The Scripture Doctrine of Eternal Punishment


King James' version of Mark 3 : 28, 29, reads thus: "Verily, I say unto you, All sins shall be forgiven unto the sons of men, and blasphemies wherewith soever they shall blaspheme; but he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness, but is in danger of eternal damnation." The best manuscripts of the New Testament, however, have the word "sin," in place of the word here rendered "damnation," and the Revised version accordingly reads as follows: "Whosoever shall blaspheme against the Holy Spirit hath never forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin." We have here, in the very words of Scripture, the essence of the doctrine of future punishment. It is plainly taught that there are some who shall never be forgiven, because they are guilty of an eternal sin. A careful consideration of this passage, and of the relation it suggests between punishment and sin, will clear the subject of many of its difficulties, and will show the doctrine founded upon it to be entirely reasonable.

Many of the current objections to the doctrine of eternal retribution are based upon a misconception of the doctrine itself. It is often assumed that the material images which the Scriptures employ to describe the state of the wicked after death are to be interpreted literally. Now it is not probable that even Jonathan INTERPRETATION OF PHYSICAL IMAGES 423

Edwards, who used so often the images of brimstone and fire, regarded these as anything more than vivid symbols of the spiritual inflictions under which the lost are to suffer. He used them because he found the Scriptures using them, and he thought it most safe and most true to follow Scripture. But as there is no evidence that he thought heaven to be essentially a city of golden streets and pearly gates, so there is no evidence that he regarded hell to be essentially a place of outward and physical torment. What he meant was that these images helped men to realize the dreadfulness of future suffering, not that they were literal descriptions of the place and kind of that suffering.

But whatever may have been the belief of Jonathan Edwards, the words in Mark turn our thoughts from the outward circumstances to the inward state. It is of comparatively little importance what the opinions of even good men have been, or what the standards of great Christian bodies have been, if we can only attain to a clear understanding of what the Bible teaches. And in this passage, in which the consequences of the greatest sin of all are declared, we have no mention of bodily torment, but only of spiritual results. He who sins against the Holy Ghost is guilty of an eternal sin, a sin that never ceases; and so, he has never forgiveness; that is, he abides under the anger of God forever.

Another misconception of the doctrine we are considering may be removed by a scrutiny of this same passage. It is often assumed that the punishments which the wicked undergo in the next world are positive and direct inflictions of God. Now it is not necessary to our present discussion either to affirm or to deny the existence of positive punishments. There are some Scripture passages which seem to assert them; as where Christ bids us fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. But what we are now concerned to maintain is this, that positive inflictions are not essential to the doctrine of retribution. There are laws of our mental and moral being that react against sin and work its punishment, whether God lifts his hand in special judgment or not.

Just as a violation of physical laws brings about its results of pain and suffering, without the appointment of any special judge or executioner, so the violation of moral and spiritual laws brings in its train an equally certain retribution. God does not need to set up a gallows or a whipping-post in the universe in order to secure the punishment of sin. In every man's soul there may be a hell of disorder and remorse and anguish, even though the only minister of justice may be the indignant conscience within.

The old Universalism that landed the dying debauchee on the heavenly shore as quickly and safely as the dying saint, is all outgrown. The idea of law is too deeply inwrought into the consciousness of our time to permit the notion of salvation without change of character. The unholy soul must be miserable,—that is the one truth which serves as the key to this whole question. And this inward law of being, which determines destiny according to character, is intimated in Jesus' words. There are those who have never forgiveness, because they are guilty of an eternal sin; that is, because they are confirmed in their sin and will not forsake it.


With these preliminary explanations we may proceed at once to three separate statements, which contain in them the essence of the Scripture doctrine of eternal punishment. They are the following: First, there are some men who, throughout eternity, will not cease to sin against God. Secondly, this eternal sinning against God will involve eternal misery. Thirdly, this misery will be the appointed vindication of God's law, and so will be an eternal punishment.

Let us take the first point and consider it. There are some men who throughout eternity will not cease to sin against God. In order to make more plain the significance of this statement, we may translate it into other language. Since the great command of the law is, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God," and the refusal to love God is the one great sin, the proposition may run: There are men who throughout eternity will not love God. Their sin will be a voluntary declination to trust or obey their Creator, a voluntary withholding from him of the affection of their hearts, a voluntary withdrawal of themselves from the influx of his light and love.

Judging of the matter upon purely a priori grounds, it might seem impossible for moral creatures thus to decide against God. It might seem impossible for God to permit sin or to inflict punishment. But facts show us that men do sin, and that God has permitted them to sin, while at the same time he punishes their sin, at least in this world. The only explanation of the problem lies in man's freedom. He has a will, which he may set supremely on good or evil, self or God, and . then, as a responsible being, he must stand the conse

quences of his choice. We see what the results of this scheme have been. Men have turned away from God. They dislike his presence and his law. And this dislike becomes confirmed and fixed, until no arguments or influences which can be brought to bear upon them will ever change it into love. This was the condition of those to whom the Saviour uttered the words in Mark's Gospel; or, if it was not already their actual condition, they were in danger of falling into it. They had set themselves against God, and their sin was in danger of becoming an eternal sin, a sin into which they had so put their heart and will that there would be no disposition to retrace their steps, and so their opposition to truth and righteousness and love would be everlasting.

The advocates of universal salvation are usually advocates of an unresisted and absolute freedom of the human will. Many of them declare that man can choose good or evil, at any moment, whatever may be his surroundings, or whatever may be his previous character. He has the power, they say, at any moment, to choose holiness and God. He has equal power, in spite of all motives to a contrary course, to chose sin and Satan. And yet these advocates of unlimited freedom deny the possibility of the will's permanently choosing evil. They are very inconsistent with themselves. They strenuously maintain the inalienable freedom of the human will to make choices contrary to all the motives which are brought, or can be brought, to bear upon it. They grant that, as a matter of fact, we find in this world men choosing sin in spite of infinite motives to the contrary. Upon their own theory of human freedom, no motives which God can use will certainly acDEATH IS NO SAVIOUR


complish the salvation of all moral creatures. The soul which resists Christ here may resist him forever. We have no right to say that all will certainly be saved, for there is no limit to man's possible perversity and madness. Only God himself can tell us whether all will accept salvation, and God tells us in this passage of his word which we are considering that there is a sin which hath never forgiveness, but which is so persisted in as to be eternal.

But if the salvation of all is problematical upon the theory of freedom, which has been mentioned, it is far more so upon the truer view that man's volitions, unless special divine influences are granted him, simply express his previous character. Though not necessarily, yet with infallible certainty, this evil tree will bring forth evil fruit. The man acts out what is in him. He has been adding to the strength of his selfishness by the acts of a lifetime. There is a certainty that, unless renewed and transformed by the divine Spirit, he will act selfishly still. And all this is as true of the next life as it is of this. Death is no saviour. Death does not change character. The filthy will be filthy still, while the righteous will be righteous still.

Radically new views of Christ and of the truth will never be possible, so long as the man continues to hate Christ and the truth. When we hate a thing, to bring us into close contact with it is to increase our hatred. So the light of eternity is not of itself sufficient to change dislike of God into love. Bring the sinner into contact with the intense whiteness of the divine purity and he flies from it in dread. It convicts and condemns him. Since the carnal mind is enmity to God, death, that lifts the veil between God and the sinner, must only intensify the sinner's hatred, and so confirm his evil character that change is forever after impossible.

It is sometimes said that the sufferings of the next world may be the means of changing the character. But suffering has in itself no reforming power. Unless accompanied by special renewing influences of the Holy Spirit it only hardens and embitters the soul. A man never needs so much the grace of God as when he is in affliction, for if that grace is not sought and used, his affliction may only petrify his moral and spiritual nature. A lifetime of pain did not make Blanco White a believer, and ages of pain will have not even a tendency to turn an enemy of God into a friend. The only agent who can accomplish the work of renewing the human heart and will, is the mighty Spirit of God. Is that Spirit given after death to sanctify the sufferings of those who leave this world rejecters of God and of his salvation? Only God can tell us. And in all the Bible there is no positive intimation, even, that such influences of the Spirit are exerted after death upon the still impenitent, while there is much evidence that the moral condition in which death finds men is their condition forever.

The Scripture speaks unmistakably of "an eternal sin," a sin which neither the reserved powers of the human will, nor the penal sufferings of the world to come, will ever change to purity. It is a sin against the Holy Ghost, the final grieving away of the only agent who can enlighten and renew the heart. It is the radical and final setting of self against God, so that no power which God can consistently use will ever suffice ETERNAL SINNING INVOLVES ETERNAL MISERY 429

to save it. It hath no forgiveness, simply because the soul that commits it has ceased to be receptive of divine influences, even when those influences are exerted in the utmost strength which God has seen fit to employ in his spiritual administration.

There is a sin unto death. What God might do we do not know. He has told us what he will do. That he could not change these obstinate wills we cannot say. He has told us that some of them he will not change. He has all power; but he uses his power in wisdom. There are limits to the exertion of his power in the case of sinners. There are persistent and willful rejecters of Christ's salvation whom he will cast off forever. The passage we have so often quoted settles the meaning of the words "eternal " and "everlasting," as applied to the condition of the lost. The " eternal sin" is explained to be a sin that, "hath never forgiveness." Not for a long time, but forever, does the sin endure; and, with the sin, the anger of God against it. As the theory that the human will is unlimited in its freedom forbids its advocates to deny the possibility of such an eternal sin; so the Scripture view that God only can change the evil will urges men to apply to him while he offers his help, because after his appointed time has passed there will be no renewal and no forgiveness.

Thus we have considered the first element in the doctrine of eternal punishment, namely, that there are some who through eternity will not cease to sin against God. The second point of the Scripture teaching we now take up. It is the following: This eternal sinning against God will involve eternal misery. We have such words as "weeping" and "torment" used of the condition of the lost. These words plainly exclude the idea of annihilation, as, indeed, the phrase "eternal sin" excludes it. All these terms imply a living, conscious soul, either acting or suffering. But a state of annihilation, if annihilation can be called a state at all, is not a state in which the soul either acts or suffers. The Bible tells us, moreover, that there shall be degrees of suffering. Some shall be beaten with few, and others with many, stripes. But upon the theory of annihilation, there can be no degrees; the lot of all is the same. Neither for the righteous nor for the wicked is death a cessation of being. On the contrary, the Scriptures represent the wicked as entering at death upon a state of conscious misery, which the resurrection and the judgment only augment and render permanent.

There have been some, indeed, who have held to a gradual weakening of the powers of the wicked, as the natural result of sin, so that they gradually cease to be. But moral evil does not, in this present life, seem to be incompatible with a constant growth of the intellectual powers, at least in certain directions. Napoleon's overmastering egotism and ambition did not prevent a progress in his powers of military strategy and combination. We have no reason to believe Satan to be less skillful in his attacks to-day than he was in Eden. There rather seem to be evidences of a progessive subtlety, as well as of a progressive rage and malignity, from his first appearance in Genesis to his final overthrow in the Revelation. And so, in the finally lost, we have no reason to believe that the intellectual powers tend to extinction. If it were so, the greater the sin THE SINNER CANNOT ESCAPE FROM HIMSELF 431

the speedier would be the relief from punishment, and future retribution would be an act of grace rather than an act of judgment.

No; annihilation is not misery, and the misery which the Scriptures describe as the portion of the wicked is not annihilation. It is the pain of a soul which was made for God, made a vessel to be filled from the infinite fountain of truth and beauty and goodness, but which has emptied itself of its divine contents, and which has only sorrow and desolation in place of God's fullness and joy. But the misery of eternal sin is more than this, it is the gnawing of a conscience that is compelled to recognize its sin as a self-chosen degradation, and its suffering as the wages which itself has earned.

The greatest names in literature have occupied themselves in depicting the terrors and torments of conscience. Nero shrieking as he flies at midnight from the phantoms that pursue him through the halls of his golden house; Macbeth losing all strength at sight of Banquo's ghost and finding a bloodspot on his hand so red that it might "the multitudinous seas incarnadine," are the real and the ideal portraits of that Conscience that "makes cowards of us all." It is not the courtroom and the judge and the sheriff that make the convict's cheek turn pale; it is the law and the judge and the executioner within his own bosom. In a remorseful conscience human nature turns upon itself, and be comes its own detecter, and judge, and tormentor. From all outward punishment let a man escape,—he cannot escape from misery, if he be a sinner, for he cannot escape from himself.

Has the reader never committed a sin under circumstances of great aggravation, a sin that afterward came up before him with a power to crush and torture him that seemed to drink up his very life? How far that anguish that he suffered surpassed the exquisiteness of any physical pain! What fearfulness and dread took hold upon him! David in the thirty-second Psalm describes it: "When I kept silence, my bones waxed old through my roaring all the day long. For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me; my moisture is turned into the drought of summer." If the reader has ever had such an experience, he knows that it does not take darkness and a prison-house and instruments of bodily torture to make a hell. As the poet has said:

The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.

When Uzziah, audaciously usurping the priest's office and attempting to enter the holy place of the temple, was smitten with the leprosy, he did not need to be thrust out of the sanctuary; we are told that "he himself hasted to go out." Judas in his suicide went "to his own place," just as truly as Peter, when released from prison, went to his own company. The decisive and controlling element in the future state of the wicked, as of the righteous, is not the outward but the inward. If hell is a place, it is only that the outward may correspond to the inward. If there are outward torments, it is only because these will be fit, though subordinate, accompaniments of the inward state of the soul. Surely there need be no positive inflictions of God's hand, so long as the soul's misery consists in the loss

of all good, whether physical or spiritual, and in the torments of an evil conscience, self-banished from the presence of God and from the society of the holy.

And conscience gives us a pledge of the eternity of this suffering. Remorse has no tendency to exhaust itself. Each new remembrance of past sin only puts it in some new light of aggravation and enormity. There are offenses, committed years ago, which we thought little of at the time, but which have caused us growing pain ever since. That harsh word spoken long ago to the child now dead and gone from earthly sight forever, —that neglect of the mother whose love was stronger than that of any earthly friend, but who is now where she cannot be reached by our confessions,—is there any tendency in these memories to grow less keen, any tendency in our self-reproach to grow less bitter? So it shall be in the world to come with every remembered sin against the mercy and love of God. Memory and conscience have power to make one sin a source of endless misery.

When we add to this the probability that in that future world all that diverts the mind from the contemplation of its guilt will be removed, all the objects that here absorb its attention and desires will have passed away, and the soul will be thrown inward upon itself and its own broodings over the past, we see preparations for future suffering in the very constitution of our being. But even if memory could forget the past, there would be a present of sin ever before it. An ever-renewed affirmation of its evil decision presents forever new occasion for conviction and remorse. "This is the misery of evil deed, that of new evil it becomes


the seed." Dislike for God reproduces itself in evergrowing hatred, and each new thought of selfishness and rebellion adds new fuel to the tormenting fires of conscience. So our very nature corroborates the declarations of Scripture with regard to the eternal suffering of the impenitent. The very laws of our being make provision for it. Eternal misery is the natural and inevitable accompaniment of eternal sin.

And so through these two points, first, that there are some who will forever sin, and secondly, that eternal sinning involves eternal misery, we reach the third and last element of the Scripture doctrine, namely, that this misery is the appointed vindication of God's law, and so constitutes an eternal punishment. For punishment is any pain or loss directly or indirectly inflicted by the Lawgiver in vindication of his justice outraged by the violation of law. However indirect the method in which the suffering is visited, the sinner will be compelled to recognize in it the hand of God. For God made his nature. God sustains it from hour to hour. The sinner has sundered the spiritual bond that united him to his Creator. He cannot sunder the natural bond. He cannot cease to live and move and have his being in God. Here we can banish the thought of God; we can confine our attention to second causes; we can personify law. But there, these things which now hide God from us will become transparent, and God will be seen, the All in all. Then, though he move not a finger, all pain will be seen to be his ordinance, the manifestation of his will, the vindication of his holiness, the evidence of his hatred of sin. Then, it will be seen that these pains of conscience are no arbitrary inflictions, NOT PUNISHING WOULD IMPUGN JUSTICE 435

that no fiat of the divine will could do away with them, because they are the necessary reaction of God's pure nature against the sin that is its antagonist and wouldbe destroyer. Then, it shall be seen that God's nature just as much binds him to punish sin as the sinner's sin binds him to endure the punishment. And therefore it shall be seen that there is no discharge or cessation of misery possible. So long as God is God, he must punish sin. If he did not visit an eternal sin with eternal misery, he would cease to be holy,—that is, he would cease to be God.

All objections to eternal punishment drawn from God's justice are therefore based upon misunderstanding of what justice is and of what sin is. Justice is that attribute which gives to all their due. It demands in all creatures conformity to the moral perfection of God, and it visits non-conformity to that perfection with penal loss and suffering. Now, can any one doubt that, so long as moral creatures are opposed to God, they deserve punishment? Then it is just in God to visit endless sinning with endless punishment. Not the punishing, but the not punishing, would impugn his justice, for this last would be the withholding from the sinner of that which is his due. There are degrees of human guilt indeed. But as two lines may be equally long, while yet one is thicker than the other, so future punishment admits of degrees, while yet in all these degrees the punishment is endless. The least sin has an enormity, as committed against an infinite God and as containing in itself infinite possibilities of evil, which we cannot measure. It is not possible for the rebel to assign the just limits of his punishment. We know the enormity of sin only by God's own declarations with regard to it, by the sacrifice he has made to redeem us from it, and by the penalty which he has attached to the commission of it. Hell, as well as the cross, indicates God's estimate of sin.

Nor is this eternal punishment inconsistent with the benevolence of God. Be sure that if God inflicts punishment upon his creatures it will be the means of securing some higher good. Let us remember that the very benevolence of God, as concerned for the general good of the universe, requires the execution of the full penalty of the law upon those who reject his Son. The Scripture intimates that God's treatment of human sin is matter of instruction to all moral beings. The selfchosen ruin of the few may be the salvation of the many. The example of punished rebellion given upon this little sphere may be one means of keeping myriads of unfallen intelligences true to their allegiance.

But we must not attempt to justify eternal punishment upon grounds of mere utility. God is not only benevolent but holy, and holiness is his ruling attribute. The vindication of God's holiness is the primary and sufficient object of punishment. This constitutes an end which fully justifies the infliction. The sufferings of the lost could have no beneficial effect upon the universe if they were not just in themselves. And if just in themselves, then the reason for their continuance lies in the last analysis, not in any benefit to the universe, or to the sufferers, that may accrue therefrom. The reason for punishment lies in the holiness of God That holiness reveals itself in the moral constitution of the universe. The wrong merits punishment. Is this ETERNAL SIN NOT HYPOTHETICAL 437

a doctrine of "pain for pain's sake "? Ah, no! God "has no pleasure in the death of him that dieth." It is a doctrine of pain for holiness' sake; the necessary suffering of the transgressor who spurns God's love; the inevitable reaction against itself of a human nature which was made for purity, but which is now lost to purity; the involuntary vindication, on the part of the sinner, of that holiness of God which constitutes the fundamental attribute of his being.

It will be noted that in this discussion we have kept close to the passage of Scripture with which we began; we have aimed not to exaggerate but to interpret; we have said nothing about the number of the lost; we have maintained simply that some will be lost because they are "guilty of an eternal sin." In view of what our Lord said with regard to Judas, that it were good for that man if he had never been born; in view of Jesus' declaration that the wicked shall go away into eternal punishment; in view of John's declaration that there is a sin unto death; we are forbidden to regard "the eternal sin" as a merely hypothetical one; it is something actually committed; some are guilty of it; some will be eternally punished for it. Yet nowhere is it said that the number ultimately lost will exceed the number of the saved. On the other hand, the great numbers, the ten thousand times ten thousand and thousands of thousands, are the numbers of God's redeemed. Hell is a lake, not an ocean; and we may trust, with Doctor Hodge, that those who are lost will bear to those who are saved no greater proportion than those imprisoned in penitentiaries now bear to the total free population of the world.

While we go not one jot beyond the clear declarations of Scripture and the legitimate deductions from these, it should be our earnest effort to maintain precisely what the Scripture maintains. Left to ourselves we know nothing with certainty about the future; our reasonings are greatly affected by the impurity that still lingers in us; again and again are we tempted to subordinate the holiness of God to the happiness of his creatures. Let God be true and every man a liar. If the doctrine of eternal punishment be clearly taught in the Scriptures, then it is the duty of the preacher to preach it, and of the church to believe it. No fear of consequences to ourselves or to the church can absolve us from these duties. We are under obligation to hold and to proclaim the whole truth of God; if we do this, God will care for the results. All preaching which ignores this doctrine or explains it away, just so far lowers the holiness of God, of which eternal punishment is an expression, weakens our estimate of the heinousness of sin upon which it is visited, and degrades the work of Christ which was needful to save us from it. Let us be true to the word of God. Past interpretations of the Bible do not bind us, but the real teachings of Christ and his apostles do. We may interpret the material images of the New Testament in a spiritual and not a literal sense. But let us not fail to remember that the misery of the soul which eternally hates God is greater than the physical pains which are used to symbolize it.

"Knowing, therefore, the terrors of the Lord, we persuade men" by those terrors, as well as by his mercies. Indeed, the mercies will seem of little account

until we know something of the terrors. Fear of future punishment is not the highest motive, yet it is a proper motive, for the renunciation of sin and the turning to Christ. The seeking of salvation which begins in fear of God's anger may end, and in myriads of cases has ended, in the service of faith and love. May the law with its threatenings be our schoolmaster to bring us to Christ. For though there is an "eternal sin," that "hath never forgiveness," and we are in danger of it, "Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth," and in him and his cross every one of us may find "redemption, even the forgiveness of sins."