Part V: The Future of
A word of special introduction is called for in presenting the following study. It is a subject bristling with problems. Anyone who embarks upon such a discussion exposes himself to all kinds of misunderstandings.
I am reluctant to include this addendum because it has to be so speculative. It seems to me that the fate of the unsaved is not clearly revealed in Scripture, and has been greatly confused by centuries of imaginative thinking in a way that is probably detrimental to our understanding and may be a gross misrepresentation of the mind of God. For reasons which will be considered briefly later, the art of the Middle Ages became increasingly grotesque whenever its subject matter was the fate of the wicked. We find it difficult to escape from this cultural heritage.
So the problem of the future of the non-elect and how this is to be reconciled with the justice of God persists. And it seems proper in any book which deals with the sovereignty of God's grace to make at least some attempt to sort these matters out a little bit even at the grave risk of being entirely misunderstood.
When I first became a Christian nearly forty-five years ago, I was enormously helped by a dear saint of God whose concern for my spiritual growth made her a veritable "mother in the Lord" to my soul. She had, at that time, found her thinking greatly stimulated by the writings of Andrew Jukes. Among his works which she had acquired was one by the title The Restitution of All Things. This volume presented a form of Universalism which attracted her and she asked me to read it and share my reactions with her. This I did. I found it stirred my thinking and aroused my interest in the possible fate of the unsaved for the first time. I had known the Lord for only about eighteen months, so it was perhaps not surprising that I had not previously given the matter much thought.
I visited a number of secondhand bookstores, and soon found other works which pursued equally unorthodox lines of thought on the subject. One of these was Farrar's Eternal Hope. This I did not feel happy about, though the level of my Christian thinking was admittedly far from informed or sophisticated. However, I then searched for and found a copy of Mercy and Judgment by the same author, a volume which still left me unsatisfied because of some of the author's presuppositions regarding the inspiration of Scripture which I felt were inadequate.
Shortly after this, I picked up a copy of Hanson's Universalism in the First Five Hundred Years of the Christian Church, but in my poorly informed state of development I had a feeling I should view his data with caution, since I had no way of checking whether the extensive quotations he had extracted from the early Church Fathers were accurate and not out of context. But I did begin to feel that there were some valid arguments for questioning the deeply entrenched doctrine of everlasting punishment.
I soon added other works to a growing collection of volumes on the subject, some of them for and some against, one of which struck me with particular force because of the gentleness and spiritual tone that pervaded the author's arguments against everlasting punishment. This was Samuel Cox's Salvator Mundi. I have now some fourteen works on the subject and, thanks to the same dear child of God, I have also a complete set of the works of the Early Church Fathers in the Scribner thirty-eight volume edition under the titles Ante-Nicene, Nicene, and Post-Nicene Fathers. All these have been much studied, and I must admit that my personal views have swung back and forth somewhat over the years, resting today in the not altogether satisfactory position of being undecided in the matter.
There are, however, certain things about which I am fully persuaded. First, that the Lord is sovereign, gracious, and altogether just. He cannot allow sin to go unpunished. There is no salvation outside of Christ, nor any chance of escaping the penalty of our sins once we pass out of this life. The issue is not whether there is to be punishment, but whether punishment is to be endless. Outside of Christ there is no forgiveness in the hereafter (Matt. 12:32), but if punishment is to fit a temporal offense, the question is whether it needs to be interminable.
Secondly, when we come to glory and our understanding is enlarged beyond measure in the presence of the Lord, we shall undoubtedly say with exultation, "He hath done all things well!"
Thirdly, our sense of time will be different, and we may well have a new understanding of what eternity really means.
Fourthly, we shall probably see very clearly the true significance of many facets of biblical truth which are beyond our comprehension at the present. We shall gain a new spiritual perspective which may well provide an entirely new understanding of many passages of Scripture which we take for granted we already understand well enough.
And lastly, I am tending towards the view that a firm answer may not yet be possible, because God does not intend us to know in this life what we do not need to know. We know only that those who are not yet saved are already under condemnation (John 3:18). For those who are saved, judgment is already past (Rom. 8:1). Those who are already condemned are not condemned because God willed their unbelief, but because He decided to allow them to have their own way. As C. S. Lewis put it so effectively in The Great Divorce (p. 69): There are only two kinds of people in the end those who say to God, "Thy will be done," and those to whom God says, "Thy will be done." All that are in hell choose the latter. Without that self-choice there could be no hell. No soul that seriously and consciously desires joy will ever miss it.
It is not difficult to see that a strong conviction that the lost are not lost forever might be harmful for those to whom the Lord has committed the preaching of the Gospel, unless there is at the same time some compensating reinforcement of their view of the terrors of being lost. Though we are not willing to admit it, all too many of us who know the Lord are comparatively unmoved by any conscious awareness of the fate of the unsaved. We are not sufficiently concerned to seek to pluck them out of the fire even though we pay lip service to a belief in everlasting punishment. There is little doubt that assurance of the ultimate safety of our unsaved loved ones would make us even more careless than we are already. It seems to me improbable that the precise nature of the future of the unsaved will be revealed to us on this side of the grave, since such a revelation could not serve a purpose sufficiently good to compensate for the evil that might be done. It might seem that we would be in a better position to vindicate the justice of God before those who challenge it, but experience shows that the people who challenge the justice of God are not really seeking answers but only seeking confirmation of their rejection of Him.
The following study must accordingly be accepted in the spirit in which it is presented, with a full awareness of the bias I have which, though far from fixed, nevertheless tends towards a somewhat more hopeful view than is current today in some segments of the evangelical community. For the reader who is interested in looking into some of the more extended works that deal with the matter, which I have myself examined with care, the following list may be useful. The order is alphabetical rather than an indication of my preferences.
Atkinson, Basil F. C. Life and Immortality. Published privately; no date (c. 1970).
Brabunt, F. H. Time and Eternity in Christian Thought (Brampton Lectures, 1936). London: Longmans Green, 1937.
Brown, J. H. Eternity: Is It a Biblical Idea? London: Clarke & Co., 1926.
Campbell, Alexander, and Skinner, Dolphus. Debate on Everlasting Punishment. Utica, NY: Restoration Reprint Library reissue, 1840.
Charles, R H. Eschatology: Hebrew, Jewish, and Christian. 2nd edition. London: A. and C. Black, 1913.
Cox, Samuel. Salvator Mundi: or Is Christ The Saviour of All Men? 3rd edition. London: Kegan Paul, 1878.
Farrar, F. W. Eternal Hope (five sermons preached in Westminster Abbey 1877). New York: Dutton, 1878.
_____, Mercy and Judgment. London: Macmillan 1881.
Finlayson, R. A. God's Light on Man's Destiny, Edinburgh: Knox Press, no date.
Hanson, J. W. Universalism: The Prevailing Doctrine of the Christian Church During Its First Five Hundred Years. Boston: Universalist Publishing House, p. 899.
Jukes, Andrew, The Second Death and Restoration of All Things, 14th edition. London: Longmans Green, 1891 (reprint 1955).
Knoch, A. E., Numerous pamphlets (some of 100 pages or more), all in support of a form of limited punishment and final restoration. Los Angeles: Concordant.
Torrance, T. F. Space, Time, and lncarnation. Oxford: university Press, 1969.
Vernon, S. M. Probation and Punishment: A Rational and Scriptural View of the Future State of the Wicked. New York: Ketcham, 1886.
Welch, C. H. The Reconciliation of All Things, Surrey, England: Berean Publishing Trust, 1960 (?).
The Nature of the Problem
It would seem almost sacrilegious to suggest that we are sometimes called upon to justify God before men. We normally think only of man being justified before God. But Scripture itself recognizes the propriety of the alternative (Luke 7:29; Rom. 3:4), and seen in its proper light it is altogether appropriate to make the attempt in certain circumstances.
The world has two basic quarrels with the Calvinist position. First, that it is unjust of God to choose to save so few at the expense of so many who remain unsaved; and secondly, that the penalty imposed upon the unsaved is disproportionate, endless punishment being inflicted upon those whose offenses are incurred in time. So we must look at these two aspects of the problem which seem superficially to signify a measure of failure in the purposes of God, and a measure of injustice resulting from that failure. On two counts, therefore, it seems that some attempt ought to be made to justify the ways of God with men.
I propose to deal with the second issue first, although clearly the first issue has precedence in terms of cause and effect, for if all were elected to salvation instead of only a few, there would be no second issue to deal with.
It is a commonly accepted principle of justice all over the world and in all ages that the magnitude of the offense is related to the dignity of the one against whom the offense is committed.
An offense against a wild animal (say, for example, an ape) is not normally punishable by law, least of all in a society where apes are simply part of the landscape, provided they are not a protected species. In our own culture an offense against a domesticated animal may be punishable, but chiefly because the animal belongs to someone rather than because of its own animal rights. Cruelty to a household pet is more likely to bring a penalty because by association it has been credited with a certain element of "personality." An offense against a beggar in the street may be frowned upon though officially overlooked in some societies, but not in a society with a social conscience. An offense against a neighbor is almost certain to demand an equivalent penalty, and an offense against the Mayor of a city demands an even more severe penalty since it is in effect an offense against the whole community for whom the Mayor stands as a representative. The assassination of a President of a country is likely to bring a national outcry, for he in turn stands as a figurehead of every citizen in the land.
Thus the same offensive action has a different weight of seriousness depending not upon the action itself, nor even upon the status of the doer (though this, too, becomes a factor in the case), but upon the offended party. The greater the accumulated dignity of the offended person, the more serious is the offense likely to be considered and the more severe the penalty.
When a man offends God, the offense is qualitatively maximized to infinity, for the honor of God is infinite. Such an offense is an offense against the Creator Himself and against all his creatures as well, for his honor is in a measure wrapped up in them all. Thus no greater offense is conceivable.
But is the magnitude of the offense in such a case to be measured in terms of quantity or in terms of quality? And is the punishment therefore to be severe by being protracted or by being intense? Are we to fit the punishment to the crime by making the punishment long in order to avoid making it violent, by substituting extensiveness for intensiveness?
It is sometimes argued that the injustice of everlasting punishment for a temporal offense is only an apparent injustice, since the offense is against the infinite majesty of God and must accordingly itself be of infinite magnitude. But in answer to this we have to ask whether this is merely substituting quantity for quality by assuming that length of punishment is necessary to match the severity of the crime.
Of course, we have come to this in our society. We prescribe capital punishment for murder with intent in certain case, but then we seem to do all in our power to commute this violent punishment to life imprisonment, so substituting twenty years of bearable suffering for perhaps fifteen seconds of mortal wounding (death by hanging, electrocution, firing squad, or even beheading). We at least recognize by this policy the unwritten principle that what is brief and very intense may be balanced by what is long and much milder. Taking these two factors like the sides of a rectangle, we mark out two rectangles of equal area as it were, one standing on end like a vertical column where the depth is great and the width is short, and the other like a flat rectangle where the depth is slight but the width very long. When the two areas are approximately equal, we feel satisfied we have an approximate equivalent of justice.
If it should be asked, "Why do we substitute the long for the deep?" the answer is probably that we are cowards. We pretend to be guided by humane motives, but we are not prepared to face the further question whether life imprisonment really is more humane. There are recent cases of condemned men who, given the choice, preferred the moment of intensity and almost instant death to the long, slow agony of destruction by incarceration for a lifetime. Meanwhile, recognizing that a lifetime of incarceration is an awful thing, we introduce various moderating devices, such as parole after so many years of good behaviour. The principle is not unjust, for good behaviour in such a situation may indicate some genuine measure of reform, and for the reformed character the penalty of incarceration may in fact be a greater penalty, and increasingly more painful as reformation proceeds. Thus by a certain logical extension, we see that if a man improves in character for one reason or another, what remains of his sentence becomes effectively more of a penalty, until it would become unfairly extended if his reformation were to be complete. What formerly was justice now becomes increasingly unjust. This may be the justification for amnesty.
Such self-reformation never will be complete of course, but it may happen that the grace of God regenerates the heart of the convicted man and it would then seem entirely appropriate to shorten the penalty as a matter of simple justice, since what remains of the penalty to be fulfilled will be felt so much more keenly. But of course justice is never administered perfectly, since the judge, the society, and the guilty individual are all imperfect still.
It is clear, however, that the demand for endless punishment for a temporal offense cannot be justified merely on the grounds that the offense has been against an infinite Majesty. It may well be that the quality of the punishment is, in any event, much more significant than the quantity of it. Indeed the word eternal may have little if anything to do with quantity at all. Eternal life is eternal because it is "otherly," that is, it has depth of a spiritual nature as its fundamental character, and not because it has length (John 10:10)--though length is certainly part of its essential character as John 10:28 seems to indicate. Eternal life is fundamentally a new quality of life. We shall return to this question later, for much hinges on the Hebrew and Greek words which lie behind the scriptural concept of eternity. That endlessness is part of the meaning is not to be questioned, though it is doubtful if the concept of endlessness is the underlying idea intended in either the Hebrew or the Greek words, or was even conceived by the Jewish mind, or by the Greek.
It is much more likely that the basic idea was one of indefiniteness, of unknown length, without defined boundaries, or alternatively of inconceivable magnitude. The idea of unlimited duration was probably absent. Indefinite, not infinite, would seem the most comprehensive meaning when applied to time, inconceivable in magnitude rather than infinite when applied to size, otherworldly rather than this-worldly when applied to spiritual things. The Eternal God may mean the God who exists outside of time, otherworldly, belonging within a spiritual order, inconceivable in these senses. As eternal life means another kind of life, inconceivable until it is experienced, so perhaps eternal punishment is another kind of punishment: inconceivable until it is experienced.
It is also necessary to consider that the status of the offending party does have some bearing on the magnitude of his offense. A child may commit the same crime as an adult with the same consequences to society, but we do not judge the same penalty to be appropriate in each case. Many who die unsaved must clearly die with a different status in this sense, some dying greatly privileged, some dying young, some dying without ever hearing the Gospel, but all equally unsaved. Yet if the penalty is unending punishment, whether the punishment is many stripes or few, it is effectively the same punishment for all because of its endlessness. One cannot rationally introduce the idea of a harsher or a milder punishment if both are interminable. For the factor which makes all such forms of punishment so awful is the hopelessness of the situation.
Viktor Frankl, the notable Viennese psychiatrist who survived a German concentration camp, wrote this:
Life in a concentration camp [was so uncertain] that it could be called a "provisional existence"...We can add to this by defining it as "provisional existence of unknown extent." A man who could not see the end of his provisional existence was not able to aim at an ultimate goal in life. He ceased to live for the future...(1)Such a man lived only NOW and the NOW was for ever, experientially. Luther was surely right in describing eternity as the always now. So Augustine likewise saw the eternity of God as an ever-nowness. Frankl wrote subsequently:
In camp a small time unit, a day for example, filled with hourly tortures and fatigue, appeared endless. A longer time unit, perhaps a week, seemed to pass very quickly. My comrades agreed when I said that a day lasted longer than a week. (2)So we have to rethink what the word eternal really means in any given context in Scripture. Dean Farrar held that punishment is everlasting in effect, but limited in duration. He might perhaps have suggested with equal force that punishment is everlasting in experience also, psychologically that is, but limited in reality. Punishment there surely must be, even if it is a form of remorse and self-inflicted. A moral universe without sanctions when its laws are disobeyed would be a moral chaos, not a moral cosmos.
So we have somehow to justify God in the New Testament sense and before the world, when men question the justice of his balancing of accounts. We must not deny what the New Testament certainly reveals;*we need only to think the problem through again and see if the passage of time and the controversies of the past have put us in any better position to understand what Scripture is actually saying on the subject. It may not be possible to provide an altogether satisfactory answer, but the issue has to be squarely faced anew in every generation, until some kind of understanding is achieved which will enable us to answer those who accuse God of injustice, and to do this without compromising the plan of salvation.
Because of the difficulties that the present concept of everlasting punishment introduces for even the most faithful of God's children, we have a tendency to shun the matter or to fear to challenge the orthodoxy which we have inherited lest we should find ourselves excommunicated. That previous ages were satisfied with their view of the endless torments of the unsaved is not in itself a proof that they were right but only that their conscience had not become as acute as ours in certain areas of life, even as they often seemed to have been little concerned with injustices done to those who could not defend themselves or with certain then current social iniquities such as slavery, for example. This, then, is one of the matters we must look into a little more closely if this study of the issues of Calvinism is to be at all complete.
Now the other question is why so few are called to salvation while so many are allowed to go their own chosen way to perdition. Is any plan which involves so much suffering by so many really justified for the sake of the happiness of so few? And the answer must take into account the possibility, implicit in what has been said already, that if the word eternal has a qualitative rather than a quantitative meaning, the disparity in numbers which is itself a quantitative factor may not be so crucial, and the answer may thus appear in a somewhat different light. Even if this should be so, the fact still remains that the many appear to suffer for the benefit of the few. For certainly it seems clear that the whole plan is justified ultimately only by the happiness of the few that are saved, and this is achieved at the expense of the unhappiness of those that are lost. This seems to be true even if the lost are in some way released from their unhappiness in the end.
Perhaps Dean Farrar was right to speak of the "Larger Hope," that the Lord may have a more complete victory, that God will truly one day be all in all. But the problem still remains whether such a created order has been fairly designed when the many in some measure suffer for the few. Of Farrar's conclusion, I think it must be said that his presuppositions were of doubtful validity. He placed a higher value upon human reason than is justified, and one cannot agree with his lower estimate of the inspiration of Scripture. Human reason cannot guide us safely here because we have no knowledge of what life is for the unsaved beyond the grave, apart from revelation. And that revelation is not explicit enough for us to draw any firm and precise conclusions. We have certainties indeed with respect to the future of the elect, but we do not have the same kind of certainties with respect to the future of the non-elect.
Men like Shedd, Hodge, Warfield, and other theological giants of past years have questioned whether Scripture actually intends to leave us with the idea that few are saved and many are lost. The classic passage which at once comes to mind in this connection is Luke 13:23, 24. But this is a question asked by the disciples, not actually a statement made categorically by the Lord. "Then said one unto Him, Lord, are there few that be saved? And He said unto them, Strive to enter in at the strait gate: for many, I say unto you, will seek to enter in, and shall not be able." The answer of the Lord would seem to be a tacit acceptance of the questioner's supposition, and certainly experience seems to confirm the small number of the saved. Moreover, the Lord's words, "Fear not, little flock; it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom" (Luke 12:32), reinforce the impression of the paucity of numbers. Again, in Matthew 7:13 f. the Lord said: "Enter in at the strait gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat. For strait is the gate and narrow is the way that leadeth to life, and few there be that find it." And then in Matthew 20:16 and 22:14 the Lord repeats the words, "Many are called, but few are chosen."
With such passages before us, how then does it come about that profound theologians can speak as though few does not mean few, and many does not mean many? They do it by the simple device of arguing that we need not assume that the few who are old enough to choose the narrow way are the only ones who enter heaven. Many enter without reaching the age of choice, infants all over the world and since the world began. (3) These must therefore be included among the redeemed, and to their number Shedd * would add the heathen who would have believed had the Gospel been preached to them.
* In his Dogmatic Theology Shedd has this to say "The electing mercy of God reaches to the heathen. It is not the doctrine of the Church that the entire mass of persons, without exception, have gone down to endless impenitence and death. That some unevangelized men are saved, in the present life, by an extraordinary exercise of redeeming grace in Christ, has been the hope and belief of Christendom. It was the hope and belief of the older Calvinists, as it is of the later" (Vol. II, pp. 706f.)The Westminster Confession (X.3), after saying that elect infants dying in infancy are regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit, who worketh when and where and how He pleaseth, adds, so also are all other elect persons [regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit] who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word. This is taken to mean not merely that insane and imbecile individuals have hope of redemption, but also that many in the heathen world are also chosen for redemption by some means other than the exercise of saving faith as we understand it.
In his Reformed Doctrine of Predestination (p. 145), Loraine Boettner argues that probably 50 percent of all human beings born will be redeemed by this route.
If it is true that all those who die in infancy, in heathen as in Christian lands, are saved, then more than half of the human race even up to the present time has been among the elect.Calvin took the position that a child who dies in infancy is as elect as the adult who is converted. The Lord thus has, as it were, two modes of assuring salvation. This may well be true, yet one wonders if it is not rather a subterfuge than a satisfying answer to the problem. Can it really be termed a victory for the Lord when the soldiers in this warfare are saved only by being removed from ever encountering the enemy while they are still too young to have arrived at the battlefront?
Warfield quotes, with approval, the words of William Temple who, in 1913, wrote: "The earth will in all probability be habitable for myriads of years yet. If Christianity is the final religion, the Church is still in its infancy. Two thousand years are as two days." (4) The implication here is that in time the Church will cover the earth; but what then of the Lord's words, "When the Son of man cometh, shall He find faith on the earth?" (Luke 18:8) And is this poor exhausted earth still good for thousands of years yet? And furthermore, is Warfield correct when he expresses the hope that the Church will act as leaven "for good" (5) when leaven is consistently used in the New Testament and in rabbinical literature as a symbol of an evil, corrupting influence? Should we not rather expect to see the pervasive evil of godlessness bringing all society into decay until the Lord returns to put things to rights again?
But even if we add the disadvantaged heathen as Shedd proposes, we are still far short of a total victory and must suppose that at the very least perhaps one-fifth of the world's population is still lost. Indeed, must it not be admitted that even if one single soul is lost for eternity, the plan has been a failure, the cost has been too high? Did not the shepherd rejoice more over the one lost sheep that was found again even though the ninety-nine were safe (Matt. 18:13)? And what then if He had not found that lost sheep--that one lone creature that was not in the fold? Would the shepherd ever have ceased to grieve? How can we then suppose that the salvation even of a majority of God's creatures will be sufficient to cover the cost of the remainder who are not returned to the fold? In the political arena a majority won is victory enough, but can this ever be true in the moral arena?
Dostoyevsky in his The Brothers Karamazov has one of the brothers, Ivan, recounting to his younger brother, Alyosha, the story of a well-educated Russian mother (this was about 1825 or so) who battered her infant daughter mercilessly and then locked her in the bathroom. But when the little child still did not cry out against her abuse, the mother became so enraged that she rushed into the bathroom and filled the child's mouth with her own excrement, and cast her on the floor in a corner. The child lay there, beating the floor with her tiny fist in her torment as she tried to empty the filth out of her mouth and call for her mother's mercy. And Ivan asks poignantly:
Tell me yourself, I challenge you--answer. Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature--that baby beating its breast with its fist for instance--and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell me the truth.Admittedly the illustration is not truly a parallel in so far as the staging of the situation is concerned, but the same principle is involved. Could one, humanly speaking, recommend a plan that introduced upon the scene billions of souls destined to live forever in happiness at the end, if it involved even one of them in everlasting torment as a consequence? Yet again it is very important to underscore the word humanly. For what do we really know about the nature of time in eternity? And there is always the possibility, remote though it may be, that the sufferings of the wicked might bring even to themselves a measure of joy fully compensating at the last. Even if, which also seems unlikely, the time spent by these billions in happiness were to pass psychologically very slowly whereas the time spent by the ones in torment were to pass psychologically very quickly, yet if both are to last for ever the situation is not really eased, the circumstance is not really mitigated in any way.
"No, I wouldn't consent," said Alyosha softly.
There seems no way to escape the dilemma except possibly by linking the factor of endlessness (if this is indeed the crucial factor) to the effect of the sentence rather than to the sentence itself, or by making punishment serve not merely as the wages of sin but also as a means of correction until no more punishment is required. Let us examine some of the alternatives that men have proposed as they struggled with this truly difficult problem. These alternatives are not new; the Church Fathers looked at them all and for the most part ended up with some kind of everlasting torment. Yet there have always been a few men, truly devoted to the Lord and resting their soul securely in his salvation and holding absolutely to the inspiration of Scripture, who have found some of these alternatives still viable and more attractive than the current orthodoxy of many evangelical people today.
Perhaps we shall yet find some tentative resting place which fully honors the Word of God and might even explain why the small number of the elect was an essential element of God's over-all plan for his creation.
1. Man 's Search for Meaning, p. 111.
2. Ibid., p. 112.
3. Benjamin B. Warfield, Biblical and Theological Studies, pp. 334 f.
4. Ibid., p. 347.
5. Ibid., p. 348.