Part 3 The Eternal Issues

Chapter 37

"The Gospel of Hope"

Our accounts with annihilationism are well-nigh closed. But there remain still some from the opposite side of restorationism which require to be looked at, and among the advocates of this, spite of his protest, we must reckon Dr. Farrar. He is not indeed an assured Universalist; but it is not wronging him to say that he is one in hope. His book is styled "Eternal Hope," and his own views are evidently identical with what he calls, "the gospel of hope": where by "hope," he does not mean certainty, not a "hope which maketh not ashamed," but at least a hope that may. His utterances are naturally somewhat inconsistent and contradictory in consequence. But we will credit him with the somewhat independent ground he takes, and reserving the doctrine of the apokatastasis, the "restitution of all things," as stated in Scripture, for future consideration, we will now look at his position, which we will state in his own words.

"On such a question as this," he says,* "I care but little for individual authority, but this much at least is proved by the many differing theories of wise and holy men — that God has given us no clear and decisive revelation on the final condition of those who have died in sin. It is revealed to us that 'God is love'; and that 'Him to know is life eternal'; and that 'it is not His will that any should perish'; and that 'as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive'; but how long, even after death, man may continue to resist His will; — how long he may continue in that spiritual death, which is alienation from God; — that is one of the secret things which God hath not revealed. But this much at any rate, that the fate of man is not finally and irreversibly sealed at death, you yourselves, — unwittingly perhaps, but none the less certainly, admit and declare and confess, every time you repeat in the Apostles' Creed, that Christ descended into hell. For the sole passage which proves that article of the creed is the passage in St. Peter which tells us that 'He went and preached to the spirits in prison, which sometime were disobedient.' St. Peter in my text tells you in so many words, that 'the gospel was preached to them that were dead,' and if, as the church in every age has held, the fate of those dead sinners was not irrevocably fixed by death, then it must be clear and obvious to the meanest understanding that neither of necessity is ours.

{* Eternal Hope, p. 86, etc.}

"There then is the sole answer which I can give to your question, 'what about the lost?' My belief is fixed upon that 'living God,' who, we are told, is 'the Saviour of all men.' My answer is with Thomas Erskine of Linlathen, that 'we are lost here as much as there, and that Christ came to seek and save the lost;' and my hope is that the vast majority at any rate of the lost may at length be found. If any hardened sinner, shamefully loving his sin, and despising the long-suffering of his Saviour, trifle with that doctrine, it is at his own just and awful peril. But if on the other hand, there be some among you, — as are there not? — souls sinful indeed but not hard in sin; — souls, failing indeed, yet even amid their failing, who long, and pray, and love, and agonize, and strive to creep ever nearer to the light;then I say, have faith in God. There is hope for you; — hope, even if death overtake you before the final victory is won; — hope for the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven;hope for the mourners, for they shall be comforted — though you too may have to be purified in that Gehenna of aeonian fire beyond the grave."

"We are wretched; therefore — not surely in this short world only, but forever — God will pity us. Punish us? Yes, punish us, because He pities. But 'God judges that He may teach, He never teaches that He may judge.' His aeonian fire is the fire of love; it is to purify, not to torture; it is to melt, and not to burn."*

{* Eternal Hope, p. 97.}

This is Dr. Farrar's "hope." And if it were confined to himself, one might afford to pass it by, but it is a hope that suits men well, and that they are drinking in, — a hope that is not the true hope for those "poor in spirit" whom he addresses, and for whom God has far sweeter comfort; but a hope that just those triflers with a Saviour's mercy of whom he speaks will take to hang themselves over that awful abyss of hell, till they prove it, not the fire of love, but the awful and eternal fire of wrath, which answers to the undying worm within.

First then, as to these "poor in spirit" — souls longing, praying, agonizing, striving ever to creep nearer to the light — is God's answer to your longing this, that after all the fire of Gehenna may be needed to purify you? No, it is the news of a better purification: "the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanseth from all sin." What saved a dying thief at the last hour, can save still without the need of "aeonian fire." Dr. Farrar's "gospel of hope" mis-states the whole case as to man's condition, but worse; it slights Christ's blessed work, and substitutes penal fire for atonement, — wrath for grace.

Is man willing to have God's salvation, and God lacking in will or in power to save him? Never, surely.* "Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved." Is salvation a doubtful, laborious process, arrived at by long effort, by prayers, by strivings, which may have to be eked out after death by some supplementary process? Nay, but being "justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ," "justified through the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law." Is hell-fire God's process of salvation for those who look to Him, or God's wrath upon those who reject His salvation? It is the latter, and not the former. Did Christ tell the "poor in spirit" that theirs was the lake of fire or "the kingdom of heaven"? Did He tell the mourners they should be "comforted" or tormented?

{*I take this opportunity of noticing briefly Mr. Cox's argument in this connection, which is the starting-point of his book. He asks, if Tyre and Sidon would have repented in view of Christ's mighty works, why were they not permitted to witness them? "Can we blame them, will God condemn them, and condemn them to an eternal death, or an eternal misery, because they did not see what they could not see?" "It seems hard and unjust that a man's salvation, a man's life, should hang on the age into which he is born." "And yet who dare say of any class of men, in any age, that nothing but their own will prevented their salvation? … No; to say, Doubtless God gave these poor men all that was necessary to life and virtue … is simply to offer Him that insincere flattery, to show Him that respect of persons, which even Job could see He Himself would be the first to rebuke." Thus Mr. Cox can "see no way out of the difficulty, so long as we assume what the Bible does not teach, that there is no probation beyond the grave." He has no doubt that the men of Sodom and Tyre have heard Christ's words long ere this, and that the words, "it shall be more tolerable for them in the day of judgment imply this"! (Salvator Mundi, ch. 1.).

Now we are among the people of "brain so narrow" as to believe the Lord's words imply the very opposite of this. They certainly show that the issue of the day of judgment depends upon the present response given by man to God, and not upon a supposed future one; for if it depended upon the future, it could not be decided now that it would be "more tolerable"; especially as nobody has a fair chance now! But then, if man's will is not the obstacle, what are we to think of our Lord's, "how often would I, and ye would not," or "ye will not come unto me," etc.

Doubtless Tyre and Sidon will not be condemned for not seeing what they could not see: no one believes they will. But they are responsible for the light they had, and there is a "more tolerable" judgment, "few stripes" instead of "many."

Again, "Nineveh repented at the preaching of Jonas," an illustration of what the Lord means in this very connection. Was that "repentance unto life"?The city remained in consequence, was not overthrown; Capernaum, not repenting, was. The comparison shows that the Lord does not affirm that Tyre and Sidon could have been so brought to God and saved, but that at least they would have been affected and humbled, like Nineveh, by a visitation which the cities of Israel were callous and indifferent to, With this sense there is no "difficulty" to get out of by an unwarrantable and unscriptural supposition.}

Dr. Farrar's gospel is really infidelity as to fundamental truth — as to Christ and grace. It makes their hearts sad whom God has not made sad, while those only could find encouragement in it who are as ignorant of grace as he is, or else those who want comfort to go on in sin as long as they can. The apostle asks, "how shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation?" Dr. Farrar answers, we may escape, even out of hell itself, and most will, perhaps all. The Lord bids, "Fear Him who is able to destroy both body and soul in hell." Of course He is able, but He never will, says Dr. Farrar. It is not an exceptional thing that the question of God's love and the denial of His truth should go together.

We have not forgotten the texts, however. One article of the apostle's creed, it seems, rests upon a most "isolated text," "the sole passage" in Scripture for it. According to his own words elsewhere, we might suppose he would not care to lay stress upon this. But we should be mistaken. He thinks this isolated text sufficient to bear the entire weight almost of the whole doctrine that the fate of men is not fixed by death, but that they may be saved after it.

We could not upon our own principles, however, object to the production of even one passage if really clear. But Dr. Farrar takes no pains to show that it is so. While speaking as he does about texts torn from their context, he himself presents us with the middle of a sentence from Scripture with both ends cut off; and while believing, on another subject, that the "differing theories of wise and holy men" prove as to it that "God has given no clear and decisive revelation," quotes this as if entire unanimity prevailed about it, as what "the church in every age has held," when he means "some in the church," more or less as it may be.

Perhaps we must not expect over-much consistency; but if the Canon of Westminster apprehended aright the greatness of the issue he is raising, and if he believed in Scripture as what alone could settle it, he would not be content to deal in this light and flippant way with the authorities he adduces. One cannot but feel that after all Scripture is very little that for him, and that his main reliance is elsewhere. For haply if his own text went against him he would protest against "this ignorant tyranny of isolated texts," as he has done already, and vaunt the more his "Christian liberty" to adopt his own independent thoughts.

But we, who claim no such liberty, nor desire it, are bound therefore, nevertheless, to accept his appeal to Scripture as if it were a loyal one. Let us first read the passage then, as it stands in our version, which is sufficiently correct: —

"For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the Just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit, by which also [He went and preached to the spirits in prison, which* sometime were disobedient] when once the long-suffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls, were saved by water" (1 Peter 3:18-20).

{* Edw. White, who takes a similar view of this passage with Dr. Farrar, reads "though they once had been disobedient" — but this is interpretation, not translation (Life in Christ, p. 320).}

I have bracketed the part that Canon Farrar quotes, and emphasized the immediate context which he omits. It ought to speak for itself as to the suitability of the passage for his purpose.

First, it was by the Spirit that Christ went and preached — not personally, as the words separated from their context might be thought to mean. It has been sought to make "the Spirit" signify Christ's human spirit; with this necessary effect, that if He were "quickened in His human spirit,"* that human spirit must have itself died, in order to be quickened. On this account it has been attempted to substitute "quick," or "alive," or "preserved alive," for "quickened": meanings which the word cannot possibly bear. "Made alive by the Spirit" can only refer to resurrection, and thus it is not Christ as a disembodied spirit that is spoken of at all.

{*The words are quoted thus in "Yesterday, Today, and Forever."}

But people urge that "He went and preached" shows a personal going. It has been answered that in the same way He "came and preached peace," in Eph. 2:17, must be (what confessedly it is not) a personal coming. "By the Spirit He went" excludes the thought entirely.

Then further as to the "spirits in prison." They are in prison now (that is the force of it) as having been once disobedient in the days of Noah. But disobedient to what? Why, to the Spirit's preaching. It was of these that of old God had said, "My Spirit shall not always strive with man." Plainly it was in that time of old that Christ had preached to them, and what should make it certain, without any nice questions of translation, is that the limit of God's striving with these antediluvians is plainly set: — "My Spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh: but his days shall be an hundred and twenty years." It is strange that some should think that a limit put to human life, which was then, and for generations afterwards, far longer. It is the limit of the Spirit's striving with that generation, at the end of which the flood came. With them the end of the Spirit's striving and of their life came together. And it is just these whom Dr. Farrar and others will have it that Christ specially singled out to preach to more than two thousand years afterward, in direct contradiction of the divine assertion that His Spirit would not strive.

The text is an unfortunate one for Dr. Farrar. It is unfortunate that the very examples to which he appeals of probation protracted beyond the grave, should be the very examples given us by the word of God itself of the precise opposite! And we may take his reasoning to reverse his conclusions, and say that, "if the fate of these dead sinners was irrevocably fixed by death, then it must be clear and obvious that "we have no good reason to suppose that ours is not as much as theirs. Nay, it is scarcely reasonable to imagine that they are an exception to, instead of an illustration of, the universal rule.

Canon Farrar has a similar text, however, in the next chapter of the first epistle of Peter. Let us take it, too, in whole and not in part, and see if it will lead us to any other conclusion.

"For for this cause [was the gospel preached also to them that are dead] that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the Spirit" (1 Peter 4:6).

Here Dr. F. has substituted "that were dead" for "that are dead" without comment, evidently that we may infer that the people were dead when preached to. But the passage reads literally "to the dead"; and we must gather the rest from the context which he omits. And here it is not hard to see that his inference is as wrong as his translation is.

The apostle has been speaking of the altered conduct of those converted from heathenism, and of how the Gentiles around misjudged them. "Wherein they think it strange that ye run not with them to the same excess of riot, speaking evil of you; who shall give account to Him that is ready to judge the quick and the dead." Thus sinners were judging in their fleshly way the spiritual life that approved itself to God as such. Christians were judged after the manner of men in a fleshly way, but lived according to God in a spiritual one. And for this — to separate them from the ranks of these misjudging ones, themselves the objects of God's righteous judgment, had the gospel been preached to them. So far all is plain; but why "to the dead"? Surely because the apostle would bring in the very thought Dr. Farrar rejects, that death fixed the condition in which it found men. These righteous ones had got the good of that preached gospel, which had made them anticipate the coming doom of sinners, and accept the judgment of men in the flesh, rather than God's final and eternal one. But could they possibly be "dead" before they were preached to? Not certainly if the end was to be their being judged according to men in the flesh for their changed lives! The context is conclusively against the restorationist interpretation.*

{* Edw. White (Life in Christ, p. 321) says: "They had the gospel preached to them in hades, in order that they might be judged by Jesus Christ, and judged like men in the flesh, by the same rule as others who have had the gospel on earth, that is, by the gospel message itself so that they should not necessarily perish under the law, but may live (enter into life) according to God in the Spirit.'" He does not see that they who receive the gospel are NOT "judged," and if they were, could not escape condemnation. For men are judged not "by the gospel," which is a dream of his own, but "according to their works."}

The other texts cited will come in more fittingly elsewhere. Meanwhile we must look at one or two Scriptures more in this connection, which, although glanced at by Dr. Farrar, are more strongly put by Mr. Jukes.

He thus speaks of —

"the passage respecting the sin [‘ blasphemy,' it should be] against the Holy Ghost, which our Lord declares shall not be forgiven, neither in this world, not in that which is to come* For this it is concluded that the punishment for this sin must be never-ending. But does the text say so? The whole passage is as follows Wherefore I say unto you, all manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven unto men. And whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of Man it shall be forgiven him; but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this age, nor the coming one.' These words, so far from proving the generally received doctrine, that sin not forgiven here can never be forgiven, distinctly assert — first, that all manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men, — secondly, that some sins, those namely against the Son of Man, can be forgiven, apparently in this age, — and thirdly, that other sins, against the Holy Ghost, cannot be forgiven either here or in the coming age; which last words surely imply that some sins not here forgiven may be forgiven in the coming age, the sin or blasphemy against the Holy Ghost not being of that number. This is what the text asserts; and it explains why God has so long withheld the general out-pouring of His promised Spirit; for man cannot reject or speak against the Spirit, until the Spirit comes to act upon him. God has two ways of teaching men; first, by His word, the letter or human form of truth, that is, the Son of Man, in which case a man may reject God's call without knowing that he is really doing so; the other, in and by the Spirit, which convinces the heart, which therefore cannot be opposed without leaving men consciously guilty of rejecting God. To reject this last cuts man off from the light and life of the coming world. This sin therefore is not forgiven; neither in this age, nor in the coming one But the text says nothing of those ages to come,' elsewhere revealed to us; much less does it assert that the punishment of sin not here forgiven is never-ending."**

{* Matt. 12:32.

** Restitution, pp. 120, 121.}

Dr. Farrar does not go quite so far; he says: — *

{* Eternal Hope, Pref., pp. 40, 41.}

"If aion be rightly rendered, as, in nearly every passage where it occurs, it may be rightly rendered, by 'age,' our Lord only says that there is one particular sin — and what sin this is no one has ever known — which is so heinous as not to be pardonable either in this (the Jewish) or the coming (the Christian) dispensation. Nothing therefore is of necessity implied respecting the world beyond the grave. But if it be, how overwhelming is the argument with which I am supplied! Every sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven, our Lord says, — without further limitation, and with no shadow of a hint that He refers to this life only — a gloss which indeed His words directly exclude; every sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven here or hereafter, except one! 'If one sin only is excluded from forgiveness in that coming age, other sins cannot stand on the same level, and the dimness behind the veil is lit up with at least a gleam of hope.'"

Mr. Oxenham has still another view:* —

{*Letter 3. (a).}

"Now on this verse I observe, first, that our Lord says nothing about hell; and secondly, that what He does say bears on examination no resemblance to an assertion of the popular doctrine of endless misery. Our Lord declares that there is a sin against the Holy Ghost for which there is no aphesis either here or hereafter. He uses the words aphesis and aphiemi, the root-meaning of which is 'sending away,' 'getting rid of.' He declares of this sin that it can never be got rid of; i.e., some thing of the sin, its character, its consequences, will last on always — this is what He really says; and is it beyond the reach even of our present understanding to conceive that the penal consequences of wilful sin against the Holy Spirit, viz., e.g., loss of capacity to know and to love the truth, and Him who is truth, may well be irremediable either here or hereafter? How great such a penalty would be, or in what manner it would be felt or received, we have no means of knowing; but we feel at once that this penalty is something wholly different from what is commonly meant by eternal punishment; it is compatible with existence in heaven."

The three views being so dissimilar, it will be no great marvel if Scripture be again dissimilar from them all. We shall take them in retrograde order, Mr. Oxenham first.

His view is that "something of the sin, its character, its consequences," he does not know exactly what, will last on forever, But surely that is loose and unsatisfactory enough. Aphiemi and aphesis are the only words for "remit" and "remission," the latter also the only word for "forgiveness." The phrases used are, "it shall not be forgiven him," and "hath never forgiveness, but is in danger of (or subject to) eternal judgment" (Mark 3:29). That defines it plainly enough. "Hath never 'sending away'" would be insufferable, not merely in sound but in sense; and if one subject to eternal judgment can be in heaven, heaven can scarcely be what Scripture represents it. It would be no better for Mr. Oxenham if we read with Canon Farrar and others, instead of eternal judgment, "eternal sin." I cannot accept the reading, but it is immaterial to the present question.

Dr. Farrar's own reasoning turns upon the rendering of "this world" and "the world to come." Whether we read it "age" or not, the "world to come" is not in Scripture heaven or hell or hades. It is undoubtedly what the Jews understood well and looked for, the world under Messiah, which Christians unhappily less know under that title than as the millennium. It is even called (in Heb. 2:5) the "habitable (earth) to come," the word used for "the world" under Caesar's rule, which he decreed should be taxed (Luke 2:1). If not (as Dr. F. thinks it may be) the Christian dispensation, it is yet a dispensation affecting men in the body, not "spirits in prison" nor the resurrection of judgment.

Consequently when it is said, whosoever shall blaspheme, it shall not be forgiven him either in this world or that which is to come, it does not refer to forgiveness beyond the grave, nor mean the same person in this world and the world to come, but that the sin would not be remitted to any one who committed it in either age.

Even Mr. Jukes falls into the same error, but he is bolder, and adds various suppositions of his own to it. He supposes that the sin against the Son of Man would be forgiven only in this age. He supposes that some sins not forgiven here may be forgiven in the coming age. And the ages beyond being quite unnoticed, there may yet be forgiveness there. But in truth the reason for not going beyond the "age to come" is an opposite one. It is because beyond the millennial age is the judgment and eternity, and all is fixed forever. We have already examined Mr. Jukes' theory of these ages of eternity, on which, of course, his view of this text is based; and need not, and shall not, return to it again.

But a word we must yet say as to another Scripture, where the "great gulf fixed" assures us of the impossibility in the death state at least, of any passing from the flame of torment on the one side to the comfort in Abraham's bosom on the other. Mr. Jukes, of course, objects that it is a parable, but that we have considered. No doubt the expressions here are figurative; yet they express very plainly what they figure. He also tells us that this great gulf fixed, "though utterly impassable for man, is not so for 'Him who hath the key of David, who openeth and no man shutteth, and shutteth and no man openeth,' who 'hath the keys of death and hell'; and who, as He has Himself broken the bars of death for men, can yet say to the prisoner, 'Go forth; to them that are in darkness, Show yourselves.'"*

{* Restitution, p. 137.}

There is more of the same kind, always confounding a day of grace with a day of wrath and judgment, and assuming that "judgment without mercy" (James 2:13.) shall be mercy still. The great gulf fixed is not impassable to Christ, he says. But Christ is the very One who has fixed it. He has ordained that none shall pass it, and that settles it for the death state at least that none shall. After this, eternal judgment allows no escape.

Yet Dr. Farrar will have it that the parable shows us "how rapidly in that condition [in which the rich man is seen in hades] a moral renovation has been wrought in a sinful and selfish soul."* He has not told us how it shows this, but I suppose by the concern he manifests for his brethren. But the motives for this the parable does not show, so that it would be difficult to assign its true moral significance. The fact remains of a "great gulf fixed" already in the intermediate state between the two classes of just and unjust, — a gulf which cannot be traversed upon either side. "After death, the judgment," and the nature and duration of that final award we have been for some time considering.

{Eternal Hope, Pref. 31, note.}

But all Scripture assures us of the momentous fact that the significance of the present life is just this, that here and now is decided man's eternal destiny. He is called to repent TODAY, lest God swear 'he shall not enter into His rest' (Heb. 4:7, 11). And who shall say that brief as indeed it is, the present life may not as fully test the individual man, as indefinite ages of probation or eternity itself? The judgment after death it must be allowed is according to deeds done in the body and no other. If these did not after all characterize the man, that judgment would be partial, and therefore false. It is in vain then to plead for the extension of a day of grace beyond the present, which brings with it no extension of responsibility such as the day of judgment would take notice of; as vain as to plead that the Gehenna-judgment of one whose corpse was cast out amid the worm and flame of the polluted valley is the type of a remediable, or a terminable retribution.