Thursday, 2 February 2017

" CHRIST OR PLATO ? The Immortality of Man and his Future Punishment."

Three Sermons, by Rev. H. N. Wollaston, Melbourne.


Until some very recent period Mr Wollaston appears to have held the common opinion with regard to the punishment of the wicked hereafter —"that it will be an unending term of the fiercest pain and agony, in no sense remedial, but absolutely hopeless and interminable.'' Mr. Wollaston showers down his indignation on this doctrine as opposed to all our conceptions of a just and loving God. But his new theory seems to us to be quite as objectionable, if not more so. It may be more merciful, certainly, to terminate an existence of pain which can never know relief, than to allow it to drag on through infinite time. But is it move merciful to deliberately expose a soul to a sharp punishment for its earthly sins and then crush it absolutely out of existence? What purpose can this infliction of pain before death answer? It can certainly be of no effect in that after state, nor is it likely to have any deterrent effect on earth. For even if it were possible to convince men of its reality we do not think it would prevent them breaking God's laws in any degree less than they do now. Indeed, we believe the effect would be the other way. For it would revive men's ideas of the practice of savage and half-civilised races torturing their enemies before death, and so inclining them to think of God as cruel, hard, and unjust ; lead them on to sheer recklessness and despair. It ignores the loving fatherly side of God's character, the remedial fatherly nature of punishment, for it declares that for every sin so much punishment, and then—annihilation! It would, of course, be impossible to follow Wollaston through all his arguments in the narrow limits of an article such as this. The space at our command will not allow us to do more than quote a few of his more salient arguments, and refer our readers to the publication itself for fuller details. The first sermon commences with a criticism of the word aionion, which in the text S. Matt., xxv., 46, is translated first "everlasting" and then eternal." Mr. Wollaston points out that the original word is the same in both cases, and that eternal is the correct rendering. But he goes further and assumes the meaning of the text to be that the "future punishment of the lost sinner is eternal, everlasting, without end." Many excellent scholars, however, affirm that aionion will not bear this meaning, that it more properly signifies a duration of time, a succession of ages, but not necessarily interminable. Be this as it may, however, Mr. Wollaston assumes that this word as used by our Lord signifies eternal, without end—that " eternal death is everlasting destruction, extinction, extermination, the blotting out of the sinner's life or existence for ever and ever !" But how can he assume that the word death, on which so much of his argument depends, is synonymous with annihilation, when he must be aware that it is again and again used to signify a sinful life in this world—a death to all that is good and Christ-like ? It seems to us that since Christ has died the power of death is limited to its physical effects on the body—that we cannot say, that no mere man has any right to say, that its power extends into the other world, and triumphs utterly over soul and body to the absolute ending of both. The words eternal and everlasting, or phrases answering to these, are constantly used in a relative sense in the Old Testament Scriptures with reference to Jewish ordinances designed to pass away, and they signify indefinite and continuous, until superseded by a higher law or principle, never tending to come to an end of themselves. Whatever begins in time may also know an end in time; there is this essential and infinite difference between the eternity of good and of evil, that the one has never begun but was from all eternity, that the other has begun and may therefore end; that it is nothing less than blasphemous to draw comparisons between the eternity of the everlasting Son of God and the relative eternity of His sinful creatures: that evil having nothing divine is essentially finite ; that the happiness of the blessed rests not on a word, or on a syllable, but on their perfect union with God, who is infinite life and joy ; that we have no data whatever on which to ground the assertion that the eternity of sin, of pain, and of evil, is equally unlimited, absolute, and infinite; that those are the deep things of God which really wise men will not seek to perform or define too closely." This eloquent passage is extracted from a letter addressed by the Rev. Archer Gurney to the men who put forward the Oxford declaration against '' Essays and Reviews," in which, among other things, they protested against the non-eternity of punishment as set forth in one of the Essays. But it applies with equal force to Mr Wollaston's use of the words eternal, everlasting, death, destruction, and the like. We contend that while they may have a very distinct bearing on the facts of this life, their application to the conditions of the life, which lies beyond this is, to say the least, vague and indefinite to the very last degree.

He then proceeds to argue that the extinction he so stoutly contends for is to be wrought out by the fire of God's wrath, which will burn away and consume the wicked until they have paid all the penalty of their sin ; and that this process will no longer or shorter according to the degree of their guilt. Christ does indeed speak of an unquenchable fire, of an undying worm, but it is very hard indeed to believe that through these terrible images he intended to represent to us the vengeance of the Father, who so loved the world as to give His own Son for the life of men. We may believe that this fire of God will burn up all the evil and sin that resides in his disobedient children, but we cannot accept the teaching of these sermons that it will literally destroy both soul and body. The punishment which God inflicts is inflicted on the same principle as that of a loving earthly Father for remedial purposes, and not on the principal of so much suffering for so much sin. Nor can we agree with Mr. Wollaston's opinion that the doctrine of the immortality of the soul is of purely human origin. He quotes St. Timothy to prove that God alone hath immortality, but surely that cannot mean more than that God is the source of all life to his creatures. St. Paul says distinctly enough that " if in Adam all die, in Christ shall all be made alive," that " this mortal shall put on immortality," that " Christ hath robbed death of its sting, the grave of its victory." But to say, as Mr. Wollaston does say that this immortality is one for the chosen few ; that first torture and then annihilation is to be the portion of all the rest, is, as we conceive of it altogether at variance with the spirit and teaching of the Gospel. If the death brought about by Adam was common to all the race, the life of Christ is, according to St. Paul, of equally wide application. But Mr. Wollaston holds that the second life of the wicked shall be as finite as this—that while the righteous shall rise to infinite joy, the mortal of the wicked shall not be clothed with immortality, but with sharp agony terminating in absolute extinction.
But Mr. Wollaston is so extremely happy in this theory, so well satisfied that it is perfectly consonant with the loving, just, and equitable character of the Almighty, that it would be nothing less than cruel to disturb him any further. For ourselves, we cannot join in the exulting language of his last sermon, which is one continuous expression of rejoicing on the justice, the equity, the perfect righteousness of God as manifested in Mr. Wollaston's theory of future punishment. We must confess that it would be no subject of rejoicing to us if this unlovely conception of God were the true one, but rather a matter of deepest pain. It would be unspeakably painful to have to believe that the feelings of revenge and vindictiveness which prompt us to redress our real or imaginary wrongs by the infliction of injury on those who have injured us, were attributes of God also— that in punishing us for an infraction of His laws He could proceed on no higher motives than the motives which regulate our own procedure under similar conditions. But we do not believe it, nor can the arguments of Mr. Wollaston convince us that the conception of God which he has presented us with is in harmony with that idea of God as a God of love which we find in the Gospel. Of late years this idea has grown wonderfully, and deepened in the minds of men of the most widely differing views and opinions. The dim veil of an older and sterner theology, through which men only saw their Maker as an angry avenger of their sins, has been drawn aside, and men have come to the knowledge that His ways are not as their ways, —that they may not apply to Him the same rules by which they determine their own actions, the same conditions by which they interpret the actions of their fellow men. Mr. Wollaston has already shifted the ground of his belief as regards future punishment, and we trust he will forgive us if we express a hope that the spirit of enquiry is not dead within him, but that it will lead him on to further examination of this great question, and so to a more merciful interpretation of what little revelation has been afforded us of the life which lies beyond death.

Border Watch (Mount Gambier, SA : 1861 - 1954), Saturday 24 May 1873, page 3

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