinary sense of the word." And further, "this death was 'the curse of the law'; not merely of the Mosaic law, but of that law under which Adam was created at first, and of which the thunders of Sinai were a second manifestation."

But whatever may be doubtful, this at least is certain, that no such doom has in fact fallen upon the sinner. How can this enigma be explained? The author solves it by the one word Redemption. "From the moment of the sin" (he tells us) "the action of Redemption began at once to unfold itself." "This survival of the soul we attribute exclusively (with Delitzsch) to the operation of Redemption." Such a survival "is contrary to the original intention of God in the curse of death threatened at first to Adam in Paradise ;" it is "of the nature of a miraculous or abnormal provision, arising out of the economy of redemption, with a view to future resurrection." And "the sentence of death is postponed, not repealed." Absolute extinction of his being is therefore the sinner's doom.[1]

It is impossible to exaggerate the importance and solemnity of these statements. The whole controversy is thus narrowed to a single issue. If the death which is the penalty of sin be the extinction of the sinner's being, the doctrine of conditional immortality is a Divine truth. If, on the other hand, that death be merely a changed condition of existence, the doctrine is a sheer delusion, and an error of the grossest and most dangerous kind. As, therefore, the result of our judgment on this question is so unspeakably solemn, no amount of earnestness or care can be excessive in considering it.

First, then, as already shown, the definition here given of death cannot be accepted for a moment. The extinction of being would certainly imply death; but death itself, in its ordinary sense, means nothing but the change in which the performance of vital functions ceases, or else the condition of the organism which has suffered that change. The thought is the same whether the subject be a man or a brute. If it be asked whether in either case there is a soul that survives, this is a new question the answer to which is not involved in the thought of death. When the Roman soldiers, after breaking the legs of the crucified thieves, came to the body of the Blessed Lord and pronounced Him dead, they meant precisely the same thing as if they had been dealing with a bullock or a sheep.

The author is right, therefore, in asserting that in the thought of death there is no reference to the survival of a spirit beyond. But he is wholly wrong in assuming that death is inconsistent with such a survival. And yet this is implied in his statement that "the man is no more"; for if it means merely that a disembodied soul ought not to be described as a Man, the proposition relates only to the use of words, and is of no practical importance here.

The question may be stated thus:  What has become of Balaam and of the beast he rode upon? The answer is, They are dead.  But, it is again asked, was death the end of their existence? We have agreed to put Reason out of court on this point, so we turn to Scripture, and Scripture tells us that death was the end of the beast, but not of the man. Does not this decide the matter, then? By no means, the author replies, because Balaam's survival is "a miraculous or abnormal provision, arising out of the economy of redemption." What grounds are there for this statement? Absolutely none; it is a mere theory put forward arbitrarily, and without a shadow of proof, in order to avoid a difficulty in which the author finds himself entangled by the view he takes of death, which again is equally arbitrary and baseless, and which, moreover, assumes the very thing he is attempting to prove.

The controversy turns upon what is called the "natural immortality" of the soul - that is, that apart from Divine interference, and by the law of its being, the human soul will continue to exist for ever. The advocate of conditional immortality undertakes to prove the opposite of this proposition. But how does he proceed? As the foundation of his argument he puts forward a definition of death which covertly implies, and that without proof, the precise conclusion which he is bound to establish; and then, finding himself confronted by plain facts of which Revelation testifies, he disposes of those facts by a new theory about redemption. Moreover, the necessity for this theory arises solely from the error of the position he has taken up; and this being so, the silence of Scripture is a sufficient reason for rejecting it. If the survival of the soul depended on redemption, it is incredible that the doctrine could not be plainly revealed. And further, unless the sentence upon Adam was an arbitrary one, the theory fails to account for the facts. If death is the consequence of sin, Satan and his angels had already come under death, and as they have no part in redemption, their survival cannot be accounted for by redemption.

Mark what all this involves. According to the threatening, we are told, the judgment upon Adam was the extinction of his being, and that too upon the day of his sin. Yet he lived nine hundred and thirty years, and when at last death overtook him his soul survived. We must conclude, therefore, that God threatened him with a doom which He had no intention of inflicting. The only thing certain about it is that Satan was entirely in the right when he met the Divine warning by a flat denial, and declared, "Ye shall not surely die." It behoves us peremptorily to reject such a supposition, no matter what the rejection of it may involve, and to insist that whatever the threatened death implied, it came upon Adam in the day of his sin.

Certain it is that a change took place in his condition and relationships with God. If even from the standpoint of fallen humanity the loss of virtue is deemed worse than death, how unspeakably terrible must have been that first plunge from innocence into sin! Death, we are told, is the dissolution of the complex organism which constitutes the human integer; in other words, it is the breaking up of the Man, the separation of soul and body. What word then can more fitly express that far more awful crisis, the separation of the creature from his God? This and nothing less than this surely is death in its fullest, deepest sense.

This same conclusion may be reached in another way. The believer "hath passed out of death into life."[2] The condition of the sinner, therefore, by nature is death. How and when did mankind come into this state? The answer is clear, By the fall of Adam. To urge that every sinner is dead by reason of his own trespasses and sins is only to confirm the correctness of the reply, by establishing that sin results in death. The word "death" expresses both the crisis and the condition into which it introduces the sinner. In the latter sense, natural death is a condition of existence in separation from the body, and spiritual death is a condition of existence in separation from God.

But as this would be decisive, it is met again by a bold rejection of the whole doctrine of spiritual death. We are told that the expression is "without example in apostolic usage," and that when Scripture describes the unregenerate as dead, the language is figurative, and "the figure is in the tense," meaning "they are certain to die, because they are under sentence of destruction." In answer to this, first, the need of the term spiritual death arises solely from using the term natural death. It is adopted, not of necessity, but only for clearness and brevity. Secondly, it cannot be admitted that there is any figure here at all, for, as already urged, the ordinary meaning of death is not necessarily its primary meaning. And, thirdly, the author's statement is only a repetition of his invariable petitio principii. He must prove, and not take for granted, that death means extinction of being.

The last remark applies with full force to the author's argument on St. Paul's reference to death in the 5th chapter of Romans. Allow him to assume what he undertakes to prove, and his argument is unanswerable; but hold him to the proof of it, and it falls to pieces. The apostle desires to prove that Adam sinned as federal head of the race, involving his posterity in the consequences of his sin; and to establish this, he appeals to the fact that death reigned even at a time when, and over persons in respect of whom, there was no question of actual transgression, death being admittedly one of the consequences of the Eden sin.[3]

Further, we are told that the death with which Adam was threatened was also the curse of the law, "literal death," that is, implying destruction in the sense in which these writers use the word. To this it may be answered, first, that here again the argument moves in the usual vicious circle, that which is to be proved being taken for granted; and, secondly, that the statement confounds the curse with the consequences of the curse. The same word, "cursed," is applied to the law-breaker, to the serpent in Eden, and to the ground condemned to bring forth thorns and thistles.[4] In no case was it the end of their existence, but the ban under which existence was to continue. True it is the law-breaker was put to death, because in the Commonwealth of Israel the sinner who came under the Divine curse was utterly outlawed. The death was inflicted by man, and therefore the offender might escape it. In fact, during the apostacy of the nation escape was the almost universal rule; but the Divine curse upon the law-breaker was none the less certain and inexorable.

One point more remains, and it is incomparably the most important. Whatever be the death which is the penalty of sin, that death was endured by Christ. This at least is a statement which none will gainsay. If then death be "the destruction" (that is, the extinction) "of the life of humanity," "death for ever, dissolution without hope of the resurrection," did this death befall the blessed Lord?  One might have supposed that the mere statement of the question would have been enough; but it would seem that the advocate of "conditional immortality" is prepared to defend his position no matter what the cost. He not only meets the question, but answers it as follows, by an uncompromising affirmative:  "When Christ died, He was, as a man, destroyed." "When the curse had taken effect upon the manhood" - of Jesus - "it was still open to the Divine Inhabitant, absorbing the Spirit into His own essence, to restore the 'destroyed temple' from its ruins, and taking possession of it in virtue of His Divinity (not legally, as a man), to raise it up on the third day."  Or, still more plainly in borrowed words which the author adopts, "It was the life of man, - a life common to Him with those He died to redeem, that expired on the tree: but the life He now enjoys is the life of God. Of justice He takes back no part of the penalty He had paid. It is to the power of His eternal Godhead alone that He owes His resurrection from the dead."

Hitherto this argument has been conducted with calmness, but at this point the Christian may well exclaim, "With such a theme 'twere treason to be calm." What is the cost at which the advocates of "conditional immortality" here defend their position?  First, as to their own consistency. They begin by insisting that the body is so essentially the man, that when the human organism is dissolved the man is no more[5]; but when driven to it by the exigencies of an argument based on error, and marked throughout by fallacy, they end by assuming that the body is no part of the man at all, so that when the blessed Lord gave up His human soul He perfectly satisfied the death which claimed the man as its due. We are told that "if Jesus had been the Son of David only, He could not legally have risen from the dead."  But why not?   If the resurrection was merely a transcendental trick, what did it matter whether the corpse which lay in Joseph's tomb had formerly been animated by Divine life or not? The human life had been "destroyed," and all claims of law having thus been met, God could of course reanimate that body. On this theory, indeed, what need was there for redemption at all? By a like piece of chicanery he who had the power of death might have been cheated of his due in every child of Adam.[6]

But the question is not whether the Lord could have been raised from the dead had He been only the Son of David. The real question is, whether, in fact, He was raised from the dead only as Son of God. Perchance that strange admonition to Timothy had reference to some such heresy as this, even in the infant Church, "Remember that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, of the seed of David, according to my gospel."[7] The whole argument of the apostle in the fifteenth chapter of First Corinthians is based upon the fact that Christ was raised from the dead as man. The words are, "Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead." Therefore it is that in His resurrection He "became the firstfruits of them that slept." The firstfruits must of necessity be a part of the harvest; and such was indeed "the last Adam," "the second man, the Lord from heaven."

Christianity is based upon the very truth which is here denied. Paradise regained is a poet's dream, but it has no place in the theology of the New Testament. The scheme of redemption is not to restore the first Adam to the place he lost by sin, as federal head of the old creation; but, closing his history for ever in the Cross of Calvary, to unite the redeemed of the fallen race under the Second Adam as federal head of the new creation. The one Mediator is THE MAN Christ Jesus."[8] It is as Son of Man He took His place at the right hand of God.[9] "When the Son of Man shall come in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then shall He sit upon the throne of His glory."[10] It is "because He is the Son of Man" that the Father "has given Him authority to execute judgment."[11]

[1] I shall be told probably that the author does not speak of death as "extinction of being." This is true, and it is a signal proof of the skill with which his argument is conducted. Other writers had used the expression, and their position had been easily stormed in consequence; so he avoids it. But his argument implies it; and without it it has no force whatever. Therefore I have taken the liberty of expressing it.

[2] John 5:24, R. V. ;  cf. 1 John 3:14

[3] Some advocates of conditional immortality do not admit this; but one must really draw a line somewhere as to turning aside to prove facts and truths accepted by all Christendom.

[4] Gen. 3:14, 17; Deut. 27:15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, etc.  The same word āh-rar in all these passages.

[5] According to the author already quoted, “Both the law and the Gospel deal with man as an integer, consisting of body and soul.  The death incurred by sin was the destruction of this complex humanity.”

[6] This same writer avers that the survival of the soul at death is to establish continuity of personality for judgment.  “If no spirit survived, it might be truly said that a wholly new being was then created to suffer for the offences of another long passed away.”  Se we say if the Man Christ Jesus did not rise from the dead a wholly new being was called to life at the resurrection.