Is Hell Eternal?
Or Will God's Plan Fail
By Charles Pridgeon
Chapter Twenty-nine: Conscience Must Be Satisfied
GOD'S Word is the source of our information as to God's plan of salvation. There are many things in the Bible higher than reason, but nothing contrary to reason. There is nothing in the whole Word of God that does not commend itself to the Christian conscience. The natural conscience of men needs illumination by the Holy Spirit before it can fully appreciate divine truth, and there must be something wrong in the interpretation of any Bible doctrine that does not commend itself to the general illuminated Christian consciousness. We believe that we can, according to the teaching of God's Word, go even further than this and say with the Apostle Paul, "By manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God" (2Cor. 4:2). If God's plan is to be effective, there is need, not only for Christians, but also for non-Christians to have the truth commend itself to their conscience; for even the non-Christian has a conscience, and through that conscience God's Spirit witnesses to the truth. God's plan is so fundamentally simple that every one will have to witness that his conscience bears witness to its being true. Often those who do not like to hear the plain truth of God and oppose it, when questioned, have admitted that their conscience said it was true, but they did not want to hear it.
What is the case with the doctrine of eternal torment? We find that a majority of its advocates, Christian preachers and teachers with illumined consciences, say again and again, "I wish this were not true."
Sir Robert Anderson thus presents the problem to himself in his Human Destiny:
"According to the most careful estimate, the population of the world exceeds one thousand four hundred millions. Not one-third of these are Christians even in name; and of this small minority how few there are whose lives give proof that they are traveling heavenward! And what is the destiny of all the rest? Any estimate of their number must be inaccurate and fanciful; and accuracy, if attainable, would be practically useless. As a matter of arithmetic it is easy to deal with millions as with tens; but when we come to realize that every unit is a human being, with a little world of joys and sorows all his own, and an unbounded capacity for happiness or misery, the mind is utterly paralyzed by the effort to realize the problem.
"And these fourteen hundred millions are but a single wave of the great tide of human life that breaks, generation after generation, upon the shore of the unknown world. What future then awaits these untold myriads of millions of mankind? Most of us have been trained in the belief that their portion is an existence of endless, hopeless torment. But few there are, surely, who have carried this belief to middle-age unchallenged. Sometimes it is the vastness of the numbers whose fate is involved that startles us into skepticism. Sometimes it is the memory of friends now gone, who lived and died impenitent. As we think of an eternity in which they 'shall be tormented day and night forever and ever', the mind grows weary and the heart grows sick, and we turn to ask ourselves, Is not God infinite in love? Is not the great Atonement infinite in value? Is it credible then that such a future is to be the sequel to a brief and sorely tempted life of sin? Is it credible that for all eternity--that eternity in which the triumph of the Cross shall be complete, and God shall be 'all in all'--there shall still remain an underworld of seething sin and misery and horror?"
"No candid person will dispute that the revelation of Divine love creates a presumption against the possibility of eternal punishment. On the other hand, it is still more dishonest to deny--and in fact it is admitted--that certain passages of Scripture support the doctrine. The fairest mode, therefore, in which this inquiry can possibly be entered on is to dismiss for the moment both the presumption against, and the texts in favor of, the 'orthodox' belief, and to consider without any bias the passages which are used to prove universal reconciliation. If these should be found to teach that doctrine unequivocally, the question is at an end, for in a seeming conflict of texts the presumption against endless misery must turn the scale. But more than this: even should these Scriptures seem of doubtful meaning, we shall be prepared to lean toward the broader interpretation, provided only that such a rendering will neither disturb foundation truths, nor land us in difficulties akin to those we seek escape from."
The conclusions reached by the author just quoted failed to answer the questions raised by his own conscience. He had the approval of his conscience in one regard, viz., in making God's Word the final court of appeal. We fear, however, that he allowed the traditional interpretation of God's Word to govern him rather than the Word itself. He was compelled to hold his view without the full support of a commending conscience. Among other things, he failed to distinguish eternity from time, and the Headship of Christ as above the headship of Adam.
We hold that altho the Word of God is supreme, when we rightly interpret it such interpretation will have the support and sanction of our whole moral being, and there will not be found anything in God's Word, when rightly understood, that contradicts the highest spiritual intuitions of conscience.
We find almost without exception that conscientious writers and speakers who preach the doctrine of eternal torment say: "I wish that the things I am going to preach to you tonight were not true" or "I would change the doctrine if I could," or "Time and time again I have come up to this awful doctrine and tried to find some way of escape from it."
It is evident to a thoughtful mind that the doctrine of eternal torment which they proclaim, they do not fully believe, altho they force themselves to think they do. No man really believes anything to which his conscience does not say "Yes." All words and intellectual declarations of faith and interpretations of Scripture are insufficient when conscience witnesses to the contrary. The center of human personality, the sine qua non of personality, is our spirit, which is not a spirit without conscience. Conscience is not only an essential part of personality, but also its witness is absolutely necessary in order to our having true religion. Conscience, therefore, with its intuitions and instincts, has to be satisfied, or there is no peace nor joy, nor satisfaction in God. Without conscience there could be no hell of remorse, and without conscience there could be no heaven of bliss. Conscience is God's judgment throne within us, where every day is a judgment day. God's own acquittals and approvals are heard in conscience, and conscience cleansed by the precious blood and obeyed is the foundation of the heart's inner-chamber of love and peace, where there is abiding fellowship with the living God.
Mark you, it is not only the untold and unending sufferings of the creature against which conscience witnesses, but the witness is against God's very character. In the light of an illumined conscience it is impossible to conceive of a God of love making a creation that He foresaw would result in eternal torments to millions and millions of His creatures. Every man's conscience cries out and says, "This does not commend itself to me in the sight of God, such a God is not our God." Praise God! Such a conception has not come from God, but from an erroneous interpretation of the Scriptures and paganized ideas of punishment.
Hear the words of Rev. Thomas Allin*, who has given this subject careful consideration:
'The popular creed presents us with a Being who fluctuates between tenderness and wrath: One who has ever-changing plans, and a will that is divided, and baffled. For half His creatures, His love is in fact momentary and His vengeance eternal. For the other half, His pity is eternal and His wrath transient. This God is not even Lord in His own house; for the worst and feeblest of His creatures can defeat His most cherished plan; can paralyze the Cross of Christ. In such a God I can see no trace of Him who is almighty and unchanging, whose property is to always have mercy; whose love, tho it must take the form of vengeance against sin, never ceases to pursue the sinners for 'love never faileth'; never to all eternity. Against the popular caricature of God, this . . . is a special protest--that caricature which represents eternal love as turning to hate as soon as the sinner dies; which vainly talks of an Eternal Father, whose judgments mean salvation in one world and change to damnation in the next; of eternal love, whose fire purifies and refines in time and then beyond the grave turns to mere (purposeless) torture. All this is not alone morally repulsive, but a plain contradiction in terms."
*Reference in Chapter on Witness of the Early Church Fathers.
The popular conception or rather misconception of God above referred to does not commend itself to "every man's conscience in the sight of God."
From the same writer we quote again:
"A further point there is, so vital that I dare not omit it, tho to touch it may involve the charge of presumption. I feel unable to decide how far Bishop Butler designed to teach that "probation" is an adequate description of our relationship to God. Yet it seems that practically his great name is (largely) the authority with those who teach in fact, if not in words, that God is primarily the Judge, or the Inspector, of His creatures. Against this idea, which seems to me to be working on every side untold mischief, I must once more protest. Hence comes the fatal blot of placing Sin at the center of the moral system and not Love. Hence the removal of 'Our Father' while the Inspector or Accountant takes His place. And this system is believed to be the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Hence vain idle wranglings over a first and second probation, on the part of those who forget, that, if God is our Father, the central fact that dominates all else in our moral relationship to Him, is, if He is Father."
His Father-love yearns for the salvation of His prodigal children, and He will not be satisfied till they are fully saved and trained and grown fully into His image.
Thomas Erskine of Linlathen remarks in The Purpose of God:
"The essential characteristic of a Father's love is that it is inextinguishable . . . If I am here simply on trial, if I regard God as one who is keeping a debtor and creditor account with me, I may in word call him 'Father', and in word ascribe love to Him, but I can not really regard Him as Father."
The former writer proceeds:
"Hence the painful evasions; the manifold sophistry; the halting logic that (honestly) turns the Bible upside down; i.e., teaching that all men drawn to Christ means half mankind drawn to the devil; all things reconciled through Christ means the final perdition of half the universe. The notion, which is in fact that of the popular creed, i.e., that God is in the Bible detailing the story of His own defeat, is telling how sin has proved too strong for Him; this notion is worse than absurd. Assuredly the Bible is not the story of sin deepening into eternal ruin--of creation darkened forever by a ghastly hell--of God's own Son worsted in His utmost effort. It is from the opening to the close the story of grace stronger than sin--of life victorious over every form of death--of God triumphing over evil."
It is only by the manifestation of the truth as it really is that we commend "ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God."
There are those who, for conscience sake, endeavor to devise some way out of the difficulties presented by the doctrine of eternal torment. One of these ways is to say that all who have not heard the gospel will not be lost. This attempt usually is not much more than a benevolent effort to get rid of difficulties. It is forgotten that if God put every one of His sinning creatures in heaven it would not be heaven for them at all. There has to be a change of heart for one to be fitted for heaven or heaven would be hell. The trouble with the sinner is that because of sin the light of God has gone out in his heart. That light needs to be kindled again. Christ is the true "Light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world." The man in sin is dead to God but alive to God's law. The witness of Christ in one's conscience is to God's law. If the heathen reject this light, they are in reality rejecting Christ. If they follow it, they will get more light; and as they keep on following it, they will find that they have Him who is "the true Light." They are all without excuse if they reject this light. They are approved of God if they walk in this light; for such a walk implies yielding to and obeying the real Christ.
Conscience may be defined as an intuition; viz., it witnesses to the difference between right and wrong. Conscience is also an instinct in that it gives us the feeling of oughtness; viz., that we ought to do right and that we ought not to do wrong. This feeling, when obeyed, gives joy, and when disobeyed gives sorrow, and thus implies future joy or future retribution. Conscience, in this sense, is not educated, but is the witness of God. In this sense, Christ is the "Light which lighteth every man"; in this sense conscience as the divine witness is universal.
There are other elements that are counted along with conscience, and that depend on education and environment. These can be cultivated. They might more properly be called our opinions. All have the witness that we ought not to murder; but the different definitions of murder may differ because of education. God's voice always says, "Do not murder"; but opinion tells us what murder means, and then our judgment has to decide whether in the particular case it is murder or not. The permanent witness in conscience is God's voice. It carries its own sanctions. Its authority is recognized as supreme. It can, therefore, come from no one else except God in Christ; and they that walk in this light, may be saved through Him who is the true Light. How blessed will it be for them to get acquainted with the Christ as He was manifested upon this earth!
A man is converted when he turns from sin unto God. The Scripture indicates in many places the new birth as the real outcome of the right kind of morality. Mere morality does not save any one; but morality, or the obedience to conscience, if persisted in, leads one to the real Christ. "Every one that doeth (with purpose of heart) righteousness is born of God" (1John 2:29). As the ten lepers obeyed the Lord, even while in the path of obedience,--we read, "as they went, they were cleansed." This derogates nothing from faith. It is only making faith manifest by life. Many who can not understand the philosophy of faith, can be told to do that which, if they do it, will imply real faith.
The only way that any of us came to the Lord was by yielding and obeying the light. The intellectual understanding of this light was not as important as the accepting and trusting the light sufficiently to act upon it. I prove my faith in an ocean steamer to cross to another country by the act, no matter how tremblingly I get on board. Our conception of salvation is so much greater than the initial step, that it will take all of the ages to let us see its greatness and glory; and no one will be saved in this age or in any other age but by trusting the light, for He is the Light of "every man" and "the Light of the world," the real Light. To Cornelius, Peter said, and conscience still repeats the same story, "Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: but in every nation he that feareth Him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with Him" (Acts 10:34, 35). Salvation is more than initial acceptance, further light is needed. "Call for Simon, whose surname is Peter; Who shall tell thee words, hereby thou and all thy house shall be saved" (Acts 11:13,14). Cornelius and Peter and the rest of the saints who have passed into the presence of the Lord, are still hearing words of salvation whereby they shall be more and more saved.
It is from conscience that we learn that even in souls that are lost, "dead in trespasses and sins," God has left a nidus, a "nest," in which He works. Professor Laidlaw, in his Bible Doctrine of Man, speaking to this point, says:
"The leading peculiarity of the Bible doctrine of man in his origin and constitution we have seen to be its ascription to him of spiritual personality, formed and upheld by the Divine Maker. This places not the first man only, but all men, in a peculiar and inalienable relation to God: 'In Him we live, and move, and have our being.' And it is because the human spirit was and continues to be a spirit derived from God that it is possible for it still to approach or feel after and in a sense apprehend God. It is the other side of the relationship, however, which Scripture employs to throw light upon redemption. Its possibility is secured in the fact that God continues to stand in His original relation to all men, 'The Father of spirits,' 'the God of the spirits of all flesh,' 'for we are His offspring.' This, indeed, will not of itself give us a cause or reason for the undertaking of redemption; that is uniformly ascribed in Scripture to gracious love, the highest expression of the divine energy and nature. But that lost men are still His, in a sense which specially belongs to man in the universe of being, is the Bible ground of the possibility of redemption. Nay more, it is the basis of that large preparatio evangelica (gospel preparation) which Scripture recognizes everywhere. Because men are His, God has never left Himself without witness, nor without avenues of approach to the human spirit under the most unfavorable dispensations of humanity."
In conscience, which is a part of the ruins of the original nature of man, is found the principal place of God's working, and in addition to this, there is a sense of dependence also found in every man, and several other definite characteristics of man's fallen nature which God has left in order that He may work upon him. The lower animals do not have such nidus. Conscience, for instance, is found in them only as they have been trained in association with man. They have no direct capacity for God nor His law. Man is different; even in his fallen condition he has something for God to work upon. Hence we preach salvation to man and not to the lower animals. Man by nature in this life is as truly lost as he will be in the life to come. We do not say that his guilt is as great, nor his punishment and separation from God as truly realized here as there. This natural body with all its handicap keeps him from sensing the full consequences of his sins.
Every sinner that passes into the life to come has some element of conscience left, as well as some of the other important elements of which we are not now speaking. Even remorse is a condition closely connected with an unheeded conscience. Remorse comes as a judgment here, and Christian workers who know the Lord and His Word, have often been used to deliver those who were suffering from remorse. Is God then not able? He is able for every disease of spirit, soul, or body. "Earth has no sorrow that heaven can not heal," and will not heal some day. We have never known of a case of one passing into the next life with a moral nature entirely obliterated. It would be foolish to bestow punishment on any one who had no element of a moral nature. Conscience cries out again and says it is only right to punish one who would know what punishment meant, and any one who knows what punishment means has enough of a place left in his nature for God to work upon. The man capable of punishment, involving moral perception, is salvable.
In the Chapter on the Limitations of Human Freedom some of the reasons are given why there is always this nidus or a moral remainder. The Chapter "Final Permanence of Character" should also be consulted.
The Antediluvians sinned away the day of grace while Noah was preaching and the Ark was preparing, and yet their moral nature was not destroyed utterly, for Christ preached to them hundreds of years afterward, for their salvation (1Pet. 3:18-20 and 4:6).
After the resurrection in "the dispensation of the fulness of times," there is to be the greatest season of the application of redemption in getting all back into Christ as their Head. "All souls are mine" (Ezek. 18:4), saith the Lord. "For He is not a God of the dead, but of the living: for all live unto Him" (Luke 20:38).
Conscience is satisfied with such a God and such a plan; and our Lord also shall "see of the travail of His soul and shall be satisfied."
Back to Is Hell Eternal? Index
Back to Scholars Corner