The Origin and History of the
Doctrine of Endless Punishment
Thomas B. Thayer, 1881: It matters not by what name a man is called, whether Pagan, Jew, or Christian; nor matters it at all where the lot of life has fallen to him, whether in a land over which broods the night of heathenism, or on which rests the radiant light of the Gospel. He is still a man, though a Christian; he is born, lives and dies; he thinks and feels, hopes and fears, rejoices and sorrows, after the manner of all other men. Hence, if the Christian believe in a cruel religion, believe in it with all his heart, it will make him cruel; it will certainly harden his heart.
If he believe in and worship a God of a merciless and ferocious character, this will eventually be, visibly or invisibly, his own character. If he believe the God of the Bible hates any portion of mankind, or regards them with any dislike or displeasure, he also will come to hate them, and to entertain towards them the same feelings which he supposes reside in the bosom of God. If he believe that God will, in expression of those feelings, or for any reason, devote them to flame and torture hereafter, it is natural and necessary that be should infer it would be, for the same reason, acceptable to God that be should devote them to flame and torture here. And if the degree of civilization and the condition of society shall permit; or, in other words, if no power from without prevent, he will assuredly do this, as a most acceptable offering to Heaven; and to the utmost of his power will conform to what he believes to be the disposition and wishes of God in this respect.
And this is not said without ample means for proving the correctness of the statement. The history of Christianity, so called, in all ages and among every people, and in every form which it has taken, will abundantly establish the truth of the position, that the temper and practice of a people is determined by the spirit of their religion and their gods.
It is not necessary to enter into a labored description of the doctrines of the Christian church in the days of its darkness and corruption, nor of the awful and revolting views entertained of God, of his disposition towards man, of his government, laws and punishments. It is enough that Paganism in its worst forms has never surpassed, if it has equalled, the savage and terrible descriptions which have been given by Christians of their God. The character ascribed to him; the dreadful wrath and vengeance with which he is moved; the cold and malignant purpose of creation in regard to millions of souls; the stern severity and gloom of his government; the horrible and never-ceasing tortures which he will inflict on his helpless children - all this, and much more of like character, defies the power of language to set it forth in its true light, or to present it in a manner adequate to its shocking and revolting reality. I give a single example:
Dr. Benson, an eminent English minister, in a sermon on "The Future Misery of the Wicked," says, "God is present in hell, in his infinite justice and almighty wrath, as an unfathomable sea of liquid fire, where the wicked must drink in everlasting torture. The presence of God in his vengeance scatters darkness and woe through the dreary regions of misery. As heaven would be no heaven if God did not there manifest his love, so hell would be no hell if God did not there display his wrath. It is the presence and agency of God which gives everything virtue and efficacy, without which there can be no life, no sensibility, no power."
He then adds, "God is, therefore, himself present in hell, to see the punishment of these rebels against his government, that it may be adequate to the infinity of their guilt: his fiery indignation kindles, and his incensed fury feeds the flame of their torment, while his powerful presence and operation maintain their being, and render all their powers most acutely sensible; thus setting the keenest edge upon their pain, and making it cut most intolerably deep. He will exert all his divine attributes to make them as wretched as the capacity of their nature will admit."
After this he goes on to describe the duration of this work of God, and calls to his aid all the stars, sand, and drops of water, and makes each one tell a million of ages; and when all those ages have rolled away, he goes over the same number again, and again, and so on forever.
Yet, Christians have believed all this; have believed that God is the enemy of the sinner and unbeliever; that he regards with a fierce displeasure those of a wrong faith or a wrong life; that heretics and the impenitent are an abomination in his sight; and that upon these wretched victims the vials of his wrath will finally be broken, and overwhelm them in endless and irretrievable ruin.
As remarked, it will not need that we should give a lengthened or labored review of this point. A more important question is that which regards the influence of this savage creed upon the believer. To this let us give some attention, and we shall find, what we may expect, that its tendency in all ages, when believed in right earnest, has been to harden the heart, to brutalize the affections, and render those receiving it; under any of its forms, cruel, and ferocious in disposition, and, so far as circumstances would allow, in practice.
Take as a worthy example the celebrated passage of Tertullian, already quoted: "How shall I admire, how laugh, how rejoice, how exult, when I behold so many kings and false gods, together with Jove himself, groaning in the lowest abyss of darkness! so many magistrates who persecuted the name of the Lord, liquefying in fiercer flames than they ever kindled against Christians; so many sage philosophers, with their deluded scholars, blushing in raging fire!" etc.
Without doubt, Tertullian was of a fierce and bitter spirit, independently of his religious faith; but this fiery ebullition of hate and ferocity serves to show how perfectly fitted that faith was to add fuel to the flame, and what an ample field and congenial scenes it furnished for his savage nature to revel in. Under the influence of such a belief, his wild temper gathered new vigor, his revengeful feelings were cultivated and strengthened to a frightful degree, till at last he comes to rejoice and exult in the agonies of the damned with a relish that a devil might envy. One cannot but see that it only needed the power to have engaged this ferocious man in the work of torture on earth, the prospect of which in hell he contemplated with such fiendish delight.
A further illustration may be found in the crusades against the Albigenses [anti-Papal peasants in southern France] in the thirteenth century, one of the darkest and bloodiest pages in the history of any religion, Christian or Pagan. The sacrifices of the Goth and Mexican, and the revolting cruelties of the Polynesian and the negro of Dahomey, are scarcely equal to the savage butcheries, and the shocking barbarities inflicted by the Catholic crusader, in the name of his God, upon this gentle and virtuous people. No passage in the history of man is more to the purpose of our argument, of more conclusive of the direct influence of religious faith upon the temper and character, than that in which are recorded the persecutions and sufferings of these unhappy reformers. Throughout the whole of this merciless crusade, and amid all its scenes of burning and desolation, of murder and torture, the cry of the ruthless priest was heard, "It is for the glory of God!" And the brutal multitude, believing that they were doing God a service, and securing their own salvation by the slaughter of heretics, rushed forward to the bloody work with the ferocity of tigers and the joy of a Tertullian.
Sismondi says, speaking of the deliberate savageness of the monks who occupied the pulpits, and urged on the people to this diabolical work, they showed how every vice might be expiated by crime; how remorse might be expelled by the flames of their piles; how the soul, polluted with every shameful passion, might become pure and spotless by bathing in the blood of heretics. By continuing to preach the crusade, they impelled, each year, waves of new fanatics upon those miserable provinces; and they compelled their chiefs to recommence the war, in order to profit by the fervor of those who still demanded human victims, and required blood to effect their salvation." They represented this inoffensive people as the outcasts of the human race, and the especial objects of divine hatred and vengeance; and no devotional exercise, no prayer or praise, no act of charity or mercy, was half so acceptable to God as the murder of a heretic.
"The more zealous, therefore, the multitude were for the glory of God, the more ardently they labored for the destruction of heretics, the better Christians they thought themselves. And if at any time they felt a movement of pity or terror, whilst assisting at their punishment, they thought it a revolt of the flesh, which they confessed at the tribunal of penitence; nor could they get quit of their remorse till their priests had given them absolution." "Amongst them all not a heart could be found accessible to pity. Equally inspired by fanaticism and the love of war, they believed that the sure way to salvation was through the field of carnage. Seven bishops, who followed the army, had blessed their standards and their arms, and would be engaged in prayer for them while they were attacking the heretics. Thus did they advance, indifferent whether to victory or martyrdom, certain that either would issue in the reward which God himself had destined for them."
(Sismondi's History of Crusades against the Albigenses, chap. ii. 73-84, etc. The reader will doubtless be reminded of a passage from Wheaton's Northmen. "The religion of Odin stimulated the thirst of blood by promising the joys of Valhalla (heaven) as the reward of those who fell gloriously in battle," which is the better, the religion of the Northman or the Catholic? The former has at least the redeeming feature of bravery, while the last is distinguished only for its ferocity. Muhammad might be justly indignant if compared with Simon de Montfort [leader of this Crusade].)
And most frightfully did they do the work of religious butchery and cruelty. Like the Scandinavian pirates, wherever they went they desolated with fire and sword, sparing neither age, nor sex, nor condition. They even wreaked their furious vengeance on inanimate objects, destroying houses, trees, vines, and every useful thing they could reach, leaving all behind a wide and blackened waste, marked by smoldering and smoking ruins, and the dead and putrefying bodies of murdered men, women, and children.
At the taking of Beziers [in 1209 A.D. by Simon de Montfort] the wretched sufferers ["heretical" Albigenses, Cathares] fled to the churches for protection, but their savage enemies slaughtered them on the very altars, and filled the sanctuaries with their mangled bodies. And when the last living creature within the walls had been slain, and the houses plundered, the crusaders [promised paradise by the Pope for 40 days service in the was] set fire to the city in all directions at once, and so made of it one huge funeral pile. Not a soul was left alive, nor a house left standing! During the slaughter one of the knights inquired of a fierce priest [the Papal legate] how they should distinguish between Catholics and heretics, "Kill them all!" was his reply, "The Lord will know his own!" In this one affair from twenty to thirty thousand human beings perished, because the religion of their butchers assured them that such bloody sacrifices would be acceptable to God.
But the priests and crusaders were not content with simple murder. It was often preceded by the most exquisite cruelties. De Montfort on one occasion seized a hundred prisoners, cut off their noses, tore out their eyes, and sent them with a one-eyed man as guide to the neighboring castles to announce to the inhabitants what they might expect when taken. And often, as matter of amusement, so hardened had they become, they subjected their victims to the most dreadful tortures, and rejoiced in their wild cries of agony, and manifested the highest delight at the writhings and contortions of the dying wretches. So perfectly fiendish had these fanatics grown through the influence of their religious belief!
And what can more clearly show the connection between faith and practice, or more conclusively demonstrate the truth that the worshipper will be like his god, than the revolting barbarities inflicted upon these humble and innocent people, on the ground that they were hated of the Deity, and devoted by him to the flames and torments of an endless hell! Verily, the Christian is but a man, and that which makes the Pagan ferocious and blood-thirsty will produce the same effect upon him.
The massacre of St. Bartholomew [of the French Protestant Huguenots] is another terrible proof of the power of religious faith to convert man into a fiend. As a single exhibition of slaughter and cruelty in the name of God and religion, this is perhaps the most monstrous, and on a more fearful scale, than any before or since. Probably thirty or forty thousand victims perished in Paris and in the provinces in this one butchery! And it would be almost impossible to describe the variety of forms in murder, or to give a catalogue of the cruelties practiced. Even children of ten or twelve years engaged in the work of blood, and were seen cutting the throats of heretic infants!
But what is the most impious of all is the manner in which the news of this massacre was received at Rome by the Church and its head. The courier was welcomed with lively transports, and received a large reward for his joyful news. The pope and his cardinals marched in solemn procession to the church of St. Mark to acknowledge the special providence - high mass was celebrated; and a jubilee was published, that the whole Christian world might return thanks to God (!) for this destruction of the enemies of the church in France. In the evening, the cannon of castle St. Angelo were fired, and the whole city illuminated with bonfires, an expression of the general joy for this dreadful slaughter.
(See the fiendish letter of the pope to the French king on this occasion, in Smedley's History of the Reformed Religion in France, chap. ix.)
And when we remember that all this was done in the name of Christianity and the church, that it was deemed a grateful offering to God, who, it is supposed, hates heretics, and will give them over to torments infinitely greater than these, and endless, we shudder to think how terrible an engine is superstition, and how nearly it has turned the Christian church into a slaughter-house! Truly, one has well said: The ancient Roman theater, with its mere sprinkling of blood, and its momentary pangs and shrieks, quite fades if brought into comparison with that Coliseum of Papal cruelty, in which not a hundred or two of victims, but myriads of people - yes, nations entire -- have been gorged!"
(Natural History of Fanaticism, sect. vi. I would recommend this work to the perusal and study of every clergyman, and every individual, in the land. It is the production of an original thinker, and an eloquent writer. The comparison of the Roman soldier and the Christian monk, in the sixth section, is seldom surpassed simply as a piece of composition, aside from its graphic truth and power.)
To complete the picture of depravity and cruelty, and confirm the argument for the influence of religion on the heart and life, we need only refer to that thrice-accursed institution, the Inquisition! In this was concentrated all that was monstrous and revolting. It were impossible to put into words sufficiently expressive the abominable principles upon which its ministers proceeded in their persecutions, or the cold, deliberate, malignant ferocity with which they tortured their miserable victims. Every species of torment was invented that the united talents of the inquisitors could devise; and the protracting of life under the most excruciating agonies, so that the poor wretch might endure to the last degree, was reduced to a perfect system. The annals of Pagan sacrifice, with all its horrors, furnish no parallel to the atrocities of the Roman Catholic Inquisition.
(Prescott, speaking of the Aztec or Mexican human sacrifices and the Inquisition, gives the preference to the former; for the Inquisition, he remarks, not only "branded its victims with infamy in this world, but consigned them to everlasting perdition in the next." Vol.i., p.84. So on page 77 he says "Few will sympathize, probably, with the sentence of Torquemada, who concludes his tale of woe by coolly dismissing the soul of the victim (of Mexican sacrifice) to sleep with those of his false gods in hell.")
The blackest and bloodiest page in the history of superstition is that which bears the record of inquisitorial bigotry and ferocity. One would thinly that even hell itself might applaud the refinement of cruelty, were not the devils kept silent through envy of the superior skill and savageness of their earthly rivals.
But this terrible influence was not confined to the priests of this religion; the cruel and ferocious spirit of it was diffused abroad among all its believers - and its pestilential breath spread over the whole social life of the people. Informers were encouraged, heretics were hunted, private hatred took its revenge, and the most malignant passions of the corrupt heart were roused into action in the service of God and the church. Even the tenderest ties of affection, and the holiest relations of life, were crushed beneath the iron heel of religious zeal. Husbands betrayed their wives, and parents their children, and sisters their brothers, and gave them up to the cruelties of the holy office, and to the flames of the auto-da-fe; and, so doing, congratulated themselves upon their fidelity to God, measured by their triumph over the loveliest attributes of humanity. So mighty, in this case also, was the power of a savage religion to crush every kindly feeling, every emotion of love and pity, and to train its followers to cruelty and blood.
(In Spain the Inquisition has the strongest hold. Its effects are thus described by M'Crie: "Possessing naturally some of the finest qualities by which a people can be distinguished - generous, feeling, devoted, constant - the Spaniards became cruel, proud, reserved and jealous. The revolting spectacles of the auto-da-fe, continued for so long a period, could not fail to have the most hardening influence on their feelings. In Spain, as in Italy, religion is associated with crime, and protected (protects it?) by its sanctions. Thieves and prostitutes have their images of the Virgin, their prayers, their holy water, and their confessions. Murderers find a sanctuary in the churches and convents. Crimes of the blackest character are left unpunished in consequence of the immunities granted to the clergy." - History of Reformation in Spain, chap. ix. See also Llorente's History of Inquisition, abridged. Philadelphia: 1843. For a lively picture of the present  condition of society in this country, see Borrow's Bible in Spain. See also Smedley's, D'Aubigne's, and Burnett's Histories. For this last may be substituted, as more brief and popular in its form, a work published by the London Religious Tract Society, republished by the Harpers, entitled "The Days of Queen Mary." For a short but interesting notice of the Inquisition in Goa [the Portuguese enclave in India], see Buchanan's Christian researches, pp. 172-193.)
Put this influence is not confined to Catholics; it is found wherever the doctrines of which it is the offspring are found. The history of Calvin and Servetus shows the same savage faith, having the power, doing the same infernal work. And the history of the Puritans of our own land, of the Dissenters of England, of the Covenanters of Scotland, ... , discovers also the same faith; shorn of its power, to be sure, by the progress of society and civil institutions, but, with a change of circumstances, ready at any time to seize the dagger or the torch, and spring forth to the work of death.
Reluctant as we may be to admit it, we cannot blind ourselves to these facts. The cruel butcheries of the past, the dungeon, the rack, the fagot, the bloody scourge falling upon the back of the meekly suffering Quaker, the cry of agony, the unheeded prayer for mercy - all these in the past; - and the exceeding bitterness, the fierce clamor and unblushing falsehoods of controversy in the present; the refusal of the common courtesies of life, or the stern hate that often lurks beneath outward civility; the malignant sneer at the labors of those who seek to unfold the truth of God's saving love for all; the half exultation at any seeming proof of the final triumph of evil and the ceaseless torments of the wicked; the hardness of heart with which this result is sometimes contemplated, and the indifference with which one sect devotes another to this awful doom - all these show clearly that the Christian is subject to the same law which governs other men; show with a painful distinctness that, so far as the refining influences of literature and civilization would permit, the belief in a ferocious god and an endless hell have done their legitimate work upon his heart.
Like the Aztec of America, and the Norseman of Europe, he has partaken of the spirit of his deity, and, supposing it a duty and a most acceptable service, he begins, so far as he can in this world, the work of torment which he believes his unforgiving god will make infinite and endless in the next.
Queen Mary of England was right when, as Bp. Burnet says, she defended her bloody persecutions by appealing to the supposed example of the Deity: "As the souls of heretics are hereafter to be eternally burning in hell, there can be nothing more proper than for me to imitate the divine vengeance by burning them on earth." This is legitimate and logical reasoning, and exhibits the natural fruits of the doctrine.
If, then, we would make mankind what they should be, we must begin with the object of their worship; we must first make their religion what it should be. We must cast out from the holy place all the dark and ferocious superstitions of the past and the present, whether Pagan or Christian, and in the place of these set up, in all its divine beauty and simplicity, the merciful and loving religion of Jesus Christ. The views which this unfolds of God the Father, of his government and its final issues, can alone be favorable to the spiritual progress of humanity, can alone form the heart of man to gentleness and goodness, and recreate it in the image of heaven.
"National religions," says a celebrated German, "will not become the friends of virtue and happiness until they teach that the Deity is not only an inconceivably powerful, but also an inconceivably wise and good being; that for this reason he gives way neither to anger nor revenge, and never punishes capriciously; that we owe to his favor alone all the good that we possess and enjoy; that even our sufferings contribute to our highest good, and death is a bitter but salutary change; in fine, that the sacrifice most acceptable to God consists in a mind that seeks for truth, and a pure heart. Religions which announce these exalted truths offer to man the strongest preservatives from vice, and the strongest motives to virtue, exalt and ennoble his joys, console and guide him in all kinds of misfortunes; and inspire him with forbearance, patience, and active benevolence towards his brethren." (Biblical Repository for April, 1843. [Obsolete note on Peru omitted])
Even so - let this be the religion of the nations, and soon the world shall be getting forward toward heaven. And it was getting to reveal these truths, and to bring them near to the heart of humanity, that Jesus gave his life, and labored with all the earnestness of his loving heart.
Let this, then, be the religion of the Christian, and he will be a Christian indeed. Let him believe in God as the parent of all, as the dispenser of life and good to all. Let him see him as Christ saw him, clothed in robes of light and mercy, and he will love as Christ loved, and, so far as he may, will live as Christ lived. Let him believe that God always blesses, and he will not dare, he will not wish, to curse whom God hath blessed. Let him believe that God never hates [??], is never angry [??]; and, that he may be like him, and approved of him, he will diligently seek to expel all hatred and passion from his own heart. Let him believe that all men are brethren, journeying homeward to the presence of the Father, where, delivered from all evil, we shall be as the angels [in fact, higher!]; and that it is the earnest entreaty of this Father that we should not fall out by the way, but bear each other's burdens, and love one another as he loves us, loves the world: let these be the Christian's views of God, and he shall indeed be born again from above. Let this be the religion of the nations, and
"Earth shall be paradise again,
And man, O God, thine image here."
by Thomas B. Thayer, New and enlarged edition. Boston: Universalist Publishing House. 1881.
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