The Origin and History of the
Doctrine of Endless Punishment
Thomas B. Thayer, 1881: In this chapter I propose, by historical contrast, to show the influence of endless punishment, and of its opposite, on the general morals of society.
It is believed by most Christian sects that this doctrine is the great regulator of social and individual morality. Nothing has been more frequently and urgently pressed upon public attention, than the necessity of future endless punishments as the reward of impenitent sinners. It is argued that it is the only restraint which is effectual in checking presumptuous transgressors, and that the fear of this removed from the minds of men, and the world would speedily become a perfect social wreck, the very likeness of the infernal pit itself. With all possible sincerity this view of the question has been urged by many honest-minded Christians, from the pulpit and from the press, in full belief that the danger is real.
And yet in the very face of this argument, stands the whole heathen world, believing this doctrine for ages prior to the coming of Christ, and yet, at the time of his coming, utterly lost in corruption and depravity, in daily practice of the most abominable vices and crimes, and the whole mass of society sunk in the lowest depths of infamy, shame and wickedness. What sort of restraining influence did the doctrine of endless punishment have on them?
The Jews, also, as we have seen, were believers in this doctrine in the time of Christ; and their corruption and wickedness at that period, and later, are almost proverbial. Josephus witnesses to this in the most positive language, "I cannot say it without regret," are his words, "but I must declare it as my opinion, that if the Romans had delayed to come against these wretches, the city (Jerusalem) would have been swallowed up by an earthquake, or overwhelmed by a deluge, or else been consumed by fire from heaven, as Sodom was; for it produced a generation of men more wicked than those who had suffered such calamities." Again he says: "To reckon up all their villainies is impossible; but never did any city suffer so great calamities; nor was there ever, from the beginning of the world, a time more fruitful of wickedness than that was." (Jewish Wars, Book vi, chap. xiii, §6; chap. x. §65)
So little influence did the doctrine have on the Jews in the way of restraint. Such testimonies of the moral condition of those believing it, do not go far toward fortifying the large claims set up for its conservative and sanctifying power. The Jews could not have been much worse with no religion at all, than they were under the pressure of their faith in endless torments.
Paul's description of "both Jews and Gentiles," at this period, accords perfectly with the facts adduced, "that they are all under sin - as it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one - there is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God, They are all gone out of the way - they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one! Their throat is an open sepulchre; with their tongues they have used deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips; their mouth is full of cursing and bitterness; their feet are swift to shed blood; destruction and misery are in their ways; and the way of peace they have not known; and there is no fear of God before their eyes." Rom. 3:9-18.
Such is the description of the moral condition of Pagans and Jews, as given by the inspired apostle. How much better were they for having believed in endless punishment? How far were they restrained from sin, or hindered in the indulgence of their evil passions and criminal desires, by the terrors of a future judgment and an endless hell? And yet, in direct contravention of these notorious facts of history, we are told that the doctrine of unending punishment is the only safeguard of society, the great moral force of the world, without which it would speedily fall into irretrievable wreck and ruin!
(It is a curious fact that the celebrated work of Bp. Warburton, "The Divine Legation of Moses," has this proposition for its basis: Society cannot exist without a belief in future rewards and punishments; or, in the absence of this, by miraculous support from God. The law of Moses does not contain the doctrine of future rewards and punishments; therefore his legation, or mission, was divine, and the Jewish nation was upheld by the miraculous power of God. This argument he elaborates, with a vast array of learning, and a wonderful display of one-sided logic, through three octavo volumes, of more than 1500 closely-printed pages!)
The truth is, this assumption is entirely barren of facts for its support. There is nothing in history to prove that believers in endless punishment are any better for their faith, or that those denying it are any worse for their want of faith. I do not say, now, that the belief of this doctrine makes people more vicious and wicked, though the last chapter shows that it would not be difficult to demonstrate that this is the fact, at least in some respects - but I do say that, so far as history speaks to this point, it gives unmistakable witness that the doctrine of endless torments makes people no more moral, and the absence of it makes them no less moral.
There is a remarkable passage in Wayland's Life of Judson, illustrative of the subject in hand. It relates to the religion and morals of the Burmans [the Burmese of 1850], and shows, with singular precision and plainness, the perfect uselessness of the terror system in restraining men from evil, or in promoting their virtue.
Speaking of the Buddhists, he says they believe that mankind pass into other bodies, and the change which then takes place is determined by their conduct in the present life. They may be sent into the bodies of animals, birds, beasts, fish, or insects, from a higher to a lower grade, if wicked, until they reach hell, or a place of unmixed torment. In cases of atrocious crime, as the murder of a parent, or a priest, they pass through no transmigration, but go directly to hell. "There are four states of misery appropriated to the punishment of atrocious crimes. In the lesser hells are punished those who do not honor their parents, the magistrates, or old age; who take wine and intoxicating drinks; who corrupt wells and destroy highways; who are fraudulent and deceitful, or speak angrily and roughly; who use personal violence, who disregard the words of pious men; who propagate scandal, who injure their fellow-creatures, neglect the sick, or cherish forbidden thoughts. All these will be punished, according to the measure of their sin, with punishments awful beyond conception. For the least aberration from rectitude the torment is only less than infinite; and after one sin, the being is forever helplessly under condemnation, unless he can attain to annihilation, It is a pure system of rewards and punishments, without relenting, without pardon, and without hope for the guilty." "Thus," he adds, "this system seems to have exhausted the human faculties in conceiving of terrors which should deter us from sin."
And now what is the result? The Burmans ought to be a very good and holy people, if the doctrine really is as restraining and morally efficacious as is claimed. But what are the facts? Dr. Judson frankly confesses that "this system of religion has no power over the heart, or restraint on the passions;" and Dr. Wayland as frankly owns that it "is found practically to have created no barrier whatever against sin." And the details given by the latter are certainly good proof that these statements are strictly correct and reliable, as the following quotation will satisfactorily show:
"While the law of Gaudama, the Deity, forbids to take the life of any animated being, the Burmans are blood-thirsty, cruel and vindictive, beyond most of the nations of India. Murders are of very common occurrence, and the punishment of death is inflicted with every aggravation of cruelty. While licentiousness is absolutely forbidden, they are said to be universally profligate. While the law denounces covetousness, they are, almost to a man, dishonest, rapacious, prone to robbery, and to robbery ending in blood. The law forbids treachery and deceit on all occasions; and yet, from the highest to the lowest, they are a nation of liars. When detected in the grossest falsehood, they indicate no consciousness of shame, and even pride themselves on successful deceit." (Wayland's Life of Judson, vol. i., pp. 144-153.)
What a complete refutation of the assertion that the fear of hell is an effectual restraint on the wicked passions of men, a moral force essential to the security and well-being of society! Can anything be more conclusive than these facts against this theory? You cannot have a worse hell, nor a worse people, than the Burman. And I do not see how it is possible, in the presence of such unquestionable testimony from history, to persist in the assertion that the belief of endless punishment, or of torments after death, however terrible, is absolutely necessary to the preservation of social order, and as a restraint on the desperate depravity of the human heart.
I turn now to the other side of the subject. It was said that, so far as history goes, those who believed the doctrine of future endless punishment were no better for their faith, and those who rejected it no worse for their want of faith. The first, I think, is proved by unimpeachable testimony. Is it possible to show, in like manner, that those who deny the doctrine are no worse for their want of faith? Let us see what may be done in this regard.
The sect of Sadducees, among the Jews, is well known as rejecting the doctrine in review, and even all future existence. Of course, all the frightful descriptions of hell, such as those among the Greeks and Romans and Burmans, went for nothing with them. They had no faith whatever in devils or torments beyond death. All restraints from this source they utterly repudiated, and lived without the slightest reference to any other punishments of sin than such as are administered by the providence of God in this world.
Now, according to the argument of restraint, which affirms that this doctrine is the only safeguard of morals, and that, without it, the vile and dangerous passions of human nature break into a perfect revel of wickedness - if this be true, then we ought to find the Sadducees among the most immoral, corrupt and criminal people of any age or nation. But what is the fact? What is the voice of history? The very reverse of this. And on this point I shall cite the authority of orthodox witnesses, who, however reluctant, are compelled to bear testimony against their own favorite theory.
First, I introduce the statement of Brucker, the distinguished author of the History of Philosophy, which makes the substance of Enfield's work on the same subject.
"It remains," says he, "that we add something concerning the life of the Sadducees. It might indeed be conjectured from the character of their doctrine that their life was bad, because they were destitute of those motives by which true morality is enforced. But we must pronounce otherwise concerning their morals, if we adhere to the testimony of the ancients. For Josephus testifies that this class of men was very severe in judging; whence may be inferred their rigor in punishing crimes. This, indeed, is what the nature of their system seems to have required; for, as they did not believe that men were to be deterred from wickedness by the fear of future torments, they were obliged to guard the public morals and observance of the law by rigorous punishments. Josephus himself, though a Pharisee, shows, by a testimony above all exception, that the Sadducees paid a stricter regard to justice than did the Pharisees."
What can be more directly to the point, or more decisive, than this? As respects Josephus, it comes from one of the most distinguished men of the nation, of an opposite sect, an enemy, a Pharisee - and yet the testimony shows the strictness and moral purity of the lives of those men who wholly rejected the popular dogma of future endless punishment!
But let us hear Milman, in his history of the Jews. He says of the Sadducees: "Denying all punishments for crime in a future life, their only way to discourage delinquency was by the immediate terrors of the law; and this they put in force, perhaps with the greater rigor, because their disbelief of future rewards and punishments was represented by their enemies as leading necessarily to the utmost laxity of morals. (The same thing which is affirmed in these days.) This effect it would probably have on many of the weak and licentious; but the doctrine of the Sadducees, which fully recognized the certain punishment of guilt in this world by Divine Providence, is not justly chargeable with these consequences." (History of the Jews, vol. ii., pp. 123, 62, Brucker, ii. 728, cited in Expositor, iii. 17.)
Now it is plain enough that these facts and admissions, with regard to the Sadducees, yield the whole question in debate. The are decisive against the asserted necessity and utility of the doctrine in review; decisive in support of the declaration we have so often made, that the opposite faith is not dangerous to the morals of the believer, nor destructive of the good order and well-being of society.
I think the facts adduced establish, beyond refutation, these results:
1st. The belief of future endless torments does not restrain nor prevent men from the indulgence of their criminal passions. Those believing are no better, in character or conduct, because they believe it. The hell of the Burmans is as horrible as imagination or invention can make it; and yet they are notoriously corrupt, licentious, bloody-minded - the greatest thieves, liars and cheats in the world.
2d. The disbelief of endless torments does not make man immoral or wicked: as the character of the Sadducees, whom their enemies even acknowledge to be strictly just and moral, abundantly demonstrates.
I can imagine but one reply to this simple statement of facts: It may be said the comparison is not just, since the Burmans, as well as the Greeks and Romans, are heathen, and the Sadducees had the benefit of revelation, and of the divine law of Moses. But this is yielding the point in debate; for the ground taken is, that a religion without the doctrine in question cannot exert a salutary moral influence; that the belief of this is indispensable as a check on the wicked heart. To say, therefore, that other elements of the law, or of revelation, might have made the Sadducees moral and virtuous, is surrendering the argument and admitting that this doctrine is not necessary to virtue.
Still, there is no difficulty in meeting the objection on its own ground. The Greeks, Romans and Burmans are heathen, but the Pharisees are not. They are believers in divine revelation, having all the benefits of the Law of Moses, living side by side with the Sadducees, subject to the same social influences: the only difference between them being precisely the point in debate - the Pharisees believing the doctrine of future endless punishment, and the Sadducees denying it.
Of course the Pharisees ought to be great saints, without spot or blemish; and the Sadducees ought to be great sinners, vile and wicked to the last degree. But we have already seen that the Sadducees were not great sinners, but honest, just and moral, by confession of their worst enemies. One half the argument, therefore, falls to the ground at the outset. Now for the other half - were the Pharisees great saints? The Saviour will answer to this: "Scribes, Pharisees, hypocrites; robbing the widow and fatherless, neglecting justice, mercy and truth; generation of vipers; whited sepulchres, full of corruption and all manner of uncleanness!" This does not look much like being very saintly. So the second half of the argument fares no better than the first half; and both are perfect failures.
Thus, exactly the reverse of what is claimed for the doctrine proves to be the historical fact: those believing it are great sinners, moral vipers, whited sepulchres - while those disbelieving are not saints perhaps, but vastly better than the sanctimonious hypocrites, who charged their doctrine with immoral and dangerous tendencies.
One other thing is worthy of note in this connection, and with this I close the argument. In all his rebukes and denunciations of the wickedness of the men of his age and generation, the Saviour never includes the Sadducees. It is always, "Scribes, Pharisees, hypocrites -" never Scribes, Sadducees, hypocrites. This is strong presumptive proof of the unimpeachable morality of the Sadducees, and equally positive proof of the preeminent wickedness of the Pharisees.
We return, therefore, to the conclusion already stated, viz.: The belief of endless punishment does not tighten the bonds of morality, nor lead to a life of virtue; while, on the other hand, the disbelief of it does not loosen the bonds of morality, nor lead to a life of wickedness.
A great many assertions have been made regarding the necessity of a belief in future endless punishment as the safeguard of society, and the only sure foundation of public, and private morality. The fact's set forth in the chapter, to which this section is an appendix, show how little ground there is for such assertions; and the history of Pagan nations and tribes everywhere, and in all ages, furnishes the same evidence on this point. No greater wickedness, no more thorough corruption of morals and manners, no more loathsome customs and practices, exist on the earth, than among those very heathen who believe in hells and torments as horrible as language can describe.
But the Christian Church itself also bears witness to the same truth. So long as it was faithful to the doctrines of Christ and to the divine spirit of his gospel, the believers lived according to the law of love and holiness, and honored their profession by the purity of their conversation and conduct. And, as Luke says, "They did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, praising God, and having favor with all the people" (Acts 2). But no sooner do we find a departure from the great truths of Christianity, - the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, the final redemption of all, - than we find a corresponding laxity of morals and looseness of manners; and this increasing with every new remove from the purity of the gospel. The historians of the Church testify with one voice to this corruption and depravity.
"After our affairs degenerated from the rules of piety, one pursued another with open contumely and hatred; and we fought each other with armor of spite, with sharp spears of opprobrious words: so that bishops against bishops, and people against people, raised sedition. Last of all, when that cursed hypocrisy and dissimulation had swum to the brim of malice, the heavy hand of God's judgment came upon us, at first little by little. But when we were not moved by sense or feeling thereof, nor sought to pacify God, but heaped sin upon sin, thinking God would not care or visit us for our sins; and when our shepherds, laying aside the rules of piety, contended and strove violently among themselves, and added strife to strife, and threatenings, mutual hatred and enmity, and tyrannical ambition, - then Jehovah poured his wrath upon us, and remembered us not." (Eusebius (died A.D. 310), Eccl. Hist. lib. viii. chap. 1.)
"Although examples of primitive piety and virtue were not wanting, yet many were addicted to dissipation, arrogance, voluptuousness, contention, and other vices. This appears distinctly from the frequent lamentations of the most credible persons of those times." "The presbyters imitated the example of their superiors, and, neglecting the duties of their office, lived in indolence and pleasure." Again: "The vices and faults of the clergy, especially those who officiated in large and opulent cities, were augmented according to their wealth, honors, and advantages. The bishops trampled on the rights of the people and inferior clergy and vied with the civil governors of provinces in luxury, arrogance and voluptuousness." (Mosheim's Eccl. Hist, centuries iii., iv. Murdock's Translation.)
Such the moral results following the growth in the Church of the dogma of endless punishment, or the attempt to drive men, through fear of hell, into a life of purity and goodness. And this state of things grew worse and worse, if possible, through that long dismal period so justly described as the "dark ages."
And now let us take another standpoint, and see what presents itself on the other side. Within the last half-century, there has been a great change in the theology of the Church, a wonderful softening-down of the harsh features of all creeds, and a steady approach once more to the simple and sublime doctrines of the gospel. The great truths of Universalism - the parental character and love of God, the brotherhood of man, and the final restoration of all to holiness and blessedness - have, in the last fifty years, made unparalleled progress in America and Europe; and hundreds of thousands rejoice in the knowledge and faith of them; while hundreds of thousands more in churches of every name have already wholly or mostly abandoned the revolting dogma of endless woe.
And now what is the moral condition of society at the present time in America and Europe, compared with that of the period already alluded to, when the principle of brute force and terror prevailed in religion and governments, and the doctrine of interminable torment ruled the Church and the people? Have the people grown worse, or better? Have the moral and human aspects of society brightened, or darkened, under the influence? Let the history of the present answer.
Look abroad upon the noble philanthropic enterprises which are rousing the nations to a new and higher life. Behold the asylums for the insane, the blind, the deaf and dumb; hospitals for the sick and maimed; temperance societies; associations for the employment and relief of the poor; asylums for aged men and women; Odd Fellowship, and kindred associations recognizing and reducing to practice the great principles of human brotherhood, and the duties of mutual love and aid; associations for Christianizing our laws; peace societies; prison-discipline societies; the extension of education; the increase of Christian liberality and toleration, etc.
Do these things indicate a forward, or a retrograde movement? Do these noble reforms, these Christian enterprises of benevolence and humanity, look as if the morals of society were on the decline? Do they show that the wide diffusion of the doctrines of Universalism has had a dangerous influence on public morals? Or, in other words, do these things show that the growing doubts and disbelief of endless punishment, and all its kindred errors, have taken away any salutary restraint, or opened the way to a general violation of Christian and social laws? Are the people of America or Europe worse now than in the dark ages? less enlightened, less virtuous, less Christian, less charitable and loving toward their fellows, less earnest in their efforts to elevate the moral and social condition of the poor and ignorant and degraded, and to set the oppressed and captive free?
To all these questions the uniform and emphatic answer is No! So far from society growing worse under these influences, it is hourly growing better. Its moral life is more and more developed; and there has never been a period in the political, social, and religious history of the world, when there were signs of greater promise than now; never a time when there were at work more elements of improvement and progress, or when the present and the future looked more hopeful of good than at this hour.
(For further evidence that the doctrine of endless punishment does not improve the morals of its believers, or restrain the appetites and passions, we refer to a little volume, entitled "Orthodoxy as It Is," chap. iv., containing a record which we are reluctant to transfer to these pages.)
by Thomas B. Thayer, New and enlarged edition. Boston: Universalist Publishing House. 1881.
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