Is Hell Eternal?
Or Will God's Plan Fail
By Charles Pridgeon
Chapter Twenty-eight: The Witness of the Poets
Dr. F. W. Gunsaulus introduced a series of lectures on the Higher Ministries of Recent English Poetry with these words:
"Next to religion, poetry is the most vital, and at the same time the most far-reaching, of those movements of the human soul by which it declares its deeps of feeling and its heights of aspiration. Verse is the innocent manifestation of the primal music of humanity, as the seer, the Vates, stand with man and the mysteries which surround him. Along with the smoking altar comes the ballad of the remotest savage; and the latest child of culture begins to see that if the word "minister" is to go out of his vocabulary, that the other word "minstrel," joined with it in the same ancient root, will perhaps depart also. The Psalmist, if he be truly such, is as much a poet as he is a religionist."
Another spiritual thinker has said:
"I am a great debtor to poems. Poets always seem to me to say deeper things than other teachers; perhaps deeper than they themselves are conscious of. For they speak out of the heart and the heart is the real seer, often shaming the head, which thinks it knows so well."*
*Letters of Andrew Jukes, edited by Herbert H. Jeaffreson, page 96 (Longmans, Green & Co., London)
We do not put the witness of the poets on the same plane as the Bible. We rest our case on God's infallible Word, but it is interesting to note how many of the poets teach the ultimate triumph of good over evil and of God over Satan. Those who do not like poetry need not waste their time on this Chapter, but those who do love the poets and other verse may learn a truth from them that they might not get elsewhere.
Our own Whittier wrote in a letter in 1882:
"Especially I am glad that so many dear friends, whose names recall the worthies of past generations, are able to partake with me of the great hope that He whose will it is that all should turn to Him and live, and whose tender mercy endureth forever and is over all the works of His hands, will do the best that is possible for all His creatures. What that may be, we know not, but we can trust Him to the uttermost. This hope and this trust in the mercy of the All Merciful I have felt impelled to express, yet with a solemn recognition of the awful consequences of alienation from Him and a full realization of the truth that sin and suffering are inseparable . . . Let me say that the hope which I humbly cherish for myself and my fellow creatures rests not upon any work or merit of my own, but upon the Infinite Love, manifested in the life and death of the Divine Master, mid in the light and grace afforded to all. In the communion and fellowship of that faith in the guidance of the Spirit of Truth, which is the vital principle of our Religious Society."*
*Life and Letters of John Greenleaf Whittier, by Samuel T. Pickard, Vol.2, page 683 (Houghton, Mifflin & Co.).
We might expect from Whittier the following poem:
THE CRY OF A LOST SOUL
"In that black forest, where, when day is done,
With a snake's stillness glides the Amazon
Darkly from sunset to the rising sun.
A cry, as of the pained heart of the wood,
The long, despairing moan of solitude
And darkness and the absence of all good,
Startles the traveler, with a sound so drear,
So full of hopeless agony and fear,
His heart stands still and listens like his ear.
The guide, as if he heard a dead-bell toll,
Starts, drops his oar against the gunwale's thole,
Crosses himself, and whispers, 'A lost soul!’
'No, Senor, not a bird. I know it well,--
It is the pained soul of some infidel
Or cursed heretic that cries from hell.
'Poor fool! with hope still mocking his despair,
He wanders, shrieking on the midnight air
For human pity and for Christian prayer.
'Saints strike him dumb! Our holy Master hath
No prayer for him who, sinning unto death,
Burns always in the furnace of God's wrath!'
Thus to the baptized pagan's cruel lie,
Lending new horror to that mournful cry,
The voyager listens, making no reply.
Dim burns the boat-lamp; shadows deepen round,
From giant trees with snake-like creepers wound,
And the black water glides without a sound.
But in the traveler's heart a secret sense
Of nature plastic to benign intents,
And an eternal good in Providence,
Lifts to the starry calm of heaven his eyes;
And lo! rebuking all earth's ominous cries,
The Cross of pardon lights the tropic skies!
'Father of all!' he urges his strong plea.
'Thou lovest all Thy erring child may be
Lost to himself, but never lost to Thee!
'All souls are Thine; the wings of morning bear
None from that Presence which is everywhere.
Nor hell itself can hide, for Thou art there.
'Through sins of sense, perversities of will,
Through doubt and pain, through guilt and shame and ill,
Thy pitying eye is on Thy creature still.
'Wilt Thou not make, Eternal Source and Goal!
In Thy long years, life's broken circle whole,
And change to praise the cry of a lost soul?'"
Matthew Arnold may not be accounted very spiritual with his strong bent toward Agnosticism, but he had a truer conception of God than that he found in Tertullian and some of the other writers who seemed to exult in the doctrine of eternal punishment. He uses the figure of the sheep and lambs for the righteous and the goats, literally, the kids of the goats, for the wicked (Arnold knew that in the Catacombs the good Shepherd was represented as bearing a kid of the goats), and so he writes in one of his sonnets:
"He saves the sheep, the goats He can not save
So spake the fierce Tertullian. But she sighed,
The Infant Church; of love she felt the tide
Stream on her from her Lord's yet open side.
And then she smiled; and in the Catacombs,
In those halls subterranean, where she hid
Her head 'mid ignominy, shame and glooms,
She her good Shepherd's faithful image drew
And on His shoulders not a lamb, but kid."
Cowper might be quoted at length. He believed devoutly in all God had promised of a full redemption. He writes in The Task:
"Thus heav'n-ward all things tend. For all were once
Perfect, and all must be at length restor'd
So God has greatly purpos'd; who would else
In His dishonor'd works Himself endure
Dishonor, and be wronged without redress.
Haste then and wheel away a shatter'd world,
Ye slow-revolving seasons: We would see
(A sight to which our eyes are strangers yet)
A world that does not dread and hate His laws,
And suffer for its crimes; would learn how fair
The creature is that God pronounces good."
Walt Whitman at times seems to rise no higher than some sort of nature worship, but at others he challenges death as he discerns the final glorious outcome with a note of spiritual jubilation. One who knew him and knew God said:
"I love Walt Whitman's matchless death-song, and always want to send it to every dying friend:"
"Joy, shipmate, joy,
(Pleased to the soul at death I cry)
Our life is closed, our life begins;
The long, long anchorage we leave,
The ship is clear at last, She leaps,
She swiftly courses from the shore!
Joy, shipmate, joy!"
Tennyson embodied in his song the ultimate victory of our God and His Christ:
"That God, which ever lives and loves, One God, one law, one element, And one far-off divine event, To which the whole creation moves--"
Tennyson speaks again:
"Oh, yet we trust that somehow good
Will be the final goal of ill,
To pangs of nature, sins of will,
Defects of doubt, and taints of blood;
That nothing walks with aimless feet;
That not one life shall be destroyed,
Or cast as rubbish to the void,
When God hath made the pile complete;
That not a worm is cloven in vain;
That not a moth with vain desire
Is shrivel'd in a fruitless fire
Or but subserves another's gain.
Behold, we know not anything;
I can but trust that good shall fall
At last--far off--at last, to all,
And every winter change to spring."
Longfellow, in The Golden Legend has among others these words, teaching that in some way even Satan shall be caused to work good:
"Lo! over the mountain steeps
A dark, gigantic shadow sweeps
Beneath my feet;
A blackness inwardly brightening
With sullen heat,
As a storm-cloud lured with lightning,
Repeated and again repeated,
Deep and loud
As the reverberation
Of cloud answering unto cloud,
Swells and rolls away in the distance
As if the sheeted
Baffled and thwarted by the winds resistance.
It is Lucifer
The son of mystery;
And since God suffers him to be
He, too, is God's minister
And labors for some good
By us not understood!"
Lowell, in speaking of one whom he admired and loved, but who died, writes voicing salvation for all:
"Thou art not idle in thy higher sphere
Thy spirit bends itself to loving tasks,
And strength to perfect what is dreamed of here
Is all the crown and glory that it asks.
For sure in Heaven's wide chambers there is room
For love and pity and for helpful deeds;
Else were our summons thither but a doom
To life more vain than this in clayey weeds.
From off the starry mountain-peak of song,
Thy spirit shows me in the coming time,
An earth unwithered by the foot of wrong,
A race revering its own soul sublime.
What wars, what martyrdoms, what crimes may come,
Thou knowest not, nor I; but God will lead
'The prodigal soul from want and sorrow home
And Eden ope her gates to Adam's seed."
Sidney Lanier, one of our sweetest and most musical of poets, taught in "How Love Looked For Hell," that to Sense and Mind there was a real hell but that when Love sought the place and found it, it was no longer hell. In "The Symphony" he sets forth the final triumph of Love.
We quote only in part:
"Life! Life! thou sea-fugue, writ from east to west,
Love, Love alone can pore
On thy dissolving score
Of harsh half-phrasings,
Blotted ere writ,
And double erasings
Of chords most fit.
Yea, Love, sole music-master blest,
May read thy weltering palimpsest.
To follow Time's dying melodies through,
And never to lose the old in the new,
And ever to solve the discords true--
Love alone can do.
And ever Love hears the poor folks' crying,
And ever Love hears the women's sighing,
And ever wise childhood's deep implying,
But never a trader's glozing and lying.
And yet shall Love himself be heard
Tho long deferred, tho long deferred:
O'er the modern waste a dove has whirred:
Music is Love in search of a word."
We believe that music, poetry and art are struggling, whether they know it or not, to find God and will one day find Him who is The Word, and that He is that Love which "never faileth," and lives to see of the travail of His soul and will be satisfied.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning believed in the ultimate triumph of God and witnessed to a coming day when death shall die:
"Mine heart is armed not in panoply
Of the old Roman iron, nor assumes
The Stoic valor. 'Tis a human fear:--
That only for the hope the cross inspires,
That only for the Man who died and lives,
'Twould crouch beneath thy scepter's royalty,
With faintness of the pulse, and backward cling
To life. But knowing what I soothly know,
High-seeming Death, I dare thee! and have hope,
In God's good time, of showing to thy face
An unsuccumbing spirit, which sublime
May cast away the low anxieties
That wait upon the flesh--the reptile moods;
And enter the eternity to come,
Where live the dead, and only death shall die."
Robert Browning, with all his strength, would not have been half what he was had he not clearly seen God's complete victory over evil, not by suppressing evil but by overcoming it with good. He says in Abt Vogler:
"There never shall be one lost good! what was shall live as before,
The evil is null, is naught, is silence implying sound.
What was good shall be good, with for evil so much good more;
On earth the broken arcs, in heaven the perfect round.
The high that proved too high, the heroic for earth too hard,
The passion that left the ground to lose itself in the sky,
Are music sent up to God by the lover and the bard;
Enough that He heard it once, we shall hear it by and by."
We close by quoting that remarkable poem by Francis Thompson, entitled "The Hound of Heaven." It expresses how a wanderer from God, a sort of prodigal son, is hounded by God's providence and grace. He thinks that he has escaped or can escape, but he is mistaken; the Spirit of the God of Love is still on his trail. It reminds us of the 139th Psalm:
"Whither shall I go from Thy Spirit?
or whither shall I flee from Thy Presence?
If I ascend up into heaven, Thou art there:
if I make my bed in hell, behold, Thou art there.
If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the utter-most parts of the sea;
even there shall Thy hand lead me, and Thy right hand shall hold me."
One remarked in looking at the face of one of the great literary men of his day that "he looked as if he came from heaven by way of hell." Thus God will seek through earth's distances and even to hell's depths "until He find." We have space to quote only the latter part of this great poem:
"Now of that long pursuit
Comes on at hand the bruit;
That voice is round me like a bursting sea:
'And is thy earth so marred,
Shattered in shard on shard?
Lo, all things fly thee, for thou fliest Me!
Strange, piteous futile thing!
Wherefore should any set thee love apart?
Seeing none but I make much of naught' (He said),
'And human love needs human meriting:
How hast thou merited--
Of all man's clotted clay the dingiest clot?
Alack thou knowest not
How little worthy of any love thou art!
Whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee,
Save Me, save only Me?
All which I took from thee I did but take
Not for thy harms,
But just that thou might seek it in My arms.
All which thy child's mistake
Fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home:
Rise, clasp my hand, and come.'
Halts by me, that footfall:
Is my gloom, after all,
Shade of His hand, outstretched caressingly?
'Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,
I am He Whom thou seekest!
Thou dravest love from thee, who dravest Me'."
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