Sunday, October 04, 2009
Sermons and Lessons
OCTAVIUS BROOKS FROTHINGHAM
Had I been told, six months ago, that I should give a discourse on the subject of “hell,” I should have received the information with absolute incredulity; incredulity as deep and scornful as the hunter would feel who was told that he should take his rifle and go forth to hunt the iguanodon, ichthyosaurus or other extinct monster of the pre-adamite epoch of the planet. A thousand years ago, the doctrine was alive and formidable. It stalked abroad, immense in size, terrible in aspect. Now it is rarely seen and when visible is but the shadow of its former self. It has left the world of philosophy and science, of literature and art, even in the wilderness of theology it is seldom met with. Its spectral image lingers near the tabernacle where the revival preacher endeavors to reproduce a system of religion that was natural in a departed era, but is unnatural in the present age - but there too it is altered, sadly changed from its former estate, a mere simulacrum, a ghost, which the people are allowed to look at, as forms are seen be¬hind gauze curtains, or as “materialized” spirits are produced under “mediumistic” conditions.
All at once, this spectre becomes alive, is seen in the midst of us, terrifies women and children in the public places. We were mistaken in supposing the monster belonged to the Silurian epoch; or to speak more exactly, we were mistaken in thinking that the Silurian epoch was sunk beneath so many layers of rock. The Silurian epoch persists. In central New York, last summer, excellent persons were found who professed to believe in the lake of fire, and were surprised that any should be so audacious as to doubt it. In New England an ecclesiastical council demurred to the ordination of a minister, on the ground that he held unorthodox Opinions on this point. In New York, an eminent divine and doctor of divinity, rector of a wealthy and fashionable church, expressed contempt for the opinion of Canon Farrar that no doctrine of everlasting suffering was taught in the Scripture. The doctrine is evidently not extinct. The majority of Congregational clergymen still maintain it, some in a qualified, others in an unqualified form.
How can such a surprising phenomenon as this be explained? We are forced to recognize the fact that the tenet in question has, at present, no substantial reason for being; that people who do not wish to believe it need not, may discard it, or let it alone. Those who cling to it, do so of their own free will, because they choose to, not because authority compels them, or evidence persuades. The disbelievers are in the ascendant. The doubter is in excellent company. He has the intelligence of centuries on his side.
In theology men of the highest eminence have repudiated the idea as inconsistent with the conception of a supreme justice. Origen in the third century declared it incredible, cleared the scriptures of it by resolving its language into allegory, and acquitted Deity of responsibility for it, by maintaining the evanescence of evil itself and teaching that Satan would at last be reclaimed. In the ninth century Scotus Erigena, one of the master minds of the Church, a man of genius, an acute and enterprising intellect, the prince of the scholastic philosophy advocated the same views with Origen, and defended them with unsurpassed vigor and subtlety of reasoning. Others, of less distinction might, if they would, take courage from these, especially in an age when no courage is needed, as it was in theirs. At present the courage is demanded of those who maintain the doctrine, not of those who reject it. The modern theologian is unwilling to commit himself to an opinion that has against it the suffrage of modern intelligence.
Philosophy suggested to theology its doubt. The office of philosophy is to present the unity of the world, to describe the universe as a whole, consistent and harmonious in all its parts; and in its attempt to do this, it inevitably suggested misgivings in regard to a doctrine so fatal to an intelligent order of the world as this. In the last century, Joseph Butler, “the most patient, original and candid of philosophic theologians,” made a desperate stand for the belief in future punishment, and defended, or rather apologized for it, by arguing its complete accordance with the system of Nature, whose divine author inflicted unspeakable agonies on beings to all appearances innocent. Such reasoning may well be called desperate. That is indeed a hopeless cause that can be maintained only at the risk of atheism itself. To argue that God might be expected to punish people everlastingly in the future because, horribly and causelessly, he torments them in the present, may and does provoke men to ask whether it would not be better to deny the existence of God entirely, or to give the name Devil to the being who governs the world. Had bishop Butler deliberately gone to work to prove that the world was under the dominion of Satan, he could not have argued more successfully The only criticism one feels disposed to make on such an argument is that it lacks subtlety. It is not cunning enough to persuade. It is barefaced. Origen and Scotus had no such audacity. They appealed to the conception of a supreme Being against what seemed to them a horrible imputation upon him. They attempted to relieve him from the guilt of inflicting future agonies on innocent souls. It never occurred to either of them to defend the atrocity of hell by bringing up the equally appalling atrocity of earth. It never occurred to them to give people their choice between atheism and diabolism.
The method of Butler has been repudiated by the more rational philosophy of a later day. There are now three alternatives presented to the philosophical mind. It may either accept the ancient theory of Dualism which allots the universe to two opposing powers, one good and one evil, - the evil power holding sway over the realm of anguish, whether temporal or eternal, - on which supposition, pain, death, hell are transferred from the dominion of Deity to the domain of Satan; or, maintaining the theory of Monism, which acknowledges but a single intelligent ruler of the universe, it may deny the existence of one spirit or the other, declaring for optimism with Leibnitz, and with him sustaining the opinion that good is the substantial principle, and evil the appearance, the apparition, the evanescent shadow, or for pessimism with Schopenhauer who contended that evil was the substantial principle and that good is the illusive semblance. Or again, as a third alternative, declining to answer dogmatically the question of the world’s original authorship and essential control, it may hold to some form of the development theory, which describes the universe as unfolding gradually from organic germs, and as moving onward with or without the guidance of an intelligent being. Either of these suppositions variously tempered and modified, the philosopher of our day may accept; but the supposition of an everlasting hell for human beings is not admissible. That idea the philosophic mind discards, and they who seek the companionship of such minds must abandon it.
Of the belief in “hell” science knows nothing. As knowledge extends, the dominion of pure evil shrinks. Satan retreats from one department of Nature after another and leaves the high-ways and by-ways of creation free to the passage of serene, inexorable and regenerating law. Science discards the conception of the Devil, and the dogma of perdition. The scientific men who entertain these forms of opinion do so, not as men of science, but as members of the church, whose doctrines they do not presume to call in question.
The doctrine of future punishment as held by the creeds of Christendom, has always been rejected with abhorrence by the natural conscience of men, as fundamentally inconsistent with rational notions of justice. That men, even the worst men, could in their short life-time commit offences deserving everlasting punishment, the agonies of hell fire, for an eternity, or even for a hundred years, nay, for a single year, for a single day, is an idea that shocks every sentiment of equity. That the Being who is supremely, ideally, absolutely just, can inflict penalties for misdoing, such as no human being would lay on another, such as the most infernal cruelty never, even when maddened to insanity, devised, is a suggestion at which the natural conscience stands, always did stand and always must stand aghast. They who believed it when they could not help themselves, when church authority cowed their will, and silenced their protest, made this moral reservation. The voice of conscience was hushed. The moral sense was forbidden to assert itself.
That the human heart resents, repels with detestation the belief in future punishment, need not be said. Of course it does. Of course it always did. What pagan, what creature above the savage, ever cordially entertained the belief that one whom he loved, was howling in hell for deeds done in the body, for sentiments entertained, or for dispositions illustrated on earth? It is easy enough to profess doctrines in which one has no interest, with which one associates no feeling; but when feeling becomes enlisted, as, sooner or later it becomes, in a doctrine like this, the reaction against it is instantaneous and violent. There was a time when the heart dared not express its feeling. That time is past; now heartlessness is condemned. The voice of the heart is loud and imperative; it requires courage to resist it.
There remains the word of Scripture. Does this compel those who accept its authority, to receive the doctrine of future punishment against the protest of the heart, the remonstrance of the conscience, the reasoning of philosophy, the theologian’s demur? This is a question which lack of space forbids my answering in full or arguing at length. To me, with whom the word of Scripture has no more authority than reason concedes to it, the discussion is without interest. At present, it satisfies my purpose to say that, in my honest and sober judgment, the language of Scripture does not warrant the christian doctrine. If it did, my opinion of the doctrine would be what it is. But honestly I think that it does not. At least, the essential thought, the true meaning of Scripture does not. More than this, I am not prepared to allow. The Universalists have not, in my judgment, fairly made out their case from the Bible. From the Old Testament they can easily, for to the Hebrew mind the doctrine is repugnant. But the New Testament contains expressions that have never been purged from the taint of the hideous thought. Language is put into the mouth of Jesus that conveys to the imagination the most horrible forebodings of doom. “Depart, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels.” It is hard for the grammarian to get over that.
Universalism has however, done this much; it has cast a grave doubt on the supposed teachings of Scripture in this matter. It has made it possible to doubt whether the Bible is chargeable with the belief in question. It has even made it easy for people who believe in the inspired authority of Scripture and who are distressed because it teaches this dis¬heartening dogma, to retain their faith in the Bible and at the same time to indulge the sentiments which are native to their hearts. This is much. Is it not as much as is demanded? Is it not, practically, everything? None need entertain the dogma on the authority of the Bible, who do not choose to. The doubter has a valid excuse.
How then, to return to my original question, how then can the revival of this monstrous doctrine be explained? Since there are good reasons for discarding it, since the reasons that once supported it are weakened if not wholly disposed of, since to reject it is to be in the company of the best in repute, since even Scripture permits merciful interpretations, why is not the doctrine suffered to go unrestrained to its final account? The reply to the inquiry is close at hand.
The doctrine is necessary to the integrity of the christian scheme; so necessary that its rejection would bring the whole structure down. The christian scheme is a complete, logical system, compactly fitted together. Its parts all cohere. The dislodgement of one point endangers the security of the structure. To deny the Trinity is to deny the deity of the Christ. To deny the deity of the Christ is to deny the sufficiency of his atonement. To deny the atonement is to deny the desperate need of man. To deny this, is to deny human depravity, is to deny the necessity of Grace, is to vacate the offices of the Church, and reduce to nothing the significance of Christendom. The dogma of future punishment is essential to all the rest. It follows logically from the dogmas of Depravity and Redemption. There must be a doom in reserve for the unconverted. There must be a place for the unregenerate. They are by nature depraved, heirs of death, children of wrath; and their place must be the lowest and saddest conceivable. Their doom might be simply death, utter death, annihilation. But this doom would be rather negative than positive. Death might be welcome. Annihilation might be a boon. There must be something more appalling to the vulgar imagination than that. With the idea of death must be coupled the idea of agony. Hence, as life meant felicity, death meant anguish. Hell was offset against Heaven. The two were required to complete the series of conceptions which constituted the “Plan of Redemption.” The destruction of hell would deprive the system of its motive power. The good woman of Alexandria who went about with her bucket of water in one hand and her torch in the other - the water to extinguish hell, the torch to burn up heaven - was set down as a maniac. Had she succeeded, Christianity would have seen its last day. For the fires of perdition were as indispensible to the religion as was the divine love she wished to exalt.
Thus the tenacity of Christians to their dogma is accounted for. They may keep it in the background; they may conceal it beneath figures of speech; they may say little or nothing about it; they may even permit their neighbors to forget it. The revivalist preacher may speak of it with extreme reserve and reluctance, urging the persuasions of love instead of the former exasperations of fear. Still the doctrine is there, in its place, and when touched by the hand of criticism, it displays its vitality. They avow it who dare not disavow. They assent who dare not deny. Did the tenet stand by itself, alone, apart from the general scheme, there can scarcely be a doubt of its all but universal rejection. As it is, it is retained as a corner stone which the builders see no way to reject.
The strength, the bulwark of this doctrine has ever been the ecclesiastical spirit, the spirit of assumption and mental oppression. It grew up with the priesthood; and with the priesthood it prevailed, and with the power of the priesthood it declined. It never had much influence by reason of the moral consciousness of men. It is a remarkable fact that people have for the most part been consigned to hell for offences against ecclesiastical rule. The inhabitants of hell have been chiefly heretics sent there for the guilt of unbelief; skeptics who looked too deeply into the mysteries of dogma, infidels who abandoned the traditions of faith. A Parsee writing, it is said, describes a woman in hell, “beaten with stone clubs by two demons twelve miles high, and compelled to eat a basin of offal because some of her hair, as she combed it, fell into the sacred fire.” A Brahmanic text, says Alger, tells of a man who for “neglecting to meditate on the mystic monosyllable OM, before praying, was thrown down on an iron floor in hell, and cloven with an ax, then stirred in a caldron of molten lead till covered all over with foam sweat, like a grain of rice in an oven, and then fastened with head downwards and fret upwards to a chariot of fire, and urged onward with a red hot goad.” A general council of the Church condemned Origen for teaching that the doctrine of eternal punishment in hell did not comport with the idea of the infinite goodness of God. An English cardinal, early in the thirteenth century, wrote a book on the question: Is Origen saved or damned? In Bayles’ Dictionary is related the vision of a hermit who saw hell uncovered, and in the midst of it, Origen in the company of the damned, covered with flames and confusion. The pains of hell were reserved for offenders against the Church, not for offenders against humanity. The hell of the Romanist is full of Protestants. The hell of the Protestant is full of schismatics. Where theological hatred does not exist, there is no hell, for there are none to put into it except murderers, thieves and liars, and none of these deserve its frightful tortures. In the priests’ eyes unbelief is the soul of guilt. So will it be, so long as churches claim special revelations of truth, so long as certain texts are revered as the word of God, so long as ecclesiastical institutions and rites are held to be sacred above human sanctities, so long as orders of men called religious assume the right to dictate thought and conduct to mankind.
It is vulgarly thought that the belief in future punishment is important as a check on the inordinate passions of men; that it is valuable in keeping society in order, men being more readily swayed by fear than by any other motive. This impression is, I am persuaded, quite mistaken. It is not probably true that men are more powerfully affected by fear than by love. The experiment has never been tried. The assumption that fear is the only influence to which human beings respond has been acted on from time immemorial and has begotten an absolute skepticism in regard to the efficacy of any other sentiment. That men should be influenced for good by fear seems to be something like an absurdity. Fear can do no more for a moral nature, than darkness can do for a plant, or lightning for a tree. Sunshine alone quickens. Love alone warms. Violence may stimulate, but how can it nourish? Fear may create fear; can it create trust? Vitality is coincident with passionate desire, but fear produces apathy and repulsion. The substitution of rewards for penalties would probably be followed by a moral impulse towards goodness such as Christendom never experienced.
I heard, a short time since, the touching story of a drunkard. He had dragged himself and his wife down from a respectable position into the deepest pit of poverty and degradation. He was a beggar and a brute, and she was a wretched, sick, crushed creature, to whom existence was a burden. Reproaches had been rained upon his head for years; society had cast him into its outer darkness, shut its door upon him. The friend who told me the story found these people in a gar¬ret, and by the aid of some neighbors separated the husband from the wife. She, after a time, recovered herself sufficiently to do a little plain sewing; and when she had earned her first shilling, she placed half of it, sixpence, in her benefactor’s hand saying, “When you see my husband, give him this, with my love.” He did so. The wretched man took it, gazed at it, and broke into a sob of agony. “O God! I could bear threats, hunger and curses, but I cannot bear this. That sixpence breaks my heart!” Is a woman’s love so powerful, and can the Supreme love be impotent?
But let this pass. It is enough for the present to know that the doctrine of future punishment has not been, to any considerable degree, employed as an agent in moral reformation. It has been used as an engine for the suppression of heresy. The free preachers who preceded Luther, did their best to galvanize sinners into good behavior by describing the terrors of hell. Very frightful their descriptions were; so grotesque and fantastical in their horror as to betray their weakness. None but the stupidest, the most credulous, the most animal could have been affected by threatenings so ludicrously violent. The preachers, one would say, felt the impotence of their method, and not being wise enough to change it for a better, heaped up the agony till it was amusing. It would be safe to say that the certainty of a good whipping to be inflicted im¬mediately on the perpetration of the offence, would exert a more salutary effect on conduct than the most lurid prospect of imaginary flames.
The truth is that the threat of Hell even in its most mitigated form is so vastly in excess of any consciousness of guilt as to be practically inoperative. The flames might as well be painted, for any terror they carry. It is impossible to bring such fantasies home to the practical sense. They who have imagination to realize them are disgusted. They who have not are confounded and stunned. Instead of apprehending a decline of morality from the popular disbelief in the doctrine of hell torments, it will be more reasonable to apprehend such decline from its continued profession, and the more sincere the profession, the graver the cause for apprehension. Whatever effect Christianity may have had in softening the habits and sweetening the dispositions of men - and by all ad¬mission it has exerted a great deal - it has produced by its graciousness, in spite of this hideous doctrine. The benignant character of Jesus, the human teachings of the Sermon on the Mount, the lovely lessons of parables like the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son, the touching suggestions of the Supper the Garden and the Cross, the affecting mythology of the Atonement, with its background of the Eternal Love and its expression of self-sacrificing devotion on the part of the purest and gentlest of the sons of men, all these combined were perpetually dropping refreshing dew on the waste places of the human heart and warming into life the seeds of kindness and purity. For one nature, hard and brutal, that the terrors of the hereafter may have restrained, it has probably deadened, discouraged or brutalized a hundred sensitive spirits that needed only a ray of hope to bloom in beauty and shed a delicious fragrance on the air. If all were known, as all never can be, it would probably appear that the doctrine of future punishment has demoralized and dehumanized the ages in which it prevailed, and has seriously retarded the progress of virtue by hindering the natural play of iTlotive and preventing the standard of moral attainment. If all were known it would probably appear that the doctrine reflected the inhumanity of inhuman generations, and deepened it.
In measuring the moral influence of this dogma, due weight must be allowed to a consideration which Mr. Lecky makes prominent in his history of Rationalism in Europe. He dwells at length on the disastrous effect it exerted on the moral dispositions of churchmen, making them callous and cruel. He traces the connection between the horrible pictures of torment which they hung up and contemplated, which artists painted on walls and ceilings, which preachers colored with their ferocious rhetoric, which priests presented at the confessional, and mystics agonized over in their cell, and the frightful torments that were inflicted on heretics. The instruments of torture used in the middle ages, the wheels, rack, screws, pincers, were but material copies of the instruments which the fiends were believed to employ upon the damned in hell; and the cold-blooded ferocity with which the horrid enginery was plied, nay, the satanic glee of the auto da fe, was but such imitation as human creatures could make of the devils who executed on the cursed the mandates of the divine wrath. “If,” says Lecky, “you make the detailed and exquisite torments of multitudes the habitual object of the thoughts and imaginations of men, you will necessarily produce in most of them a gradual indifference to human suffering, and in some of them a disposition to regard it with positive delight. If you further assure men that these sufferings form an integral part of a revelation which they are bound to regard as a message of good tidings, you will induce them to stifle every feeling of pity, and almost to encourage their insensibility as a virtue. If you end your teachings by telling them that the Being who is the ideal of their lives confines His affections to the members of a single church, that he will torture forever all who are not found within its pale, and that His children will forever contemplate those tortures in a state of unalloyed felicity, you will prepare the way for every form of persecution that can be directed against those who are without.”
The bloody days are over. The instruments of torture are exhibited as curiosities in the castle dungeons of Europe. May we not hope, may we not reasonably expect that their diabolical counterparts will also be remanded to the mythological curiosity shop, to be marveled at as the insane contrivances of a diseased fancy? Is it not melancholy, nay ludicrous to think, that men who cry over an attack of rheumatism, who will not permit a woman to be injured, who remonstrate against the execution of a criminal, who raise an outcry against the practice of vivisection whereby surgeons make studies in anatomy by cutting up frogs and cats, are standing out vigorously for a doctrine that condemns millions of their fellow creatures to agonies unspeakable and endless, and are defending the opinion in the name of the Supreme Goodness? Could there be a better illustration of the ease with which people allow themselves to use words without meaning? Could there be a better proof of hollowness and insincerity? Could there be a sharper admonition to the duty of making beliefs correspond with feelings, and of substituting for the gaudy card houses of rhetoric, the solid mansions of conviction? To talk about eternal torment is not difficult; to profess belief in it may be possible even for good natured people, but to think it, to bring it home to reason or heart, is what the stoutest cannot do. It may be questioned whether a single man, even a single priest, preacher or churchman, ever fully “realized” the import of the doctrine. We know the names of single men whom the far off contemplation of it drove to the madhouse. Nothing but dense ignorance, credulity, mental and moral apathy, wrapping human sensibility about as with the hide of a rhinoceros, enabled them to bear the suggestion of it, and still go on their way believing, hoping and rejoicing. In proportion as men become intelligent, conscientious and sensitive, they throw the incubus off, though, with it, they cast over creed, church, scripture, and all the associations of religion. For Reason is worth more than all.
That the doctrine of endless punishment will be fully, frankly, in every form discarded, while the popular religion - Christianity survives, cannot be expected. For, as has been declared, the article is an essential part of that religion, and will he maintained, literally and figuratively, by those who are interested in keeping the system alive. But that it is vanishing away before the brighter intelligence and the better heart of the modern world, is very certain; and equally certain is it that into the shadow of oblivion will go the kindred tenets with which it is associated.
It is not enough, however, that the intelligent minds of a new age should reject the doctrine of future punishment, as held by the Christian Church. They must abandon the habit of associating any idea of punishment with the divine administration of the universe. Not the physical conception merely, but the moral conception must be discarded. Neither in the life after death, nor in the life before death, is the thought of punishment, of retribution, of vengeance to be entertained. It is the custom of the “liberal” sects, so called, to spiritualize, as they term it, the consequences of the divine wrath. They transfer the pains from the body to the soul, and imagine conscience as the agent in executing the avenging decree. They too, paint pictures of the torment of the damned which, they boast, are more lurid and awful even than those set forth by the calvinistic theology. They describe the agonies of the awakened conscience, as Spurgeon might describe the agonies of the resurrected frame. It is only another form of the old iniquity. It is but a continuation of the evil habit they so bitterly condemn in their fellow believers. Their doctrine, though less disgusting and revolting, is hardly more rational than the ancient dogma, which they repudiate.
The only rational alternative is, the omission of the word “punishment,” from the vocabulary of religion. Speak of actions and their consequences; of conduct and its issues; of character and its laws; speak of moral cause and effect, and trace the connection between deeds and destinies, a vital, organic connection that cannot be broken or interrupted; but let the thought of retaliation be dropped. Then will life be ordered on rational principles; then will hopes and fears be reasonable; and then will our conceptions of providence and deity be worthy of intelligent beings.