The Dead Unconscious Till the Resurrection, and Consequent Error of Popular Belief in Heaven and Hell
If Christendom is astray on the nature of man, it naturally follows that it is astray on the state of the dead, its theory of which occupies so large a place in the theology of the day. We now look at this subject in the light of facts and the testimony of Scripture.
Death is the greatest fact in human experience, considered in its relation to the individual. Its occurrence is universal and inevitable: its gloomy shadow, sooner or later, darkens every house. Who has not felt its iron hand? Who has not beheld the loved one chilled and stiffened by its desolating blast? The blooming child with all its prattling innocence and winning ways: the companion of youth, rosy, and healthful, and gay; the cherished wife, the devoted husband, the tried and trusty friend; which of them has not been torn from our side by the terrible hand of this ruthless and indiscriminating enemy? One day we have seen them with bright eye, beaming countenance, supple frame, and have heard the words of friendship and intelligence drop from their living lips; the next we look upon them stretched on the bier—still, cold, motionless, ghastly, dead!
What shall we say to these things? Death brings grief to the living. It overwhelms them with a sorrow that refuses consolation. It is not for ourselves that we mourn; news of life would bring gladness, even if friends were far distant, and intercourse impossible. No, it is for the dead our hearts are pained. Let us consider the bearing of this upon the popular theology of the day. If death be merely a change of state, and not a destruction of being, why all this heartbreaking for those who have gone? It cannot be on account of the uncertainties “beyond the grave,” because our grief is quite as poignant for those who are believed to have “gone to heaven,” as for those about whom doubts may be entertained. Tears flow quite as fast for the good as for the bad, and, perhaps, a little faster. There is something inconsistent with the popular theory here. If our friends are really gone to “glory,” we ought to feel as thankful as we do when they are promoted to honour “here below”; but we do not; and why? The evidence will justify the answer. Because the strength of natural instinct can never be overcome by theological fiction. Men will never practically believe the occurrence of death to be the commencement of life, when they see it to be the extinction of all they ever knew or felt of life.
If the dead are not dead, but “gone before”; if they are “praising God among the ransomed above,” they are alive, and, therefore, they have merely changed a place of “temporal” for a place of eternal abode. They have simply shifted out of the body from earth to heaven, or to hell, as the case may be. The word “death,” in its original meaning, has, therefore, no application to man. It has lost its meaning as popularly employed. It is no longer the antithesis of “life.” It no longer means the cessation of living existence (its radical signification), but simply means a change of habitation. “A man die? No, impossible! He may go out of the body, but he CANNOT DIE.” This is the popular sentiment—the dictum of the world’s wisdom—the tenacious belief of the religious world.
We shall enquire if there is anything in the teaching of the Holy Scriptures, or in the testimony of nature to warrant this belief. And we shall find that there is not only an entire absence of warrant for it, but great evidence to show that death invades a man’s being and robs him of existence, and that consequently in death he is as totally unconscious as though he had never lived. Let the reader suspend his judgment. He will find that the sequel will justify this answer, appalling as it may at first appear.
First, let us consider, for a moment, the primary idea expressed by the word death. It is the opposite of life. We know life as a matter of positive experience. The idea of death is derived from this experience. Death is the word that describes its interruption, or negation, or stopping. Whether life is used literally or figuratively; whether it is affirmed of a creature or an institution, death is the opposite of the life so spoken of. It means the absence or departure of the life. In order, therefore, to understand death in relation to our present enquiry, we must have a definite conception of life, We cannot understand life in a metaphysical sense; but this is no bar to our investigation; for the difficulty in this sense is neither greater nor less than in the case of the animals, and in the case of the animals people profess to find no difficulty in reconciling the mystery of life with the occurrence of actual death.
Throwing metaphysics aside, we need but ask ourselves, what is life as known experimentally? It is the answer of literal truth to say that it is the aggregate result of the organic processes transpiring within the human structure—in respiration, circulation of the blood, digestion, etc. The lungs, the heart, and the stomach conspire to generate and sustain vitality, and to impart activity to the various faculties of which we are composed. Apart from this busy organism, life is unmanifested, whether as regards man or beast. Shock the brain, and insensibility ensues; take away the air, and you produce suffocation; cut off the supply of food, and starvation ensues with fatal effect. These facts, which everybody knows, prove that life depends on the organism. They show that human life, with its mysterious phenomena of thought and feeling, is the evolution of the complicated machinery of which we are so “fearfully and wonderfully made.” That machinery, in full and harmonious action, is a sufficient explanation of the life we now live. In it and by it we exist.
Now, whatever prejudice the reader may feel against this presentation of the matter, he cannot evade recognising this, that there was a time when we did not exist. This important fact shows the possibility of non-existence in relation to man. The question is, shall this state of non-existence again supervene? And this is a simple question of experience, on which, alas! experience speaks but too plainly. Since human existence depends on material organic function, non-existence ensues upon the interruption of that function. By experience we know that this interruption does take place, and that man dies in consequence. Death comes to him and undoes what birth did for him. The one gave him existence; the other takes it away. “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return,” is realised in every man’s experience. In the course of nature, his being vanishes from creation, and all his qualities submerge in death for the simple reason that the organism that develops them then stops its working.
These are the facts of the case from a natural point of view. But when we look into the Scriptures it is astonishing how much stronger the case becomes. When the Scriptures speak about the death of anyone, they do not employ the phraseology of the modern religionist. They do not say of the righteous that they have “gone to their reward,” or “gone to their last account,” or that they have “winged their flight to a better world”; or of the wicked, that they are “gone to appear before the bar of God, to answer for their misdeeds.” The language is expressive of a contrary doctrine. The death of Abraham, the father of the faithful, is thus recorded:—
“And Abraham gave up the ghost, trod died in a good old age, an old man, and full of years, and was gathered to his people” (Gen. 25:8).
So also in the case of Isaac:—
“And Isaac gave up the ghost and died, and was gathered unto his people” (Gen. 35:29).
So of Jacob:—
“And when Jacob had made an end of commanding his sons, he gathered up his feet into the bed, and yielded up the ghost, and was gathered unto his people” (Gen. 49:33).
Of Joseph it is simply said:—
“So Joseph died, being an hundred and ten years old, and they embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt” (Gen. 50:26).
So in the case of Moses:—
“So Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there, in the land of Moab, according to the word of the Lord. And he buried him in a valley, in the land of Moab, over against Bethpeor, but no man knoweth of his sepulchre unto this day” (Deut. 34:5, 6).
And so we shall find it in the case of Joshua (Jos. 24:29), Samuel (I Sam. 25:1), David (I Kings 2:1, 2, 10; Acts 2:29, 34); Solomon (I Kings 11:43), and all others whose death is recorded in the Scriptures. They are never said to have gone away anywhere, but are always spoken of as dying, giving up their life, and returning to the ground. The same style of language is adopted by Paul when he speaks of the generation of the righteous dead. He says (Heb 11:13):—
“These all died in faith, NOT HAVING RECEIVED THE PROMISES, but having seen them afar off”
If Jesus spake of the death of Lazarus, he recognised the fact in its plainest sense (John 11:11–14):—
“He (Jesus) saith unto them, Our friend Lazarus sleepeth; but I go that I may awake him out of sleep. Then said his disciples, Lord, if he sleep, he shall do well. Howbeit Jesus spake of his death, but they thought he had spoken of taking rest in sleep. Then said Jesus unto them plainly, LAZARUS IS DEAD.”
When Luke records the death of Stephen (Acts 7:60), he does not indulge in any of the high-flown death-bed rapture so prevalent in modern religious literature. He simply says, “He fell asleep.” Or when Paul has occasion to refer to deceased Christians, he does not speak of them as “standing before the throne of God!” The words he employs are in keeping with those already quoted (I Thess, 4:13):—
“I would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are ASLEEP, that ye sorrow not, even as others who have no hope.”
There are no exceptions to these cases in Bible narrative. All Bible allusion to the subject of death is as unlike modern sentiment as it is possible to conceive. The Bible speaks of death as the ending of life, and never as the commencement of another state. Not once does it tell us of a dead man having gone to heaven. Not once, except by an allowable poetical figure (Isa. 14:4) or for purposes of parable (Luke 16:19–31), are the dead represented as conscious. They are always pictured in language that accords with experience—always spoken of as in the land of darkness, and silence, and unconsciousness. Solomon says:—
“Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, IN THE GRAVE, whither thou goest” (Eccles. 9:10).
Job, in the anguish of accumulated calamity, cursed the day of his birth, and wished he had died when an infant; and mark what he says would have been the consequence:—
“For now should I have lain still and been quiet; I should have slept; then had I been at rest with kings and counsellors of the earth, which built desolate places [tombs] for themselves; or with princes that had gold, who filled their houses with silver, or as an hidden untimely birth I HAD NOT BEEN, as infants which never saw the light; there the wicked cease from troubling, and there the weary be at rest. There the prisoners rest together; they hear not the voice of the oppressor; the small and great are there, and the servant is free from his master” (Job 3:13–19).
He also makes the following statement, which with the one just quoted, ought to be well considered by those who believe that babies go to heaven when they die:—
(Chapter 10:18)—“Wherefore hast thou brought me forth out of the womb? O, that I had given up the ghost, and no eye had seen me; I should have been AS THOUGH I HAD NOT BEEN.”
David incidentally alludes to the state of the dead in the following impressive words (Psa. 88:5, 10–12):—
“Free among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, whom thou rememberest no more; and they are cut off from Thy hand.”
“Wilt thou show wonders to the dead? Shall the dead arise and praise Thee? Shall Thy loving kindness be declared in the grave, or Thy faithfulness in destruction? Shall Thy wonders be known in the dark, and Thy righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?”
These questions are answered in a short but emphatic statement, which occurs in the 115th Psalm, verse 17:—
“The DEAD praise not the Lord, neither ANY that go down into silence.”
And the Psalmist gives pathetic expression to his own view of man’s evanescent nature, in the following words, which have a direct bearing on the state of the dead:—
(Psa. 39:5, 12, 13)—“Behold, thou hast made my days as an handbreadth, and mine age is as nothing before Thee. Verily every man at his best state is altogether vanity.… Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear unto my cry; hold not Thy peace at my tears, for I am a stranger with Thee, and a sojourner, as all my fathers were. O, spare me, that I may recover strength, before I go hence, and BE NO MORE.”
He says in Psalm 166:2, “While I live will I praise the Lord, I will sing praises unto my GOD WHILE I HAVE ANY BEING”; clearly implying that in David’s view, his being would cease with the occurrence of death.
In addition to these general indications of the destructive nature of death as a deprivation of being, there are other statements in the Scriptures which specifically deny that the dead have any consciousness. For instance:—
“The living know that they shall die; but THE DEAD KNOW NOT ANYTHING, neither have they any more a reward, for the memory of them is forgotten; also their love, and their hatred, and their envy is now PERISHED, neither have they any more a portion for in anything that is done under the sun” (Eccles. 9:5, 6).
How often we hear the remark concerning the dead, “Ah, well! He knows all now!” What shall we say about it? If Solomon’s words have any meaning, the remark is the very opposite of true. What can be more explicit? “The dead know not anything.” It would certainly be a wonderful feat of exegesis that should make this mean “The dead know everything.” How common again, to believe that after death, the dead will love and serve God with greater devotion in heaven, because freed from the clog of this mortal body; or curse Him with hotter hatred in hell, for the same reason; that, in fact, their love will be perfected, and their hate intensified; in the very face of Solomon’s declaration to the contrary. “Their love and their hatred, and their envy are now perished.” David is equally decisive on this point. He says (Psa. 146:3, 4):—
“Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help; his breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day HIS THOUGHTS PERISH.”
Again (Psalm 6:5):—
“In death THERE IS NO REMEMBRANCE OF THEE: in the grave who shall give thee thanks?”
Hezekiah, king of Israel, gives similar testimony. He had been “sick, nigh unto death,” and on his recovery, he indited a song of praise to God, in which he gave the following reason for thanksgiving:—
“For the grave cannot praise Thee, death cannot celebrate Thee, they that go down into the pit CANNOT hope for thy truth. The living, THE LIVING, he shall praise Thee as I do this day” (Isa. 38:18, 19).
This array of Scripture testimony must be conclusive with those with whom Scripture authority carries weight. If there is anything decisive in the verdict of Scripture, the state of the dead ought no longer to be a debatable question. The Bible settles it against all philosophical speculation. It teaches that death is a total eclipse of being—a complete obliteration of our conscious selves from God’s universe. This will do no violence to the feelings of those who are governed by wisdom of the type inculcated in the Scriptures. Such will but bow in the presence of God’s appointment, whatever it is. They would do this if the appointment were harder to receive than it is in this case. Instead of being hard to receive, it accords with our experience and our instincts. And still better, it frees all Bible doctrine from obscurity.
It establishes the doctrine of the resurrection on the firm foundation of necessity; for in this view, a future life is only attainable by resurrection; whereas, in the popular view, future life is a natural growth from the present, affected neither one way nor the other by the “resurrection of the body.” In fact it is difficult to see any use for resurrection at all if we accept the popular idea; for if a man “goes to his reward” at death, and enjoys all the felicity of heaven of which his nature is capable, it seems incongruous that, after a certain time, he should be compelled to leave the celestial regions, and rejoin his body on earth, when without that body he is supposed to have so much more capability of enjoyment. The resurrection seems out of place in such a system; and accordingly we find that, now-a-days, many are abandoning it, and vainly trying to explain away the New Testament doctrine of physical resurrection altogether, in favour of the Swedenborgian theory of spiritual resuscitation.
We have cited many Scriptures in proof of the reality of death, and the consequent unconsciousness of those who are dead. Those Scriptures are not ambiguous. They are clear, plain, and intelligible. Now, suppose the positive declarations they make were propounded in the form of interrogations, to any modern religious teacher, or to any of the intelligent among his flock, would their answers be at all in harmony with those declarations? Let us see. Suppose we enquire, “Do the dead know anything”? what would the answer be? “Oh, yes, they know a great deal more than the living.” Or let us ask, “When a man goes to the grave, do his thoughts perish”? The answer would instantly be, in the words of a “reverend” gentleman, in a funeral sermon, “Oh no, we rejoice to know that death, though it may close our mortal history, is not the termination of our existence—it is not even the suspension of consciousness.” Or again, Is there any remembrance of God in death? “Oh yes, the righteous dead know Him more perfectly, and love Him more fully than they did when on earth.” Do the dead praise the Lord? “Certainly; if they are redeemed; they join in the song of Moses and the Lamb before the throne.” Do babies that die pass away as though they had never been born? “No! perish the thought! They go to heaven and become angels in the presence of God.”
Thus, in every instance, popular belief, in reference to the dead, is exactly contrary to the explicit statements of Scripture. It is a belief entirely destitute of foundation. It is opposed to all truth—natural and revealed. In the last lecture, an endcavour was made to expose the fallacy of the “natural” arguments on which it is founded. We shall now look at a few of the Scriptural reasons that are generally put forward in its behalf. Those reasons are based upon certain passages that occur mostly in the New Testament; and of these passages it has to be remarked, to commence with, that, although they do bear on the face of them some apparent countenance to popular belief, not one of them affirms that belief. The evidence they are supposed to contain is purely inferential. That is, they make certain statements which are supposed to imply the doctrine sought to be proved, but they do not proclaim the doctrine itself. Now, it is important to note this general fact to commence with. It is something to know that there is not a single promise of heaven at death in the whole Bible, and not a single declaration that man has an immortal soul; and that all the supposed evidence contained in the Bible in favour of these doctrines, is so decidedly ambiguous, as to be open to disputation as to its meaning. It is important, because the testimony in favour of the opposite view (the one set forth in the present lecture), is so clear and explicit that it cannot be set aside without the grossest violation of the fundamental laws of the language. This consideration suggests an important principle of Scriptural interpretation, viz., that plain testimony ought to guide us in the understanding of what may be obscure. We ought to procure our fundamental principles from teaching that cannot be misunderstood, and harmonise all difficulties therewith. It is unwise to found a dogma on a passage, which, from its vagueness, is susceptible of two interpretations, especially if that dogma is in opposition to the unmistakable declarations of the Word of God elsewhere.
Let us for a moment apply this principle to the Scriptures cited by those who set themselves to justify the popular theory.
The first is the answer of Christ to the thief on the Cross (as set out in the Authorised Version), “To-day shalt thou be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). This is thought to establish the common idea at once; but let us see. The pith of the argument turns upon the date of its fulfilment. Now Jesus was not in paradise in the popular sense, that day; for we find him saying to Mary after his resurrection, “Touch me not, FOR I AM NOT YET ASCENDED TO MY FATHER” (John 20:17). Jesus was not in heaven during at least three days after his promise to the thief. Where had he been? The answer is in the grave. Ay, but his soul, asks one, where had it been? Let Peter answer (Acts 2:31), “His soul was not left in hell, neither did his flesh see corruption.” He, or “his soul,” which is equivalent to “himself,” was in the grave, or “hell” (for the words are in most cases synonymous in scriptural use, as we shall see by and by), awaiting the interference of the Father from above to deliver him from the bonds of death. The conclusion is, that Christ’s promise to the thief is of no avail whatever as a proof of the heaven-going consciousness of the dead, inasmuch as it was not fulfilled in the sense in which we would require to view it before it could constitute such proof.
Has it been fulfilled at all? Let us consider the question of the thief. It was quite clear that his mind was not fixed on the idea of going to heaven. He did not say, “Lord, remember me, now that thou art about to go into thy kingdom,” but “Lord, remember me, when thou comest into Thy kingdom.” He had a coming in his eye—not a going; and he looked upon it as a future event, and his desire was to be remembered when that future event should be accomplished—“when thou comest into thy kingdom.” We shall say something about this “coming” hereafter. Meanwhile it is sufficient to direct attention to the general fact, as furnishing a clue to the meaning of Christ’s answer. There is good ground for the contention of those who say that Christ’s answer is most properly read with the comma after “today”—“I say unto thee today, thou shalt be with me in paradise.” But in either case, the words are devoid of the meaning attached to them by those who quote them to support the popular idea.
The account of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31) is the principal stronghold of the popular belief. It is brought forward with great confidence on every occasion on which the popular belief is assailed. A little consideration, however, will reveal its unsuitability to the purpose for which it is used. We must first realise, if we can, the nature of the passage of Scripture in question. It is either a literal narrative or a parable. If it is a literal narrative—that is, an account of things that actually happened, given by Christ as a guide to our conception of the “disembodied” state—then it is perfectly legitimate to bring it forward in confutation of the view advanced in this lecture. But in that case it would not only upset that view, but it would upset the popular view also, and establish the view that was entertained by the Pharisees, to whom the parable was addressed; for it will be found on investigation that it is the tradition of the Pharisees that forms the basis of the parable; a tradition which clashes with the popular theory of the death-state in many particulars.
Look at the incidents of the parable: see how incompatible they are with the popular theory. The rich man lifts up his eyes, being in torment, and sees Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom; and cries, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water to cool my tongue.” Does popular theology allow of the wicked in hell seeing the righteous in heaven? or admit of the possibility of conversation passing between the occupants of the two places? And has the popular immortal soul, finger-tips, tongue, and other material members, on which water would have a cooling effect? Abraham denied the rich man’s request, adding as a supplementary reason, “Between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that they which would pass from hence to you CANNOT.” (Is a “gulf” any obstacle to the transit of an immaterial soul?) The rich man asked Abraham to send Lazarus to his five brethren, to testify to them lest they should come to the same place of torment; Abraham answered, “If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one ROSE FROM THE DEAD.” (What need, according to the popular view, for a rising from the dead, since a spirit commissioned from the “vasty deep” would have been sufficient to communicate the warning?) The whole narrative has an air of tangibility about it which is inconsistent with the common view of the state of the dead. Besides, think of heaven and hell being within sight of each other, and of conversation passing between the two places! If we insist upon the story as a literal narrative, we are committed to all these particulars, which are so thoroughly at variance with the popular theory.
Is it a literal narrative? Even orthodox believers talk of it as a parable, which it doubtless is. As a parable, it has nothing to do with the question in dispute one way or other. It was addressed to the Pharisees to enforce the lesson that in due time the mighty and rich would be brought down, and the poor exalted; and that if men would not be led by the testimony of Moses and the prophets, miracles (even the raising of the dead) would fail to move them. The parable has no reference to the particular view of the death-state which its literal outlines reflect; it bears entirely on the lesson which it was used to convey. A parable does not teach itself; it teaches something else than itself, else it were no parable. But it may be urged that all parables have their foundation in fact. So they have, but they do not necessarily exhibit things that are possible. Parables in which trees speak, and a thistle goes in quest of matrimonial alliances, and corpses rise out of their tombs and address other corpses newly arrived, will be found in the Scriptures (Judges 9:8; II Kings 14:9; Isaiah 14:9, 11). The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is founded on fact but not necessarily on a literal possibility. That the dead should speak was necessary for the purpose of the parable, and it would not surprise the Pharisees to whom it was addressed. For, in fact, it embodies their belief. This is apparent from the treatise on “Hades, ” by Josephus (himself a Pharisee), which will be found at the close of his compiled works, and in which the reader will find a recognition of the existence of “Abraham’s bosom,” and the fiery lake in “an unfinished part of the world.” He will find the belief of the Pharisees (reflected in the parable of Jesus) a very different thing from popular belief in heaven beyond the skies, and hell as an abyss in the black and dizzy parts of the universe. A perusal of it will convince him of the wide dissimilarity of the Jewish theory embodied in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, from the commonly received doctrine of going to heaven and hell.
It may be asked, Why did Christ parabolically employ a belief that was fictitious, and thus give it his apparent sanction? The answer is that Christ was not using it with any reference to itself, but for the purpose of being able to introduce a dead man’s testimony. He wanted to impress upon them the lesson conveyed in the concluding words of Abraham, “If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rose from the dead”; and in no more forcible way could he have done this, than by framing a parable based upon their own theory of the death-state, which admitted of the consciousness of the dead, and, therefore, their capability to speak on the subject he wanted to introduce. This did not involve his sanction of the theory, any more than his allusion to Beelzebub carried with it a sanction of the reality of that God of the heathen (Matt. 12:27).
When Christ had occasion to speak plainly, and for himself, of the dead, his words were in accordance with the truth. Witness the case of Lazarus: “Then said he unto them plainly (indicating that ‘sleep’ is not ‘plain’ and literal), Lazarus is DEAD” (John 11:14–25); “He that believeth on me, though he were dead, yet shall he live,” that is, by resurrection, for he had said just before, “I am THE RESURRECTION and the life”; “The hour is coming in which ALL THAT ARE IN THE GRAVES shall hear his voice, and shall come forth; they that have done good unto the resurrection of life, and they that have done evil unto the resurrection of condemnation” John 5:28, 29). It is in these plain words of Christ that we are to seek for Christ’s real ideal on the subject of the dead, and not in a parabolic discourse, addressed to his enemies for the purpose of confusion and condemnation and not of instruction.
It would be strange indeed if so important a doctrine as the heaven-and-hell consciousness of the dead should have to depend upon a parable! Those who insist upon the parable for this purpose have to be asked what are we to do with all the testimony already advanced in proof of the reality of death? Are we to make a parable paramount and throw away plain testimony? Are we to twist and violate what is clear to make it agree with what we think is meant by that which is admittedly obscure? Is not the opposite rather the course of true wisdom, determining and solving that which is uncertain by that which is unmistakable? If it may be urged, as it has been urged, that it was unlike Christ to perpetuate delusion, and withhold the truth on such an important question as that involved in the parable used, it is sufficient to cite the following in reply:—
“And the disciples came and said unto him, Why speakest thou unto them in parables? He answered and said unto them, Because it is given you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them IT IS NOT GIVEN. For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance; but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away, even that he hath. Therefore speak I to them in parables” (Matt. 13:10–13). “Unto you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God, but to others in parables, that SEEING THEY MIGHT NOT SEE, AND HEARING THEY MIGHT NOT UNDERSTAND” (Luke 8:10).
The next Scriptural argument in favour of the popular theory is generally advanced with an air of great confidence. “Didn’t John, in the Isle of Patmos,” says the triumphant questioner, “see the redeemed of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation, standing before the throne of God, and giving glory? Who are these, if the righteous don’t go to heaven at death”? This argument is generally felt to be overwhelming. “Stay, friend; turn to the first verse of the fourth chapter of Revelation, and see what you find there: ‘I heard a voice as it were of a trumpet talking with me, which said, Come up hither, and I will show thee THINGS WHICH MUST BE HEREAFTER.’ The sights which John witnessed were representations of things which were to be at a future time, and, therefore, when he saw a great multitude praising God, he beheld the assembly of the resurrected as they will appear at the second advent.”
Next comes Stephen’s dying prayer—(Acts 7:59)—“Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” This is understood to mean that Stephen expected the Lord to receive his immortal soul. That this cannot be the meaning becomes manifest on a consideration of the Scripture doctrine of “spirit.” Stephen’s pneuma, spirit or breath, was not himself; it was merely the principle or energy that give him life, as it gives all other men and animals life. This principle does not constitute the man or the animal. It is necessary to give them existence, but it does not belong to them, except during the short term of their existence. Stephen’s spirit was not Stephen, though essential to his existence. The individual Stephen consisted of that combination of power and organism Scripturally defined as “body and soul and spirit.” His spirit as an abstraction was God’s and proceeded from Him, as have done the spirits of all flesh. Thus we read in Job 33:4, “The spirit of God hath made me, and the breath of the Almighty hath given me life.” Hence it is said—(Job 34:14, 15)—“If He (God) set His heart upon man—if He gather unto Himself HIS spirit, and HIS breath, all flesh shall perish together, and man shall turn again unto dust.” The spirit is indispensable as the basis of a living man, consisting of bodily organism. It is the life principle of all living creatures. When this life principle, emanating from God, is withdrawn, it reverts to its original proprietorship, and the created being disappears. This is the idea expressed in Solomon’s words (Eccl. 12:7), “Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was, and the spirit shall return unto God, WHO GAVE It.”
But, it may be asked, why should Stephen be anxious about his spirit in this sense? Well, it must be remembered that Stephen looked forward to a renewing of life at the resurrection. This was his hope. He hoped to get his life back. Consequently, when he came to die, he confided it to the keeping of the Saviour till that day, and, as the narrative adds, “He fell asleep.” If Stephen’s personality, expressed in the pronoun ‘he’ appertained to Stephen’s spirit, and not to the bodily Stephen, then this statement would prove that the spirit fell asleep; and this is just what those who quote this passage deny.
We next come to the words of Paul, in II Corinthians 5:8, “We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord.” This seems at first sight to express the popular idea; but let us consider it. Orthodox people understand that by this, Paul meant to express the desire to depart from his body and go to Christ in heaven. If this was the “absence from the body” that Paul desired, the passage would doubtless stand as an orthodox proof: but was this the “absence from the body” that Paul desired? The context answers the question by defining precisely the idea that was before Paul’s mind. It was not disembodiment, as the orthodox idea required: for he says in verse 4 of the same chapter, “Not that we would be unclothed, but CLOTHED UPON (with our house which is from heaven) that MORTALITy might be SWALLOWED UP of life.” What Patti desired was deliverance from the cumbrance of an imperfect sinful body, and the attainment of the incorruptible body of the resurrection, for, says he (5:4):—
“We that are in this tabernacle do groan, being burdened (5:2) earnestly desiring to be clothed upon with OUR HOUSE which is from heaven.”
Or, as he expresses it in Romans 8:23:—
“We ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, THE REDEMPTION OF OUR BODY.”
Now, when does this redemption of the body take place? Not at death, for at death the body undergoes the very opposite of a process of “redemption.” It goes into bondage and destruction. It breaks up in the ground in corruption; not till the resurrection at the coming of the Lord, is it raised to incorruption. Not till then does “presence with the Lord” take place. The testimony is:—
“The Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air, AND SO SHALL WE EVER BE WITH THE LORD” (I Thess. 4:16, 17).
This “absence from the (corruptible) body” is synonymous, in the passage quoted, with “presence with the Lord,” since flesh and blood will, in the case of the accepted, then be merged in the spirit-nature with which the saints are to be invested. Says Paul, “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (I Cor. 15:50). This being the case, he might well desire to be absent from flesh and blood. But this was not enough: it was necessary to add his desire to be present with the Lord, for all who are absent from the body will not attain to the honour of incorruptible existence in his presence. Many will be absent from the body for ever, and nothing else; that is, they will be without body—without existence—swallowed up in the second death: only those who are accepted will “be absent from the body, and PRESENT with the Lord” in the glory of the spirit-nature.
We must next look at the 23rd verse of the first chapter to Philippians—“I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart and to be with Christ, which is far better.” As in the last case, this also seems, on its face, to give expression to the idea that popular theology imputes to Paul. In reality, however, it does not do what it appears to do. The words do not teach that Paul would be with Christ as soon as he departed. It would require to be shown from other parts of God’s word that a man was with Christ the moment he “departed,” before the passage could be pressed into that service. As it stands, it merely expresses a certain sequence of events, without indicating whether there is any actual interval between the events or not. Depart, first; then be with Christ, but whether immediately after departing, or a time after departing, there is nothing in the expression to tell. If we understand that depart means to die, then the question to settle is, what is provided in the Christian system as the means of introducing a dead person to Christ? The answer which all investigation will yield to this question is, Resurrection. It might seem as if two things so far apart could not be brought together as they are in Paul’s language; but it must be remembered that the thing is described from the point of view of the person dying. Now, if the dead, “know not anything,” which the Scriptures declare (Eccles. 9:5), it follows that departing and being with Christ would, to those dying, appear instantly sequential events, and, therefore, perfectly natural to be concatenated in the way Paul does here.
Paul invariably points to Christ’s return as the time of being made present with Christ. As instanced in I Thess. 4:17, already quoted, after describing the coming of Christ, the resurrection of the dead, and the transformation of the living, he says, “So shall we EVER be with the Lord.” Again in 2 Corinth. 4:14, he says, “He which raised up the Lord Jesus, shall raise up us also by Jesus, and shall present us WITH YOU.” Again John says (I Epistle 3:2), “When he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is.” For this reason Paul tells us in the very epistle in which the disputed words are found, that he was striving “if by any means he might attain to the resurrection of the dead” (Phil. 3:11). In no case does he speak of presence with the Lord occurring till that event.
Assuming this to be settled, we have to harmonise this understanding of the text with the necessity of the context. If it be asked in what sense death would be a “gain” to Paul, the answer is furnished in the words of Christ: “Whosoever will lose his life for my sake, shall find it.” Paul was about to be beheaded; this was the death he refers to in the context. Consequently, he would, in a special way, stand related to the words of Christ, “Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life” (Rev. 2:10). The question as to when this crown would be given is settled by Paul’s declaration in II Timothy 4:8: “Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, shall give me AT THAT DAY (Christ’s appearing and kingdom, see 1st verse), and not to me only but unto ALL THEM also that love, his appearing.” It was “gain” to die, also, because Paul would thus be freed from all the privations and persecutions enumerated in II Cor. 11:23–28, and would peaceably “sleep” in Christ.
There are arguments advanced on Scriptural grounds in favour of the immortality of the soul which do not quite come within the category of “passages” quoted, but are rather in the nature of deductions from scriptural principles. It may be of advantage to look at some of these before passing on.
“There is no peace, saith my God, to the wicked.”—This is quoted to prove the eternal torment of the wicked. It surely requires no argument to show that it fails entirely in this purpose. The statement is true, irrespective of any theory that may be held as to the destiny of the wicked. While the wicked are in existence, either in this life or after resurrection, there is no peace for them. It is impossible there could be peace for them, especially looking forward to the time when they shall be the objects of God’s judicial and all-devouring vengeance. But this does not prove (as it is quoted to prove) that they are immortal Such an idea is utterly precluded by the testimonies quoted.
The appearance o[ Moses and Elias on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matt. 17:3). As regards Elias, it is testified that he did not see death, but was translated—bodily taken away (II Kings 2:11). His appearance would, therefore, be no proof of the existence of disembodied spirits. As to Moses, if he were bodily present, he must have been raised from the dead beforehand. That he was bodily apparent is evident from the fact of the disciples—mortal men—seeing and recognising him. But it is an open question whether either Moses or Elias were actually present. The testimony is that the things seen were “a vision” (Matt. 17:9). Now from Acts 12:9, we learn that a vision is the opposite of reality—that is, something seen after the manner of a dream—a something apparently real, but in reality only exhibited visionally to the beholder. The audibility of the voices settles nothing one way or the other, because in vision, as in a dream, voices may be heard that have no existence, except in the aural nerves of the seer. In dreams the illusion is the result of functional disorder; in vision, it is the result of the will-energy of the Deity, acting upon the hearing organisation of the trance-wrapt seer (vide Acts 10:13; also the song of the Apocalyptic living creature, and the voice of “souls under the altar”). Neither does the presence of Jesus (an actual personage) as one of the three, contribute much to a solution, because there would be no anomaly in causing Moses and Elias to visionally appear to Jesus, and in association with Jesus. It is probable Moses and Elias were really present, but the use of the word “vision” unhinges the matter a little. In no case can the transfiguration be construed into a proof of the immortality of the soul. It was doubtless a pictorial illustration of the kingdom, in so far as it represented Jesus in his consummated power and glory, exalted over the law (represented by Moses) and the prophets (represented by Elijah), and, therefore, elevated to the position to which the prophets point forward, when, as the head of the nation of Israel and the whole earth, he will cause to be fulfilled the prediction of Moses and the command of the heavenly voice:—“Him shall ye hear in all things”; “Hear ye him.”
“God is not the God of the dead, but of the living” (Matt. 22:32). If the orthodox believer took a logical view of this statement, he would perceive that instead of proving the immortality of the soul, it indirectly establishes the contrary. It recognises the existence of a class of human beings who are not “living,” but “dead.” Who are they? According to the popular theory, there are no “dead” in relation to the human race at all; every human being lives for ever. It cannot be suggested that it means “dead” in the moral sense, because this is expressly excluded by the subject of which Jesus is speaking—the resurrection of the dead bodies from the ground (5:31).
The Sadducees denied the resurrection. Jesus proved the resurrection by quoting from Moses the words of Jehovah, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” How did Jesus deduce the resurrection from this formula? By maintaining that God was not the God of those who were dead in the sense of being done with (see Psalm 49:19–20). From God calling Himself the God of three men who were dead, Jesus argued that God intended to raise them; for “God calleth those things which be not (but are to be) AS THOUGH THEY WERE” (Rom. 4:17). The Sadducees saw the point of the argument, and were put to silence.
But if, as is usually contended, the meaning of “God is not the God of the dead, but of the living,” be, that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are alive, Christ’s argument for the resurrection of the dead is destroyed. For how could it prove the purpose of God to raise Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to assert that they were alive? The very argument requires that they shall be dead at some time, in order to be the subjects of resurrection. Thus it is that the fact of their being dead at a time when God calls Himself their God, yields the conclusion that God purposes their resurrection. But take away the fact of their being dead, which orthodox theology does by saying they were immortal, and could not die, and you take away all the point of Christ’s argument. Looked at the other way, the argument is irresistible, and explains to us how the Sadducees were silenced.
“Their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 18:10). Whose angels? The angels of “the little ones which believe” (Matt. 18:6). It is customary to synonomise “spirits” with “angels,” and to make it out that “their angels” means the “little ones” themselves; but this is a liberty so entirely at variance both with the sense and philology of the case, as to be undeserving of reply. The “little ones” are those who “receive the kingdom of God as a little child,” and “their angels” are the angels of God who supervise their interests. “The angel of the Lord encampeth round about them that fear him” (Psa. 34:7). “Are they (the angels) not all ministering spirits sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation”? (Heb. 1:14). This fact is a good reason why we should “take heed that we despise not one of these little ones”; but adopt the popular version of the matter, and the reason vanishes. “Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones, for their redeemed spirits are in heaven.” This would involve a paradox. Yet without it, the proof for immortal-soulism which some see in it, is nowhere to be found.
“In the way of righteousness is life, and in the pathway thereof there is NO DEATH” (Prov. 12:28). This is sometimes quoted to prove that as regards the righteous at any rate there is no such thing as even momentary extinction of being. If the passage prove this, the converse is established also, that in the way of unrighteousness is death, and in the pathway thereof NO LIFE. The terms of an affirmative proposition have the same value in a negative. Hence, if this passage prove the literal immortality of the righteous, it proves the literal mortality of the wicked, which is more than those who use this argument are prepared to accept. The passage bears out the proposition that the Bible is against the doctrine of the immortality of the soul.
“Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul” (Matt. 10:28). This is the orthodox advocate’s great triumph. He feels here he has a foothold, and he recites the passage with an emphasis entirely absent from his other efforts. He generally snatches his triumph too early, however. He begins comment before finishing the verse. He exultantly enquires why this passage has not been quoted, and so on. If asked to go on with the verse and not leave it half finished, he is not at all enthusiastic in his compliance. However, he goes on if somewhat reluctantly, and stumbles over the concluding sentence, “but rather fear him that is able to DESTROY BOTH SOUL AND BODY in hell.”
Instantly perceiving the disaster which this elaboration of Christ’s exhortation brings upon his theory of imperishable and immortal-soulism, he suggests that “destroy” in this instance means “afflict,” “torment.” But there is no ground for this. In fact, a more unwarrantable suggestion was never hazarded by a theorist in straits. In all the instances in which appollumi—the word translated “destroy,” is used, it is impossible to discover the slightest approach to the idea of affliction or torment. We append all the New Testament instances in which it is used:—“The young child to destroy him” (Matt. 2:13); “might destroy him” (Matt. 12:14; Mark 3:6; 11:18); “Will miserably destroy those wicked men” (Matt. 21:41); “Destroyed those murderers” (Matt. 22:7); “Persuaded the multitude that they should ask Barabbas and destroy Jesus” (Matt. 27:20); “Art thou come to destroy” (Mark 1:24; Luke 4:34); “Into the waters to destroy him” (Mark 9:22); “And destroy the husbandman” (Mark 12:9; Luke 20:16); “To save life or destroy” (Luke 6:9); “Not come to destroy men’s lives” (Luke 9:56); “The flood came and destroyed them all” (Luke 17:27, 29); “Of the people sought to destroy him” (Luke 19:47); “To steal, and to kill, and to destroy” (John 10:10); “Destroy not him with thy meat” (Rom. 14:15); “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise” (I Cor. 1:19); “Were destroyed of serpents” (I Cor. 10:9); “And were destroyed of the destroyer (I Cor. 10:10); “Cast down but not destroyed” (II Cor. 4:9); “Is able to save, and to destroy” (Jas. 4:12); “Afterward destroyed them that believed not” (Jude 5).
In all these cases “destroy” has a very different meaning from “afflict” or “torment.” The reader has only to substitute either of these words for “destroy” in any of the passages to see how utterly out of place such a paraphrase of the word would be. If “destroy” in every other case has its natural meaning, why should an exceptional meaning be claimed for it in Matthew 10? No reason can be given beyond the one already hinted at, viz., the necessities of the orthodox believer’s theory. This is no sound reason at all, and, therefore, we put it aside, and enquire what Jesus meant by exhorting his disciples to “Fear not them that kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul; but rather fear Him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.”
We reply, that “life,” in the abstract, which is the equivalent of the word translated “soul”—the Revisers of the New Testament being witnesses (for they have substituted “life” for soul in Matt. 16:25, 26)—life in the abstract is indestructible. But life is not the man, nor of any use to him if it is not given to him. It is God’s purpose to give life back to those who obey Him, and to give it back immortally. This constitutes the essence of the statement we are considering. Arising out of this, there comes the special view that life in relation to those who are Christ’s, cannot be touched by mortal man, however they may treat the body. Of this life, Paul says, “IT IS HID WITH CHRIST IN GOD” (Col. 3:3) “and when CHRIST, WHO IS OUR LIFE, shall appear, then shall we appear with him in glory” (5:4). This life is the “treasure in the heavens, which faileth not,” spoken of by Jesus and said by Peter to be “reserved in heaven.” Now when men kill the saints, they only terminate their mortal existence. They do not touch that real life of theirs, which is related to the eternal future, and which has it foundation in their connection with Christ in the heavens. This is in Christ’s keeping and can be touched by no man. We are not to fear those who can only demolish the corruptible body, and cannot do anything to prevent the coming bestowal of immortality by resurrection. We are to fear him who hath power to destroy BOTH BODY AND SOUL (LIFE) in Gehenna; that is, in the coming retribution by destructive fire-manifestation, which will utterly consume the ungodly from the presence of the Lord. We are to fear God, who has the power to annihilate from the universe, and who will use the power on all such as are unworthy. We are not to fear those who can at best only hasten the dissolution to which we are Adamically liable.
Erroneousness of Popular Belief in Heaven and Hell
This follows as a conclusion from what has gone before. If the dead are really dead—in the absolute sense contended for in this lecture—of course they cannot have gone to any state of reward or punishment, because they are not alive to go.
We might well leave the matter in this position, as an inevitable conclusion from the premises established; but its grave importance justifies us in carrying the matter further. The belief in question is not only erroneous in supposing that the dead go to such places as the popular heaven or hell, immediately after death, but, in thinking that they ever go there at any time.
According to the religious teaching of the present day, the place of final reward is a region beyond the stars—remote from the farthest limit of God’s universe, “beyond the realms of time and space.” The ideas entertained concerning the nature of this place are very vague. So far as they take shape, whether in picture or in discourse, they take their cue from the earth. Hence, “The plains of Heaven.” In these “plains” the inhabitants are generally represented as singing a perpetual song of praise. The numbers are supposed to be constantly recruited by arrivals from the earth “below.” A man dies, and according to orthodox idea, the liberated soul flies with inconceivable rapidity to the realms above, safely installed in which, bereaved friends console themselves with the idea that the dead are “not lost, but gone before.” Friends think of them as better off in that “happy land, far, far, away,” than they were in this vale of tears.
Doubtless if it was true, that they were gone to a happy land, the contemplation of their state would be consoling. Whether true or not, it must strike every reflecting mind as an exceedingly discordant element in the case that the righteous after enjoying years of celestial felicity, should have to leave the abode of their bliss, on the arrival of the day of judgment, come down to earth, re-enter their bodies for arraignment at the bar of eternal judgment. What is this judgment, “according to what they have done,” for? It seems natural to suppose that admission into heaven in the first instance is proof of the fitness and acceptance of those admitted. Why, then, the trial afterwards? Judgment in such a case seems a mockery. The same remark applies to those who are supposed to have gone to the place of woe.
What is the escape from this distracting inconsistency? It is to be found in the recognition of the unfounded character of the whole heaven-going idea of popular religion. This going to heaven is a purely gratuitous speculation. There is not a single promise throughout the whole of the Scriptures to warrant a man in hoping for it. There are, doubtless, phrases which, to a mind previously indoctrined with the idea, seem to afford countenance to it, such, for instance, as that used by Peter (1st Epistle, chap. 1:4; 4): “An inheritance incorruptible and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you”: of which also we have an illustration in the words of Christ (Matt. 5:12): “For great is your reward in heaven”; and more particularly in his exhortation to “Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal.”
But the countenance which these phrases seemingly afford to the popular idea, disappears entirely when we realise they express an aspect of the Christian hope, viz.: its present aspect. God’s salvation is not now on earth; indeed, it is not yet an accomplished fact anywhere, except in the person of Christ. It merely exists in the divine mind as a purpose, and, in detail, that purpose is specially related to those whom Jehovah fore-knowingly contemplates as the “saved,” who are said to be “written in the book,” that is, inscribed in the book of His remembrance (Malachi 3:16). Therefore the only localisation of reward, at present, is in heaven, to which the eye instinctively turns as the source of its promised manifestation. This is especially the case when it is taken into account that Jesus, the pledge of that reward, yea, the very germ thereof, is in heaven. In his being there, who is our life, the undefiled inheritance at present is there; for it exists in him in purpose, in guarantee, and in germ. It has no other kind of existence anywhere else at present; but it is only in heaven in “reserve”; “reserved in heaven,” in Peter’s phrase. When a thing is “reserved,” it implies that when it is wanted, it will be brought forth. And thus it is that Peter speaks in the very same chapter. He says the salvation that is reserved in heaven is a “salvation that is to be brought unto you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (I Peter 1:13). We shall see in future lectures that it is not bestowed upon any until its manifestation at “the appearing of our Saviour Jesus Christ,” of whom it is said that “His reward is WITH HIM” (Rev. 22:12; Isaiah 40:10).
The phrases in question indicate in a general way that “Salvation cometh from the Lord”; and, the Lord being in heaven, it cometh from heaven; and, being yet unmanifested, can properly be said to be at present in heaven. But, on the specific question of whether men go to heaven or not, the evidence is conclusive, as showing that no son of Adam’s race is offered entrance to the holy and inaccessible precincts of the residence of the Deity. “God dwelleth in light which no man can approach unto” (I Tim. 6:16). The emphatic declaration of Christ is, “No man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of Man which is in heaven” (John 3:13).
Agreeably to this declaration, we have no record in the Scriptures of anyone having entered heaven. Elijah was removed from the earth; so was Enoch; but Christ’s statement forbids us to suppose that they were conducted to the “heaven of heavens” which “is the Lord’s.” The statement that they went “into heaven” does not necessarily imply that they went to the abode of the Most High. “Heaven” is used in a general sense as designating the firmament over our heads, which we know is a wide expanse, while “the heaven of heavens” points to the region inhabited by Deity. If it be asked, Where are they? The answer is, No one knows; because there is no testimony on the subject beyond that of Christ’s, which proves that they did not go to the heaven of which he was speaking.
And especially is it true that there is no record in the Scriptures of any dead man having gone to heaven. The record is the other way—that the dead are in their graves, knowing nothing, feeling nothing, being nothing, awaiting that call from oblivion which is promised by resurrection. Of David it is specifically declared that he has not attained to the sky translation which in funeral sermons is affirmed of every righteous soul. And David, remember, was “a man after God’s own heart,” and certain, therefore, of admission into heaven at death, if anybody were. Peter says:—
“Men and brethren, let me freely speak unto you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his sepulchre is with us unto this day … FOR DAVID IS NOT ASCENDED INTO THE HEAVENS” (Acts 2:29, 34).
This is emphatic enough. If you say Peter is speaking of David’s body, then it proves that Peter recognised David’s body as David, and the departed life as the property of God taken back again. Again, let Paul speak of the “great cloud of witnesses,” who have passed away—the faithful saints of old times, who are supposed to be before the throne of God, “inheriting the promises,” and he tells us:—
“These all died in faith, NOT HAVING RECEIVED THE PROMISES, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (Heb. 11:13).
And in the same chapter, verses 39–40, he repeats:—
“These all having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise. God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us SHOULD NOT BE MADE PERFECT.”
Let us now consult those cases in which consolation is administered in the Scriptures in reference to the dead. You know the doctrines which are enforced with such peculiar urgency by the religious teachers of the present day, when they have to discourse of the departed, such as in the funeral sermons, by way of “improving the occasion.” You will find a great contrast to these in Scriptural cases of consolation concerning the dead. When Martha told Jesus that Lazarus was dead, he did not tell her he was better where he was. He said (John 11:23), “Thy brother shall rise again.”
When death had removed some of the Thessalonian believers, the survivors, who had evidently calculated upon their living until the coming of the Lord, were filled with sorrow. In this condition, Paul writes to comfort them. Suppose a minister of the present day had had the duty to perform, what would have been his language? “You must rejoice, my friends, for those who are dead, for they are gone to glory. They are delivered from the trials and vexations of this life, and are promoted to a felicity they could never experience in this vale of tears. It is selfish of you to grieve; you ought rather to be glad that they have reached the haven of eternal rest.”
But what says Paul? Does he tell them their friends are happy in heaven? This was the time to say so if it were true, but no; his words are:—
“I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them who are asleep, that ye sorrow not even as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also that sleep in Jesus will God bring with him. (When?) For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord, shall not prevent (or precede) them who are asleep: For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and the trump of God and the dead in Christ shall rise first; then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so shall we ever be with the Lord. Wherefore comfort one another with these words” (I Thess. 4:13–18).
The second coming of Christ and the resurrection are the events to which Paul directs their minds for consolation. If it be true that the righteous go to their reward immediately after death, Paul would certainly have suggested such a consolation, instead of referring to the remote, and (in the orthodox view) comparatively unattractive event of the resurrection. The fact that he does not do so, is circumstantial proof that it is not true.
The earth we inhabit is the destined arena in which Jehovah’s great salvation will be manifested. Here, subsequently to the resurrection, will the reward be conferred and enjoyed. There is no point more clearly established than this by the specific language of Scripture testimony. Old and New Testaments agree. Solomon declares, “Behold the righteous shall be recompensed IN THE EARTH” (Prov. 11:31).
“Blessed are the meek; for they shall INHERIT THE EARTH” (Matt. 5:5).
In Psalm 37:9–11, the Spirit speaking through David, says:—
“Evildoers shall be cut off; but those that wait upon the Lord, they shall INHERIT THE EARTH. For yet a little while and the wicked shall not be; yea thou shalt diligently consider his place, and it shall not be. But the meek shall inherit the earth, and shall delight themselves in the abundance of peace.”
Some corroboration is to be drawn from the following promise to Christ, of which his people are fellowheirs with him:—
“I will give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the UTTERMOST PARTS OF THE EARTH for thy possession” (Psa. 2:8).
In celebrating the approaching possession of this great inheritance, the redeemed are represented as singing:—
“Thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people and nation, and hast made us unto our God kings and priests, and we shall reign ON THE EARTH” (Rev. 5:9, 10).
And the end of the present dispensation is announced in these words:—
“The kingdoms of THIS WORLD are become the kingdoms of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign for ever and ever” (Rev. 11:15).
Finally, the angel of the Most High God, in announcing to Daniel, the prophet, the same consummation of things, says:—
“The kingdom and dominion, and the greatness of the kingdom UNDER the whole heaven, shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High, whose kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey him” (Dan. 7:27).
Without going into the particular question involved in these passages of Scripture, which will be considered afterwards, it is sufficient to remark that they unmistakably prove that it is on the earth that we are to look for the development of that divine programme of events, so clearly indicated in the Scriptures of truth, which is to result in “glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.”
Destiny of the Wicked
If we seek for information on this question at the religious systems, we shall be told of an unfathomable abyss of fire, filled with malignant spirits of horrid shape, in which are reserved the most exquisite torments for those who have been displeasing to God in their mortal state. In the foreground of the lurid picture, we shall see cursing fiends mocking the damned; men and women wringing their hands in eternal despair; and stretching away on all sides, and down to the deepest depth, a weltering ocean of blackness, fire, and horrible confusion. We shall be told that God, in His eternal counsels of wisdom and mercy, has decreed this awful triumph of Devilry!
Do we believe it? There are certain elementary truths, that, by an almost intuitive logic, exclude the possibility of its being true. If God is the merciful Being of order, and justice, and harmony, exhibited in the Scriptures, how is it possible that, with all His foreknowledge and omnipotence, He can permit ninetenths of the human race to come into existence with no other destiny than to be tortured? The Calvanistic theory has, of course, its answer, but its answer is mere words; it does not touch, or alter, or even soften the difficulty; the difficulty—the dreadful difficulty—remains to agonise the believing mind that really grasps what the popular idea of hell-torments means. The effect on the majority of reflecting minds is disastrous, in a too easy revolt against the Scriptures.
Rather than believe such a doctrine, most men reject the Bible altogether, and even dispense with God from their creed, and take refuge in the calm, if cheerless, doctrines of Rationalism. This is what many are driven to, in unfortunate ignorance of the fact that the Bible is not responsible for the doctrine. It is a pagan fiction. It ought to be known, for the comfort of all who have been perplexed with the awful dogma, and who have yet hesitated to renounce it, in fear of being also compelled to cast aside the Word of God, that it is as thoroughly unscriptural as it is distressingly dreadful.
The whole teaching of the Bible in regard to the destiny of the wicked is summed up in four words from the 37th Psalm, verse 20, “The wicked shall PERISH.” Paul gives the explanation of this in Rom. 6:23: “The wages of sin is DEATH.” Death, the extinction of being, is the pre-determined issue of a sinful course. “He that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption” (Gal. 6:8). That reaping corruption is equivalent to death, is evident from Rom. 8:13: “If ye live after the flesh ye shall DIE.” Corruption results in death, so that the one is equal to the other.
The righteous die, as well as the wicked; therefore, it is argued, there must be some other than physical death. The answer is that the death that all men die is not a judicial death—not the final death to be dealt to those who are responsible to judgment. Ordinary death but closes a man’s mortal career. There is a SECOND death—final and destructive. The unjust are to be brought forth, at Christ’s appearing, for judicial arraignment, and their sentence is, that, after the infliction of such punishment as may be merited, they shall, a second time, by violent and divinely-wielded agency, be destroyed in death. To this Jesus refers, when he says, “He that loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it; but he that (in the present life) saveth his life, shall (at the resurrection) LOSE it” (in the second death). All the phraseology of Scripture is in agreement on this subject.
We read in Malachi 4:1:—
“Behold, the day cometh that shall burn as an oven, and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the Lord of HOSTS, THAT IT SHALL LEAVE THEM NEITHER ROOT NOR BRANCH.”
Again, in II Thess. 1:9:—
“They shall be punished with EVERLASTING DESTRUCTION from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power.”
The Spirit of God by Solomon in the Proverbs uses the following language:—
“As the whirlwind passeth SO IS THE WICKED NO MORE; but the righteous is an everlasting foundation” (Prey. 10:25).
And again, Prey. 2:22:—
“The wicked shall be cut off from the earth, and the transgressors shall be rooted out of it.”
Zophar gives the following emphatic testimony:—
“Knowest thou not this of old—since man was placed upon earth—that the triumphing of the wicked is short, and the joy of the hypocrite but for a moment? Though his excellency mount up to the heavens, and his head reach unto the clouds, YET HE SHALL PERISH FOR EVER, LIKE HIS OWN DUNG. They that have seen him shall say, Where is he? He shall fly away as a dream, and shall not be found, yea, he shall be chased away as a vision of the night” (Job, 20:4–8).
David employs the following graphic figure to the same purport:—
“The wicked shall perish. The enemies of the Lord shall be as the fat of lambs. They shall consume: into smoke shall they consume away” (Psa. 37:20).
And we read in Ps. 49:6–20:—
“They that trust in their wealth and boast themselves in the multitude of their riches … their inward thought is that their houses shall continue for ever, and their dwelling places to all generations. They call their lands after their own names. Nevertheless man being in honour, abideth not: he is like the beasts that perish. This their way is their folly: yet their posterity approve their sayings. Like sheep they are laid in the grave; DEATH SHALL FEED ON THEM; and the upright shall have dominion over them in the morning … He shall go to the generation of his fathers, THEY SHALL NEVER SEE LIGHT. Man that is in honour, and understandeth not, is like the beasts that perish.”
Of their final state we read in Isaiah 24:14:—
“They are dead, they shall not live; they are deceased, they shall not rise; therefore, hast thou visited and DESTROYED them, and made all their memory to perish.”
The teaching of these testimonies is self-elucidatory; it is expressed with a clearness of language that leaves no room for comment. It is the doctrine expressed by Solomon when he says: “the name of the wicked shall rot” (Prov. 10:7). The wicked, who are an offence to God, and an affliction to themselves, and of no use to any one, will ultimately be consigned to oblivion, in which their very name will be forgotten. They do not escape punishment; but of this, and of those passages which seem to favour the popular doctrine, we shall treat in the next lecture.
It may seem to the reader that the word “hell” as employed in the Bible, presents an obstacle to the views advanced in this lecture. If the Greek word so translated carried with it the idea represented to the popular mind in its short, pithy Saxon form, the popular view would be capable of demonstration, for the word is frequent enough in the Bible, and is used in connection with the destiny of the wicked. But the original word does not carry with it the idea popularly associated with the word “hell.” The original word has no affinity with its modern use. One does not require to be a scholar to see this. A due familiarity with the English Bible will carry conviction on the point, though conviction is undoubtedly strengthened by a knowledge of the original Greek and Hebrew. What, for instance, has the orthodox believer to say to the following:—
“And they (Meshech, Tubal, and all her multitude), shall not lie with the mighty that are fallen of the uncircumcised, which are GONE DOWN TO HELL WITH THEIR WEAPONS OF WAR; and they have laid their swords under their heads” (Ezek. 32:27).
It is but necessary to ask if men’s immortal souls take swords and guns with them when they “go to hell”? This may sound irreverent, but it shows the bearing of the passage. The hell of the Bible is a place to which military accoutrements may accompany the wearer. The nature and locality of this hell may be gathered from a statement only five verses before the passage quoted. “Asshur is there and all her company; his graves are about him, all of them slain, fallen by the sword, whose graves are set in the sides of the pit, and her company is round about HER GRAVE.” The references point to the Eastern mode of sepulture, in which a pit or cave was used for burial—the bodies of the dead being deposited in niches cut in the wall. As a mark of military honour, soldiers were buried with their weapons, their swords being laid under their heads. They went down to “HELL with their weapons of war.”
It will be seen that hell is synonymous with the grave. This is proved, so far at least as the Old Testament is concerned. The original word is sheol, which, in the abstract, means nothing more than a concealed or covered place. It is, therefore, an appropriate designation for the grave, in which a man is for ever concealed from view. Every use of the word hell in the Old Testament, will fall under this general explanation. As regards the New Testament, there is the same simplicity and absence of difficulty. The original word is, of course, different, being Greek instead of Hebrew; it is in nearly all cases, hades. That hades is equal to the Hebrew word sheol is shown by its employment as an equivalent for it in the Septuagint (Greek) translation of the Hebrew Scriptures; and also in its use by the writers of the New Testament when they quote verses from the Old Testament where sheol occurs in the Hebrew. For instance, in David’s prophecy of the resurrection of Christ, cited by Peter on the day of Pentecost (“Thou wilt not leave my soul in hell” a.v.), the word in Hebrew is sheol, and in Greek hades. In this instance, hell simply and literally means the grave, in view of which, we see the point of Peter’s argument. Understood as the orthodox hell, there is no point in it at all; for the resurrection of the body has no point of connection with the escape of a so-called immortal soul from the abyss of popular superstition. A similar consideration arises upon I Cor. 15:55; “O grave (hades), where is thy victory?” This is the exclamation of the righteous in reference to resurrection, as anyone may see on consulting the context. Our translators, perceiving this, instead of rendering hades by “hell,” have given us the more suitable word “grave”; but if hades may be translated “grave” here, it may, of course, be translated so anywhere else.
There is another word translated hell, which does not mean the grave, but which at the same time affords as little countenance to orthodox belief as hades. That word is Gehenna. It occurs in the following passages: Matt. 5:22, 29, 30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Luke 12:5; Jas. 3:6. The word ought not to be translated at all. It is a proper name, and like all other proper names, should only have been transliterated. It is a Greek compound signifying the valley of the Son of Hinnom. Calmet in his Bible Dictionary, defining it, has the following:—
“GEHENNA or Gehennom, or Valley of Hennom, or Valley of the Son of Hennom (see Josh. 15:8; II Kings 23:10), a valley adjacent to Jerusalem, through which the southern limits of the tribe of Benjamin passed.”
The valley was used in ancient times for the worship of Moloch, in which Israel, lamentably misguided, offered their children to the heathen god of that name. Josiah, in his zeal against idolatry, gave the valley over to pollution, and appointed it as a repository of the filth of the city. It became the receptacle of rubbish in general, and received the carcases of men and beasts. To consume the rubbish and prevent pestilence, fires were kept perpetually burning in it. In the days of Jesus it was the highest mark of ignominy that the council of the Jews could inflict, to Order a man to be buried in Gehenna. In one of Jeremiah’s prophecies of Jewish restoration, the obliteration of this valley of dishonour is predicted in the following words: “And the whole valley of the DEAD BODIES, and of the ASHES, and all the fields unto the brook of Kidron, unto the corner of the horse gate toward the east, shall be holy unto the Lord” (Jer. 31:40).
This is the Gehenna to which the rejected are to be given over at the judgment. That it should be translated “hell,” and thus made to favour popular delusion, is simply due to the opinion of the translators that ancient Gehenna was a type of the hell of their creed. There is no true ground for this assumption. It is the assumption upon which Calmet’s remarks are based, notwithstanding his knowledge of the subject. He was of the orthodox school, and makes the common orthodox mistake of begging the question to begin with. Let the orthodox hell be proved first before Gehenna is used in the argument. If it is a type of anything, it must be interpreted as a type rather of the judgment revealed, than of one imagined. And the orthodox “hell” is mere imagination, based on Pagan speculations on futurity.
The judgment revealed is indeed related to the locality of Gehenna, and is one that will take the same form as regards circumstance and result. “They (who come to worship at Jerusalem in the future age, Is. 66:20–23) shall go forth and look upon the carcases of the men that have transgressed against me; for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched; and they shall be an abhorring unto all flesh” (5:24). The reader will observe a similarity between these words and the words of Christ in Mark 9:44–48, “Where their worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched.”
These words are frequently quoted in support of eternal torments, but they really disprove them. In the first place, the undying worm and the unquenchable fire must be admitted to be symbolical expressions. The worm is an agent of corruption, ending in death. Fire is a means to the same end, but by a more summary process. When, therefore, they are said to be unarrestable in their action, it must be taken to indicate that destruction will be accomplished without remedy. The expression cannot mean immortal worms or absolutely inextinguishable fire.
A limited sense to an apparently absolute expression is frequently exemplified throughout the Scriptures. In Jer. 7:20, Jehovah says, His anger should be poured out upon Jerusalem, and should “burn and should not be quenched.” He says also in Jer. 17:27, “I will kindle a fire in the gates of Jerusalem, and it shall devour the palaces thereof, and it shall not be quenched.” This does not mean that the fire with reference to itself should never go out, but that in relation to the object of its operation, it should not be quenched till the operation was accomplished. A fire was kindled in Jerusalem, and only went out when Jerusalem was burned to the ground. So also God’s anger burned against Israel, until it burnt them out of the land, driving them out of His sight; but Isaiah speaks of a time when God’s anger will cease in the destruction of the enemy (chap. 10:25).
The same principle is illustrated in the 21st chapter of Ezekiel, verses 3, 4, 5, where Jehovah states that his sword will go forth out of its sheath against all flesh, and shall no more return. It is not necessary to say that in the consummation of God’s purpose, His loving kindness will triumph over all exhibitions of anger, which have for their object the extirpation of evil. In the absolute sense, therefore, His sword of vengeance will return to its sheath, but not in the sense of failing to accomplish its purpose. So that the worm that preys upon the wicked will disappear when the last enemy, death, is destroyed, and the fire that consumes their corrupt remains will die with the fuel it feeds on; but in relation to the wicked themselves, the worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. The expressions were borrowed from Gehenna, where the flame was fed, and the worm sustained, by the putrid accumulations of the valley.
The statement in Matt. 25:46 is more apparently in favour of the popular doctrine, but not more really so when examined. “These shall go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into life eternal.” Even taken as it stands in the English version, this does not define the nature of the punishment which is to fall on the wicked, but only affirms its perpetuity. The nature of it is elsewhere described as death and destruction. Why should this be called “aionion” (translated “everlasting”)? Aionion is the adjective form of aion, age, and expresses the idea of belonging to the age. Understood in this way, the statement only proves that at the resurrection, the wicked will be punished with the punishment characteristically pertaining to the age of Christ’s advent, which Paul declares to be “everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power” (II Thess. 1:9). The righteous receive the life related to the same dispensation—a life which Paul declares to be immortality (I Cor. 15:53).
It is usual to quote, in support of the eternal torments, a statement from the Apocalypse, “They shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever” (Rev. 14:11; 20:10). On the face of it, this form of speech does lend countenance to the popular idea, but we must not be satisfied with looking on the face of it in this instance, because the statement forms part of a symbolical vision, which has to be construed mystically in harmony with the principle of interpretation supplied in the vision. If Apocalyptic torment “for ever and ever” is literal, then the beast, the woman with the golden cup, the lamb with the seven horns and seven eyes, are literal also. Is the orthodox believer prepared for this? Surely, Christ is not in the shape of a seven-horned lamb, or a man with a sword in his mouth; surely, the false Church is not a literal prostitute, or the Church’s persecutor a literal wild boar of the woods. If these are symbolical, the things affirmed of them are symbolical also, and torment (or judicial infliction, for this is the idea of basanizo, the Greek word), “for ever and ever” is the symbol of the complete and resistless, and final triumph of God’s destroying judgment over the things represented.
Failing Scriptural evidence, the orthodox believer takes refuge among “the ancient Egyptians, the Persians, Phœnicians, Scythians, Druids, Assyrians, Romans, Greeks, etc.,” and among “the wisest and most celebrated philosophers on record.” All these people—the superstitious and dark-minded heathen of every land, the founders of the wisdom of this world, which is foolishness with God—all these believed in the immortality of the soul, and, therefore, the immortality of the soul is true!
Logic extraordinary! One would think that the opinion of the ignorant and superstitious in favour of the immortality of the soul would be rather against, than for, the likelihood of its being true. The Bible does not rate our ancestors very highly as regards their views and ways in religious things. Paul speaks of the period prior to the preaching of the Gospel (and referring to Gentile nations), as “the times of this IGNORANCE.” (Acts 17:30). Of the wisdom which men had educed for themselves through the reasonings of “the wisest and most celebrated philosophers,” he says, “Hath not God made FOOLISH the wisdom of this world?” “The wisdom of this world is FOOLISHNESS with God” (I Cor. 1:20; 3:19). Wise men will prefer being on Paul’s side.
The orthodox believer glories in the wisdom of ancient philosophy and paganism, which Paul pronounces foolishness. What can we do but stand with Paul? Paul says that immortality was brought to light by Christ in the Gospel (II Tim. 1:10). If so, how can we believe in the version of it put forward by the “wisest and most celebrated philosophers,” centuries before Christ appeared, and whose wisdom Paul, speaking by the Spirit, pronounces “foolishness”? Either Christ brought the truth of the matter to light, or he did not. If he did, the doctrines before his time were darkness; if the doctrines before his time (rejoiced in by the orthodox believer) were not darkness, but light, then Christ did not bring the truth to light in the Gospel, for in that case it was brought to light before the gospel was preached.
But many who were once orthodox are losing their orthodoxy, and are beginning to see that the teaching of the Bible is one thing and popular religion another. The following extract, from a work published in America “The Theology of the Bible,” (by Judge Halsted), will illustrate this:—
“The Rev. Dr. Theodore Clapp, in his autobiography, says he had preached at New Orleans, a zealous sermon for endless punishment; that after the sermon, Judge W., who, says he, was an eminent scholar, and had studied for the ministry, but relinquished his purpose, because he could not find the doctrine of endless punishment and kindred dogmas, asked him to make out a list of texts in the Hebrew or Greek on which he relied for the doctrine. The doctor then gives a detailed account of his studies in search of texts to give to the judge; that he began with the Old Testament in the Hebrew; and prosecuted his study during that and the succeeding year; and yet he was unable to find therein so much as an allusion to any suffering after death; that, in the dictionary of the Hebrew language, he could not discern a word signifying hell, or a place of punishment in a future state; that he could not find a single text, in any form or phraseology, which holds out threats of retribution beyond the grave; that to his utter astonishment it turned out that orthodox critics of the greatest celebrity were perfectly familiar with these facts; that he was compelled to confess to the judge that he could not produce any Hebrew text; but that still he was sanguine that the New Testament would furnish what he had sought for without success in Moses and the prophets; that he prosecuted his study of the Greek of the New Testament eight years; that the result was that he could not name a portion of it, from the first verse in Matthew to the last of Revelation, which, fairly interpreted, affirms that a portion of mankind will be eternally miserable. The doctor concludes by saying it is an important, most instructive fact, that he was brought into his present state of mind (the repudiation of the dogma) by the Bible only—a state of mind running counter to all the prejudices of his early life, of parental precept, of school, theological seminary, and professional caste.”
Yes, the Bible and the seminaries are at variance on this important subject. The seminaries light up the future of the wicked with a lurid horror, which the worthy of mankind even now feel to be a great drawback from the satisfaction of the prospects of the righteous. How can there be perfect joy and gladness with the knowledge that fierce Despair reigns among tormented millions in another place? The Bible gives us a glorious future, unmarred by such a blot. It exhibits a future free from evil—a future of glory and everlasting joy to the righteous, and of oblivion to all the unworthy of mankind—a future in which the wisdom of God combines the glory of His name with the highest happiness of the whole surviving human race.