Chapter 2 - Human Destiny - "ETERNAL HOPE."

Chapter 2

"ETERNAL HOPE"

THERE is one volume which cannot be ignored in any inquiry as to the future of the lost. It has made more stir in this controversy than any other publication in recent years, both here and in America; and according to a high authority, it "may fairly be looked on as an epoch-making book, both in the wide circulation it has attained, and the discussion of which it has been the starting-point.”[1] Its title, and a glance at its contents, will lead the inquirer to expect from its pages the light he is in search of. No sooner does he enter on the study of it than he finds himself carried away by a rushing, bubbling torrent of impassioned rhetoric, which leaves him at the last with a bewildered, vague impression that heaven is the final goal of all the human race, and that the conception of an endless hell is but a hateful dream.

But though this is undoubtedly the lesson which superficial readers have generally extracted from the book, it is by no means the writer's own conclusion. The following is his scheme:- "There are, in the main" (he tells us), "three classes of men: there are the saints ; there are the reprobates; and there is that vast intermediate class lying between yet shading off by infinite gradations from these two extremes." Of the saints he declines to speak. They are "few," he declares, "and mostly poor." He does not suggest the possibility that he himself or those whom he addresses could be of the number, and his description of them would preclude their venturing to claim so high a place. "But" (he proceeds), "if they be unassailably secure, eternally happy, what of the other extreme? what of the reprobates?" He indicates the slaves of brutal vice, the most depraved of our criminals, as falling within the category, and then proceeds:  "If you ask me whether I must not believe in endless torments for these reprobates of earth, my answer is, Ay, for these, and for thee, and for me, too, unless we learn with all our hearts to love good, and not evil; but whether God for Christ's sake may not enable us to do this even beyond the grave, if we have failed to do so in this life, I cannot say."

Other statements scattered through the volume throw further light on this. "I cannot preach the certainty of universalism," he declares. "God has given us no clear and decisive revelation on the final condition of those who have died in sin." "My hope is that the vast majority, at any rate, of the lost, may at length be found." It thus appears that this apostle of "the wider hope," who seemed to us to exhaust the thunders of his rhetoric in denouncing all who believe in an endless hell, himself believes in an endless hell. He thus admits that the conception of "endless torments" is warranted by Scripture, and therefore compatible with infinite love. In a word, the chief difference in this respect between his own position and that of the so-called orthodox, is a mere question either of statistics or of words. Both he and they agree to believe in hell. Both he and they would admit that it is reserved for reprobates. But while they would give the term a wider scope, he would limit it to "a small but desperate minority." Might they not retort upon him that a fuller and truer apprehension of the Gospel would teach him that, if indeed there be hope beyond the grave, Divine love will most surely reach forth to the very class which he has singled out as possible victims of the most hopeless doom. The wretched offspring of depraved and vicious parents, this world has been no better than a hell to them from cradled infancy. If there be after-mercy for the pampered sinners of the synagogue, shall it be denied to these poor outcasts of humanity?

But "the saints" are "few, and mostly poor," and "the reprobates" are "a small and desperate minority." The "vast intermediate class" remains; the class, in fact, to which we all belong. What shall be said of these? There are thousands among us who, we know, cannot be "saints "- for, as the writer tells us, there "is an Adam in them, and there is a Christ "- but whose lives, though marred by blemishes and sins, are still set heavenward. Though deeply conscious that they deserve only judgment, they have learned to believe that Christ died for their sins, and that trusting in Him, their portion shall be life, and not judgment. They believe that God justifies "freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus," and that being thus "justified by His blood," they "shall be saved from wrath through Him." They regard these great doctrines of the Reformation as Divine truths; and, living in the faith of Christ, they hope at death to pass into His presence in blessedness and joy.

If our author shares in this belief he carefully conceals it. He admits, no doubt, that earth's sinners can have no title to God's heaven, save through Christ's redemption. But, according to his teaching, personal fitness for the scene does not depend on Christ at all, but must be won either by a life of saintship, or, for the vast majority who never could attain to saintship as here defined, and are "incapable of any other redemption," by being purified in "that Gehenna of æonian fire" beyond the grave. And if we ask whether these are "endless torments," we are answered YES, "unless we learn with all our hearts to love good and not evil." This is our constant prayer and effort, but we know how utterly we fail of it; and in terror we inquire "whether God for Christ's sake may not enable us to do this even beyond the grave, if we have failed to do so in this life." The author's answer is "I cannot say." "I CANNOT SAY!" We are to bury our dead in the sure and certain expectation of "æonian fire," but with a dim and distant hope that in the "uncovenanted mercy" of God they shall reach heaven at last!

The writer's argument is wrapped in clouds of words, and his statements sometimes seem contradictory, but on close analysis his scheme stands out consistent and clear. The future happiness of the "saints" is assured. They, however, are a minority so insignificant that for our present purpose we may ignore them. The rest of the departed (believers and unbelievers, regenerate and unregenerate alike, for these are distinctions of which the writer takes no account) are cast into Gehenna; but the torments of Gehenna are purgatorial, and sooner or later "the vast majority" will pass to heaven purified in "æonian fire." And mark, the awful discipline is æonian. Its duration will be measured, not as with us, by days or years, but by ages; and in the case of "a desperate minority," "eternal hope" means a hope that will last eternally, only because it will be eternally unsatisfied.

And if any one object that any part of this scheme is opposed to Scripture, he will be told it is in accordance with "the broad unifying principles of Scripture," and that the letter of the Scripture kills. That is to say, the effect of Holy Writ upon the minds of common men, who accept its statements in their plain and simple meaning, is absolutely mischievous and destructive.[2] Surely we may well exclaim, Is this what English theology is coming to?



[1] Dr. Plumptre, The Sprits in Prison, p. 8.

[2] This is not the only feature of the writer's scheme which savours of Rome. He implicitly bases his statement on 2 Cor. 3:6; but surely no one who is not too absorbed by the study of "the broad unifying principles of Scripture" to give his attention to a particular passage, can fail to see that the Apostle is there contrasting, not the letter of Scripture with the spirit of it, but the old covenant with the new, law with grace.

The texts to which the writer refers in support of his position shall be considered in the sequel. It is enough to say here that most of them have no special bearing on the question in dispute (see p. 36, and App. I., post), and the rest are of no account for the author's purpose, unless they be construed to teach the universalism which he himself repudiates. As for his remarks on the word αιώνιος, nothing further need be said than he himself has elsewhere said in answer to his critics : "Some of the greatest masters of Greek, both in classical times and among the fathers, saw quite clearly that though the word might connote endlessness, by being attributively added to endless things, it had in itself no such meaning."