Endless Punishment An Essential Doctrine of Christianity

by W. G. T. Shedd

THE assertion made recently in a religious journal, that "the fellowship of the churches may be safely extended to persons who do not believe in eternal punishment, provided they hold with cordial faith the essential truths of the evangelical system," proceeds upon the supposition that the doctrine of endless punishment is not an essential truth in the evangelical system. But the fact is, that there is no doctrine more necessary in order to the integrity of the evangelical system than that future punishment is eternal. Vicarious satisfaction for sin is the keystone of the arch of Christianity, and if endless retribution for sin be taken out, the whole scheme of redemption by the sufferings of Christ falls to the ground. Let us see if this is not so.

The Scriptures represent the sufferings and death of the Son of God as taking the place of the suffering and death due to the sinner for his sin, and in this way delivering him from his desert. But the sufferings of Christ, it is agreed by all Trinitarians, from high Calvinists to low Arminians, are infinite in their dignity and value. They are the agony, not of a creature, but of incarnate God. All who are properly denominated "evangelical," though they may disagree upon many other points of doctrine, scout the notion that the sacrifice of Jesus Christ was merely finite, and that his blood possesses no higher expiating virtue than that of a creature. And in this they are supported by the Scriptures. But is it supposable that such an immense oblation as this would have been provided to redeem man from sin, if sin does not merit the immense penalty of eternal death, and is not to receive it? If sin is punishable and to be punished for only one thousand years, is it probable that one of the persons in the Trinity would submit to such an amazing humiliation as to become a worm of the dust, and undergo the awful passion of Calvary, in order to deliver his rebellious creature from a transient evil which is to be succeeded by billions of millenniums of happiness? A thousand years is indeed a long time, and a thousand years of suffering is indeed a great woe; but it shrinks to nothing in comparison with what is involved in the humiliation and agony of God incarnate. The profound Anselm puts this question to his pupil: "If the God-man were here present before you, and, you meanwhile having a full knowledge of his divine nature and character, it should be said, 'Unless you slay that Person, the whole world and the whole created universe will perish,' would you put him to death, in order to preserve the whole creation?" The pupil replies: "I would not, even if an infinite number of worlds were spread out before me." Anselm then puts this question to the pupil: "Suppose, again, that it were said to you: 'You must either slay this infinite Person, or the guilt and misery of all the sins of the world will come upon you?' " The pupil replies: "I would say, in answer, that I would sooner incur the aggravated guilt and misery of all the sins, past and future, of this world, and also of all the sin in addition that can possibly be conceived of, than incur the guilt of that one sin of slaying the Lord of glory." Now, if this is a correct reply in the case in which it is assumed that the punishment of sin is endless, much more would it be in case it is assumed that the punishment is only temporary. A suffering that in time would cease, surely would not justify such a strange and stupendous sacrifice as that of the only-begotten and well-beloved Son of God. We affirm therefore that the doctrine of Christ's atonement stands or falls with that of endless punishment. He who denies the latter must logically deny the former. He who subtracts anything from the demerit of man's sin, subtracts just so much from the merit of atoning blood. And what is true logically becomes true practically. Disbelievers in endless punishment are not believers in the atonement. Examine the mental history of one who lapses from an evangelical faith to infidelity, in any of its forms, and it will be found that the slide downward began first with doubts respecting man's responsibility for and the guilt of sin.

But a second and equally strong proof that the doctrine of endless punishment is necessary in order to the integrity of the evangelical system, is found in the fact that there can be no evangelical piety without it. Evangelical piety, all will concede, is characterized by penitence. This differentiates it from the piety of sentimentalism, of rationalism, and of pantheism, for all these have their varieties of piety. He who is destitute of the publican's feeling when he cried, "God, be merciful to me a sinner," does not possess the piety of the gospel. He is impenitent Now, we affirm that he who in his heart denies and rejects the doctrine of endless punishment, does not and cannot truly repent of sin. We know that there are some theologians like Müller and Dorner whose general evangelical character will not be denied, who hold the error of restoration, namely, that a part of mankind are saved in the middle state, and these are cited in proof of the position that a belief in endless punishment is not essential to belief in Christ. But this class of theologians do not assert that sin does not merit eternal suffering. On the contrary, they affirm that it does in its own nature, and that irrespective of the death of Christ it will certainly meet an endless penalty. But they think that in the future world the atonement of Christ will be applied to many of the human family, and that a second probation will save men upon the same principles, and by the same method, as the first. This heresy stands upon its own bottom, and need not be refuted here. But it is plain that such theologians as these cannot be cited in support of the tenet that sin does not deserve endless punishment, and therefore will not receive it.

Every man who has truly repented, has confessed in his heart to God that he is hell-deserving. Every one who really puts his trust for acquittal at the bar of God in the atonement of Jesus Christ, implicitly and virtually acknowledges that his sin merits the worm that dieth not, and the fire that is not quenched. The depth and strength of the believer's conviction upon this point vary. Some are more poignantly convinced of the turpitude of sin than others; but no true believer in Christ ever positively denies that he might justly be punished for ever and ever. To perceive the truth of this assertion, let us suppose the contrary. Suppose that a person under religious concern should say to his pastor: "I know that I am a sinner; I confess that I have often done wrong; but I do not believe that I deserve, for the sins of this short life, to be punished everlastingly." Would that pastor dare to tell him that his experience of sin was "evangelical?" On the contrary, would he not bid him, most earnestly and solemnly, search his heart yet more thoroughly, under the light of God's Spirit and truth, until he should melt down in a really contrite manner, and say, what every true penitent says:

"My lips with shame my sins confess,

Against Thy law, against Thy grace;

Lord, should Thy judgment grow severe,

I am condemned, but Thou art dear.

"Should sudden vengeance seize my breath,

I must pronounce Thee just in death;

And if my soul were sent to hell,

Thy righteous law approves it well.

"Yet save a trembling sinner, Lord,

Whose hope, still hovering round Thy word,

Would light on some sweet promise there,

Some sure support against despair."

This is evangelical penitence, and nothing that comes short of it is worthy of the name, or will prove to be the thing, when all sinners shall stand at the bar of God, and know even as they are known.


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